“As we ought” – yesterday’s Sermon

This sermon is on Romans 8:26-39.

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My dad dancing…he was always the “life of the party”

When I first began reading (and trying to understand) scripture, this particular part of Romans 8 was very significant for me. It was confusing, annoying, and helpful. The confusing part first. Paul writes:

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (8:26)

How can we possibly not know how to pray as we ought? Prayer is our communication with…or communing with God. We just do it. Right? I discovered some people develop formulas to that others can pray as they ought! This idea of praying as we ought, turns prayer into an activity that intimidates (lots of books are sold to help us pray as we ought). This intimidation leads many of us to be nervous about praying aloud within the confines of a group. For what if we don’t pray as they ought? I’ve discovered that many of us Lutherans are intimidated here. Although I’ve sneakily got most of you to verbally share your prayer concerns…which I believe is sacred…and thus a part of our prayer. But I digress.

How can we not know how to pray as we ought? Even if our prayer is silent, we know that God hears us. Maybe Paul was referring to a self-centered kind of prayer that focused on me…me…me. I don’t get that sense from this passage. So I struggled to understand just what Paul was getting at. Is there a special kind of prayer that we must do? Or, maybe we are supposed to pray for certain things? This was confusing.

Then my dad had a battle with colon cancer, and another, and another. And each time they thought they got it all, only for the cancer to return more aggressively than before. I watched his body waste away in his last year of life. We continued to pray for healing.

When hospice came and set up a hospital bed in the living room I was thankful that he could be home with family. I have precious memories of those last two weeks of his life…memories that I would not trade for anything. Alongside those precious memories are memories of pain and suffering that was beyond description. One day I was sitting there watching TV with him (probably sports of some type). Together we watched a commercial advocating routine colonoscopy screenings, because “colon cancer is curable when caught early.” My dad’s cancer was caught early… during a routine colonoscopy. It was minor they said. But cruelly it would not stay away.

As my dad’s suffering increased I wanted to pray. But I didn’t know what to pray for anymore. Do I pray for a cure? That seemed unrealistic given conditions. Do I pray for his death? That didn’t seem right either. Do I scream at God for the unfairness of life, and the taking away of Cecil, my stepdad who over the years truly became my dad?

And then I saw these words as if for the first time. And I understood.

“…the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (8:26)

The words or the how of my prayer didn’t matter at that point. Not because God didn’t care but because the Spirit was already interceding for me, for Cecil, for my mom, for the rest of the family, for you, for all of us. The Spirit was there, in that suffering.

This entire chapter of Romans is about God’s care for us in our suffering. Unfortunately some passages are used out of context, twisted in their meaning, and thus become annoying. So that verse 28, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Becomes distorted to mean that God won’t allow bad things to happen to those who truly love Jesus. But this is not the meaning of a verse that is in the middle of a passage about suffering. In the context of suffering, Paul is telling his audience, including us, that this present suffering…this present difficulty is not the end. But just as Jesus suffered and died and rose again, we too have that promise of new life. Sometimes that promise is most profound and understandable when we are in the presence of death. It is this promise that can free us to truly live for today.

And this takes me to what has always been the most helpful passage in all of scripture…for me. I call this section the “there is no worse thing that can happen clause.”

“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? … Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The no worse thing that can happen clause… Paul is convinced, and through his words we too can be convinced, that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God. That means that in the midst of struggle… of turmoil… of frustration… of suffering… of not knowing what tomorrow will bring… In all this we are guaranteed the love of God, the love of Jesus, the presence of the Holy Spirit. Not because we deserve this love and presence, but because that very love guarantees it.

Maybe you too struggle in prayer… that’s ok because the Spirit intercedes for you.

Maybe you’ve been hurt by words that imply your present struggle (or our present struggle) is what God wants to have happen. No, our struggles are human made…but mysteriously, in the midst of the struggle we can become stronger… which means something good can come out of that struggle.

Maybe you’ve felt alone or unworthy of God’s love. Maybe someone has told you that you must change something about yourself to receive this love. Know this. God loves you! And there is absolutely no way you will ever be separated from this love.

I think we are living in hard times. We are living in a time where we are told to fear our neighbor and to only take care of ourselves. We see suffering around us. Some of us are suffering now. This is the reality of life. But this is not the only reality.

The other, more powerful reality is that God loves each of us… and there is absolutely nothing that can ever separate us from that love. May that love empower us to boldly live, loving God and loving our neighbor.

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29 years ago…my mom and Cecil at our wedding

Oblivious

Over the last week I’ve received a few reminders of how easily we can go through life oblivious of those around us. It’s as if we get so caught up inner own thoughts or our own needs that we forget about those around us. Sometimes that forgetting leads to embarrassment, to hurt feeling, to annoyance, and tragically to injury.

