"Getting Back in Tune with Life"
“Getting Back in Tune with Life”
(a sermon based on Psalm 103:1-18, citing “Love Warrior” by Glennon Doyle Melton, 2016)
Rev. Dr. Paul A. Lance, Minister
First Congregational United Church of Christ
201 South Second Ave., Alpena, Michigan 49707
August 16, 2020
It’s been twenty-two weeks since we last held a public worship service in our sanctuary. If you are like me, you’re a bit “stir crazy” – ready to get back out and about, among friends and extended family, eating out and just hanging out with other people. The Governor’s limitation on social gatherings to ten-people or less, keeps us in “virtual” worship over the Internet. (Technology to the rescue! I love it, and I hate it!) I can’t wait to shake hands again; to smile without a face-mask covering; to sing as a choir, to pray together in this church.
When our lives seem to have fallen out of tune with the way things were -- when our days are “off-kilter” from the norm, when we’re feeling isolated and a bit confused about what’s coming next, I like to take a “pause”… and remember that God is with us. (!) It’s important to me that we have a healthy relationship with God, our Creator, as we wilder & wander our days through these shadows of disease, rancorous politics, divisive social protests, and confusion.
I’m going to take these next 20 minutes of sermon time to help us get back “in tune” with life, by reconnecting with a healthy image of God (who loves us) and by sharing the example of one woman’s life. First, the Bible…
In today’s reading, the 103rd Psalm reminds us that God forgives all your iniquity, and heals all your diseases. (That’s Good News in this time of continuing pandemic!) God redeems your life from the Pit, and crowns you with steadfast love and mercy.
The Psalmist says: God satisfies you with good, as long as you live. (That is Good News too, don’t you think? (!) Do you believe it? Do you act on it? If not, why not?) The God we know in this Church, as described in Psalm 103, is (and I quote again): one who forgives all your iniquity, and heals all your diseases. God redeems your life from the Pit, and crowns you with steadfast love and mercy. God satisfies you with good, as long as you live. (Wow!)
And that’s not all! The 103rd Psalm goes on to say that it’s not just about you: “The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed!(!) The Lord is merciful, and gracious; slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love!” (Right now, I want you to feel the deep love and strong security of those words. I want you to own that description of God, the one we call “our Lord & Father”. Got it?)
Let me say it again from the top: God forgives all your iniquity (So, don’t let guilt, or shame, or blame hold you down. (!) It’s been taken care of! You are forgiven!)...And God heals all your diseases (Yes, I know that people are frightened by the escalating numbers of CoronaVirus deaths all across our country… and all over the world! But our God is bigger than that!) God redeems your life from the Pit (says the Psalmist)… and crowns you with steadfast love and mercy. God satisfies you with good, as long as you live. (Please, please… Can you feel that? Can you believe it?)
To know that kind of a God, with that kind of confidence, will take you far. (!) Trusting God can make you bold! Even fearless! The first step in getting our lives “back in tune” is to hold an accurate picture of God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our Savior - God.
“The steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon those who know & respect God; and God’s righteousness is passed on to our children’s children… to those who keep God’s covenant and remember to do God’s commandments.”
You may notice that I avoid using the old-word “fear” when speaking of God, because today’s connotation means to be “afraid”. The original meaning of the phrase “the fear of the Lord” was not intended to frighten, but to show high respect, to hold in awe, to know and to trust God completely with one’s very life. “The steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon those who know & respect God … and God’s righteousness is passed on to our children’s children.” That should give us confidence, not fear.
The 103rd Psalm is a bulwark against fear, a strong foundation of faith in the face of everything that the world uses to frighten us.(!) I say: relax! God knows you, & loves you, and intends only good for you. God’s steadfast love is everlasting, and all will be well with you.
Having grown up in this church (first, under Rev. Barksdale and Mrs. B, & then Jack Fitzgerald & many of you who are still members) that’s the image and character of God that I learned about. A God who forgives our iniquity, and heals our diseases. A God who redeems our lives when they are in jeopardy, and crowns us with steadfast love and mercy. A God who satisfies us with good, as long as we live. It’s the same kind of God that we meet in the 23rd Psalm, represented in the Good Shepherd window up front here.
Here at First Congregational (United Church of Christ) we teach the Jesus Gospel, which is the Way of Christ, the Man of Nazareth, whose love relationship with God being put into practice day-by-day is the model we do our best to follow. As a denomination, we were asking “What Would Jesus Do?” long before any of the hell-fire and damnation crowd thought to do so.
We believe in a God who creates the world and loves it! We believe that God intends and empowers humankind to be God’s very own image and likeness, in all our diversity and colorful variety of tribes and ethnic groups and languages.
