Sunday, July 27, 2014

Family Sabbath

I believe in church, even when it is messy and hurtful.  It has often been a sanctuary for me, although I'm not unaware of the pain it can also cause.  I trust that we gain more in seeking together in community than we do individually.  I believe that there is room for the "spiritual but not religious" and "the religious and spiritual" to coexist and learn from one another.  Religion (and church as the institution that makes space for it in my traditon) gives us a foundation for exploring and practicing spirituality together.   Spirituality brings us into the mystery of the divine, a sense of awe and wonder greater than we ordinarily find in ourselves.  I have found that beauty in church and I hope to find it again.

But sometimes, my soul longs for Sabbath, for rest and re-creation.  Sometimes this introvert needs to hide away to rediscover my soul, and to rebuild community with the ones that share the most central places in my heart.  Sometimes I find God when I stop pushing so hard, when I stop seeking in the same expected places and am surprised to learn that I have been standing on holy ground all along. I was looking for burning bushes when instead God is in the messy pile of drawings and half-eaten bowls of cereal on the table.  When I can't hear the still small voice, God is in the laughter and arguments of my children.  

Sometimes it takes a change of plans to awaken me to the holy ordinary of my life.  On these days, Sunday morning church looks like this:















"Surely the LORD is in the place and I did not know it!"

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Looking back

I was obviously way too serious and busy in my student years.

I've been experiencing bouts of nostalgia recently.  You can blame it on the "I'm so [insert name of hometown]" meme that's going around Facebook, or the fact that I bought a new bookshelf and spent some time flipping through old yearbooks before stashing them on the shelves.  There is my upcoming 15th homecoming at William and Mary this fall and my 20th high school reunion next year.  Even better, I had the time to hang out with some college and seminary friends over the weekend.  It's a gift to have those friendships that you can just fall back into even when years have passed.  We can laugh at the same jokes, and a certain song takes us back to the memories we shared together.

I'm not one of those people for whom high school was the best time of my life.  In spite of all the achievements displayed in the mementos pictured above and all of the friendly "let's keep in touch" messages penned in my yearbook, I often felt lonely and out of place.  I did have friends and keep in touch with some of them still, but I was more comfortable in my studies and solitude than in sharing my true self with others.  I found my role as an overachiever who was affirmed by striving for perfection (and feeling crushed by failure).
  
College was more of my element, when it was acceptable to enjoy classes and learning and when there was the ability to be whoever you wanted to be.  As I've gotten older, I remember it as a golden time with much freedom and little responsibility.  However, I think much of that perspective comes from looking back through the rosy glasses of nostalgia.  When I really think about it, I remember the stress of balancing my schedule and assignments, and feeling very much in over my head.  I don't remember the actual classes, though, or much of anything I learned (I was a biology major, but please don't ask me anything about anatomy, plants, or animals).  I do remember late night walks to Denny's, hanging out talking in a friend's room, and Sunday lunches after church.  I remember feeling like I had found my place.

Seminary was a time of finding community and discovering calling.  I met my husband and developed friendships that still carry me through the ups and downs of ministry and life.  I learned, too, that community is not always neat and easy, and love often means hard work.  I've been confronted time and time again in my frustrations, realizing that I am the one who needs to change.  I have learned over and over again the power of grace and forgiveness.

It has always been easier for me to look backward or forward instead of looking around me at where I currently am.  That is starting to change, however.  I think the difference is that as I near my 40s, I am finally growing comfortable with who I am.  Although my surroundings and situation may change, I have learned that I have the strength and the gifts to handle the uncertainties of life.  While my place may change, I have found myself.  

As I work with college students, I get the gift of sharing my story, and the honor of hearing theirs.  So many times I hear their regret that it isn't all they thought it would be, that they expected to have their lives "all figured out" by now.  I smile in empathy because the older I get, the more I learn that we are all still figuring it out.  We grab mementos from our experiences and try to piece together the memories to make up the Instagram roll of our lives.  It may look good in the pictures, but it's often incomplete.  We expect to feel as if we've "arrived", but the destination is still unknown.  We want to feel successful, but the definition of success keeps changing.  We expect to feel like an adult, but aging doesn't necessarily make us feel any more grown up.  The thing that often screws us up the most is the picture we have in our head of how it's supposed to be.  It takes courage to stop, see, and accept things as they truly are.  There is mess and there is beauty, and both are always in tension and transition.  But there are gifts in every stage as we seek to find our role, place, community, and sense of self.  Each success and each failure brings us closer as we seek out what draws us.  Every memory is just a page in the story of our life that continues to be written, and who knows what beauty is in store in the very next chapter?

Monday, July 21, 2014

On Hopes and Dreams: A Sermon

 "Jacob's Ladder" by Marc Chagall; Image from www.marcchagallart.net.


