The Foothold of Faith

A sermon based on Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 and Ephesians 2:1-10 preached on June 11th, 2017

Sermon audio

Hobby wind-surfer, Adam Cowles, realized he was way off-course when he spotted a cargo ship. He was windsurfing the Swansea Bay, not too far from his house, but after a few hours of delightful distraction, Adam found himself in strange territory. He had unwittingly made his way into the Bristol Channel, 140 miles away from home.

The water that day was freezing cold. If he fell in, he’d be in serious trouble. If there came a lull in the wind, Adam could have found himself stranded. Opposite the cargo ship, Adam could see land, so he surfed his way to shore and walked into a nearby bar, soaking wet.

The locals must have seen sights like him before, because even though he was still dripping wet when he walked into that pub, the patrons thought and said nothing of it. They even bought him a beer.

Adam began to tell them his story.

They told him how far away from home he was. 140 miles. He was astonished. And then he was embarrassed when he had to call his wife, asking her to make the 280-mile round trip to pick him up. She was not happy.

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Wind is so prevalent inside of scripture that one could easily call it a character. A living force rather than an object or an atmospheric phenomenon.

God shows up in the beginning of the opening act, in the very first lines of our story in Genesis 1, as wind. This is the form in which the Spirit of God makes way into creation, and then helps creation take its shape out of what was before simply chaos and nonsense. The second verse in all of scripture says it this way:

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

This is how God shows up. In a breeze. And that happens over and over again throughout God’s story—our story, too.

Consider the moment of the Exodus, when the Hebrew people, enslaved for two centuries in Egypt, make their way across the Red Sea and to the other side, outrunning Pharaoh and his army and into freedom. The Sea was split in two that day by a strong eastward wind.

And then there’s Jonah, the stubborn prophet, who tried his best to outrun God after God asked him to do something that made no sense to him. Throughout the Book of Jonah, he’s stopped, over and over again, to the point where it gets comedic, by wind and sea, by whale and wave.

We try our best but there’s no escaping the Spirit of God.

There’s at least two stories in each of the four Gospels, where fisherman disciples are out on a boat on the Galilee Sea. Terrified by brewing storms and rising waters, Jesus comes to calm the waves and the rain and brings them through. These are messages for us about how when we are caught in the scary seas of our own lives, when the water rises too high all around us, Jesus comes to us and subsides our fears and says to us the same thing he said to His disciples in those moments:

Peace be with you.

Last and certainly not least is the story we have in the Book of Acts where Luke gives us a glimpse of Paul’s travelogue. To get to the churches he has planted, Paul and his own team of disciples, servants, doctors, and scribes cross the Mediterranean Sea and sail up the Aegean between present-dayPaul Turkey and Greece, and north into the Sea of Marmara. Some of these voyages brought disaster. Pirates, shipwreck. Loss of cargo and loss of life. Throughout scripture, water and wind give life but they also take it away.

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dSo when Paul writes from a prison in Rome to the young believers in Ephesus—and by extension, to us—he has been wind-tossed, beat up, lost at sea, and then found again. Paul knows a thing or two about what it is to be blown about by wind. And he warns us, right at the get-go, here at the very beginning of Chapter 2,

Do not be blown about by the wind. Once you lived your entire lives wandering off-course in this perverse world….You were the offspring of the prince of the power of the air. He once owned you and controlled you.

I don’t know what kind of devil you believe in. We talk so little about evil and its personifications. Certainly, the personification of evil into some being with the proper name, Satan, is not as much a creature found in scripture as it is one that has been imagined in the tales of subsequent works of fiction: Dante’s Inferno and John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. We need to keep our stories straight.

We’ll talk more about this when we reach Chapter 4 of Ephesians, but for now, suffice it to say, here Paul describes some sort of evil or persuasive power, but he doesn’t give it a name or a form. It’s as if Paul is describing that thing mentioned in the first two verses of Genesis 1, a sort of earthly chaos, life and creation without shape, or meaning, or form. Life without God. That is a sort of evil in and of itself.

