Monday, November 30, 2015

Advent Breath Prayer: Hope Nov 30

A breath prayer is an intentional pause
throughout the day to focus prayerfully on a
short phrase through your breathing. The
rhythm is simple:

Breathe in slow and deep as you whisper or think on a
word or short Bible phrase... Hold your breath... Then
exhale thinking on the second word or short phrase.
Repeat this for a few minutes as you relax and settle into
a prayerful mindset. Pause through the day to center upon
these words for prayerful reflection. Breath prayers are a meaningful way to slow down in this season of Advent to wait and listen for God's whispers of hope, peace, joy, and love.

Advent Breath Prayer: Hope, by Carson Overstreet

"Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness; let the earth open, that salvation may spring up." - Isaiah 45:8

Inhale: "Let the skies rain"
Exhale: "Salvation is coming."
Breathe in, breathe out God's Word through the day.

During the season of Advent we are waiting for God's salvation to come anew through Jesus' birth. What situation are you waiting on God to deliver you from? Pause and look up into the skies. Whether you are being bathed by beams of sun or being covered by the winter rains, trust God is preparing for salvation to come to restore us. We wait for God to act not just once in our lives, but daily. Where do you see God's faithfulness raining down today? O come, O come Emmanuel.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Belonging to the Truth

2 Samuel 23: 1-7; John 18: 33-37 by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
November 22, 2015
Christ the King Sunday

Now these are the last words of David:
The oracle of David, son of Jesse,
the oracle of the man whom God exalted,
the anointed of the God of Jacob,
the favourite of the Strong One of Israel:

2 The spirit of the Lord speaks through me,
his word is upon my tongue.
3 The God of Israel has spoken,
the Rock of Israel has said to me:
One who rules over people justly,
ruling in the fear of God,
4 is like the light of morning,
like the sun rising on a cloudless morning,
gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.

5 Is not my house like this with God?
For he has made with me an everlasting covenant,
ordered in all things and secure.
Will he not cause to prosper
all my help and my desire?
6 But the godless are all like thorns that are thrown away;
for they cannot be picked up with the hand;
7 to touch them one uses an iron bar
or the shaft of a spear.
And they are entirely consumed in fire on the spot.
– 2 Samuel 23: 1-7

33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ – John 18: 33-37

It was a very tense exchange of words. Pilate questioned Jesus and tried to understand the accusations against this supposed king. Pilate was the governor of Rome and wanted to know if Jesus actually belonged to his political accusers before Jesus' sentencing. In Jesus’ day the idea of belonging to a kingdom was a powerful thing. Everyone had a specific place in the kingdom. Everyone was expected to pay proper allegiance to the kingdom. And it was considered a heresy to claim you were king of the kingdom.

The first century kingdom was modeled as a political household. The king or ruler was at the top of this hierarchy of power. The wealthy and prominent ones in the temple or Roman office were next, followed by the influential business heads. The poor and marginalized were at the very bottom. It was an honor-shame society where those in power would do anything to gain respect at the expense of another. Sometimes our modern culture sounds like this too.

But Jesus says he does not belong to this world. In fact Jesus was turning the worldly kingdom of the first century on its head. He says he was born to be a king that belongs to the truth. Jesus does not belong to a political kingdom. The Jews believed the Messiah would be a political figure who would restore their renown and put them back on the map. Rather Jesus ushers in a kingdom that redefines belonging through the power of God - not the power of any human or human institution. What a counter-cultural statement.

I like the way that Shirley Guthrie talks about Christ as King in his book Christian Doctrine; a book written to help church communities articulate our faith:

[When we say that God is in control we are also saying], the lordship of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with the will of the people. The risen Christ is not president, chairperson of the board, or elected representative to whom we give power and from whom we can take power away…the good news about the power of the risen Jesus is that, unlike all other unlimited power we know, his sovereign power is the power of self-giving love.

The kingdom of God was promised to come through King David in 2 Samuel. This lineage was passed down through David’s generations and it was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. We find our place in God’s kingdom through Christ’s sacrificial love because God’s Spirit fills our hearts on this side of the cross. We do not belong to the kingdom of this world or to ourselves. We are not defined by our individual work, political affiliations, or possessions. Instead the kingdom of God rewrites our identity as beloved children of God.

