Truth: Judas Life

This past Saturday evening I met my partner at the hospital where she works as a chaplain so we could eat dinner together, because there’s nothing better than a hot date in the deep recesses of a medical facility. As I was entering the building, a nurse, exiting with a patient, looked at me for an uncomfortable amount of time, then said, “I like your shirt!” I quickly looked down to recall which shirt I was wearing then replied to her, “Thanks!” and COVID-safe-smiled as best I could with my eyes.

This shirt is a deep blue with black, white, and yellow words: “Fight poverty, not the poor.” This statement is one of the demands of the Poor People’s Campaign, a grassroots organization working towards a moral revival in America. First enacted in 1968 by Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the Poor People’s Campaign at that time demanded economic and human rights for poor Americans from all backgrounds. The modern campaign, spearheaded by Reverends Liz Theoharis and William Barber III, presses forward to make this work a reality. For over fifty years, facing seemingly insurmountable injustices, activists have worked diligently to ensure equity, equality, inclusion, and fair wages. When I wear that shirt I feel like I am a part of this historic, important organism; my wearing that cloth is a small act of solidarity and when it’s acknowledged I feel like I’m doing God’s work.

That’s the first part.

The second is this: I was recently on a brief trip to Wal-Mart to pick up some loose ends for dinner. At the register I was approached by an older gentleman with he following story: “Hey, I was wondering if you could help me out. My wife and I are parked out front and we’re running on fumes – could you help us with some money to get some gas for our car? We’d really appreciate it…”

Time paused, but in the blink of an eye my mind kept working and I reviewed all the information I had: disheveled man, older, possibly unable to work, needing money for a specific thing, obviously in need. I should have stopped my analysis there, but I didn’t; I started questioning the man’s request: why is he seeking money for gas at the grocery store…what if he uses the money for drugs or alcohol…how many others has he gotten money from since he’s been here? In that split second I assumed the worst and talked myself out of helping him, justifying my impending response: I don’t have cash with me…someone else will help them…what if he wants more than what I give…will my generosity truly help him?

I responded in the most loving way possible, with that same COVID-safe-smile glowing from my eyes, “Sorry, I don’t have any cash…only a credit card.” I lied – I had my debit card. I denied assistance. I ignored this man’s plight because my brain, for whatever reason, couldn’t stop overthinking the situation. I couldn’t just open my damn hand and give freely as it was given to me. Not only was I a liar, but in my wearing that shirt I am a hypocrite as well. I am the one who is fighting against the poor. I am the one who is sustaining poverty. I am the oppressor.

—–

This week’s gospel lesson comes from the twelfth chapter of John, verses 1-8. Jesus has been in and around the village of Bethany, southeast of Jerusalem; it is here that his beloved friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus live, and where the latter is resurrected. After this miraculous encounter, Jesus and company left town for a few days because of the growing plot to have our Lord killed, returning after some time spent in the wilderness region. The gospel of John reads:

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Mary’s perfume of spikenard originated in the Himalayan mountains and it’s sticker price of a year’s wages is justified – any object traveling that distance in those times would rightly be otherworldly expensive. And Mary, at the feet of Jesus, takes the stance of a servant, looking to wash and tend to the feet that have carried her friend countless miles. And Mary, in an act of love and devotion, pours out this perfume on Jesus’ feet to express her feelings for the man who has resurrected her brother…for the man who has invited her into ministry…for the man who saw her and loved her.

Judas feigns indignation about Mary’s love offering: “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” (CEB). Judas’ remark is meant to illicit some hurrahs from the onlookers, to express what he thinks the people want to hear – he’s talking the talk and calls out others to start walking the walk. The gospel writer makes a side remark, though, telling us that Judas didn’t actually care for the poor – he was pilfering money from the common funds and selling the perfume would give him more money to steal.

Judas’ hypocrisy, like mine in the grocery store, is glaringly apparent and, as much as I want to claim that I live a Jesus life the truth is that, more often than not, I live a Judas life. I will adamantly say all the right things and can preach a decent sermon about the sinfulness of selfishness. I can point out the places, programs, and people in my city that ignore the poor among us…I can complain about the local churches fighting to push out the poor that walk our streets…I can complain about how so many people ignore the woman on the corner that I ignore as well. I work to highlight just how bad poverty is and about how many things are paid for instead of solving the plight of the poor but at the end of the day I’m more concerned with my bottom line and not the emptiness in the bottom of my neighbor’s stomach. I’m living a Judas life dressed to look like Jesus.

Jesus’ rebuke of Judas’ comment is a rebuke for each of us who ignore the poor among us. His rebuke is for each of us who can’t see the individuals impoverished in our neighborhoods but send money to fund millionaire evangelists. His rebuke is for each of us who tell our poor neighbors to get a second or third job as we drive to our second or third vacation home. His rebuke is for each of us who dream of seeing Jesus someday while ignoring his image and likeness in the person across from us.

I can’t solve the poverty crisis in our country, but I shouldn’t let that stop me from working to end it. I can’t feed every person who asks for food, but I can certainly feed one or two. I can’t give all of my money to those in need, but I can certainly open up my hand. God, forgive me for ignoring your beloved. Forgive me for lying, for overthinking, for worrying. Help me to realize that the gifts you have given me are but gifts to be given. Help me to worry less about the wrong others might do with these gifts and let me find hope in the right they might do with them. Make me an agent to fight the systems, institutions, and thoughts that sustain poverty in this nation, and guide me to give and love as freely as Mary. May it be so.

much love. sheth.

