Waiting is Not Easy

Psalm 130:5 With all my heart, I am waiting, Lord, for you! I trust your promises. 

Waiting is not easy…

In Mo Willems’ book, Waiting is Not Easy, Piggie has a surprise for Gerald. As Gerald’s patience diminishes throughout the day, Piggie encourages him to wait it out as the surprise will be worth it. As the day turns into night, Gerald gets grumpy and says, “We have wasted the whole day!… And for what!?” Piggie then gestures up to the Milky Way, which Gerald then acknowledges “was worth the wait.” 

This past Sunday, we began a new liturgical year by acknowledging the First Sunday of Advent. Although the retail world makes it appear like the Christmas season begins in October, those of us following the liturgical year of the Church know that we still have a while to go before we can celebrate the birth of Jesus. Traditionally, Advent is a time of waiting and preparing for the birth of Jesus, but often we find ourselves tempted to ignore this season of Advent and focus on Christmas. 

Advent comes and gently invites us into a period of waiting. It teaches us the art of waiting and the joy of preparation and anticipation. In this season, we learn to take time; and in taking time, we anticipate the reward of waiting. Waiting helps us to enjoy what has arrived of which we would otherwise might have taken for granted. 

Let’s use the example of a cake. There is much preparation that goes into preparing the best cake. Once you have the cake in the oven, it needs time to fully bake for it to be delicious. It may be difficult to wait for the cake to finish, but who wants to eat an undercooked cake? The same is true for grapes, as it can take years for grapes to be transformed into fine wine. Although it is difficult to wait, the observation of Advent doesn’t have to happen alone. We can wait together by attending bible studies, worship, and music programs. 

As we take time to practice waiting in this crazy and busy season, we place our trust in God’s continued promise, because as Piggie says, “It will absolutely be worth it.” 

 



Raspberries

“Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for humankind.” -Psalm 107:21

My grandpa and grandma had wild raspberry plants that grew along an old shed. It was always an adventure to pick them, because you needed to be extra careful to avoid the nettles that grew alongside the plants. It was not an easy task. In addition to the nettles, there were bees that swarmed around the plants too.

It is often difficult to find joy and gratitude in a situation where you are being poked by nettles and swarmed by bees. But once these wild raspberries were brought inside and washed there was joy and happiness as they made the perfect addition to a cold bowl of ice cream on a hot summer day.

In our lives we may find ourselves navigating the nettles and swarms of bees and it can be difficult in those occurrences to have a grateful heart. Practicing gratitude is not easy, especially when we are focused on the nettles and the bees. It is not until we are enjoying the raspberries and ice cream that we remember to give thanks for all the blessings we have been given.

As we make our way through the month of November (the National Gratitude Month) let us thank God for everything. Today, I am grateful for the laughter of small children, the raspberries I enjoyed for breakfast, and the washing machine.



Pillow Forts

God is our refuge and strength,

    an ever-present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,

    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;

though its waters roar and foam,

    though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,

    the holy habitation of the Most High.

God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;

    God will help it when the morning dawns.

The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;

    he utters his voice, the earth melts.

The Lord of hosts is with us;

    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;

    see what desolations he has brought on the earth.

He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;

    he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;

    he burns the shields with fire.

“Be still, and know that I am God!

    I am exalted among the nations,

    I am exalted in the earth.”

The Lord of hosts is with us;

    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

-Psalm 46

 

When I was a kid, I absolutely loved to build pillow forts. My family had a couch with extremely firm, square cushions perfectly suited to constructing a kid-sized refuge. With an assortment of blankets, clothespins, pillows, chairs, and cushions, my brother and I would construct elaborate fortresses. We would then retreat deep into the pillow fort with snacks and books, safe and secure. 

Secure, that is, until an over-extended blanket pulled loose of its clothespin, sending the entire fort collapsing down on us. Undeterred, we would reassemble the precarious fort over and over until our parents finally insisted that they needed the living room back. You see, we could build forts with all the enthusiasm and expertise of, well, children. We did our best, but pillow forts are no match for gravity.

Like children building pillow forts, adults often build up refuges that feel good but don’t actually hold up against the storms of life. We look for security from other people, hoping they can keep us safe. We look for security from money, hoping that our savings accounts will protect us from trouble. We look for security from the groups we are part of, hoping that our loyalty to the crowd will keep us from harm. We look for security from our own strength, hoping that we can handle any threat that comes our way. We look for security from knowledge, hoping we can outsmart our problems.