Paul is warning us against living in a way that’s uncritical, where we get swept up by the power of the air, picked up by every breeze that comes our way. Life lived empty and persuadable, easily manipulated by anything and everything around us. We can get picked up and pushed around wherever the breeze takes us, like that empty plastic bag at the beginning of the movie American Beauty. This is the prince of the power of the air. This is an opportunistic presence that will sweep us off our feet any chance it gets.

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We live in a culture full of wind-blown people. Too often, we get caught up in the prevailing winds of our day, and before we know it we’re like that empty plastic bag that gets knocked around by forces both visible and invisible. We get taken anywhere it pushes us.

What Paul is inviting all of us to see is a new way to live and move. Paul’s words here are a sort of prelude to the important and biblical idea of living in but not of the world. We cannot be blown about. Persuadable. Pushed about. We must find our footing. We must be discerning, keen, wise, sharp, perceptive, insightful, critical. You’ve heard the phrase,

If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for everything.

This is God’s way of saying a similar thing. Find your footing.

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Paul knew something about wind. He was a tentmaker.

These days, if a person calls him- or herself a tentmaker, there’s a good chance they’re a Pastor who specializes in creating new churches. Paul did that, but before he ever entered into the ministry he actually made tents. This is how he made a living, even while he sailed the seas, planting churches.

So, Paul knew a thing of two about wind. How to shelter oneself against it. How to build a structure that can withstand it. Build them strong, resilient, and with a big footprint so they hold up to the power of the air and the elements. Everything thrown at it.

As we mature in our faith, as we walk forward slowly in the Way of Jesus, following in His footsteps, we too become strong against the breezes that try to blow us off course.

It is with rope and ground pegs, poles and stakes that a tent becomes secure even in the most chaotic of climates. It’s the power of God’s grace that does the same thing for our minds, our hearts, our spirits. God’s grace pins us to solid ground, can keep us from being blown off course. Grace is the foothold of our faith.

I mentioned a few weeks ago when we began our look into Ephesians, that God’s grace given to us is not an end in itself. Grace is not the end of any conversation, as in, “but for the grace of God go I.” Grace is always the beginning of the conversation. Grace was in the wind that blew the disciples out of their tiny house on Pentecost, and it’s the power we have been given by God to walk out of here and do God’s work—in and for the world.

Grace is the fuel, the power source God gives us to start something—to go out from here, or wherever else we are, as agents of God’s love, as keepers of God’s Message, as sharers of God’s mercy. Grace is designed and given to us by God to take us places. It is first unmerited benefit, yes; but it’s also Divine enablement. Grace is given to us to get us going!

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Through grace, we gain a foothold in our faith, stand up tall in Christ, and then become agents of grace—taking it and using it. Paul writes,

For it is by grace you have been saved. You have received it through faith. It was not our plan or effort, it’s God’s gift. Pure and simple. You didn’t earn it.

That’s verse 8. It’s one of the most beloved in all of scripture, but I’m afraid it’s too often misunderstood. People use it to convince themselves that works—doing stuff with and because our faith—isn’t important. But what Paul says is, Take God’s gift of grace, freely given to you—yes, it’s never earned, it’s always a gift—but then do something with it. Use it. Pay it forward. Grace is never the end of the conversation; it’s always the beginning of one. God’s grace is given to us in order to be put to work through us. Grace is God’s enabling power for growth.

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If you feel like you’re trudging through life right now under your own power, if you’ve lost your footing, if you’ve exhausted yourself that way, let me re-introduce you to grace. Author Anne Lamott says,

When you’re out of good ideas, what you’re left with is God.

