God Moves In

Format Image

“Before the creation of the world,” Ephesians tells us, God had a plan.

Before you made plans to join us here in worship at Immanuel.
Before the star in the sky led the Magi to Bethlehem.
Before the prophets first heard the voice of God.
Before the moon and the stars were set in the sky.
Before everything!
While “the earth was without shape or form” as the first words of the Bible tell us…
And while “the Word was with God and the Word was God” as John proclaims…
There. Was. A. Plan.

What kind of a plan was this?
If we look to the root of the word used here in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, oikonomia, we find that it describes the administration of a household or an estate.
It’s the same word we find at the root of ecology and economy.
It describes how something is held together… the rules that govern how it functions, what sustains it, how it thrives.
So Paul is telling us that from the very beginning, God had a plan for how all of creation, God’s household, was going to work.
God wanted to bring everything – from the highest heights of heaven to the deepest crevices of the earth – together and to make a home among us.
And God’s plan was made known to us in Jesus Christ.
Immanuel.
God-with-us.

In these weeks leading up to Christmas here at Immanuel, we have been exploring God’s love for all of creation.
When we open up our bibles to the very first chapters, we discover this plan of God’s was already set in motion.
For six days, God was building, creating, and giving life to all things in the heavens and on earth.
And God looked around and saw that it was all very good.
And then God rested.

Now, I have to admit to you. Typically, when I think about God resting, I imagine that God goes back to wherever God has come from… leaving earth to go and take a day off.
After all, that is how we treat Sabbath, isn’t it?
The day we get away from everything?
Turn off the work email… veg out in front of the television and watch Netflix… get away from everyone and go fishing or golfing?

But, what if we have it all wrong?
What if the Sabbath is part of God’s plan?
What if in that moment of rest, God is with us?

The theologian Jurgen Moltmann describes Sabbath as a time when God “begins to ‘experience’ the beings he has created… He adopts the community of creation… He allows them to exist in his presence. And he is present in their existence.” (God In Creation, page 279)
God-with-us. Immanuel.
God creates us and on the Sabbath day of rest and presence, heaven and earth are one.
That’s why we are called to honor the Sabbath and make it holy.
Because whenever we truly stop to rest and worship and simply be in God’s presence, we are participating in that amazing plan set in motion before the stars were put in the sky.
We remember that God has already moved into the neighborhood.

If we are honest with ourselves, however, we know that is not how we usually keep the Sabbath.
In fact, throughout human history, the people of God have often forgotten the presence of God in their midst.
We turn our backs on God.
We seek our own will.
We make mistakes and fail in our humble striving.
But God is not content to be driven out of our lives.
God refuses to be turned away.
God has a plan, remember, and so God acts over, and over again, in ways that bring heaven and earth together.
After all, as John’s gospel tells us, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.” (John 1:5)
And so God heard the cries of the oppressed and rescued them and brought them into the land of milk and honey.
And so God called the people of faith over and over again through the words and actions of the prophets.
And then God acts by coming in really close… diving in deep to all of the mess and the struggle, the pain and sorrow of our human worldly lives.
As we moved away from God, God moves towards us.
The Word became flesh.
Immanuel.
God-with-us.

And it happened in a particular life, in a particular time, in a particular place.

Now… I don’t want to ruin the Christmas story for you… but I’ve come to realize that we’ve been telling it wrong.
And I think when we hear this story again, put back into its context and place, in many ways the story of Christmas becomes all the sweeter and more meaningful.

You see, as we read in Luke’s gospel, Jesus was born in the city of Bethlehem to parents who really weren’t anyone important. And Mary “wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.”
When you look back to the original koine Greek, it says katalyma. This was a place where travelers spent a night… and while it could have referred to an inn, it was used to describe “the sleeping area in a single-room Palestinian peasant home” or a guest space in such a house.
The homes in Bethlehem would have had one large living space and if they were lucky, they might have had a smaller private room set aside for guests.
There would have been an area by the entrance where animals were brought in at night to keep them safe and warm.
And that large multi-purpose room would have not only had places to sit and eat and cook… but also mangers, built out of wood or hollowed out of the ground, where straw for those animals were kept.

The scene reminds me a lot of Christmas celebrations among either sets of my grandparents. You see, my dad was one of five kids and my mom was one of seven kids and the holidays were always a big deal. Everyone would come back home and the grown-ups would get the bedrooms that they slept in as children, but the grandkids would all pile together in the living room with sleeping bags and pillows. If you had to get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, you had to take care not to step on one of your relatives!