These are all pillow forts. They might be fun for a while. They look cool. We can even prop them up when they start to falter. They might withstand a few gusts of wind. In the end, they always topple. 

God is no pillow fort. God is your refuge, safe and secure. God is your refuge when tornadoes or derechos blow. God is your refuge when sickness or sadness loom. God is your refuge when strength fails, when people abandon you, when money runs out, when wisdom turns out foolish. God is your refuge when all other refuges collapse.

God is your refuge.



Rain

Jesus said, “God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” -Matthew 5:45

It’s raining. Or, if it isn’t raining right when you read this, it was recently and probably will be again soon. That’s what we’re getting for weather today and tomorrow in central Iowa. Like it or not, there is nothing we can do about it.

We humans really are powerless when it comes to the weather. For all of history, human life has depended on forces beyond ourselves for the sun to shine, the rain to pour, the wind to blow, the snow to fall. Sure, we try to predict the weather. We have meteorologists who tell us the forecast, often for weeks or months in advance! I’m not aware of any other job where a person can so often and so publicly be wrong, though. 

Since we clearly can’t control the weather and can only sort of predict it, we humans often decide the next best thing is to try and control the one who sends the weather. From prayer to ritual to sacrifice, societies around the world have tried different ways to get the weather they want. It doesn’t work. Why?

Because God isn’t fair. At least, not in the way we think about fairness. When we think about what’s fair, we usually mean that people get what they deserve. We think good people get good things and bad people get bad things. We think that people who make sacrifices deserve rewards, while people who are selfish deserve to suffer. We think people who diligently pray should get what they ask for, while people who don’t should be left wanting. That would be fair, according to our standards.

But God isn’t fair—God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous, and we are both. One of the breakthroughs for Martin Luther as he led the Reformation was the realization that Christians are always both sinners and saints. He used a Latin phrase, simul iustus et peccator, to describe the way that we are justified by grace through faith even at the same moment as we are sinners whose thoughts, words, and deeds don’t measure up.

We don’t have to measure up or earn God’s grace any more than we have to earn the rain. We are as powerless to control God’s love as to make the sun shine. Frankly, that may come as a relief: you don’t have to earn forgiveness or sunshine. God just gives it because you need it. Good people, bad people, in-between people: we all need grace. Good news! You receive it freely, abundantly, like rain that streams down from the heavens and pools up all around. May the weather you cannot control be a reminder of the God you cannot control: who is gracious and merciful, sending forgiveness and rain and grace and sunshine to sinners and saints alike.

God, you are not fair; you are gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. You give what we do not earn out of your pure love for us. Thank you. Amen.



Do you see?

The legal experts and Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery. Placing her in the center of the group, they said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of committing adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone women like this. What do you say?” They said this to test him, because they wanted a reason to bring an accusation against him. Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground with his finger.

They continued to question him, so he stood up and replied, “Whoever hasn’t sinned should throw the first stone.” Bending down again, he wrote on the ground. Those who heard him went away, one by one, beginning with the elders. Finally, only Jesus and the woman were left in the middle of the crowd.

Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Is there no one to condemn you?”

She said, “No one, sir.”

Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, don’t sin anymore.” -John 8:3-11

 

Picture the scene: a group of respectable community leaders (pastors and lawyers and the like) show up in front of Jesus with one sinner in tow. They know she’s a sinner because, well, they caught her in the act. Never mind that if they caught her in the act, they should have shown up with two sinners in tow. But then, we read right there in the story that they were only doing this to test Jesus. It was never about the woman, only ever about how they could use her to get Jesus into trouble.

Jesus defies their expectations by, well, writing in the dirt with his finger. It kind of makes you wish we knew what he was writing. Was it some kind of message to the legal experts and Pharisees? Was it something for the woman to read? Was it a one-person game of tic-tac-toe? Apparently what Jesus writes in the dirt is not all that important. What he says is important: whoever hasn’t sinned should throw the first stone. Then he bends down again. 

I imagine the religious leaders start to make panicked eye contact at this point, thinking to themselves: is he going to throw a stone? Should I throw a stone so they don’t think I’m a sinner, too? What if no one throws a stone? What if we all throw stones at once? Then, the panicked eye contact turns to embarrassment as, one by one, the leaders begin to disperse. 