She describes grace as spiritual WD-40 or water wings, if that works better. And all you have to do to find grace is to say “Help,” preferably out loud. Shout it into the heavens if you have to. The heavens will hear you. “But watch out!” Anne Lamott says. The moment you say that word, “Help!”, the moment you find grace, buckle up! Because, powered by the Holy Wind of God as it always is, God’s grace will take you places you never intended to go!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

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How to Start a Fire

A sermon based on Exodus 13:17-22 and Acts 2:1-21 preached on May 15th, 2016

Sermon audio

If you believe author Elizabeth Gilbert, ideas are living beings. That is, she says, they exist outside of us and they survive in spite of us. Here’s what she means by that. Years ago, Elizabeth had an idea for a novel—a very specific idea: It was a story set in the 1960’s about a middle-aged spinster from Minnesota who’s secretly been in love with her boss for years. He gets involved in a harebrained business scheme down in the Amazon jungle. A bunch of money goes missing, and the main character gets sent down there to solve the problem.

Her editor liked the plot and told Elizabeth to write her novel, but she got sidetracked by the stuff of life, and after years of sitting on the idea, she conceded that the novel would never be written, and the idea slowly floated away.

Fast forward a few years later, Elizabeth Gilbert sees a good writer friend of hers named Anna who happened to be in town, and they meet up for lunch. They hadn’t talked to one another for a decade or maybe more. And over lunch, they ask each other what sort of writing projects each are working on, and Elizabeth shares the plot of her novel that would never be. And after Elizabeth was finished sharing, Ana looks her in the eyes and says,

You’ve got to be kidding me! I just finished a novel that set in the 1960’s, and it’s about a spinster from Minnesota who’s been quietly in love with her boss and when her boss goes down to the Amazon jungle, he gets caught up in a wild pharmaceutical scheme, and she has to go down there to solve things.

Now, there are lots of books out there that built out of all the same stuff—millions of murder mysteries or a vampire romances, for instance, but this was something entirely different! Nobody writes a novel about the Amazon jungle at all, and here are two authors with eerily similar book ideas—all the way down to the small details.

Elizabeth Gilbert reflects upon this happenstance in her book Big Magic, except she doesn’t believe it was happenstance at all. She believes that ideas are alive—that they move from one person to the next, trying to find a human collaborator. She thinks that ideas have a conscious, that they move from one soul to another, until they find someone who’s ready to take that yet-to-be manifested idea and turn it into something! And if an idea finds a person who’s unwilling to bring it into being, the idea will move on and find a different host. And an idea, she believes, will do that over and over again until it finds someone with the bravery and the drive to make something real out of it!

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Now this sounds like a far-out idea—something conjured up by someone with too much time on their hands, but Elizabeth Gilbert knows how ideas spark inside of her, how they come and how they go. And, I wonder if her idea about ideas has something to teach us on this Pentecost Sunday—this day when we remember the moment when the first Apostles catch wind of a brand new thing that happens upon them, something they can only describe as Holy Spirit.

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That first Pentecost day was not unlike the day before it or the one before that, but sometime in the morning a presence happened upon them, and they just didn’t know how to describe it. Whatever or whoever this was came like wind and like fire. And even though they were surprised and overcome by its arrival, the Holy Spirit did something to them that they just could not ignore—something real and new and undeniable struck them that morning, and they let whatever or whoever this was happen to them—they said Yes to it and they allowed it to take them over.

But this Holy Spirit, this isn’t a mere idea or some notion that fell upon them, it’s not an idea at all, it’s not even an “it.” The Holy Spirit is a being. Not an idea or a mindset or a notion, but the personal presence of God in Christ that storms into our presence like wind and fire storm through a house!

I think the phrase Holy Spirit is a terrible name for the 3rd person of the Trinity. Holy Ghost isn’t any better either. The word used in the New Testament is paraclete, which means Advocate or Helper. The Holy Spirit is not the leftover idea of Jesus’ presence, she’s not some spiritual feeling that we have once in a while that falls upon us and then leaves. The Holy Spirit is an everywhere presence who speaks to us and for us, who like an Advocate, emboldens and empowers us to live as Christ would have us live.

