Dealing With Droughts

Scripture: 1 Kings 17:8-16, 19:15-16, 19-21

I grew up in a fairly large family - mom, dad, one older brother, and two sisters.

So, I always remember that dinner and lunch time, gathered around our family table in the kitchen, could often be a race - especially between my brother and I on who could finish our plate first and get to seconds. I remember aways being hungry as a kid - I was a growing boy and I still am, eating to live and living to eat. So, with 6 people around the table, we didn’t always have many leftovers after everyone ate their fill. And if you left that table hungry, it was your own darn fault.

And despite some hard and lean times, when I know money was tight, somehow, we always had enough around that table.

Something my mom would tell me often growing up, especially on those days where I felt on the inside like I was competing, not just for food but for love and attention from my parents, was that “love doesn’t divide up - it multiplies.” And she’d always follow that with a big hug, as if to make it more than just a nice thing to say but something real to hold on to and believe in this life.

"Love doesn’t divide up - it multiplies."

Today, as we conclude this series, You Deserve a Break, where we have been looking at scripture and different stories for how they remind and encourage us to rest and renew our mind, body, and souls, I suggest that underneath so many of the pressures in our life and our culture that tell us that we don’t deserve time off or shouldn’t take a break come from an ultimately evil idea that there isn’t enough.

Food, resources, time, money, land, relationships, and even love are finite. There is only so much to go around. So if you find yourself seated at the table and don’t grab what is in front of you as quick and as fast as you can, you might lose out… forever.

- Like when there is a presidential debate and a score of candidates try to talk and yell over each other to get that extra minute of air time and get that extra impression
- When a Silicon Valley tech bro says that you should only sleep five hours a night to maximize your success
- Eviction notices a
- Horrifying images and stories of children of every hue and background, mostly poor, believing that this land in which they will risk their lives to come has enough to offer them a better life even while powerful voices complain that there is not enough for the people already here (in the richest country in the world)

These pressure lead to burnout - to drought - to trying to measure up to a bar of productivity and success that is impossible for human beings.

I’m curious what you believe - is there enough? Is there more than enough? Certainly, there are times when our resources are stretched thin, but even then, isn’t possible that if we share, no one will go away with an empty belly in this life?

The prophet Elijah responded to God’s call in the toughest of times - when it felt like there truly wasn’t enough. God had commanded him to confront King Ahab and Jezebel who were continuing to bring division, confusion, and evil into God’s land and among God’s people. But by confronting King Ahab and speaking the truth that God was so displeased that a drought would take hold of the land, well, ol’ Elijah became public enemy no. 1.

In our first passage, we hear about Elijah getting sent by God into the foreign country. Now, it might have made sense for God to keep Elijah safe and send him away from the clutches of Ahab and Jezebel’s henchmen, but bizarrely, God sends Elijah right into the belly of the beast - into the territory of God’s rival and Jezebel’s divine leige - Baal. The territory of Sidon was Baal’s home turf, so Elijah was potentially stepping into trouble.

But the drought that had gripped God’s people had also gripped this foreign territory, and trusting God, Elijah comes upon a widow who is preparing, in the midst of this drought, to make a small fire and cook the last little bit of food she had for a final meal. This was a sign of despair. The widow and son were likely some of the most vulnerable of their community, easily overlooked and ignored. And if there wasn’t enough to go around, then this mother and her child would be the least of the concerns of others who were more important and had bigger bellies to fill.

But even in the midst of this desperate situation, the widow still offers hospitals to this dusty foreign stranger from the desert.

She brings him water. She seems upfront about what little remains in her jars, just a bit of oil and flour, but seems to indicate a heart that is willing to give even of that if there were enough for all three.

Elijah, grounded in the affirming, abundant love of God for the vulnerable and hurting, makes what must have sounded like a strange proclamation of power in Baal’s home turf - he proclaims the abundance of God in the life of this widow and boy. *Until the drought subsides, your jars of oil and flour will never run over.* Suddenly, the one in the community who had the least to offer, who was over-looked, who no one wanted to help, who was no one’s responsibility, was the one who had the most resources to offer. The one who was the most blessed. The widow’s house became feast central.

And most scandalous of all, God’s abundant love wasn’t confined to God’s chosen people or God’s chosen land - but extended beyond the borders to foreign people who didn’t even know who this God was.

Love doesn’t divide up - it multiplies.

In our second passage about Elijah, we see God’s abundance at work even in the drought of burnout. Elijah had just faced the most victorious part of his ministry - he showed up the priests of Baal on God’s mountain and decimated his enemies. No sooner than that happens, Jezebel vows to end this pesky prophet’s life, so Elijah runs back into the wilderness to hide in a cave, hoping that Jezebel and God will forget about him.

