Irresolutions: When the End is all You Want, but the Journey is all You’re Promised

It started with blinding pain in my abdomen—the kind that wakes you up in the middle of the night and leaves you bent over, groaning, on the bathroom floor. 

It ended with—oh wait, it hasn’t ended. There has been no tidy conclusion, no ultimate resolution. It has been a journey with no end in sight. It has been a journey, I’ve come to realize, with no end at all. The journey itself is all there is. Read more

Irresolutions: Creating a Rule of Life

A few months ago I attended a CREDO conference, a week-long conference offered to Presbyterian and Episcopal clergy through their health and pension benefit. It’s something like a cross between a conference and a retreat that centers on four areas: spiritual health, vocational health, mental and physical health, and financial health. It includes plenary sessions, small groups, daily worship, and opportunities to consult one-on-one with the conference faculty members. There is pre-work and post-work inviting reflection on values and connecting those values with a “rule of life.” Much like a monk or a nun who lives by a rule, the conference offered an invitation to create our own rule (unlike monks and nuns who don’t get to write it themselves) and to implement it in our life.

A decorative image showing four people, two white men, one white woman, and a Black woman, smiling into the camera against a backdrop of local trees in Louisiana

The author and her small group at CREDO 397 in Loranger, Louisiana.

I am no stranger to rules of life. Before joining the Episcopal church, as a Baptist-raised liturgy-leaning teenager, I went on a weekend retreat at St. Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan and became entranced by the daily office. Upon returning to my parents’ home, I began to implement my own daily regimen of prayers, attempting to pray the entire Psalter in a month as the monks did. As with most of my spiritual and devotional innovations, it fell to the wayside, but the desire remained. I continued to feel a tug, a pull, to live a more structured spiritual life. Read more

Irresolutions: New Year, New You?

The new year in American culture rings in the reminder of all the ways our culture wants to change us. Diets and special offers for gyms and workout programs flood our emails and social media feeds, triggering within us the idea that we need to improve. 

Resolutions aren’t a new concept. In fact, the Ancient Babylonians made resolutions for the new year, but they celebrated in mid-March as the signs of spring and new life were beginning to appear. When the new year changed to January 1 in Ancient Rome, it was a deeply religious time, a time to look back at the past year and make commitments to change for the better spiritually. But over time in American culture, these ancient practices have shifted away from the spiritual realm and concentrate mainly on physical improvements to our bodies. Recently there has been a pushback to these cultural expectations of weight-loss and dieting with people recognizing that the weight-loss and diet culture is an industry that profits off of making people feel inadequate. Not only is it an industry, it’s a $58 billon dollar industry Read more

Irresolutions: Battling Metaphors

The first thing my partner’s father asked after we told him I had cancer was, “Is Jo going to fight this?” It was a serious, intense question, one that we hadn’t even begun to think about. It was less than a week after the colonoscopy that showed a five centimeter mass at the top of my descending colon near my splenic flexure. It was less than a day after I received the biopsy results that showed that the mass was adenocarcinoma, moderately differentiated. For twenty-four hours, I had been focused on telling everyone that after months of symptoms with no clear cause, the answer was colon cancer. Fighting hadn’t crossed my mind. 

My partner looked at me sideways before he answered his dad, waiting for my nod. I shrugged. “Yeah, she’s going to fight this,” he said into the phone. “Good,” his dad said, and led the conversation to questions about treatment and staging, what resources we had available, who we should talk to, what the timeline was. This was before the chest CT, the consult with surgical oncology, the dizzying flurry of information and instructions. This was still a month away from the six-hour surgery that would leave me with many incisions and arms that still don’t bend quite like they did before. We didn’t know anything about what the “fight” would look like, but we signed up for it all the same.  Read more

New Year’s Irresolution

Earlier this year, I was at an annual gathering of other local clergy in my denomination. Our speaker for our time together was Dr. Deanna A. Thompson, the Director of the Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community at St. Olaf College. She spoke on a couple of different topics, weaving in her experiences as someone who has been living with incurable cancer since 2008. You can read her story in her book, Hoping for More: Having Cancer, Talking Faith, and Accepting Grace (Cascade, 2012). On our last day together, the topic for Dr. Thompson’s presentation was “Gospel of Irresolution: Illness, Trauma, and Getting to Hope.” It highlighted how illness and trauma can lead us to a place of irresolution, a place where things are not neatly tied up in a bow, no matter how badly we want them to be. 