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This is how you start a fire: you gather heat, along with oxygen and an ignition source. This is how the Church was birthed, when a person-like presence came to them like wind and flame, and began sparking! If all we do is keep our faith to ourselves, all of us held inside a cold, dark room somewhere, anywhere, Jesus stays a mere idea, a lifeless “it” of our devotion, a mere relic or notion instead of a “who”—a real being who lives and breathes and calls us outward, who wants us to be agents of real change for His sake and for the sake of God’s world.

God’s Holy Spirit is the presence who comes in and resides among us, and She sets holy fires in Her people so that the whole world will one day be set ablaze with the Good News of the Gospel.

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Saint Catherine of Sienna was a 14th Century pyromaniac. In a time when women weren’t allowed to challenge men, it was Catherine who sent a letter to Pope Gregory XI, confronting him about, and eventually convincing him, to move the papacy from France back to Rome.

In all her dealings, Catherine of Sienna was forthright but never rude. She cared not a bit about the restraints her culture and time placed on her as a woman. She told the hard truth, but she always did it with love. And she never paid attention to those around her who told her to keep her mouth shut. Indeed, it was because she refused to keep her mouth shut that we remember her to this day as someone who set the world on fire. St. Catherine kept journals, many of which you can read to this day. They’re filled with Spirit-filled prayers that still speak life into their readers.

In one of her journal entries she gave a piece of advice that still echoes through the centuries. She wrote,

Be who God created you to be, and you will set the world on fire!

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We’ve been moving back and forth through the Book of Acts for the last few Sundays, and you’ve been invited to read through Acts on your own this month. The Book of Acts in general is a story filled with fire starters. From Peter, who speaks up in today’s passage to declare that the words of Joel the prophet have finally come to pass—that our sons and daughters would prophecy, that our young would see visions and our old will dream dreams—that the Holy Spirit is here for everyone, no matter who they are or where they’re from.

It was at that first Pentecost that heaven would begin crumbling down into earth, and from ever onward, the two would never be the same. But in order to recognize what God is doing, we’ll have to see with different eyes and hear with different ears, for it is only by the Holy Spirit that we will see how earth is being infused with heaven.

There were people there that day who saw the wind and flame blow among the people, who saw them acting up, speaking in languages that were not theirs to speak, and out of their shortsightedness and their lack of holy imagination, and in their distrust of what God was up to, they assumed that the people had too much to drink. In their minds, that was the only feasible thing that could make anyone behave that way. Their assumption was not only wrong, it was unfaithful, and unimaginative. They were unwilling to believe what God could do. They were unwilling to see in a different way, and with their narrow eyesight, they looked upon the people filled with the Holy Spirit and could only see a bunch of drunkards.

We too live in a world that severely lacks in imagination—especially holy imagination. Ours is a world void of wonder, but those of us who call ourselves Christians are called and challenged by the Holy Spirit to see everything differently, to pay close attention to the presence and mystery of God, but not only that, to join in on what God is doing in and among His world and in and among His people. We are called to be God’s storytellers and God’s fire starters! We are called to take flint and tinder, and with the breath of our own words, and the fuel of our holy imagination, set fire in the hearts of others!

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Garrison Keillor, the host of A Prairie Home Companion on American Public Radio, was once asked to choose what he considered to be the 5 most important books of all time. Keillor is a very well-read man and an author of many books of his own, so any list of books he’d make would be held in high regard by many. So, readers were probably surprised to find that he ranked the Book of Acts at the very top of his list. When asked to describe the Book of Acts, Keillor said in his trademark concise but image-rich way:

The flames lit on their little heads, and bravely and dangerously went they onward.

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Pentecost is that ever-repeating moment when all of us who call ourselves disciples stop sitting around tables inside our tightly enclosed upper rooms, and begin trusting not in our own power or ideas, not in our own imagination or initiative, but give ourselves over to a greater power, to be swept up and outward by a higher calling, and adopt a holy imagination. But, it’s only when and if we bravely and dangerously go onward with the Holy Spirit that God can do amazing things with us and through us!

