Embracing Failure: My Body

Oooo boy, body image. A content warning for body image, weight loss, and all that jazz.





Back in 2011-2012, I finally lost all the baby weight. I was running 5K’s and almost at the time I was at pre-pregnancy, which was a decent, average time. I was still not at my “ideal” weight (I’ll get to that concept later) but I was feeling fairly good about myself. I just wanted to lose a bit more.

In that time period, we received our son’s diagnosis of autism, we decided as a family that we needed to move, as southern Oklahoma did not have supports in place, and we had no family or longtime friends there. In the spring, as my husband accepted a call to Washington and we began to pack and sell our dream home that we had only purchased a year before, I put on some weight. No big deal. I was still running and exercising and feeling great.

The move was stressful. The call I accepted ended up being more stressful than I imagined. My son grew (my husband and I are both tall, large people) and he could no longer fit in the jogging stroller we had, plus our neighborhood didn’t have sidewalks, making it hard to jog as cars zipped around. At some point over the next year or two, I stopped jogging, even though I was still walking as much as I could. I gained more weight. I had to go up a size in jeans.

It got to a point that last year I was within a few pounds of my fullest pregnancy weight. My clothes didn’t fit. I was scared for my health, because I had bought into the idea that being overweight = unhealthy. Even though I was a proponent of “health at every size,” internally I did not accept that for me.

In December, I had my first ever anxiety attack. I had tingling in my fingers and toes and felt numb on one side. I was certain I was having a stroke. My husband was certain it was stress. I called my doctor. My symptoms subsided and I had no other indicators of a stroke or heart attack, so I did not go to the ER. Instead, I made an appointment and went in. My doctor did all the tests she could: she ordered an EKG, she had bloodwork done (and I usually pass out when I have blood taken, but I did not this time), ran all my tests.

Surprisingly, nothing came back. In fact, my blood pressure was well within normal (it had been just on the high side the last two times I was in—I chalked that up to having coffee right beforehand, and this time I did not). Blood sugars and A1C were all good (diabetes runs in my family). In fact, every test showed that I was healthy. At my highest weight, and I was healthy!

That was enough to snap me out of things. If I was healthy, then I had nothing to fear. I didn’t need to scare myself into changing my lifestyle habits. I only had to change them if I wanted to change them. I looked at my wardrobe and decided I did (because I didn’t want to buy up a jean size again).

I took it slow and started back on a couch to 5K program that has worked for me, and I began on December 27th. I am now about 41 weeks into the program. Here’s the thing:

–I haven’t run a full 5K (I ran a virtual race in March but walked most of the second half).
–I haven’t lost much weight (At one point I had lost twelve pounds but have put about half of that back on)

However, I have:
–Gone down a size in jeans and now have comfortable clothes.
–Walked, hiked, and jogged weekly and feel better about myself.
–My resting heart rate has continued to drop (it was fine before, but it’s even better now).
–Made more conscious choices about the food I’m eating.

That last one doesn’t mean I eat always what is considered “healthy.” But I’m conscious about what I’m eating—do I really enjoy it? Does this satisfy any cravings that I’m having? Have I made sure I’ve had enough protein and fruits and vegetables (along with fats and carbs because you do actually need those, too). The biggest change I’ve made is that I want to enjoy my food, and sometimes what I think is enjoyable is not, it’s just quick. So I work to make conscious choices that will make me feel good.

I’ve hit some low points, though. There was a time where, within a few months, I had gained back all the weight I had lost, and I mentioned to others that “I hate my body.” I want to say to myself that’s okay that I hated my body in that moment. There are times when this meat sack doesn’t work the way I want it to. There are times I am bloated and a dress I love doesn’t look right.

But I also love this body. It’s becoming stronger. It’s softer. Even with “maskne” my face rarely breaks out and I’ve always had good skin, though sometimes it’s sensitive to certain chemicals and I have to watch for that. My blood clots well and I heal fast. I have a wicked scar on my lower abdomen from my C-section that still pulls when I laugh too hard, a reminder of how much this body has sacrificed.

Embracing failure for me is embracing that the “ideal weight,” the ideal body that the health industry and society has placed on me is not acceptable. I’d rather fail those measures and accept who I am. I’ve noticed lately, since embracing myself and my aging body, that I’ve started to hold my head higher and stand taller.

My grandma Lois used to always comment on my slouching, and I hated it. But she was just shy of five feet and one time told me that she always wished she could be tall. I hope that at some point she was able to embrace who she was, fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God (in fact, when I think of God in the feminine, I always think of her).

So now, I work to hold my head high, to stand up straight with my shoulders back, and embrace who I am—a tall, large woman of God who loves herself and loves what she is capable of doing as this beloved body.

Worship Resources for October 10th, 2021—Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Revised Common Lectionary: Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Psalm 90:12-17; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

Revised Common Lectionary: God Provides Manna, Exodus 16:1-18 (John 6:51)

The first passage of the Hebrew scriptures continues in the second half of the season after Pentecost in Wisdom Literature, and for much of October, in the book of Job. In this selection, Job is responding to one of his friends, who has called upon Job to get in right relationship with God. Job’s complaint is that God has been absent—it’s not Job’s fault their relationship seems to be nonexistent—and he calls for a fair trial, where he could lay out his case before God. The opening scenes with God in the book of Job take place in the heavenly courtroom, and the prosecutor, Satan, has laid charges against Job. Now, Job desires to plead his case, to share his defense, to appear before God the Judge, but Job cannot find God. He believes God can do anything, and is afraid of what God might do, but disappointed in what God seems to be choosing not to do—not answering Job in the way Job wants to be answered.

Psalm 22 is a song seeking God’s help. In the first eight verses, the psalmist pleads with God, feeling abandoned and forsaken. They know that God is the one their ancestors trusted long ago, the one who delivered the people from harm, but the psalmist has lost all hope. They see themselves as a worm, not even human, unworthy of love. They are scorned and mocked by others. But in verses 9-15, the psalmist asserts that God has been with them since they were born. God delivered them safely then, and they pray God will deliver them safely now, for there is no one else. The psalmist is dried up, they’ve poured everything out and there’s nothing left to give. They are in God’s hands now.

The prophet Amos cries against injustice in chapter 5. The prophet urges the people to turn to God for their lives, because they have not practiced justice. The leaders haven’t listened to God’s ways and have trampled on the poor for their own wealth and gain. God knows their sins—they cannot hide what they have done to the poor, it is public knowledge. However, God is warning them. If they seek God’s ways, turn back to God, and instead of trying to justify their actions transform their lives for justice, God will remember them and perhaps they can be spared from the consequences of their actions.

Psalm 90 is a song of prayer to God, a reminder that human being’s lives are short, and to God, they pass by quickly. The first part of the psalm reminds the people that their days will slip away, especially when they do not follow God’s ways. In verses 12-17, the psalmist asks God to help the people remember to count their days in wisdom. The psalmist pleads with God to answer, to turn back to the people with God’s faithful love, even if the people have not always been faithful. The psalm calls for God to bless the work of the hands of the people, that their good acts will be seen, and God’s kindness observed by others. The psalmist hopes that their lives will count for something beyond what they know.

The Epistle reading continues its series in Hebrews with 4:12-16. The word of God here is the Word that became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14). Jesus is the one who knows our hearts and our intentions. Everything is exposed before God, nothing can be hidden. Jesus is our high priest, one who has lived as one of us, died as one of us, and through his experience, we know we can be reconciled to God.