How many of us wouldn’t mind hiding in a cave from time to time to escape the demands of our boss, our families, our bills, and our expectations?

But God not only doesn’t forget about him - God comes to Elijah in the silence, meeting him in the midst of his fear, his feelings of being overwhelmed, his fear, his inability to face the future.

Colin Buckland describes burnout in Freedom to Lead: "The exhausting of the inner resource that enables a carer to go on caring. The using up of the essential ‘inner you’, rendering the individual in a serious condition of dysfunctionality. The spending of self on others in such a way that the ‘inner bank balance’ has gone into the red."

Rather than give Elijah some kind of magical puff of inner renewal, this Abundant Creator gives Elijah the good news that he won’t be doing this work alone.

Not only won’t he be alone, he will pass the torch. His ministry is coming to an end, and it is time to literally pass his mantle, his robe, onto a younger more energetic prophet who will carry on the work of speaking truth and love in this drought. Elijah is to go and spread the call to Elisha, the next in line.

It’s interesting - one of the messages of our culture is that it is all up to us. We have to be a Lone Ranger, a hero - we have to solve all the problems and grow the church and earn a raise and meet everyone’s expectations and be the perfect parent. We have to do it all on our own, and God’s abundant vision of life here imagines even the work that God calls us to do of having a beginning and ending, a time to receive and a time to let go.

Elijah passes on the mantle, and Elisha takes the plunge, leaving behind his oxen and family to pursue God’s amazing call.

Mentorship and succession and teaching and passing on our roles are more than just something we should do because it sounds good - we do it because we all deserve a break. There needs to be a time to rest from our responsibilities and be reminded that we are not alone. And in that space, we can feed and nourish ourselves in such a way that when the time comes from the torch to be passed to us again, we will have the energy to run the race and do the work to which we are called.

Too often, even in church, we nominate each other to lead and then never relinquish our roles or run ourselves ragged. That does no one any good. What would it be like to live into this abundant love that recognizes we are called to take on and to pass on? What would it be like to be a church that models how we can all navigate and deal with burnout and droughts in a healthy way?

Elijah was never alone. God’s love for Elijah didn’t end in his own feelings of disappointment or failure - God’s abundance led to a fresh and faithful disciple to step in and carry the work of redeeming God’s people.

Love doesn’t divide up - it multiplies.

More than ever, our community, our families, our neighborhoods, our leaders, our world needs this good news. That God’s abundant love does not drain dry like a gas tank. That God’s table is overflowing with enough, enough for all who come hungry and need to be filled. That God’s care extends to the foreigners and the immigrants and the refugees and the desperate widows and orphans who deserve to be treated with decency and kindness. That God even doesn’t want us to do this work of ministry together all by ourselves, but to share in it and bring along the next leaders who will faithfully go where God needs them to be.

This is why I truly believe You Deserve a Break - because God’s love is so rich and overflowing for each of us. And God's love never divides up - but multiplies to include all of us, our neighborhood, and our world. Thanks be to God!

(posted July 1, 2019)

Stoking the Fire

Scripture: 1 Kings 18

At the beginning of this month, the Hill family piled up our tent and sleeping bags and went out on our first official campout with my son’s Cub Scout pack.

One of the first challenges you face on a camp out, after you get your gear setup, is getting a fire going.

But not for my family.

While one other scout family was carefully collecting twigs, leaves, old newspaper, dry logs, and so on, piling them up, bending down, blowing and blowing and blowing, praying, hoping, and longing for the spark to take hold and the fire to roar so they can enjoy their dinner, my incredible wife, Yunkyong, pulled out her Korean style portable gas grill, inserted a canister, and click - FIRE - we were cooking.

On many a camp out, I’ve been where that other family had been though - trying my best, down on my hands and knees, hoping and tending and longing for a few sparks to turn into something bright.

And maybe, there have been times in my life where I have felt that way too - not just about a campfire - but about my heart, my soul, my relationships, my drive to get out of bed and get to work.

In our series this month, we have been proclaiming the good news that YOU DESERVE A BREAK, and have been offering some ways, drawn from the wisdom of our God, on what we do when our energy dips? When our personal flames that fuel our desire to impact the world and look with hope for each day… when they flicker, what do we do? What do we do to revive those flames?

Our scripture captures a moment in the story of God’s people when the flames of faith seemed to flicker and fade.

