Living in the Rabbit Hole


AliceRabbitHole

Very early on in my ministry, I had the opportunity to attend a class on homiletics and preaching taught at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky.   In that class, the professor, a well-worn and long since retired pastor, was asked how do you figure out each week what to preach on…How can you insure that you are relevant week in and week out.

His answer was straight forward.   Be authentic, and you will be relevant.  Talk about your own struggles.   Talk about your own fears.  Talk about your own life; with all its associated ugliness, bumps and bruises….and it will be enough.   He said you might never become the best preacher in the world… but people will recognize you as a great preacher, and that will be enough.

So with these paraphrased words running through my head…  I begin this posting.    Looking at the last update, I cannot believe It has been almost a full year since I last posted a sermon, a prayer, or anything on the site.  It never seemed that long.

It didn’t seem long, but the absence was deliberate and intentional.   Over the last 18 months my family and I travelled some pretty rocky roads.   During it I kept writing, but what came out of me, was solely for me.

Journaling has always been an activity of devotion for me.   Over the years writing has helped me put my thoughts, my fears, my worries, and my wants all in their right place.   When I write I struggle through my faith, work through my doubt, and in the end, have a conversation with God.   Over the last twelve months, those conversations have remained between God and me.

Slowly over the last few weeks, I started to get the ache again.   I wanted to return to this site.   It just seemed like the right time.   I became convinced of that last week as I found myself typing through a storm.

As many of you likely know, a week ago Wednesday, my mother in law passed.   Although the phrase mother in law is often used as a punch line to a joke, our family was blessed to have mine living with us for the past 17 years.  She was a constant part of our day, and an integral piece of our family.  Our heart broke when she unexpectedly left us last week.

At the same time, this moment was not entirely unexpected.  We expected this reality to be on our horizon in a year or year and half. On the night prior to her passing my wife and I had a discussion about what we were going to do as we moved into this next chapter of life.   We were not unaware.

We had reached the point where my mother in laws health was failing quicker and quicker.   It was clear that we were fast approaching a point we couldn’t do it alone.   Someone needed to be in the house virtually around the clock.    We were going to be alright with the girls’ home through the summer, but once school opened, we would need to talk about a new way of caring for her.

My mother in law had certainly spent many years struggling with her health.  Over the last few years, she fought a slew of medical challenges that made day to day hard.   We knew the time was fast approaching, but truly never expected it to be so soon.   She passed on – to a renewed and refreshed body – a week ago Wednesday.  Today we mourn and we celebrate.

This is certainly the normal order of life; this is how things happen.   We all will grow old, and people will leave us.   Both my wife and I are blessed that we have had our parents for so long…and even though all indicators have my Dad and Mom living another 50 years…  I know… we know… that this is not how life works.

I know, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easier.  As people of faith we are called to reminder that when our mortal bodies pass; we will receive a gift bigger and more beautiful than anything we can imagine…  Remember the words of 2nd Corinthians 5:6-8

“So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord”

I get this, and I preach and celebrate this; fully, convinced, and unashamed.  Yet, with her passing it was yet another moment, when we felt like we were getting our feet under us, the world was finally not shaking as madly, and in an instant the rug was yanked.

Our family has had a very shaky 18 months.   We began last year with chemotherapy and struggling through my wife’s breast cancer diagnosis.    It was a period of seven or eight months that had us exchanging the nice, neat controlled order of our existence with hospital stays, doctor visits, and unordered chaos.

When we received the word that the cancer was gone and she we clean, we took a giant deep breath.   As we exhaled, we learned that Stacey’s best friend and big brother, both father figure to Stacey and patriarch for our entire family, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Three months ago, we said goodbye to Sal.  His passing has left a huge hole in our family’s life, and we are still trying to wrap our arms around it today.   Every day I find a new thing that I need to ask Sal about, and I miss him incredibly.

Although saying goodbye was incredibly hard, we were just finding ourselves back to a non-shaky world.   We took a deep breath.    It seems that just as we were exhaling, we find ourselves having to say goodbye again.   The third punch to the gut landed with cruel efficiency.