Jesus encounters a rich man in Mark 10:17-31 who wishes to inherit eternal life. He asks Jesus what he must do, calling Jesus “Good Teacher,” but Jesus questions him, because no one is good but God alone—meaning that this man either recognizes and acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, and therefore honors Jesus’ authority—or is saying it out of flattery. Jesus responds with a list of commandments, but the man says he has kept all of them since his youth. Then Jesus, in looking at him, loves him. He sees something authentic and real, and also heartbreaking. He tells the rich man that he lacks one thing: he needs to go and sell everything that he has, give the money to the poor, and then he will have treasure in heaven. Then he can follow Jesus. But the man leaves, grieving. Jesus explains to the disciples how difficult it will be for those with wealth to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus repeats himself, and the disciples are perplexed, wondering how anyone can be saved, but Jesus says its only possible because of God. Peter then boldly insists that they’ve left everything to follow Jesus—as if he is uncertain Jesus has considered them and their sacrifices. Jesus assures them that they will receive all these things as part of the reign of God—possessions, family, and friends, but also persecutions—and eternal life to come. However, Jesus still warns that many are first will be last, and the last will be first. Many of the disciples would die for the faith, even after experiencing Jesus’ resurrection and ascension and the beginning of the early church. Many of them would lose what is important in this world, in order to gain what is important to God.

The Narrative Lectionary focuses on “God Provides Manna” in Exodus 16:1-18. The people of Israel escaped their oppression in Egypt, crossed the red sea, and made it to the wilderness. And almost immediately, they began complaining about how there was no food in the wilderness. They remembered the food back in Egypt, especially how they could eat their fill of bread. So God made it rain down bread, manna from heaven. God also provided quail in the evening. The Israelites didn’t know what to make of the manna, a white flaky thin bread, but God commanded them to collect only what they needed for the day for their household. No matter how much they collected, at the end, everyone had just the right amount for their daily needs.

In John 6:51, Jesus identifies himself as the bread that has come down from heaven—whoever consumes his life, abides in his love, will have eternal life. The bread he gave for the world was his flesh.

What is important to us is not always the same thing as what is important to God, and this is a hard lesson. What we think we need to live a satisfying life is not necessarily what God desires for us. God knows our basic needs—food, clothing, shelter, love, care—but we often convolute our needs with our desires for more possessions, more comfort, more safety and security. Those latter desires can often shield us from perceiving injustice in this world. The wealthier we are, living in more affluent, secure areas—we never have to see a person experiencing homelessness, never have to travel through food deserts, never have to wonder if our electricity will be shut off. Instead, what is important to God is our relationship with one another and with creation. When Peter insists that he and the other disciples have left everything to follow Jesus, Jesus reminds them of what they now have—they now have family through Christ in one another. They have houses and farms and fields—through the generosity of others who have shared their lives with them. The early church in Acts 2-4 shows how the early believers lived out the reign of God by meeting each other’s needs instead of looking to satisfy their own desires. However, this is a difficult lesson for us. Jesus looks at many of us in love, and watches many of us walk away in grief from the life Christ has offered, because we have many things that possess us.

Call to Worship (Psalm 146:1-2, 6)
Praise the Lord!
Let my whole being praise the Lord!
I will praise the Lord with all my life,
I will sing praises to my God as long as I live.
God is the maker of heaven and earth,
The sea, and all that is in them.
God is faithful forever,
And reigns with justice and righteousness.

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
Gracious and Wondrous God, we confess that we never seem to have enough. We desire to have more. We pursue what we do not have because others have it and we want it. We push ourselves to extremes, ignoring the poor, the oppressed among us, those whose voices we have marginalized, in order to assure ourselves of worldly success, security, wealth, and notoriety. Forgive us for our foolish ways. Lead us in Your wisdom to pursue justice and righteousness. Guide us in Your way of generosity to a spirit of abundant love and care for those in need among us. Hold us to Your truth and help us repent where we have gone astray to the ways of the world, instead of following Your way, Your truth, and Your life, through Jesus Christ, who laid down his life for us. It is in Christ’s name we pray. Amen.

Our cup runs over in the house of God. There is always more than enough for everyone, and just enough for our daily needs. When we love, care, and serve one another, we serve Christ. Know God’s ways, trust in God’s truth, and be assured that you are forgiven, loved, and restored. God and share the good news. Amen.

God of all seasons, we take notice of You in the colors upon the earth. From spring in the southern hemisphere to autumn in the northern hemisphere, You are doing something new. Seedtime and harvest, You are painting a great canvas in our world of beauty and life. Renew our hearts, O God, in the turning of the seasons. Remind us how short and precious life is, Creator of All, so that we might count our days with wise hearts. Help us to enjoy Your earth and to care for it. Whether we are preparing bulbs for slumber or tilling the earth for planting, bless our co-creating with You, Holy One, and grow something new in us. Help us to perceive that You are doing a new thing, sprouting forth and changing, dying and rising again, for all things return to You, O God, Giver of Life. Amen.

Embracing Failure: New Ministries

Someone once told me they admired me because I keep trying new things when other ideas fail. This is an aspect of embracing failure that I’m quite proud of: I don’t give up trying new things. Ministry is, as I have said on more than one occasion, the work of the Holy Spirit, or, in other words, it’s throwing ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks.

It reminds me of that scene in Friends where Rachel and Joey are throwing wet paper towels at the wall and seeing what sticks the longest. It’s when Rachel decides she likes living at Joey’s. That’s the Holy Spirit at work—seeing what sticks the longest and deciding that you like living in that place of working with what sticks and shrugging off what falls.

I’ve been at my current church for four years. We’ve tried so many things: Pub Theology, two versions of Dinner Church, Hybrid Bible Study (even before Covid, online and in-person, one at lunchtime, one in the evening), Family Movie Nights, and then since Covid—online Bible Study, Book Discussion Groups, Zoom parties, Outdoor Harvest Art (having outdoor art supplies available such as sidewalk chalk, rock painting, etc.), and the latest, Wild Church, as part of the Wild Church Network, meeting outdoors once a month.

All of these have failed or have dropped to the point one or two are participating at the most. And there’s a number of reasons: Zoom fatigue, burnout, Covid, health and safety concerns, and the list goes on. But I believe that the biggest reason these things are failing is that church as we know it has to change. We have to move outside of the building, we have to turn away from what we have always done, and we have to rethink what our priority and purpose is. What is the point of it all, really? If it’s to get more people on the roles and more money in the plate, it’s time to stop. Those measures of success are worldly measures of success. Something to think about: despite the fact that Jesus fed five thousand people (really, just the men, as the women and children weren’t counted), despite the fact that Jesus ministered in all those villages and cities and even in Jerusalem, after his death and resurrection and ascension, Acts 1:15 tells us that “the family of believers was a company of about one hundred twenty persons” (Common English Bible).

Talk about failure! All of that—all that Jesus lived and died for and rose for—at one point was one hundred twenty people.

But it’s so easy to take failure upon ourselves. As I posted the first week in this series, we often jump to definition number four of failure and make it our identity. We believe we have failed. Not the activity or event—we take failure upon ourselves.

For example, our Wild Church ministry. It’s easy for me to be discouraged that of our eight gatherings, only three have had people beyond my immediate family. One of them, however, had several people, and they all said they enjoyed our time learning about the ecosystem, our connection and impact to the land, and that they would return. Maybe they will.

However, what has happened is that once a month my family gets outdoors for a long walk along the Ship Canal in Seattle. We learn about our environmental impact, we listen and look for signs of creation doing something new, we discuss how we might live better with creation. We are out there, rain or shine, and we end with a picnic lunch of PB&J’s. Once a month, our family has church in nature together, even if we’re the only ones. Some failures are beautiful and turn into something you didn’t know you needed.

This last Saturday, we gathered at the picnic tables where we usually do. I invited the congregation, I had posted about it on social media, I encouraged new students that we had met at the local Christian college to attend. At ten after our starting time, no one else had showed up. So I opened my Green Bible and read the quotes about creation care and relationship with God that I had selected, and the part from Genesis 1 about how we were created to care for the earth the way God cares for us. We prayed, and then we walked along the canal, taking note of places where our Parks and Recreation department was caring for the land (It was National Public Lands Day as well, so I incorporated that). We noticed the benches and fences protecting the vegetation from erosion. We crossed the Fremont Bridge and watched the kayakers float underneath. We stopped at the Theo Chocolate Factory for some fair-trade organic chocolate, and on the return across the bridge, received an “Ahoy!” from the pirate ship (yes, there’s a pirate ship in Salmon Bay). We picked up some trash, ate our picnic lunch, and enjoyed our time outdoors as a family, caring for God’s creation and our relationships with one another. If I’d given up and not participated, I’d have never noticed all the ways our Parks and Recreation department in Seattle are working hard to upkeep our trails, our benches, our waterways—all our public spaces. And I certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed the delicious salted caramels I purchased.

