Confusion and Joy

My message for Easter Sunday Celebration at First Friends Church in Emporia, KS.

John 20:1-21

Confusion and Joy

These were the emotions that accompanied the experiences of Jesus’s closest friends and followers on the day of his resurrection. And why not? Any one of us would feel the same. For years they had followed him, listened to his teaching, witnessed his miracles and even the glory. They believed he was the Messiah, the one who would rescue God’s people Israel from their cruel oppressors. He would be their hero, arrayed in armor for battle, leading the charge.

Only he wasn’t. And he didn’t.

Instead he surrendered without a fight. He wouldn’t put up a defense in his trial. He let them bind him, whip him, beat him, spit on him, mock him, pull out his beard, and then he carried his cross to the place where they would crucify him.

Maybe they were wrong. Maybe he wasn’t the Messiah. Maybe they’d all been conned by a smooth talker who knew just the right things to say. Maybe they were wrong and he was just a good teacher intent on reminding Israel of God’s love and mercy. Maybe…the maybes were endless. What do you do when your dreams come crashing down?

The disciples holed up in an upper room, one with a good solid lock on the door.

The women gathered their spices and went to finish the job of burying the man they had followed who treated them like no man ever had before. Like persons of worth. Like bearers of the divine image. Like God’s children, not objects, not slaves, but companions for the journey. The women rolled up their sleeves and got to work as soon as the Sabbath had ended and they set out to anoint the body before it had another day to swelter in the tomb.

When they arrived, they were met with a puzzle. The stone was rolled away. The door open and unguarded. The tomb empty. What had happened? Who had been here, where was the body, how do they now carry out their final tribute to their friend without a body? The questions multiplied by the minute. Not once did they dare to hope that they would see him alive again.

Mary took charge, running to find Peter and John. She told them what they had seen, and they ran to the tomb to see for themselves. John stopped at the door, but Peter being Peter ran right on in and stood in the space that had just held the body of their friend. Empty. Just the cloth binding that had wrapped his corpse lying on the shelf to show that the space had been occupied.

They returned, more questions than before. No answers. No idea of what to do next.

Mary stayed behind. Overwhelmed with grief and frustration, unable to perform this last service for her teacher, she wept. Through her tears she gazed again into the tomb and there—where minutes before there was darkness and empty space—sat two angels. I don’t know if the day could have gotten any stranger for her at this point, but they speak to her of her tears. Why is she weeping when Jesus is not dead? Who is she looking for?

She turns as she answers, as if to search for him once again, she just wants to know where his body is. And then she sees him. Thinking he is the gardener, she asks him where they have taken him. She volunteers to go and carry him back to where he belongs. He speaks her name and she knows. It’s Jesus.

Her confusion turns to joy in a moment, so great that she throws herself at his feet. Fresh tears burst forth. There is no logic in this moment, she doesn’t try to figure it all out. He is alive and that is all that matters to her. She is consumed by a joy as overpowering as her grief had been moments ago.

Jesus gave her a message and she carried it faithfully to tell the disciples that he was alive, risen from the dead.

Other Gospels tell us that they did not believe her. It was news too good to be true, the delusion of a woman lost in despair.

That night he stands among them and blesses them. “Peace” he says, imparting to them divine wholeness, healing, restoration, forgiveness for their faithlessness, all in one breath. And then he begins to speak to them of the mission he has for them. Just as the father had sent him, he now is sending them to carry his message of the kingdom, to bring hope and healing and light where darkness, brokenness, and resignation have reigned for so long.

If this were a fairytale, at this point we would say that they all lived happily ever after. But we know that is not true in this case. They did not immediately lose their questions, their doubt, their need. They did not immediately receive the peace he offered. They did not immediately understand their mission. Like us, they were human beings living real lives with real hardship. But on that day, resurrection day, their confusion was overcome by their joy.

Jesus is alive.

