A Sermon Never Preached

I was due to preach a couple of Sundays ago (on the fourth Sunday of Advent), but wound up coming down with the crud.  That left a sermon written but unpreached.  This is the “sermon notes” version – not exactly what I would have said that Sunday, but close.  Thought I’d post it here as the last post of 2013:

Sunday, December 23rd, 2012

Fourth Sunday in Advent

Text: 1 John 4:7-21

What’s Love Got to Do With It?”

Text (Message Version):

7 My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God. 8 The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love – so you can’t know him if you don’t love. 9 This is how God showed his love for us: God sent his only Son into the world so we might live through him. 10 This is the kind of love we are talking about – not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God. 11 My dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other. 12 No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us – perfect love! 13 This is how we know we’re living steadily and deeply in him, and he in us: He’s given us life from his life, from his very own Spirit. 14 Also, we’ve seen for ourselves and continue to state openly that the Father sent his Son as Savior of the world. 15 Everyone who confesses that Jesus is God’s Son participates continuously in an intimate relationship with God. 16 We know it so well, we’ve embraced it heart and soul, this love that comes from God. 17 This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we’re free of worry on Judgment Day – our standing in the world is identical with Christ’s. 18 There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life – fear of death, fear of judgment – is one not yet fully formed in love. 19 We, though, are going to love – love and be loved. First we were loved, now we love. He loved us first. 20 If anyone boasts, “I love God,” and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see? 21 The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both.



This Sunday, the fourth and final Sunday in the season of Advent, we light the candle of Love. In a “normal” season of preparation this is a candle that makes sense, and yet it is also the candle that seems to be most easily forgotten.

Peace, hope and joy (represented by the first three candles on our wreath) are literally the language of Christmas. They populate the hymns and carols of the season, adorn the cards we send to friends and family, encrust the ornaments on our trees… And somewhere in there, in the background, love is the heartbeat. It is simply assumed to be present: “Of course we love our family and friends, and of course God loves us! Now let’s get back to the peace, hope and joy.”

But this Advent has hardly been normal. Between talk of fiscal cliff diving, escalating violence around the world, and the horrendous massacre of children in Newton, Connecticut, the last few weeks have been a time marked more by fear, uncertainty and despair than peace, hope and joy. And love? Many among us wonder how can we talk of something as soft, as passive, as idealistic as love in a time such as this. A time when children are gunned down in their schools? What’s love got to do with it?

Our scripture this morning reminds us that love has everything to do with, well…everything. But in order to really grasp the richness and depth of what this means, we have to do a little unpacking of our own context as well as the context of the first-century world. Context matters, and sometimes our own context gets the best of us.

For starters, in our twenty-first century culture we’ve reduced love to a sentiment. It has become shallow. The word “love” gets bandied about and intertwined so deeply with our culture’s materialism, so that love would often be better translated as “want” or “desire”. Instead of simply saying we want them, we “fall in love” with celebrities we’ve never met, food we’d like to eat, golf clubs we’d like to show off on the course, shoes we’d like to wear… And even when love takes a deeper root within us, more often than not it remains a feeling that takes place entirely in the head and heart. This “love” is inconstant – it flares up brightly in an instant but burns out quickly, causing us to fall in and out of love with speed and ease.

With this understanding of love, it is little wonder that folks roll their eyes when we say “God is love”. It’s also little wonder that folks are unimpressed or even angered when people of faith express a desire to respond to violence with love. If love is such a skin-deep, fickle thing, then we might as well say we intend to respond to violence with a pillow fight inspired by the God of the moment, rather than the God of Eternity.

But for the biblical authors, love is more than just a feeling. It is active! Love is something you DO. It means showing up, being present and willing to serve. Our scriptures tell us that caring for each other through sickness or difficulty IS loving each other. Speaking the truth is loving each other. Hearing each other out even when we disagree, protecting each other from harm, having compassion in the midst of suffering, taking the time to hear someone’s story, or working for justice in the face of oppression IS loving the other.

And it’s also much more than that: caring for each other, speaking the truth, protecting the vulnerable, practicing compassion, genuinely listening, and working for justice are not only ways to love our neighbor – they are ways to love God. Our text from 1 John reminds us:

If anyone boasts, “I love God,” and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both.

THIS is the love our candle represents: an active love, a love that DOES as well as feels, a love that can vigorously respond to the wrongs of the world without repaying evil with evil, a love that flows into and out of God – because God is love.

