In the Clouds

“Peter was still speaking when a cloud overshadowed them. As they entered the cloud, they were overcome with awe.” Luke 9:34

On Sunday, many observed the Feast of the Transfiguration, when we remember three disciples seeing Jesus’ appearance change before their eyes – and then saw Moses and Elijah talking to him. It is a spectacular, attention-grabbing vision. 

But I confess, when I consider that event this year, I am more focused on the cloud that enveloped them next. Perhaps it’s because of the summer we’re experiencing. Sometimes we don’t like clouds because they block the sun and bring rain – other times we long for them because they block the sun and bring rain.

Clouds are fascinating. If you’ve ever been in a cloud – or a thick fog, which is just a low hanging cloud – you know they have a strange quality. You can see and feel them, and yet not really. They seem solid and transparent at the same time. They block your views of distant things, but tend to really focus your attention on what is nearby. 

Clouds float between earth and sky, connecting the two. They are halfway between water and air. 

Clouds happen when water seems to defy gravity! I looked it up – the average cloud weighs about the same as a passenger airplane. Water on the earth’s surface warms up and evaporates as vapor, as it travels the tiny particles cool and condense into a cloud that we can see. And then, the water from the cloud can come back to us as rain or snow. 

The life cycle of a cloud is a visual way to think about communication between God and humankind. Think about us here on earth with all of our joys and sorrows, longings and fears, gatherings and scatterings rising up to God. And think about God raining steadfast love and guidance to us. 

Our relationship with God exists in a way that is like a cloud – it touches us and you can see its effects – but at the same time it is nebulous and hard to put your finger on. 

Clouds keep things livable on earth. They help water move around the planet to places that might not otherwise get it. They help us see and prepare for changes in weather patterns, protecting us from danger. 

And our relationship with God is like that, too. The cloud of our communication with our Creator helps love move to places and people that might not otherwise experience it. God helps us see and prepare for the repercussions of the storms we create with our choices and behaviors. God protects us with revelations. 

This cloud that surrounds Jesus, Peter, John, and James is not the first holy cloud. There are other key times in the history of God’s people when clouds make important appearances. 
A cloud guided the Israelites through the wilderness after they escaped slavery in Egypt.
A cloud surrounded Mount Sinai when Moses received the Ten Commandments.
After the Flood, God placed a bow in a cloud as a sign of the covenant between God and the earth.
People of faith talk about the encouragement we get from a “cloud of witnesses.” It is a cloud of the faithful who have preceded us and whose example surrounds us like droplets in a fog. example and love.

And in this moment, Jesus and three of his disciples are enveloped in a cloud at a particularly holy moment. This cloud doesn’t just surround them, it speaks to them, “This is my Son, my Chosen; Listen to him!”

What an intense experience of God! 

In this moment, the three followers of Jesus are reminded of the connection between Jesus and the Covenant that had bound God and Israel. Not only in the person of Moses who articulated that covenant to their ancestors, but also with Elijah who held generations accountable to that Covenant. 

And not only to Moses and Elijah, but now to Jesus, as well.

And as if it were not enough to see what they see, they are then enclosed in a cloud. Like the clouds that guided and protected their ancestors. 

This moment is not isolated – it is part of the continuing story of God’s relationship with us, amplified in Jesus Christ. The ancestors, the cloud – it is all reminiscent of things these disciples celebrated all year long every year in festivals and holy days, at the Temple and in their homes. This is not an isolated strange event on a mountain. Jesus is part of the long story of salvation and will carry that story forward. 

God meets us in clouds, even today. I think about that when I see steam rising from a puddle in the summer heat. Or as a low cloud forms when the warm water of Lake Austin touches cooler air in winter. 

Sometimes we get to see the way earth and water mingle with air and spirit and it reminds us that God is ever near, that God is infusing our lives and our world with love all the time. 

When we see these images of clouds — low and high, shading us or raining on us — it’s a reminder of the other times God has communicated with us and reminded us that we are connected.