Truth: Amazing Grace

This week’s gospel lesson from the fifteenth chapter of Luke about the prodigal son is a familiar story to both Christians and non-Christians alike. While the idiom is usually reserved for a long-gone person returning, the Bible story itself is one of amazing grace: a son selfishly goes off on his own to live a prodigal life – one of wasteful extravagance – and he winds up in destitution and poverty, eventually returning to his father’s household so he could work as a hired hand. But the father’s grace – his unmerited favor – is poured out on his prodigal son, who is welcomed back, reconciled and restored to his former life of love and acceptance. The son would assuredly sing out with joy the first verse of Newton’s hymn, “Amazing grace – how sweet the sound! – that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found…was blind, but now I see!”

De Terugkeer Van de Verloren Zoon c. 1669, oil on canvas, 262 x 205 cm.
by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

This prodigal son story is one of three used by Jesus to convey the inviting, welcoming, never-giving-up-on-us love of God. These tales of the great generosity of God is brought about because the Pharisees and scribes “were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow [Jesus] welcomes sinners and eats with them.”[1] These Jewish leaders are appalled that a rabbi would be in the presence of sinners and, more than that, this Jesus welcomes them and spends time with them! Hearing their disgust, Jesus shares three stories: one of a lost sheep, one of a lost coin, and one of a lost son. All three serve to demonstrate the lengths and depths to which God would go for God’s beloved creations, lengths which far exceed those which the Pharisees and scribes would permit. While these religious leaders uphold the letter of the law and grumble amongst themselves when it’s bent, Jesus shares with them the vastness of the spirit of the law and the amazingness of God’s grace.

I’ve been wracking my brain trying to come up with some great comment on this passage… staring at this screen trying to write some riveting, new insight that would really make this passage come alive for each of us. But perhaps that’s not what God is calling from this passage. What if God allows this passage to come up so frequently in the Church and in the world because we need to be reminded – again and again – that we are to reconcile broken relationships? What if God keeps bringing the prodigal son home so we can witness – again and again – the overwhelming love that God has for every single person who has wandered from God? What if God wants us to read this passage during lent to give us hope, to remind us of promise, to break through our stubbornness and guide us to be just as reconciling, welcoming, forgiving, and loving?

If this passage does anything for me this week it’s this: it reminds me that I, too was just as wretched as this son, but I am saved. It reminds me that I, too, was once lost but am found. It reminds me that I, too, was once blind but now see. It reminds me that I should be as loving and gracious as the son’s father…I should be as welcoming and excited when I see people seeking their Father…I should be generous and encouraging when I witness people coming Home.

Friends, I pray we’ll never forget the amazing grace that God has for each of us. I pray we’ll find ways to reconcile with our Heavenly Father who sees us and is filled with compassion. I pray we can see Abba Father running after us, throwing his arms around us, and kissing us with great affection. I pray that we can hear our Creator’s voice whisper in our ear: “My beloved, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” May each of us live in the Amazing Grace of our Father.

much love. sheth.

—–
[1] Luke 15:2, New Revised Standard Version

Truth: Repentance

A large part of the curriculum for my first course in theology (taught by the ever-inspiring Dr. Cynthia Rigby) was theological vocabulary, and the process is just as you may recall from elementary school. We were given words each week which we had to define using dictionaries, lectures, and discussions; every few weeks there would be a short quiz where we were to prove our understanding of this new language we were discovering. We learned little words we thought we knew: Faith. Heresy. Grace. Vocation. Sin. Theology. We learned big words and phrases: Epistemology. Hermeneutics. Predestination. Homoousias/Homoiousios. Fides quaerens intellectum.

In the gospel reading this week (Luke 13:1-9) Jesus uses a word that a lot of us probably know, or at least think we know: repent. When I hear this word my mind is drawn to old-timey pastors holding signs on street corners that read “Repent for the kingdom is nigh!” (Matthew 3:2). I recall being a child, sitting in the old Mile High stadium in Denver, listening to Billy Graham declaring the sins of those in attendance and their need for repentance. Youth conference leaders begged us to come forward and repent of our sins so as to enter into relationship with God. In each of these cases, the definition of repentance has somehow been replaced with confession.

“Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand” Gelatin silver print 28.9×23.9 cm. Dora Maar, 1934.

It’s understandable in the context in which I grew up, where salvific-evangelism and weekly reports of how many so-and-so had saved was king, but I sure wish they’d have just called it confession. I wish they called it for what it was: an act of acknowledging and articulating one’s sin.[1] Their altar calls rarely (if ever) allowed space or time for repentance; these moments in arenas and stadiums are momentarily life-changing, but what about tomorrow? What about when those who went forward to confess their sins had to go home and face the causes of their sins? What about those who confessed on Sunday morning then went about their life Sunday afternoon?

In our new testament scriptures, this word translated ‘repent’ comes from the Greek word μετάνοια (metanoia), and it essentially has two components to it: “sorrow for sin and turning from sinfulness to righteousness”[2] The Heidelberg Catechism – one of the documents the PC(USA) uses to help us understand our faith – tells us that in repentance there is “the dying-away of the old self, and the rising-to-life of the new.”[3] Going further, the catechism tells us that the dying-away of the old self persuades us “to be genuinely sorry for sin and more and more to hate and run away from it” and that, in rising-to-life of the new we have a “wholehearted joy in God through Christ and a love and delight to live according to the will of God by doing every kind of good work.”[4]

This is far beyond simply confessing of one’s sins; repentance is the confession of sin and the movement away from it, it’s admission and advancement. When, in the Lukan narrative, Christ tells those in his presence that they must repent, he’s not telling them to merely come forward, admit their sins, and then go on sinning again; no, he’s telling them to admit their sins and work to sin no more. He’s telling them that the mercy of God has afforded them this moment for repentance, for declaring one’s sins and a commitment to move away from them.

