Experiencing resurrection hope in times of struggle

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Believing in the resurrection seems easier on a beautiful Spring morning, when children and flowers are newly clothed in bright colors and fresh pastels. Less so when we are facing struggles and an uncertain future. The Christian community, with the help and encouragement of our consumer culture, wants to focus on Easter, and forget about the week of struggle that preceded it. In the Jewish story of the Exodus from Egypt, it is easy to focus on the moment of rescue, and then the final entry into the land of promise flowing with sweet blessings – and ignore the suffering and struggle that accompanied the departure and the journey from where they were to where they ultimately would rest.

Life is not all fresh flowers, laughing children, and abundant prosperity. I read an interesting observation recently – that dependency is our natural state. We begin and end life that way – unable to fully care for ourselves. We are all in some way “dis-abled”. The notion of being independent, autonomous, all self-sufficient persons is a myth and aberration, fleeting and ephemeral. This is not to suggest that life is bleak and hopeless. That too is a myth – the idea that dependency equals deficiency; that we are somehow less if we need others. In the life and ministry of Jesus we see one who makes himself vulnerable. Paul says is Philippians 2:5-11 that Jesus “emptied himself.” The Greek word for this is kenosis. In Christ God chose to experience the fullness of human limitation, and thereby blessed it as holy. Whether or not God NEEDED human help, God chose to enlist and even rely upon the help, support and agency of humans, who were and are limited. We are at one time marvelously able some ways, and dis-able in others. God entered fully into this dis-abled state. God knows the road we walk, because in Jesus he has walked it with us.

There is some comfort in knowing we are not alone in our struggle. Yet this does not end or even ease our struggle. The fact that you are also sick with the flu does not lessen my symptoms. In fact, if we share life together, things become more difficult if we are both down at the same time. Ideally when one is weak, another is strong, so that we can adequately share one another’s burdens and joys.

The book Tuesday’s With Morrie by Mitch Album offers a wonderfully poignant illustration of this idea. In this story Morrie, a retired professor living (dying from?) with ALS tells Mitch, his former student turned reluctant biographer, about his own transition back to dependency. Morrie reached a point in his disease process where he could no longer perform the tasks of personal hygiene and self-care – in other words he could no longer wipe his own bottom, clearly not a condition from which he would recover. Rather than fight the humiliation and shame that often accompany this situation, Morrie chose to interpret his experience as one in which he was receiving tender, loving and compassionate care as he had in the first years of life. Think about this. Many people long for intimacy and are starved for human touch. Here Morrie is forced to receive both under less than ideal circumstances. By grace his is able to shift his attitude and thinking to humility rather than humiliation. What needs to happen in us to experience that same freedom and release from pretension?

In Morrie we see both emotional and physical struggle. He makes a mental shift that helps him receive care with a new attitude and emotional experience. But does this lessen his physical distress? Perhaps not. Yet many scientists and psychologists have demonstrated a connection between the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical experiences of being human. A positive attitude actually does ease our experience of pain, and a discouraged countenance will reduce our tolerance to hardship.

As someone who proclaims hope in the resurrection, I want to believe that suffering does not have the last word in our lives. We want to think and believe that things will get better. But sometimes they don’t. So what do we do with our hope in the resurrection and its power in our lives when things go from bad to worse? The cancer patient and his family pray and hope for treatment to work and to hear the words “remission” or “cure”. The cardiac patient and her family likewise hope for a full recovery from surgery and return to a vibrant and active lifestyle. This is our hope and prayer. Yet we know that none of us gets out alive. We will all die someday, from something. Our hope is not to avoid dying so much as to live a long and full life, and to avoid prolonged suffering. We want 70 or 80 years or more, and then we want to go quietly in our sleep, not being a burden to others. According to the Centers for Disease Control three fourths of the US population will die following a prolonged illness or injury. The vast majority of us will not “go gently into that good night“.

When we have this conversation in a hospital or long-term care setting, we are not saying anything new. One might even ask at this moment, “Where is the word of hope?” Yes, that is precisely the point. At Easter of all times we want to hear, believe and proclaim a word of hope. Let me suggest several things that can help us experience and share resurrection HOPE even in times of struggle:

  1. Honesty: Be honest about what we are experiencing. We cannot find true hope until we honestly face our real struggles, fears and even despair. This is not easy, but it is essential.
  2. Openness: Share our awareness. You can do this by writing in a journal or letter. You can talk with a trusted friend, confessor, or professional. We need to BOTH feel/think it and externalize it somehow.