It is in a cloud that Peter and James and John got the clearest vision of who Jesus is. All the other stimuli around them – the sky, the mountain – all of it was obscured from view and all they saw was Jesus. All they heard was God’s voice. 

We are often in clouds – 

Clouds of worry and confusion

Clouds that keep us from seeing as far ahead as we’d like

Goodness – our whole lives are saved and retrieved in information clouds!

When you are in a cloud consider that God may be meeting you there. Consider that the cloud you are in may not be cutting you off from life, but rather connecting you to the Source of Life. Eventually, like the disciples, you will come out of the cloud, but what you encounter there can stay with you and transfigure your life. 

Plan B

Last year at this time, anxiety was high among many of my friends and I. A leaked document from the Supreme Court indicated that they were about to make access to abortion difficult to impossible for American women. The language in the document was shocking.

And then it happened. The ruling came out with pretty much the same language as the leaked document. At least we had time to prepare? That felt like small comfort.

There are a lot of ways this ruling intersects with my life, but what I focused on was being a pastor and how I could support women and girls in my community. In my life, I’ve known women who have terminated their pregnancies for a range of reasons and it was hard to contemplate how their peers in this new landscape of reproductive health care options would fare. My first instinct was to purchase Plan B, the emergency contraceptive that prevents pregnancy after unprotected sex. After talking to some sister clergy I decided to keep it in my desk in my office at the church. It didn’t seem like a big help, but it is something.

I had hard talks with my daughter who is going on 16. More than half of high schoolers are sexually active and she already knows peers who have been raped, so this was not a theoretical conversation.

One of my clergy sisters gave me a “b” charm – “b” for Plan B – that I wore every day from the time I received it through the 2023 Texas legislative session. It helped keep me focused and reminded me that I was not alone in the struggle.

And I knew that that Texas legislative session would be brutal. Even though my state had already enacted a pretty restrictive law that is cruelly vague, I hoped to at least push for clarity if not actual rights.

But that’s now how things turned out in my state. Nothing happened to make things clearer on the issue of abortion. Instead we started worrying about other Plan Bs. The governor and the legislature targeted transwomen, transmen, and especially trans youth. They wanted to ban sports for trans students, ban gender affirming health care, ban books, define drag performances as sexually oriented, and replace school counselors with untrained religious chaplains. And that is what they did.

For some Texans this is leading to their own version of a Plan B, or even a Plan C. Families with trans youth who had been receiving or intended to receive gender affirming care contemplated moving out of the state. These heartbreaking cases are actually the lucky ones, they could afford to leave or send their children out of state for school. For most, that is not an option. Some trans adults are also moving or wish they could – it is hard to live in a state where you face persecution every day and hard when your children are exposed to that particular form of violence as well.

One of the things that has saddened me personally is the exodus of doctors from the state. You see, my dad was a pediatric endocrinologist. That is one of the specialities that provides gender affirming care to trans youth. While he was a researcher and medical school professor, he also saw patients, some of whom were intersex or had sex hormone dysfunction. I am imaging generations of his students now having to counsel young patients and their families, having to end a course of treatment that, although lifesaving, has now been made illegal.

Doctors are also making hard choices about whether to adapt their practice to new areas of endocrinology or leave the state so they can continue to provide gender affirming care. In addition to not being able to practice their field of medicine and properly treat their patients, they are being threatened. In case you don’t think this affects you, it might. Pediatric endocrinologists treat a range of conditions, from growth problems and diabetes to problems with the thyroid, pituitary, and adrenal glands. While some endocrinologists specialize in gender affirming care, some who are leaving are also taking their expertise in these other important areas with them.

Someday, I can have a fuller discussion about access to abortion care and gender affirming care. Right now I’m having a hard time getting past the fact that more and more people are being diminished, having their moral agency replaced by the judgment of a very few privileged people in power. The judgment of doctors who have years of training in medicine – including in ethics – is dismissed in favor of…what? I am not sure. Gut feelings? Personal religious conviction? A desire to be re-elected? The love of parents who invest their all into the care of their children is replaced with, based on what I heard, myth and hatefulness. In a state with alarmingly high rates of infant and maternal mortality, the focus of the Texas government seems tragically misdirected.

