What God Can Do

I want to be great. I want to be great at everything I do, and I give myself a hard time for not being brilliantly excellent 100% of the time — as a pastor, a preacher, a mother, a writer. I long to be stellar … and not just to be stellar, but to be known for being stellar. It’s entirely vain of me, and I want to repent of it as soon as I see it glaring in front of me. But the desire always returns. I’ll see news on Facebook about a clergy colleague’s invitation to the White House, or about another mother who is teaching her children how to cook five-star meals after they finish their homework each day, or about a writer friend who’s on his fifth book … and the demon wells up again: “I want to be great too! I want people to see that I’m great.”

Of course, it can be tricky to recognize ambition as a demon, because it’s often disguised with good intentions. Like the disciples in Mark 9:33-37, arguing over greatness. It’s not that they want to skip past the discipleship and get right to the glory of who sits where in heaven — they have genuine intentions of striving to be good disciples. In fact, they want to be great disciples for Jesus! They want to be the kind of disciples that other people look up to, the kind of disciples leaders turn to for advice, the kind of disciples who will be solicited to write memoirs one day when they retire from discipleship. They want to be the kind of disciples who keep famous company and are seated at the head of the banquet table. They long to be the kind of disciples who will one day be the kind of saints that people pray to, because people will know that these saints can bend Jesus’ ear in heaven. It’s not vanity, it’s spirituality! They just want to be great at it.

In a similar vein, we tell ourselves it’s not vanity or ambition — it’s faithfulness — that we want our individual congregation to stand out and be known for its ministry. We like being distinguished among our denominational peers as one of the churches that is growing. We like being known among churches in the region as an inclusive congregation of diverse theologies, diverse families, diverse loves. That’s who God has called us to be as a congregation; that we are well-known for it is just a perk! And we long for that perk to multiply! We want our church’s reputation to pack the pews and boost our budget and raise our new roof. We want this church to be great…

…but if you haven’t already caught the hint of it, there’s a very delicate line between ministering greatly and desiring greatness. Between doing great work and being known for our great work. Between great discipleship and great ambition. Between desiring righteousness and desiring reputation. Between assessing our greatness in light of our call (individually and congregationally) and assessing our greatness according to our kudos. A delicate line that requires diligent mindfulness!

Jesus says (Mark 9:33-37), “You want to be great? Keep company with the least of these, with the powerless, with the disreputable.”

James says (James 3:13-18), “You want to be great? Show your greatness by your works of gentleness and generosity.”

God says, “You want to be great? Live with humility, and let me be what is great about you. You want to be great? Keep doing the work of your call, keep blessing your community, and I will show you what I can do through you and within you. You want to be great? Make room for me to be great!

Now by some necessity, especially when we’re embarking on a new project or mission as a congregation, it is useful to generate group enthusiasm and pride. It’s helpful for the task at hand to have a collective positive energy for who our church is, how our church impacts our lives, and what our church represents within the wider Church and community. It’s helpful for the task at hand to believe that our congregation is great, and well worth our investments of time and talent and treasure!

Nevertheless, the ultimate success of a congregation’s new project or mission is not about whether we believe that our individual church is great. The success of the new venture is about whether we believe that God is great, and whether we are willing to make room for God to do great things! And I don’t mean, “Keep doing business as usual and see what miracle God can work with the same-old-same old.” I mean, “Lay everything on the table and leave no stone unturned” to make room for God to do great things! And that means making room for God to change our minds! That means making room for God to change our minds about money — about our personal budgets and assets as well as our congregational budget. That means making room for God to change our minds about time — about whether we fill up our days darting around with a “to do” list rather than discerning the moments of God’s movement.

It means — ultimately, fundamentally — making room for God to change our minds about the greatness of God’s grace, about whether our experiences of grace are such sufficient evidence of God’s greatness that we are finally willing to yield our vain desire for greatness by ourselves, willing to unclasp our tight-fisted need for control in this life, willing to give way finally to peace … and possibility … and gentleness … and generosity.

We have received grace upon grace in this life — full & unconditional love from God, and the nurturing love of those who have gently guided our journeys.

We have received grace upon grace in this life — the breath of God within us to inhale the autumn air, to exhale with laughter, to sing with joy, to pour ourselves out in sobs.

We have received grace upon grace in this life — confidence and sustenance by God’s mercy for those days that we thought we couldn’t get through, for those trials which seemed too stormy to survive, for those moments when it seemed that beauty might shatter our hearts.

We have received grace upon grace in this life — and this is evidence of the greatness of God! It is not the greatness of us. It is not the greatness of this church.

So with gratitude for grace upon grace, with the confidence that God’s grace is sufficient, we will step aside from being great. We will set aside our vain hopes that others will see us as great. And we will make room for God to be great — we will risk making room for God to be great and to do great things — in our lives and in our congregation.


Sermon preached at Grace United Church of Christ, 9/23/12.

Looking into a Mirror

Have you had the experience of looking into a mirror, checking yourself over, walking away … and then returning to the mirror, because you don’t remember checking your hair or necktie? Perhaps you’ve had the experience of checking yourself in the mirror and starting your day, only to realize later in the day that you missed seeing your mismatched shoes or open zipper!

Congratulations, James 1:19-27 is using your (and my!) absent-mindedness as an example of how not to live out one’s faith!

James says, “Just like sometimes we look in the mirror and forget what we’ve seen, sometimes we hear the lessons of faith, sometimes we read and speak the words of faith, sometimes we sing the glorious refrains of faith … but we still forget to put faith into practice. We fail to take the words and do what they say. We faith to show what we believe.”

