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2015 08 30


Meditation for First Mennonite Church of Denver
August 30, 2015
Annie Lengacher Browning


It is a still summer afternoon in our backyard. Almost too still, the kind of stillness that comes just before those clouds start rolling in. Thunder follows. Lightening sparks.

And the good, sweet raindrops fall.

In the mess of gathering ourselves up and herding everyone inside, I love to observe the responses in my household to the gift of a rain shower. Me, I give thanks for a lower water bill, greener lawn, reservoirs refilling, life renewing.

I watch the faces of my three little boys, and they also hold excitement for a different reason. Their noses press against the glass of our windows watching water gush from the gutters and form rivets in our yard. They are looking, waiting and watching for it.

The appearance of the “oh so wonderful” muddy puddle.

For when a storm has passed what could we want better than to stomp, jump, roll and flop into muddy puddles. There is nothing more joyous that the ooze of mud in between one’s toes.

At First Mennonite, we are at a precipice of entering a new season of life together. As I have sat in silence and reflected on this season, I have the sense that we are emerging from a rainstorm and there is a vast land before us will all sorts of puddles appearing. Some are clear. Others are muddy. Some are growing and others seem to be slowly seeping into the earth.

Like many of you, a part of me has my nose pressed against the glass eagerly anticipating what new streams of grace and goodness and joy are forming before us, while my heart is also grieving the streams that have given me so much sustenance, comfort, familiarity and peace.

Although my emotions vacillate back and forth, I have no doubt, no doubt, that as we search for water, for these puddles among us, we are pursuing the Spirit of God that is nudging those puddles to bubble forth. I trust with my whole being that God’s Spirit always bubbles forth. Our challenge is waiting and watching with eager anticipation of which puddles we jump in with full abandon.

I do not know when an abundant rainfall will pour out among us or when these puddles will bubble up. I do know, though, what it means to actively wait and watch and notice while we enter this time of unknown together. For me, it means that I stand barefoot on this holy ground saying, “I am here, Lord. I am listening. My eyes are peeled, my heart is open, my mind is engaged, and my soul is spacious for you and your leading among us.”

Time and time again, we see incredible imagery and repeated stories of God’s Spirit breaking forth in times of wilderness, desert and wandering. Our text this morning is one of those.

Deuteronomy 4 is one of those moments of God breaking forth and a well-spring of water emerging in a place of desert. Although, at a first read, it sounds pretty similar to the rest of the Hebrew Bible with its “do this, not that”, “follow this, not that”. In other words, at first glance, I hear a call for legalism and bureaucracy rather than the expansiveness of following God’s expansive Spirit.

Instead chapter 4 is the wonderful instruction of a “do-over.”

One of our greatest losses in our adult world is the chance for automatic, infectious and frequent “do-overs.” No longer do we run races with one another, reach the finish line, lose and immediately call for a “do-over.” Or think about how different the coin toss at the beginning of a football game may have been if “do-overs” were allowed. Tails? No, “do-over.”

In this text, Moses, the assumed author of Deutoronomy, is calling for a great “do-over.” The Israelites are wandering for 40 years in the wilderness before entering the promised land. They are disoriented, confused, scattered, lacking clarity and direction. They are in a time of transition and change. A time of liminal space between one reality and the next. The streams they have known have dried up and they are looking for new sources of sustenance.

In this time of wandering and searching, they have forgotten a bit of who they are in this new land. In this time of challenge, their identity has scattered, commitment is sparse and they are fragmented in their sense of community. And so Deuteronomy 4 is Moses’ ringing call across the wilderness, “do over!”

He calls them to return to their statues and ordinances that will bring life and fullness. He calls for them to remember the statues and ordinances that are greater than the patterns they have fallen into in their times of wandering and back into the guiding principles that have sustained them for generations.

In reclaiming their ordinances, they will begin to experience the prosperity and life promised to them at the end of the 40 years of wandering. They are presented with the call to re-enter a thriving relationship between God and God’s people and a thriving relationship of a vibrant community.

This is not a call to return to legalism. Instead it is a call to return to health and to remember what has sustained them in the past and “do over.” In essence, it is Jesus’s call to be the kingdom of God on earth in Old Testament language. To begin to live and practice the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. To grasp the opportunity to be ideal community with one another instead of waiting until 40 years have passed to say, “Well, now we can get on with it! Finally!”

This is not a call to routine obedience. It is not a call to circle the wagons, hunker down and wait for wilderness to pass by.  Rather it is the call to actively participate in being the community we wish to become. To start being the people of God that we wish to become.

We often view the call for a “do-over” because of loss or screw up instead of a way to build potential or seize a moment. The beauty of this text is that the “do-over” for the Israelites is not issued because of an immense screw up…yet. There are plentiful screw ups to come later. This “do-over” is issued because of group of people are starting to become fragmented. Moses sees this unfolding and calls them to take advantage of the opportunity among them.

First Mennonite, similarly, I call for a “do-over.”

