Where You Go, I’ll Go

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Ruth 1:1-18.

Following the events in Las Vegas late Sunday evening and early Monday morning, I saw a number of people quoting phrases from Warsan Shire’s poem entitled, What They Did Yesterday Afternoon. Shire is a British poet, activist, writer, and teacher, born to Somali parents, and originally from Kenya. Her poems stem from the tension between suffering and belonging – and in that place – she, from writing, and others, from reading – experience healing.

what they did yesterday afternoon

by warsan shire

they set my aunts house on fire
i cried the way women on tv do
folding at the middle
like a five pound note.
i called the boy who use to love me
tried to ‘okay’ my voice
i said hello
he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened?

i’ve been praying,
and these are what my prayers look like;
dear god
i come from two countries
one is thirsty
the other is on fire
both need water.

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.

Once again – maddeningly, frustratingly, horrifically, crushingly – we as a society, as a species – find ourselves trying to make sense of life after a senseless tragedy. Innocent blood spilled. Questions unanswered. Joy stripped away. Peace voided.

We know too well the environments Shire describes in her poem. We see our places of origin or the places that we spend most of our time “thirsty” and “on fire” – meaning that we see them – we engage them experiencing – great need and crying for help. People are hurting. And unfortunately, hurt people hurt people.

Following a tragedy like the mass shooting in Las Vegas it seems the the hurt compounds further as everyone from family members to neighbors to religious leaders to law makers argue over Second Amendment Rights, gun control, responses to gun violence, and access to quality mental health care. Tempers flare and arguments rage to a boiling point…and then the conversations start to cool…but the hurt remains.

“Where does it hurt?” “Everywhere everywhere everywhere.”

In our Scripture passage this week Ruth covenants to journey on with Naomi, her mother-in-law, though it would make more sense for Ruth to return home to seek better future opportunities. Naomi feels so poorly treated by God that she wishes to change her name to Mara to capture the experience that the Almighty has “dealt bitterly [and] harshly” with her (Ruth 1:20-21). Naomi looks at her life and as her heart bleeds over the losses in her family, she feels abandoned and wants to give up. But she is not alone. Ruth is with her. And I believe Ruth’s presence is the very embodiment of God’s presence – a present gift and promise – of which Naomi needed to be reminded.

In a hurting world we have the opportunity to be the very embodiments of God’s presence – God’s present gift and promise – of which our family members, friends, neighbors, coworkers, acquaintances, and elected officials need to be reminded. We bear with us the message of the cross – that life has the final word, not death – and that our God’s preferred future for us is one shaped by peace rather than violence.

We bear this message in our bodies and it is also our responsibility to communicate this message – to share and advocate this message – through our words, actions, and deeds. A mentor of mine once told me that hope is a beautiful gift, but hope is not a strategy. We cannot “hope away” conflict, no matter the subject of the conflict. We must come to the table, as hard as it may be, to have conversations, to hear points of view different from our own, to accept that all parties – all sides – must give and take to reach a life-giving solution. I believe these are vital, necessary, and immediate steps that must be taken as we journey in life together.

God calls us to be our sisters’ and brothers’ keeper; God calls us to be Ruth for whoever is experiencing a period of Naomi.

Wherever Naomi went, Ruth was with her. In the joy and in the hurt. Everywhere everywhere everywhere.

In our journeying together – in compassion, empathy, and advocacy – I believe we can change the answer of Shire’s atlas.

“Where does it hurt?” “Nowhere, nowhere, nowhere.”

Prayer: “I can hear my Savior calling, I can hear my Savior calling, I can hear my Savior calling, ‘Take thy cross and follow, follow me.’ Where he leads me I will follow, where he leads me I will follow, where he leads me I will follow; I’ll go with him, with him all the way.”* Amen.

*”Where He Leads Me,” The United Methodist Hymnal 338.

 

 

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The Joseph Saga: Final Act of Forgiveness

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Genesis 50:15-21.

It is said that the Bible declares the message “Do not be afraid” 365 times – one declaration for each day of the year. In Genesis 50 these words draw the dialogue between Joseph and his brothers to a close. In fact, Joseph doubly shares this message of assurance – “Do not be afraid…have no fear” (Gen 50:19, 21).

Sometimes I catch myself living in a world where I am waiting for the other shoe to drop – and they are not always fabulous stilettos. (Life would be so much better if they were!) I feel like I am walking on eggshells around people, around relationships, around responsibilities. Rather than greet the day with anticipation, I greet the day with anxiety. And my friends, that is no way to go about this great life God gifts us. In fact, if the behavior I just described is our primary modus operandi, then I would argue that is not really living at all.