When we do these two things, we begin to get a handle on our struggle, and gain some power over our fear and despair. This is why many spiritual traditions call for confession – naming the struggle is a form of personal agency and gives us mental, emotional, spiritual and even physical power in it. In AA this is revealed in the 4th & 5th steps. We may discover that things are not as bleak as we first believed, and that we are not alone.

  1. Projection: Identify and name positive outcomes – project them into the future. Remember how Morrie reframed his experience from shame to blessing. Consider how a funeral may become a time of when people give and receive forgiveness, mercy and grace to heal old wounds. The Apostle Paul presumes to use pregnancy and the birthing process as a metaphor for struggle followed by blessing. The struggle is real, but so is the potential for positive and life-giving future. What inspiration can be found in those who face illness and death with courage, integrity and even joy?
  2. Expectation: Anticipate the good that can and will come. As we read in Hebrews 12:2 “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” This theme recurs in scripture, particularly regarding the experience of Jesus and his role as our example.

It may help us to also remember that no one believed in the resurrection until they personally experienced the risen Jesus. The Apostles and disciples had been repeatedly told, along with the rulers of the people and the crowds. It is hard to experience resurrection hope during our times of struggle, hard even to hope and believe. One great blessing of walking this road is that we are then in a position to offer real hope to others because of what we have seen and known. Everyone’s experience is unique, and yet we can draw strength and hope from each other. We proclaim the Easter resurrection of Jesus each year both to remind ourselves, and to tell the world, that we might all live in hope. (Acts 2:22-28; Psalm 16) There is always room for HOPE.

To explore these ideas further, please contact me: cell: 214-288-1663; email: Ken@SynchronousLife.com

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May you live a Synchronous Life of integrity, vitality and harmony.

Pentecost – the gift of the Spirit and its meanings

The resurrection Spirit dwells within us. This is the power from on high that Jesus had promised would come from the Father (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8). Jesus had previously bestowed power to the 12 (Luke 9) and later the 70 (Luke 10), the same power that he had demonstrated in Nazareth (Luke 4).

The Spirit in Luke: As he writes Acts Luke says “the Holy Spirit came UPON them…” (Acts 1:8; 10:44; 11:15; 19:6). Indeed, scripture talks about being “baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8; Acts 1:5; Acts 11:16) and baptism is an external image. A parallel metaphor used by Paul is to “put on Christ” (Romans 13:14) and in Galatians he even links the two ideas – baptism and being clothed in Christ (Gal 3:27). The phrase “in Christ” appears over 90 times in the New Testament, primarily in Paul’s letters. So the Holy Spirit we can envision washing over us, covering us and saturating us as the waters of baptism – an all-consuming experience whether one is immersed or has the waters poured over. We can thus consider that the Spirit is BOTH on us and in us. These are not different realities but different viewpoints of the same reality. The phrase “filled with the Holy Spirit” is less about the ongoing presence of God’s Spirit within us than descriptive of a momentary experience of inspiration and empowerment to speak and act according to God’s direction. This, again, is a phrase unique to Luke in his gospel and acts (John Luke 1:15; Elizabeth Luke 1:41;Zechariah Luke 1:67; the disciples Acts 2:4; Peter Acts 4:8 NRS; Stephen Acts 7:55 NRS; Paul Acts 13:9 NRS).

The Spirit in Paul and beyond: Paul further says this to the church in Ephesus: 16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:17-19). And the New Testament also includes the notion of being “in the spirit” which again seems to be a reference to being overwhelmed by a sense of God’s immediate presence while in prayer, worship, or other spiritual discipline or experience (Paul Acts 19:21; believers pray Ephesians 6:18 & worship Philippians 3:3; John Revelation 1:10) Paul states clearly the connection when he says, “you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” (Romans 8:9). Our faith tells us that this God dwelt fully in Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:1-14; Colossians 1:19). And further that this God dwells in us through the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 2).