Another way our context gets in the way of our understanding has to do with our perception of the world. Compared to the evil we experience today – mass murders, genocide, widespread poverty, systemic prejudice, starvation, war – we sometimes view the biblical world as so very small and comparably carefree. How could anything be so bad as these things that we fear? What could love possibly have to say to the depths of such present despair? The “wisdom” of the world says that while love may have worked in the past, it is impotent in the face of today’s troubles.

But we have forgotten. Just as nostalgia dresses up our recent past, our distance in time and space simplify the realities of the world into which Jesus was born, dulling both its complexity and its danger. This was a world thick with oppression, where entire peoples were dominated or enslaved by warring empires. It was a world of deep divides between rich and poor – with a few spectacularly wealthy families supported by everyone else: a mass of impoverished workers. It was a world of violence and war, where sometimes even children were massacred in order to protect the power of ruling authorities. The despair of that time was no less than what we experience today.

The people of God cried out for a messiah, for God’s answer to all of the pain and injustice in the world – and it is in the midst of that despair and uncertainty that God chose to find expression in a baby.

A baby? Was it some sort of divine prank? In the face of so much darkness, why in the world would God find expression in a human child born into poverty rather than a glorious king or mighty warrior?

This is no prank, and neither is it an accident. I think it is as simple as this: we receive Jesus first as a baby because you can’t bribe a baby. You can’t reason with a baby. You can’t manipulate or convince a baby to be on your side. You can’t gain riches or favor with a baby – all the gold, frankincense and myrrh in the world won’t change a baby’s mind. You can’t lead an army or rule with a baby. All you can do is love a baby, and be loved in return.

God’s answer to our most desperate problems is love. Our text puts it this way:

This is how God showed his love for us: God sent his only Son into the world so we might live through him. This is the kind of love we are talking about – not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God.

There have always been big problems to solve, and deep wells of suffering to fill. To do so requires serious thought, reflection, courage and hard choices. In the midst of this, love comes first, and all other answers flow out of that love – this is how God would have us engage the world around us.

It is natural to experience fear as we face violence and insecurity. There is no shame in feeling that flash of terror. But as we work to address the real challenges and tragedies of the world, we must not give in to the temptation to respond out of fear. Our challenge is to resist every urge to lash out or hunker down because of what might be done to us in the future, and instead plant our feet firmly in the active love of God. 1 John 4 reminds us:

There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life – fear of death, fear of judgment – is one not yet fully formed in love.

A stance rooted in the active love of God is not wishy washy or weak, but powerful beyond measure – it contains the potential for justice, truth, harmony, peace, joy…the completeness of the Kin-dom of God. When he was grown, Jesus would remind us of that with his words about the most important of all the commandments (love God and love your neighbor as yourself) and with his instruction that if we love him, we will feed his sheep.

But first he reminded us simply by being born.

This morning, our Advent candle reminds us: Love comes first.


A Marvelous Dad

Tonight, sitting in my office after hours to finish up some administrative work, I am surprised by joy.  More specifically, I’m caught off guard by the joy of a father and his little daughters picking through what is left of our pumpkins.  After a week of trying to get rid of our pumpkins at a discount, we put an ad out on Craigslist advertising them for free.  Because of that ad, this dad is here loading up the freebies so that he can feed his livestock, but mostly so that his girls can have an adventure with him.  As they search through the pallets, moving past the rotten ones, they shriek with joy each time a good one is found.  And every time that victory yell is raised, he celebrates the find.  “Good job, little one!  Well done.  That one is perfect!”

The love in his voice, it’s enough to make my heart break wide open with joy.

Rich or poor or in between, tonight I thank God for all the marvelous dads in the world.  The ones who allow themselves to see whimsy through the eyes of their children.  The ones who take the time to play, to get down on their knees and wonder from the same vantage point that their kids occupy.  The ones who aren’t afraid to love their children openly, loudly and with abandon.  The ones who hug, and tease, and tousle hair.  The ones who think their children hung the moon.

Thanks be to God for fathers such as these.  They make all the difference in the world.

Hope is Orange

Now that the election is over, there seems to be a stillness here at the office.  People seem less frenzied, less preoccupied – and once again there is time to reflect.

October was a crazy month around here.  Frankly, I only remember it in flashes of image and color.  In my mind’s eye, when I think about last month I see a whole lot of orange.