As we begin a new year, I wonder if this isn’t an idea to lean into.  Read more

Famous Last Words, Part 4

“Famous Last Words” is a 4-week sermon series exploring the final words of various books of the Bible. In our fourth and final week, we look at the ending of the end of the Bible: the Book of Revelation. Although not always popular with pastors, Revelation tends to be very popular with your average run-of-the-mill Christian or spiritually curious person. Whether it’s the tantalizing promise of a glimpse into the end of the world or the vivid imagery, there is something intriguing about this book. Here we explore the end of Revelation and the promises and warnings found there. You can read previous posts here.

A stream flows down a slight hill and over rocks against a background of green mountains and hills.

Streams of water.

November 20, 2022 (Christ the King Sunday) – Revelation 22:16-21
RCL texts: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

Call to Worship
by Alison VanBuskirk Philip

Jesus is the Alpha and Omega.

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”

 

Jesus is the bright morning star.

Let anyone who sees say, “Come!”

 

Jesus is the life-giving water.

Let all who are thirsty say, “Come!”

 

May the grace of God be with us,

quenching our every thirst

and blessing our every story.

We come to receive living water.

We come to soak in God’s blessing.

 


Hymn Suggestion
Joy to the World (Text by Isaac Watts, tune: Antioch)


Light text commentary with preaching suggestions
by Ali Van Kuiken:

The Book of Revelation elicits strong reactions. Among patients at the psychiatric hospitals where I’ve worked, it inspires awe, fascination, and excitement. It’s many of my patients’ favorite book of the Bible. Among colleagues, there is some puzzlement and aversion, as they find the imagery too strong and popular interpretations troubling. Among congregational parishioners, Revelation is a source of confusion. What, then, should we make of this apocalyptic, vivid book? Is it a prophecy concerning the future? Does it describe the past? What does it have to do with me, today? 

Having grown up in an Evangelical home, I inevitably think of the Left Behind series whenever I think of Revelation; the name Nicolai Carpathia usually comes to mind. I also think of my college Bible professors, a husband and wife teaching team, dressing up as the dragon and using a hand puppet who represented the “whore of Babylon” to bring the images of Revelation to life.

Whatever we make of the specific plagues, seals, and bowls of wrath in Revelation, it is overall clear that it was meant to be a book of encouragement during a time of uncertainty, persecution and danger for Christians. When the empire seems to have the upper hand, the power, and the ability to inflict violence on one’s fledgling church community, one needs a new vision of God and God’s plans for the world to explain what exactly is going on and to maintain hope. Revelation gives such a vision. God is undeniably in control and, in fact, everything that looks chaotic and confusing here on earth is all part of God’s plan. The people of God need not worry. All will come right in the end. Whatever our suffering here on earth, the righteous will be vindicated and will find a place and healing in the new heaven and the new earth.

This is the context of the last words of Revelation, which includes a beautiful invitation to “come.” The Spirit and the bride say “come.” Let the one who is thirsty come. There is a communal invitation here to join in the same petition “come.” There is some ambiguity as to who is to come and who is being invited to come. Are we joining in the cry, “Amen, come Lord Jesus”? Or are we the ones being invited to come? There’s a case to be made for both. “The one who testifies to these things” says, “Surely I am coming soon.” This might be Jesus who is testifying by way of his messenger John, or perhaps it is John, the identified messenger bringing the contents of the book to the churches. The multivalency of scripture allows for several avenues the preacher could follow here. We can join with those desperately calling for Jesus to come again. And we can hear in that message an invitation to join with others to come somewhere new.

