Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Walking in a Wilderness with God


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Walking in a Wilderness with God
Tony E Dillon-Hansen
21 February 2018

A Sermon based upon Isaiah 9:2: 12-20; Genesis 17:1-2; Psalm 22:23-24; Mark 1: 9-15

“The people who have walked in darkness, have seen a great light.” (Isaiah 9:2)

Will you pray with me?  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our Rock, Our Redeemer. Amen!

As we begin annual Lenten season, we are reminded of “wildernesses.”  Jesus spends some time in a wilderness and comes out of this experience with a stronger unification with God.  Other religious leaders have sought such transformation in wildernesses (e.g Buddha, Moses, other prophets, and early Christian monks like St Anthony.) 

For some, the wilderness is a place of solitude “to live deliberately” (as Thoreau points out) without distractions. Wildernesses can be places to find balance and awakenings, as Pastor Dave eluded to on Sunday. Such images can be quite alluring.

Those may be deliberate exercises, but I also submit that many wildernesses (as in suffering) happen regardless of intention. Think about that for a moment. Like the faith leaders mentioned before, there is something about struggles in life that causes one to reflect. Again, our good man, Thoreau says, “not until we are lost, do we begin to understand ourselves.”

This begs the question, what does the suffering part of wilderness mean to you. A wilderness is not just remote forest or desert where people are stranded or tasked to survive for a period of days (such as ancient Greek used to do). These are moments throughout our lives, and may even be our lives.  Consider Numbers, the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years which is near equal to my life span. Imagine what that sounds like to our youth.

I have walked a few wildernesses in my life. I ask when you find yourself in a wilderness (e.g. job stress, child in the hospital, strained relationship, facing an surgery ourselves, or life itself),  how do we find hope? How do we see Isaiah’s light? How do we walk with God?

Suffering is ominous and real to us. We know it, feel it and can sense it. We respond to suffering in many ways like laughing or singing possibly; most often met with crying, fear, anger, and still some with hope.

One writer describes paradigms of suffering.  1) moral, 2) redemptive, 3) lament and protest and 4) ambiguous suffering.

Perhaps you recognize these.

Moral and redemptive paradigms involve a reason for the suffering.  Are we holding onto guilt that we need to let go? Are we waiting for future redemption of today’s suffering. Ultimately, these want to find fault and blame. Yet, if suffering is penalty- “flag-on-the-play” for infractions, the problem of suffering is removed with ease. How does that explain my torn ligaments? The line of “cause and effect” becomes fuzzy at best. 

Perhaps you may need amends for something, then take the steps needed. Yet, if we are focused upon what we don’t have, or upon today’s suffering, we may miss opportunities and God right around us. When you are focused upon the weeds, you may not see beyond. How can you find God from where you are?

Another paradigm tries to explain how we feel when sudden obstacle happens This may feel like unwarranted punishment and we ask, “why me and now?” with no satisfactory answers.

We may become angry at God. The good thing about that is that God is big enough to take the anger. Again, why are we so focused upon the problem? Easier said than done (I know), but the focus may determine your outcomes.  As a child and I hurt myself, mother would talk to us and get us to think about something else. Maybe God is mothering us too.

Then we consider the ambiguous suffering paradigm. This is a progressive idea about God that suggests God has much bigger things to do than manipulate my life to teach a lesson or exact punishment. In this view, suffering may actually be opportunities to learn more about ourselves, our relationship to the world and to God. This is one Way to build a meaningful life with God, family and the world – with suffering included. Maybe that is because there is less focus upon the blame or the suffering itself –because suffering happens.

This paradigm is amazingly similar to Buddhist core ideas. 1) Life is suffering. 2) Our clinging to suffering causes suffering. 3) Cessation of the clinging can relieve the suffering. 4) There is a Way to cessation of that suffering.

This is remarkably simple, but complex. When I read, “life is suffering,” I said of course it is, but what is important is how we react to suffering.  We could let suffering consume us in the wilderness and question motives. We would be focusing upon ( clinging ) that suffering rather than learning about our internal emotions that drive our reactions. We could miss so much.

When we learn to quiet our mind, our wants, our expectations, let things be, look beyond the weeds, we might discover God working with us instead of against us. God has put much beauty in this world, and we only need to smell the roses. Those who have walked in darkness can look up and see Isaiah’s light.

We can learn to trust and have faith in a future with God.  We can also have faith that now is exactly as it was meant to be. We are going to learn so much here, now -in God’s great Creation. We know the pathway to trust and rest may not be smooth, but there is a Way.  Yes, Ways where wildernesses can produce endurance, character and hope because we learn to let the suffering be of itself rather than consuming our lives with it or being shamed by it.

The wilderness may represent the depths of our soul and life (like Thoreau says), but it also is a chance for us to explore our relationships to ourselves, to God and our world.

We will persevere, we will succeed and with God’s help – just look.

Let us walk with God this Lent. Look listen, open your heart, relieve suffering, learn and grow together. Maybe then you will not be able to keep from singing too.

Thanks be to God.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Witness to Wonders.






Witness to Wonders.
Tony E Dillon-Hansen
11 Feb 2018

A Sermon based upon 2 Corinthians 4:3-6: 12-20; Psalm 50:1-6; Mark 9: 2-9

For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Will you pray with me?  Let God guide our senses, our hearts and our ears to receive the lessons given to us.  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our Rock, Our Redeemer.

