Anticipatory Anxiety: The Art of Freaking Out Ahead of Time, Just in Case

I am a thorough person. Especially when it comes to my anxiety. So when a bad thing that may or may not happen looms in the future, I go ahead and get super anxious, just to cover my bases. You … Continue reading

Practicing Mindfulness in Hard Times: Don’t Fight the Cone

My precious hound dog had surgery last week. He had this growth on his chest that looked a lot like skin cancer. The bad kind of skin cancer at that. My husband and I thought it looked cancerous. The vet … Continue reading

My Favorite Sermon on Lent: The Hero’s Journey of Bilbo Baggins

A few days ago we entered the church season of Lent. Maybe you went to a Mardi Gras party or Ash Wednesday service. Maybe you have decided to give something up to help you focus on this season of penitence and reflection. According to my Facebook feed I gather that social media is a pretty common choice to give up this year.

Or maybe some of you are like me and have decided to take on a practice to bring you closer to Jesus during this 40 day journey towards the cross. My daughter and I are doing a program called 40 Acts that gives you a challenge of kindness or generosity by email each day. Others may go to a Lenten study or commit to reading their Bible more.

Whatever you choose to do to celebrate Lent, I can guarantee you that there will come a day in the next 40 days when your choices and your journey will become difficult. When you will wonder why this matters at all and contemplate just throwing in the towel. Does God really want us to struggle with sacrifices and challenging ourselves? Can’t we just rest in grace?

It makes you wonder if there was a point during Jesus’s 40 days in the desert when he thought about giving up. I can’t imagine isolating myself from my community for 40 days, going without food for 40 days, resisting temptation after temptation for 40 days. It must have been exhausting. You wonder if it brought Jesus to the end of his Son of Man rope.Well, Jesus was not just Son of Man but Son of God, so maybe the 40 days was easier for him.

But the one I really wonder about in today’s Scripture readings is Noah. Long long ago there was a time when things on earth got so bad that God decided to start over. Noah and his immediate family went into the ark with two of every animal. This part we like. We romanticize it as a children’s story. Noah and the animals. In fact my baby shower was Noah and the ark themed as my kids came in twos.

But what happens when we think about the time after Noah was shut up in the ark and before the dove came back with that olive branch. What must it have been like during those 40 days of rain and destruction?

When I think about these scriptures about Jesus and Noah another story comes to mind. And though this story is fiction, I think it carries a lot of truth.

It is the story of Bilbo Baggins the Hobbit and his Unexpected Journey.

I love this story so much because I see so much of myself in Bilbo. I too am a slightly chubby creature who likes nothing better than being at home and having tea and cookies. I too do not like it when unexpected things happen like wizards visiting or dwarves coming over unannounced for dinner. I like a nice, quiet, boring life sometimes. But life for Bilbo was not meant to be boring. The wizard Gandalf and the company of dwarves talked him into setting off on a journey. A journey in which they would hike many miles across the land to the Lonely Mountain in order to steal a precious jewel from the fierce dragon Smaug.

Now when I first read this book I thought no way is this Hobbit going to make it against a dragon. He doesn’t have it in him. But as I read on I noticed the Hobbit began to change. You see the dwarves and Bilbo did not go from Bilbo’s Hobbit hole straight to the Lonely mountain and take the jewel and the mountain back from the dragon straight away. Like any good hero’s journey they had many side adventures first.

In my youth, this annoyed me. I wanted them to go from point A to point B, get things done and move on with life. But as I have aged I have learned that the path is often windy and filled with unexpected things. For Bilbo it was first an encounter with mountain trolls, then a scary mountain climb where he almost dies, and then a long pass under a dark, tomb-like mountain filled with orcs.