In the short term, I’m willing to be someone’s Plan B with regard to affirming their dignity and value as human beings.

Christian Nationalism is not Christian

There are times when the messages of my tradition resonate with what’s going on in my community more broadly. I love sharing my perspective while including or listening to other traditions in ways that increase our mutual understanding. But sometimes I hear things bubbling up within my religious tradition that are troubling, and I feel an urgency to speak to my own. This is one of those times. People are using the Christian tradition to promote ideas that are antithetical to the love of God and the messages of Jesus. This is my response to one of those troubling ideas. It is based on a sermon I preached on May 21, 2023.


“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)

This is the desperate question of the apostles when they realized that the Lord they loved and lost, who then came back to them, was leaving them again. When the trauma of crucifixion had passed and the shock of resurrection had sunk in, they confronted a new twist in the story of their journey with Jesus. He was leaving them again. He would ascend to the Father. Where does that leave them?

We can hardly blame them. After all, we know what happened after, we know what happened to them and because of them. But they were living it all in real time. And living through it in a harsh, brutal environment of occupation, violence, and poverty. No-one had ever experienced what they were about to experience. 

“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom…is this the time when you will fulfill our dreams of controlling our own destiny, of living according to the covenant in the land you gave us? We’ve been expecting it for hundreds of years.” 

Indeed, God’s people have always been looking toward the fulfillment of God’s promise – of freedom from bondage, of a land of milk and honey, of a covenant community based in love. Like Abraham and Sarah, like Moses, like the exiles in Babylon – we are an expectant people always looking ahead, anticipating fulfillment of promise. Jesus’ followers are heirs of this expectation. And so are Jesus followers today. 

And yet time and again, we look for that fulfillment in social and political structures that are, let’s face it, too small for God’s promise. 

“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Jesus’ answer to them and to us is not what we want or expect to hear. He basically tells them three important things about God’s kingdom. It isn’t for you to know when or how God will establish the Kingdom.

And. The power you are expecting will not come from political or economic dominance but from the Holy Spirit.

And. Your role is to be witnesses to the power of the Spirit in ever widening circles – from where they are in Jerusalem to the region of Judea to their so-called enemies in Samaria and then to the entire world.

This new understanding of the Kingdom was radical and like nothing they had ever seen before. And yet they were to be witnesses to the whole world about it. It is much more comfortable to recreate the kind of kingdom that has already existed – maybe even a nicer version of the one you live in now. But that’s not what Jesus tells them. That is not the promise. 

They were focused on how the kingdom would be structured – who would be in charge, how power would be allocated and wielded, what the rules would be. But Jesus was pointing them away from structures and toward the content of the kingdom – which is love, the bonds of community that we have between us and that we have with God. 

We have seen this struggle play out over and over. Despite the witness of generations of Jesus followers, there have been calls for an earthly kingdom ever since. A couple of centuries after Jesus told the apostles they’d get spiritual power from the Holy Spirit, the church received political and military power from the Roman Empire – and carried the cross before armies. In the many years since, church leadership and national leadership have been intertwined or even fused together in various places and times. The church colluded with governments and monarchs to extend power around the globe, usually in brutal ways. Under the guise of bringing the love of Christ, they brought war, disease, and oppression.  

Today, the message of Jesus is important for us as we hear calls for Christian nationalism – both in our own country and in others. In some ways it is an understandable longing of people to control their destiny, to have a way to organize themselves that is based on faith and values. 

But there is a big problem with Christian nationalism. It is grounded in ideas that are antithetical to the desire of God. 

  • First of all, Nationalism of any kind is the belief that humans can and should be divided into distinct groups based on shared traits that are different from the traits of other groups.
  • Second that these nations should promote and protect their identity to the exclusion of others.
  • And third Christian nationalism in particular says that national identity is grounded in faith in Jesus Christ and that the government should take steps to keep it that way, using force if necessary. 

These characteristics fly in the face of what Jesus taught and his final message before he ascended to the Father. 