A commentary shared that our American culture has trouble “reading the Bible and understanding the difference between the U.S. emphasis on the individual and the Mediterranean emphasis on the community. In the world of the New Testament, a person did not think of himself or herself as an individual who acts alone, regardless of what others think and say (Remember the household image). Rather, the person is ever aware of the expectations of others, especially significant others, and strives to match those expectations” (Feasting on the Word).

This type of communal belonging is a part of who we are in the Reformed tradition. Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church in the household of God. Christ calls the church into being. As the body of Christ we belong to the kingdom of God and our belonging holds spiritual expectations that we strive for together. Our Book of Order, the second part of our Presbyterian Constitution, describes our belonging beautifully:
We belong "to be a community of faith, entrusting [ourselves] to God alone, even at the
risk of the church losing its life."

We belong "to be a community of hope, rejoicing in the sure and certain knowledge that, in Christ, God is making a new creation. This new creation is a new beginning for human life and for all things."

We belong "to be a community of love, where sin is forgiven, reconciliation is accomplished, and the dividing walls of hostility are torn down."

We belong "to be a community of witness, pointing beyond [ourselves] through word and work to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord" (F-1.0301).

We respond to our identity as a community of faith, hope, love, and witness through the Sacraments of Baptism and Communion. And we are privileged to do that this morning. A little later in the service Genevieve Cook will be responding to the baptismal vows that her parents, David and Krista took when Genevieve was just a baby. This congregation also promised to raise this child of God in word and deed and in love and prayer until she could profess her faith. What a wonderful day to celebrate that Christ our King is the light and life of all people in the kingdom of God!

Afterwards we will be invited to gather in God’s hospitality around the Lord’s Table. We will be invited to receive a glimpse of kingdom living through the heart of God. The bread and the cup not only embrace us in God’s story of forgiveness and redemption through the cross and empty tomb. But these ordinary elements tell us God’s great story that we find our true humanity in Christ’s faithfulness. Our King is also a Teacher and Shepherd that shows us how to follow God’s ways into the ordinary spaces of life - at bonfires, around table fellowship, on the sports fields, at schools and our places of work. The bread and cup nourish our faith and strengthen us for the journey ahead to belong to the truth.

John’s Gospel tells us that the ultimate purpose of our belonging to the truth is this: "That we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God" – the King of our lives – "and that through believing we may have life in his name" (John 20:31). We belong to the truth so that we have a life that is devoted to seek God’s kingdom in all things and to be strengthened by the faith, hope, love, and witness of community. We belong so that we might extend God’s love and belonging to others. We belong as the body of Christ to pour out God’s self-giving love.

May each of us discover a new-found strength knowing that we belong to the truth.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


Shirley Guthrie, "Christian Doctrine" (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 276.
Feasting on the Word: Year B Volume 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 336.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Power of Love

Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Mark 12:28-34, by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
November 15, 2015
Stewardship Commitment Sunday

4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. – Deuteronomy 6: 4-9

Last week we talked about Christ’s commandment to love one another in truth and action. The Scriptures revealed that love is a verb. This week we look at the power of loving God and neighbor and its impact upon our lives.

Mark describes that the kingdom of God is most revealed when we live out our core belief to love God and neighbor. To devote ourselves to God and to be an agent of God’s transforming love is to see the power of God at work among us. This core belief is our guiding compass to be stewards of God’s love. Mark gives us a sense of urgency to follow our Teacher, Lord, and Savior in the greatest commandment.

Listen for the Spirit’s encouragement in Mark 12: 28-34.

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that [Jesus] answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.

Jim Noble had a vision for loving God and neighbor. His faith created a sense of urgency to follow it through. The past five years his vision has been impacting one of our nearby communities in a powerful way. Noble is a pastor and the owner and head chef of a local Charlotte restaurant called The King’s Kitchen. It is on the corner of West Trade Street and Church Street in uptown Charlotte. This year it was chosen as one of the top four restaurants in America for community change. I was particularly moved by their story.

The mission of King’s Kitchen is to love God and neighbor by “feeding the spiritual and physical needs of the least” in the community. It is a nonprofit restaurant that indeed operates as a ministry. Their financial gains are used to help the poor in the immediate Charlotte community.

The restaurant’s ministry is grounded in a Restoration Program that benefits neighbors who need a second chance in breaking the cycle of addiction, poverty, or homelessness. The program does this in practical and holistic ways. The Restoration Program is a year-long commitment. It entails a Bible study (5 days a week), on-the-job training, leadership classes, social skills training, and financial management training.