And each time Bilbo faced a new foe or difficulty, he rose to the occasion. The once lazy, slightly apathetic Hobbit became quicker and more clever. He learned how to use his gifts and rely on those around him to support his weaknesses. Sure there were many times that Bilbo wanted to give up and just back to his cozy Hobbit hole. But he pressed on with the journey. And spoiler, in the end it turns out he has what it takes after all. And when he finally makes it back to his cozy Hobbit hole, he is never the same Hobbit again.

Because for Bilbo, it was never about defeating the dragon or getting gold. It was about taking a journey that would transform him into a new person.

I think it must have been like that for Noah too. After all, did it really have to take 40 days to destroy everything on earth and start over? God made the world in seven days in the beginning, surely 40 days were not necessary to recreate it? And did Noah really have to go through the agony of bobbing around in that little ark while the rain of all rains pummeled the earth?

I find it interesting that the rain that fell during the flood was not just any rain. Back in Genesis 1 we see the third act of creation is God creating a dome called sky to push back the deep, dangerous waters of Tehom, the waters of chaos to bring a place of safety, order, and life to earth. God then contains other waters into oceans so land can be formed and life can live outside of the deep, dark waters.

When God sends the rains in Genesis, he is essentially ripping a hole in the dome called sky and letting the deep, dangerous waters of chaos re-enter earth and destroy all everything on the land and in the air. It is an undoing of creation.

While the epic waters fell, everything Noah had ever known died. I wonder if Noah ever wondered in the midst of the never ending rain and destruction if God would get carried away and destroy him too?

But during this time all Noah really had was God. All he could do is pray and wait and trust God with his future, with the world’s future.

I think that all that time and waiting and trusting must have changed Noah. Anytime you go through an ordeal like that it changes you. It makes you a new person. And Noah needed to be a new person, for he was entering a world made new. As the person charged with carrying on life, he needed to be close to God, to trust God with any and everything.

Maybe the 40 days weren’t for God, they were for Noah.

And so it is for us. As we look ahead to this season of Lent, we know that it is given to us for our transformation, for my transformation and yours. It is to take me from the slightly chubby, sometimes lazy, and often fearful person and change her into someone who is bold to reach out in love and generosity to the world.

It is to take you from where you are to a few steps closer to who God wants you to be. And of course this journey will be challenging and full of unexpected things. For that is how all 40 day, change you into someone new journeys always are. The trick is to keep walking the path, keep looking to God, keep letting God make us into the person God knows we can be.

When Christmas Turns Upside Down

In the famous words of Joni Mitchell, “It’s Coming on Christmas.” It is the time of year when we deck the halls and sing the carols and watch the heartwarming movies and trim the tree. And these are good things as they remind us of the hope and light and love in the world and how it comes to us.

But this year I just can’t.

I’ve tried. We have the tree up in our house. It is up with about half of its pre-lit lights not working and totally undecorated.  I went to Lowe’s to buy some outdoor decorations in the spirit of Clark Griswald. But the wreaths and bows are still laying in the floor of my garage.

What is the problem you wonder?

I could blame it on two sinus infections in two months or how I struggle with depression in December, but I think its more than that. This year there is a bigger block.

I don’t know how to sing Fa la la about Jesus’s coming when so many people in this world are still suffering on their different crosses.

This week we watch as modern day massacre plays out in Aleppo. A massacre that would seem unbelievable were it not for the very real details laid out on social media. I struggle to even imagine what is happening much less how to respond.

For months we’ve watched as our nation’s indigenous people have suffered trial after trial in trying to protect the small amount of land they can call their own from outside forces that they believe would cause their land and people harm. I try to understand how after so many years of mistreatment these souls can have the courage to peacefully endure tear gas, rubber bullets, and water canons in sub freezing temperature to protect the heritage they hold dear. Even though the Native community has received some good news of late, I still feel no peace about their long term future.

Much closer to home, in the state of Georgia in the last month six police officers have been killed in the line of duty. Two at a traffic stop, two responding to a dispute between neighbors call, and two responding to a domestic dispute. These were good guys doing what was for them a regular days work. Now they leave a hole in the lives of their families and communities.