Notice the fluidity of these images – Christ dwelling in us, us dwelling in Christ. God’s fullness in us, us in God. The Spirit in us and on us, while we are in the Spirit. All of this, I conclude, demonstrates God’s refusal for us to codify or neatly systematize the divine and holy. Rather, we are invited into the complexity of this dynamic experience that is a convergence of multiple seemingly incongruous realities. It is, as has been said elsewhere, another example of the “already-not yet” of the Kingdom of God. Any box in which we attempt to contain God simply fails. And this failure is a gift of immeasurable grace – for who would want to worship a God containable by humanity? Rather, God is the all-consuming above, below, beside, before, behind, within, without, past, present, future, beginning and end of human experience. As temporal and flesh-bound creatures, we have a limited and finite experience of the limitless and infinite God.

The Spirit (Ruach) of God moved over the surface of the waters when God began to create. It was also the breath of life (ruach chayyim) which God breathed into Adam (Genesis 2:7) and into all the other living creatures (7:15). There is again a fluidity in our theological understanding between the Spirit/Breath of God and that life-giving spirit/breath from God given to humanity and all other living creatures. In Job, Elihu speaks of the breath and the spirit, and uses the two words interchangeably between that of God and that of man, and indicates that they are the source of wisdom, and that should God choose to withdraw them, we would cease to exist: 32:8 But truly it is the spirit in a mortal, the breath of the Almighty, that makes for understanding….34: 14 If he should take back his spirit to himself, and gather to himself his breath, 15 all flesh would perish together, and all mortals return to dust.

The Spirit in All Creatures – So, we can comfortably say that all living creatures share the gift of a spirit/breath from God. This truth humbles us from triumphalism of misreading Psalm 8, or from misinterpreting God’s covenant as one of domination over, rather than a caretaking and stewarding dominion over our non-human fellow living creatures who share the God-given spirit/breath (ruach chayyim).

So, with that background, what is it that happens at Pentecost?

What does this giving of the Spirit mean that is distinct from all these other instances? Let me suggest at least a partial answer. The giving of the Spirit to the Church at Pentecost seems to have several simultaneous meanings.

A Continuation of the Ministry of Jesus – The Holy Spirit continues that empowering work for ministry demonstrated in the Gospels, particularly Luke 9 & 10, wherein Jesus commissions the 12 Apostles and then the 70 Disciples for evangelistic work that included healing and exorcism – i.e. a continuation of his work proclaimed in Luk 4 (quoting Isaiah 60) empowered by the Spirit of the Lord (i.e. the Holy Spirit) – 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Good news to those who lack sufficient resources to sustain life
Freedom to those who are bound
New vision to the blind
Freedom to the oppressed
The Jubilee Year – a reordering of the economic, social & political world

A New Relationality – An expression of God’s connection to humanity through a peculiar people – a work that began with Abraham and Sarah. This connection was for the purpose of blessing humanity – not for the primary purpose of blessing the chosen people. In order for the work of Jesus to continue, his presence needs to continue, but not through the physicality of his Nazarene body but through His Body, the Church. Therefore the Spirit that descended on Jesus at his baptism is the same Spirit that descended on the Church at Pentecost, creating and confirming the unique role of the church as the continuation of the incarnation – enabling both the divine presence WITH the church and the divine presence THROUGH the church IN the world.

A Renewing Force – Because this is the life-giving resurrection Spirit, the Spirit which raised Christ from the dead will also give NEW life to our bodies – i.e. not victory over the entropy common to natural things, but over the spiritual self-destructive narcissism unique to humans. So though “the outward self is perishing, the inward self is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16).

A Down payment on Eternity – The Spirit is a “first installment, a down-payment” from God to us on the promise of everlasting life and the redemption of our whole self – body, mind, spirit & soul, and with us all of creation (2 Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 1:14; Romans 8:19). As we are being made new (sanctified, re-born, re-created) in this life, a process which will see its fulfillment in the life to come, so too will all of this creation experience the same renewal – as John described in the received Revelation (21:1). The presence and work of the Holy Spirit is our assurance that God is not through with us and that the final consummation of all things means restoration and renewal with God dwelling here among us in fullness and glory.

Pentecost expresses God’s desire to be with us, to bless us and work with us to bless others.

We Are Beloved: It enables us to hear with Jesus the words of God at our baptism “You are my beloved child, with whom I am very pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)

We Are Called: It enables us to say with Jesus the words from Isaiah 60: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me a proclaimer of Good news.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Kingdom Power: Pentecost is the initiating of the church, a continuation of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, for which we pray, and thus for which we work. It is our call to action in the world, among each other and among our neighbors – it is both our empowerment and our ordination to Christian Ministry.