Being oblivious at the beach! This in just the last week:

  • Saturday, during my long run, an old man pulled a u-turn (truck-pulling a trailer) right in front of me. I had to back off my pace considerably so as not to run into the trailer as it passed in front. I understand why he did this. He was looking for a place to park at the beach and upon finding such place turned around to park. Unfortunately he was oblivious to the fact that I was running along the road.
  • Sunday, during a recovery run, I was chatting with a friend. She was doing her long run, so I could only run with her for my first half. When it came time to turn around, I forgot to look and almost collided with a cyclist. That would have been ugly and it would have been entirely my fault. I was so engaged in saying goodbye that I was oblivious.
  • Tuesday (today)…
    • A woman was walking her dog on the bike path. She was on the left side when she should have been on the right. I thought, “I hope no bike comes around the curve quickly.” Then when I caught up to her, she meandered towards the middle, and I wasn’t sure which side to pass. She was oblivious to the presence of others on the trail.
    • Then, on a different part of the trail a man was unloading stuff for a day at the beach. He picked up an ice chest, turned without looking and almost hit me. In his unloading he was oblivious to activity of those around him.

I’m surprised that we don’t see more accidents along the beach bike trail and along the roads.

All of this is a good reminder to pay attention to the people around us. Not only to avoid disaster, but to live in mutual care for one another. Maybe we can all be a bit more alert and thus begin to truly see those around us. I wonder how different our world might be when we see and care for one another.

Thankful Living

“There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” -Romans 8:1-2

The promise is of forgiveness, of acceptance, of unmerited and unconditional grace. It is this promise that frees us to live…joyfully and freely. Sometimes we struggle with this freedom, telling ourselves (and others) that “you must do this, and this, and this, and that, so that God will truly love you.”

For all of us the this, this, this, and that is different. But I think that many outside the church hear a clear message of, “you don’t measure up and until you do God will not accept you.” In fact some hear the message, “God will not accept you until you actually invite Jesus in to your heart, which also means changing your behavior.” When I was younger I heard the message from Christians that my life was not one that Jesus would approve of. They didn’t approved of me either…so I wanted nothing to do with Christians or church.

Maybe that distorted message has its roots here, in Paul’s letter to the Romans. I say distorted, because to focus on what we must do, or on what others must do, distorts Paul’s words and makes the invitation to bask in the grace of Jesus unrecognizable. If we are required to do something to receive it, grace is not free and it is certainly not a gift.

But grace is a free gift. And because it is free and unconditional, we don’t have to believe the right thing. We don’t have to do the right thing. We don’t have to be anyone other than who God created us to be. This is the truly good news. It was when I began to understand this that I truly began to live.

Do I live perfectly? Far from it! But I make my mistakes knowing that none of them have the power to condemn me. For this I am grateful.

IMG_4366And this brings me to my tattoo. I told the story of why I got it last week (We Made a Pact!). Today I share what it means to me.

4 words: gratitude; breathe, live, run. A girl running.

Gratitude. The foundation. It is what grounds me, allows me to live, and sustains me through difficulty.

Breathe. When I think of breath, I think of the Spirit’s breathing over the waters of creation. I remember that without breath there is no life. To breathe is to live.

Live. We have one life to live here on earth. Let’s make the most of it. It’s easier to do when that life is based on gratitude.

Run. This is what I do…joyfully…except when it hurts in a hard race or a hard training run. Then I’m joyful at the end because I proved to myself that I could persevere.

The words form a hill, a visual reminder that we must do the hard work of climbing. The color swash also forms a hill, this time reminding that life is not all an uphill struggle. It is up and down, hard and easy.

Stress…and Stress. Gratitude 7/10

I just started reading Peak Performance, by Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg. Two chapters in, I’m thinking about stress and its role in performance.

According to the authors,

“A little doubt and uncertainty is actually a good thing: It signals that a growth opportunity has emerged.”

As a distance runner, I’ve benefited from the intentional stress I’ve placed on my body. I remember when I first started working with a coach, looking at my new training schedule, and thinking, “I don’t know if I can do that.” Or, “ohhh, that’s a lot of miles.” Most recently I’ve had similar thoughts in connection to races. I’m pretty uncertain (a bit nervous too) about a 50K that I committed to do in December. I still want to beat 4 hours in my next marathon. And I want to learn to coach others. Big goals.

This is the good kind of stress… the stress that leads to performance gains. The stress that allows you to look back over the past few years and say to yourself, “wow…just wow.” Looking back also reminds you of the importance of others in your life. It’s not possible to achieve big goals all on your own.