“It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:7-8)

Nationalisms of all kinds are contrary to the vision of God that all people share the trait of being created in God’s image and the mission of God for all of us to live in community. It is not the mission of the church to create divisions among people.

Jesus did not create disciples who would focus inwardly on their own political power. Jesus is sending disciples out into the world as witnesses to a different kind of power, the power of the Spirit. The Kingdom of God is a gathering of people from all nations, it unites people. It requires love, generosity, and going outward – not power, control, and pulling inward. 

“Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Jesus shows them and us that the kingdom is bigger than we can imagine. Start where you are, he tells us, make God’s presence known there. Then go from where you are to other places where you are comfortable. Then go to people you despise, who make you uncomfortable. Then to people you don’t know at all and who are very different from you. 

This is the very opposite of nation-building. It is kingdom building. It is the mission for which the Holy Spirit has empowered us. 

There is room for you

When I was about 8 years old, my family – five of us at that time plus some cousins – went to the Smithsonian Institution. Specifically the National Museum of American History. At that time we lived in nearby Bethesda, MD, so we’d already seen the impressive monuments in Washington, but this was our first time going to one of the big museums. 

The whole gang of us parked, walked, and entered the massive building. Right away we saw the Star Spangled Banner, the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write what would become our national anthem. Honestly, I don’t remember much else about what we saw, the miles of corridors we walked. Except for the exhibit of First Ladies dresses, that enthralled me. All the different styles from very old to modern! The fabrics! The gloves! These were unlike any dresses I had ever seen in person. But I was sure I would wear something that elegant one day. To a ball, perhaps.

I walked from one inauguration gown to another. There were so many. And then I had seen them all and looked around for the next exhibit…and where was my family?

They were not there. Or in the next room. Or the next. I don’t remember being afraid – although I might have been. It was just confusing to be in a maze of rooms and halls. No matter where I turned I had no idea where I was. All I knew was that I was alone. My heart was troubled. 

Eventually I found a security guard and told him I was lost. He told me to follow him and we went back to the entrance where I stood next to a different guard. Together we watched people coming and going and chatted a bit. I got the feeling I was not the first lost child he supervised. 

After quite a while, I heard my mom call my name and she ran across the hall to hug me. Reunited! Everything was back to normal again. 

(Of course when this happened, I only thought about what I experienced. With hindsight, I can imagine what my parents and siblings were thinking! It is never an easy thing to manage multiple children in an unfamiliar museum.)

I think of this story often because it is a good memory – of my getting so absorbed in the exhibit, of being cared for by strangers (I have to admit I felt important standing next ot the guard at the door,). Mostly I love the part about being found. 

Today I think of this story because being lost is a great metaphor for what mental illness is like for many people. It certainly is for me. May is Mental Health Awareness Month and a good time to consider what life is like for people who live with mental illness, as well as what our faith has to say about it. 

Stories of being lost and found, of having a place to BE are central to my faith tradition. They are often the themes of parables or the great narratives of our ancestors. Being lost and found is a great way to think about our relationship to the God who created and loves us. 

John’s gospel tells a story about Jesus telling his disciples that he will soon leave them, and not in a pleasant way. They’re not too keen on the idea. 

Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

For many, mental illness feels like a troubled heart. It can feel like not fitting in or not feeling at home anywhere. It can feel like the disciple Thomas might have felt when he tried to understand where Jesus was going. Jesus said to him, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” 

Thomas then asked, “How can we know the way?”

One in five of us will experience mental illness in a given year – sometimes it is an episode brought on by trauma or a specific event. For others it is chronic and managed over a lifetime. 

And if 20% of us HAVE a mental illness, you can do the math and realize that almost all of us know it through someone we love. If you think you don’t, you do now. I have depression. So now you know someone with a mental illness. 

Despite being so common – and in many cases very treatable – these illnesses carry a lot of stigma. What that means in practical terms is that people either isolate themselves out of shame that they are crazy, lazy, or incompetent. Or they are isolated by others because they are judged to be scary, weird, or immoral. 

