Category Archives: Faith

Cause for Hope: Christmas 2013

A minor cold expectedly turned my health upside down this week. As I adjust yet again, I am trying to believe what I wrote for the Pasadena Presbyterian Church in December, 2006.  These words remind me of the real reason Christians celebrate Christmas:  God’s love for the world.  Here is what I wrote in 2006.  It is based on Jeremiah 33:14-16.

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.  In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.  And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness. (Jeremiah 33:14-16)

The Prophet Jeremiah’s words were spoken by one who, while standing in a time of hopelessness and despair, encountered the sovereignty and love of the God who saves us and for whom we wait.  I met that same God last week in a parking lot.

It happened at Home Depot at 6:30 on Saturday morning while many of you were still asleep or getting an early start on your Christmas shopping.  Our two young dogs have turned part of our back yard into a patch of dirt.  My mission was to cover the dirt with sod and, in so doing, save our carpet.  In addition, our son Chris’s golden retriever was spending Thanksgiving with us and that would give us 3 sets of paws to track in dirt.

After 4 trips to Home Depot in one week, two of them long before dawn, I was desperate.  I just missed the last of the sod at the Monrovia store at 6:00, but heard the Covina store still had some. I headed to Covina.

There it was:  my holy grail.  Then I couldn’t find a clerk to sell it to me.  Finally, someone in lighting said, “Go find Hope.  She works in the garden department.”  “Really,” I thought rather cynically, “I’ve been looking for hope all week.”

Hope wasn’t visible, however, when I reached the garden department.  But someone else agreed to take my money.  As I walked out to get my car, another customer walked out beside me, calling over his shoulder in a deep baritone to the young man at the cash register, “I’ll get my car and be right back.  I know where to find Hope.”

I couldn’t believe it:  The whole point of the Christian faith had just been stated confidently by a tall, strong baritone at 6:30 on a Saturday morning in the parking lot at Home Depot: “I know where to find Hope.”  Thank you, God for parents who name their children Faith, Grace, and Hope.

The sun was rising as I drove home, and my car was full of the fresh smell of grass and dirt.  Tendrils of coral, pink and blue stretched across the horizon. The hills grew clear against the sky.  My heart quieted in the presence of such beauty.

On the way home I listened to National Public Radio tell the latest on the wars in Iraq, assassinations in Lebanon, and a court battle over air pollution.  I remembered people whose struggles I know–struggles of unemployment, grief, illness, and loneliness; people who struggle to get out of bed, to put one foot in front of the other, to find hope.

Over and over again, that baritone voice echoed in my being, “I know where to find Hope.”

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.  In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.  And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.

I watched the sky change hue as the sun came up. The interplay between sun and shadow, light and darkness, spoke to me of life and death, of good and evil, of struggle and of hope that day, the hope that comes from knowing our existence rests not in our hands, but God’s and that God will come to save us.  God’s hand, not mine, made the sun to rise.  I know where to find hope.

Some of Israel’s most pushy, hopeful, and imaginative poetry was uttered during times of military defeat and Babylonian exile. We might have expected words of resignation. But no. Israel’s faith was in a God who is an active participant in creation and deliverance.  Here again, in a dark hour, God’s prophet Jeremiah proclaims extravagant hope: God hears. God comes. God saves.

What is our cause for hope this Advent 2006?

Is it the courage of soldiers walking through a shattered country
or the persistence of fragile governments?
Is it peace envoys sent to the Middle East?
If it is only our self–our military might or our diplomatic wisdom–there is no cause for hope.

Does our hope lie in denying the reality of suffering,
the tenacity of sin, the existence of evil, our own culpability?
Can living in a Disneyland world where the sky is always blue, and
we refuse to see the suffering of the world or
feel our own heartache
ever let us know
the deep and true joy that Christ’s birth brings into the world?

Can such denial give us the strength to fight for good?
Can it give us the commitment to work for peace?

If this is all we have, there is no cause for hope.
If it is left up to us to save the world or to make our life right, then what real hope have we when the chips are down?

But our hope is in God.

Jeremiah speaks to Israel when it is exiled, powerless, far from home, with no end in sight, seemingly deserted by God.  In such a time as this, the prophet says, “We know where hope is!  There shall be justice and righteousness in the land. God reigns!”

