Directing Creativity: The Story of Joseph

Sunday, August 20, 2017 || Proper 15A || Genesis 37-47

In honor of holding a Godly Play storyteller training here at St. Mark’s this weekend, I’d like to take today’s sermon to tell you a story. It is an old, old story, one which we heard the end of just a few minutes ago. We heard the beginning of the story last Sunday, and then we skipped the long roller coaster ride in the middle. It is the story of Joseph from the book of Genesis. The story of Joseph teaches one thing above all. It teaches that God’s directing creativity can work through any earthly situation, good ones and bad ones, joyful ones and painful ones. Continue reading “Directing Creativity: The Story of Joseph”

Tapestry

Sermon for Sunday, January 3, 2016 || Christmas 2 || Luke 2:41-52

tapestryWell, here we are in 2016. Another year has come and gone, and oh so quickly. Years are short and not necessarily memorable unless we take the time to remember them, to stitch them into our living tapestries. I love that today’s Gospel mentions that Mary “treasures all these things in her heart.” Mary treasures both the painful memories, like losing Jesus in the caravan, and the happy memories, like finding him again in the temple. Mary treasures her memories, and they become the warp and weft of her life. They become the story of her walk with God.

At the last Confirmation class, we discussed how hard it can be to notice God’s movement in our lives because of how constant God’s presence is. We are hard-wired to notice change, not constancy. So to improve our awareness of God’s movement – and thus improve our chances of responding to that movement – I have a homework assignment for you. I want you to treasure things in your hearts.

Specifically, as we begin another new year, I invite each of you to look back over the past decade. For each year since January 2006, choose one event or theme that crystallizes for you what that year meant for your life. The event or theme doesn’t have to deal overtly with God’s movement, but I suspect that as you stitch these ten important moments together, you might start to see the wind of the Holy Spirit blowing in your life in unexpected ways. For the rest of this sermon, I’d like to present for you a personal example of this homework assignment. So, starting ten years ago:

It’s spring 2006, and my first year of seminary is coming to a close. I refuse to notice that love has already eroded into convenience and is well on its way to indifference. In mid-May, my girlfriend of two years initiates the end of our relationship. I push away the abyss threatening to engulf me because I need to focus on my chaplaincy at the children’s hospital. Back at seminary, I fall into despair. I isolate myself, presumptuously assuming that none of my friends has ever felt this way. I escape into the fantasy world of an online video game. I don’t surface again for many months.

It’s December 2007, and I ask my spiritual director to hear my confession in preparation for my first ordination. We enter the sanctuary. I kneel at the altar rail. I have written some notes on yellow legal sheets. The tears begin to flow as I confess the big things like my arrogant reliance on myself above everything else. I also confess the little things like cheating on that math quiz in fifth grade (sorry Mrs. Goldberg!). I am utterly exhausted when I finish. I feel empty, but in a good way, like there is more space in me for God to fill.

It’s June 2008 and blisteringly hot outside. There’s no A/C at the church, so I’m glad to be wearing seersucker. I kneel before my bishop and his hands are gripping my head firmly. The rest of the priests touch me lightly. I can feel my father’s hand on my shoulder. At the end of the service, people come to me for the customary blessing from the new priest. I don’t know what to say, but the words come just the same.

It’s late 2009, and some situations are just so brutal or hit so close to home that reliance on God is a requirement and not the fallback position. I get a call that a parishioner’s daughter has died suddenly in the night. God finds me cowering on the front stoop. I take a deep breath and enter the house. Every day for a week and a half, I spend time with the grieving parents, and I know without a shadow of a doubt that my normal strength is unequal to the task. I officiate at her funeral, my first for someone my own age. And God is there.

It’s the beginning of 2010, and I’m looking for a new position. I email my former spiritual director about a job on the day after she mentions off-handedly to her husband that she’d like an “Adam Thomas clone” to be her assistant rector. We don’t believe in coincidences, but in the weaving power of God’s movement. I start my new job in Massachusetts six weeks later. Four weeks after that, I meet Leah.

It’s February 2011, and I’m standing at the top of the steps in my church with my father by my side. Leah walks towards me wearing a beautiful white dress. We vow in the name of God to have and to hold each other until we are parted by death. She is my future, and you couldn’t stuff any more gratitude to God in my heart if you tried.

It’s July 2012, and I rush Leah to the hospital. She’s at a ten on the pain scale, and it takes the ER doctors all day to figure out why. The reason is connected to the fact that every month we hope and hope and hope for a positive pregnancy test, and every month our hopes are dashed. We cry a lot. We wonder what’s wrong with us that we can’t seem to do what our bodies are designed to do. The future we planned together dims.

It’s November 2013, and I get off the phone with Chris Barnes, who has just invited me to be your rector. I have to wait patiently for him to stop talking so I could say, “YES!” I feel the same sense of glowing rightness in my chest that I had felt about going to Massachusetts and marrying Leah. The next day, Leah and I have a special medical procedure, and two weeks later we see two tiny heartbeats on the ultrasound monitor.

It’s July 2014, and I watch as first a tiny baby girl and then a slightly less tiny baby boy enter the world. I look in awe at their solemn little faces and their fingers and their miniscule fingernails. I have no idea what I’m doing, but I hold them and whisper to them and change their diapers, and those seem to be the right things to do. I am overwhelmed, and my gratitude comes in kisses, not in words.