See, I have come to believe – that although we cannot control everything no matter how hard I would like – that life is exponentially easier when ordered.    Our family runs smoother, our family is happier, our choices are smarter when they are guided by order and structure rather than chaos.   I would imagine that none of you would disagree.

At the same time, we all know that life is often more chaotic than controlled for all of us.  Acknowledging that reality, I am also very comfortable in saying that I am tired of the chaos.   I am tired of forgetting to breathe.   I am tired of the floor shaking beneath us.  I know that many of you, are probably saying the same thing.

One of the coping mechanisms we have in my family is to clean.   When we find ourselves closing one chapter of life – whatever that chapter may be – we clean.  We don’t just clean; we complete renovate, we purge, and we trash.  Maybe it is our way of arresting control back from the chaos.

During one such purge – deep in the abyss that we call our basement – I recently found a worn, tattered copy of the book Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.  The pages were warped with moisture and the spine was virtually nonexistent.  I held it for a moment before recognizing that the condition was too poor to keep. I realized in that moment that I wanted to read it again.     The book is psychedelic, and imaginative and worth a fresh read as an adult.

Today, I stand here considering how that story starts.   Alice in the controlled and ordered existence which is her life, catches a peculiar man-like rabbit race by her.   The rabbit is muttering that he is late for some special or important date.    Alice pursues the rabbit and before she knows it she is falling down a never ending rabbit hole.

The book details her story in Wonderland.   The story created incredible characters imprinted into our culture.    The Mad Hatter…   Flamingo croquet…  The Cheshire cat…    For me, I keep finding myself in the Rabbit hole.

The rabbit hole has become a metaphor of an entry into the unknown, the uncertain, and the chaotic.    It is a disorienting trip.  It doesn’t make sense.   It is full of anxiety, and uncertainty.     To be honest, there have been times over the last 18 months when I can’t help but believe we are living in the rabbit hole.

Having temporarily claimed this place as home…  I also find myself asking some serious questions.   I am asking them about myself and about God.

  • How do you find steady ground in moments that hurt?
  • How do you trust God when trusting is hard?
  • How do you trust God, when you find yourself screaming up to heaven that enough is enough?
  • What can I say – knowing that faith is strong in my life and self-imposed or not, that my life as a pastor is somehow supposed to model one way to take this crazy journey – What can I say to those of you who find yourself falling down that hole too?
  • What do I say to you when your life becomes shaky?    If I spend my own fair share of time yelling at God and demanding better answers, is there anything to say?

While the questions pop around like mad, I turn to scripture for although  I don’t always hear them, I know there are answers there.   The reading is one of the answers I have found of late.    Actually, the words found me at a point over the past 18 months when I needed to hear them most…in precisely the version that I needed to hear them from…     For me they are a reminder… they are the some of the last words from the Gospel of Matthew chapter 11.  Hear these words that found me via a random Facebook posting:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything too heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

I know and I trust that the answer to the Rabbit hole will always faith.   I am thankful for the reminder.   I am reminded that in the teachings of our faith, I will find the answer.   I will learn what it means to take a real rest.  I will discover and embrace – through his teaching – the real rhythms of grace.

The Gospel message has always been about finding the real rhythms of Grace.   Overtime, I have learned to believe that this place of Grace is found in a very simple but powerful formula;   show up, be present, open your heart (even if it breaks), and simply and completely trust God.

Throughout my life, and especially in moments of chaos, I am working on remembering to listen for and to embrace the signs that remind me that God is present, and the divine will break though.   I am working on becoming more deliberate in finding those points of renewal.

Some of those aforementioned signs of the divine breaking through are intensely personal, and some of them are visible for the whole world to see.   I think of the cardinal that takes up roost with me again and again for just a moment continually throughout my life when I need it the most.   I am thankful for those personal reminders.

I also think of those things that are clear enough for the whole world to see.  I think of the sun returning after a storm, the calming of the sea, or the mist of the morning.  These are all reminders that the storm, or the darkness never has the last word.  They are reminders that the walls between us and the divine are thin.