There is also the bad kind of stress. That intractable problem…health issue, relationship issue, work issue, family issue, neighbor issue kind of stress. These issues sometimes come on in subtle ways and grow slowly so that you don’t notice the problem until it threatens to engulf you. I recently went through a very stressful situation. This involved a person who wanted a level of relationship (friendship) that I could not give.

I’m not sure how long the problem was really present, but I noticed it over a year ago. Then then next year was oh so difficult. I struggled with what to do. I tried to find help, and received moral support (which was helpful), but I had to navigate my way through the morass on my own. It turns out that not many of us are equipped to deal with these types of difficult situations.

This is bad stress…that give you a sense of dread…that makes you want to re-think your purpose. It leads to weariness. Thankfully the situation has now been resolved. Maybe not in the best way…but in the only way that seems possible.

I’ve learned so much from it.

First, that good stress of running was what helped me work off the negative stress. Running has become such a spiritual, life-giving endeavor for me that when I have to take a few days off my coach gets to hear me whine about it.

Second, acting nice is not helpful. It is not advisable to put off the tough conversations because you don’t want to hurt feelings. To love your neighbor as Jesus calls us to do, is to sometimes tell your neighbor things he or she does not want to hear.

Third, even going through boundaries training doesn’t prepare you for small boundary violations. Or at least I was not prepared and didn’t recognize the issue right away. Re-establishing boundaries is hard to do. As a pastor, I’ve learned a valuable and painful lesson.

Fourth, community is very important. Although I felt as if I was asking repeatedly for help and not getting it, I was still not alone in the situation. Knowing that others knew what was happening, helped my to stay grounded, and to know that I wasn’t imagining the problem.

Fifth, having a completely separate group of friends also helps to lesson the stress (for me this means outside the church). When you’re with different friends in a different context, you’re able to think about and enjoy other things.

Six, I hadn’t realized how much this stress was affecting my job and I’m now looking forward to introducing some different…good…and life-enhancing stress into my work.

Today I’m personally grateful for: my supportive husband, family, and friends; the healthy outlet of marathon training; and good books.

Compassion – Sermon for 7/9

The texts for today’s message are Romans 7:15-25a and Matthew 11:28-30

A couple months ago I read, The Hungry Brain: Outsmarting the Instincts That Make Us Overeat.” Sounds wonderful for leisure time reading. Right? It is a fascinating book that presents much history of obesity research in a very interesting and readable manner. Parts of it were also downright depressing.

I’m going to share one small part, and try not to get too technical…about the satiety factor. The author, Stephan J. Guyenet, describes this as one of the ways in which our brains regulate weight. For us non-scientists, an analogy is the heating and cooling system in a house. When the thermostat indicates a low temperature, the heater kicks in. When it becomes too hot, on comes the air conditioner. This system works very well to regulate body temperature but when it comes to fat it is as if our “home thermostat has very good heat to prevent the temperature from dropping, but weak air conditioning to prevent the temperature from rising.” (133)

His analogy works well for us here in Oxnard, where most of us don’t have, and where we usually don’t need air conditioning.

How this all works in relation to body fat and weight is that as the body fat percentage goes up, our bodies adjust themselves and begin thinking that this extra fat is necessary. This then makes it incredibly hard to lose and keep weight off, with our brains “undermining our conscious desire to be lean and healthy.”

When I read those words, “undermining our conscious desire…” I immediately thought of Paul’s letter to the Romans.

15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

It always seemed to me that Paul was describing an inner battle. Where he wanted to do the right thing, but something else frustrated his efforts. Amazingly, through science, we now know that some of our struggle is because of our brain.

Sometimes there is no amount of willpower that will help. Guyenet touched on the show The Biggest Loser. Do you remember it? I watched it for a few seasons. For me the inspiration was towards hard physical exercise. Anyway, a previous contestant said, “NBC never does a reunion. Why? Because we’re all fat again.”

This is very sad… and from a scientific perspective, not surprising.

15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

Thankfully there are things we can do to live a healthy life. For all of us, this struggle is a reminder to have compassion for one another. Having compassion for one another is how we love one another.

In the greater context of the letter, Paul is writing about The Law…biblical law and even some natural law. The law is at the basis of his struggle. He’s also writing to churches that are having trouble working together…they seemed to be having a struggle over who was the best…over who was better at following the law.

For Paul, its obvious that the law has merit, while in his experience it is also burdensome. In one sense he’s describing the struggle in doing what he thinks he should do, but then discovering that rather than following the law he had actually sinned.

This all sounds rather circular until we remember that Paul, in his efforts to enforce the law, persecuted Christians. This is his sin…committed in the act of following, of attempting to enforce, the law. His sin was, in this case was a failure to love, maybe even a failure to show compassion.