Twenty-five hundred years later, Jeremiah still speaks in a time of uncertainty and war, of anxiety and sorrow, of pain inside the church and out. We long to be saved, not merely in some other-worldly sense, but in this world, right now, because there is much from which we need to be saved.

In such a time as this, we hold onto truth spoken in a parking lot, truth spoken by Jeremiah: We know where to find hope.

We celebrate Advent and sing of freedom because we know ourselves captive.
We celebrate Advent and sing of comfort because we have allowed ourselves to see our brokenness.
We sing of joy because we have dared to love and hence have known sorrow.
We sing of peace because we know the horror of war.
We sing of hope because at times we ourselves feel hopeless.
We sing the prophet’s words and we prepare for Christ’s birth
because we know the cause for hope, and we hunger yet for more.

It takes a great deal of hope to be honest about our situation in exile. The church calls this very faith, hope, and honesty: Advent.  We admit that we need some future not solely of our own devising. We tell the truth about our condition because we believe that God has made our situation God’s own. In Advent, we give thanks that God’s love shines through even human sin and suffering and will come to us in a babe born into a sinful and aching world. We know where hope is.

Come, Lord Jesus, though we know not when.  Come, Lord Jesus, and save us, in this life and in the life to come.

*Note:  Advent is the name by which the Church refers to the four weeks before Christmas, as time of internal reflection and prayer in preparation for receiving anew the message of Jesus’ birth at Christmas.

When Jesus Came Unglued

On Saturday I had one task to complete:  to hang eight multi-cultural images of Jesus on the rear wall of the sanctuary with Quake Hold Putty.  I have preached on live television and led worship with the Archbishop of Los Angeles just fine, but hanging art in a public space intimidated me.   Some of these prints were vertical, others horizontal.  Some were dark in tone, others bright.  Which ones should go beside which?  How high?  How far apart?  This project had a lot of me in it and I didn’t want the clutter of any mistakes to cloud viewers’ experience of its power and beauty.  The project was so important to me that I pushed through a morning of illness to get the artwork up before the congregation arrived on Sunday morning.

I arranged the prints on the floor, swapping them out until the balance of colors and brightness seemed right.  I took off my shoes, climbed on a chair, and with a deep breath, stuck the first print to the wall.  Since the church’s roof didn’t crack afterward, I decided I was on the right tack and kept going.

Afterward, I walked to the front of the sanctuary to see how the project looked from a distance. Turning around, I pumped the air with my fists, shouting, “Woo! Woo! Woo!”  The rich colors on the wall brought the fullness of Jesus into this sacred space.  My arms fell to my side in holy silence. I felt close to God, and grateful.

Overnight Jesus came unglued.  To be more accurate, the Quake Hold Putty gave way and by Sunday morning Jesus lay face down on the floor in the rear of the sanctuary.  As hard as I had worked to keep Jesus in place, he hadn’t stayed put.

I had to pick him up off the floor, climb barefooted on the chair, use my level and ruler again, add more putty and masking tape, then leverage my strength against the wall to try to adhere the prints more strongly than before.  I tried not to linger on the thought that all my work had been in vain.  After all, it hadn’t been completely:  now I knew the correct order, spacing, and height for the prints.  I finished in less time than the day before.  I sighed as I realized that, like dishes that accumulate after each meal, the prints would probably fall again and need to be re-hung.  When we found a more long-lasting solution, they would have to be hung yet again.

A few days later, someone asked me in a different setting how I find the strength to pick myself up and go forward when my health sets me back repeatedly.  I thought about my sense of resignation when I had seen Jesus on the floor after all my hard work.  I thought about how I decided that giving up on him was not an option, and that bringing these varied, colorful images of Jesus into people’s lives was holy work in which God’s own self was active.  God and I were doing this project together.  God was in the action of creating, hanging, and viewing the display. God had been with me in the action of picking Jesus up and bringing him to life again.  God is in the changes that are occurring in people’s faith as they experience these images of Jesus.

That is the best summary I can come up with of how I keep getting up and going forward when knocked down by circumstances:  God is in the action of my choosing not to give in and in the actions of getting up and moving forward.  God is not a distant being, but rather present in my life affirming actions.