They walked with him, and listened to him again for a time before he ascended into heaven. And he promised them that they would not be left alone. That promise is ours as well. We have been given the Holy Spirit to guide us in our real lives with real hardship, real questions, real doubts.

Today we celebrate the day that their confusion turned to joy, and we can join our joy with theirs because in rising from the dead, he defeated the last fear, the last stronghold. Jesus has conquered death and hell and the grave, and no matter what we experience in our earthly lives we know we do not walk alone and the victory he won is ours as well.

Jesus lives and so do we, free to live in this bodily life, free to look forward to a life that does not end, free to know that our lives can have eternal significance as we follow him.

Christ has risen, Alleluia!

 

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Just Breathe

Life is full of demands. It seems like something or someone always wants our time, our energy, our focus. Work. Family. Kids. Health. Friends. Interests. Causes. My list of things to do, people to see, books to read, miles to run, events to attend is never-ending.

I can’t place all of the blame on culture, society, or even on my list. I am the master of my list, nothing is on it unless I put it there. Saying “no” may not be comfortable, but it is a necessary skill if I am to keep my sanity. So from time to time, I decline. I make space. I push back against the tide of demands.

And just breathe.

There are ads everywhere telling you all of the things you cannot live without, and needs surrounding on every side screaming that they cannot live without you. In the end, though, the one and only thing that is absolutely necessary every minute of the day is to fill your lungs with air and blow it back out again.

Just breathe.

Do you know that breathing not only takes vital oxygen to your cells, but it massages your internal organs and sends chemical signals that affect your adrenaline production? Short and fast breaths are part of your fight or flight emergency system. Slow, deep, full breaths can bring calmness and a sense of well-being even in the middle of a stress-filled moment.

Breathe.

Fill your lungs with air that presses to the bottom of your capacity, that stretches the space between your ribs both front and back, that causes your spine to align and your posture to straighten. You can’t take a deep, full breath when you are hunched over. Breathing supports life and health in so many ways.

So breathe in with your body in a neutral position, feet shoulder width apart whether you are sitting or standing. Let the breath carry your heart high, let your belly melt down and out. Press your breath into your rib space and find more room under your shoulder blades.

And exhale. Breathe in deep, and blow out the air like a balloon. Pull your belly button in toward your spine and use your diaphragm to squeeze all the air out of your lungs, then relax and let them fill again.

Close your eyes and let yourself just breathe for a minute or two and you will find your mind clearer, your body more invigorated, your posture straighter, your mood improved.

Just Breathe.

ReFreshing

A beautiful dress

This was at the top of my soon to be 9-year-old daughter’s birthday list.
“A buetaful dress” to be more precise.

My rough and tumble tom boy.
My sweet and sometimes spastic child who can’t always find herself in space.
My awkward, lovely, frustrating, cherished girl.

She wants a beautiful dress.

It makes me misty-eyed because it reminds me that at the center of herself she just wants to be loved. She longs to be appreciated and celebrated.

It is hard to remember this when she won’t brush her long red curly hair.
It is hard to remember when I have to ask her six times to stay out of her brother’s personal space.
It is hard to remember when everything about her is and always has been loud and sharp and on the move.

But she is almost always in a skirt and tights, and she loves to make bracelets.
Why wouldn’t she want a beautiful dress?

Why is it so hard for me, as her mother, to see this tender heart longing to be seen?

Am I too busy?
Have I fallen into the rut of seeing only her challenges?
Whatever the cause, I am awake and aware of her today.

Because she wants a beautiful dress.

God, open my eyes to see the heart in each of my children that cries out to be loved, cherished, seen and understood. Give me awareness of my own tendency to walk through life so busy that I miss the quieter call to love these precious gifts.
Amen

Awareness, beauty, gratitude–
Ingredients for a ReFreshing Life

**I wrote this post over a year ago and set it aside. It jumped out at me today, tugging again at my heart.

Two miles

It isn’t a secret that I am a Jesus nerd. I geek out over Bible study in parallel translations with the original Greek on the side. I love the historical context and theological minutia that would put some people to sleep. But I have this one, little problem.