Life is like a film career…A Tribute to Theresa Neifert

(Note: We lost a friend this last week. The following was written as I was reflecting on my conversations with her and her journey. It is offered here in hopes that it may be of help to her family and friends, and to others who are on a similar journey.)

One way of thinking about a life is like a series of films by one actress. Someone whose career has spanned decades will be known by distinctly different generations as an entirely different person. One of Theresa’s favorite movies, as you’ve heard, is Mamma Mia. She loved the song “I Have A Dream” from that film, and we can almost hear Theresa’s voice singing hope for herself and for us in its words. For now, though, think about this whole span of a lifetime, a career of different film productions with different casts in different locations. There’s the early years – a child star in all her innocence and beauty, surrounded by a big, loving, Italian family on two continents. Initially she was little more than a prop, a foil to the stories of others, but in time her own story started to take shape. We’ve heard references to some of those scenes.

Then, as a child star begins to age, she doesn’t have that ‘cute’ cache anymore and has to find a way to transition to more mature roles. Sometimes that transition is smooth, other times not. Occasionally an actor will take a role in a film that she produces herself, one that is a terrible flop at the box office and costs more to make than it brings in, but which yields some wonderful non-monetary benefits, like wonderful lifelong relationships that are formed on set. Often actors will even string together a series of these films – attempts to recreate their career and their identity. Sometimes it takes decades – Robert Downy Jr. is a good example of that, I think. He certainly seems to have found his stride with the Ironman and Sherlock Holmes characters, though he struggled with personal problems for many years that cost him and others a great deal of sorrow and pain. Kids today probably don’t know anything of that history, and don’t care – they love him for who they know him to be today, and couldn’t imagine him as the frail and troubled character in Less than Zero.

Meryl Streep‘s career spans nearly 40 years and a diversity that swings from the heavy darkness of Nazi Germany and its aftermath to the touching effervescent light of Greece as Donna in Mamma Mia. Along the way she played Julia Child, Margaret Thatcher, and Miranda Priestly. If one had seen only one of these films, they would have gotten a very narrow and particular perspective on who she was.

That’s a long setup to get to give us this notion of how to view Theresa’s life. I marvel at the diversity of worlds that this one woman seems to bring together. Over the span of her life she has had some wonderful adventures and some heartbreaking struggles. Along the way she’s picked up deeply rewarding relationships, including her parents, sisters and brother, four children, her husband Jeff, and so many of you. Some of you played major roles in the adventure films, and others in the darker stories, but all of us were rewarded by being cast alongside her.

One of the conversations that Theresa and I had recently was about some of those films in the middle period – there were some very difficult years. It’s a hard thing to reconcile, because those years also gave her beautiful and amazing children who she wouldn’t trade for anything. Part of the work she had to do in these last few weeks was come to terms with all of that, to receive the gifts of those years and forgive herself for the mistakes made and sorrow caused.

Another conversation we had revolved around this final film role. Everyone cast in a story about cancer hopes and anticipates initially that it will maybe be a dark comedy with a happy surprise ending. But Theresa’s role follows Susan Sarandon in Stepmom, or Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias – there are certainly some laughs along the way, but this is no comedy. But even in those films, there is something for us to learn, we are drawn to them because they are so raw, so real. They help prepare us for times like this – sort of like method acting in reverse – experiencing the theatrical roles vicariously helps us to think about how to live this reality.

We may wish for a final role that is bright and cheerful and uplifting, one that will have folks leaving the theatre laughing, smiling, talking. Some actors talk about wanting their later roles to not tax them so much – it should be more fun than work. That certainly hasn’t been Theresa’s experience these last two years. It’s been a very difficult production, one that cost her everything. But you know what, she gave it everything too. She held nothing back, as far as I can tell, from her family and friends, or ultimately from herself and her God. Paul talks about being poured out, and I think of Theresa when I hear those words. “Leave it all on the set,” that’s what they say. We can tell when an actor doesn’t really seem to be present in the role – they’re not believable. We had none of that from Theresa. She would sweep the awards season, from Cannes, to the Golden Globes, and then the Oscar. Along the way she’d pick up a SAG and even a Moon Man from MTV for her courageous and edgy presence in her final role.