When we follow Christ’s call to repentance we take a long, hard look at our own life and the ways and means by which we have violated God’s will. We reflect on those deeds, thoughts, and words which have caused distance between us and our Creator. We admit where we have sinned, where we have failed, where we have done wrong and, in understanding repentance, we don’t stop there; we don’t admit our sins and then go on sinning – no, we confess where and how we have sinned and we work to remove ourselves from them. Repentance calls us to confession and change, to acknowledgement and advancement.

This repentance stuff isn’t just a personal-sin thing…it’s a Christian-community thing. We live in community and sometimes (quite often) we also sin in community. When we follow Christ’s call to repentance, we look at our Christian community’s complicity in slavery, not merely admitting complicity, but also making movements to ensure the end to slavery in all its forms.

We hold difficult conversations about systemic and institutional racism; we read books that don’t whitewash history but ones which plunge us into the blood and tears drawn by slave owners. We make conscious efforts and take deliberate actions to ensure equal and equitable opportunities for all people, not just in our Christian community but in our global community, calling out racism when we see it – even at the risk of our own security and safety.

When we follow Christ’s call to repentance, we confess the ways in which we have been hurtful, harmful, and hateful toward our LGBTQIA+ neighbors and siblings in Christ. But beyond confession we work to understand, love, encourage, and advance their rights and liberties. We meet to learn and understand language and the importance of word choice. We ensure our own companies – and those we support – refuse discrimination, bigotry, and prejudice. We listen to and honor the stories of coming out, of being invited in, of finding community, relationship, acceptance, and love. We follow Christ’s commands to “do to others as you would have them do to you”[5] and to “love your neighbor as yourself.”[6]

When we follow Christ’s call to repentance, we confess the ways in which we have ridiculed and refused, denied and derided, ignored and insulted those experiencing homelessness, those widows and orphans among us, those unjustly jailed and imprisoned, those who are beyond our income, our intelligence, our imagination. But beyond confession we stand against economic injustices which prevent financial proliferation and prosperity. We defund the ways and means of war, using the money instead to fund shelters and food banks, early childhood education and subsidized healthcare. We seek humane ways to enact justice, fair ways to shape reconciliation, and arrange for restoration. We give food and drink, shelter and clothing, health and healing as freely as it has been given to us.[7]

In repentance we not only confess our sins, we not only work to move away from them, but we live with “wholehearted joy in God through Christ and a love and delight to live according to the will of God by doing every kind of good work.”[8] Repentance isn’t some gloomy, dreary, downer – it’s a call to life abundant, life resplendent! Repentance gives us the opportunity to not only be renewed and restored, but to live into it. Through repentance we’re given a new life and a new way of living. Because of repentance we are able to invite others to join us in this joyful, delightful life.

Friends, Christ calls us to repent and he gives us opportunity upon opportunity to do so. But there will come a day…there will come a day when He will judge us. Christ will judge the ways in which we did or didn’t feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and welcome the stranger. Christ will judge the ways in which we did or didn’t clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned. Repent, my friends. Move away from the death of sin – “more and more…hate and run away”[9] from the old, dead life and run towards the life-giving, joy-filled life found through repentance with Christ. May it be so.

much love. sheth.

—–

[1] The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms s.v. “confession”, Donald K. McKim (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 63.
[2] The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms s.v. “metanoia”, Donald K. McKim (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 197.
[3] “The Heidelberg Catechism” Question 89 (4.089) from The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) Part I: Book of Confessions (Louisville: The Office of the General Assembly, 2016), 59.
[4] ibid.
[5] Luke 6:31
[6] Mark 12:31
[7] Luke 6:38
[8] “The Heidelberg Catechism” Question 90 (4.090) from The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) Part I: Book of Confessions (Louisville: The Office of the General Assembly, 2016), 59.
[9] “The Heidelberg Catechism” Question 89 (4.089), 59.

Truth: Instantly Waiting

Instant oatmeal. Instant mashed potatoes. Instant rice. Instant pots. Instant gratification. Our world lives in the here and now and we demand what we want when we want it here and now. We don’t have time to wait. Waiting is laughable. When we can have anything we want whenever we want it, waiting is a joke, isn’t it? When millions of dollars are won and lost in milliseconds, waiting is a risk, isn’t it? When seconds count in CPR, waiting is deadly, isn’t it? Waiting is anti-capitalism…waiting is un-American…waiting is so difficult that we would rather forgo the end just to get what we can have right now.

Like most of us, I’m not big on waiting. As a child knowing a big event was coming up – church camp, Christmas, my birthday – I would be sleepless for nights prior; my excitement kept me awake and I could hardly wait. In the weeks leading up to my marriage proposal it took everything within me to stay on schedule and follow through with the planned day – I didn’t want to wait any longer to be engaged and married. As my partner works the remainder of her residency we work towards the next chapter of our life together, waiting for God to guide us to where and what we would do next. Waiting in good times is hard, but waiting in difficulties gnaws at my spirit and I often wonder how much more I can take; more often than not I end up yelling at God for delaying, for taking so long, for making me wait: “Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!” (Psalm 27:7)

Through the daily news I hear stories from Ukraine, stories of citizens – old and young – fleeing and fighting, fearful and faithful, all stretched to their limits as they live through the unprovoked, illegal Russian invasion, occupation, and war. I can’t imagine what decisions the Ukrainians have had to make – and continue to make – on an individual level for mere survival. How long they have waited! How long would I be able to wait, stretched to the limits until I couldn’t possibly wait anymore?

