Free as a Bird

by susan on March 21, 2017

As part of our Lenten journey through the Sermon on the Mount, the following message was shared during our worship gathering on Sunday, March 19th, and is based on Matthew 6:19-34.

In what are we choosing to invest our lives?

In a documentary entitled The Minimalists, AJ Leon tells part of his story.

He was a rising executive in a Manhattan investment firm. He had quickly climbed his way to the top and on December 31, 2007, at the age pf 32, he was offered an incredible promotion. It was one he could not turn down. He’d be making more money than he’d ever made before – $250,000 a year.

It was a no-brainer. He said yes.

Then, after leaving his boss’s office, something unexpected happened. He got on the elevator and he cried the entire way down. He was stuck and he knew it. He had created a life that was dependent on this income. He had been sold an American Dream picture of success and had bought in and he was miserable.

By the time he got to the bottom floor, he realized that if he went through with this, there would be no turning back and he made a life-altering decision. He walked out the door and decided he was not going back – ever.

He made a choice about how to spend this life. Instead of adopting the template that had been handed to him, he would live a simpler, freer way. His story made me wonder…

How many of us have lived as if there is only one option?
As if we have no choice in how we order our lives?

How many of us have decided by default that in order to be happy, in order to be secure, there are certain things we must have:
a closet full of clothing.
a house full of furniture, decorations & appliances.
the latest iPhone, apps & tech gadgets.
a well-thought out retirement plan.
more than enough for today.

How many of us have believed that our worth, our worthiness & even our happiness are wrapped up in job titles, belongings & financially secure futures?

We MUST have these things &
when we fear we don’t or can’t or won’t,
then come the
sleepless nights,
& even sickness.

Is there another option?
Is there any way to depart from this path of least resistance?

I believe the entire Sermon on the Mount presents us with another option for our lives. In a time of extreme fear, anxiety & pressure to conform, Jesus announced a new way. He offered an entirely new template for living life. He urged new investments.

Already, we have heard him reject
religiosity in favor of transparency &
public piety in favor of humble, sincere prayer.
Now, we hear him reject anxious living in favor of freedom.

In a nutshell, Jesus invites his listeners to:
Focus on things that matter & things that last.
Stockpile treasures that can’t rust or get stolen.
To put their trust in God, not money.
To go out out and look at the birds: “free and
unfettered…careless in the care of God.” (Matt, 6:26, MSG).

This is a lofty vision Jesus is casting for his followers.
Quite frankly, careless seems beyond my grasp –
especially in a time when anxieties are enormously high,
a time when healthcare and insurance are being threatened,
a time when social services are being deemed unnecessary.
& a time when the disparity between rich and poor is huge & many of us feel the squeeze of being in between or squeezed out all together.

Followers first hearing this revolutionary message of Jesus would have been no less shook. Those gathered to hear him lived under the thumb of Rome – they, too, felt stuck. They felt that in order to get unstuck from the dictatorship of power & greed, they had to engage in a violent revolution. It was either that or conform – – just do & live as Rome wanted you to do & live.

Jesus is suggesting there is another,
more subtle & more coercive way.

What if you began to establish a new template for life, an alternative definition of success, a different measure of happiness?

What if you began to establish a healthier, less dependent relationship with money & things?

What if instead of all this anxious living, you began to practice freedom?

In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster tells us that this new way (he calls it “simplicity”) begins with a new inward reality. Thomas Kelly calls that inward reality “The Divine Center.” In learning to have God at the center we become less prone to need, to want & to rush after anything & everything that offers us status, privilege & prosperity. We learn instead that we can live without those things.

We become free to “receive the provision of God as a gift that is not ours to keep and can be freely shared with others”. (Celebration of Discipline, p. 85)

One warning though, if we begin to live this way. If we begin to unstick ourselves from slavery to status and stuff, we will face criticism. After all, who would choose to live on less or be content even when we have less to live on?

We will also experience a whole new level of vulnerability.  The birds and wildflowers Jesus points us toward are not exactly the most durable creatures.  In fact, they’re pretty fragile & susceptible to harsh winds & rough conditions.

Carefree does not always mean easy.

I suppose that is why again & again Jesus reminds followers that unlike the un-trustworthiness of the Empire, God is worthy of our trust. God will take care of us.

And, as much as I want to blow this off as pie-in-the-sky thinking, I know different.

A year ago, when we were going through a second season of unemployment & trying to figure out how to pay our bills, I came home to find Kevin sitting at the kitchen table going through our mail. He stopped after opening one particular envelope & with tears in his eyes, he handed it to me. It was an anonymous, very sizable check. It would provide almost an entire month’s worth of his salary.