1 Kings is part of the history of Israel and Judah, two kingdoms. No longer was Israel one proud united nation - now, they had splintered and were struggling for leadership in a world of division and competition and danger. King Ahab had come to power, and he had married Jezebel, a cunning woman leader from a neighboring nation. But scripture is clear that Ahab was not really up to the task to lead God’s people - he kept messing things up.

In fact, most of the history of Israel in the Bible is a history of leaders who can’t seem to meet the expectations - they disappoint and stray and struggle. They forget who they were put in place to serve. Not that we know anything about that.

For King Ahab and his people, things were dire. Drought had come and was ravaging the lands. Without water, the earth could not provide food for the people. And they looked everywhere else for ways to end this drought - including SEEN ON TV solutions, miracle creams, self-help books, and even TV preachers - which led them to Baal. Jezebel encouraged Ahab and many Israelites to seek help, tend to their sagging flames, by worshipping a God called Baal.

Baal was a well known God - a popular God across the Middle East in that time and was believed to reward followers with rain and renewal. It was Baal, not the God of Israel, who brought life out of the ground, and if there was a drought, it meant that the people hadn’t been steadfast and vigilant and passionate enough in their prayer.

But as this religious movement took hold in sacred places and the people begin to look for hope away from God, Baal’s followers weren’t content to co-exist. They began to hunt down the prophets and priests of God and extinguish them one by one - so only they could be the solution the people looked for.

Only one prophet, Elijah, remained, and Jezebel wanted him dead.

In our scripture, Elijah summons the courage to call for a final showdown between the God of his Ancestors and this new power on the scene.

A battle between Gods. A battle between ideologies.

Which God will show up? Which God will prove to be the answer to the drought and to the people’s flickering hope?

The deck was stacked against Elijah. There on the mountain top, it was supposed to be Baal’s domain. Baal lived on the mountaintop. And Baal had the power of the King behind him - many more priests and followers than Elijah seemed to have. It did not look good for Elijah. The priests of Baal gathered together and they piled wood high and began to pray. They prayed and sang and danced. They even cut themselves and let their own blood drip, offering their very life to summon this god’s power forth. But nothing.

Elijah even joked about this - is your God asleep? Taking a nap? On the phone?

Elijah, though, did something different. He rebuilt an altar that had been there long ago, an altar built by his father’s father’s father, dug a trench around this site as if to signify how separate and holy it was, laid down an animal as an offering just as it was to be done in the temple, and then, perhaps to show off, had the people pour water - as precious as it was - all over the wood. And then Elijah prayed, “Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your bidding. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you, Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.”

Elijah didn’t just pray for God to show up - but for God to transform the hearts of the people whose hope and love and faith had nearly dried up.

And God answered, bringing down a blast of flame that rekindled the people’s knowledge of who they are and who holds them in their hands.

Just like King Ahab and the people of God in those days, I recognize droughts and dry-ness in my own life. I recognize when the embers of love for my wife, for my family, for my church, for my community burns down to just specks of light. And instead of turning to God, so often I turn to other things - other wisdom and other gods (with a little “g”) and other quick solutions, hoping that they will do the trick and turn those sparks into an inferno. *I go looking for love in all the wrong places.* So often, in the process then, those other things make me less than - they ask me of my life, like those priests of Baal, and I give over my very essence and trust and get little back in return.

Elijah’s prayer on that mountain reminded God and the people of God who were listening who they really were and why they were there. So often, when we get worn down by this world and our commitments and our cynicism, we need to be reminded how we got here in the first place. We need to be reminded of our baptisms and our hope and the words that God spoke into our lives at the very beginning. Remember who we are and who we belong to.

One of my mentors would often do marriage counseling for couples who felt like they had come to the end of their relationship, and Rev. Wayne would always listen carefully to their stories and then ask them if there was even a flicker or ember of their passion and love for each other yet. And if so, to begin by gently cradling it and blowing on it and tending to it, remembering how they fell in love and what they admire in each other - and with God’s help, that spark might burn like Elijah’s bonfire.

(Of course, it didn’t work for every couple or every relationship - sometimes, it is best to start over.)

That would be the image I offer you today, as you think about your life and those moments when you feel dry and overcome - to cradle that which still flickers in a world where immigrant children sleep on concrete floors, where neighbors are afraid to step outside their front door, where gun violence shatters homes and street corners, when we stumble around with heavy hearts for those we have loved and lost…

It takes courage to pray for God’s fire to ignite and renew you. It takes courage to get out of bed each day in a world of injustice and continue to work to do what you are called to do. Sometimes, it is only possible when we think about the step in front of us, the prayer that we will lift up, and the kindness we might offer to the person in our path.