If you are a member or a neighbor of Hillside Christian Church, then you understand the orange thing.  Our life has revolved around (or at least it has been framed with) pumpkins.  Lots and lots of pumpkins.

Basically, the entire month of October was a grand experiment: bring in an enormous truckload of pumpkins, pull together a wide variety of church volunteers, step outside the church building, invite the wider community to come have some fun…and then see what happens.   It was an exercise in trust, in hope – a hope that we might become more like the Kin-dom of God if we met our neighbors outside of the church walls.   And you know, I think it worked.

At the very least, the experiment started us on the right track.  Though we were raising money for our youth mission trips, we also got the opportunity to interact with families who live near the church or who come to the church for food assistance (and to interact with them in a different way).  Our volunteers saw parents beaming as their children danced and bounced through the pumpkin patch, families gathered in that sea of orange for an autumn family picture, teenagers meticulously searching for the perfect carver…these neighbors of ours, who sometimes have been seen simply as mouths to feed, became real multifaceted people.  That alone is enough to call the experiment a success.

But there was more.  One of our wealthier neighbors who often disapproves of our signage and activities, fell in love with the vibrant display spread across our lawn.  She went so far as to send us a letter expressing her gratitude for our presence in the neighborhood.  Local grocery stores started sending customers our way when they ran out of their own pumpkin stock.  People looked out for us, and we experienced a complete lack of vandalism and theft, though the pumpkins weren’t guarded during the night.  We all became neighbors.

And at the end of the month, when we set up for our annual Trunk or Treat event, our neighbors came back.  They came back in droves.  We served hot dogs, chili, cocoa and candy to a thousand people that night – and we recognized those who had come earlier in the month, even though they were in costume!

As a church, it is our calling to take seriously those two greatest of commandments:  Love God and Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.  But it is downright impossible to love our neighbors if we don’t have the slightest clue about who they are.  With the help of a few hundred pumpkins, we’ve begun to figure that out.  It’s making a difference already, sending ripples of hope throughout our area.  And it’s given me hope, that maybe all this work we do really is pointing to something (and Someone) greater than ourselves.  Maybe, just maybe, we’re laying some foundation for the Kin-dom right here along Vivion Road.

If that’s the case, then around here hope is orange.

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Some Truth About Rape

Spoiler alert:  This may be overkill.  Most of us are now fully immersed in election-overload, and the thought of reading one more rant about politics may be too much to handle.  It may also be too personal for you.  If that’s the case, that’s fine.  Don’t read it.  Today I write for myself.

This week I have come to realize a few important things about myself and the ways I’ve been personally affected by this election cycle:

  1. The more the election cycle has heated up, the harder it has become for me to write.  Anything.  At all.
  2. At the same time, it has been harder and harder for me to read – especially the books on the history of women in Christianity that make up the assigned reading for my January D.Min fortnight. They are all on one of my favorite topics, but I’ve hardly been able to bring myself to read them.
  3. These emotional blocks have everything to do with the rhetoric of women and rape that has saturated our political discourse.

It has taken months to sift through the emotional sediment contributing to these blocks.  But earlier this week, while talking politics with one of my youth, everything clicked into place.  This depression, this funk I’ve been in, is about rape:  both my own, and rape/sexual assault “in general”.

An appalling number of the women I have worked with, young and old, have been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted at some point in their lives.  I’m one of those women.  You wouldn’t know it by looking at us – the scars are buried deep inside.  We haven’t forgotten – even if our minds would let us, our bodies won’t allow us to forget.  So we’ve tucked the wounds away in a special holding cell – not so that we can avoid the pain, but so that we can function; so that we can heal; so that we can love and hope and dream; so that we can be the women God has called us to be.

The hurt usually hibernates under the surface.  But in a usual world, on a usual day, the topic of rape isn’t brought up – at least not in polite company.  When things are as they usually should be, you can turn on the television and not be slapped with phrases like “legitimate rape”.  On a normal day, politicians don’t talk about how some women “rape easy”.  In election cycles of the past, we haven’t had to witness arguments about the level of violence and brutality required in order for a rape to be “real”.