One of the participants in the Restoration Program is named Ronnie. Ronnie’s life has been significantly changed by the ministry of King’s Kitchen. He is a survivor of Hurricane Katrina where he lost everything. He relocated to Charlotte seeking refuge and got caught in a downward spiral. He has been homeless for over a year.

When Ronnie connected with the Restoration Program, Noble asked Ronnie to give God one year because that devotion to God would change his life. Ronnie did just that. Something amazing happened to Ronnie just after being in the weekly Bible study for five months and participating in the Restoration Program for one month. With tears in his eyes, Ronnie pointed upwards to God and said “King’s Kitchen has been an amazing thing.” He said, “As of today I have been homeless for one year and a month. After I leave this interview today I am going to get my own place.”

The power of loving God and neighbor has meant so much to Jim Noble as well. He is most impacted by “walking alongside others with the love of Christ, particularly with people that many will not even look in the eyes.”

We find ourselves in the next chapter of ministry – a time such as this - to be inspired by the vision of living out God’s love. We have an opportunity to consider how we will be stewards of God’s commandment to love. God has inscribed the great commandment upon the foundation of this church of which we continue to spiritually build upon. God has also inscribed the great commandment upon our hearts. When we spiritually center ourselves to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves, then great things happen in the name of Christ.

I love stewardship season. It gives us pause to consider the all that God has done this past year and how we have been guided by God’s faithfulness. It is a space to say thank you God! It is a space that gives us pause to look forward and imagine this upcoming year of 2016 and what God might be up to next. We look inward to put God first this year and focus on growing deeper roots of faith. And then we look outward to impact the community in the power of God’s love.

Together we are continuing to learn about the needs of our immediate community. Not only are we getting to know our existing neighbors more, but the Van Wyck community is growing. We want to be spiritually prepared to extend God’s hospitality in meaningful ways to those who are already a part of our community and those who are not here yet. In order to do that we need to go back to the core of our faith.

It is now more important than ever for us focus on our love of God and neighbor. The brokenness of the world weighs upon our hearts. There is a growing movement for people of faith to roll up their sleeves and work towards making a difference in the community and world in the name of Christ. Being the body of Christ fosters genuine community. So many of us are craving authentic community. Loving God and neighbor is greater than any ritual we might do inside the walls of the church. It takes us out into the world to see Christ in the eyes of another.

Loving God and neighbor means praying for the Spirit to lead us by the compass of God’s Word. It means praying for meaningful ways to come alongside our neighbors to get to know them and their stories. It means to extend God’s love in holistic ways that are life-giving. It means to recognize that we are connected to one another as children of God. God’s love tethers us to a shared responsibility towards each other.

There is nothing more impactful in life than to walk alongside others in the love of Christ. It is the core of our belief and being. It is the way of being stewards of God’s transforming love. When we live into God’s vision of love then we sense we are not far from the kingdom of God.

Thomas Merton once said, “The kingdom of God is not the kingdom of those who merely preach a doctrine or follow certain religious practices. It is a kingdom of those who love.”

I want for you to prayerfully imagine this next chapter of ministry with me. It will take time and it will take the dedication of us all. God has given all of us gifts to share whether we are children, youth, or adults (big kids). Let’s be inspired by those who are participating in ministries that are changing lives. Let’s be stewards of God’s grace. Risk trusting God a little more this year and let’s devote ourselves to love God and neighbor. See God’s faithfulness do amazing things through our prayers and the sharing of our time, talents, and treasures. Let’s be the church with a big heart. Let’s be the church where others recognize the power of love.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Love Is a Verb

Psalm 100; 1 John 3: 16-24, by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
November 8, 2015
Stewardship Sunday

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come into his presence with singing.
Know that the Lord is God.
It is he that made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the Lord is good;
his steadfast love endures for ever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.
– Psalm 100

16We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
– 1 John 3: 16-24

Simon Sinek is shifting the way leaders envision the identity of organizations. He has been sharing his speech entitled, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” through websites, books, and seminars. He says:

All the great and inspiring organizations and leaders of the world, whether it is Apple or Martin Luther King, Jr. or the Wright Brothers – they all think, act, and communicate the exact same way. And it is the complete opposite to everyone else. It’s probably the world’s most simplest idea. It starts with asking three questions in this particular order: why, how, and what.