Maybe this time as my family inhales for a fourth time, we will have the opportunity to exhale.   I do hope so.   At the same time, I know it will just be for a moment.    Nonetheless, I pray for the deep breaths to come.

As I close this message, I would like to share a story.     It was one of those random messages that came some time ago just when I needed to hear it.

NPR – through a TEDx Radio hour – recently told the story of a woman who attempted to swim from Cuba to Florida unassisted.  NPR detailed how it is hard to find a harsher piece of ocean than what was found between Havana and Key West.

The water is filled with aggressive sharks, jellyfish with the world most deadly venom, and all types of meat eating fish.    She was attempting to cross it without the assistance of a cage.  She was heading straight into the nightmare.

She would swim nonstop for close to 55 hours.   She would have to figure out how to eat while swimming, how to avoid the predators, and how to ease the anxiety.    If she touched the boat she would forfeit the attempt.

It was not too far from her 30th birthday when she first stepped into the water.   Along the way she thought about giving up.  Her body agonized.  She was stung repeatedly by those jelly fishes and harassed by sharks that kept coming closer.

She even hallucinated.   At one point she thought she saw the yellow brick road below her in the water.   To her left were Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Tin man, and Coward lion.  To her right was Toto.   Through it all she kept swimming forward.

Finally after what seemed like an eternity,…she had had enough.  Her body and her mind gave up.  She stopped with her strokes.   Eventually after a few seconds she swam over and in the darkness and fog of the night, touched the side of the boat; marking the end of her journey.   Quickly she was out of the water, and huddled in a blanket on the bow of the boat.

Within five minutes of her sitting on the bow…the haze cleared.   It was then she saw the lights on the shore.   They were the lights of Key West.   When she had given up, she was less than an hour’s swim shore and completing her gargantuan task.

Her defeat and her heartbreak nearly crushed her.    She was so close, but couldn’t see it.   She didn’t know it.   She couldn’t see through the darkness and the mist to recognize that the coast was right there;  that relaxation, peace and rest, were just a short swim away.

We can too easily be just like her.

We can lose the fight against the temptation in believing that no rest is in sight.   We can forget the pure truth of our faith, and the truth of the cross that matters most;  that deep in the muck, mud, blood, and nastiness of Calvary, God breaks through.      It is in precisely when we find ourselves in those moments, moments of hurt, doubt, pain, breathlessness, doubt, question, and struggle, we need to remember that God will break through.

I am trying too.   ‘Trying to’ is just another name for our faith journey.  Learning to remember.  It is my prayer that you too can hold on to the promise as you learn to Trust God.

Oh and by the way….  She tried 4 more times failing to cross the ocean each time.    She eventually gave up.       Thirty years later, at 64 and after her mother died, she decided to try one last time.

This time when her body was raging, and her mind was convincing her to give up.  She kept swimming and eventually she made it.  She kept going by reminding herself that the darkness would break.   The mist would roll out.   She kept going by reminding herself that the light will be there.    To that, I say thanks be to good Amen.

(And to those who will come back to the JesseLeeProject,…I thank you.   At the same time, I acknowledge that both my proofreading and spelling prowess diminished immensely when I knew no one was looking.   I request your forgiveness in advance.)

15 Shekels: A Love Story


The below is a retelling of an incredible old testament story, originally concieved by Albert VanWoodsen, a minister in a Free Methodist church outside of San Diego, California.

I was fortunate enough to witness a much shorter version of this message, and walked away spell bound.   Maybe it captured my attention because of its MTV/Jerry Springer feel.   It is certainly a juicy story.    Maybe it had to do with the love that exists throughout the story, and the trust that we have which says in the end, that that love will never fail.  Either way it stayed with me.   

With permission, I extended the story, changed it, and made it a sermon some time ago.     As I prepared the message, I also found the attached sketch of the two, and from time to time found myself lost in the image.    I have yet to figure out who drew the picture, and sadly, I use it without permission.   Hopefully, the artist (whoever he or she may be) would believe that this message edifies the drawing.    This story is a familiar one, and we easily can picture ourselves in the middle of it.