In this election cycle, we kicked “normal” and “usual” to the curb months ago.  And for some of us, the layers of protection and salve have been stripped back, allowing that pain to wake up and move closer and closer to the surface.  It’s become accessible, visible, tangible all over again.  We’ve started to relive our rape again and again.  With all the arguments over “legitimate rape”, this is especially true for those of us whose rapes “don’t make the cut” because they weren’t brutal or violent enough to count.  Those of us who weren’t beaten half to death, who didn’t have the opportunity, the undrugged motor skills, the physical strength, or the fight-response required to fight back – we not only relive our rapes, but we also relive the judgment of the people around us, the assumptions that we must be lying because we don’t have visible bruises.  Some of us relive our rapist’s sneering indictment that it doesn’t count as rape because “you’re my wife”, “you’re my girlfriend”, or “you should have just put out more in the first place.”  We relive it all.  Over. And. Over. Again.

Here’s the thing about rape:  rape simultaneously reinforces and destroys everything a woman or girl suspects about herself and her worth.  All that cultural crap about our value being tied to our bodies?  Our rapists confirm that with every unwanted touch or thrust, and at the same time they destroy us with the knowledge that while our value is in our breasts and between our legs – those things are ultimately worthless, deserving of nothing but violence and indignity.  Simultaneously we are told: you are your body, and your body is worthless – You are worthless.

This is what I wish these politicians and commentators knew.  Rape is about more than sex, and the abortion question doesn’t make their flippant conversations okay.  For the sake of this conversation, the abortion question is immaterial.  It helps politicians avoid responsibility for the violence perpetrated by these callous words about rape.  It enables us to turn a blind eye to the fact that when we talk about “rape” we separate it from the broken bodies and spirits of the women and men who have been violated, as though rape could exist without the victims.  Rape survivors ourselves come to different conclusions about abortion.  Pro-choice, pro-life, undecided – none of these viewpoints change the fact that the screwed up way we’ve been talking about rape hurts people.  It’s hurt me, it’s hurt the women with whom I minister, and I suspect it has hurt many many more.  It has got to stop, and no matter how important voting is (and I believe voting is critically important), voting alone won’t fix the problem.

I know that tonight we’re all preoccupied with the election.  But starting tomorrow, we’ve got to do better.


It’s strange how sometimes the human brain (or perhaps the human spirit) is able to cordon off the darkest of our fears, creating a pen for them so that we can function. They’re still there with us, never far off – but there are times when we can forget them, if only long enough to get a job done, tuck the kids into bed or be present for a loved one who has needs and fears of her own.

Sometimes, the pen works so well that we forget just how dark our fears actually are – until they erupt, a maelstrom of tears, shouts, pain and violence. And sometimes, there’s a day like today.

For several months I’d worried over the knot in her little abdomen, alternating between quick furtive touches and thoughtful caresses, like someone probing a new cold sore with her tongue. Each time I felt it under her skin, the nerves in my fingers screamed a single fear throughout my consciousness: cancer. Then the memories would flood in: finding the lump on Bartleby for the first time; hearing the vet speak my fear into reality; watching him waste away; after the final decision was made, watching him seize as the drugs worked death through his body; the mournful cries of his playmate as she grieved him each night once he was gone.. Would our Shelby, our fur-child, go out this way too? It hurt too much to think about, so all that fear, all those memories were slowly herded into the pen. Without realizing it, I became numb.

Today, at her annual check up, I finally mustered the guts to ask about the knot. The vet probed the spot, his expression darkening. A few hinges on the pen began to twist and complain. He examined her from multiple angles, following the knot to where it originated on her belly. The pen’s crossbeams splintered. Then, with a smile, he announced two surprisingly beautiful words: umbilical hernia. Like rainwater tearing through a drought-cracked creek bed, relief ripped through the pen, washing all the stored up emotional debris out into the light. With a very confused dog in the passenger seat, I cried most of the way home.

Shelby doesn’t have cancer, she has the canine equivalent of an outie belly button. As I smile about that almost whimsical revelation, I’m also stunned by how much this blessed relief hurts. How numb had I forced myself to become if good news is this painful? At the same time, I marvel at the strength of the spirit within us – that we are able to cope with things like this and things far worse. And in this recuperative wonder, I sit with a sleeping Westie curled beside me, thanking God for every breath she has left.



Except for the weeks I spent at church camp as a teenager, I’ve never been a morning person. Morning has generally always been a time of day I’ve avoided – I’ll work all afternoon and late into the night, but get me up early and you’re dealing with a somewhat volatile grump. You can ask my mother, She’ll tell you some stories…

But this week something has changed. I think I’m starting to appreciate morning people, starting to understand why they love those morning hours before anyone else in the house is awake. I’m guessing it’s the quiet, the stillness.