What ends up happening in way too many cases is that people feel like like a kid lost in a museum – not sure if they wandered away or were abandoned, but either way they are in an unfamiliar place with no idea how to get un-lost. 

If you’ve ever felt that way, you are not alone. 

Think of all the people in your life who might feel this way – people with depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, bipolar disorder, PTDS, schizophrenia…

Think about people who’ve faced violence or poverty or abuse, which can cause trauma…

Think about people who are isolated due to illness or disability or language barriers…

Think of all the people who care for them. 

All of them feeling lost and without a place to be at home. 

All of them with troubled hearts. 

This kind of feeling might apply to a group of disciples who just found out their friend and teacher is about to be betrayed and is going to leave them. 

We have hope. We are not forever lost. In my tradition, Jesus tells us that God has a place for us and that place is in the very life of God with all of God’s other beloved children. 

Jesus tells his troubled disciples, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”

Jesus’ friends have troubled hearts, and Jesus offers them the comfort of togetherness, of being in a big house with room prepared just for them. 

It is important to notice the order of events here – 

We are lost and God comes to us

We suffer – Jesus suffers – and then we have a home in God. 

God goes through our traumas with us. With our depression and alcoholism and mood disorders and grief. And on the other side of all that is not isolation, but a home together. 

There will be a place for you. There is a place for you. 

The relationship with God is ongoing through suffering to the other side. God comes to us in the midst of our lives and carries our entire, broken selves into God’s own life. Into God’s House. 

Imagine your life as being like a big museum and you feel lost wandering the halls and rounding the corners. You keep hoping to see a familiar face or to even know where you are. 

Imagine a helper who stands with you while you wait, is present with you so that you are not alone. 

And imagine being found! Having the God who loves you run across a big empty hall to embrace you like my mom did when she found me. 

God is faithful to us. God is faithful to you. 

When you feel isolated – either because you are pulling back from others or feel they are pulling  back from you – please know that there is a room for you in the very life of God.

Walking in circles

When my husband worked in New York, we used to walk to a nearby grocery and in the sidewalk outside their door was a circle of bird footprints. Forever fixed there in the cement. A permanent record of this one bird’s confused journey to nowhere.

Or perhaps it wasn’t confused at all. How would I know? I am not a bird. It is possible this bird knew exactly why it was going in a circle.

Circles take us back to places we’ve been before, and I am a fan of revisiting places and people. There is a lot of pressure in life to go ever forward, to make “progress.” That may work for some, but I find circling back to the familiar comforting and challenging, familiar and revealing all at once.

As I leave one calendar year and enter another, I hope to keep circling past people and places I’ve seen before, even as I discover new things. Sometimes when you circle past pain you find healing, when you revisit resentment you can find forgiveness, when you return to the times you were inadequate you find that you are, in fact, enough.

When I first saw it I laughed. Not so much at the bird, but more because that circle made me think of what my journey must look like from such a vantage point, from above looking down. Am I going in a straight line? A circle? Am I going anywhere?

When you live your life in circles, you can keep people with you that you’ve met the last times around. People who are lovely and frustrating and mean and generous and who can teach you things about life that no one can learn on their own. Most of what I’ve learned about myself and about life I’ve learned from the people in my circles.

Round and round we go.

Happy New Year. May your life take you where you need to go and I hope you circle around to me as you go about your way.

Unexpected Wisdom

I love (most) graffiti. As public art it isn’t always invited, and sometimes it is offensive. But for that reason, it is also provocative and many times insightful. On a recent trip to New York I saw graffiti that was beautiful…

…and some had good advice…

And then, as (almost) always, there was one that helped me think about myself in a different way, and (especially) see the next person I encountered on the street in a different way.

Proceed to the Route

I am sure I am not the only person who thinks Siri, the mistress of our iPhones, is passive aggressive. Especially when giving directions. It’s that flat, unaffected tone that reminds you to make the turn she told you to make 30 seconds ago. Or 3 seconds ago. She’s not worked up about it, but she knows you are always on the verge of doing the wrong thing.

Like the thing she does when you’ve asked her for directions and, on your way, stop for gas or decide in your own human mind to make a different turn…”Proceed to the route.”