Embracing failure is recognizing that the true failures are our preconceived notions of what success ought to look and feel like. Instead, we allow those to fail, and for the new fruit to flourish. The measures of success we often look to are worldly measures. We aren’t looking to what God is doing in our hearts, perceiving what God is doing in our world around us, and drawing closer to God and creation if we are only concerned about gathering bodies and dollars. Because of Wild Church, our family is growing closer in our relationship with God, creation, and one another. Because it has so far been a failure—in terms of my preconceived notion of what it would take to be successful—it’s turned into a wonderful blessing for me and my family.

Worship Resources for October 3rd, 2021—Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, World Communion Sunday

Revised Common Lectionary: Job 1:1, 2:1-10; Psalm 26; Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 8; Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

Narrative Lectionary: God’s Name is Revealed, Exodus 2:23-25, 3:1-15, 4:10-17 (John 8:58)

The first selection of the Hebrew scriptures continues in Wisdom Literature, moving into a four-part series on Job. The story of Job is an old one, and some scholars believe parts of Job may be the earliest writings we have in the entire Bible. We know from verse one that there once was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job—a great beginning to any folktale. In this story, Satan is known as The Accuser—a heavenly being whose job was to question others in the heavenly courtroom. At the time Job was written, Satan was not seen as a being personifying all evil—instead, Satan was a necessary figure of the heavenly court. In this case, Satan suggested that Job was only faithful because God hadn’t struck Job himself, just everything and everyone around him. In chapter one, Job lost everything, including his children, but in chapter two he was struck with a skin disease that left sores all over his body. Nonetheless, even when Job’s wife suggested he curse God, he refused.

Psalm 26 is a prayer of help to God, for the psalmist has been falsely accused. They know they are innocent and ask God to test them and prove it. The psalmist declares that they do not associate with the faithless but love being in God’s presence, singing their thanksgiving and praise. They pray for God’s deliverance, for they do not deserve to be grouped together with those who do evil. The psalmist lives with integrity and knows they will continue to praise and bless God in the congregation, for they trust that God will be faithful.

The second selection for the Hebrew scriptures, Genesis 2:18-24, contains a second creation story, one in which God made humanity out of a human being. In this story, God made the first human being and then made the rest of creation, countering Genesis 1. God gave authority to the first human being to name all the creatures, but the human being was alone—there was no partner found among the rest of creation. So, God made a companion for the first human being, and at last, the first human being recognized its own, one that was of the same bone and flesh, taken from them.

Psalm 8 is a song of wonder and awe at God, the one who made all the heavens. God’s strong foundation and fortress is in children and babies, who sing God’s praise. The psalmist wonders, however, that out of all the universe, the moon and stars—why make human beings? What are we that God is mindful of us? And yet, God made human beings similar to divine beings, only slightly less so, and has given them glory and honor, and all of creation is under the care of human beings. How wonderful is God who has done this for us!

The Epistle reading begins a new series in the letter of Hebrews. This letter was written to remind the early believers of Jesus to stay faithful as their ancestors had remained faithful, even though they didn’t see the fulfillment of God’s promises in their lifetime. They knew the stories of their ancestors, and they also knew the words and stories of Jesus, the Son of God. The writer links Psalm 8 to Jesus, that Jesus, though God, came to be one of us, a little lower than the angels. Jesus suffered and died, but now risen, was crowned with glory and honor. Because Jesus was fully human, Jesus calls us siblings, brothers and sisters, and we are all now part of God’s family through Jesus Christ.

Jesus teaches about divorce and welcoming children in Mark 10:2-16. This is perhaps one of the most difficult teachings of Jesus, that Jesus equates divorce with adultery. And while much can be said of how marriage has changed over two thousand years, what Jesus teaches, in reference to Genesis 2, is that God’s intention for us is not divorce. God’s intention for us is faithfulness. God grieves with us. Jesus taught that it was because of their hardness of heart that Moses allowed for divorce, and it is our (humanity’s) hardness of heart that makes it often for reconciliation not to be possible. However, there are a variety of reasons when divorce is necessary, and this passage has caused much grief and harm. Instead, we must know that God does not intend for us to go through that pain. Instead, Jesus calls us to welcome one another, especially children. Jesus spoke of his mother, sister, and brothers—his family—as those who do the will of God. Jesus calls us to welcome children and not stop them, for the reign of God belongs to children and we must become like children. When we become childlike, we understand that distorted, abusive, and broken relationships are harmful. We need one another to be the family of God. And yet, we know that at times, the brokenness is beyond repair. God’s intention is for us not to break, but to be whole.

The Narrative Lectionary turns to Exodus and the revelation of God’s name to Moses. In Exodus 2:23-25, God took notice of the people’s suffering cries in their oppression in Egypt. God remembered the covenant with their ancestors. In chapter three, Moses, who was exiled from Egypt after killing an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew, experienced God speaking to him through a bush that was burning but not consumed by the flames. God called Moses to go speak to Pharaoh and deliver God’s people from Egypt. Moses asked God what he was supposed to tell his own people about the God of their ancestors—what was God’s name? God responded with a verb: “I Am,” or “Being.” Moses was to tell the people, “I Am sent me to you.” However, in chapter four, Moses was still nervous about all he had been called to do, especially speaking before people and Pharaoh. God told Moses that his brother Aaron was already on his way to meet him, and that Aaron could speak before the people on his behalf. Then God gave Moses a shepherd’s staff to perform signs before Pharaoh and the people, signifying that Moses had all he needed to go forward.

In John 8:58, Jesus, in an argument with religious authorities about eternal life, claims the same name of God that was revealed to Moses: “I Am.”

How do we know God? What image of God do we hold, and what image do we perceive reflected in ourselves? Is God testing us to see if we are faithful or is it that is God with us in our suffering, and we need to remember that God is always faithful to us. God made us a little lower than God out of love, but sometimes we have exploited that image, and not cared for creation; instead, misusing its resources. Christ came as one of us, called us brothers and sisters, siblings of God, but we have distorted relationships and hurt one another. God’s intention for us is wholeness, but we have sought division. We have excluded the most vulnerable, the ones on whom God’s foundation rests, refusing to see the image of God in all people. However, God calls us, through the songs of the psalms, the stories of Jesus, the teachings of the prophets, to remember that we are made in God’s image, all of us, and to love one another as God has loved us.

On this World Communion Sunday, we know that while we have a variety of ways we have responded to what has been passed on to us (1 Corinthians 11:23-26), we are still one in Christ. We are all made in the image of God, and together, we are one as we celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection until he comes again.

Call to Worship (from Psalm 8)
O LORD, our Sovereign,
How majestic is Your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Infants and children sing Your praise.
You have made us a little lower than You,
Crowned us with glory and honor.
You set us in charge of caring for Your creation,
How majestic is Your name in all the earth!

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
Creator God, we confess that we do not always perceive Your image in others. We dehumanize those who are different than us, especially those we perceive as enemies, instead of following Your commandment to love our enemies and bless those who persecute us. Throughout history we have distorted Your image, such as making You light skinned, when You are representative of all of us. We have made You male when You embody all genders. We have made You to hold worldly wealth and power when You taught us to become last of all, servant of all, and You laid down Your life for us. Forgive us for distorting Your image, for dehumanizing others, for not understanding who we are in relationship with You. Call us back to Your ways, to view one another as You view us, as Your children. In the name of Christ, who lived like us, died like us, and lives again, we pray. Amen.

God calls us all to be children of God. You are known by name and you are loved, exactly as you are. God is nudging you lovingly in the right direction. Embrace God’s love and correction of course in your life, and know that you are forgiven, loved, and restored. Go and share the good news. Amen.