Since Europeans first set foot in the Americas, men and women who didn’t look like them were enslaved and traded, abused, murdered and tossed aside like garbage. For nearly five hundred years human beings on both sides of the Atlantic have treated other human beings as ‘less than’ – a mindset and practice which still occurs to this day. Racist and supremacist attitudes and behaviors are entrenched in our cultures, institutions, and personal beliefs, forcing people of color to continue to wait for equity and equality, to wait for desegregation and integration, to wait for acceptance and love. How long they have waited! How long would I be able to wait, stretched to the limits until I couldn’t possibly wait anymore?

This week marks two years since Missouri’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 and the residents here in the southwest corner of the state, like so many across this nation, have been less than patient with their neighbors, with the virus, masks, and vaccines. The virus and the work to defeat it has caused disruptions in every corner of life: each of us has been touched by the shift in the workforce and extended unemployment…by the dip in income and rise in inflation…each of us dealing with the physical, emotional, and spiritual effects of being isolated and alone for so long. How long we have waited for a reprieve! How long will we be able to wait, stretched to the limits until we can’t possibly wait anymore?

Here in the second week of Lent, as many of us pray, fast, and seek justice for our neighbors we have to admit that we’re already over it. We’re tired of waiting for Easter…we’re tired of waiting for ordinary time – for ordinary life – both in the church and in the world. We’ve been patiently waiting and diligently working but dang it, we’re over it. The Psalmist’s words this week ring in our Lenten hearts: “Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!” (Ps. 27:9) My translation: “Enough already, God!”

Like the psalmist, we too stand before God demanding satisfaction and gratification right now. No more waiting! How long, O Lord, will we be able to wait, stretched to the limits until we can’t possibly wait anymore? How much longer must we face war and violence, invading forces and enemies which seek to kill us? How much longer must we be seen as less than…be chased down and beaten down, murdered in our streets and homes because we don’t have the skin color of the ones in power? How much longer must we live under old relationships in the shadows of emotions from our abusers? How much longer must we be alone, left and abandoned, burdened with the realities of life? How much longer…

…..

I wish I had an answer to this. I wish I had a time frame that I could tell you about to alleviate the anxiety…but I don’t. I wish I had an answer to how much longer because I, too, am waiting. So I read on through this psalm to it’s final two verses. The Psalmist concludes their prayer with these words: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Ps. 27:13-14)

Wait.

The one thing we don’t want to do any longer is the one thing we’re most encouraged to do: wait. The answer our question of how much longer is but a command: wait. The Hebrew word used here for wait is קַוֵּ֗ה (qavah) which principally means to wait or look eagerly for and we get that, we live and push against that all day, everyday. But look at this definition from Ernest Klein, who says “the original meaning probably was ‘to twist, stretch’, whence ‘to be stretched, be strained’, whence ‘to await tensely.’”

The psalmist reminds us that the things of this world will assuredly cause us to be stretched to our limits, pulled to the point of breaking…we will be waiting in tension for God to answer us, to respond to our prayers, our complaints, our demands. We will be waiting in tensions of war and violence. We will be stretched thin as we wait to be recognized and valued. We will be waiting, strained, as our emotions remember…as our spirits remain alone.

And the psalmist reminds us that on either side of us, tensions await: “Wait for the Lord…wait for the Lord!” You’re going to be stretched…you’re going to be strained! But notice what the psalmist places in the midst of that tension and strain, of that stretching us thin: “be strong, and let your heart take courage.” The psalmist encourages us to be bold and alert, for our hearts to be firm, resolute, and courageous in the midst of the strain and stretching.

It’s hard. Most everything we experience and go through in this world is hard…it’s difficult…it challenges us and pulls us from all sides. This world is prone to stretching us to our breaking point. This world is apt to strain us to exhaustion. I know it because I’ve lived it…because I’m living it right now. But I believe.

I believe that we shall all see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
I believe that God will hide us in his shelter in the day of trouble;
     that God will hide us under the cover of his tent;
          that God will set us high on a rock.
I believe and I wait, I wait and I believe.

The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid? I believe! I believe! I believe! I wait and I believe and I give thanks to God. Amen.

much love. sheth.

Truth: The Choice.

First Sunday in Lent: Luke 4:1-13

As we move into the Christian season of Lent we begin with Jesus in the wilderness at the start of his ministry and the gospel writer Luke brings us into this wilderness story in chapter three. Jesus, now an adult, has sought out John the baptizer who is working near the Jordan river. As the crowds receive John’s baptism “of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v. 3) Jesus joins the people, standing with fishermen and shopkeepers, children and widows all waiting their turn (Why was Jesus baptized?). The baptism itself, according to Luke, is rather uneventful; it is Jesus’ prayers afterward which opens the heavens and the Spirit descends “in bodily form like a dove” (v. 22) accompanied by a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (v. 22). After this, the thirty-year-old Messiah is led to the wilderness, “where for forty days he was tempted by the devil” (4:2).

Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness (Jésus tenté dans le désert) by James Tissot

This temptation story is rather familiar to us: Jesus heads out to the wilderness to pray and fast, and it is there that he and the devil have an embattled exchange of and will and words for forty days. Luke shares with us three temptations presented to Jesus by the devil: gratification, power, and selfishness. I think we can all agree that these are core desires for any human, and for Jesus I’m sure they were overwhelmingly attractive to his humanity.