We stood there with our mouths hanging open.  …Who? …How? …Why?

We were literally speechless for several minutes & then more tears & then came the laughter.

Of course. Why were we so surprised?

God does not always drop money from the sky for us (wouldn’t that be nice?!), and yet…
There are other unexpected gifts.
There are words of encouragement,
There is food provided,
There are communities of generosity & friendship that form,
There is sharing & showing up that happens.

In a world where we are coerced into thinking there is only one option, Jesus presents another. It’s the Way of trust, abundance & freedom.

I love the question that Mary Oliver finally asks in her poem, The Summer Day: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

You have a choice.
You can depart from anxious living &
step more deeply into the way of Jesus.
You can choose to be free as a bird.

Questions for further reflection:

Whether you have a little or a lot, how would you describe your relationship with money & things? What would less anxious living & more freedom look in your life?

Being Rooted & Bent in Prayer

by susan on March 13, 2017

Words for the Journey – Sunday, March 12th

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,
    hallowed be your name.
10     Your kingdom come.
    Your will be done,
        on earth as it is in heaven.
11     Give us this day our daily bread.
12     And forgive us our debts,
        as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13     And do not bring us to the time of trial,
        but rescue us from the evil one.

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

– Matthew 6:5-15, NRSV

What does prayer mean to you? How are you learning to pray?

My prayers have taken many different forms through the years. They had their official beginning, though, in the quiet of my bedroom. As a child, lying in bed at night, I would whisper short & sweet words to God: thanks, help so & so, etc. Even then, I remember wondering if I was doing it right.

By the time I was in high school, I would go on and on. How tired I must have made God. It was like I equated more words to better prayer. I had journals of prayers, many of which confessed my struggles & longings, as well as some pages reserved for thank-you-Lords. I was proud every time I finished a page, proud because I had done my due diligence & as a perfectionist who loves achieving goals, it felt good & right. Deep down, though something wasn’t right. My praying felt a little too tightly-packaged & a tad too well-scripted.

When I graduated high school, I received a gift that changed the way I pray. Edith Hill gave me a prayer journal and many pages had quotes about prayer. As I was flipping through, I came to this:

“Certain thoughts are prayers”.

Yes. Finally. What I had been feeling for so long. Prayer is not an isolated effort, 15 minutes a day & then you’re done. It’s not a nice neat compartment that we enter & leave (our “prayer life” we tend to call it, which is separate from the rest of life).

Prayer is a way of thinking and being.
Prayer is a way of life.

That’s a little about my prayer journey.

What about you? What does prayer mean to you? How are you learning to pray?

Jesus had some very particular recommendations about prayer. These recommendations were not just rules for us to follow. They were practices that shaped his own spirituality & his daily rhythm.

His life was rooted in prayer. Prayer was the soil from which everything else sprang up.

He withdrew for 40 days of prayer and fasting at the outset of his ministry. He prayed before choosing his disciples. He periodically left crowds of needy people and departed for quiet places to pray, both alone and with others. On the night he was betrayed, he prayed in a garden and even as he was crucified, he offered gut-wrenching prayers to God.

Jesus did not have his prayer life & his regular life.
Prayer was his way of life.

So, it’s no wonder that just like with giving to the poor & fasting, Jesus does not belittle or downplay the priority of prayer in this revolutionary series of teachings. He does not relegate it to being an irrelevant ancient practice.

Quite the opposite.

He tells his followers to treat prayer with reverence & importance. He assumes they pray. And, just like with giving & fasting he urges them not to turn prayer into a performance.

The Message translation puts it this way:

“And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat? Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace. The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don’t fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need. With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply. Like this…” – Matthew 6:5-9a, The Message

And, then Jesus offers some simple words that teach the essence of prayer,

Beginning with “Our Father”, his way of praying…

reminds us that we are not alone &
that we are part of a larger human family,
reorients us: we are not in charge.
renders us in need of help:
we need God’s help to see the world as God does,
we need deliverance from temptation,
we need food and forgiveness,
repositions us: not only are we recipients of God’s forgiveness,
we are to be givers of it.

I think that Jesus would agree with Will Willimon and Stanley Hauweras, that the Jesus way of prayer is not just producing a laundry list of demands for God to meet, it is “the daily bending of our lives toward a God who has, in Jesus Christ, so graciously leaned toward us” (Lord, Teach Us, p. 23).

It is asking for God’s help, but also listening for the sometimes still, small voice to guide us deeper into the way of Jesus.