Regularly appointments take me away from the Church Office during office hours and when I leave I encourage the office volunteers to lock themselves in as an extra measure of precaution. And each time I offer this recommendation to one sweet office volunteer, the response is always the same, “Pastor Sarah, I have too much to live for to be afraid.” Some might hear these words and find them reckless, but from their speaker, they are words from a heart brimming with great assurance and peace.

Consider: If Joseph remained fearful of his brothers because of their troubled history, he would have never reunited with his family. If Joseph’s brothers had not bravely stepped into Egypt for help, they would have starved.

Both Joseph and his brothers took risks. Fear often accompanies risk. Risk necessarily involves change – sometimes subtle and other times radical. Often we do not know the result of our venture before we take a risk, before we face our fears. Reason and rationality only bring us so far – and when it comes to risk and fear – reason and rationality typically scream abort abort! The only way, then, for us to move forward, to change, to grow, to truly live as people invested in God’s assurance and the peace it gives, is to take the leap of faith.

What risk are you currently facing? What change? What decision? How are you navigating the fear associated with it? What is your discernment about your upcoming decisions and actions? Are you taking small steps? Are you ready to leap? Are you immobile? Our God says to us again and again, “Do not be afraid…have no fear.”

God is with us. God is bringing all things together for our good. God brings good out of horrific circumstances. I encourage you to take on the posture of our dedicated office volunteer – we have too much to live for to be afraid. May you know that assurance and feel that peace as you take on risks and face your fears this day.

Prayer: “Something beautiful, something good; all my confusion he understood; all I had to offer him was brokenness and strife, but he made something beautiful of my life.”* Amen.

*”Something Beautiful,” The United Methodist Hymnal 394.

 

 

Mountain Meditation: Don’t Worry; Be Mindful

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 6:24-34.

If there were a prize for worrying…I would be worried that I would not receive the prize.

Can you relate?

In the right doses worrying can help us. Worrying can alert  us to dangers. Worrying may contribute to (prod…instigate…motivate) our decision making practices. Worrying can move us from inactivity to activity.

On the other hand, worrying can become obsessive and incapacitating. Worrying can crescendo the feeling of being overwhelmed to the feeling of being completely paralyzed.

In his book What is the Opposite of Worry Dr. Lawrence J. Cohen names three powerful antidotes to worry:

  1. Being held in loving arms,
  2. Cultivating a soothing inner voice, and
  3. Befriending all of your emotions.

When I was in high school I spent many Sundays serving in the church nursery with many of First Lakeland’s youngest worshippers. One boy I remember in particular, his name is Zachary, would cry unconsolably when his mother brought him to the nursery – new place, new people, no Mama. We would try every trick in the book to engage (distract) Zachary with a toy, stuffed animal, or book. Not interested. And so the caregivers would take turns holding him close to our chests. With time his accelerated heart beat would slow as he listened to and felt the caregiver’s heartbeat. He would cry into the crook of the caregiver’s neck until he felt safe enough to peek out into the room. And then we would watch his progression from peeking out his gaze, to lifting his head, to wanting to be turned around to face the room, to leaving the caregiver’s lap to play on the floor. Zachary had every right to worry, but his time spent in loving arms assured him that Mama would be back soon, that he was safe, and that it was, in fact, okay for him to have a little fun without her.

From being held in loving arms and hearing soothing voices I believe we develop soothing inner voices. We learn how to self-comfort. We learn how to have a moment of being out of control and then safely coming back into control. But to find and raise up our personal voices, it is vital that we hear soothing voices. That we hear we are beloved. That we hear we are cherished. That we hear we are made in the image of God and that makes us worthy and special. That we hear that nothing can take away God’s love from us. I believe one of the best pieces of advice given to John Wesley was this, “Preach faith until you have it, and because you have it, preach faith.” The same principal applies here, “Say the words of a soothing inner voice – for yourself and others – until you have it, and because you have it, say these words.”

Having a soothing and rational inner voice (I know – I know…it may take a while to hear the rational side, but it is important, too) creates a platform for us to draw near to all of our emotions. We are complex beings. We feel and experience along a huge spectrum! I do not think it is helpful to call some feelings and emotions good and others bad because all of them sum up who we are. Rather, if we are able to connect with each of our feelings – to understand them as well as our responses and reactions to them – we learn endurance. We gain perspective. We learn from the past moments as we look forward to the future.