She keeps saying it until you get back on track (her track) or shut her down.

Proceed to the route.
Proceed to the route.
Proceed to the route.

When you eventually follow her instructions, she doesn’t reward you with even a monotone, “Well done.”

Once, on a road trip, my husband and I switched to a British male voice for our directions. He sounded nicer and I call him Jasper. Maybe he sounded nicer because his voice was unfamiliar and I hadn’t yet attributed the judginess to him when he questioned our driving decisions.

But he still said, “Proceed to the route.”

So now I’m thinking I could adopt this phrase. It is perfect for so many occasions.
Proceed to the route, child who is watching videos instead of doing laundry.
Proceed to the route, you who are spending too much time in the condiment aisle instead of stocking up on the toilet paper we need.
Proceed to the route, Spam Likely, whoever you are.
Proceed to the route, annoying ad that interrupted my YouTube video.

I’m hoping I can deliver this phrase in the same tone of voice as Siri. No emotion, but also no giving in. The route. Proceed to it.

Are you preparing to meet Jesus?

Recently, my husband and I took a long road trip. More than 2,000 miles in a circuit that covered 9 states in 8 days. The main purpose was to visit my mother in North Carolina, and we added some time with other family and friends as we could. It was more fun than I anticipated – originally the idea of spending that much time in a car seemed practical, but not attractive. Once on the highway, however, the ever-changing scenery and audio entertainment made it truly enjoyable. (It turns out you can get into the World Cup even if it is streaming on your phone with only audio.) Plus the company was great and we didn’t have to fit everything into carryon luggage.

Less than 100 miles in, we passed a billboard that caught my attention. Against a black background were two neon green pulses of an EKG…then a flatline. Above and below the cardiac activity line are the words, “Are you preparing to meet Jesus?”

Well, was I? Was anyone on this highway?

We stopped for coffee and tea, then lunch, then spent the first night 10 hours away from home. The next day we stopped in my old college town, saw a friend of more than 40 years, relived some memories, and traveled on. At my mother’s house we entered the world of middle dementia – enough memory to enjoy each other, not enough to keep track of papers and time. We talked with her generation of elders and broke bread with the two generations after that at Thanksgiving dinner. 

I saw old friends from high school and college years. Each is struggling and succeeding in their own ways; none of us living the lives we imagined when we were 18. Or 20. Or even 35. For good and/or ill we’ve ended up where we are, and still connected.  

While on our trip, the news was filled with stories about mass shootings. Families lost loved ones, teams lost players, friends lost connection. Even as the sorrow and anger rise when these incidents happen, there is also a feeling of helplessness. Could this happen to me? Or worse, to my children? It was one more collective trauma in a serious of collective traumas. 

“Are you preparing to meet Jesus?”

I have a feeling that sign was pointing towards a future time when I – and all the other highway readers – die and face the consequences of our earthly life. Are we ready to confront our shortcomings? Or failings? Have we lived good lives worthy of inspection by Jesus?

By the time I was 100 miles past the sign, however, I was taking it another way? Was I prepared to meet Jesus? I did meet Jesus on that trip. I met Jesus in the people who served us coffee and tea, the hotel staff who prepared our rooms, and the other drivers on the road. I met Jesus in old friendships and extended family. In my frailer-than-last-year mother and all the people who take care of her when I am not there. All those people terrorized at Club Q and Walmart and the University of Virginia…Jesus was there with them, and you could meet Jesus in any of their eyes. 

Jesus, after all, was the one who told us that when we feed or clothe or comfort the “least of these,” we have done it for him. And so, it is possible that we can meet Jesus in anyone we encounter who is suffering in some way. Right? 

It turns out that meeting Jesus is not so much about consequences as it is about companionship. In my faith tradition, after all, it is Jesus who comes to meet us, not the other way around. And so, thanks to that sign, I looked for an met Jesus all along the road trip and all the way back home. 


When you ask people what “liberty” means, you are likely to get a range of answers. I found that out last week when I actually did ask some of my friends.