Shepherd God, You are the one with us in the valley of shadow. There are many shadows in our lives, of the deaths and endings we experience, but we know You are with us and will guide us through. May Your presence be known to us in those deepest shadows, when we find ourselves alone and vulnerable. Remind us that while friendships and relationships come to endings, You never fail us, and we are never truly alone. We belong to You, the sheep of Your hand, and You will lead us to still waters and green pastures. We know You are the one who restores our soul, and we will dwell with You forever. Amen.

Prayer for World Communion Sunday
God of Harvest, we thank You for these gifts of bread and drink, symbolizing Your body and blood. On this day, we remember that around the world we are bonded together as Your children, and in all traditions and cultures, we have our ways of bonding over food and drink. We gather at Your table with these gifts from the earth, from Your bounty, and remember You, how You gave Your life for us. We thank You, Gracious Christ, for giving of Yourself, and creating a way for us to remember You, Your life, death, and resurrection, in the simplest of ways: sharing a meal with one another. Bless this bread to nourish our bodies, bless these cups to nourish our souls, bless this meal to nourish our relationships with one another as Your children. Amen.

Embracing Failure: My Novel

A recap from last week’s post that begins this series:

Merriam-Webster’s definition(s) of failure:

1a: omission of occurrence or performance
b: (1): a state of inability to perform a normal function
(2): an abrupt cessation of normal functioning
c: a fracturing or giving way under stress
2a: lack of success
b: a failing in business (bankruptcy)
3a: a falling short (deficiency)
b: deterioration, decay
4: one that has failed

The TL;DR version of last week’s Embracing Failure is that we often jump to definition number four instead of all the others.

First up in this series on failure: my novel.

If you know me, or have followed me on social media for a while, on July 22nd, 2020, I signed a contract with a publishing company to publish my science fiction novel. It’s been a labor of love, a book that I just can’t quit. My previous two books I gave up on—one permanently shelved (I’m not even writing in that genre anymore and don’t have a desire to pick it up again) and one that needs a lot of rewriting, and even then, it might be a book just for me.

But this third novel—oh, this third book. Third time’s the charm, right?
I wrote this novel during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in 2016. Remember November 2016? Eight days into the month and everything changed. I didn’t write November 9th, but I did on November 10th. This book took shape and flew. I finished with close to sixty thousand words by the end of the month.

After my initial revisions and beta readers, in the spring of 2017, I sent my very first query letter for this novel, and to my surprise, landed a full request with a big-time literary agent. And I was sure it was THE ONE. The book that would get me signed on, the book that would be my big break. Eight weeks later, I received a rejection from that agent. By this time, however, there were more requests from queries, and I didn’t sweat it. Both of my previous books had maybe one or two requests from literary agents. This one received a full request from four literary agents after only twenty queries.

They all, eventually, came back as rejections. I sent over fifty queries and heard nothing more. I submitted the novel to PitchWars (an online competition in which those selected are paired up with an author who mentors them, helps them revise, and concludes with an agent round as the grand finale, where literary agents can request the full manuscripts). I was not chosen but received personalized feedback from two authors who loved the premise. I sent more queries, and received a few “revise and resubmits,” which either were ghosted on (yes, this happens—some agents request full manuscripts and rewrites and NEVER respond to further correspondence) or later turned into rejections.

I decided to move on and wrote and queried a YA science fiction novel (my fourth manuscript), that didn’t receive nearly as many requests. I began writing another book set in the same universe that third novel, thinking maybe it could get me signed on, and then that beloved book would be picked up as well. I set that aside for yet another YA science fiction novel that I’m just now completing.

That third novel, though—it’s the book that I want out there so badly. And finally, last summer, I found a brand new publisher willing to take it on.

I passed my contract by another friend in the industry and negotiated for terms I wanted. I worked with an editor and had a wonderful process (there were things I pushed back on, and that’s normal—I would recommend my editor again). We started talking formatting with the publisher, what I wanted pages to look like, what my acknowledgments page would say, back cover matter, a map (YES!) and initial cover designs. For the first six months, everything seemed to go well. The publishing company officially launched, started a newsletter and shared about my book.

And then … nothing. There was no progress on my book for another six months. There was a book in the queue before mine and things fell behind, and eventually, the publisher announced on July 22nd, 2021—one year to the date that I signed my contract—that the company was closing, and all rights would be returned to authors. I received my rights back, and that was that. There’s always a risk with new presses—I’ve definitely searched on Writer Beware and the SFWA site and knew going in that there was a good chance this press might close—but still, given the amount of effort in the first six months, I believed publication would happen for me.

Failure, definition 1a: omission of occurrence or performance.

I’d told everyone my book was coming out in 2021. I’d changed my Twitter bio. I’d participated in debut 2021 Tweet chats. I’d talked about it on my Facebook author page and posted about it personally. I created a new Instagram just as an author and *gasp* even created an author TikTok that I’ve used only once because I don’t know how it works yet (another failure).

Failure sucks. No matter how much of this might be out of my hands, it still sucks. It would be easy to embrace definition number four and believe that I have failed. And for a while, I did. I cried big tears.

Then I dusted myself off, reread my manuscript (and changed a few word choices back to my original choice, because it’s my novel again) and sent it back out.

Still receiving mostly rejections.

Maybe it’s not the right book for the market. Maybe it’s not as good as I want to believe it is. That latter statement can be true, even if it’s hard to hear. It’s the first book I’ve written that I believed had a genuine shot, but for some reason, has fallen short.

I’ll say it again: failure sucks. But I am NOT a failure.

I’m (painstakingly) completing revisions on my latest YA novel. It’s taken me much longer (over two and a half years) with this book than I did with any of my previous manuscripts because I’ve learned a lot in this process. I probably made the mistake of querying that third novel too soon, and it’s an even more difficult market than it was four years ago to get a foot in the door. Whatever I put forth now needs to be as close to perfect as it can be. My standards are higher. The critical feedback is easier to take now than it was four years ago. Before, I would need to let it sit for a week or more, then I could read it more objectively. Now, about twenty-four hours is good. Critique is intended to make it a better manuscript, not to try to crush my soul as a writer.

It still hurts, though. I thought this book would be published this year. I thought I’d be sharing copies with friends and family. Even if it didn’t get rave reviews, it would be out there and the writing friends who have read it would see it come to fruition.

For me, self-publication requires too much—financially, mentally, emotionally—that it’s not the path for this book at this time. That isn’t to say I won’t make a different decision next year. It’s also not to say that perhaps another small press will come along and love it as much as I do. For now, this book is, as we say, trunked. Shelved. On the back burner. It’s not dead yet, but it’s not going to be my primary focus going forward.

Failure sucks. But I am not a failure. And neither are you. Whatever it is that has been a failure—whatever your dreams may be—you are not a failure. Keep learning, keep dreaming, keep pursuing and learning and growing. Embrace failure as part of your experience, part of what has happened to you—but know that you yourself are not a failure. You will do amazing and wonderful things—they just have not happened yet.

Worship Resources for September 26th, 2021—Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Revised Common Lectionary: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22; Psalm 124; Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 10:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Narrative Lectionary: Jacob’s Dream, Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23, 28:10-17

In Jewish tradition, the book of Esther is part of the Wisdom literature, and the selections for today tell the story of the celebration of Purim. Taking place in Persia, the story is about how the Jewish people survived in a country that was not theirs. Though many Jewish people had returned to the land of Judah after the exile, others remained where they had landed during the exile and even in the land of Judah they were ruled over by the Persians, then later the Greeks (which is perhaps when this story was written). Esther is a story of a young Jewish woman who was chosen to become a wife of the king of Persia. The king and others did not know her background, and Haman, the right hand of the king, plotted to commit genocide against the Jewish people. Esther, having won the favor of her husband, and through the urging of her cousin Mordecai, requested to hold a banquet. During this banquet, she revealed that Haman has conspired against her people and her very self. Mordecai convinced her to go to the king for this request even though she risked her own life, and the king responded faithfully to her because he loved her. However, the decree to kill all the Jewish people was already issued and could not be revoked. Nonetheless, the king allowed Esther and Mordecai to alert the Jewish people and allowed them to defend themselves. After the Jewish people successfully defended themselves against their attackers, the king declared those days were to be kept as a celebration every year for the Jewish people.