We begin by picturing a busy market.   Not a market like Hannaford’s or Price Chopper, but a market from two thousand years ago.   Imagine a market in the Middle East over 700 years before the birth of Christ.   This is the village I want you to imagine.

This place is beyond filthy by today’s standards.   Dust and Dirt not only cover all that is being sold, but all those who are busily moving from cart to cart.   The market is at the center and most populated places in the city.    As a matter of fact, some of the faces we see seem to exist separate from the market itself.

All types of people have taken up residence on the fringes of this hectic market.    The streets, filthy as they are, not only serve as a place to hawk your wares, but to dump sewage, trash, and even the sick.   The smells of filth merge with the smells of food cooking and the unkempt animal stalls, and they hang heavily in the hot Middle Eastern afternoon.  There is no description adequate to describe those smells.

Walking through the market, you are hit hard by the sights and sounds.   All types of treasures and all types of spectacle are all around you.    The voices of beggars are combined with the voice of merchants and customers bargaining over the best price. None remain more than noise.  There is a musician playing a lyre off to the side, in hopes of separating you from a coin or two.    All these sounds; the good and the bad, have combined with the smells to make all your senses seem as if they had gone into overdrive.

As you walk through this mass of confusion and chaos, your ear catches something in the distance that is louder than the rest of the mob around you.   It’s an auctioneer, selling something and he has attracted quite a crowd.    You can’t help but find yourself wandering closer.  The auctioneer’s words ring through the crowd with stinging intensity. 

“Six Shekels, I’m bid six shekels,…who will make it seven?  You sir, will you make it 7?    No?   7 Shekels is a small price to pay for this slave woman, everyone knows this.”

There on a podium not a few yards from you stand, is a woman, naked and dirty.   It’s not hard to see that she wasn’t taken care of.   You can see every rib, and her body is covered in bruises.    Oddly you are captivated by this woman…something seems different… 

Perhaps it’s her hair.  You can see the long black hair, and you just know that it wasn’t that long ago, when that hair would have been beautifully cared for… now it’s dirty and full of lice.   It’s matted and dull.

Moving beyond her hair, you start thinking it’s the eyes.   Her eyes are dark not with make up or cosmetic, but rather fatigue and abuse. They are haunting.   You are positive that at another time or another place, the beauty of her black eyes would have brought men to their knees.   They would have turned Kings into Jesters.  It might have brought you to your knees.  The more you think about it the more certain you are that they would have.

That was a long time ago.    There is no doubt that whatever happiness and joy this woman had, left her a long time ago.   In her place stands sadness and defeat.   Those beautiful black eyes…are now empty.

8 Shekels?   Do I hear 8 Shekels?    Come on folks this is a great buy!   Where will you ever find a slave woman for 8 Shekels?   I promise you, the ones to come will go for 20 – 40 – 50 times this!   Anyone, 8 Shekels?

As the bidding continues, it’s obvious that although the woman is standing right there on the block, she is a million miles away.    She is in a different place.   She is in that place where she sees what was, and what could have been.   

She is rewinding the memories of her life.

She had not always been a slave.   She was born free.    She wasn’t treasure of war.  She wasn’t destined to be a slave.   It was something else.   She chose slavery.   She was once as free as the man who held her chains.  It seemed so long ago, and so far away, that it almost didn’t seem real.   It seems as if that life was just a dream.

She remembers her wedding day.   Everything was so perfect.   She looked so beautiful, with the finest clothes.   The celebration was incredible.   There was music and food.   The finest food and the finest wine was in large supply.   Everything was there; her husband had not cut a single corner or spared a single expense.  

The whole village had turned out to celebrate with them.   There were all types of food, and drink.   Fruits and vegetables, three kinds of meat; all made ready and with perfection for the guests.   Everything was perfect.  