  • One sees it from a social and political perspective – it’s the freedoms of the press, assembly, the ability to criticize the government without fear of prosecution.  
  • Another says it is the ability to travel.
  • A professor I know talks about liberty as the ability to make choices free of external constraints and also about the way our societies arrange themselves to allow this freedom without constraints – so liberty is both personal and social. 
  • A few folks insist that liberty, true liberty, is being able to do whatever they want, whenever they want. No limits. 
  • Only two friends had the correct answer: Liberty is an insurance company with an emu mascot. 

What all these understandings share is a sense that liberty is freedom from limitations. Limitations of place, tradition, culture. The origins of this understanding of liberty come from the Enlightenment – that period in the late 17th and early 18th century during which great thinkers, scientists, writers, and political figures promoted an ideal of individual human dignity and equality. And this ideal of liberty is foundational to the American experiment – it is at the heart of our social agreements in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

While individual liberty has become a bedrock of our common life, the definition has changed over time. Once, liberty included the value of each person as well as the connections we have to one another. Our individual liberty was inextricably tied to our social liberty – our freedom as a community to be safe, secure, and to pursue common goals.

Yet now, for many, liberty has come to mean the right of each to be separate from and not beholden to anyone or anything. For many, true liberation is being untethered from obligations or restraints of any kind. This is not a universally held belief, but it has become more and more apparent in our common life that some think we have no true common life.

We see evidence of this strong individualism all around us, most recently in debates about masking and vaccine requirements, but also in conversations about public speech, dress codes, gun regulations, smoking and vaping in public spaces, noise restrictions, and even occasionally motorcycle helmet requirements.

However, one thing people on various sides of this conversation have in common when they talk about liberty is the sense that liberty is – in the best sense of the word – a political value. In this context “political” has to do with the way groups of people make decisions and share power and resources. It is how we live together. In most areas of our lives, the idea of liberty is very much about how we agree (or disagree) to live together.

With all this pubic attention on the idea of “liberty” and what it means, I was caught up short to see the word appear in a reading from the Letter of James for last Sunday’s lectionary. Oh sure, I remembered the familiar parts of this letter about being slow to anger and being doers of the word. But I had not paid much attention to what he describes as the “law of liberty.”

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.”

From our modern perspective, how odd it is to see those two words together, law and liberty. Some might think these terms are opposites. Or at the very least wonder what they could mean in the context of faith. What in the world could “liberty” have to do with what James is taking about here?

What does liberty have to do with God and with Jesus? What does it have to do with being a Christian?

It helps to know that James is writing to people who, like us, are facing hard times and he is encouraging them. He reminds them that God has planted a seed of goodness in them, and that seed can grow. He tells them to be good listeners, not to spout off in anger too quickly. He tells them to be doers of the word and not merely hearers.

And he tells them that the “law of liberty,” pure religion, is caring for the most vulnerable people in the community.

For James, “liberty” comes to us through God’s law and is related to our behavior in relation to other people. Liberty is listening well, speaking with good intentions, caring for widows and orphans. Liberty seems to include a set of obligations rather than freedom from them.

Now the wise people who lived in 1st century didn’t share our notions of individual freedoms. They, of course, lived long before the Enlightenment and the modern era. And in their time almost all people were very poor and had little or no political or social power. They all understood in a visceral way that they depended on one another. So the idea of individual freedom the way you and I think of it – well, it would have seemed utterly selfish and crazy, perhaps even fatal. No one could live like that! Not even an emperor.

And they had another insight as well. They understood that each person had a choice in their loyalties. Each person has the ability, the opportunity, to chose the realm of power in which they operated in the world. So, for instance James writes – 

“rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”

In other words, we can live in the realm of sordidness and wickedness, or in the realm of the implanted word. But not both. We can live in the realm of sin or of life. But not both.

 That doesn’t mean the faithful won’t sin and the sinners won’t hear the word of God. What it means is that you will chose which of those realms claims your heart and soul. You can only orient your life in one direction or the other.