Psalm 124 is a song praising God for victory from battle. The song invites the people to join in and remember that if it wasn’t for God, they wouldn’t be there. God has delivered the people from their enemies once again, as God delivered them when they passed through the Red Sea. The creator of all is the people’s God—the one who has rescued them.

Once again, the people of Israel forgot their past hardships while in Egypt and only remembered their present difficulties in Numbers 11. Before they reached Sinai, they complained, and preparing to set out from Sinai, they complained again. The complainers became a “rabble” with a “strong craving.” God was not pleased, but Moses was fed up. He didn’t know what to do and he whined to God about it, that it would be better for him to die than have to deal with the people who are acting like spoiled children crying for their moms. God’s response to Moses was to call forth help, as God did for Moses back in Exodus 18. Before they reached Sinai, Moses’ father-in-law suggested that he appoint judges to help him. After Sinai, God told Moses to appoint seventy elders of Israel, and God’s Spirit was granted to them. However, it was soon discovered there were two others, not among the seventy, who also appeared to have God’s Spirit. A complaint was given to Joshua who told Moses about the two and that he should stop them, but Moses was thrilled. He wished that more people had God’s Spirit and were prophets!

In this portion of Psalm 19:7-14, the psalmist praises God for the teachings of God through the commandments and ordinances. The law of God is rewarding when one keeps to them. The psalmist knows, however, that there are times when they fall astray, and asks God to be cleansed of hidden shortcomings, and also to be kept back from those who are insolent and rebel against God. The psalmist concludes the prayer with the hope that their words and meditations are acceptable to God, their strength and salvation.

The Epistle reading concludes its series in James with 5:13-20. In these final verses of this letter, the author of James writes about the power of prayer. Prayer is helpful for those who are downtrodden and sick. Prayer is also a way to confess sins and seek forgiveness from God. The author of James reminds the reader/listener of how powerful Elijah’s prayers were, and so they, too, should trust in prayer. The writer concludes that it is important to help those who have sinned—who have missed the mark and gone astray—to come back to God’s ways. This is the power that saves us from the dead-ends of this world and life now, and from the power of death’s finality.

One of Jesus’ disciples, John, told Jesus that they found someone else casting out demons in his name and tried to stop him in Mark 9:38-50. However, Jesus’ response was similar to Moses’ response in Numbers—“do not stop him … Whoever is not against us is for us.” Both Moses and Jesus recognized the power of the Holy Spirit at work in people who did good things. It was not about identity—who you are, or what group you are with, or the line of authority that approves you—if you are doing the work of building the reign of God on earth, doing good things—then who has the authority to stop you? Instead, Jesus warned about becoming a stumbling block for others. Don’t do something that would cause another to go astray, to place heavy burdens on others in order to be validated. Instead, bless others, grant them their needs. Salt preserves and fire cleanses. “Have salt in yourselves”—in other words, do what you need to do to be right with God, and be at peace with one another.

The Narrative Lectionary focuses on Jacob in Genesis 27 and 28. Jacob was the second-born son of Rebekah and Isaac, though he was a fraternal twin. However, Rebekah conspired with Jacob for him to steal his father’s blessing from his slightly older brother Esau. This caused some great distress in the family once it was discovered, and Jacob was sent to live with Rebekah’s brother Laban until Esau cooled off. On his way, Jacob rested for the night, and used a stone as a pillow. He dreamed that night of a ladder or staircase that extended from earth to the sky, with angels ascending and descending on it. God spoke to Jacob in this dream, that his descendants would be like the dust of the earth, and that God was with him, protecting him, and would bring him home one day. Jacob woke, terrified and in awe, for God had been there and he hadn’t known it.

Jesus also recalled the stairway to heaven in John 1:50-51. He saw ahead of time that Nathanael was sitting under a fig tree and came to him. Philip had told Nathanael about Jesus, but Nathanael didn’t believe until Jesus told him how he saw him under the fig tree. Jesus declared they would see greater things than this—and shared the same vision that Jacob had of the angels ascending and descending to heaven.

There are several times in the Gospels where Jesus was accused of having a demon (example: Mark 3:22). Jesus then speaks about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. A demon cannot do good things. No one can do good works apart from the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ ministry of healing was the proof that the Holy Spirit was at work in him. In the same way, Jesus wasn’t concerned about the man that John saw casting out demons. The Holy Spirit was among him. Moses wasn’t concerned about the two others prophesying in the camp, because they were delivering God’s word to the people. The Holy Spirit was among them. Far too often, religious people of all religions like to claim theirs is the true way and others are not. Others must be influenced by the evil in the world. But how can we question the real-life experience of these good works? Jesus was questioned even by John the Baptist through his disciples in Matthew 11:1-6, if he was really the Messiah. Jesus’ response was to go report to John what they saw: the blind could see, the lame could walk, those with skin diseases were healed, the dead raised, the poor had good news. What other proof is needed? We are not called to be gatekeepers. Instead, we are called to recognize and honor the power of the Holy Spirit at work in all of God’s children, whether they’re part of our group or not.

Call to Worship
You call us into this space, O God,
Inviting us into a time of worship.
You call our hearts, O God,
Inviting us to know Your love.
You call us by name, O God,
Inviting us to know You more deeply.
Continue to call to us, O God,
And may we know Your grace and peace.

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
Holy One, forgive us when we have kept others out, intentionally or unintentionally. Forgive us when we have slammed doors shut that You opened. Forgive us when we have assumed our measures were accurate to determine who was worthy, when we know in our hearts we have all fallen short. Forgive us for the glass ceilings, the longer staircases, all the ways oppression in the forms of sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia, and economic status have been used to keep Your people from fulfilling the call You have on their lives. Forgive us for the gatekeeping that You never wanted us to do. Instead, fling open the gates, make a highway in the wilderness, and springs in the desert. For You are always finding a way where there was none, O God, and tearing down the walls we built, and constructing bridges where we assumed it wasn’t possible. Call us into the work of restoration, forgiveness, and healing. Amen.

Be the salt of the earth! Give flavor to the world! Preserve what you know of God’s love, mercy, and peace, and share it with others. Open your hearts to receive God’s mercy, forgiveness, and grace, and go and share it with the world, for you are forgiven, loved, and restored. Amen.

God of Awe and Wonder, we tremble when we think of the universe and what You have created. We wonder how we could be so important to You, and yet, You call each of us by name. You have given us meaning and purpose in this world. Like Esther, may we know that at times, even when it seems we have no choice, we still have the choice to follow You. Like Mordecai, we may not have the power and privilege to do what needs to be done, but we know people who do. Help us to speak up, O God, for Your ways of love and justice. Help us to cry out, O God, against the oppressive empires of our world. Help us to demand, O God, reparations and justice for those who have been oppressed. Guide us in Your ways, O God, because You are far beyond our understanding and comprehension, and yet, You continue to instruct us in the ways of wisdom and insight. Help us to draw near to You, O Holy One, and to live into Your truth. Amen.

Embracing Failure

Merriam-Webster’s definition(s) of failure:

1a: omission of occurrence or performance
b: (1): a state of inability to perform a normal function
(2): an abrupt cessation of normal functioning
c: a fracturing or giving way under stress
2a: lack of success
b: a failing in business (bankruptcy)
3a: a falling short (deficiency)
b: deterioration, decay
4: one that has failed

A lot to unpack in these definitions.

Failure is a word we fear. We take it so personally, and it consumes and defines us. We often jump to number four of Merriam-Webster’s definitions, one that has failed, instead of starting at that first one, part a: omission of occurrence or performance.

March of 2020 onward has been an omission of occurrence of what we expected, an omission of performance of society that we had known. Sure, there are some good things that may have happened in this time, but it’s still too early to be calling these “silver linings” or whatever. We lost so much. And closing in on seven hundred thousand deaths in the United States soon, countless others living with long-term Covid, families grieving the loss of loved ones, whatever insight we might have gained into how we need to slow down from the consumption-driven capitalist white supremacist cis-heteropatriarchal society that we live in—it’s too much.