I don’t like it when Jesus says something that doesn’t fit with my view of the world. It makes me uncomfortable, and I am left wondering if there are any loopholes I can wiggle through.

This isn’t really such a little problem, though, because Jesus is always saying things that rub me the wrong way.

Like “If someone strikes you on one cheek, offer them the other.” I wouldn’t mind if Jesus said we shouldn’t hit back, I understand that, but invite them to hit me again?

Also, “If someone sues you for your shirt, give them your coat as well.” And then I’ll be naked, Jesus, what about that?

Then there’s “If someone forces you to go with them one mile, go with them two.” So I should just give way to coercion? Won’t that just encourage them?

Maybe he wasn’t serious, though. Right?

Or maybe he was.

Jesus was not just a religious teacher who said one thing and did another; he practiced what he preached. Jesus was struck, spit upon, had his beard pulled out, carried the instrument of his death, saw his clothing go to the winner as soldiers gambled at the foot of his cross.

So I guess he really meant what he said.

In a time and place where these scenarios were not speculative, but very real, Jesus was teaching his followers that it is far better to be persecuted than to be the persecutor. The Apostle Paul echoed from his exposure to Jesus’s teachings, “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?” than to participate in systems of worldly oppression. It is far better to be cheated than the one who cheats. It is far better to stand naked on the street after a forced two mile hike, with both cheeks stinging than to be the one exercising position and power for selfish gain.

These things are hard for me. It is not easy to think of giving up my rights, I am after all an American. I am accustomed to fighting for my rights, to standing up for my rights. Laying them down is counter to my secular culture, and in many ways my church culture. You won’t find many churches or even individual believers lately who have rejoiced when they feel their rights threatened. This isn’t a scathing attack, the response is very human. The problem is that it is not very Christ-like.

What is it that will change our minds, our hearts, our instincts so that we line up with Jesus’s teachings? Practice. I wish there was a magic wand, but it seems the only way we accustom ourselves to the ways of the kingdom is to practice what we preach.

When your rights are threatened, go beyond refusing to threaten in return, go the extra mile.

Consistency in the face of difficulty.
ReFreshing

 

No unclean thing

This year I decided to read through the Bible in a year. I regularly read and study scripture to preach and teach, but It had been a while since I read straight through. Sometimes I read the portions, and other times it is more convenient to listen to the audio version. This practice really helps me to keep the words and stories of scripture in their broader context.

A few months in to the daily readings I had reached the stories of the Exodus and entering the Promised Land. I typically like to read these stories. They tend to be full of adventure although at times the numbers and counting of people and animals gets tedious. I found myself sighing and wondering why it was important to know that there were 54,400 descendants of Issachar among the other numbers of other tribes in the Desert of Sinai? I saw that in part it is important because each of those lives is celebrated as a gift and blessing from God.

Later, as I read through the book of Numbers, I came across a passage with more accounting and it stopped me in my tracks.

The half share of those who fought in the battle was:
337,500 sheep, of which the tribute for the Lord was 675;
36,000 cattle, of which the tribute for the Lord was 72;
30,500 donkeys, of which the tribute for the Lord was 61;
16,000 people, of whom the tribute for the Lord was 32.
Numbers 31:36-40

Did you read that?!?!?!

I dropped my Bible and literally said out loud “What the heck, God?”

How could God accept human captives as tribute? How is it that the descendants of the 12 tribes were celebrated and these lives were treated like cattle? I was completely gob-smacked! Understanding the cultural setting, I know that these were warring people who battled here, there, and everywhere on their way to and through Canaan. I get that it was a violent age with different norms and expectations. But I also believe that God is the same then, and now. So, seriously, “What the heck, God?”

Sitting in my discomfort and pondering this God whom I serve with my life and career, I came to a realization. Words so clear and distinct, God could have said them out loud, in a calm, flat tone. “There is no untainted offering.”