Dorothy Day was a champion of the poor - and a follower of Christ. In a book of her writings, Robert Ellsberg says this about her and the little things she did to keep the fires aflame:

"…she did not expect great things to happen overnight. she knew the slow pace, one foot at a time, by which change and new life comes. it was, in the phrase she repeated often, ‘by little and by little’ that we were saved. to live with the poor, to forgo luxury and privilege, to feed some people, to ‘visit the prisoner’ by going to jail — these were all small things. dorothy’s life was made up of such small things, chosen deliberately and repeated daily."

May we tend to the little things - and may God set them alight, bright as an inferno, for the world to see and know God's love.

(posted June 24, 2019)

God's Restful Community

Scripture: Acts 2:1-21

Of the people I have a lot of respect for in day to day life, it has be to immigrants - those among us who leave one culture and society behind and make their way successfully into a new one.

Especially many of you right here in this church.

Of the many challenges one faces when moving to a new country, language is the hardest. And not just language - but the little pieces of specific cultural context that can’t be taught. For example, my wife, Yunkyong, shared with me that two of the hardest places to figure out in America were the bank and the Department of Motor Vehicles. (And I know some of us born and raised here in America have difficulty in those places too!) Both have their own specific language and terminology. They are scary places if you don’t understand what is being asked or what different terms mean.

So, it makes a difference when Yunkyong can go to a Korean style bank, even here in America. It just fits. It makes sense. It works the way she expects it to work. It feels safe.

Banks and DMVs are just one so many hurdles people who are new experience here in the States, that they have to figure out on their own, sometimes making mistakes. And sometimes dealing with neighbors that aren’t always that helpful.

Right now, in our cultural, there is a lot of fear about what it means to be multicultural. There is fear around difference. The internet has given voice to people with messages of hate. They each can have their own corner of the internet to ridicule and plan and organize and attack people who make them afraid - whether that’s Jewish people or members of the LGBTQ community or people of color or women. And that can make this world hard to live in for those affected and surrounded by that negativity and those threats of violence. It requires energy to get out of bed when you feel like someone is going out of their way to mess up your day. It requires mental and spiritual and physical energy to navigate spaces where we don’t feel fully welcomed. It requires extra work to walk into the banks and hospitals and DMVs and understand what is being thrown at you, hoping you are saying the right thing and showing up in the right place. And if banks and DMVs are difficult, imagine how hard church is.

We as churches, as Christians, as human beings have work to do. How might God be calling us to live? What should church look like?

And I think Pentecost gives us an image of how God calls us as church to take that step too.

The name Pentecost comes from a Jewish festival that took place 50 days after their celebration of Passover. It was a harvest festival and it commemorated God’s promise to renew and replenish the earth. It was a time of celebration for Jews across the Roman Empire, some of whom traveled out of their safe home bases into Jerusalem to celebrate God’s renewal and care and provision for them.

During this festival, the disciples had gathered, still piecing together what life after Jesus would look like. Their beloved teacher had been executed publicly and shamefully, but after being laid in a tomb with the stone sealing and silencing his voice, Easter morning brought exciting news - Jesus lived. God had raised Jesus to continue his ministry and continue to guide his followers into a new season of transformation. Jesus promised, before he ascended to be next to God and be available to them at all times, to send them some support - an Advocate, the Holy Spirit.

So, there they were in Jerusalem, as the city teemed with crowds from around the cities - immigrants who had roots in other countries and visitors who had come into town speaking other languages to celebrate this festival. The disciples were praying together and sorting things out and waiting, as Jesus had instructed them. It was safe in that room. They were united. They felt secure and out of sight. They didn’t know what to expect next, but whatever was to happen was to happen on God’s time.

And maybe they would have been just fine staying up in the room forever, but then something unusual happened.

Acts 2 says that suddenly a violent wind interrupted their comfortable community.

Artists through the centuries have tried to figure out how to paint or imagine the grand entrance of the Holy Spirit into this safe space. Some picture the wind like a cool and refreshing breeze on a spring day, but theologian Margaret Aymer writes that “the Holy Spirit proves not to be a quiet, heavenly dove, but rather a violent force that blows the church into being.” I like to imagine the disciples were knocked out of their chairs, tumbling around the room, toupees flying off their head, cellphones clattering and shattering in one fell swoop of chaos and confusion.