Too much loss.

Jobs lost, education lost, social-emotional learning lost, mental health crises exploding. For families like my own with a child that has developmental disabilities, there is nothing that will bring back what was lost—and we’re still fighting a system that won’t provide the basic needs for a free and appropriate public education. Failure! Failure! Failure! It’s a klaxon blaring at us.

We read that last line of the definition and it consumes us. We have failed. We are failures.

Failure is not always a bad thing.

Yeah, there’s a ton of people writing about shame out there right now and some great experts, go get some of those books that are selling like hotcakes and learn to let go of your shame, or better yet, talk to your therapist (if you can find one and afford one—I’ve been on a waiting list since January with my insurance provider).

Failure is NOT something to be afraid of.

Look at the second part of that first definition: b (1): a state of inability to perform a normal function, and (2): an abrupt cessation of normal functioning. This is what has happened in the last eighteen months. This has happened to all of us. Failure is not who you are, it is what has happened to you.

I’m going to sit with my failures this season. I’m going to hold this part of me tenderly and share some of the failures I’ve experienced in my life and not jump to number four of the definition and take it on as my identity. I’m going to stick with that first definition, and I will pay especially close attention to letter c: a fracturing or giving way under stress.

Because that’s where we’re at with failure. We can fracture and give way, or we can hold ourselves gently, care for our brains and hearts and bodies and spirits. For Christians, we speak about loving God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength and with all our mind, and loving our neighbor as ourselves as the greatest commandment (Mark 12:28-34). So let’s love our neighbors well by loving ourselves well and caring for our whole being so we don’t fracture and give way under stress, but instead, care for the parts that are wounded, struggling, about to break. Acknowledging our failures helps us to heal.

So I’m going to blog about failure, once a week (if I can keep up, I might fail at that) or until I feel it’s out of my system, because I have experienced failure a lot in my life lately. My novel that I’ve told you all about due to come out this year? Publisher closed. New outdoor church ministry begun during Covid? It’s mainly been my family in attendance. Plan to run a 5K this spring? I walked most of it and still can’t run it in its entirety as fall approaches. Most recently, the treatment and surgery plan for my mom fell through as the chemo didn’t shrink the tumors the way we had hoped. While that last one might not seem as internal, it does feel like a failure, definition 1 b 2: an abrupt cessation of normal functioning. What we had expected was abruptly changed.

But failure is not our identity. It is not mine and not yours. It is something instead that we have experienced, and instead of becoming dejected, I hope to embrace, learn, and heal with my failures. Maybe it will be helpful for you, too.

Worship Resources for September 19th, 2021—Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Revised Common Lectionary: Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; Jeremiah 11:18-20; Psalm 54; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

Narrative Lectionary: Binding of Isaac, Genesis 21:1-3, 22:1-14 (John 1:29)

Continuing the theme of Wisdom Literature in the first selection of the Hebrew Scriptures, the book of Proverbs closes with these verses about a Woman of Valor (the NRSV translates this as “A Capable Wife”). Rachel Held Evans explored this passage extensively in her book A Year of Biblical Womanhood, and that contemporary Jewish understanding of this passage has been one of celebration. This passage praises women in this time period, lifting up their gifts and strengths, celebrating women who wisely run their household and make decisions for their family. A woman of honor is generous, kind, considers carefully before making decisions, and is praised by her family. A woman of honor doesn’t worry about worldly measures of success including worldly beauty and wealth, but instead, seeks the wisdom of God.

The first psalm is a song of wisdom, opening the book of Psalms. Those who follow God’s ways grow like trees near water, rooted in God’s wisdom and bearing fruit, never withering. Those who are wicked have no roots, blowing about like weeds in the wind. Wicked ways lead to dead ends, but God, like an arborist, watches over the righteous as they grow and bear fruit, rooted in the way of wisdom.

The prophet Jeremiah tells of how naïve he was when the religious leaders plotted against him, in 11:18-20. God showed him that the leaders of Israel and Judah were wicked, but Jeremiah didn’t know they would take their anger out on him for sharing God’s message. However, Jeremiah will remain faithful to God, because God judges with righteousness.

Psalm 54 is a prayer to God for deliverance from one’s enemies. There are those pursuing the psalmist who seek their life, and the psalmist prays for God’s vindication. Evil is repaid with evil, but God is faithful and upholds life. The psalmist knows that God will come through and offers a thanksgiving sacrifice, praising God, knowing God will bring help and rescue.

The Epistle reading continues in James with 3:12-4:3, 7-8a, writing about living in the ways of wisdom rather than worldly ways. Envy and selfish ambition lead to wickedness, but doing good works leads the faithful in righteousness, a “gentleness born of wisdom.” Wisdom leads to bearing good, spiritual fruit. The ways of the world lead to evil and corruption, especially desire and greed. When we submit our lives to God, we submerse our lives in God’s love, in God’s wisdom, and can resist the ways of this world. Evil will flee from us when we transform our lives to God’s ways. “Draw near to God, and [God] will draw near to you.”

Jesus again spoke of how he would be betrayed and killed and would rise again in Mark 9:30-37. However, the disciples were afraid to ask Jesus what he meant because they didn’t understand. Instead, they began arguing about who was the greatest. When Jesus asked them what they were discussing, they were ashamed; however, Jesus knew what was on their minds. He taught them that whoever wanted to become first must serve all, becoming last, like a child. A child is full of wonder and curiosity. A child in Jesus’ day didn’t have many rights, and although children were needed to pass down property and inheritance, they weren’t considered of importance until they reached maturity. However, Jesus taught the disciples they must welcome others like he welcomed this child. Instead of worrying about who would be the greatest, they ought to be worried about who was left out, lost, and forgotten.

The Narrative Lectionary moves to the Binding of Isaac in Genesis 21:1-3, 22:1-14. God had promised Sarah and Abraham a son, and when he was born, he was named Laughter—a child born in their old age. However, God tested Abraham, requiring him to take Isaac, his only son, up the mountain as a sacrifice for God. The words of scripture tell us that because Abraham didn’t hold back even his only Son, God was pleased, and stopped Abraham, providing a ram instead. However, there is more to the story. In ancient Israel, there were other gods of other peoples that required child sacrifice. This story may have been used to teach how God would never require someone to sacrifice their children, that God is the one who rescues us from the ways of this world that require unspeakable sacrifices to gain divine or worldly favor. In Christian tradition, this story is sometimes seen as a precursor to Jesus’ sacrifice, that God does not require us to sacrifice because of Jesus, the sacrifice that ends all sacrifice. However, it’s important to recognize historic Jewish interpretation and cultural understandings of this story.

John 1:29 is John the Baptist’s declaration that Jesus is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. The Narrative Lectionary pairs this verse with the story of Isaac as part of historic Christian interpretation of the sacrifice of Isaac.

What is most important in our lives? Sometimes the things we think are important lead us astray. We work to make more money, with the intention of providing for our family and having enough. However, when do we determine we have enough? When do the desires and envy of the world pull us into consuming more and gaining more? Who might suffer because of our desires? What systems of the world are at play that produce more products at lower costs? What do we sacrifice in our own lives to gain more? God flips the world upside down. We aren’t called to sacrifice our families, our friends, the people we love for the sake of making more money. We aren’t even called to sacrifice our neighbors in need for the sake of having more. We aren’t called to sacrifice our health to gain the next promotion, the next worldly measure of success. Instead, when we root ourselves in God’s wisdom, and resist the ways of the world, we find God provides for us in a multitude of ways. It will still be a hard life, but the rewards are eternal.

Call to Worship
Hearts open, we enter this space
Recalling how much we are loved.
Minds open, we enter this space
Receiving God’s wisdom and insight.
Arms open, we enter this space
Ready to share God’s love in word and deed.
Lives open, we enter this space
Being transformed by God’s love, wisdom, and work.