If we peered back into Bethlehem on that night long ago, instead of a cold and lonely couple huddled in a shed, we probably would have discovered Mary and Jospeh surrounded by family… in fact, maybe a bit too crowded by family – remember, Luke says there wasn’t room in the guest room. Everyone had come to town to be registered in the census so aunties and uncles and cousins galore would have been packed into the room together.
And right there in the midst of it all – in a normal home, in an everyday life, in the midst of community and the animals, Christ was born.
God moved into the neighborhood.
Immanuel.
God-with-us.

I think the most powerful statement of the incarnation is the reminder that right here… on this earth, among all of creation, surrounded by our community, is where we are redeemed.
God’s plan is not that this earth will waste away and we will be whisked away to some far off heaven.
No… in Jesus Christ all things in heaven and on earth will be brought together.
Right here is where salvations shows up.

As we have been leading up to this day, this time of worship, when we remember the birth of Christ, we have also been looking ahead to a moment that is yet to come.
For, we are still waiting.
This morning, I prayed for two colleagues who lost their mothers yesterday.
This world is still filled with disease and struggle and this might be the last Christmas we celebrate with certain loved ones.
We even remember that places like Bethlehem are today places of conflict and strife.
God’s plan isn’t complete yet.

So as people of faith, we are also looking ahead to that day of new creation when the kingdom of God is made known.
John tells us that the light shines in the darkness and has not been overcome by it… and when we keep reading to the Revelation, we find hope in the words that “death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying or pain anymore… There will no longer be any curse… Night will be no more. They won’t need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will shine on them.” (21:4, 22:3,5)
At the climax of all times, when the plan is fully complete, the heavens and earth will be brought together and God will make a home among us.

The Letter to the Ephesians may seem like a strange text to share together on Christmas Eve, but for me it is a reminder that the promises we hope for can already be experienced right now. Paul’s words here remind us that while the plan isn’t quite yet complete… it has already become a reality within the church.
You see, from the moment the heavens opened and the angels began to proclaim the birth of our Messiah, we have been invited to participate and respond to the kingdom of Glory.
Shepherds left their flocks to search out the baby in the manger.
Magi traveled great distances to greet the newborn King.
Fishermen would leave their boats to follow the Messiah.
Rich men like Zacchaeus gave away their wealth.
Scholars like Paul set aside everything they thought they knew about God to discover the message all over again and then carried it across the world.
The ripples from the birth of that one moment built the church, the Body of Christ alive in this world today.
Friends, you and I are that body of Christ right here and right now.
And as Ephesians 2 tells us, “we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.”
We have been adopted into God’s household, filled up with the Spirit of God, and called to imitate Christ wherever we go.
So fall on your knees in this time of worship.
Remember that God set the stars in the sky and the ground beneath our feet.
Imagine the birth of that child in Bethlehem.
And ask how God is inviting you today to love one another and to bring peace and joy to all who struggle.
Because it is through you… and you… and you… that the presence of God can be known in this neighborhood today, and tomorrow, and the day after that.
YOU are also God’s plan for this world.

Sabbath. #umcgc

Today, we didn’t vote or argue. We didn’t debate or make assumptions. We didn’t get mired in the oft mentioned Robert’s Rules.

Today, we rested and worshipped and ate. We explored and laughed. We filled up our tanks and hopefully a bit of our reserves for another five days…

God, as you sent your Spirit so long ago, send it anew among us. Give us wisdom and courage. Open our ears and our hearts. Speak your dreams and way forward into our midst. Amen.

image

Oh! And tomorrow I’m participating in #whiteoutmonday… Intentionally limiting my voice (which is fairly present and heard) so that others, particularly people of color,  might be heard a bit louder.

So, if I’m not posting as much… You now know why.

Remembering Our Place #growrule

Format Image

This Lent, I have been using a tool called “Growing a Rule of Life.”  Each day there is a video and a prompt question to engage with.  And of course, I’m behind already.

 

Friday’s video reminded me that we need structure, we need planning, we need the framework in place before we start these kinds of disciplines, and the very fact that I didn’t schedule time for my days off and for Sunday (which is always a hectic day in my world) proves the point.

The question we were left with that day is simple: when you connect with nature, what is meaningful about it?

When I truly connect with nature, I find that I, myself, my ego, is diminished.  So much of my life is spent working and relating and living my life and everything revolves around myself and my calling and what I’m supposed to do or not do.