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This and every Pentecost, God wants us to take that tongue of flame and bravely and dangerously start holy fires with it so that others may see by their light who our God is. And if we do that, we too will give birth to the Church.

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

The Big Bang Theory

A sermon based on Numbers 11:23-29 and Acts 2:1-21 preached on June 8th, 2014.

Sermon Audio

I’ve experienced 2 earthquakes in my life. They both happened when I lived in Virginia. We don’t experience many on this side of the country, so whenever the earth begins to shake underneath our feet, we take notice.

I have some friends on the West Coast who tell me they hardly feel them anymore. For someone in LA, earthquakes come as a part of the package deal. But on the East Coast, they are rare and startling. They might not do much damage, but they do shake us.

After the 2nd of the two earthquakes, my fellow Richmonders shared pictures of the “extensive damage” it caused. One friend put a picture on Facebook of a single book on his shelf that now leaned gently to the right. Others around the city took pictures of plastic lawn chairs tipped over in their backyards—the extensive devastation incurred when earthquakes strike the East Coast. The caption on that picture was “we will re-build!”

I experienced my 1st earthquake back in 2004 before anyone could post such sarcastic comments on social media. My apartment began shaking and for a moment there it threw my roommate and I.

There were jolts in that earthquake—not just rumbles—and although nothing at all was damaged, it caused a surprising amount of anxiety for my roommate. Having the earth shake beneath his feet and not being able to control it—for those moments feeling out of control—was torturous to him. That earthquake shook his interior more than it shook anything around us. Right away, he started asking big questions—why would God do that? Why shake things up like that? What kind of God is this who can’t even control the earth when it quakes? For the very first time, he felt completely out of control—even if for just a few seconds. The entire world shook around him, and there he was, hopeless to do anything about it.

I was surprised by his questions—taken aback really. There at seminary—for 4 whole years, we pondered the vast power of God—we immersed ourselves in the bible and the bible full of images of chaos—stories of people in over their heads, caught in the middle of violent storms. The bible is chalk-full of people who plead with the Creator to save them over and over again from the recklessness of the natural world.

Most of the bible portrays God as an unpredictable and uncontainable presence, and the earth as a reckless and wild creation—one that often leaves humans stunned by its harshness—I wondered how after reading and studying scripture through these years my roommate could be thrown by a little earthquake. For my roommate that earthquake was a wake-up call—a rude introduction to the fact that we are a small part of a much bigger and more unruly creation than we’d ever choose for ourselves.

God’s power as well as the wildness of God’s creation is not something we can ever understand much less keep in check—and when we are reminded of that, it should surprise us and shake us awake every single time. What God creates is not ours to control.

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The people were gathered together all in one place for the Pentecost festival, an old Jewish festival to celebrate that God had given the Hebrew people the Law at Mount Sinai. Moses descended from atop that mountain and delivered the 10 Commandments to the Israelites—the encapsulation of the Law.

But that year at this ancient festival, something unexpected and uncontrollable happened—something that shook them all awake. There was a howling and fierce wind that filled the disciples’ house. Something like fire seemed to light up each one of them. And all the people gathered outside for the festival heard the sounds of this mighty wind sweeping through the disciple’s household—the upper room they were still caged inside.

Luke, the author of Acts, uses words like “surprised” and “amazed” and “bewildered” to describe all those gathered around. Here they all were, celebrating something from their memory—an old promise delivered to them thousands of years ago. There was nothing new or unpredictable about it. But all the sudden, with this rush of wind, a blast of new energy, and something like flame illuminating each one of the disciples, something wild and unexpected was taking place.

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Presbyterians are often pegged as the Frozen Chosen. Some of us, honestly, live into that label pretty well. We sing our songs stock-still and we are not ones to wave our hands in the air whenever we sing. So what happened at Pentecost makes us feel uncomfortable. There, I said it.