I would try to cheer myself up out of my gloom and tell myself it is not my problem. Except as a Christian, as a human, I know that it is my problem.

I’ve done a good bit of supply preaching of late and the Scriptures have been filled with not cheer, but warning and exhortations. Stay awake! Pay attention to what is happening around you says the first Sunday of Advent. The warnings go on to tell us what we do to the least of these we do unto God.

Then John the Baptists comes and tells us to repent. To prepare the way of the Lord. Prepare for the same Lord who tells us the story about the least of these. And the exhortation to get ready coming from a guy who lives in the woods wearing camel’s hair and eating locusts and honey.

And then we hear the story of Mary and Elizabeth. A story that could be sentimentalized were it not for Mary’s great magnificat. A poem that tells about bringing down the powerful and and lifting up the lowly. Talks about filling the hungry and sending the rich away empty.

So in the midst of these words and warnings I think I’ll just keep that tree bare for now and be okay with that.

Maybe it is alright to cry a little in Advent. Maybe it is okay to feel the pain of the not yet, the pain of a world in need of its redeemer. A world that needs Jesus to come again and again until all things are made new.

When Christmas comes I will celebrate. For God has come to be with us. Even in our tragedy. Even in our pain. And this presence is our hope and salvation.

But for these last days of preparation, I will tell my heart it is okay to be sad. For my sadness means I am paying attention to the wounds of the world. I am seeing the places that need to be covered with healing and light and love.

Because Jesus’s coming does not mean I get to just sit back and drink eggnog and be happy about the birth of a baby.

For this is the baby born in the dirt of a stable to backwater parents who had very little rights in their own home land.

This is the baby that with his parents had to flee from their home and run for their lives. The refugee baby that was sheltered in a nearby land while countless others were massacred.

This is the baby that when you look in his eyes, it makes you get up and walk a different way for you have seen the world in a whole new light.

So if your Christmas has been turned upside down, Take heart. You are not alone. Let’s keep watching and waiting and looking for the Christ child in our midst.

For he is coming. One way or another. He will always come.

 

A Sermon on Psalm 121: From Night Wrestling to Mountain Blessing

Just a week and a half ago a hurricane hit our state for the first time in over a hundred years.

Like many of you, I grew up visiting our beautiful coast regularly. As a youth I often went to summer camp at Epworth By The Sea on St. Simon’s. It is a sacred place to me as I grew up in God’s grace under those old live oaks. But it is also special place to me as those oaks saw me not only grow in grace, but also just plain grow up from a child to a woman. I went from a scrawny girl away from home for the first time sleeping in a tabby cabin, to a teenager getting her first kiss on the Epworth pier during a youth weekend, to a young women attending her first ministerial retreat for Methodist clergy, all under the oaks of Epworth. That is a lot of life for trees and piers and tabby cabins to hold, but hold it all they did.

As a child my family vacationed in Savannah for a week every year. And then as young woman I returned to Savannah to serve my first church. Jason and I lived in our state’s first city for four years and through ministry and life I fell totally in love with that beautiful town and its people. On my Fridays off I would often meet Jason downtown for lunch and then spending the afternoon in Forsyth Park to read by the fountain and soak up the beautiful life that park holds. But occasionally on Fridays I would drive out to Tybee to take communion to one of our shut-ins in a nursing home there. After reading Scripture and praying and taking the bread and wine with my parishioner, Barbara, I would walk the beach and let the sand and waves carry the cares of my week away.

So the night that Matthew hit my beloved Tybee and St Simon’s, I was as sleepless and restless as Jacob long ago.

Would everything be okay? Would my friends and family on the coast be hurt? Would they lose their homes? Would the landmarks and touchstones I knew and loved so well survive? Would I recognize the world I woke up to tomorrow?