We say “Do unto others,” but we snap at the grocery store clerk or at the neighbor. We say “Love everyone,” but we’re suspicious of anyone who doesn’t speak English fluently or who lives in a part of town that we avoid. We say “God is grace,” but we can’t forgive our own imperfections and we hold grudges against others. We hear words of faith, but we fail to live consistently with faith. We look in the mirror, but we forget what we’ve seen.

James is very simple and direct in his challenge: Are we living out our faith, or are we merely giving lip-service to faith?

And James isn’t measuring whether we’re polite to others more often than not, whether we come to church more Sundays than we sleep in. If we read his entire letter, we hear James addressing the whole breadth of our lives: our impulses for instant gratification, our envy of wealth, our lack of care for those less fortunate, our gossiping, our hypocrisy and double-standards, our manipulation in relationships, our egos! James is not only saying that we can’t look in the mirror and forget what we’ve seen — he’s also pointing out that we shouldn’t look in the mirror and only see part of the picture.

We’ve got to look in the mirror from head to toe! We’ve got to look at and allow faith to impact every aspect of our lives! How are our relationships showing our faith? How are our words showing our faith? How are our finances showing our faith? How are our daily activities, our work, our church participation, our hobbies, our time, and our volunteering all showing our faith? Or are we just looking at one part of the mirror — one part of our lives — and neglecting to examine the whole picture of faith?

There’s an interesting twist in verse 25, which points us in the direction of integrating faith throughout the whole of our lives and also gives us a clue for being more mindful than absent-minded about doing what we say we believe. In the NRSV, James 1:25 reads, “Those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act — they will be blessed in their doing.” The same verse in The Message says, “Whoever catches a glimpse of the revealed council of God–the free life!–even out of the corner of his eye, and sticks with it, is no distracted scatterbrain but a person of action who finds delight in doing.”

It’s hard to catch the twist — the insight — of verse 25, because James doesn’t explicitly continue his mirror metaphor in this verse; we have to continue that metaphor ourselves. James has been challenging us to remember what we see in the mirror, and to see the entire image in the mirror. In verse 25, James subtly adds the point that we cannot see only ourselves in that mirror!

Consider an obvious fact: when you look into a mirror, you see yourself, right? Verse 25 says that those who are mindful and put faith into action throughout the whole of their lives are the ones who do not look into a mirror focused on themselves but who look into a mirror focused on “the perfect law” — it’s those who look into the mirror and glimpse God’s wisdom. Those who consistently put faith into action are the ones who look into a mirror and don’t see only themselves: they also see God and they see others. To do that, to see more than ourselves in a mirror we have to step back from the mirror, maybe tilt it a bit to one side or the other, so that when we look in the mirror we see what’s around us and who’s next to us.

James isn’t only critical of us when we forget what we see in the mirror, when we forget to do the faith that we talk about. He also indicates that we shouldn’t see only ourselves in the mirror; we shouldn’t live faith as though it’s all about us. The life of faith is about love of God and love of neighbor, and we can’t see God and neighbor — we can’t love God and neighbor — if we keep the mirror of faith smack in front of our own faces!

Seeing beyond ourselves is perhaps the hardest and certainly one of the most consistent challenges of faith, because we experience life in the first-person. We are always inside our own heads. When we have good news, we want the focus to be on us; when we experience pain, we want the focus to be on us. Attention feels good — we even want God’s focus to be on us.

James pull the mirror away from us, challenges us to step back and look at the whole picture of how we live out our faith, by refocusing the mirror on God: seeing God in others, seeing God in our lives, seeing God for Godself.

So the next time you check yourself out in the mirror, stop. Take a few breaths. And after checking your hair and your teeth and your outfit, check to see where God is in your life.

Sermon preached at Grace United Church of Christ, 9/2/12.


My daughter prefers that I keep my dancing to myself
but—O my God!—I’ve got to dance because you are so good!
I’m gonna tap my toes with the joy of knowing
that your Spirit is on the move!
I’m gonna shrug my shoulders and lean my hips into
the rhythm of this noisy suburban traffic song,
glad in the knowledge that you are the substance of this life!
I’m gonna nod my head—with terrible, white girl obviousness—
in agreement with the tree boughs nodding in the breeze
to the beat of your glorious refrain!
I’m gonna crank up India.Arie on the car speakers
and swim my hand through the passing current of air
because your mercy was new with today’s sunrise
and your loving kindness will last beyond tonight’s sunset!
I’m gonna swing my arms high (not while driving)
and throw off the tensions and strains—
remembering that clouds change,
the tides pulse and
the seasons turn,
but your grace remains forever!
Your blessing beckons me to shed my stress, loosen up,
and groove with a dance of thanksgiving! Watch out! 

What’s your dance today?
“God has turned my mourning into dancing…”
(Psalm 30:11)
Write a prayer that dances with joy!

A Front Porch on Martha Street

I’d like to introduce you to a virtual front porch on a beautiful space called Martha Street! Recently launched by an online (and now in-person) friend and colleague, Andrea Pitcher, Martha Street is a gathering place for women seeking spiritual refreshment and fellowship.

Andrea particularly has a heart for women in global missions, women in ministry, women in the military or in military families, women who are providing often-constant spiritual support for those around them but whose own spiritual lives need nourishment & renewal. At Martha Street, Andrea provides warm online community, faith resources, recipe ideas, and even counseling (she has a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology).

I’m especially pleased to be a contributor to Martha Street, sharing my weekly prayer-writing prompts (like this one) with the women gathered there. Would you take a moment to visit Martha Street, say “hello” to Andrea, and recommend this site to someone you know who may be blessed by the fellowship at Martha Street? Thanks!