Rev. Jenny Frazier Call
“Dream On”
A Sermon for Appomattox Court House Presbyterian Church
OT: Genesis 28:10-19a; NT: Romans 8:12-25
Sunday, July 20, 2014

Scripture readings:
Genesis 28:10-19a
Jacob’s Dream at Bethel
 Jacob left Beer-sheba and went towards Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, ‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’ Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’
 So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel

Romans 8:12-25
 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

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Good morning.  It’s a pleasure to be with you today.  As I’ve planned for this day, I’ve corresponded with Loren, who has shared so lovingly and thoughtfully about you as a congregation and it is obvious that she cares a great deal about this church.  We connected through Hollins University, her alma mater, where I am now chaplain.  When I was new to my role, she sought me out to welcome me, and in another act of gracious hospitality, invited me to share the message and worship with you during this Sunday of her maternity leave.    As she realizes the dream of motherhood alongside her calling as minister, we, too, will reflect upon our dreams today, both the sleeping and the waking varieties. 
I wish we could have a dialogue this morning.  If we could, I would ask you, “What is your most frequent or most vivid dream?”  I bet we could share some wondrous and fascinating images and entertain ourselves trying to determine what they might mean.  Unfortunately, I have a hard time remembering my nighttime dreams (at least the positive ones).  It’s as if the images vanish like little popping clouds (poof) as my eyelids open.  My young children have no such problem.  Each night before bed, they think about what they want to dream about and present it like a wish list to God in their prayers.  For my 8-year-old son, it’s usually a wish to dream about the world of Harry Potter.  My six-year-old daughter has visions of ice cream and unicorns and puppies.  I just silently hope that I don’t have one of those awful anxiety dreams about my teeth falling out or getting lost trying to find my way somewhere while I am running late.  I never outgrew those school-age dreams of missing an important class or forgetting to get dressed before going to school.   My daughter, though, relishes her dreams, and they are full of her creative imagination.  Many mornings she comes downstairs to snuggle in bed with me and asks, “Wanna know what I dreamed?”  And of course I do.  There’s nothing like the imaginative dreams of children.  Her slumber is full of light and color and story.  Her dreams are about connection as she shares of how we were rainbow fish swimming in the ocean together, or unicorns sharing purple ice cream.  She delights in the retelling of the plot twists, and, of course, the happy endings.
She is also full of dreams in the daytime.  She is our spirited and creative artist, a weaver of words and images.  She has so many plans for her future, thought through in intricate detail.  Can you remember when your life was full of such dreams?  Was there a time when it all seemed within your reach?  I remember drawing plans for a three-story treehouse complete with portholes and furnishings when I was my son’s age.  I couldn’t understand why it never came to fruition, just as my son can’t understand my reason why he can’t have a treehouse of his own (because we have no trees). 
After spending much time with children and young adults, I believe that we are all born dreamers.  But somewhere along the way, something starts to change that.  Perhaps we hear the word “no” too many times, or reality hits and we lose our vision and confidence.  Dreams start to look impossible or silly, and we become saddled with the weight of responsibility and real world problems.  We shed our dreams and pick up more manageable goals.  We surrender fantasy and imagination for a dose of the practical.  I minister to college students at a liberal arts school, and I witness the tension they carry between wanting to live a life of meaning and purpose and the pressure others place on them to have a practical job that will support them.  Decisions are no longer based on what will help them grow as a person or further their interests, but what will help them to land that high-paying job.  It used to be called “selling out” but now I think it’s called “getting by”. 
Sometimes we are forced to put away our dreams when things don’t turn out as we had planned.  We lose our job or can’t have the family we always imagined.  Someone close to us dies.  Our dream career never pans out.  Children grow up and move away, we retire, and then we are forced to find a new purpose.  Sometimes our dreams are out of our control, and sometimes we’re so caught up in the day to day struggles that we feel like we have no time to dream.
In our Old Testament narrative today, we find Jacob in the midst of his struggles.   He is on the run, fleeing his twin brother’s murderous rage after cheating Esau out his birthright and their dying father’s blessing.  As darkness falls, he stretches out to rest from his troubles, with the earth for his bed and a rock for his pillow.  His dream takes him far from his earthly reality, away to the heavenly realm.  God is standing beside him as he sees a ladder stretching from the ground to heaven with angels ascending and descending.  And God makes a promise to him, a covenant he had also shared with Jacob’s father and grandfather before him: “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac; I will give you this land, and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth.”  God promises to be with Jacob wherever he goes.  Jacob wakes up, truly wakes up for the first time in his life and realizes, “Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!”
Have you, like Jacob, ever been startled into an awareness of God’s presence when you least expected it?  Sometimes the darkest parts of our journeys can be the place where we are confronted with the reality of our dependence on God, and when we truly seek, we realize that God has never left us.  For me, it has been in these times of transition that God has given me the dreams that have guided my life, when I was finally able to surrender my own tightly held but ill-formed plans.
What is your deepest dream?