These combined antidotes – being held in loving arms, cultivating a soothing inner voice, and befriending all your emotions – leads to what Cohen calls practicing mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness, argues Cohen, is the opposite of worry. Sort of like Tai Chi where the flow of energy is received and immediately redirected somewhere else rather than internalized, so we should approach worry: recognize the circumstance, feel what is felt, name it, respond to it, if appropriate, and then let it go so you are prepared for what may be coming next.

I believe Cohen rightly calls mindfulness a practice. It takes time to develop. It takes intentional behavior and commitment. And I believe it yields great peace – the kind of peace that passes all understanding.

Join us this Sunday as Samantha Aupperlee shares a message with us on this Scripture passage and topic! Thank you, Samantha, for sharing your leadership in worship!

Prayer: “O come and sing this song with gladness as your hearts are filled with joy. Lift your hands in sweet surrender to his name. O give him all your tears and sadness; give him all your years of pain, and you’ll enter into life in Jesus’ name. Jesus, O Jesus, come and fill your lambs. Jesus, O Jesus, come and fill your lambs.”* Amen.

*”Spirit Song ,” The United Methodist Hymnal 347.

Mountain Meditation: Kingdom Blessings

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 5:1-12.

In times of great transition I find that it is not the best choice for me to consider the big picture. While the big picture is important, it is also quite overwhelming. Often I am energized by the abundance of tasks to be completed, but when I feel like my feet are on shifting sand, which usually follows the reminder that I am not actually in control, my energy drains faster than a white chocolate mocha out of my husband’s coffee cup.

And that, friends, is fast!

So rather than focus on the big picture and feel so daunted that I cannot accomplish anything, I choose to focus on the immediate next. What is the next immediate task for me to accomplish? And then once I do that, what follows? It could be a snack break; when I am stressed I forget to eat! It could be sending a quick message of encouragement or reading one sent to me. It could be – and maybe should be! – finding another two-by-two area of wood on my desk. Whatever my immediate next, this truth endures: small acts grow into tasks. Tasks grow into accomplishments. Accomplishments piece together the big picture.

And once the big picture is present, God invites us to look beyond that big picture and start the process all over again.

I have paused quite frequently this week to ask God to help me identify my immediate next. As I have studied the Beatitudes I feel my immediate next is peace. God is calling me to be peace as the prelude to any further activity, be it a conversation, compilation, or complication.

In an article he wrote for The Huffington Post, Eric Simpson says, “The Beatitudes teach us how to be peace not just be at peace, but to become peace so that peace can spread, and that peace can come from being rooted both in the life of God and in the physical world.” When I feel restless, anxious, worried, or out of control, being at peace is the furthest act from my mind. Being peace, however, helps calm my mind and my heart. Through peacefully approaching my immediate next – with a clear heart and mind; with encouragement from my God, family and friends; with the confidence that yes, there are trials in this life, but joy comes in the morning – I am able to accomplish whatever is before me as well as join God in nurturing peace in the world.

What is my immediate next? To trust that God knows what is coming. Right now I see glimpses of the big picture, but our God has the entire horizon in his view; God has the whole world in his hands. So with trust I walk forward to my immediate next – for myself and for our congregation.

Prayer: “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! O what a foretaste of glory divine! Heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of his Spirit, washed in his blood. This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long; this is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.”* Amen.

*”Blessed Assurance,” The United Methodist Hymnal 369.

Remembering September 11

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Psalm 51:1-10, Micah 4:1-5, and Matthew 18:21-35.

I will never forget. I was sitting in my 11th grade AP Literature class when our principal all called over the intercom system, “Teachers, please turn on your class televisions. A plane has just hit the World Trade Center in New York City.”

My class sat in silent horror as we watched the smoke rise from the building. We could not take our eyes away from the screen – the North Tower, the South Tower, the Pentagon, the field in Pennsylvania. Initially all students were kept in our third period classes; eventually the school board determined that the schools were secure and we could continue through our class schedule. But it really was not “continuing.” Students migrated silently between classes. From one room to the next we entered, sat in our desks, and watched the news.

I had so many questions. My fears mounted. As I reflect 15 years later, I continue to have many questions and in returning my thoughts to this day, my fears are stirred up afresh.