This doesn’t happen in a moment. Crowds don’t disappear in the blink of an eye. Awkward, uncomfortable minutes pass as the group of men realize that they are in the wrong. They can’t use this woman to trap Jesus. Eventually, no one is left to condemn the woman, and Jesus won’t do it for them.

Too often, our conversations about sin treat people like objects, instead of like people. For that matter, the way we talk about all kinds of issues in our lives or the lives of people around us often sound like we’ve forgotten that real people are on the line, not just ideas. Jesus sees people. 

Jesus sees the woman who has had fingers pointed at her. Jesus sees the teen who’s starting to believe what the bullies say about them. Jesus sees the addict who’s digging to see just how deep rock bottom is. Jesus sees anybody who’s ever been pushed around or overlooked or objectified for someone else’s convenience or satisfaction. Jesus sees them.

Jesus doesn’t stop there, though. Once Jesus sees them, he gets out of the way until everybody else sees them, too. Picture the scene again: when Jesus bends down, the men who brought the woman have no one else to look at but the woman in the center of the crowd and one another. Once they see her, they realize they cannot go through with stoning her. Once they see her, they cannot condemn her.

May God give us all eyes to see one another; and in seeing one another, may we never again seek to condemn one another. Amen.



Letting Go

When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

John 20:22‭-‬23 NRSV

This is part of a conversation Jesus had with his disciples on the day of his resurrection. After meeting with Mary Magdalene at the tomb, he reunited with ten of his other disciples and gave them the Holy Spirit with the instruction to forgive sin. Jesus also says that along with the power to forgive, the Holy Spirit gives the power to not forgive. It sounds like a lot of power, and it is! To forgive, or not forgive: that’s the question.

In Greek, the word that means forgive also means release. In other words, forgiveness is connected to letting go. 

This time of year we can see an excellent example of the necessity and beauty of letting things go just by looking to the trees. Take a look at the nearest maple or oak tree: see how its leaves are turning red, yellow, and orange? They may already be falling from the branches to carpet the ground beneath them. It is beautiful and even necessary for trees to release their leaves when the season changes. 

If trees don’t let go of their leaves? Well, that’s not good. Several years ago, I had an eight-year-old maple tree in my front yard. One fall, for some reason, it just didn’t drop its leaves as the other trees did. Some of the leaves fell, but most stuck onto the branches. I was curious what would happen if it didn’t let go of the leaves. 

One day, I found out. There was a terrible storm in October that year, and the wind was so severe that the tree could not stand under the weight of its leaves. Instead, it split in half straight down the trunk, and the half of the tree most covered by leaves crashed down to the ground. If it’s beautiful to let go, it’s dangerous to hold on too long.

Nobody wins when we hold onto sin instead of forgiving it. When we forgive, we release that other person from their guilt and, equally important, we release ourselves from holding grudges, from seeing ourselves as victims, and from taking it upon ourselves to judge someone else’s worthiness. We’ve got to let it go, as Elsa says. We’ve got to forgive. We’ve got to release each other from our sin so we can move ahead without the weight of that guilt dragging us down.

The trees are showing us how beautiful it is to let things go. The Holy Spirit is showing us how beautiful it is when we let sinners go free with the simple words: “I forgive you.”

Holy Spirit, you give me the power to release or retain sin. Give me also the grace to forgive sin as I have been forgiven in Jesus Christ. Stop me from holding onto things that I need to let go. Amen.



Help me to love, Jesus

This week’s devotion is written by Grace Heimerdinger-Baake, Director of Youth and Family Ministry.

In the last four months I have driven over 8,536 miles. Many of those miles have been going back and forth to the hospital and traveling to countless doctor appointments for my little guy. 

I rely on my Spotify playlists to keep me awake and focused on these drives. There is one song that has caught my attention and makes me wonder each and every time I listen to it. The song is titled “What Do I Know” by Ed Sheeran and the chorus goes: 

I’m just a boy with a one-man show

No university, no degree, but lord knows

Everybody’s talking ’bout exponential growth

And the stock market crashing and their portfolios

While I’ll be sitting here with a song that I wrote

Sing, love could change the world in a moment

But what do I know?

 

Can love really change the world? 

Ed Sheeran, I think you are right. Love can really change the world, if we love like Jesus. 

During the celebration of the Passover and after breaking the bread, Jesus gave the disciples a new commandment, “Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another.” (John 13:34 MSG)

We know we are called to love our neighbor, but why is it so hard to love like Jesus?