I really don’t know about you, but I was offended. Of course there are untainted offerings! My offerings are untainted! Mine come from a pure heart, clean hands, and a desire to glorify God alone. How dare God say that my offerings are not pure.

Then I stopped and pondered for a moment, are they? Are my offerings pure? My money comes from the church, I give it back to the Lord in multiple ways by supporting other ministries, missionaries, and feeding the poor. That money comes from the hands of people who work hard in our community, in businesses and service professions. When I though deeper, I wondered: do I really know all the threads that support those earnings? Could there be anyone in those businesses cutting corners, or defaulting on loans, or choosing inferior products, possibly made by slave labor? I have no control over who gives to the church or where their gifts come from.

Well, maybe my financial gifts can’t be entirely accounted for, but surely my service can. I love on people, it is kind of my specialty. Listening, gently nudging at times, but mostly delighting in the people God has made fuels my ministry. I do it all for God, right? But I love it, too. Maybe sometimes I relish people’s dependence on me. It might even feed a little bit of pride.

Oh, and speaking of pride, sometimes I obsess over my sermons and musical offerings, or get worried when people might not be responding to me in the way I want…Ok, so maybe my offerings aren’t 100% pure. But are they really comparable to human trafficking?

When I buy cheap clothes made by underpaid or forced labor.
When I drink coffee picked by today’s equivalent of serfs.
When I eat chocolate most likely from cacao harvested by children.

Can I really claim to be exempt or superior?

And here we are, back to why would God accept our dirty, scratched, and broken offerings. Grace.

God knows we are dust. God knows we don’t have anything else to offer. God knows our inability to produce holiness, righteousness, and purity on our own.

The only untainted offering is God stepping out of eternity to dwell among human beings as a human being. The only untainted offering is God smiling at the child, the leper, the outcast, the prostitute through the eyes of Jesus. The only untainted offering is God still loving as humanity sentenced him to the death penalty, carried out by the hands of the state. The only untainted offering is God returning to those who had fled from his side for fear of their own safety. Building the church with imperfect people. Sustaining it through millennia using lives and resources also bearing the marks of sin.

Accepting my gifts. Accepting yours. Seeing us for all we are, and loving us. God’s grace is the only untainted offering, and it is something He offers to Us.

These thoughts are humbling, but hopeful. For me, knowing that God will continue to be the giver of every good and perfect gift sets me free from the chains of perfection. The only gift I have to offer is myself, and God himself can take this imperfect gift and make it whole. I am a work in progress, but even now at times God’s grace moves through me to pour into the lives of others.

Next time I am tempted to judge the offering of another, I will remember: the remarkable event I am witnessing is not one of a gift being offered to God, but that God in his grace and mercy accepts that gift–scuffs, stains and all.

Acceptance & Grace
What could be more ReFreshing?

Empty Hands

We don’t know what to do with prayer sometimes. We’ve heard so many different perspectives from fatalistic ones that claim prayer is only an act of obedience that doesn’t change anything to entitled views that we can demand what we want and it will happen. I’m not that old, but I’m old enough to have experienced both unexpected abundant blessings as well as heartbreak following prayer that exhausted every cell in my body.

Right now this topic of prayer is so relevant to my life and the lives of people I love dearly. What do you say to the mother who has lost a child in a tragic accident? What do you say to the family in an ongoing battle with cancer? Or the friend who is staring death in the face? And how do you pray when you know that God heals, but not always.

Recently, I spoke with a friend with her own concerns who gave me her take on prayer. She said she prays to the God of miracles, recognizing that God is at work in the details, asking for faith both to trust and to act. I needed that reminder, and the conversation that allowed me to clarify my own thoughts on how to pray in the face of the impossible.