I don’t think Jesus was telling us that THIS is the only prayer you ever need to pray, but that however you practice prayer, it should bring you closer to the kind of life that we see lived through Jesus, not further from it. If we leave times of prayer feeling less in need of God, more sure that we can do this on our own, feeling better or more spiritual than others, more sure that we have everything figured out, we might just have missed the point.

In fact, the real beauty & mystery of prayer is that even though we may not get what we want, somehow we feel picked up & carried, a little lighter, more in tune & able to carry on.

So, if we don’t simply pray the prayer of Jesus & call it a day, then how do we pray?

Prayer can look a million different ways.

It can look like praying through the Psalms,
like prayer walking,
centering prayer,
using the prayers of saints
or the Book of Common Prayer.

It can look like
body prayers,
chanting prayers,
journaling &
even doodling.

You can pray during yoga, while gardening, cooking, coloring, cleaning, running, showering or eating.

Anne Lamott says prayer can also look like a prayer box. She’s used everything from a pill box to her glove box to say a prayer of letting go.

As she describes it, “On a note, I write down the name of the person about whom I am so distressed or angry, or describe the situation that is killing me, with which I am so toxically, crazily obsessed, and I fold the note up, stick it in the box and close it. I might have a brief prayer and it might come out sounding like this: ‘Here. You think you’re so big? Fine. You deal with it. Although I have a few more excellent ideas on how best to proceed.’ Then I agree to keep my sticky mits off the spaceship until I hear back.” (Help, Thanks, Wow, p. 36).

However we do it, prayer the Jesus way should start feeling less like a pre-planned performance and more like God praying in us & through us.  The important thing will not be exactly what we say or how we say it, but rather that we simply pray & pray often.

I’ve been reading The Year of Small Things by Sarah Arthur &  Erin Wasinger. It chronicles the journey of heir two families who decided they would meet together weekly to support one another in making small, but radical changes to embrace the way of Jesus.

One of those changes was to reclaim spiritual habits. After growing out of the habit of praying together, Erin tells about how she and her husband, Dave, decided they would meet at 10 p.m. every night to pray together. With toddlers in the house, this seemed like their only possibility.

She shared about how awkward it was in the beginning, how they were afraid they were doing it wrong. She remembered how “the first few nights in the new wilderness were like lying on a patch of prairie without a mat, a cloudy sky overhead. I’d hoped to see the heavens, I saw instead, a look of hesitation on Dave’s face.”  They kept at it and it became clear that what they were actually doing was creating a ritual of “pointing each other toward God”.

The important thing is not that we do it right or well. It’s that we begin.

It’s that we are rooted in prayer as Jesus was rooted in prayer.
It’s that we allow prayer to bend our lives toward God.


Lent: Deeper into the Way

March 1, 2017

It was not until I was in early adulthood that I began to practice Lent. A season of reflection, a time to enter more fully into the suffering & death of Jesus, a period of reflecting on our spiritual journeys…Lent has taken on a different meaning each year. It’s always time set aside though, to practice being […]

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From New Laws to New Creation

February 14, 2017

Words for the Journey Sunday, February 12th The lyrics of A New Law by Derek Webb confront us with a serious question. Are we blindly following laws or are we living new lives? Don’t teach me about politics and government Just tell me who to vote for Don’t teach me about truth and beauty Just […]

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This Sunday at The Well: Refuge(e) & Hope

January 31, 2017

It’s not uncommon to hear people describe The Well as a home for spiritual refugees. We are a community that tends to welcome those who’ve left church & or been left out.  It had never occurred to me before our recent trip to Uganda, that maybe this is why we were drawn to partner with life-giving work […]

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Ready, Set … Reflect?

January 3, 2017

In a little less than a week, a small group of friends from The Well will travel to Uganda to learn & serve alongside a refugee ministry we’ve been partnering with for the past few years. We will tour the shelter we’ve learned so much about and help to register refugees for a new year […]

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What? No church on Christmas?

December 23, 2016

One of the highlights of my year is our Community Christmas Eve Gathering with Church Without Walls, St. John’s Lutheran Church & the neighbors, family & friends who decide to join us. I love it because it’s simple & deeply symbolic. Standing on a street corner with a crowd of people, many of whom are […]

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When We Cannot See

December 12, 2016

Words for the Journey – – Sunday, December 11th When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and […]

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God’s dream in one hand, a shovel in the other

December 5, 2016

Words for the Journey – – Sunday, December 4th In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way […]

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The Beginning is Near

November 27, 2016

During this first Sunday of Advent, we lit the candle of hope, shared stories & prayers of hope & explored Matthew 24:36-44 : 36“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the […]

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