Cultivating kindness and love is not easy. You can wake up and think to yourself, “I am going to be kind to others.” Then you are cut off in traffic, the barista spills your coffee, and your co-worker takes credit for something you did. Wow! It has been a crazy morning, and you try to resist the urge to retaliate. 

It is impossible to always love like Jesus. Our human nature gets in the way and even with our best efforts, we fail. We need Jesus! Jesus’ love for us is unconditional and not based on feelings or emotions. For us to love like Jesus, we can practice giving our emotions and feelings to him in exchange for his compassion and mercy. It isn’t easy but with Jesus we can love our neighbors just a little bit more and help create a more peaceful and loving world. 

Jesus, help me to live out kindness today. May your light and love shine through me. Amen.



Pray for Those People

Jesus said: “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete. -Matthew 5:43-48 CEB

You’ve probably heard the command to love your enemies and pray for them before today. It’s part of the famous “Sermon on the Mount,” one of Jesus’ longest public speeches. Like any of God’s commands, loving enemies and praying for them doesn’t come naturally. 

Loving our friends? Sure! Praying for those who are on our side? Yep!  But loving our enemies? Praying for people who harass us? Ugh. Thanks, but no thanks, Jesus. 

Jesus doesn’t take “thanks, but no thanks” for an answer in our lives as Christians, though. There is no wiggle room here. Love those people. Pray for those people. Yes, even those people.

Well, fine. I’ll pray for God to turn their hearts and correct their wicked ways. They sure need God’s help to stop hurting me. Easy peasy.

Praying that God change our enemies’ hearts is one way to pray for them. Sometimes, this is appropriate and good. But let’s be honest— those prayers very quickly become self-righteous, further dividing “us” from “them.” It’s easy to pray for God to fix those people because it lets us keep on believing they’re the problem.

Sometimes, they really are the problem.

That is true. But let’s go back to what Jesus said- that our heavenly father sends sunshine and rain to the good AND the evil— and all out of pure, fatherly, divine, complete love. You and I receive that love, too, and we received it even when we were still sinners. Jesus isn’t asking us to distinguish between good people who deserve love and sinners who deserve nothing. Jesus is commanding us to love and pray for even those people we’d rather not.

So instead of just praying the kinds of prayers that let me keep my distance, I should pray the prayers that draw me closer to my enemies? Sounds risky.

It is risky. Loving people is always risky. It’s also the only thing that transforms community and brings the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven. We can love people  in many ways, but one that Jesus shows us here is prayer.

I might need to start small. Maybe I’ll pray for those people’s kids. It’s easy for me to pray for kids to be supported and loved. Or maybe I’ll pray for those people’s health. I wouldn’t want anybody to get sick. Maybe I can even pray for their lives to be full of the fruit of God’s Spirit- you know, that whole “love, joy, peace, patience” thing.

No prayer offered in faith and obedience to Jesus is ever small. And you might be surprised to find that as you pray for “those people,” they start to feel less and less like your enemies and more and more like your siblings in God’s family. Who knows? Maybe they’ve already been praying for you.

I never thought I might be somebody’s enemy! I guess I’m part of somebody else’s “those people” without even realizing it. You know, I kind of like the idea of Christians who disagree with each other still praying for one another. It shows that we realize that our trust in God is more important than the fine print of what we believe. I’ll pray for those people. It sounds like what Jesus wants.

Amen.



Every Season

There’s a season for everything

    and a time for every matter under the heavens:

    a time for giving birth and a time for dying,

    a time for planting and a time for uprooting what was planted,

    a time for killing and a time for healing,

    a time for tearing down and a time for building up,

    a time for crying and a time for laughing,

    a time for mourning and a time for dancing,

    a time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones,

    a time for embracing and a time for avoiding embraces,

    a time for searching and a time for losing,

    a time for keeping and a time for throwing away,

    a time for tearing and a time for repairing,

    a time for keeping silent and a time for speaking,

    a time for loving and a time for hating,

    a time for war and a time for peace.

-Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Today is the first day of Autumn, at least by the calendar. The weather even seems to agree!

Seasons change. Little is as predictable as that. Snow follows turning leaves that follow scorching heat that follow buds on the trees. Even on sunny tropical islands, there is a season for hurricanes.