When Jesus prayed facing the impossible–a tortuous death, even with the promise of resurrection is incomprehensible–he first poured out his heart. He asked that if there was any other path, any other way, anything else would be preferable. God if there is any way for healing to come, if there is a way for you to supernaturally heal, if there is a way for this person to receive healing medicine, if there is any other way, let’s do that. Let’s walk the path of healing and restoration, please, that is my heart’s desire.

Then, Jesus says something else, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

When some read these words and pray them, it feels like a cop-out. It feels like giving up or not investing in the outcome, and it can be. Simply praying “thy will be done” can be a way for us to pass the buck, but it can be a supreme act of faith as well. We can say those words with a heart that trusts God’s perspective is greater than ours. We can trust that God’s healing sometimes comes in a release from suffering. We can trust that when our circumstances are full of pain, God is still good. “Thy will be done” can be “God I trust that you are good. I trust you to work good in this situation. I trust you to bring life where there seems only death.”

But I’m not Jesus.

Sometimes I have to follow that with “And help my unbelief.” My faith has room to grow. My trust has room to expand into areas that are unsteady. My belief is not 100% of what it could be. I won’t lie to you and pretend to have it all together. This is a struggle.

Paul didn’t have it all together, either, even as he penned much of the New Testament. He said it himself, “Not that I have already obtained all of this or have already been made perfect…” (Philippians 3:12) But his determination was to press forward into the circumstances that would bring growth.

This is where I stand: trusting, while asking for more faith; loving, when that love brings risk; praying my heart’s desire even when the outcomes are not guaranteed.

For me this honesty brings peace and rest in my soul.
And that’s ReFreshing.

 

Good in the world

I believe that God is at work in the world.

As a Christian, this should not be a controversial statement, but many would disagree, at least in practice. If we believe the world is a scary place, full of danger, darkness, hatred, and pain; if we then live our lives in fear, isolation, protectionism, and suspicion; if we define other people as our enemy and trash creation–if any of these are true–then we are denying the reality of God at work in our world.

I believe God created the heavens and the earth. I have no idea how that happened, what it meant for God to speak and suddenly photons are flying through space at the speed of themselves. I do not know how God formed the earth, lit the stars, set the universe in motion, or sparked life into existence. I stand in awe of the beauty and complexity of creation and am constantly amazed at the scientific discoveries that show this world in ever smaller, ever greater, degrees of complexity.

I believe there is beauty in the world. I see the sky and the clouds, the deep endless variety of blue that as a Kansas girl provides the boundaries of my visible world. I drive the Flint Hills and observe the green, brown, yellow foliage that feeds animals wild and domestic. I see the frolicking calves, the bounding deer, the soaring eagle and flitting swallows playing in spaces that fit them like a tailored suit.

I meet people whose individual personalities delight me, from the cynic, to the organizer, to the ever-optimistic, to the deeply compassionate, the humorist, the critic. Each one with perspectives to share, experiences to recount, and a light to shine.

I do not see the world through rose-colored lenses, though. I know there is pain. I know there is violence. I know both are closer than I want to admit. Each one of those people I meet have scars, I have them myself.

But I believe we have a choice.

We can choose to see the good, beautiful, gracious gift of the world and all who are in it or we can cower in fear that pain will come knocking on our door. We can set our eyes on God at work in the world and receive comfort knowing that we are not alone in seeking good and just and beautiful endings. We can choose to join God in pursuing dreams of a world that is healed, and lives that are healed, and communities that are healed.

We could also choose to shut ourselves away. We could focus on the darkness. We could build our walls higher, our moats deeper, our cannons larger, our swords sharper.

When the darkness is the biggest presence in our view, it is impossible to walk in love. Love requires an open heart, and fear shuts it down. Love requires the willingness to sacrifice, but fear makes us hoarders. Love requires that we listen and learn from one another, but fear galvanizes our opinions until we are incapable of hearing and considering the perspectives of others.

I believe God is at work in the world and is looking for people to join in. God’s work is love in action. Will we choose to see the light of love and rejoice, or will we fixate on the darkness?

A Refreshing choice.