After 9/11 life seemed to come back to normal – whatever “normal” was – until my brother drove home from his Army base in Virginia one afternoon to hug me and my family. He was saying “goodbye.” He would deploy to Kuwait headed for Iraq in the next 36 hours. And all the 9/11 terror came crashing back down, but now it was not in New York or the Nation’s Capital or Pennsylvania. Those places were all very far away. Now the terror was too close to home…in fact it was in my home and taking my brother – that I would holler at because his music was too loud coming through the wall between our bedrooms and because he somehow managed to get water on every surface in the bathroom after showering – half way around the world into the very face of danger.

The house was too quiet without him. And although I prefer a dry bathroom, what I would have given to have slipped on water left on the floor.

Charlie served his country well. And Charlie came home. Many did not.

Brave men and women served our country – served our fellow country men and women well on 9/11 – people they knew and people they did not know. We were united. We were all Americans.

We are all Americans.

Some of those men and women that served on 9/11 came home. Many did not.

Countless lives were lost – unnecessarily lost. And to this day it is hard for me to recall what happened, to look at images from that day, to hear recordings of people calling for help and reporting the horrors they faced. I do not want to remember. I do not want those feelings to return.

But…

It is crucially important to remember that human beings are capable of this sort of behavior and activity. We remember by seeing these images, listening to the cries for help, and committing ourselves to behaviors that will not lead us to this sort of activity again.

Says the Psalmist, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (Ps 51:10).

Says the Prophet Micah, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Micah 4:2).

Says Peter to our Lord Jesus, “‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times'” (Mt 18:21-22).

May these verses guide our prayerful desire to craft behaviors that lead to peace rather than destruction, to unity rather than division, to love rather than fear our neighbors.

May we take time this week to remember 9/11, even if it makes us uncomfortable…dare I say especially if it makes us uncomfortable. God is communicating something to us in these moments. May we never forget and with God’s help we will not return to behaviors that led to activities that resulted in the terror of this day 15 years ago.

Prayer: “O Lord, open my eyes that I may see the needs of others; open my ears that I may hear their cries; open my heart so that they need not be without succor; let me not be afraid to defend the weak because of the anger of the strong, nor afraid to defend the poor because of the anger of the rich. Show me where love and hope and faith are needed, and use me to bring them to those places. And so open my eyes and my ears that I may this coming day be able to do some work of peace for thee. Amen.”*

*”For Courage to Do Justice,” The United Methodist Hymnal 456.

A Study of Mary Magdalene

Sunday’s Scripture ~ John 20:1-18.

This week Rev. Kate Ling and the Quest Sunday School Class will lead the Tuskawilla community in “A Study of Mary Magdalene” during our 11:00 worship service. Their leadership in worship provides me the opportunity to worship with Andrew at his new church this Sunday. Thank you, Pastor Kate and Quest Class, for the gifts you share this week!

As I reflect on Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the resurrected Christ, I am continually amazed that Mary did not know she was speaking with Jesus until Jesus said her name. Many women are not named in Scripture and if they are named it is usually because they do not have the best story, whether personal or familial, and yet, Jesus calls Mary by name. He calls this weeping woman to his side. He acknowledges that she is God’s beloved child. He acknowledges Mary for who God says she is, not what her present context or what our present context says she is.

In John 10 in his teaching about the shepherd and his flock, Jesus says the shepherd calls his sheep by name. They listen to him and follow (Jn 10:1-5). At the empty tomb Jesus said to Mary, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God'” (Jn 20:17, emphasis added). Jesus called Mary by name, called Mary to himself, and called Mary to follow. With joy she went to her brother disciples, “I have seen the Lord” (Jn 20:18).

In recent years I have not regularly watched or read the daily news because I dread what I will see and hear. Last week I wrote about the terror attack in Istanbul and since that time Baghdad – Bangladesh – Alton Sterling – Falcon Heights, Minnesota – and I am sure others that have not been named for one reason or another – are unfortunately added to list of terror-filled and fear-driven senseless acts of violence. Hearing about these attacks leads me to reading about these attacks, but I do not read about them to be drawn in by the sensational and graphic descriptions. I read about them to read the names, to say aloud the names of God’s children that have died.

Because it is right that they be said.

And then I wonder…

  • If the persons that caused these attacks had known the names of the persons they attacked
  • If relationship had been present instead of fear
  • If their personal stories had been known rather than pervasive stigmas and incorrect stereotypes that mangle the understandings and beliefs about folks that appear different than “us” – whoever the “us” may be –

would these attacks have happened?