Please hear me that this in no way means that the past years have been errant or misguided at all. The “do-over” that I am calling for is pre-emptive. To determine who we are as FMC, learn what has sustained us and brought us life, what is the core.
Core ordinances provide life and abundance. It is the type of liveliness that bursts beyond these walls and brings that same energy to our world. It is the type of life that is the kingdom of God on earth and manna in the wilderness. The good news. Water in the desert. The love of God. Streams in the desert.

One of my favorite poems, is by David Whyte, and it is called, “Loaves and Fishes”. It goes as follows:
This is not
the age of information.
This is not
the age of information.
Forget the news,
and the radio,
and the blurred screen.
This is the time
of loaves
and fishes.
People are hungry
and one good word is bread
for a thousand.
  -- David Whyte

For me, this is another way of asking this question of ordinances. What is your one good word, First Mennonite? What is that good word that is bread for a thousand? That good word that cuts through thousands of words? That is the sort of essence that leads us through times of change. That is what sustains us when we ask the question “what is next?”

And so, it is easy to flip a coin and call for a “do-over”. It is much, much harder to actually “do” the “do-over” part. 

So often, our approach in times of change is to start thinking. We go into mental analysis of what has worked/not worked in the past, doing assessments of strengths, weaknesses, obstacles, opportunities, listing pros/cons. However, listening and watching for core ordinances is also soul work and so it cannot just be a cognitive exercise.

I offer the following spiritual exercises as a way of “doing” your ordinances instead of only “thinking” your ordinances.

I’m guessing that in the coming year or so you will all be challenged with the questions of what sorts of programming, structures, and ways of doing church you want to be. I encourage you all to not just ask questions of whether something is working or not, whether or not we can afford it, whether or not it makes sense. These are valid questions, but I offer these questions as well. It is these questions that get us into the space of waiting and watching for puddles to bubble up. It is these sorts of questions that invite us to have that un-abandon of a “do-over.”

1. Signs of the Spirit: First, where are the Fruits of the Spirit? Where are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Where are these bubbling up around us, even outside of these walls? Pursue these places, claim these as ordinances, name them as signs of God’s Spirit. And even more importantly, find these within your own self. We cannot recognize God’s Spirit bubbling up around us if we don’t know what these practices look like within ourselves. Again, there is a difference between thinking about these things and knowing them as a daily rhythm of our existence. For love attracts love, joy attracts joy, peace, peace, forebearance, forebearance. If we want to be a community with these qualities, then they must be the ordinances we live by.

What do you want to be known by, First Mennonite? What is your legacy? There is such an opportunity here for your legacy to be one of God’s fruits rather than accolades and accomplishments. There is such an opportunity here to be known by one good word instead of more information.

2. Shedding Questions: Questions that move us beyond cognitive analysis into assessment of our source, our center, our soul.

What is the source of a movement, activity, program or idea? When exploring core tenants and what we do as a church, look at the source (Origin). Is the source of an activity or pattern God’s Spirit? Or is it just because we always have done it this way? Is the source rooted in the drive of human ego? Or is it the drive of the Holy Spirit?

John Cassian asked a 5 way test: Is it filled with what is good for all? Is it heavy with fear of God? Is it genuine in the feelings that underlie it? Is it lightweight because of human show or because of some thrust toward novelty? Has the burden of vainglory lessened its merit or diminished its luster?
Answering these questions requires a painful willingness to be honest about what we do in the practice of church that is for us and what is for the Holy Spirit. It is not always that easy to pull these apart but again when our source is spiritually guided, it produces the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

3. Spiritual Swing: Is there consolation (moving toward God) or desolation (movement away from God)? When we move toward God, we find a sense of peace, well-being, wholeness, the sort of rest in knowing we are living by our core ordinances.  When we are in desolation, we find dis-ease, fragmentation, splintering of relationships with self and others, a time of scattered wandering.
As a family, we talk about these spiritual swing each night at the dinner table. We talk about our highs/lows of the day. And, over time, the responses to these questions begin to show a pattern and theme in our own little family system, in a sense they reveal ordinances. And where the fruits of the Spirit are appearing in our collective life together. What if you did high lows each Sunday? After a Leadership Council meeting? After a Christian Ed session? What if each you were invited to consider and collect high/lows over the next year?

I offer these not as mandates at all, but rather a pragmatic place to begin in looking for how God’s Spirit is breathing and moving in this congregation. They are ways to wait and watch in anticipation for how God is breaking forth in watery good ways at First Mennonite.

My prayer is that in this time of transition all of us would take off our shoes and get dirty. While clear puddles that allow us to see the ground below are pristine and beautiful, they are also safe, clean and we know them pretty well.
I believe God’s invitation is always for us to get just a bit dirty, to be a bit messy with the unfolding work of the Spirit, to relish in the joy of dirt squishing between our toes and the muddy openness of forming a future together.

God’s invitation is for us to be accessible, real, authentic and human with one another. That means that we leave muddy footprints behind as we move forward together.
May the coming season bring abundant rains at First Mennonite Church and, even more importantly, even more abundant muddy puddles among us. Let us jump in them together.



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