Yet when I truly connect with nature, all of that ceases.

I still my soul.

I stop.

And I am humbled by the reminder that there is so much else going on in the world that is not me.

The falling of snow flakes. The robins in the trees. The buds already forming. The hawk gliding overhead. The slow decomposition of the leaves that are life and death all wrapped into one.

And all of it continues without me.

In fact, all of this life probably would do a lot better without our human interference and selfish use and abuse of the world.

When I truly connect with nature, I am overcome with how small I am, and how beautiful the world is.

My soul cannot help but be awed by our Creator.

 

So much of the time, I’m rushing here and there, from meeting to project, to home and back.

Without creating space to stop and pause and connect with the world around us, I will forget who I am.  I will forget how insignificant these tasks are in the grand scheme of things.  I will forget that it is not about me… but my Creator.

What can thrive here? #growrule

Format Image

Last year I took four weeks of spiritual renewal leave and wanted to focus on cultivation… in relationships, in my spiritual life, and literally, in my back yard.

 

I had far more intentions than time, but I was able to manage to clear out one entire section of the retaining wall (seen behind the owl mug in the picture).  Vines and weeds and trees were growing in the midst of the mulch and rocks.  I wanted to start from scratch and add some order to the space.

 

The question put forth today in “Growing A Rule of Life” is simple: In your garden, what will thrive… what can thrive if you let it?

What I discovered last summer was a whole lot of things were thriving I didn’t really want anymore.

So the English ivy was pulled and I discovered day lilies  hiding under all the vines.

I cut back and cleared volunteer mulberries.

I destroyed a viney, busy mess of poison ivy, and cut out growth on a tree that had been cut down long before we arrived.

 

By clearing away the clutter in my garden, I created space for other things to thrive.  Like the  lilies and a lilac bush I discovered hiding in the mess of it all.

It was hidden in the very back corner, with volunteer trees suffocating it and so I moved it to a better spot and now it will have more sun. I’m anxious to see how it has weathered the winter and whether it will thrive in its new location or not.

I also am trying to figure out what to do with about 20 volunteer redbud trees in the space.  They are thriving, but will need pruning and support in order to grow into proper trees. And they simply cannot thrive so close to one another, so the majority will have to be pulled.  That is still a project for another day.

In the space I cleared, I also tried to plant wild ginger.  Yet, it seemed to yellow and fade as the summer went on.

Just because we want to cultivate certain things, doesn’t mean we can.

 

As I build a rule of life, these lessons are helpful.  There are all sorts of things I might want to plant, but I simply don’t have time or room for it all.  Focusing on a few things that can thrive and will help me thrive in my journey of discipleship is wonderfully freeing.

 

Some things I think can thrive:

  • Intentional Sabbath: setting firm boundaries between work and home/rest
  • Blogging as a spiritual discipline: a place for reflection upon the Word, our faith lived out in the world
  • Prayer time and space:  physically creating a space to spend time listening to God both at work and at home.

Two Texts: Pope Francis, the Environment, and Relationships

Format Image

This summer, Pope Francis issued a letter to the world, “Laudato Si’” or Praise be to You which calls upon all people to care for our common home, our sister, Mother Earth.

And while it made the news this summer, one of the first thoughts I had was that, as United Methodists, we had a letter of our own like this about six years ago. In 2009, a pastoral letter was issued from the United Methodist Council of Bishops called: God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action. (http://s3.amazonaws.com/Website_Properties/council-of-bishops/documents/grc_letter_english_1010.pdf)

If you would like to see or have a copy of our letter, you can pick one up at the table in the back as you leave today.

 

In both, we are reminded of the relationship between living organisms and their environment… that we need to understand our ecology: the interconnected system of water, air, soil, plants, animals, and ourselves.

From the fight over water rights in California, to our own conflict here in Iowa over nitrate levels, this summer has been full of stories about how the environmental choices we make in one location impact the whole of creation in another. And I’m not just talking about the decisions of a farmer. Each of them is simply responding to the demands of the market, which is impacted by our choices as consumers. We do not always appreciate how precarious the balance of our ecologies can be, until the weather and climate change.

As our Bishop’s letter states, “we no longer see a list of isolated problems affecting disconnected people, plants and animals… the threats to peace, people, and planet earth are related to one another.”

Or as Pope Francis writes: “the human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation…”

Everything… from the availability of quality water, to the loss of biodiversity, to the inequitable distribution and consumption of energy, violence, warfare… is interrelated.