This idea explains why some leaders are able to inspire, whereas others are not. Every organization knows what they do. Some know how they do it. But very few organizations and leaders know why they do what they do. By first asking the question “why,” it is to ask what is our purpose, our cause, our belief? Why does our organization exist and why should anyone care?

Most of us communicate by asking Sinek’s three questions in the reverse order: we usually start by asking “what are we working towards,” “how will we do it,” and then “why are we doing this?” But all inspiring leaders and organizations communicate opposite from this. They start with why.

John’s first epistle (letter) gets to the heart of why it matters to be a follower of Christ. We find our purpose, our cause, our belief in verse 23: This is God’s commandment, that we should believe in the name of God’s Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as Christ has commanded us.

Christ gave this new commandment to love one another right after he had washed the disciples’ feet in John’s Gospel (John 13: 5, 34-35). It was a humbling sight for the disciples to see their Rabbi and Lord lower himself to his knees and wash their dust-covered feet. It was a humbling act of self-giving love. And then Jesus rose up and said: I give you a new commandment that you love one another, just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.

The love Jesus talks about is not the love we find in significant relationships or the loving friendships that sustain us. Jesus talks about agape love. It is a sacrificial love. It is a love that puts others first. It is a love that meets others where they are. It is a love that takes risks. It is a love that gives up something in order to bring God’s healing and wholeness that restores.

This love that Jesus and John talk about is a verb. It urges us to respond to God’s love that was most revealed in Jesus Christ. We are invited to participate in God’s work in the world to continue Christ’s ministry as the body of Christ. But we are also to reflect and struggle with our connection to follow Christ’s new commandment. That is to love one another in truth and action.

I remember one of the first comments I read about Van Wyck Presbyterian Church. It was that we are a “small church with a big heart.” The past 131 years this body of Christ has taken risks to live out Christ’s commandment to love one another. Through the years we have been committed to grow in spirit to nurture the gift of faith. We have long extended care to members and friends in times of joy and illness, sorrow and bereavement. We are connected to the greater communities of Van Wyck and Lancaster to serve others. We took a risk to further extend God’s hospitality by building a new fellowship hall and kitchen. God’s faithfulness has allowed us pay off that debt.

Today we find ourselves in a new chapter of ministry. Together we are discerning the next steps that God is calling us to love in truth and action. In this next chapter we are praying for the Spirit to guide us deeper into our sense of purpose, cause, and belief. Our hope is that this small church with a big heart will grow more into our vision to Grow in Christ (the love of Christ) in Spirit, Service, and Number. The hope is to follow God’s invitation and Christ’s commandment to be transformed by love and also to transform the community and world in truth and action.

We gain a deeper conviction that love is a verb if we see it holistically. We learn that we might be good stewards of God’s love in 4 key areas or spiritual disciplines: through worship, discipleship, mission, and sharing.

We grow as stewards of God’s love in worship. Time and space are suspended in this time set apart to be in God’s presence with a grateful heart. We allow God’s story of transforming love to redefine our lives and purpose. We learn who God is and who God is shaping us to be. We lift our voices in bold ways to trust God is working through the celebrations and challenges among all God’s children. And then God empowers us to live out the good news in the ordinary places of life.

We grow as stewards of God’s love in discipleship. As we commit to follow Christ we continue to grow in his way of life. Our hope is for everyone to find a space to study, pray, and fellowship. We do this in Sunday School classes, small groups, socials, and personal devotions. There are deep roots of faith here in this body of Christ, but God is not through with us yet. God is still yearning to shape us into the people that God intends us to be.

We grow as stewards of God’s love in mission. When we share our time and talents to put our faith into action, then we see the truth of Christ’s love. Jesus’ ministry was relational. As he came beside others Jesus listened to their stories, affirmed their location in life, and extended his love to bring God’s healing and wholeness.

The spiritual leaders of this church are becoming more intentional about mission and ministries of compassion. In a few weeks our growing mission team will be taking Thanksgiving baskets to families in our community who need a hand up. Relationships matter to this church with a big heart. Prayerfully consider the ways God is nudging you to share your time and talents to love our neighbors. Continue to pray for our faithfulness to share God’s gifts to better this community. Continue to pray for our faithfulness to extend God’s hospitality and hope to our community and world in life giving ways.

We grow as stewards of God’s love in sharing. It is easy to think of spiritual disciplines as worship, discipleship, and mission. But our sharing or giving is also a spiritual discipline. We do not give out of obligation or duty. Rather our giving is rooted in gratitude for God's faithfulness.