Perhaps this invitation is to come to the new, holy city, of which verse 14 writes that those who wash their robes will have the right to enter it by the gates. A place not all are apparently welcome, given the warning in verse 15 about who is not going to be allowed entrance. Such warnings no doubt sound harsh and hateful to our ears, ears which are so often attuned to messages of God’s love and the second chances given to those who have fallen. (Not to mention the judgments we may have about those judging others based on their choices.) Yet how we live our lives and the choices we make are precisely the important point in Revelation. When all hell breaks loose, what does that mean for us? We need to hold on, stay strong, stay the course. We can do so because God is ultimately the one in control. Don’t lose heart. Don’t stray. There are warnings and promises here.

Another warning appears in verses 18-19: not to add or take away from the words of this book lest God add plagues to us or take away our share in the kingdom. And isn’t it not also the case that those who add to the words of the Bible often add a message that becomes a plague to others? And those who take away the message of love and grace, do they not take away the opportunity for others to enter into their share in the kingdom?

What I see in this invitation to “come” is not so much our longing for Jesus to come back and rescue us, or even come and teach us once again. It is an invitation for us to come to Jesus, to that heavenly city where the trees with leaves for the healing of the nations grow. An invitation for us to come to the waters of life. We are not static people, waiting for God to do something for us. We have agency and choice and can choose where to move and where to go. The invitation at the very end of the Bible is for us to continue the story, to move toward God, just as the mothers and fathers of our faith have shown us how to do (or how not to do). And when we move toward God we will find that God is not static either, but has been moving toward us the entire time.


Prayers of the People Petition
written by Alison VanBuskirk Philip

God, you are the Alpha and Omega.

Thank you for being with us in our beginnings and endings and everything in between. 

Thank you that you intend for us to be people of hope, of joy, and of abundance. 

Thank you that you are making all things new. You are forming a new heaven and new earth where all shall be well. You invite us to lay down our troubles and worries by waters that renew and nourish us. 

 

God, you are the Alpha and Omega.

In our hearts and out of our hearts, may rivers of living water flow.

 

Abundant One, sometimes we thirst. Enter our parched places of confusion, fear, and scarcity. We name those places now in our hearts. Pause. Let the living water flow in and strengthen us. Let it soothe our troubled minds and weary hearts. Help us trust you to guide us toward endings that are rich with love. Give us rest, and let us lean on you.

 

God, you are the Alpha and Omega.

In our hearts and out of our hearts, may rivers of living water flow.

 

Living One, you are the author of our stories. You weave your story through ours. From the moments of Creation, through moments of upheaval and loss, through moments of renewed hope and calling; through all of it, you do not let us go. You are the foundation and the words on the pages. You are the Word who makes sense of our words. You are the one who calls us to come to the water. You are the one who speaks a vision of new life. You are the one to whom we turn with every question and mystery. 

 

God, you are the Alpha and Omega.

In our hearts and out of our hearts, may rivers of living water flow.

Amen. 

 

A gravel path is shaded by pine trees and dappled with sunlight, with light blue sky coming through gaps in the canopy.

How Are You– Really?

The other night in Bible study I posed the question: Is anyone happy? 

People are not OK right now. Whether it is ongoing pandemic fatigue, financial stress, job dissatisfaction, or general feelings of ennui, many of us are feeling burned out, surrounded by other burned out people. It’s not a very life-giving situation. If you are feeling this way, you aren’t alone. Nearly everyone I talk to is feeling down in some way. 

Earlier this year I decided I was going to devote more time to one of my favorite hobbies: reading. I read more than I ever have: by the time fall started I had already finished 100 books for the year, when I usually read about 40-50 a year. It was amazing– until I realized I was using reading as a form of numbing. Reading is a great hobby to have, but I was immersing myself in these worlds to escape my own. It was my way of dealing with this feeling of not being OK. 

We all know that there are coping skills that are unhealthy, and most of us (especially pastors!) wouldn’t see reading as one of them, but I realized I was using it to numb myself rather than try to change what I could.  I decided to make some changes, find some more “balance.”  I started eating better, exercising, meditating, and journaling in place of the time I spent devouring novels. I’m still reading, but back to my pace of about a book a week (and I found that’s ok!). 