Who doesn’t want to be fed at the very onset of hunger? More. Now. Faster. Immediately.
Who, after working long and hard, doesn’t want success? Power. Fame. Glory. Image.
Who, living in this world, wouldn’t put oneself first? Me. Mine. Win at all costs. Forget them.

Jesus denied himself and these temptations presented by the devil, and chose to live out his vocation as peacemaker, love bearer, God-with-us Messiah. Knowing the full story of who Jesus is and what he did we shrug our shoulders and say, Of course he did – he’s Jesus. We readily acknowledge Jesus’ God-ness but all-too-often forget his human-ness. While he vanquished the devil in the wilderness, is it not possible that these temptations continued to follow him as he traveled throughout Galilee?

As “he began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone” (Luke 4:15), was Jesus not tempted by his immediate successes? On the Sabbath, as he read from the prophet Isaiah before the Pharisees and Scribes, proclaiming his Godly anointing (Luke 4:18-19), was Jesus not tempted by his fame and glory, prophesied centuries earlier? As he stood there in Nazareth (Luke 4:22-30) with the power to win the people over and make them follow him, was Jesus not tempted to win them over at all costs…to force them to follow…to vanquish all naysayers for personal success?

In these temptations of Jesus I find deep connection with my Lord because, truthfully, this is where I find me and my life most often. These temptations Jesus faced daily are temptations that I face daily: I want things now…I want fame and power…I want to put me first and to walk all over my friends and enemies alike to get what I want. I want to choose these temptations because they would feed my feeble ego, my need-for-now, my human self-worth. Fame? Instant gratification? Self-success? Sign me up!

It’s easy to understand these temptations because they’re what make the world around me work. Products are pushed on me because I need them now, because I can get them now; pretty much anything I could ever want is a mere two days away. The ability to be famous and popular is just one social media post away – if I keep dumping content something will eventually stick and the world will know me. The stories of the self-made success are all around me, and the three step programs to be a self-made success are just a credit card purchase away. I can readily have anything and everything that I could ever want if I so choose…I just have to say yes to the temptations around me.

But in these temptations of Jesus I also find connection with my Lord because I find a model of overcoming temptation. Throughout his ministry Jesus’ humanity faced these temptations on a daily basis, wrestling with himself – the God and the man – each vying for priority, importance, and significance. But God won – God always wins. Despite his immediate successes, each day Jesus chose God. Despite his unprecedented popularity, each day Jesus chose God. Despite his ability to choose human-self, each day Jesus chose God. Jesus chose to follow the One who chose him, to follow the One who called him by name, to follow the One who knows him as Beloved. God chose Jesus, and Jesus chose God right back.

And the beauty of it all – the beauty of God and God’s love for us, friends, is that God chose us. In the life of Jesus lived on earth among us, in the death of Jesus on the cross for and as us, in the resurrection of Jesus promising our own resurrection, God chose us every step of the way. In and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God chose us – would you choose God right back? In the face of temptation, would you say yes to God? Would you choose the treasures of heaven over the here-and-now treasures of earth? Would you choose criticism, disapproval, and disregard over fame, power, ‘shares and likes’? Would you choose to live a life of love for your neighbor and their well-being over your self and your desires? God has said yes to you – will you say yes to God?

As we begin our journey into Lent, I pray that each of us can choose God over temptation… choose love over hate…choose peace over war. May we cling to these words from 1 Peter 5:8-11 (The Message translation):

Keep a cool head. Stay alert. The Devil is poised to pounce, and would like nothing better than to catch you napping. Keep your guard up. You’re not the only ones plunged into these hard times. It’s the same with Christians all over the world. So keep a firm grip on the faith. The suffering won’t last forever. It won’t be long before this generous God who has great plans for us in Christ—eternal and glorious plans they are!—will have you put together and on your feet for good. He gets the last word; yes, he does!

God loves you and chooses you every day…dare you return the choice?

 much love. sheth.

Truth: No Going Back.

Eighth Sunday After Epiphany: Transfiguration Sunday

There’s a danger in seeking to return to ‘normal’ – to those days and things we were so accustomed to pre-COVID. We long for those times when we didn’t worry about masking and public healthcare, about vaccines and business-rights, about being together in work and worship. Now, all of these things weigh heavily on our minds in one way or another because we so enjoyed the way things were.

On this side of it, pre-COVID life feels so footloose and fancy-free, a time when we could do anything with anyone, never having a care in the world. We want to go back to that – to that normalcy, to that which we knew best, to that which comforted us and calmed us. We want to go back to the moments we knew best. We want to go back because it’s in those times and spaces when and where we felt most pleased, most satisfied, most contented.

But the danger in going back – the danger of not moving forward – is stagnation. When waters cease moving malaria and dengue persist, bacteria and parasites flourish. When economies see little or no growth, unemployment rises and sales fall, wages flounder and worker satisfaction dips. When we are no longer willing to ensure future generations succeed, when we fail to guide our children through life, when we ignore mentoring and volunteering opportunities we fall into stagnation – we feel disconnected and uninvolved with the world around us. The danger of stagnation, of going back, of not moving forward is sickness, insecurity, selfishness, separation and death. Returning to ‘normal’…going back…not moving forward is not an option for the living.

In the gospel of Luke we read about the Transfiguration of Jesus – an event spoken of in each of the synoptic gospels (Matt. 17:1-8; Mk. 9:2-8; Lk. 9:28-36). Jesus takes the closest apostles – Peter, James and John – and they head off into the mountains to pray. There on the hilltop Jesus experiences the transfiguration; Luke says, “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” As great as this is, it gets even better: “Suddenly, they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him (Jesus).” The apostles are in full fanboy mode now, because Moses and Elijah are the prophets, they’re the fathers of the faith, ancient men suddenly present in the apostle’s midst.