 

And rather than debating the merits of specific proposals or policies, Pope Francis points us towards the foundation for a different way of being.

 

It all boils down to three relationships

  1. Our relationship with God
  2. Our relationships with our neighbors
  3. And our relationship with creation itself.

So today, aware of the multitude of articles and stories this summer on climate change, water, drought, and the environment, let us explore the text in our scriptures that lays the groundwork for our ecology… Genesis One.

 

We learn in this story of a creative and life-giving God. Everything has a purpose. Everything is connected to another. The sun, moon, and starts give light and determine the seasons. The plants provide food for the animals, who provide sustenance for humanity.

Everything is a gift and nothing was made by our own hands.

Therefore, the foundation of our relationship with God should be one of gratitude.

Gratitude for every breath we take, every drop of water we drink, every creature in the multitude of this diverse, beautiful planet.

 

Our relationship with our creator is also fundamentally related to our relationship with the creation, because we are called to take care of this earth. Historically, we have heard verse 28 as the call to “be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, over every living thing that moves on the earth.” We look at this image of the creation and our central image in it and believe the world revolves around us.

The language of dominion and subduing has led us to believe we are called to control and use and have power over the world. It is ours to do with it whatever our hearts desire.

 

But when we really look at these verses in context, I think we have been sorely mistaken.

The Hebrew word in this place is not so much the idea of dominion or rule, but rather that of holding sway over… influencing… guiding. Pope Francis holds both the Genesis 1 and 2 accounts together, reminding us our call is to “till and keep” the garden of the world…. We are to cultivate and work this creation… while at the same time caring for it, overseeing it, protecting it.

In my organic ministry class this summer, I have been reminded over and over again that any good farmer cares for the soil as much as they do what is planted in it. One must protect the earth in order to work it. And one must listen and pay attention to what the environment demands and respond accordingly if you ever want to influence what might grow there.

That is far different than a more domineering perspective…. a stubborn resolve to use the earth and grow whatever your heart desires whenever you want to.

 

I learned about this in my own garden this summer…. (talk about tomatoes)

Even if we stick with the language of dominion, the root of dominion is in the Lordship of God. We are to be lords as God is Lord over creation… in love, in creation, in fostering diversity, in nurturing life.

 

This earth does not belong to us. It is a gift. As we remembered two weeks ago when we recalled the Jubilee in ancient Israel, God tells us that the land is not ours… it is God’s and we are merely strangers and sojourners upon it.

Yet in God’s gracious and loving spirit, we are allowed to take and use what we need for sustenance. We are allowed to care for this earth, and pass its gifts down generation upon generation.

Because this planet belongs to not only Adam and Eve, but all descendants, all humanity, then our relationships with one another are intertwined with the gift of creation.

Just as every plant and animal, microbe and molecule is a gift… so too is every person on this planet. The very idea of Sabbath calls us to let the earth and its workers rest, so that all be renewed. And the promise is that even if we rest and cease working, there will be abundance and plenty. God will take care of us.

The gifts of this planet are to be shared. Not only with people of today, but future generations as well.

So that all might find joy. So all might be at peace.

Pope Francis begins his letter with a description of the type of lifestyle that people of faith should aspire to… a tribute to his own namesake, Saint Francis. “He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology… he was particularly concerned for God’s creation and for the poor and outcast. He loved, and was deeply loved for his joy, his generous self-giving, his openheartedness. He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature, and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace… Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it means to be human.”

May we be people who are concerned for nature.

May we be people who always seek justice for the poor.

May we be people who are committed to society and work towards its common good.

And may we be people who find inner peace as we do so.

 

Amen.

Resting in the gaps

A cup of coffee on the back porch.
Rain falling, gently at times, harder at others.

I do have a plan for this time away.
It is not vacation or down time, it is a time to practice different rhythms and see what grows.

I hoped to weed the garden this morning.

But the rain falls.

Lord knows I need some inactivity.
I need to sit.
I need to be.

So I have been watching the chipmunks play on the woodpile.

Yes, that woodpile.

In the next month, it will hopefully move to its permanent location and be settled there.

For now it remains right in front of my view on the back porch.

The chipmunks scamper and roam, dart in and out of crevices.

And they rest in the gaps.

They stop for a moment now and then.

They come to a stand still there in the spaces between the logs.

Sheltered from the rain, time to still their beating hearts, to plan and plot their next move.