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
Wise God our Savior, we confess that we often fail to seek Your wisdom and insight in our life. Instead, we follow what is trending online, the market, the desires of others that become our own. We seek to have and consume much more than we need. God of Wisdom, turn us back to Your ways, to become Your children, full of wonder and awe at You and the world You have made. Turn us back to Your ways so that we love our neighbors as ourselves, and in our mutual love and care, our lives are transformed. Turn us back, O God, so that we might recall we are made in Your image, with the power to co-create and build Your reign here on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Blessing/Assurance (from James 3:8a)
“Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.” Know that whenever you turn back to God, God is right there with open arms. You are forgiven, loved, and restored. Center yourself in God’s love, and no evil can tempt you away. Go forth and share the good news of God’s love with the world, for this is the wisdom of God. Amen.

Gracious and loving One, we praise You for Your wisdom and insight that has been passed down through the generations. We give You thanks for the sages of old, the prophets, the folk singers and storytellers, poets and historians who have kept Your words alive for us. We praise You for the scriptures that have been collected and compiled for us as the Bible. Grant us the knowledge to understand the historical, cultural, and other religious contexts of our scriptures, so that we might truly be wise in the application of Your Way to our lives. Remind us that the world we know has changed, that our lives have been changed, and that You are the One who makes all things new, even our understanding. You made all of creation out of goodness and love. Guide us with hearts open to Your goodness, mercy, and love in this world. Amen.

Worship Resources for September 12th, 2021—Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Revised Common Lectionary: Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 116:1-9; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

Narrative Lectionary: Creation by the Word, Genesis 1:1-2:4a (John 1:1-5)

The first selection of the Hebrew Scriptures continues the theme of Wisdom Literature, in this second half of the season after Pentecost. In Proverbs, Wisdom is personified as a woman, one who calls out to the people from the crossroads and city square, where the people are going about their daily lives. She calls to them to turn to her voice, to turn to God’s ways. But the people have refused to listen as they live, moving from one thing to the next, so she mocks them and laughs. The people had the opportunity to listen and follow God’s ways, but they refused, and in their time of need, God’s wisdom and knowledge will be hard to come by. Pay attention and seek wisdom now, in this moment.

Psalm 19 is a song of praise for God as creator, and also for God as the giver of the law to the people. In verses 1-6, creation itself is a witness to God’s works of wonder, the sun at sunrise like a bridegroom emerging from his tent. Nothing is hidden from the glory of God in creation. In verses 7-14, the psalmist praises God’s instruction, laws, and commandments, which revive the people. These are necessary to life, and the psalmist sings for joy. The psalmist concludes with a prayer seeking to be cleansed of hidden faults, anything that might lead them astray from God, and prays that their prayer will be acceptable to God.

Isaiah 50:4-9a is one of the Suffering Servant passages, where the people of Israel who have suffered are personified through the voice of the prophet. God has taught through the prophet, who did not resist the suffering, personifying the people who suffered together. The prophet has been vindicated and restored, as the people have been vindicated in their return from exile. God did not cause the suffering that the people endured, but God is the one who saw them through and has redeemed them.

The psalmist praises God for deliverance in Psalm 116:1-9. God heard the voice of the psalmist crying out, and the psalmist loves God, for God has delivered them from suffering and death. God is merciful, protecting those in need, and brings peace and rest to the faithful. The psalmist is grateful to be alive, knowing God is with them.

The Epistle reading continues in James with 3:1-12. In this chapter, James warns about the dangers of what we say, that in teaching and speaking, we cannot take back what is said once it is out there. Like a rudder of a ship or a bit in a horse’s mouth, the tongue directs how others perceive us. From our words come blessings and curses, and what we say can cause great harm or can instruct others in the way of God. The tongue cannot be tamed. Instead, we must be cautious about what we say. We will be judged, as a spring that yields water—if it is brackish, it will not be trusted to produce freshwater.

Mark 8:27-38 is the pivotal point in Mark’s gospel account. Until this point, Mark has focused on the ministry and teaching of Jesus. Now, Jesus turns to face Jerusalem, and begins to speak about his betrayal, arrest, and death. Jesus asks the disciples who the people say he is, and then he asks them specifically who they think he is. Peter responds that Jesus is the Messiah. However, when Jesus tells them what the Messiah must go through, Peter pulls him aside and rebukes him. Peter’s understanding of the Messiah does not mesh with Jesus’ understanding of what he must do. Jesus in turn rebukes Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” for Peter doesn’t understand that his protest is undermining Jesus. Jesus tells the disciples and the crowd that if they want to be his followers, they must take up their cross and follow him. There was a cost to following Jesus that they hadn’t understood to this point. Not everyone would accept Jesus as they had, and as he turned toward Jerusalem, opposition would grow, until Jesus’ own death on the cross.

The Narrative Lectionary moves into year four of its cycle, beginning with the story of Creation in Genesis 1:1-2:4a. This priestly writing explains the order of creation, culminating in the creation of the sabbath day, a holy day of rest. As God rested from making all things, so all things must rest. All things were created good and with purpose and order.

John 1:1-5 is the poetic beginning to the Gospel according to John, placing the Word (Jesus) at the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came to be. His life is the light of all the people, a light that shines in the darkness, and is not overcome. Echoing the language of creation, the gospel writer weaves Jesus’ narrative into the fabric of our creation story.

In the United States, this Sunday is often the Sunday of new beginnings in the life of the church, the Sunday after Labor Day. A mini “New Year’s Day” of sorts sometimes called Rally Day or Homecoming Day. The scriptures point to restarting, to listening for the wisdom of God in our daily lives. Jesus teaches the disciples that up until this point, they have understood his ministry as healing and teaching. Now, they must understand that he came to give his life, and that they must also deny themselves and take up their cross. The Narrative Lectionary focuses on this new beginning by going to the very beginning of creation. Today is a fresh start. Today is a new day, a new week. New ministries may be starting, Sunday school may be resuming. Autumn is around the corner, along with harvest time. What newness is stirring in you, in your community, in your faith journey?

Call to Worship (from Psalm 19:1-2, 5)
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
And the heavens proclaim God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
And night to night declares knowledge.
The sun rises like one ready for a wedding,
And God makes the sun set in deep joy.
God is the creator of all things!
Come, worship God, who made us all.

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
Holy One, we confess that we aren’t ready for a new start just yet. We still haven’t processed what we’ve been through. We want to move forward, and yet, we’re stuck trying to make meaning of this past year. Hold us gently in Your embrace. Speak peace to our hearts and ease our minds. Help us to let go of the need to find meaning in the tragic. Instead, help us to move forward in courage because we are not alone. Guide us in Your ways of love, to be brave and bold in compassion and empathy. Lead us in Your ways of justice, to be humble and remember to step back to center voices that have not been heard. Call to us when we are afraid and lonely, and make Your presence known to us. In the name of Jesus, our companion now and always, we pray. Amen.

God will not let you go. There is no place you can be lost, nowhere so deep and dark that light cannot shine in the shadows. God loves you madly, and God is with you. Breathe, and know the Spirit is alive in you. Love, and know that you are loved by God. Live, and know that Christ lives in you. As Christ has died, Christ has also risen, and death will never have the final word. Go forth with this knowledge, wisdom, and insight: God’s steadfast love endures forever. You are forgiven, loved, and restored. Amen.

Creator God, You made the earth and the universe as a testimony to You. How can we contemplate our own short lives among the vastness of the galaxies? Of all the stars born, we know only one better than the others. Of all the planets formed, we have only touched one. We are in awe of You, Almighty One, maker of us all. Help us to never lose that sense of wonder and amazement, for that is the beginning of wisdom. Remind us, when our daily lives drag our gaze to what is in front of us, to expand our view to what is beyond us. For You are the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of all things. Amen.