And All God’s Children Say:
Amen!

I remember the first time I was in the mountains as a youth. My uncle, who was my confirmation sponsor, decided that it would be neat to have me along for a ride out to Seattle from Ames and back.

Oh the mischief that could be.

There were some parts of the trip that seemed to take forever, like most of North Dakota (with brief exception to the Badlands). Then somewhere around Billings, Montana, I can remember the first time I could spy the snow caps on the horizon and how they seemed to just magically appear.  The anticipation was growing to see the Rockies.  Then we got to around Bozeman heading towards Butte where we have been driving a steady set of rising and rolling hills.  I kept thinking of the old TV show “Highway to Heaven” because the clouds were hanging low and hiding some of the road in the middle of this small valley.

Then, we went over this one hill and there was no looking back.  The mountains were just towering walls around us.  There was a true speechless moment followed by a series of “Whoa” moments.  In fact, I am not entirely sure how far we travelled in my feeling of absolute astonishment.  Yet, I could finally understand what people meant about “purple mountain majesty.” Still, those words do little to describe the sheer awe and wonder of seeing massive towers of rock while looking down long stretches of the mountain side, observing giant trees that looked tiny from our height .

We both remarked that we could almost see and touch God around us.  I had my camera with me, but I don’t think I could capture the immense presence of these mountains in a picture frame. Perhaps, it is better that way because instead of fumbling around with a camera angle, I was more focused upon the moment, and I (and my uncle) could truly understand the presence of God. We also observed how quickly weather can change in the high mountains and how real lightning looks when you are in the clouds.

During these few days, and the really the entire trip, my uncle and I had some great conversations about how beautiful the world really was (as we saw more of God’s creation). We also talked about family, directions and a little about faith. We were also having discussions about our next steps in life. He was considering going to grad school, and our family was getting ready to move from Kansas back to Iowa. While this wasn’t the only awesome spectacle of the road trip, going through the mountains may have helped to yield insight to us in our lives.

So when we look at this story from Mark, I wonder about the story of the transfiguration and ponder the many parallels to my own trip to the mountains. I have to think, the mountaintop experience is one great opportunity to experience God.

In Mark, Jesus with a few select disciples have decided to go on a hike (albeit without motorized transportation). This cadre have been travelling up this mountain and certainly are tired.

We are not told which mountain (some scholars point to Mt Hermon or Mt Tabor). I have never been to Israel.  Yet, if you look up Israeli mountains, there seems to be plenty of points where one might find awesomeness.

Between the view and the effort to get to the top, there is likely much already to be amazed.

Like my uncle and I discussing many aspects of life and faith, this squad of faith leaders has likely also been in deep conversations about life, direction and faith.  They are reminiscing upon history including the powerful icons of Hebrew faith.

Then, Jesus decides to do a show. This spectacle and homage to icons of faith provide us an explanation of who Jesus is and purpose. God’s faithfulness has passed from Moses to Elijah, to Daniel to Jesus and through Jesus, now to us. God is showing us full presence in the mountaintop.

God is dazzling us and illuminating paths before us.  This is a powerful and intense display. This is also a way that some describe enlightenment. Yet, like enlightenment, there is a bit more in this vision.

There is a command  that we need to listen. That is a loaded word: “listen.”

You can imagine that my own mother told me to “listen” a few times in my life.

When you hear someone talk, like a yappy preacher like me, do you just shrug off the words as nonsense? I could understand if you think that about me.  You don’t have to listen to me.

Yet, when Jesus tells us to love one another, what do you make of this? When Jesus tells us to have compassion for the poor and the sick, what do you do? When Jesus tells us to be inclusive of all our neighbors: black lives, Jews, Muslims, queers, refugees or Immigrants, what do you do? Does Jesus tell us to be a welcoming spirit - no matter where people are on life’s journey?

Do you hem and haw? Do you shrug off something that is hard to understand? Do you shrug off Jesus?

Is that really listening?

When you “listen” to the words of Jesus, we are called to do something.

Yes, The words of Jesus may cause you to examine your own beliefs and prejudices. If you do not listen, you close up and you do not grow in love of God or of neighbor.

When you listen, you may find yourself in dazzling enjoyment and enlightened presence of love, of faith and of life here on Earth.

The transfiguration is about showing God, but the command to listen tells us how to really understand this show.

Life struggles are real, but our faith and trust in Jesus will see us through those struggles.

You might think I am little crazy to think this, but
You can have a personal mountaintop experience - here and now.

Just quiet your mind, breathe, and just be.
When you read the Gospels, listen to what Jesus is saying.
Don’t just hear Jesus once and shrug.
Hear Jesus speaking to you.
Let Jesus move you, tickle you, and provoke you.
Let Jesus teach you again and again.

In our mountaintop experience, here and now, and through the Gospels,
We can witness these wonders in our lives, if we are willing, first, to listen.
We can witness these wonders when we listen with our ears and our hearts.
Then let your hearts and minds be moved by those words of Jesus.

We can witness glory when we welcome.
We can witness the “dazzling” when we have hope.
We can witness the Child of God in each of us —when we are love.

That is why we are here: to love God and to love our neighbors.