When we give a portion of our treasures to God we are reaffirming that all we are and all we have are gifts from God. When we give through the formal commitment of a pledge or a tithe we are daring to trust that God will use these gifts to further God’s kingdom. We trust that Christ’s love will continue to break into the ordinary spaces of life that need God’s healing and restoration. It is a blessing for God to work through each of us to continue Christ’s ministry. Our giving – no matter how big or small – makes a difference in pointing to God's coming kingdom.

When we holistically engage the love of Christ as a verb we experience God’s presence in genuine community. We recognize that we are a part of something greater than ourselves.

Why does it matter to be a disciple of Christ at Van Wyck Presbyterian Church? First we remember Christ commanded us to love one another in truth and action. Secondly we share the vision to Grow in Christ in Spirit, Service, and Number.

How do we live out our belief, our purpose? We are striving to grow as stewards of God’s love. We are living into the spiritual disciplines of worship, discipleship, mission, and giving.

Why do you connect with this wonderful community of faith we call Van Wyck Presbyterian? May the Spirit help us to reflect and to be good stewards of God’s true and active love in this next chapter.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

* Simon Sinek, "How Great Leaders Inspire Action," TED Talks

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Letting Go

The Letting Go

O, tree of autumn,
you capture my attention
with your strength and beauty.

I have noticed you from afar
and gaze deeply into the manifold witness
you proclaim through your majestic colors.

How do you stand so tall and graceful
enfolded by the splendor of God’s mysterious Creation?

Are you confident in the beauty that you exude
or do you stand with humble roots of wisdom
knowing the change that is to come?

The journey of your transformation goes unnoticed
until the brilliance that surrounded you is all but gone
and only a few leaves of your glory remain.

As each leaf fell to the ground, was it hard to let go?
Was it a solemn release of all you held dear
or did Grace move you to trust the guiding hands of your Creator?

I see the barrenness that awaits you,
for it is in your transformation that barrenness can’t be avoided.

Remind me of the courage it takes
to persevere through the barrenness of winter.
Remind me of the new creation that awaits in the letting go.

Carson Overstreet
October 2009

Practicing Resurrection

Isaiah 25: 6-9; John 11: 28-44, by Rev. Carson Overstreet
Van Wyck Presbyterian Church
November 1, 2015
All Saints Day

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death for ever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. – Isaiah 25: 6-9

When [Martha] had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came 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. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
- John 11: 28-44

I always like sitting in their story. Each time we sit with the sisters – Mary and Martha – there always seems to be some nugget of wisdom to take away. Mary and Martha are approachable. They are not just two women with opposite personalities – the one who knows when to be still and the one who doesn’t know when to stop working. Mary and Martha allow us to look at ourselves, men and women alike, in a candid way. They hold a part of the human story and reveal another way faith helps us to reframe it.

Mary and Martha were overwhelmed by a crisis. It was the great loss of their brother Lazarus. I think it is human nature for our first question in a crisis to be ‘Why;’ why would God let this happen? The sisters asked the question. Their friends who rallied around them asked the question. But that is really not the focus of this story. God does not cause tragedies to happen and faith does not prevent us from hardships in life. Rather God is present with us in the messiness and faith gives us God’s perspective on things.

Christ sat with Mary in this difficult space. He was giving her a glimpse of how to experience the hope of resurrection. Christ had compassion and wept with her. Christ came beside her in solidarity as Lazarus’ death greatly disturbed him too. As they approached the tomb Christ asked for the stone to be moved. Mary got a little nervous about really looking into this loss that disturbed her so. ‘Oh Jesus, if we move that stone the stench will be – well you know.’ It really is a bit of comic relief. And then John gets to the heart of the human story.

You see, we are resurrection people. Tony Compollo used to say, “It might feel like Good Friday, but Sunday is coming.” God is on the move to bring light and new life out of darkness and death. If we believe, then we will see the glory of God. Our belief and trust in God’s transforming power is not culminated in reason or plain sight. It comes together by personal and communal experiences of God’s glory.