Check in with yourself. How are you— really?

Stop to take a few breaths and ask yourself – How am I… really? It’s ok if the answer is you are not OK. You are certainly not alone. The next question is– What do you need to be a little more ok? Expecting to be all better overnight isn’t realistic. I feel a little better than I did with these changes, but let’s be honest, all my problems didn’t go away because I have cut back on reading to move my body more, like dancing around my kitchen to 90s and 00s music. 

A gravel path is shaded by pine trees and dappled with sunlight, with light blue sky coming through gaps in the canopy.

This is a walking path the author comes to when she needs perspective. Do you have a place like that?

Do you need a therapist, coach, or spiritual director? A nutritionist? Use that meditation app you keep forgetting about? Do you need a night out with friends? Do you need to finally get that babysitter so you can go on a date night? Do you need to take a class to restart a favorite hobby or try something new? How about a walk in nature? Alarms on your phone with positive affirmations throughout the day? Something that makes you belly laugh? Just a reminder that you aren’t alone? 

That we’re all struggling. 

That you aren’t failing. 

That you are doing your best right now and your best is enough. 

It is enough. 

You are enough. 

You are loved. Deeply. 

Self care is never enough, though. I don’t have much wisdom for building systems of community care, because I’m still working on figuring that out myself. But I know we have to ask for help- not just from professionals but neighbors and friends too. Churches can be those spaces of community care, but many of our churches have forgotten how to do that. Can we put together meal trains not just for those grieving, but maybe for single parents for a week or two over the summer? Can we revive pastor’s discretionary funds for mutual aid? Can we advocate within our churches or workplaces for insurance to better cover mental healthcare or offer better leave options for mental health care? 

 

Breathe In. We’re going to get through this together. Breathe out. 

Repeat. You got this. We got this. You are doing amazing. 

 

I’m so proud of you. Keep going. 

 

If what you are feeling is too critical to rely on extra TLC and a community safety net, please reach out to a licensed therapist or dial 988, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

Cup of Equality

A few months after leaving my pastorate, I am never sure whether to say “I’m a stay-at-home mum” or “I’m unemployed” or “I’m a freelance ecumenist who is slowly starting a coaching business and might be working on a book while moving across the Atlantic for my spouse’s job and definitely is not earning any money.” Technically my denomination views me as on “sabbatical,” but caring for a toddler is neither restful nor soul-renewing. And unlike most sabbaticals, I do not know how long this would last or what I will do after. I’m waiting in a new setting across an ocean to discern the next step in my vocational path. 

I now find myself outside of a defined role. I have no name-tag, or title, or place in local ecclesial structures. I am sitting in a pew after ten years of always being behind the pulpit and the altar. I resonate with the psalmist who remembered the past while questioning the present and waiting on the future: 

“These things I remember as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
a multitude keeping festival.” (Psalm 42:4)   Read more

On Leaving a Call

My final Sunday at that church came as every other Sunday in my career has come: with a little anxiety and a rush of responsibilities. But this time, it felt as though more was at stake. I was leaving. Every Sunday, I wake up at 5:00 a.m. First feed the dog, make coffee, sip my coffee. For those few moments, everything is peaceful.

 

I give myself until 5:30 every Sunday. Or rather, gave. At 5:30 sharp, I’d stop mindlessly scrolling or pause my Wordle fixation for the day and get to work.

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The Receiving Line

My heart finally slowed down as the organist began the postlude. I had made it through another Sunday of trying to offer Good News in the midst of so much terrible news. As I processed out down the long aisle, I switched gears in my mind. This was the part of Sunday morning worship that was either always the most meaningful or most difficult: the receiving line. 

 

In some traditions, the pastor processes out of the sanctuary during the postlude and opens the front doors as the church bells ring and the choir sings. The opening of the doors after worship has symbolic meaning: it reminds the people of God that what we have heard together and what we have learned together, we now take out into the world in hopes of bringing love and light into the hurting world. 

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