It’s the end of 2015, and I’m writing this sermon. I only cry twice (maybe three times) while writing it. It takes me a long time to figure out what to say about this last year. It has been a year of ups and downs, of complete joy and utter exhaustion. It has also been a year of first words and first steps and lots of food dropped purposefully on the kitchen floor. But as I look back, the one word that captures this past year for me is “home.” In all my life, I’ve never felt at home until now – until my children started crawling up the stairs and knowing which room is theirs, until I started walking in the back door and knowing that a pair of sticky hugs was in my immediate future. I am home.

This is what I treasure in my heart today. These are the events from the last decade that have woven themselves into the tapestry of my life. These are the moments – both happy and painful – that have helped sink the moorings of my faith deeper and deeper. As we begin 2016, I invite you to take some time to treasure the last decade in your heart. View your own living tapestry and see how the golden thread of God’s movement weaves through it. If you’d like to write yours down like I did, I would love to read it. Above all, in this new year, I pray that you may find treasure to hold in your hearts, and I pray that you may be the treasure, which others hold in theirs.

The snow shovel (or an illustration of God’s providence)

The following post appeared Wednesday, January 6th on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

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Here’s something you don’t know about me: I don’t own a snow shovel. This fact was unimportant until a few weeks ago when a record December snowfall dropped two feet of powder on Berkeley County, West Virginia. I woke up to a foot of snow outside, and the sky was dumping an inch an hour. I opened my front door, and the snow made an encroaching barrier to my front stoop. I went to the cupboard and pulled out my house broom. Sweeping the snow from the steps, I felt like Gandalf staring down the Balrog: “You shall not pass!”

But a broom is a poor substitute for a proper shovel, especially with the quantity of snow making islands of every vehicle on the street. And this is where the providence of God comes in. Providence is a tricky thing because one can easily over-define it to a point where we are simply chess pieces for God to move around the terrestrial board. To make matters trickier, one can also under-define Providence to a deistic level: God is merely an observer, having set events in motion with the winding of creation’s clock long ago. Neither of these definitions is satisfactory. Theologian Paul Tillich strikes a balance when he says, “Providence is a permanent activity of God. He is never a spectator; he always directs everything toward fulfilment. Yet God’s directing creativity always creates through the freedom of man and through the spontaneity and structural wholeness of all creatures.” *

So what’s all this have to do with my lack of a snow shovel? I’m glad you asked. Sometimes, encountering the Providence of God takes something quite small. We shall enter this small story during the early months of 2009, when a dear man from my congregation purchased a new car. He had been getting tired of his old Buick, and so he went for a shiny, silver Japanese sedan. But within a month of driving the car off the lot, he fell ill.

The cancer had been growing slowly, and for a time, the doctors held it at bay. The man spent several weeks in the hospital, until the medical staff, his family, and he decided that being comfortable in his own bed at home was as good for his condition as any drug. For several more weeks, he held on, making his wife laugh and cry, joking with the hospice nurses, slowly disintegrating from the inside. Not until his final day did the awareness, the flash in his eye, fade. He passed on in July, leaving his loving wife, a daughter, grandchildren, a cluttered house full of memories, and a brand new, silver, Japanese sedan.

Fast forward from midsummer to mid-autumn. A deer ran into my little Korean car, and the insurance company whisked it away to the total loss center to be evaluated. For some foolish reason, I didn’t have rental coverage as part of my plan. But I did have something even better: the man’s wife, who is the dear heart I’ve mentioned many times in blog entries over the last year. She found out that I was without a car, and asked (in her sweet, typical fashion) if I would help her out: “You see, his car’s been sitting in the garage since summer and if it doesn’t get driven, it will start to fall apart. I would be very pleased if you would drive it for me.”

I readily agreed to the arrangement, all the while smiling to myself because she made it sound like I was the one doing her a favor. After two weeks, my damaged car finally made it to the auto shop, the insurance company having decided it was worth repairing. I hoped to have it back by Thanksgiving, but the mechanic found more damage than the original estimate covered, which necessitated another visit from the adjuster. So when will it be done, I asked; by mid-December, the mechanic promised.

“Keep the car as long as you need to,” the dear heart said, when I told her the repairs were delayed. I suspect that if my car had been a total loss, she would have simply given me the shiny sedan because she’s just that generous a person. But I really like my car, so I was willing to wait out the repairs. I called the auto shop on December 17th hoping to hear that I could pick up the car that day. The collision was five weeks before, surely enough time to repair some front-end damage.

“Well, we took the car for a spin,” said the mechanic, “but it needs realigning so we put it on the lift and noticed something. Did you say your insurance company took the car to a total loss center first?” Yes, I said, not liking where this conversation was going. “Well,” the mechanic continued, “at those places, they use this kind of crane to lift the cars… We’d’ve never noticed it if we hadn’t put the car on the lift, but it looks like the crane cracked the fuel tank. So I need to get your adjuster out one more time to look at it.” Great, I thought. How long, I said. Another couple of weeks, what with the holiday and all, came the answer.

Two days later, the snow hit. With broom in hand, I stood on the front stoop and looked at the snow-covered Japanese sedan. The car had been driven a total of 317 miles before I took the wheel. I had put nearly two thousand miles on it during the last month. I thought about the dear man, a practical fellow, who bought the car last winter. I trudged out to the car, swept the snow from the trunk, and opened it. Inside was a shovel.

Now that’s Providence.

Footnotes

* Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology. Vol 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951 (p. 266)