Our God, as known through Jesus Christ, can walk with us and talk with us and point us in the right direction. God never abandons us. “Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me!” That’s who God is – the same yesterday, today, and in all our tomorrows. Our God is love & justice.
I think it is a shame that many young Christians do not have the opportunity to meet a God like that -- a God such as is described in the 103rd Psalm, or like Jesus’ loving Father “Abba” -- because their preachers and teachers have a “finger-pointing, finger-shaking judging God who is as apt to curse as to bless; as quick to send souls to Hell as to welcome them in mercy and love for all eternity.
A few years ago, I had a chance to listen to a woman who had been raised with that other kind of theology, in a church that held her down. Her name is Glennon Doyle Melton, whose on-line blog is read by millions. It took her decades to get away from that judg-mental, fearful God and find a church with a “Jesus-like” God. In place of a condemning God, she “tuned” her life to the frequency of love as known through Jesus… and her life finally made sense.
I am going to cite three passages from her book “Love Warrior”. It’s a memoir, actually -- a true telling of her childhood and young adulthood -- which is rough reading, at first. As a child, with very low-self esteem, Glennon became bulimic. She thought people would not like the “real” person that she was, so she put on a mask – a “presentation” she thought was more acceptable to her family, and her school… She called it her “representative”, because her “real self” was something else… a mess -- not lovable! (In church we call living behind a mask “hypocrisy” – presenting a false face to the public.)
As a teenager, Glennon put on a public presentation of “sexy” – promiscuous acting out – a party-girl who loved “doing it” with guys – except that she didn’t love it. (!)
Like her bulimia/anorexia, being “sexy” was a mask to hide behind. The real woman (inside) was hidden. Glennon became a raging alcoholic. I warn you, her description of that chaos and crisis is very difficult to read. But on her blog (and in her book) she is ruthlessly honest! Eventually she married, had three daughters, and then found out that her husband was having affairs.
I will now read a passage from her book “Love Warrior” as she is deciding whether or not to permanently separate from her husband, the father of their three girls:
This crisis (she writes) was an invitation to allow everything to fall away in order to be left holding what can never be taken. The invitation in this [kind of] pain is the possibility of discovering who I really am.
Eleven years earlier, when I found myself stunned sober by that pregnancy test, I’d looked around and decided that adulthood meant taking on roles. Adults became, and so I became, became, became. I became a wife, and then a mother and a church lady, and a career woman. As I took on those roles, I kept waiting for the day when I could stop acting like a grow-up because I’d finally be one. But that day never came. My roles hung on the outside of me like costumes.
[With this betrayal] Those roles I once used to clothe and define myself have been torn away. And that’s why I wake up each morning paralyzed, disoriented, stripped, naked, exposed. Wondering, Who am I? Who was I before I started becoming other things?
What is true about me that can’t be taken away, that has nothing to do with the people I love or the work that I do? Who is the woman who will, or will not, step back inside this family? That is the question that needs to be answered before I make this decision..
[Glennon leaves her daughters in the care of her philandering husband for a few days and checks into a beach hotel.] I sit down in my room (she writes) and look around. I resist the urge to turn on the television. I need to sit with the quiet; I know that much.
[She goes to bed.] Before I open my eyes the next morning, my ears awake to the sound of waves hitting the sand. It stirs something inside of me. The sound of the water speaks not to my spinning mind or yearning heart, but to my still, strong soul. The water is speaking in a language I knew before the world taught me its language. I lie there and I let the sound of the surf massage my soul for two hours. I let it speak to me and I do not speak back. I just receive. … The surf is gentle and selfless and steady. This is not a transaction; it is a gift.
[Let me say: This kind of interaction with nature – a river, a lake, a forest, even a garden – is one way to “tune your life” back to what is real, and natural, and God-given. I encourage you to be receptive as Glennon is in this beach-side example. Now, back to her story:]
[It is sunset, and she’s been on the beach all day.] The sun hits the horizon and its white light shatters into all the colors of the rainbow. Now I am surrounded by reds and blues and oranges and pinks, and the sky seems to curve around me like I’m in the center of a snow globe. The sky, the breeze, the colors, the warmth, the birds dancing along the surf… all of this forms a message to my weary heart. I feel overwhelmed with love, with beauty, with attention and reassurance. I feel held. I feel safe.
The surf continues to hit the sand rhythmically and dependably and I trust it will continue. The sun is setting, but I know it will rise again tomorrow. There is a pattern to things. This makes me wonder if I can also trust that there is a pattern, a rhythm, a beauty, a natural rise and fall to my life as well. I wonder if the One holding together this sky might also be capable of holding together my heart. I wonder if the One making this sky so achingly beautiful might also be working to make my life beautiful, too.