Her body aches at the memory of the food.   If only she could have just a taste of it today.   The pain of her empty stomach, the memory of that day, and the collection of smells in the market, makes her knees quiver a bit.  She drifts off to another place.   If those around her were paying attention they would see another instant in the long time breaking of her heart.

She is snapped out of the daze of her mind by the snap of a stick that the slave trader used as both whip and attention getter.

I said turn around woman.  Show this crowd your backside.  Show them every inch of who you are.   Anyone 8 Shekels?

With a shame that was palpable, she lowers the torn fabric covering her naked body, and slowly turns to show each part of her naked, battered and bruised body.   

See the lash marks?   See the scars?   They are old.   She has learned her discipline a long time ago.   She is well worth the 9 shekels,…who will give me ten?   Ten for a slave that doesn’t need to be taught discipline?

In the humiliation of that moment, she finds herself back at her wedding day.   It was such a beautiful wedding.   Everything had been perfect.   Even her husband was perfect.   He was a good man.   He wasn’t rich, but he worked hard to provide all she wanted.   He was patient and kind.   He never struck her.   She couldn’t recall a cross word ever coming out his mouth.   He was a good husband….and a good father.

The images of her children, their faces….they arrive with a pain in her gut that is almost too hard for her to handle. It’s like she’s been kicked.  How old would they be now?   Are they okay?  

Of course they are, she says to herself.   They are with their father.   He was so gentle with her and with them.    He tried to picture them in their nice house, with their nice clothes, and she wanted to cry.    If she only she could do it over…if only she could do it over again….  What she wouldn’t do….  

She wanted to cry, but there were no more tears…

Ten shekels,…Im bid ten shekels…   Who will give me more…Do I hear 11.    We will never get to the better slaves, until you take her….

As the men stared upon her naked body, and refuse to bid,…she thinks about how men used to look at her.    She was so beautiful and soft then.   Her skin was soft, and her hair perfect.   Everywhere she went the heads would turn, and men would follow each of her steps, with a gaze that seemed impossible to break.     She loved the attention…   Oh, how her husband would beg and plead with her not to leave their home dressed as she was…  

She started to wonder when JUST the attention stopped being enough.   She remembers how little she was moved…or how little it bothered her… the first time a man gave her money for the affections that should have been reserved for her husband….She loved the money….the power…. The devotion….  She became a man’s idol and she loved it.

Her mind jumps to her husband, she sees the pain so clear and obvious on his face then, and it breaks her heart.   Why hadn’t she seen it then?   Why was she so stupid?   Why was she so blind…?  How could she have gotten so lost along the way?

He would have done anything.   His hurt and his pain were never hid.    What was so dark, so empty, so rotten within her….that kept her leaving that man…that good man….night after night…for the company of drunks, thugs, and nameless others?  Why was she so empty then?    Why was the passion, the urges, and the sins so much more appealing, than simply the love of that one good man….her husband?

Okay I got 10 shekels,….anyone willing to bid eleven?   I got ten….   Going once… Going twice….

She had been reduced to a harlot.   It was only a matter of time, before the men stopped looking at her.  She had become common.    She had become something less than common.  She was damaged goods.  She was soiled. 

She remembered the agony of seeing her beauty disappear, and eventually the men too.  There was nothing left.   She had nowhere to go.   She couldn’t go back to her husband…after the way she treated him.    He was a godly man….  He would turn away.      The law was clear….   If she would have returned they would have thrown stones on her. Isn’t breathing better than dying in that manner?  As she thinks about where she stood at that moment, she believed that dying might have been better for her.

She remembers that first night that she found herself on the edge of the garbage pit outside of the city.    She closes her eyes as she thinks about scurrying through the dump in search of anything not too spoiled or not too rotten.  She had found a piece of some sort of meat, and brushing away the maggots it became her meal.   She had become an animal, nothing more.    It was the bottom.

She was at that bottom…rock bottom, when she saw the slave trader.    He too took her, and after a while when she was no longer any good to him…He brought her here….To this day….He took her naked to the auction block….