Our lives have seasons just as the climate does. There are seasons we expect: school, work, parenting, retirement. They come and go predictably. There are seasons that catch us off-guard: unemployment, heartache, illness. There are seasons that seem to last forever: ironically, both being a teenager and parenting a teenager seem to fall into this category. Even a season when everything goes wrong for a few months can seem longer than a year of business as usual.

And then there are seasons that, in a puzzling kind of way, seem to fade in and out. Just when we think the season is over, it comes right back. Take grief, for instance: it’s there and then it’s not and then it shows up again, like these summer thunderstorms I thought we were done with for the year. 

Even our faith has seasons. There may be times when we feel unshakably confident in what we believe. There may be other times when we’re in a season of self-examination, trying to figure out if what we’ve believed still works for us. There may even be times when we find ourselves in a season of doubt and feeling like we’re just going through the motions of faith. And then suddenly we may be back in a season of trust and deep meaning in faith.

Seasons come and go. God does not. God is with us in the sunshine and in the rain, at work and at play, when delighted or depressed. There is a season for everything under heaven, declares Ecclesiastes, and in that declaration we can hear that none of those seasons is too much for God. Whether we are building or tearing down, crying or laughing, loving or hating, God is with us.

O God, in all the seasons of my life, help me to trust that I am not alone, but you are with me. When I face a difficult season, help me. When I enjoy an easy season, let me give you praise. Amen.



Jesus began to weep

When Mary of Bethany came to where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. -John 11:32-35

Peter had a rough day at work. Nothing went the way it was supposed to, and his boss let him know she noticed. Peter went home and grumpily told his husband “everything was fine at work” and turned on the football game without speaking again for the rest of the night. Next door, Pam got her kids around the table for dinner and the chorus of complaints about the meal began. Managing the kids and the house while her husband was deployed was getting harder and harder, but it was simpler to pour herself another glass of wine after the kids went to bed than admit she was struggling. Across the street, Missy sat alone on her couch, realizing just how anxious and sad she felt about her life. She quickly opened TikTok to scroll through new videos. It might not fix anything, but at least she could be distracted instead of sad.

You probably know Peter and Pam and Missy, or people who sound just like them. For that matter, you’ve probably been Peter or Pam or Missy a time or two in your life. We’ve all been there- knowing that we’re feeling something that’s likely to be unpleasant and uncomfortable. Instead of feeling those feelings, we numb them instead! We’ve all done it, whether it’s with an extra drink, a mindless scroll of social media, a bowl of ice cream, whatever’s on TV, an extra exhausting workout, or a shopping spree.

Before you shift uncomfortably in your chair and scroll away to something more pleasant to read, look back to the glimpse of Jesus shared in John 11 above. Jesus is faced with the death of a friend and the grief of his friend’s sister and their whole community. This is gut-wrenching stuff. What did Jesus do? He began to weep. 

The only way through hard emotions is to feel them. Research shows that if we try to numb those unwanted negative emotions like sadness, disappointment, and anger, we end up numbing joy and hope right along with them. A couple of beers, a banana nut muffin, and a new shirt cannot fix your emotions. The thing is that your feelings don’t need to be fixed at all. When Lazarus died, and his sisters and community wept, Jesus wept right along with them. When Paul wrote to the Roman Christians, he urged them: “Be happy with those who are happy, and cry with those who are crying.” (Romans 12:15)

Beloved people of God, there is a great deal going on in our personal and communal lives that raises strong feelings. We may be disappointed, sad, scared, angry, anxious, and frustrated. If that’s you- do yourself a favor and let yourself be sad without rushing to numb it. Let yourself be angry without pushing it off on someone else. The only way to stop carrying the burdens of those hard emotions is to feel them and name them. If Peter told his husband he was frustrated by his job, if Pam texted a friend that she was feeling overwhelmed, if Missy took her anxiety to a therapist—it wouldn’t get rid of the very real challenges behind their feelings, but it would help make them bearable.

We can also take our emotional burdens to Jesus, who weeps with us without ever asking us if perhaps we’re taking things a bit too seriously. Jesus, of all people, knew that death wouldn’t get the last word in our lives, and yet he cried with Mary and her friends when Lazarus died. When we honestly share our ups and downs with God, God is deeply moved. Through those ups and downs, God carries not only our heavy feelings but our very selves. You are held by the same God who wept with Mary.

Jesus, thank you for showing us that we can weep. Thank you for your compassion in being moved by our struggles. Help us to resist the temptation to numb our feelings, and instead to feel our way through our ups and downs, confident that you are holding us all the way.