[Let me add: This experience comes to Glennon on page 167 of her book, well beyond half-way through.]
[This dawning realization of a God who is dependable, trustworthy -- who produces extravagant beauty and evokes love – is the God I was hoping she would meet.]
[As the sky fades into pitch navy blue, Glennon turns around…] I catch a glimpse of the moon (she writes), a silver boomerang in the sky that seems to have appeared out of the literal blue. But I know the moon’s always there, too, waiting for its time to be seen. The day has to fall to make way for the night, and the night has to surrender its place so the day can have its turn. This strikes me as a holy rhythm. I wonder if whatever created this rhythm of the tides and the sky and the sun and the moon has a holy rhythm for my life, too. I consider that perhaps I’m in the middle of a cycle. Maybe there is a time for everything. …
My eyes fall below the moon to the plants that line the shore: every shade of purple, green, and pink. I think, maybe some loves are perennials – they survive the winter and bloom again. Maybe others are annuals – beautiful and lush for a season and then back to the earth to die and create rich soil for new life to grow. Maybe there is no way for love to fail, because the eventual result of all love is New Life. Death and resurrection – maybe that’s just the way of life and love. I decide that regardless of whether my marriage reveals itself to be an annual or perennial love, there will be new lushness and beauty and life that comes of it. (unquote)
Glennon Doyle Melton’s experience is one way to get your life back in tune with God, our Creator, who sustains us and all life. Here in Northern Michigan, with Bay View Pak only a couple blocks away to enjoy Lake Huron; and the great, wide Thunder Bay River winding through town – with forests on the outskirts of all sides of town, and farmlands and hiking trails surrounding us – I encourage you to get out into a garden, onto a beach, alongside a riverbank. The God we know through Jesus is revealed in flowers and birds…
The second passage will be much shorter. It takes place after Glennon joined a yoga class:
Liz starts talking about God. At least I think she’s talking about God, but its hard to tell at first because she keeps calling God “Source” and “Spirit”. She tells us that we can call God whatever we want, but she chooses “Source” because God is where we come from, and “Spirit” because it means “breath”, and God is always as close as our breath. …
You can call God whatever you want… can you really? This is not what I’ve been taught. I’ve been taught that I must call God a certain name or He will burn me forever. But Liz’s idea is making me consider that Chase calls me “Mom”, Tish calls me “Mommy”, and Amma calls me “Mama”. I’ve never wanted to burn them about it. I knew they were each talking to me. It seems logical that the Creator of the Universe might be at least as mature as I am about this “name” issue.
For the first time in my life (she writes), I feel the utter absence of fear. I am completely comfortable. I am at peace. And I under-stand that I am in the middle of a reunion with God. This is a returning of my soul to its source. My soul’s source is God, and God is love. I am, right at this moment, in perfect love with God and there is no fear in perfect love. … Why had I been taught to be afraid of God if in God in the one place in which fear does not exist?
I feel in awe of this God, this love – I am awed but not afraid. (!) Fear is not possible here. Fear and God together will never make sense to me again. I am loved and have always been loved and will always, always be loved. I have never been separated from this love; I have only convinced myself I was. …
Just as I am… I’m loved just as I am. It strikes me that it’s always religious people who are most surprised by grace. (!) These hoops we become so exhausted from jumping through? We created them. We forget that our Maker made us human, and so it’s okay – maybe exactly right – to be human.
Finally, let me share a third passage from “Love Warrior”. It begins in Traverse City, Michigan, after she had given a talk:
I tell them that I’m finally proud of who I am. I understand now that I’m not a mess, but a deeply feeling person in a messy world. I explain that now, when someone asks me why I cry so often, I say, “For the same reason I laugh so often – because I am paying attention.” I tell them that we can choose to be perfect and admired, or to be real and loved. We must decide. … There is pain in hiding [our true selves], and there is pain outside of hiding. The pain out-side is better, because nothing hurts as bad as not being known. The irony is that our true selves are tougher than our representatives are. My tender self was never weak at all. She was made to survive the pain of love. My tenderness is my strength. Turns out that I never needed to hide. I was a Warrior all along. … “Thank you for inviting me here,” I say. “Thanks for being safe place to bring my tender, true self.” Then I turn and walk off the stage and into the brightness of an empty hallway…
[A gray-haired woman hurried over to her.] “Thanks for stopping. I just heard you speak. You were wonderful. I saw in the program that you’re from Naples, Florida. I used to live there, and I know where you should go to church. .. It’s one of those places you spoke about – where it’s safe to be fully human.”
“Okay! Great! Thank you!” I say. “Hell no” I think. [After a lifetime of toxic Christian theology, Glennon is wary of churches.]