Augustin Kolawole Olayinka – The Transfiguration

It’s a moment that Peter desires to be frozen in time – it’s a moment he wishes to remain in forever – and he proposes to Jesus that it should be so: “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah” (emphasis mine). Peter wants to push the pause button on life to hang out with these great men of his faith – a completely understandable desire. He wants to hold on to this moment – so much so that he doesn’t even care if he sleeps in the open – as long as he doesn’t have to move forward, as long as he doesn’t have to return to his ‘normal’ life.

Remaining on the mountaintop with Jesus, Moses and Elijah, though, would mean stagnation for Peter, James and John. What good would it do them to be in the presence of these prophets but have no one to tell? The apostles could certainly gain oodles of wisdom and understanding, but if it’s not shared with others that knowledge stagnates and becomes worthless. What good is good news if it’s not told to others? Peter’s request is understandable – we get wanting to not move forward…we get wanting to go back – but going there is sure and certain death.

There are moments I long for, moments that I wish I could return to: the last time I visited my grandma in the nursing home and held her frail hand; to the moment I selfishly chose to walk away from a dear friendship; to the moment in seminary when I felt most accepted and loved for who I was. I want to return to these moments because they were precious to me, and I want to hold on that…because they were hurtful to me (and others) and I want to repair that…because they were life-giving, life-bearing, life-resurrecting and I need that right now. But those moments are long-gone, and going back to them to remain in them would leave me in the past, in what was, in the things that are long-since dead. I have to move forward, I have to press on because going back would be my own sure and certain death.

We have to move forward, we must move forward because what was can’t be what is, and what is can’t be what will be. The danger lies in staying put, in holding on, in striving to maintain this for all of time. My marriage will die if I try to maintain what is and not pursue what it will be. My self will be a lie if I go back to being the person I was in 2003. My relationship with God will become void of life if I try to keep it the way it is right now without any hope and vision for what it will be.

The Church will die if it tries to go back to ‘normal’ – to those pre-COVID days that we knew so well, that we worshiped in so well, that we were comfortable with, never thinking about accessibility, health care, and connection. Our local church will die if we hang on to what was, to what we were so fond of, to what was best for us in our time way back when. Blacks and Asians, Indigenous and Migrants will continue to face racism, oppression, hatred and death if we go back to what was…if we stay in what is. The unhoused and migrant populations will continue to go unnoticed and abused if we go back to what was…if we stay in what is. The danger in not moving forward is stagnation, and stagnation is sure and certain death.

The manna we are fed is meant for today…we can’t save it, we can’t go back to it. Yesterday’s provision is rotten and moldy and will certainly kill us. The encounters we have with God on these mountaintops are meant for today…we can’t stay here forever, we can’t go back to them. The God we serve is not the God of stagnation and death, but the God of the moving and living.

We are meant for the now and the not yet – we are meant to live, to move, to grow and flourish. We are called to life and hope, to free the oppressed, to lift up the suppressed, to give mercy to those whom we have power over, to love our neighbors – to love our enemies(!). We are called to correct injustice, to care for creation, for widows, for orphans. We are called to life – to life abundant. There is no turning back.

Have you decided?
There is no turning back.
Though none go with you, will you go forward?
With the world behind you, and the cross before you, will you go forward?
There is no turning back – no turning back!
Don’t let death win – have you decided to not turn back?
Life is there, ahead of us, in abundance. Have you decided?
What a world it will be when we declare that there is no turning back!

much love. sheth.

Truth: Beloved

“She stretched herself up on tiptoe, and peeped over the edge of the mushroom, and her eyes immediately met those of a large blue caterpillar, that was sitting on the top with its arms folded, quietly smoking a long hookah, and taking not the smallest notice of her or of anything else.

“The caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.

“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar.

“This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I-I hardly know, sir, just at present – at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”[1]

 

 

“Who are you?” A question posed by the hookah-smoking Caterpillar to Alice, a girl lost in a topsy-turvy world who struggles to find an answer to the question. Her response to the Caterpillar – that she knew who she was – demands explanation, but all she can say is, “I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir…because I’m not myself, you see.”[2]

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the world in the late spring of 2020 I was living into my Christian vocation and working to fulfill all that I believed I was called to be in this world. In the span of three months I had graduated from seminary, married my partner, moved to a new state and started my career as the pastor of a small, rural church. I had defined the essential characteristics of what was most important to me: degree-holding, small-town-living, left-of-center husband, preacher, writer, and pastor.

Over the past year-and-a-half I’ve struggled with maintaining most of these characteristics because of the loneliness of the pandemic, because I was the new kid on the block, because I couldn’t find support, because a thriving marriage is hard work. Mostly, though, I’ve struggled with preserving these characteristics because they’re not entirely preservable: they shift and change, ebb and flow. And now, with most of these characteristics in shambles (my marriage is good, though!), I’m am standing in Alice’s shoes, finding difficulty in explaining myself because I, too, am not myself anymore.

I’ve spent the past month moving our belongings and setting up our apartment. I’ve been cooking and cleaning, tending to my partner’s needs and wants. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and reflecting on my life over the course of the pandemic, seeking to shed some burdens and tend to some wounds. I’ve been mourning the loss of all these characteristics that I have leaned on, trusted, and felt comfortable being. All these things have been parts of who I was and what I did but, as much as I trusted them to be, they were never essential to my innermost being, to the createdness of who I am. Now I, like Alice, am standing in a topsy-turvy world faced with the ‘who are you’ question and my response is absolutely similar to hers: I hardly know who I am.