The SAG statue is interesting; the face has no mouth, and the figure holds the comedy and tragedy masks. How often in this final role was there an experience of voicelessness – with the Drs, with family, with God? At times variously a lack of permission to speak, a lack of courage to speak, or a lack of words to speak. It is nice in moments to be able to hold up the mask as if to say, “I really can’t talk right now, so please let this tell you what I’m thinking and feeling. Thank you for caring.” Our word “personality” comes from the Greek (prosopa) or Latin (persona) for those theatrical masks. We talk about ‘putting on a brave face’ or ‘putting on a happy face.’ I know Theresa got tired of being identified as the sick person – as though that defined her person and her reality – and thus defined all her relationships and the people around her. “Let’s talk about anything but me,” she’d say, “Tell me about what’s going on with you.” That was natural for Theresa, as she loved to hear about others and was gracious with her listening ear, but I suspect she had to be far more intentional during her illness to not have the focus be on her all the time. And yet, that can be taken too far also, can’t it. It’s important to be fully present in the role, and to take our monologues and those moments when we should be the center of attention and not let others “steal our scene.” As Iris (Kate Winslet) says in the movie The Holiday, “You’re supposed to be the leading lady in your own life, for God’s sake!” And Theresa certainly was.

John 20 vs1-18 – Sermon Notes for Sunday 04152012

Many of the formative stories of Israel’s faith journey begin with God calling someone’s name: Adam; Noah; Abraham; Moses; Samuel; Jeremiah. And in the Christian story, we read of Joseph (Mt 1:20); Zechariah (Lk 1:13); Mary (Lk 1:26-38); Peter, Andrew, James and John (Mt 4:18-22); Matthew (Mt 9:9-13); the 12 Apostles (Mt 10:1-4); Martha (Lk 10:38-42); Zacchaeus (Lk 19:1-10); Lazarus (Jn 11:1-57); Peter (Jn 21:15-19); Paul (Acts 9); Ananias (Acts 9).

There is something powerful about being called by name. This may be contrasted by other stories where there is no mention of being called by name – most of the prophets stories are told in this way. The prophet Ezekiel reports that the LORD simply called him “O mortal.” Perhaps the lack of direct naming is a way of emphasizing humility and the universality of their calling. However that may be, our story for today is very clear that the Lord called Mary by name, and that in this calling she was able to recognize him.

Several things to notice about this story:

  1. Mary comes to serve the Lord with very limited theological understanding. She is being as faithful as she knows how to be in the circumstance – and Jesus honors that.
  2. Mary invited others on the journey with her – and they also had limited understanding.
  3. Mary stayed longer than the others to linger over this painful mystery. She does not run or hide from the pain – and it was because of this that she was able to encounter Jesus.
  4. Mary was in prayerful conversation with God’s messengers (angels) sharing her grief, confusion and fear.
  5. Mary saw Jesus moving in her life but did not recognize him – in fact misidentifying him as someone who was possibly undermining her relationship with God. She supposed him to be a gardener who had possibly moved the body of her Lord.
  6. Mary speaks to Jesus without recognizing him – she is in relationship, is in conversation with Jesus despite her lack of recognition or understanding.
  7. Mary did not believe in the resurrection when she experienced Jesus call her by name. (neither did Peter and John or anyone else).

So, do you want to hear Jesus call you by name?

  1. Serve him as best you know how. Don’t allow your lack of knowledge and understanding keep you from doing what you can.
  2. Share your journey with others who are also seeking the Lord.
  3. Be honest with yourself and God about your fears and heartaches.
  4. Seek Jesus passionately.
  5. Ask those you encounter where they may have seen Jesus.

As we hear again in Jeremiah 29:

7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 8 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord. 10 For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

Did you hear that from Verse 13-14? “When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart I will let you find me.” This is what Mary was doing. Was she a sophisticated theologian? No. Was she a great champion of faith? No. Was she a noted leader in the community? No. She was one of the women whom Jesus had healed, and who had chosen to provide material support to Jesus and the apostles on their missionary journeys. She was there at the foot of the cross as Jesus was crucified, and now was one of the women who came to the tomb to honor and remember him. She was looking and longing for the presence of Jesus in her life. That was enough.

Psalm 145:18 The LORD is near to all who call on him; to all who call on him in truth.