The fate of the Georgia coast was not the only thing that kept me up that fateful night. As the hurricane hit our coast, more chaos and scandal hit our nation in the storm that has been this year’s presidential election. As I drifted in and out of sleep the winds of the hurricane and the winds that have been whipping our nation merged into one big storm in my mind. A storm whose potential damage kept me wrestling with fear. I wish I could say as morning broke I was a changed woman. That I received a blessing. But our life is not always as quickly resolved as the Biblical narratives. I continued to worry and struggle for days even as we left for not the coast, but the Georgia mountains for our fall vacation.

On the way to our cabin I read over the Scriptures trying to find something that would speak to us all. Some word from God that would shine light on these confusing and changing times. So as I looked for comfort in Scripture as we crossed out of the Piedmont into North Georgia I came upon today’s Psalm. “I will lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come from? My help comes from the Lord.” And for the first time in days I took a good, deep breath.

I don’t know about you, but the mountains have always brought me peace. Something about their largeness and ancientness reminds me of God. Their constant presence reminds me there is a God much bigger and stronger and older than me that can do mighty things. And this God that made the mountains is with me still. Through my every day. Through our every storm. If God can make mud into mountains, surely God can handle the chaos in my life now.

The mountains were a sacred place for the Israelites as well. When people wanted to draw close to God they went up one of the Holy Mountains and miraculous things took place. Bushes burned. Laws were given. God was present in real ways. So I had always read this Psalm as one that offers us the mountains as a comfort. I will lift up my eyes unto the hills and then remember my help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.

But after reading commentaries this week, I found Psalm 121 can be read another way. Psalm 121 is one of the Songs of Ascents, a group of Psalms that were prayed when pilgrims would travel to Jerusalem.

Now any journey is dangerous, but especially so in ancient times. One never knew what was lurking around the bend. So in this context I wonder is the mountain a comfort, or an obstacle on our journey?

This makes sense to me too. As much as I love mountains, there have been moments on what were supposed to be peaceful hikes that the terrain got tough and I was praying hard to God to “let not my foot be moved” for if my feet slipped on that windy perilous path I might very well plummet many feet to my death.

So is the mountain then a call to prayer for God to help us through the hard places in our journey? For setting out on any new journey brings fear and worry. For we know at some point the times will get tough. Unseen danger may arise. And we wonder on the pilgrimage if we will ever come back and find home like we once knew it again. For you see pilgrimages are times of change. Change for people and places and nations. And if you are like me you don’t want the things you have known and loved to change.

You lay awake at night wondering if you will ever see the live oaks at Epworth again or if the fountain at Forsyth park will stand. You just want something Unchanging you can hold onto while everything uncertain swirls around you.

As we were driving along Ga 400 and I was reading Psalm 121 another memory came to mind. I told you that during my time in Savannah one Friday a month I would go and visit my parishioner, Barb. Barb was not much older than I am now but she was quite sick. In fact Barb was so sick that we all knew she had already started the journey that will lead her from this world unto the next. As I visited with Barb every month in that nursing home by the sea, she would always ask me to read Psalm 121. I would read it from the King James and she would say it by heart along with me. “I will lift my eyes unto the hills, from whence commeth my help? My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.” And every month as we said these words together she would squeeze my hands with tears in her eyes and small smile on her face. I would often look at her and marvel that though so much had changed for her and so much uncertainty lay ahead, this Psalm brought her such peace. It was if she could see into the distance, see that last mountain to cross and look at it without fear because she knew. She knew she was not alone. The Maker of Heaven and Earth was with her. And no matter how bad and scary things got God would be helping her feet make every step of the way.

And when you know in your core that the God who made the mountains is keeping you and everything in this world in God’s hand, even the mountain slopes and the storms aren’t so scary anymore.

Because no matter what changes the journey will bring, the unchanging God will be with us.

Loving us, helping us, keeping us. And that is more than enough peace and strength to keep us walking on our way. Amen.