Thank God for the spaces and gaps in our lives. Thank God for times of renewal and rest.

Sabbath

Format Image

Still and quiet in the cove.
Every now and then a sprinkle.
Lazy breezes blow by and the birds talk to each other.
They catch up as we catch up. Goldfinch and cardinals, sparrows and blue jays.
Dancing and playing in the trees.
They feast on the gnats until the gnats feast on us.
So we leave the cove and return to the river.
Kick it into gear and the wind whips by.
Hands in the air, catching the currents.
Fragments of conversation drifting past.
image

Turning It Off

The balance of self-care, Sabbath, and work is sometimes a tenuous one in my life so I try to set boundaries and guidelines for myself.

They are:

  • never work more than two blocks in a day (morning, afternoon, evening)
  • take two days off every week
  • take all of the vacation time allotted to me

The easiest to follow probably has to do with vacation time.  My family has planned some vacations together and setting aside those weeks to go and be with them has made it easy to take full advantage of the time given.

One of the ways that I try to honor my commitment to take two days off every weeks it to be flexible about which days those are.  With my work as a state-wide coordinator, my schedule varies greatly.  Sometimes those days off are a full Saturday and Sunday.  Sometimes I move them around and take time in the middle of the week instead.

The same goes with the two blocks in a day.  To allow for the chaos of ministry, focusing on those two blocks means I can sleep in after late evening meetings, or take an afternoon off to play disc golf if I know I’m going to be working the rest of the day.  If in a particular day, it is not possible, then I steal a block from another day and make space for two blocks of rest then.  At least, that’s the idea.

Lately, however, I’ve been struggling.

light switchesIt is a blessing and a curse to do work that you love, because while it is incredibly fulfilling, it is also very hard to put down.  I have been fed by and energized by this work and there is always so much to do.  It is never-ending work and while I trust in God’s working even when I take time to rest, I really don’t want to stop!  And I’ve been discovering that there are a few particular things that make this idea of rest even more difficult. It’s hard to turn off your brain.  It’s hard to turn off the phone.  It’s hard to turn off the computer.

Imagine No Malaria has provided an outlet for a lot of creativity in my life.  I’m doing graphics, website design, social media, writing – all sorts of things I love.   And I could tinker with graphics and websites eternally.  I’ll wake up with an idea about how to sell an idea or a plan to present something and those ideas don’t stop when I’m baking or hanging out with friends.  I have scraps of paper littering my desk with ideas and to-dos of things I have thought up at random moments.  More often than not, I’ve been in my office, working hard and forget to stop for lunch or lose track of time and need to be reminded by my husband it’s dinner time.  When you love what you do, it’s hard to turn off the brain and let go of the work.

I’ve also noticed that working from home, the technology I use day in and day out makes it harder to find balance.  When I hop on the computer on a day off to check my personal facebook account, I also find myself glancing at the project page or responding to a question someone posted.  When I left something open on the desktop and come downstairs in the morning (even if I’m taking that morning off), I find my eyes drifting to it and starting to work on it even when I didn’t intend to. My office is also the place where I play video games and listen to music and practice guitar.  It is not some separate place I can close the door on and leave behind.  My car takes me to speaking events and to the grocery store… and glancing in the back seat on a day off I’ll notice that thing that I had forgotten and will go home and pick up the piece of work instead of letting it rest.

And then there is my phone.  I’m typically okay at screening phone calls and letting them go to voice mail on days off… at least when I was in the local church.   But it’s a lot harder to do that when it’s the Bishop who is dialing your number.  It’s hard to ignore the blinking blue light on my phone that indicates a new email.  I’m not getting emergency phone calls in the middle of the night, but that quick text back to someone who asked you a question about a document seems so easy to do when you are in the middle of watching a football game with your husband.

I guess one of the things that is a common thread, one of the reasons it is hard to turn off the work is that it doesn’t feel like work.  It is a joy.  It is fulfilling.  It is making a difference.  But the truth is, I’m not very good at keeping it from impinging on sacred time of rest.

So I’m going to work harder at turning things off… turning off the wi-fi that picks up new emails… turning off the ringer on game day… closing documents… closing the door to the office if I have to.  I think that also means allowing myself to turn off the brain and let a few ideas go instead of pursuing them immediately.

Yesterday, I re-installed a game on my computer and played for two hours.  I ignored the documents.  I let the ideas rest.  It was nice to turn off for a bit.