I think that he discovered that the ends do not justify the means…in that love of neighbor is more important than for people to live according to our interpretation of the law. This is not easy to figure out…as we all have our ways of judging neighbor.

What can we do? I like the gospel text that is assigned for today. Jesus invites those listening (and us) to take his yoke, for his burden is light and he will give rest. The yoke (that farm implement that guides animals) meant, the law.

Jesus summarized the law: love God, love neighbor.

I think that for Paul, and for us, love of neighbor includes compassion. Because we all need it. We all fall short in so many little ways…and it turns out that some of our struggles are because our brains seem to have minds of their own.

One last thing…in regards to the struggle that so many have with overeating in today’s culture. It turns out that there is a way to confront the issue. It’s not easy but its not completely hard either, and that is to eat food that is not processed…I think of it as eating the food closer to the way God created it.

Living a life of love for God and neighbor is not always easy. In the next few sections of Romans, we’ll explore the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives of faith. Meanwhile may you experience the love and compassion that are yours through Jesus and may we all share this love and compassion with one another.

Amen.

We Made a Pact!

DSC_9052_resizeIn 2014 I ran my first marathon with a time that barely beat the course limit of 6 hours (5:51:02). In April 2015, I vacationed in Boston. It was the week before the marathon and race stuff was everywhere. I began to dream of someday running this race. The following September I improved my marathon time by about 45 minutes (5:04:36).

Realistically Boston was just a far off dream. I would need to run a marathon just under 4:10 to qualify…almost an hour faster. Still, I set a goal to do it in April 2018, giving myself a couple years. I began working with a coach, whose first response to my stated goal was, “that’s a goal!”(see That’s a goal!).

I knew it’d be very hard to achieve…and honestly, I had my own doubts. Which is the basis for a conversation that happened way back then.

It was with my friends Michele and Steve and it was about tattoos. I don’t remember it exactly, but I imagine we were talking about my daughter Megan’s latest tattoo. Somehow the conversation turned to the topic of whether any of us would actually do such a thing.

So I said, “If I qualify for Boston, I will get a tattoo.” Michele said, “If you qualify for Boston, I will get a tattoo.” Steve said, “Me too.”

And all of us probably thought to ourselves, “no way that’s going to happen.”

We went together last Friday to get our tattoos. We had a pact. So we did it!

I’ll write about the meaning of my own tattoo in another post.

When have you had to follow through on something you thought wouldn’t happen?

A Nice Progress Marker – Gratitude 7/3

Today it was me, my husband, and my son. Here we are just before the start.
Five years ago my daughter, husband, and I ran our first 5k races at the Channel Islands Harbor 4th of July 5k and 10k. We’d started running earlier in the year. Megan and I were close together but she had a better kick and beat me at the end. She still has a better kick. We both remember our excitement at completing this first race. My time was 36:16. I’m very proud of that time because it is a marker on a new, fit way of life.

July 4, 2012. I’m so happy we were out there that day…and we all sure look different today
We don’t do the race every year because we sometimes travel for Independence Day, so my next race was in 2015, this time a 10k. I was training for my second marathon at the time and this race was in the middle of a longer run. I was absolutely thrilled with my time of 1:04:44. I remember finding one of the coaches for the training program and excitedly showing her my time.

I didn’t run this race in 2016, but ran a 10k on July 23rd in 55:22. I don’t remember the same level of excitement that day. Maybe it was because I was also running a 5k…and it was hot! But I was certainly pleased with the time.

Today I ran the 10k…just my third 10k. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I just started hard running last week, after my recovery from the Mountains 2 Beach Marathon (Recap here). I raced a 5k last Wednesday and was disappointed with how hard it was for me…and for my time. My coach thankfully told me I should be happy that a bad day was better than my best day a year ago.  Ok, I’ll take that!

Then on Saturday I had a nasty fall 1 mile ito a 9 mile run. I’m still battered and bruised…and I completed the run.

A friend took this photo somewhere around mile 5. I gave a thumbs up but not fast enough.
My goal today was to beat my 55:22 from last year…and not crash at the end the way I do in a 5k. I started a bit conservatively, felt good after the first mile, and pushed the pace a bit. Almost every mile felt good, with miles 5-6 being the hardest (as they should be). I got a cramp in my side for part of mile 6 but then it went away. I sprinted the last .2 and finished with a time of 51:56. That’s a 3:26 PR! WhooHoo!

A lesson in all this is that progress happens when you stick with it for the long haul. Another…enjoy the journey along the way.

Today I’m personally thankful for: community races; all the volunteers who were out there this morning; and FREEDOM, may we not squander it.

Happy Independence Day!