But as it turns out, there must have been a couple Presbyterians there that day. There were some who saw what was happening—the rambunctious noises, the chaos of it all—there were people there who thought it was all showy nonsense. For them, there was no category under which to put the disciples’ crazy and uncontrollable behavior, so they thought the only reasonable explanation was that the disciples were drunk at 9 o’clock in the morning.

As a Presbyterian—maybe not completely frozen, but admittedly not entirely thawed out—I bet if I was there, I might have had the same thought. “What’s going wrong that the disciples are behaving this way?” That’s a question I would have asked if I was there.

“What are they under the influence of?”

I would see the disciples speaking in other languages—languages they didn’t even know—and the last thing I would ever think was, “God must be up to something.”

Just like many there that day, I too would come up with a way to dismiss the power of God’s presence. I too would come up with my own thoroughly reasonable explanation for it all. The disciples with all their gibberish were indecent and out-of-order, I’d say. Clearly inebriated. We’ll all just wait for the new wine to wear off, or maybe we’ll remove them from the premises, and then everything will be back to normal again.

Those who thought the disciples were drunk, didn’t have eyes big enough to see that God was doing something new right in front of them. They didn’t have any place in their heads to categorize what was happening.

“What’s the meaning of this? How can we ever make sense of this?” This was all too wild and untamed.

“It must be new wine,” I’d say.

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One word about Pentecost. We usually get this wrong, so it’s worth pointing out.

Filled with Holy Spirit, the disciples began speaking in other languages.

Often we hear this and we assume that Holy Spirit filled them and they began speaking in tongues—the fancy word for it is glossolalia—the strange language that Pentecostals speak. But that not what’s happening here.

Parthians, Medes, Elamites, the list goes on, are all gathered for the harvest festival and they are all in one place, but each group is worshipping in its own native language—they’re not worshipping together as one body because the boundaries of language separate each from understanding the other. Holy Spirit changes this. She fills the disciples on that Pentecost morning and they begin speaking in the native languages of all the people around them.

So as Holy Spirit descends upon the crowd—as the disciples are filled with her, she gives them the ability to understand one another. And as Holy Spirit spreads out farther and wider among the crowd—like a wave rippling outward—uncontrollably blowing through the thousands gathered there like wind or flame—the news of the mighty acts of God in Jesus Christ tears through the crowd like a torrent or like fire.

Once confined to a small group of disciples holed up in a tiny locked room, now the Good News can be contained no longer. It explodes outward. Where there was once nothing, now with Holy Spirit spreading among them all, the Church suddenly takes shape.

Pentecost is the Big Bang. That first moment—that miraculous morning when Holy Spirit rushes in and unfreezes those scared disciples, when the news of Jesus Christ—what was once silent and unshared now explodes outwards and begins a new creation—the church is now born and suddenly takes its shape.

That morning, the Good News of God in Jesus Christ is finally taken off ice and shared with the thousands gathered there.

Holy Spirit is wild and untamed, uncontrollable and bigger than we can ever imagine, and all the walls we used to hide ourselves in—all the containers we have that keep God’s wild power inside of—the Holy Spirit is here to burst them open and shake the Church into what God wants it to be. That’s what the Holy Spirit does! God’s ideas for us are expansive and explosive. God wants something much bigger for us than we’ve ever planned for ourselves.

Holy Spirit isn’t a violent presence, but neither is she a gentle southern breeze that blows through our hair. What she does is not always polite. She can shake the ground beneath our feet and cause us to change our stance, she can blow the doors of our church open and put a new word in us, a new word that we need to share with those out there. Holy Spirit can unsettle us and cause us to ask questions we never thought we’d ask, to go places we never intended for ourselves to go, to step out and speak words we never before were able to speak. Some may call her a rude interruption of business as usual. And to that I say, “Amen!”

What God creates is not ours to control.

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The Big Bang of Pentecost?—it’s not a theory. It’s what God is doing—right here, right now.

Do we have space for Holy Spirit to shake up all the structures that we’ve built—to rattle the ground beneath our feet? Are we ready for that mighty wind to blow and do something brand new in, among, and around us?

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful! Amen.