This wondering intensifies my hurt about our broken world, which is pale in comparison to the families and communities that have lost loved ones.

Jesus called Mary by name. God calls each of us by name. We are precious. We are beloved. We are known. We are called for a purpose. We are created for healthy relationships. We are intended to have life and have it abundantly. And when our actions, when humanity’s actions interrupt or take away or strip the name and status we have given to us by God through God’s amazing grace, then we are in the wrong and we are ever in need of God’s grace – God’s grace that leads us to repentance, God’s grace that leads us to reconciliation, God’s grace that rescues us from our own pits and helps keep us from digging any deeper.

Jesus said Mary’s name. There is something about the saying of her name. There is something about the saying of our names – about the saying of the names of all God’s children. Lord have mercy on us. Draw us to your side. And send us in your grace to tell of your good news, which will draw us together and heal where we have torn ourselves apart.Let there be peace – your peace – in me, around me, and because of of you in me.

Prayer: “O God, you are the hope of all the ends of the earth, the God of the spirits of all flesh. Hear our humble intercession for all races and families on earth, that you will turn all hearts to yourself. Remove from our minds hatred, prejudice, and contempt for those who are not of our own race or color, class or creed, that, departing from everything that estranges and divides, we may by you be brought into unity of spirit, in the bond of peace. Amen.”*

*“For The World And Its Peoples,” The United Methodist Book of Worship 526.

 

 

 

Seven Questions of Faith: What About Suffering?

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Matthew 27:27-31.

Some smells never leave you.

Growing up in Polk County I was introduced early on to the smell of burning leaves. In the late 80s and early 90s citrus canker was a huge ordeal. Once the canker set in the only solution was to burn the trees. Burn the trees. Defeat the canker. Protect the living.

No matter where I am, if that smell is in the air, I know exactly what is happening. Somewhere near something is burning. Something is being defeated. A measure is being taken to protect the living.

On Friday, January 29, 2016 I stood on the side of highway in the region of the Golan Heights in Northeastern Israel. Behind me was Israel and down the hillside below my feet, beyond the fence of the demilitarized zone, was Syria.

Syria

The smell of burning was in the air.

It was not trees burning this time. Smoke rose from homes, buildings, and ground cover due to the burnout of explosions. And the burning smell was not on its own; it was accompanied by the popping of gunshots. Due to the distance the popping sounded like a woodpecker drumming against a tree.

This scene broke my heart. It is burned into my memory as the flames burned the ground. I stood on that hillside and listened. I inhaled. I exhaled. I wept. I raised my left hand to my heart and extended my right hand towards the broken land. I joined in prayer with my friends gathered there.

We prayed for the people that decided that land should burn. We prayed for the people that believe more in violent defeat than in justice and peace. We prayed for the people who chose these methods as the means to protect only some of the living. We prayed for those who suffered. We prayed for their suffering to end.

Inhaling. Exhaling. Weeping. Come, Lord Jesus. Come.

As we left side of the highway our bus fell silent, which for a group of 35 made up of pastors and spouses is quite a feat, indeed! Though the bus was silent my mind reeled, heart ached, and spirit wondered, “What about suffering? What about the innocents? Why?”

I was reminded of these questions for the remainder of the day as the smell of smoke lingered in my hair and on my clothes. My neighbors are in harm’s way. They are afraid and feel alone.

Does anyone see? Does anyone care?

Jesus sees. Jesus cares. Jesus suffered. Jesus suffers still.

Jesus suffers when we suffer. Jesus cried over the venom in the hearts of the people as he looked down upon Jerusalem before he finished his pilgrimage to his grave. Jesus cries over the venom that spews and spreads evil that breaks apart families, turns friends into enemies, fortifies walls instead of bridges, and leads some to untimely deaths in unmarked graves.

But unlike our suffering, Jesus’ suffering culminates in transformation. Though battered, mocked, and spat upon, Jesus’ suffering is the gateway to resurrection.

For him. For us all. In this world and beyond this world. In ways we can see fully now and in ways that we will only see fully once the veil of mortality is completely repealed.

I pray for the day that all suffering will end. I pray for the day that burning smells and their kindred memories will be replaced with peace.

Prayer: “Almighty God , you sent your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, to suffer death on the cross. Grant that we may share in his obedience to your will and in the glorious victory of his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and ever. Amen.”*

*”Palm/Passion Sunday,” The United Methodist Hymnal 281.