Worship Resources for September 5th, 2021—Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Revised Common Lectionary: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm 146; James 2:1-10 (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

Narrative Lectionary: Series on Sacraments—Mutual Consolation of the Saints, Matthew 18:15-20, or Series on Revelation, 21:1-6, 22:1-5 (John 16:20-22)

The first selection of the Hebrew scriptures has turned to Wisdom literature, in the second half of this season after Pentecost. This selection from Proverbs contains sayings about injustice and poverty. God has made us all, and yet, God hears the cries of the poor and pleads their case. God calls for justice and warns those who seek their own gain. Instead, the proverbs teach that those who are generous, especially to those in need, are blessed.

Psalm 125 is a song of praise for God. Those who put their trust in God are on a firm foundation, safe with God in the way Jerusalem is safe because of the mountains that surround the city. The psalmist calls out to God to “do good to the people who are good.” To do the right thing for those who live in righteousness, and lead those in wickedness away so they cannot cause harm.

The second selection of the Hebrew scriptures prophesies God’s restorative works in Isaiah 35:4-7a. The prophet speaks of God’s return to a people who have suffered and are afraid. God will restore what has been taken, what has been broken. The prophet uses the images of those disabled, the blind having their sight restored, the lame leaping for joy, etc. in a way that we must be cautious of repeating, for our understanding of disability has changed greatly since the time this was written. Instead, looking to the images of streams in the desert, the burning sand becoming a pool—the overall theme is about restoring, returning to its intended state. Teachers and preachers would do well to focus on the natural landscape themes and think of restoration as ramps and walkways, accessibility for those whose access has been denied. This is what it means to restore to the reign of God.

Psalm 146 is a song of praise to God who rules over all and executes justice. The psalmist reminds the people not to put their trust in worldly rulers. They will not last, and they will not help all the people. God is the one who reigns eternally, who made heaven and earth and all of creation. God knows the oppressed and works for their release from prison and systems of oppression. God upholds the marginalized and will reign forever.

The Epistle readings continue in the letter of James with chapter 2. The writer chastises the favoritism he has seen play out in the early church, where people still seek out the wealthy rather than helping the poor in need among them. God sees through their actions—they cannot hide. The rich are the ones who oppress them, and yet the people still work to please the wealthy instead of looking to the ones most in need. To love one’s neighbor as one’s self is the hallmark of faith in James’ view, and faith without works is dead.

Jesus encounters two people in need in Mark 7:24-37. Jesus entered a house in the region of Tyre and didn’t want anyone to know he was there, but a Syrophoenician woman heard that Jesus was there and came to find him, to beg him to cast the demon out of her daughter. Jesus was rather harsh with her, telling her it wasn’t fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. Basically telling her she wasn’t worthy. But she insisted that even the dogs get the crumbs from the table. Jesus is confronted by her faith and tells her the demon has left her daughter. From there, Jesus traveled to the Decapolis, and a deaf man who had a speech impediment was brought to him. The people who brought him begged Jesus to lay his hands on him, so he took him to a private place, touched his ears, and spat and touched his tongue. The scripture says that Jesus sighed, looked to heaven, and said, “Be opened.” The man immediately was able to hear and speak. Jesus was challenged by the foreign woman to see her humanity in a moment when he thought her unworthy—and he changed his mind. Jesus was sent not only to the people of Israel, but to all people, to bring healing and restoration, as he did for the man who struggled with speech and hearing—restoring him in a manner that in his day would allow him to participate fully in society.

The Narrative Lectionary has two series choices for the remainder of the summer—a series on Sacraments, and a series on Revelation. I am using the same resources I did four years ago, from September 3rd, 2017, in the archives, for the series on Revelation. Because the Narrative Lectionary has added a fifth week for this series this year, the resources for this week’s lesson on Sacraments is new.

Sacramental language is not something I am familiar with in my tradition as a Baptist (we use the term Ordinances instead and have only two: The Lord’s Supper and Baptism). This series on Sacraments, ending with Mutual Consolation of the Saints, focuses on Matthew 18:15-20, in how we ought to live together as faithful people. When there is a question of wrongdoing, the person wronged is to address it directly at first if possible. If that doesn’t work, they are to follow what Deuteronomy 19:15 teaches, to take two or three witnesses for support and to help settle the matter. However, if the offender still will not accept responsibility, it becomes a communal manner. The words of Jesus are difficult to understand: to treat one as a gentile and tax collector would, in their culture and time, mean to have nothing to do with them. However, Jesus has taught and lived by example in the exact opposite way, to continue to love and accept others. Instead of being a prescriptive how-to action plan when there is conflict, it appears Jesus is calling the community to use its best tools and resources toward healing and restoration. At times, that may call for separating from those who are abusive and holding boundaries. At other times, it may call for more understanding and communal care. Jesus is with us as we struggle in how to be the community of Jesus here on earth.

The second Narrative Lectionary series completes Revelation with chapters 21 and 22, the vision of the new heaven and the new earth. There is no more mourning or grief, for the Lamb has made all things new. The new city has the river of life flowing from the throne, and there is no more death, no more night, and those that live will live in light forever. There is healing of the nations. There is hope. There is peace.

Jesus compares his death and resurrection with childbirth in John 16:20-22. There is pain, and there will be grief, but there will be great rejoicing in the resurrection. The disciples will grieve, but then they will rejoice, if they remember that this is only temporary. Jesus is fond of the image of labor and birth (see John 3) as symbolic of what we go through in death to eternal life.

We know what we have been taught through Scripture and the traditions passed down to us; however, living out our faith is much more difficult. Even Jesus, at times, struggled with what he believed he was supposed to do, and the needs of the people before him. Throughout the scriptures, God shows us that the poor, the widow, the orphan, the foreigner—the people who are often marginalized, forgotten about, and excluded—are the ones God is concerned for. As a community of faith, we are challenged to look for those who are most in need, and they are often the ones who cannot give in return. Instead, we often act like the people James wrote about—turning to please the wealthy and those in power—the very ones who may oppress us. The very ones who benefit from the systems and structures of power and wealth in this world. Too often churches get caught up in trying to grow by numbers of people and numbers of dollars in the bank, instead of rejecting worldly measures of success and looking to the people most in need of a lived-out Gospel. We are called to live out our faith in the ways that God has shown us throughout the centuries. Otherwise, it’s as James said—our faith, our church, doesn’t mean anything.

Call to Worship (Psalm 146:1-2, 5-6)
Praise the LORD!
Praise the LORD, O my soul!
I will praise the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
Whose hope is in the LORD their God,
Who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them;
Who keeps faith forever.

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
God of Eternal Life, we confess that we are short-sighted. We seek the gains that we can experience and know. We look for signs that prove to us right now an assurance of our future. We fail to view how You are at work in the world around us, through all times and seasons. We seek the short-term goals and pleasures that ease our fears, instead of trusting You and living into Your ways of deep empathy, compassion, and care for our earth and for one another. Forgive us for our selfishness. Help us to turn to Your ways, to put our trust in You, to know that though we may not experience the fulfillment of Your justice and reign while we breathe, it will come. We live for it now, and know that death does not have the final word, especially in the pursuit of justice and righteousness. For now, hold us to the path of mercy, love, and justice. Amen.

When we are consistent, when we do not let up in our pursuit of justice, when we put our trust in God, we will find our way. God’s assurance comes through the love, support, and encouragement of one another, so be encouragers. Show mercy and practice loving-kindness, so that others may also learn by experiencing. For this is how we live into God’s reign on earth. Go and share the good news of God’s love, forgiveness, and mercy. Amen.

God of Peace, the world is fractured and brittle around us. What we once assumed was permanent has become temporary. The temporary has stretched much longer than anticipated. We live with so many unknowns, so many tragic circumstances in the world. Bring peace to us. Not a peace that is passive, that numbs us to the pain of the world, but a peace that is the quiet assurance You are still at work in our world and in our lives. Bring peace to us in the form of help and aid when we struggle with mental health. Bring peace to us when we are feeling lonely and detached, by helping us to learn new ways of being community. Bring peace to us when all we can view before us is destruction and despair, in that there are still those in the world who love, who practice and pursue justice, and they need us, and we need them. Prince of Peace, grant us peace in our hearts. Amen.