Ten shekels, going twice….Ten….  What?   What did you say sir?   15?   15 Shekels?    Sir, I assure you that there are better women coming this day?   15 Shekels and 10 bushels of Barley,…   Sir….  Are you sure?…..   Um…  Okay,….15 shekels, and 10 bushels of barley….going once….going twice….  Sold….

In an instant the deal is done.   The one who bought the woman made his way to the auction block.  

Who was he the slave trader was sure to wonder…  Who cares was his gut answer….The seller counted the coins, and the barley…All the while trying to keep his smile from showing….   He couldn’t imagine the good fortune of getting such a price for this….  This tired old and beaten harlot…Let the tired old man have her.

The woman couldn’t move.   She couldn’t open her eyes.   She knew it was over…   But she couldn’t find the strength to go to one more man….one more owner who would use her as all the rest had done…. Maybe it would be for a few months this time….  She braced herself for the switch, whip, kick or the shove….Her eyes hard shut.

When she felt a soft, silken robe gently being placed upon her shoulder, her breath left her.    She looked down and saw hands closing the robe across her front.  She was no longer naked and exposed.    Slowly she turned around…surprised…anxious and confused….

It was Him….

It was her husband.    He was standing there with tears in his eyes, and slowly began to stroke her face…just as he did decades before….

Without a word of judgment,…or even a hint of disgust…He grabbed her face in both hands,…and with a softness and a tenderness she had forgotten…he asked her if she wanted to come home….  

Not as a street walker or as a slave….but as his wife.

The tears that had so long ago left her, flooded from her eyes.  

Her world spun.   Her knees gave out and she fell into his outstretched and waiting arms.  

As she felt his arms embracing her….   She knew…. She knew she was going home….    The emptiness was gone…

The story of Hosea,…and his wife….is a story about love.   It is the story of that unique love between a man and his wife.    The story of Hosea is also the story of another love;  The story of God’s love for each of us.

It is said, that a prophet has two roles as we see them in the Old Testament.  

The first is to show us how God Acts…and the second is to show us how we should.

This love, the love that God expresses, is for each and every person inside and outside of the church and the circle of our faith.   God stands waiting to bid on the auction for our lives, and the lives of billions of people.   This is who God is.

With that said, if God loves the harlot,…the hurt….the beaten and bruised so completely and wonderfully as this….Shouldn’t we?  Yet it doesn’t make any sense….  We most certainly want him to love us like this….  But it cant be the same for  him or her…. They are different…  They are druggies, they’re queer, she has had three kids from three different men….   He’s a wife beater…He’s a crook….he is in prison….He is a leper.  God’s promise if for us, it is not for them, right?

We come here,…we worship…we sacrifice… and the story of Hosea rocks us to our core.   The story of Hosea is our promise, not theirs.

It’s so sad, that too often we find ourselves remaking God…  We remake him into something that he is not…   We remake him into something less powerful…. Less mighty…Less loving.

I tell you what…  Take this story….   Take the story of Hosea and his wife,….Or any of the other stories in the book….and I challenge you to try to create a better, more incredible, or more life changing God than what is revealed here…  You won’t be able to do it….This God,…My God….Is so much better.

God’s love is just pain illogical.   God’s love doesn’t make sense. God’s love is a love unlike anything that I could have ever imagined.  You  can spend your days like Hosea’s wife….pursuing every broken promise, dream, and hope, until you are so far away from him, that you have a hard time sensing his presence.

You can embrace your broken lives and your dirty habits so much that you can’t even see how badly they are beating you down.   You can embrace the grit and dirt,…find yourself feeding from the garbage dumps around us….and ask yourself how in God’s name did you end up there.

But know this….

God’s love is unconditional, unqualified, and unrelenting.    In your nakedness, in your shame… in your lowest moments… He is waiting to put a robe upon your shoulders…. 

He is reaching out a grabbing your face in his hands…and through tears telling you….No asking you….  To come home.  Come Home.  Please Come Home with Me….

(To Read the Hosea Story, Click Here)

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