That is why, for James, how we behave is so important. It isn’t because what we do will earn us heaven or hell. No. It is because our behavior is evidence that we have let God’s word change us – or not. It is a sign that we have heard the word and have allowed it to grow in our lives to such an extent that it affects how we operate in the world.

What James is teaching us is that for Christians liberty is not freedom FROM cares, but freedom TO care. Not freedom FROM entanglements, but freedom FOR relationships. Not freedom FROM our neighbor, but freedom to love our neighbor.

For us, the law of liberty is the freedom to let God work through us. Liberty in this context might be political in the sense that it contributes to how we live together. But more importantly, liberty for us is theological. The way we live together is evidence of our loyalty to God. By orienting ourselves to God, we are liberated to participate in God’s love.

This is why, for James, the “law of liberty” is encouraging to people going through hard times. Because even as subjects of the Roman emperor his audience could be free to love God. Even in dire poverty, they could live for each other and not only for themselves. Because when you live in Christ, it is impossible to have an isolated, separate life. In Christ you are automatically connected not only to Christ but to all that Christ embraces.

For us today, this understanding of liberty poses challenges. First we have to acknowledge the tension between what our culture and our faith demand of us. Political and economic liberty has very different expectations of us than the liberty of love and justice. James reminds us – warns us – to be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. Because hearing the word without changing your behavior is self-indulgent. True faith lives in the community, not just inside your head or, worse, as a reflection in a mirror.

Second, we are challenged to embrace the “law of liberty” and allow it it form us, to transform us. God has planted the word in us. And this word grows! God working through us creates something new. It grows over time. Our personal relationship with God must be expressed and experienced through our belonging to God’s people. Being a good listener and being slow to anger are not just ways of showing respect to other people – they are ways of allowing yourself to be transformed into the kind of person who truly values and loves the other.

Caring for the poor is more than providing basic needs for people who are vulnerable, it is a way seeing yourself as their neighbor and recognizing what God loves about them.

As you go about your daily life, there will still be arguments about social and political liberty, what freedom means in relationship to the laws of the land and the people you have to live with. Yet you can choose the law of liberty. And if you choose to accept that law, your liberty will be experienced by doing things!

You can be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. 
You can care for the most vulnerable. 
You can be doers who act and you will be blessed in your doing.

James 1:17-27
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. 
You must understand this my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. 
But be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But 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. 
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

A miracle growing under your feet

May be an image of flower and nature

I am not a gardener. My mother is a gardener with a green thumb, but I do not have that gift. In fact, even plants that are allegedly hard to kill like succulents and cacti are not safe in my care

Nevertheless, there are some success stories of thriving plant life in my yard. For instance, I have a couple of beautiful, flourishing lantanas. Every winter, after their flowers and leaves have fallen off and their branches are dry, dead twigs, I cut them all the way to the ground. It’s the only direct interaction I have then them all year.

And every year, they come back. All the way back – branches, leaves, flowers – to the full height or higher than the year before. 

In my case, this can be considered a miracle. Because as I mentioned, plants tend to die in my care, or my neglect, or both. Yet these plants are thriving. There are people who are better at this than I am, and people who know the science behind how and why plants thrive or die in any given circumstance. They know what mysteries happen in the dark soil out of sight. 

Yet it strikes me that no matter how much any of us know or how skilled at gardening we are, there is still a mystery to the life cycles of flowers and trees, grass or moss, vines and ferns. Part of the mystery is that the key action happens out of our control – seeds sprout buried in the soil, the sun shines or doesn’t, rain falls or doesn’t. It is probably best this way, a reminder that there is a lot in life that is out of our control. 

Is it any wonder, then, why gardens and trees are so often used as images to help us understand God and our relationship with God? There’s a large part of it that is mysterious. That is not up to us. 

“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how,” Jesus teaches in Mark. 

Sometimes we imagine the kingdom of God being far off in time and place. In the sky and in the future. But here, we are offered a kingdom that is earthy and growing under our feet right now. It has been planted, it is germinating while we sleep and rise night and day. 

Like the lantanas in my yard, we don’t need to know how this happens, only that it does. Even when we think all hope and life is lost, a miracle is sprouting.