I return home the next night and drive slowly through my neighborhood, searching. There, on a corner I’ve passed a hundred times, stands the church. It’s lit up bright against the night sky and I pull over to stare. … I feel an aching, a yearning to go inside. I see soft yellow light pouring out through a window. … There are no other cars in the parking lot. I consider that a church without people might be the only safe church for me. (!) But I do not go inside… instead, I drive home, unpack, snuggle in bed with my computer, and start researching the church’s denomination.
I start reading and learn that this was the first church to ordain [a woman in 1858], black ministers [in the 19th Century] and gay ministers [in the 1970’s.] I find a picture of its Ministers protesting against mistreatment of immigrants. When I stumble upon picture after picture of these churches flying rainbow flags above their doors, hope stirs inside of me. Judging by the website, this church looks safe; but what I really need to know are the hidden rules. So, the following Sunday morning during services, I drive slowly through the church’s parking lot, examining the bumper stickers on the cars of the congregation. I find political stickers from both parties. (!) I find environmental stickers and “co-exist” stickers. I count seven PFLAG stickers (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). I do not see a single “Turn or Burn” sticker, so I decide to give this place a try. Craig and I go to the church together the following Sunday. …
The organ begins and the first note fills my heart and then the silver-haired choir begins the procession. They are singing an old fashioned hymn, and my heart now feels like a balloon that’s floating out of my body. I am trying to regain control because I do not want to be taken for a ride here. Stay steady. …
The Minister declares that he is not here to add barriers between God and people; he’s here to remove them. He speaks of the need for a faith that is open and gentle instead of closed and militant.
He speaks of his Muslim & atheist & Jewish friends and how each has wisdom he needs. He calls out local and world leaders who spend billions on war and little on peacemaking. … This sermon is brave. It is relentlessly kind but not all that neutral.
I notice that when the Minister refers to God, he never uses a pronoun. To him [obviously], God is not a man. And when referring to people, he always says “she or he”. His language is painstakingly careful. He is speaking a language I recognize as love. Love is careful and love is humble. This man is careful and humble, and he is using his voice to lift to the surface those who have been forgotten.
After the service, Craig and I walk out of the sanctuary and a woman approaches us with a sincere and curious smile.
As I say hello, my eyes fall on the comma-shaped, rainbow-colored pin on her lapel. She notices me noticing it, and as her hand rises to touch the pin, she says, “The comma is because God is still speaking… And the rainbow is for the gays, of course.”
“Ah,” I say, “yes. Of course. Well, I’m here because a lady in Traverse City chased me down and promised that this was the place for a girl like me.” [Eventually Glennon and her husband decide to take a risk on that particular UCC congregation.] Not because I won’t get hurt (she writes), but because they are the right people to get hurt by. I trust the rules here.
[But she was still afraid to trust her children to the church, so she requests a meeting with the children’s director and tells her] we need a church that will help us practice loving ourselves without shame, loving others without agenda, and loving God without fear. A church that will give my children and me room to breathe and grow, and will never silence our dissent, doubt, or questions.
[In the end, Glennon is asked to help them teach the children the kind of love she had just defined.] Every week (she writes), I sit with the children of our congregation and I tell them about God… I tell them that Jesus’ way is love and that there are plenty of folks screaming his name who aren’t following His way, and that there are plenty of people who have never uttered Jesus’ name who are following the way of love beautifully. …
I teach them that the two most repeated phrases in the Bible as “Do not be afraid” & “remember”. Our human family is dismembered because we have been taught to fear each other. To have peace, we must allow love to bring us back to each other. To re-member. … I ask them not to wait for some other-worldly reunion. I ask them to bring heaven to earth here and now – to invite the Kingdom of God today – by treating every last one of God’s people like kin. I tell each of them, Be brave because you are a child of God. Be kind because everyone else is, too. We belong to each other.
I teach them that they are loved by God – wildly, fiercely, gently, completely, without reservation. I promise that there is nothing inside of them that they need to be ashamed of. I become a megaphone for the still, small voice that was drowned out so early for me – the voice that says to each of us, You! You are my beloved! I made you and everything you have ever been or are or will become is already approved. Nothing you can ever do will make me love you more, and nothing you can ever do will make me love you less. That is finished. So, stop hiding, stop waiting, and come now!
Every time I look into a ten-year-old’s eyes and promise her that she is good & loved so she never has to go underneath to breathe, I know I am also speaking to my ten-year-old self. Don’t hide. You are safe here. You belong, precious one, after all. Do not be afraid. Remember. (unquote)
Glennon says it all, says it well, and to all that I say: Amen!
Melton, Glennon Doyle, Love Warrior: A Memoir, Flatiron Books: NY, 2016, page 164 ff
Ibid., page 214-215
Ibid., page 226