Truthfully, the Caterpillar question has loomed over my head for most of my life, one that I have returned to year after year. Notebooks have been filled with my own words as I have tried to spell out who I am. Books and psychology journals have been read and digested as I’ve sought the right words to define who I am. Therapists have spent countless hours guiding me on my quest to understand who I am. In the end, though, I hardly know much more than when I started because at the end of reading all those books and writing in all those journals and attending all those therapy sessions I always come up with the same definition of who I am: beloved.

 

Beloved. It’s one of those words we know, but we don’t really know. Etymologically it’s a compound-like-verb of be+loved. Love, we know, is “a feeling of strong or constant affection for a person”[3] – here it would be like the love between a parent and child, between siblings, between close friends. The prefix be- is and Old English element meaning “about, around, on all sides”[4]; beloved means ‘to be surrounded by love and constant affection’. Encircled by love. Loved on all sides. No matter where one goes, as one who is beloved you cannot get away from the love. No matter what one does, as one who is beloved you cannot out-do the love.

My Creator’s love is a beloved-love. No matter what I do, no matter what I don’t do…no matter where I am or how I live, my Creator’s love never abandons me, never leaves me, never stops surrounding me on all sides. I am beloved by God. That’s who I am. My belovedness is the core of my existence, the reason for my living and being and doing. Without it I am not – I am nothing. Beloved is who I am and honestly, beloved is all that I am.

Despite my knowing that I am God’s beloved I struggle with accepting it. I struggle with trusting it. I struggle with living it. The books and journals and therapy sessions have all been a constant attempt to discover something more than my belovedness because it seems too simple. All of who I am is narrowed down to being beloved by God? Absurd. Preposterous. Unimaginable. Which is why I have continuously been seeking more. There has to be more, right?

In the absurdity and unimaginable is where we try to do and be so much more. We try to fill in self-perceived holes because being God’s beloved can hardly be enough. We seek money and fame, glory and prestige because to the world around us that is enough…that is who we are. We seek careers and promotions, job titles and jobs because that is enough…that is who we are. We plant our being in partnership, parenthood, friendship, and career because to the world that is who we are. To the world, being the beloved of God and resting in that belovedness is simply not enough.

But it is enough. Being God’s beloved is enough; in fact, it’s all there is. At the very core of who I am is my belovedness, is my being surrounded by the love of my Creator God. The very essence of who I am is God’s beloved. The reason for my living is because I’m God’s beloved. I love my partner and my parents, my siblings and my friends because I am God’s beloved and I express my love out of my belovedness.

And every good and pleasant and pleasing thing I do in my life is an expression of my belovedness. I seek my neighbor’s well-being – their welfare – because they, too, are God’s beloved. I care for all of creation because it, too, is God’s beloved. I seek the end of death in all forms because life is God’s beloved. I pursue mercy and justice for the oppressed and imprisoned because they are God’s beloved. I work to shelter those experiencing homelessness, to feed those experiencing foodlessness, to give drink to all who are thirsty because they are all God’s beloved. Alice and the Caterpillar, me and you and them – we are all surrounded by the love and affection of God – we are God’s beloved.

I’m living in a topsy-turvy world right now where nearly every worldly definition of who I am has been stripped away (again, marriage a-ok). I don’t know what I’m to do next, where I’m to live next, how I’m supposed to live out my vocation. I’m scared and worried, depressed and medicated. I’m looking at myself, questioning: “Who are you?”

Right now I don’t know much more than this:

Emmanuel, you love me.
I am your beloved.

And that is enough.
That is enough.
That is more than enough.

much love. sheth.

—–

[1] Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (New York: Books of Wonder, 1992), 57-60.
[2] Ibid, 60.
[3] Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. “love,” accessed February 8, 2022, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/love
[4] Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. “beloved” accessed February 8, 2022, https://www.etymonline.com/word/beloved

Truth: Travel Companion

In the morning, Chelsea May and I are leaving Texas, heading north to new locations (undisclosed for a week!) and new, unforeseen adventures.  I came to Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey to attend seminary, and I’m leaving in the wake of Hurricane Hannah, seminary completed and ready to move into ministry, married to my best friend and heading to new locations and new experiences.  It’s more than I ever dreamed of and more than I ever imagined.

When I landed in Austin I wanted to finish seminary and do ministry in a small town; I had no hopes or dreams of dating – let alone marrying – someone.  But God is funny, and by the end of our first year of classes I knew Chelsea May was going to be a significant person in my life.  While we got along in class, we somehow gravitated toward one another outside of the classroom and we just…kinda stuck together.  Going for late night pizzas…seeking ice cream on summer nights…going to church together…grocery store runs…movie nights and late night discussions.  Honestly, it’s one of those gross, fairytale, romantic montages from a rom-com that shows up on the Hallmark channel late at night.

And I’m okay with that.  I’m okay with the mushiness and the romance and the overly-cute nonsense that we do for one another and with one another.  It’s great – it’s what I always wanted and what I need in a relationship.  But I’m also okay with hanging out in our sweats and doin’ nothin’ on a Friday night as the cats run around the room like banshees.  And I’m okay with the arguments and the ‘serious discussions’ and being grumpy because it’s a Thursday.  I’m okay with all of this and all the unknowns, all the mysteries, and all the for-sures because I love her, and she, me.