Sometimes our dreams seem impossible, especially when we consider the state of the world.  The news is full of the violence between Israel and Palestine, the kidnapped girls in Nigeria, the downed Malaysian plane, and the bipartisan breakdown within our own government.  How can our small lives make a difference?  There is so much suffering and brokenness that the whole world sometimes appears to be in ruin.  We face that on a smaller scale in our own lives when we are confronted with the death of a dream and wonder how to pick up the pieces.  How do we go on when everything seems broken? 
I think we do the same thing Jacob did.  We take the rocky ruins around our feet and build an altar, memorializing this spot as holy ground because in spite of the way things appear, we are full of the hope of God’s presence and guidance.  We might not have faith yet, but God is placing new dreams within us and the hope to take steps toward them.  Like Jacob, we might not know where the journey is taking us, but we are only responsible for taking those first steps and trusting that God will show us the next ones.  It’s a journey, a process of discovery.
We are reminded in the Romans passage and in our experiences that salvation is a process as well.  We long for the time when creation will be set free from its bondage to decay, when it will be restored with humanity to the way God intended it to be.  When every tear will be wiped away, and there will be a new heaven and a new earth.  But until that time, we groan together, we grieve.  We are subjected to frustration as we watch the consequences of sin unfold through violence, destruction, apathy, and disconnection.  We feel the pain of our slavery to fear and sin as it is so hard to break the patterns that we know hurt us and keep us apart from God and one another.  As Paul writes in chapter 7 of Romans, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (v. 19).  I don’t know about you, but I can relate to this on a daily basis.  I know my hang-ups and sins, and I know what I should be doing, but I get caught in the same negative patterns.  But here is where we have the good news, the gospel, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God…and if children, then heirs of God and Christ.”  If we suffer with him, we will also be glorified with him (8:14-17).  We then wait for our adoption as children of God, the redemption of our bodies, when we will be freed from our connection to the flesh (which decays) and can trust instead in the Spirit that gives life.
Adoption is a beautiful image and a gracious gift.  What an awesome thought that we are adopted into God’s family!  We are chosen, loved, and made heirs of the kingdom of God.  But that isn’t the end of the story.  Adoption is an expression of love, but doesn’t come without labor pains of its own.  I have several friends who have gone through the adoption process.  After answering the call to grow their family by sharing their love with a child in need, they went through years of paperwork, interviews, home studies, visits, court proceedings, governmental red tape, and much expense.  And when their dreams were finally realized and the adoption was official, the journey had only just begun.  Like all parents, they learned that their new child didn’t come with an instruction manual, but may have come with baggage including abandonment issues, questionable medical histories, and difficulty attaching.  The adoption process changes the whole family as they are remade together into a new identity.
Isn’t it the same with the church?  We are gathered from our differing backgrounds and perspectives, drawn together by God’s calling and vision, a dream of the love we can share as we serve and worship together.  But there are growing pains and disagreements and worries.  We don’t always feel that we belong, or we become concerned that our numbers are getting smaller.  It is not easy and we are not always certain what exactly we are called to do.  How do we continue to live out God’s dream for the church in a changing culture?  How can we still be the church when we are so small and feel so powerless?  But the gospel and our hope remain the same. 
The word hope is used seven times in the Romans passage (five times in one verse).  I find it interesting that hope can be used both as a noun and a verb…it’s something we have, and something we do.  Hope is what inspires us to keep walking towards our dreams even when they seem unlikely.  Hope motivated Jacob to build an altar and vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you” (Genesis 28:20-22).  Notice that he didn’t yet have faith that this would come to pass, and the word “faith” doesn’t show up in the Romans passage on salvation either.  We instead hear about waiting and longing and hope.  Faith is a process; it is the gift of God as we are being saved.  We put our hope in God, and along the way, God gives us faith as we are being adopted into the family of God.  Salvation becomes more than the one moment we chose to believe, but is the decisions we make every day to live our lives in accordance with God’s plan and to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.
We tend to view hope as a small thing.  I hope it won’t rain tomorrow.  But hope has so much possibility.  Hope is what keeps us moving forward.  Hope gives us the vision to reach our dreams.  We put our hope in God and trust that it will be rewarded with faith.  It is our hope in the power of the gospel and the truth of God’s love that keeps us gathering together.  Our hope is what allows us to keep working for peace and healing in our world, understanding that it is our calling as God’s people.  As Old Testament scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann has said,
“Hope, on one hand, is an absurdity too embarrassing to speak about, for it flies in the face of all those claims we have been told are facts. Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion; and one does that only at great political and existential risk. On the other hand, hope is subversive, for it limits the grandiose pretension of the present, daring to announce that the present to which we have all made commitments is now called into question.”
― Walter BrueggemannThe Prophetic Imagination

In other words, hope is a risk, but it is our greatest power to effect change in our world.  Hope convinces us that there is another way, a better way; that we don’t have to believe that this is all there is.  Hope is the gospel that opens our eyes each day to the beauty and mystery that is beyond all our understanding…that God so loved us that he sent his son to show us the way to live fully and eternally, now and forevermore.  May our dreams, in sleeping and waking, remind us of this hope to which we have been called, and may we be so inspired to share this hope with others.  And one day, may we wake up and say, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.”  Thanks be to God.