This violent wind does more than rustle the hair of the disciples - tongues of fire alight on each disciple. The disciples sense a mission, a compelling force, urging them to leave the safety of that room and emerge in the flowing throngs of immigrants and curious onlookers in the streets of Jerusalem. A crowd, hearing this violent wind, have gathered to find out just what the heck is going. The disciples, like a well-coordinated flash mob, begin to preach to those curious onlookers, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, of death conquered, of new life available, aided by the Holy Spirit to not just preach in their own comfortable language but in the language of the multicultural, international assembly of people of Jerusalem. No matter where the hearer was from, the preaching was translated instantly and perfectly by these unremarkable Galileean fishermen, tax collectors, and rabble rousers.

Already, the disciples have left the safety of that room where it was just them and their thoughts and their dreams about what God was prepared to do - and suddenly, they had permission to be brave, strengthened by the Holy Spirit, to do something they never thought possible.

There is power when we hear good news in our own language, and that day, those crowds heard God speak to them in their own language. God through the power of the Holy Spirit and bravery of those disciples met the people right where they are - in their confusion, their wonder, and their curiosity.

God could have chosen to whisper this good news to those disciples in that room and then let them piece it out bit by bit for a fee or over the course of a series of Sunday morning sermons or through an academic course. No, God chose to use those disciples to affirm the diversity and multicultural beauty of Creation, speaking every language under the sun, so that a new community shaped in the love of Jesus Christ might break forth on the earth.

In the words of Rev. Mindi Weldon-Mitchell, “God speaks in plural.”

When some of the crowds began to pushback, wondering if the disciples had been partying up in that room all night long, Peter explains that today was a day of the Lord, a day that the prophet Joel had spoken about, when men and women, young and old, free and slave would have the audacity to prophesy, to dream and vision. This new community would live up to that billing, daring to imagine a community that was more than safe but dared to live into God’s expansion dream for humanity where “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21).

A community of welcome for all.
A community of justice for all.
A community full of brave disciples who go beyond their comfort in extending God’s love to even those who are told they are unlovable.

In this series, You Deserve a Break, this is the foundation for how I imagine church should be - a restful community, a community of human beings living in the way of Jesus’ love so that everyone who is a part knows they are loved fully and completely and everyone is invited to live courageously for God.

How can church / community give us rest?

Restful community might look like this:

A community where we can be authentic about our struggles and pain and loss and discomfort. No fairness. No illusions. No hiding. And where God meets us in our language and our own context - right where we are. Where we do our best to welcome that violent rushing wind and tongues of fire.

A community that invites us to move from safety to bravery. God does not call a church into being that asks the minimum of us - God calls us to risk and dare and dream and vision. That’s freeing. I am not talking about a church that keeps us busy in pointless meetings or tiny, safe decisions - but a community that says go for it, living your call and mission compelled by the power of the Holy Spirit.

A community where the love of God moves us from exclusivity to inclusivity. From the upper room into the community. From afraid to open. Growing churches care less about their own needs than their neighbor’s needs. That’s a hard shift! A restful community is one that constantly challenges us to move from a love that is exclusive to a love that is ever more and more inclusive for those who are hurting.

And that is the kind of community that our world needs - that immigrants need as they face so many barriers, as those in the midst of grief as they feel encouraged to push down their pain and hide, as those who are cast out of their homes or experience the fear of violence against their bodies, as those who are going through doubts and struggles in their faith…. That is the kind of community that our society needs in the midst of fear and division - a place of profound welcome and love - the kind of community that God brought into being on Pentecost.

Several years ago, a pastor in North Texas was launching a new church.

He was very intentional about this process with prayer and discernment, learning about the target community to launch this new faith community, dreaming and building and visioning of what this church was going to be like. One of the questions he was asked early on was about the makeup of this congregation to be. Would they be a multicultural church? And I think he sat down with his team and wrestled with this question but realized how difficult it would be. He told the gathered number of people, “We don’t plan to be a multicultural church, because it is too much work.”

That answer sat with me for a long time, because as we have done church, he was right. Being a church full of people who don’t look the same, talk the same, love the same, serve the same, and even believe the same is really, really, really hard work. There is tension. There is difficulty. How do we gather people with different stories and ways of life and understandings of scripture and cultural gifts and make them one? How do we do that when as a society, considering the history of division around race and ethnicity and gender, don’t always do a very decent job? His answer was a safe answer - and while sometimes, we need safe spaces, especially in this present moment in our culture, more than safety we need bravery.

Is this who we are called to be? Yes, it’s hard work - but I am proud after 60 years we are working out our bravery. May we feel that violent wind moving us out of this room and into a beautiful, diverse, changing world so that all who call upon the name of the Lord might be saved! Amen!

(posted June 13, 2019)

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