by Pastor Kate
I know that having abundant choices in life is a privilege. Here in the United States many of us (certainly not all) have a lot of options when it comes to making some choices and decisions in our lives. Whether it’s which brand of shampoo to buy, how to spend an afternoon, what to eat for dinner, or whether to go to church or not, most of us are in a place where we have the freedom to make these choices. We can choose where to live and what car to drive, whether to have children and how to support them. We decided where to go to school and what to study. We were free to choose whom to marry or whether to marry at all.
When I am not appreciating my many choices as a privilege or a freedom, I often catch myself feeling overwhelmed by the many choices facing me. It’s too much! How do I choose the right bottle of shampoo when I have 30 brands in front of me? Sometimes I wish someone else would just make the decision for me.
Our theme for this Lenten season is celebrating the abundance of what God gives us. Such celebration suits all the Bible stories we will be hearing. We are also blessed by God daily, here and now, in so many ways. These gifts of God’s abundance show themselves in our relationships, in nature, in our sustenance, our work and our learning. Most certainly we know abundant blessing in the life of the church.
The abundance of God is all around us!
It is manifest in the children around us who teach us and remind us how to love, to live graciously, to practice patience, to live with curiosity and to be joyful. We could say the same thing about friendship or romantic relationships. Relating to others is a source of abundant pleasures.
When it comes to the weather, we know we are lucky to be living in California, where we experience pretty light weather year round, usually nothing extreme. But even in California we have days and weeks where the rain pours down abundantly causing flooding and mudslides, and car accidents. There are days when the heat feels almost unbearable and we do not appreciate the abundant sunshine.
Many of us are fortunate to be able to afford grocery shopping. We have these huge grocery stores packed with many meal and snack possibilities for feeding ourselves and our loved ones. In California we have access to an abundance of great fresh fruits and vegetables, fish and grass-fed meat. At the same time we have an abundance of sugar and junk food causing an obesity problem in the country.
We easily abuse the abundance and overfeed both ourselves and our landfills. Abundance without care leads to pollution and exploitation.
When it comes to our work and education, we live in an environment that encourages overworking and pushing ourselves and each other. We live in the Silicon Valley where exciting opportunities abound, companies to work with, start-ups, great public schools, Stanford, many new opportunities. (There is, of course, a downside–the pressure, the price we pay, is palpable. The suicide rate in Palo Alto is shameful; there is little time for relaxation and free play. Everything is so expensive; people we know and love are moving away.)
As any person who attends church regularly knows, one sees how different one Sunday can be from another. Some Sundays the church is full of people, many kids running around, good attendance in the forum, the bulletin looks pretty good, great worship energy, good sermon, amazing coffee hour. Abundant blessings! Then, other Sundays, the pews are emptier than usual; only the pastors’ kids are around; the bulletins are not perfect; the sermon does not make much sense, and there is no healthy food at coffee hour. These Sundays can feel discouraging, make us anxious, cause us to make false assumptions. That is until, everything looks better the following Sunday and blessings abound again.
Life in God’s world is far from static. Things don’t stay the same. One day we might experience and appreciate the abundance of God’s grace and action in the world, and on other days wonder where it went, what happened?
We are perhaps more grateful for and aware of the abundance around us when we do not see it or are not aware of it. As we all know, life is never always good or always bad for anyone. There is a time for Praise as well as a time for Lamentation.
Beginning on Ash Wednesday (March 6th) we enter the season of Lent, the 40 days before Easter, on our church calendar. Lent is an important season of reflection and preparation before we celebrate Easter. These 40 days invite us to take the time and opportunity to reflect on Jesus’s sacrifices for us and his own withdrawal into the desert for 40 days. We may choose some form of fasting or self-restraint.
If we do choose to make a sacrifice, to give something up, like sweets, meat, alcohol, screen time or whatever our habit of excess might be, how about trying to do it out of an awareness of abundance? We have so many options, so many pleasures, so much freedom! Lenten discipline in the context of this awareness becomes richer and more conscious. It’s not about discomfort but about our focus more on God’s goodness. Our sacrifice as a discipline, recognizing God’s generosity and our Christian freedom, can be quite wonderful, a dancing to the music of abundance.
I am always excited at this time of the year. I enjoy the cooler days, the smell of baked goods and fireplaces, the kids’ excitement for Christmas, and all the other nice things that come with the season. At the same time it’s a stressful time of year with all the added pressures and expectations that come with The Holidays. We all get busy with planning, travelling, shopping, cooking, baking, cleaning, wrapping, decorating, going to choir rehearsals, planning special services and pageants and parties. It is all worth it in the end, but still stressful and exhausting.
Then add to it all that we are living in truly stressful and even scary times! We need only turn on the news, grab a headline, or get on Facebook or Twitter to see and hear how angry, fightened, and bitterly divided people are in our country and in the world. There are National Security threats, political threats, threats to people’s human rights, awful violence, devastating natural disasters. It takes work to find stories and events that bring hope and a glimpse of peace in the world we are living in.
This recap doesn’t even include our own inner turmoil, our own experience of fear, sadness, worry, our feelings of being overwhelmed, our daily struggles. Again, all you have to do is get online or go to the self-help section of a bookstore to find the many suggestions and answers to finding calm and peace in ones life. Whether it’s prayer, meditation, watching funny movies, yoga, therapy, getting outside, or finding comfort talking with a loved one, so many methods, so much advice encourages us to cope with our own traumatized personalities and experiences in life. The many cures suggest the scope of the dis-ease.
During these challenging and stressful times, how do we find and experience peace at church? How do we be a church that helps us all and every one who walks in the door experience the peace and comfort that comes in God’s love and grace for all of us?
How do we make this a practice? How do we be a church that regularly practices kindness, forgiveness, patience, and understanding both with ourselves and each other? When we do this, we do better finding it outside in the political realm, in our work, in our school, walking down the street.
We cannot share peace, love, and kindness with others if we don’t experience and practice it with ourselves and all whom we encounter.
Our church experience should not be stressful. It is meant to be a place (both physical and communal) where everyone gets to experience something more powerful and comforting than anything in the outside world.
So, as we enter this busy season of Advent and experience the strain that often accompanies it, my hope for us all is that we look for and to what is most important, focusing on the hope and peace that comes with welcoming Jesus into our broken lives and the broken world we live in.
Blessings and Peace,