Christ gives us courage to look into our grief and loss; not just literal grief and loss from the death of loved ones. Christ gives us courage to look into the other things in life we grieve: our unresolved situations, our conflicts, and our deep concerns. Christ gives us courage to look into those things that greatly disturb us. If we were to approach that tomb which holds our grief and consider moving that stone alone, then we would worry about the stench too. You and I have a fear of poking and prodding what disturbs us. Isn’t it better for everyone if we just bury our grief and lay it to rest? To move the stone might open the flood gates of our emotions. It might stir the pot of family chaos. It might let fear run loose through our minds. We don’t want to move that stone.

John’s Gospel chooses some interesting words about moving that stone. Jesus said to take away the stone and just as it shifted Jesus looked upward and gave thanks to God. The Greek describes Jesus saying, “Lift up the stone” just as he lifts up praise for God’s ability to bring light and new life out of a dark tomb and death. Now that is practicing resurrection.

My heart has a tendency to lightly hold stories of when life significantly shifts for another. I am always curious to know how others allow faith to reframe their human story when it gets hard. Some need long pauses of space and time for the Spirit to whisper the peace of God which surpasses all understanding. Some say all they can do is continue to pray and trust God is present and working through the difficult times until God reveals more. As we see God’s faithfulness lift up the stone and we see glimpses of resurrection hope, we lift our voice in praise too. Isaiah’s words of praise become our own, “This is the Lord for whom we have waited for! Let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation (Isaiah 25:9).

I like the way Anne Lamott says it because it is real: “Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness, the discomfort and letting it be there until some light returns.”

If we go back to the gospels, Christ could not avoid the mess, the emptiness, or the discomfort of the cross. He let go of his power and control to die for us so that God would raise him and us to new life. God’s work in the cross and empty tomb is not just an eternal promise. It has implications for how we live our lives today. Christ empowers us to practice resurrection. He gives us a model of how to let go of our desire to control, to face our losses, and to trust that God is transforming our emptiness into new life.

A short time ago a friend of mine shared how life had shifted and she was struggling to allow faith to reframe the story. She allowed me to borrow her words:

A year ago it felt as if a part of my life died. I was laid off from my job. I felt completely alone as nearly all of my friends had moved. My living situation suddenly changed. My significant relationship ended. I was broke. I was physically ill from stress. I wasn’t just riding the struggle bus, I was driving it and the brakes were out. It was overwhelming. But through it all I sensed God was taking care of me.

As I was coming through this dark time I began to look outside of myself and God revealed something to me. We are all dealing with crisis. Either you just got out of one, you’re in one, or you’re about to face one. Even when it feels like something significant in life has come to a dark end, God is working behind the scenes to transform the situation, to transform us, and to bring us to new life.

This time of year the foliage falls from the trees and the time changes the length of daylight. The barrenness of the coming season slowly approaches. This time of year nature has a long conversation in my heart about our human story and when it gets hard. The season of autumn is usually filled with gratitude for God’s abundance, thanksgiving for the blessings of family and community, and the coming anticipation of God birthing new hope into a world which still needs a Savior.

But the reality for many of us in this season is that the shorter days and barren trees stir up the emotional work that we still need to tend to. We begin to feel the nag of loneliness, the grief of losing loved ones, the loss of good health, the grief of strained relationships. They are the things in our lives that disturb you and me. And yet Christ comes beside us in solidarity and compassion. Christ empowers us to look into the tough spaces that are crying out for new life.

Nature helps me to see how we practice resurrection, particularly this time of year as the leaves change color and fall to the ground. May you catch a glimpse of practicing resurrection in this closing poem I wrote a few years ago. The words came from my own longing to feel God’s transformation. May it speak to your longing too:

The Letting Go

O, tree of autumn,
you capture my attention
with your strength and beauty.

I have noticed you from afar
and gaze deeply into the manifold witness
you proclaim through your majestic colors.

How do you stand so tall and graceful
enfolded by the splendor of God’s mysterious Creation?

Are you confident in the beauty that you exude
or do you stand with humble roots of wisdom
knowing the change that is to come?

The journey of your transformation goes unnoticed
until the brilliance that surrounded you is all but gone
and only a few leaves of your glory remain.

As each leaf fell to the ground, was it hard to let go?
Was it a solemn release of all you held dear
or did Grace move you to trust the guiding hands of your Creator?

I see the barrenness that awaits you,
for it is in your transformation that barrenness can’t be avoided.

Remind me of the courage it takes
to persevere through the barrenness of winter.
Remind me of the new creation that awaits in the letting go.

In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

*"The Letting Go," by Carson Overstreet, October 2009.