God who is the Ground of Being*, beyond the limits of language, symbol and metaphor, is best known in actions and process.  As Carter Heyward writes, “God is a verb,” an active tense verb, not an immutable, static noun.**

God is active, moving, and creating, bringing forth possibilities for growth, love, justice, and life.  God is not a being who tells me from afar to get up, to be hopeful and courageous, to adapt, to embrace life for myself and bring it to others.  I don’t respond well to people who tell me what to do, nor would I respond well to that kind of god.

native_american_crucifixion[1]God in whom I live and move and have my being is in the doing, the living, the creating.  God’s relationship with us is mutual:  God affects us and we affect God.  God affects the world and is affected by it.  When we grieve, our pain affects God.  When we struggle, God is joined with us and affected by our struggle.  When I fall and don’t know if I can get back up, God isn’t far away telling me to get up.  God is present in my choosing the decision that enhances life; God is present in the action of my garnering the breath, muscle, persistence and courage to get up.***

We might say that God is not the wind–God is in the wind’s blowing as it pushes leaves from trees and in the dancing as they swirl to the ground.  God is not the comfort given to one who is grieving–God is in the acts of listening and sharing, in crying and smiling, in bringing longing and gratitude to the surface and releasing them into world.  God has been in the process of creating since the beginning of time and is creating still.  God’s loving actively holds us and moves us forward.

God is present in the act of forgiving.
God is present in the act of challenging.
God is present in the act of mending.
God is present in the act of growing.
God is present in the act of writing.
God is present in the act of choosing.
God is present in the act of believing
God is present in the act of freeing.

God is present in the act of getting up when we are knocked down.
God is present in the act opening of our hand to others.
God is present in the act of working for justice.

When we act in life affirming and justice-making ways, we partner with God and swim in the moving current that is God’s action in the world.  When we die–with little d’s during life or the big D of our final breath–we participate in God.  When we experience resurrection–lower case or upper–we participate in God.  When we love, we join in God’s own loving.

Knowing that God and I are together getting up and continuing on, loving and changing with life, always remaining good at our core:  this is how keep going.  This is the God in whom I live and move and have my being–the God I know in Jesus Christ.

* Paul Tillich, especially The Courage to Be.
**Carter Heyward, especially The Redemption of God: A Theology of Mutual RelatingHeyward was is one of the Philadelphia Eleven, eleven women whose ordination in 1974 opened the door for the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church of America.
***John C. Cobb and Alfred North Whitehead.  An on-line article by John C. Cobb, Process Theology, is an excellent summary of Christian Process Theology.

Christ Is Risen! Shout Hosanna!

efd5372ac1b918c6f09f09c3ee0b3fca[1]Today–Easter–God reminds Christians that in spite of any temporary evidence to the contrary, goodness, love, courage, and life are eternally more powerful than all the evil, suffering, injustice, and death which the world also contains.  The triumph of resurrection over crucifixion occurs not only when our final breath leaves us, but every day in those places where hope comes back to life, courage acts, goodness happens, love is shared, beauty created, life treasured, injustice righted, and light glows in the caves of despair.

Walking at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains this morning, I sang my favorite Easter hymn and decided to share it with you before I go to church in a few minutes.

I pray you will have a blessed Easter if you are within the Christian faith tradition; and if you are not, I pray that as you see the fritzy glizt of our Easter bunnies and chocolate, you will still be touched by the universal truths to which the core of Easter speaks.

Christ Is Risen!  Shout Hosanna!
Christ is risen! Shout Hosanna!
Celebrate this day of days!
Christ is risen! Hush in wonder:
All creation is amazed.
In the desert all-surrounding,
See, a spreading tree has grown.
Healing leaves of grace abounding
Bring a taste of love unknown.

Christ is risen!  Raise your spirits
From the caverns of despair.
Walk with gladness in the morning.
See what love can do and dare.
Drink the wine of resurrection,
Not a servant, but a friend.
Jesus is our strong companion.
Joy and peace shall never end.

Christ is risen! Earth and heaven
Nevermore shall be the same.
Break the bread of new creation
Where the world is still in pain.
Tell its grim, demonic chorus:
“Christ is risen! Get you gone!”
God the First and Last is with us.
Sing Hosanna, everyone!

Words:  Brian Wren, 1986; Tune: “Hymn to Joy” by Ludwig van Beethoven