Charles Schulz says it best for me as she and I rest up before our trip tomorrow: “In life, it’s not where you go, it’s who you travel with.”  While I’m confident that the future is unknown and scary and a little worrisome, I’m also confident that when I travel with Chelsea May, I know I’ll be fine.  She’s capable.  She’s strong.  She’s confident.  She’s loving.  She’s ready.  She’s trusting.  She can carry my baggage when it’s too much.  She can help navigate my dangerous waters.  She can lead me when I can’t do it.  She can take care of me when I need it most.  She can do all the things I can when I simply cannot do them – and she will – because she loves me.  And she knows that I’ll do the exact same for her at any moment because I love her.

I’m ready to travel to unknown places and unknown spaces because Chelsea May will be with me every step of the way.  I’m ready to travel into these next moments of ministry and life because God is with us both.  I’m ready to go because we’ve been sent.  I’m ready!

much love. sheth.

Truth: Black Lives Matter.

I recently saw this image on Facebook, one of but many posted by people who cry out, “All human lives matter!” or “We all bleed the same!” or “All lives matter – Jesus died for us all!”  Yes, all lives matter to God.  Yes, the ground is level at the foot of the cross.  Yes, we all bleed the same.  But now is not the time to ‘like and share’ these theological platitudes.  This is not a theological discussion – this is a social discussion.

The problem with this image I saw on Facebook is that it blatantly ignores the voices that are crying out to be heard right now.  Look closely – this image doesn’t mention black lives.  It mentions Indian lives.  And White lives.  And Blue lives.  But Black lives?  Apparently they can be ignored.  Sharing this image perpetuates the idea that black lives don’t matter in a time when they are desperately calling out.  If you’ve shared this image (or something similar), your racism stands out more than you ever thought possible.  If you can’t share an image that only says black lives matter – if you can’t share an image that even includes that line – then you don’t believe that all lives matter.  Sharing an image like this says that you believe all lives matter except black lives.

Now, you might say something like: “Black lives are included in the ‘Minority lives matter’ line in the image!”  But that still doesn’t make things better.  You’re saying that you want to say black lives matter, but you don’t want to upset your friends or family or whoever else might see it.  And yet you want them to think that you’re a good, full-spectrum-loving person, so you settled on this image.  But it’s a feeble middle-ground to land on – you’re trying to save face with family and friends when an entire race of people is struggling to breathe.

Sharing this image – and others like it – is done with good intentions (and there are roads paved with good intentions), but these images ignore the reality of the situation.  Yes, all lives matter.  But right now, all lives are not being treated well.  All lives are not being treated equally.  While some of us are able to sit on mountains of power and privilege as we post simple images to make ourselves feel good, there are black lives that continue to be abused and murdered in the valleys of oppression.  A black man was murdered in front of us all and we watched, shrugged our shoulders, and hit ‘share’ on a damned meme.

Look, I’m guilty, too.  While I haven’t shared an ‘All lives matter’ image, neither have I shared a ‘black lives matter’ image.  I haven’t been vocal in making it known that I believe that black lives matter – I have been silent, and my silence makes me just as guilty as those who share these images.  I am complicit in not using my voice to make my feelings known because I, too, have feared retribution from family and friends.  But at this point, it no longer matters: I must stand with the oppressed and face the retribution from family and friends.

Black lives matter.
I say it because I am called to speak and stand with the oppressed. 

Black lives matter.
I say it because I am called to stand against injustice.

Black lives matter.
I say it because I am called to correct error.

Black lives matter.
I say it because I believe it.
May it be so.  Dear God, may it be so.

much love. sheth.

Truth: Hospitality.

I first met Kallie during our seminary’s orientation – with both southern accent and charm she handed me her calling card as she introduced herself, and I was excited because she was the kind of southerner I’d hoped to meet in Texas.  As our first semester moved along, I quickly came to understand that she was more than my simple pre-conceived notions.  She’s a people-person, she’s outside-the-box brilliant, she’s grossly generous and, most importantly, she embodies Christian hospitality.  That last one is what I admire so much about her: with open arms and heart she welcomes strangers into her life without complaint.  She seeks to entertain angels and she prepares tables with bountiful feasts of love.

I heard the song “Crowded Table” by The Highwomen the other day and I immediately thought of my friend.  The song’s chorus rings out: “I want a house with a crowded table / And a place by the fire for everyone / Let us take on the world while we’re young and able / And bring us back together when the day is done.”  For me, this is Kallie, and this is her hope for the Church.  She wants the table in God’s house to be crowded with people who love and care for one another, and she is doing her best to bring Heaven to earth in the here and now at her table.  She has friends and acquaintances and strangers over for dinner.  She brings people together who would never find reason to speak.  She gives herself to those around her.  Kallie gives me hope.

She gives me hope that there are ways for us to come together in spite of our differences.  She gives me hope that we can take on the wrongs of this world and make them right.  She gives me hope that a little hard work can produce great, life-giving benefits.  And Kallie gives me hope for the Church.  She – and others like her – are so desperately necessary.  In spite of the hatred and divisiveness in this world, she has shown me – and continues to show me – that it is possible to love the stranger, to invite others in, to be Christ in this world.  She reminds me that there are others just like her who are exceptionally giving, who extend goodwill, who unconditionally entertain guests, visitors, and strangers. 

The world needs more hospitality…the world needs more Kallies: people who work to make their tables crowded…people who make space by their fires…people who do the work needed to bring Heaven to earth.  Thank you, Kallie, for feeding the hungry, for giving drink to the thirsty, for welcoming the stranger.  I pray that we can all be a little more (or a lot more) like you, seeking out ways to serve Christ in the here and now.

much love. sheth.