This might be a fluke. I am, after all, on a middle school mission trip. Not exactly a “normal” week. But each day, though tired from the work we’ve done, my body has turned on at 5:30 in the morning. I’ve gotten up, gotten ready, made the coffee and had two full hours to read, muse, write and listen. To my surprise, there has been so much to hear in the quiet of the morning. Children and sponsors murmuring in their sleep, cars on the road, birds singing, the church building whispering its stories, thoughts and insights that often go unnoticed – all these sounds help me to find a stillness and calm that is usually so elusive.

Perhaps God really is in the quiet place…

Prayer and Change – More Thoughts on Hillside’s 40 Days of Prayer

Dear Hillsiders (and other blog readers/eavesdroppers!),


Today I’m reminded that serendipity can be a funny thing. Here’s why:

This past week, when I haven’t been working or praying for our church, I’ve been reading the required texts for my first D.min course. The entire doctoral program focuses on transformational leadership (read: how to help lead churches into new and vibrant ways of living out the gospel), so it shouldn’t have surprised me so much…but the texts apply DIRECTLY to the type of work we are doing at Hillside through these 40 days of prayer.

Since that has been the case, and since my hope is that this doctoral program will be of direct benefit to our church, let me take a moment or two to share what I’ve learned in that reading this week (what I’ve learned in prayer I’ll share first with my assigned prayer group!):

Right now I’m studying what it takes to lead through a period of adaptive change. Now, that sounds seriously academic – but there’s a simple way to break it down. Think about the role of a doctor. If you break a bone through a basic accident, you go to the doctor and it is her job to “fix it”. Using her medical expertise, she prescribes a treatment and, barring any complications, you come through the experience as good as new. That’s her job, to restore your health.

But think about a different type of health problem for a moment. If you went to the same doctor because of persistent heart trouble or type 2 diabetes, her response wouldn’t be so cut and dried. In fact, to deal with this problem she’d have to take an entirely different approach because she’s no longer dealing with a situation she can fix/heal/treat on her own. To fix this problem YOU have to do the work of changing your lifestyle, your eating habits, your exercise regimen, etc. If you don’t make these changes, you will likely become more and more ill, even to the point of death. All the medical expertise in the world doesn’t change the fact that she can’t do this work for you. Instead, she has to lead by encouraging you and empowering you to do the hard work of changing how you operate and live.

The second example – that’s a situation requiring adaptive change! And we’re in a similar situation here at Hillside. In order to live a healthy life as a congregation, some changes need to be made. But instead of changing our diet and our exercise habits, we have to change our understanding of what it means to be church, what it means to proclaim the Gospel in our community, what it means to follow Christ in this time and place. All the technical, pastoral and theological expertise in the world cannot change that your pastoral staff can’t do this work for you. The work has to be done by the whole church, not just her employees. And, similar to the doctor in the second example, it is our job in this time to lead by encouraging and empowering you to do the hard work of changing how we operate and live as a community of Christ-followers in the Northland.

This 40 days of prayer is part of that hard work that cannot be done by staff members alone. It is a time of focusing on God, a time of reorienting our goals and vision, a time of asking the right questions. Ultimately, it is the beginning of a transformed spiritual lifestyle for our church – one that should not end after the 40 days are up, and one that has the power to propel us into new life for the sake of the Gospel!

This week, as you pray for Hillside, I encourage you to ask God how we need to change our “spiritual lifestyle” in order to experience renewed health and life. As we meet together to discuss what we are learning through prayer, I look forward to hearing what you discover!


Rev. Lara

Fully Relying on God? – Some Thoughts on Hillside’s 40 Days of Prayer

To my Hillside family:

Several years ago, while working in the Great River Region of the CC(DOC), one of our summer camps for young children focused on the theme of: F.R.O.G.  The theme spelled out the name of an animal loved by many children, and some of the crafts and decorations played upon that, but the meat of the message was found in what the letters stood for:





Through play and song, lessons and crafts, worship and relationship, these kids explored what it can mean to rely on God in their lives completely. It was a fun camp and the kids seemed to absorb much of the message, but it also left me wondering how many of us, and how many of our congregations, actually do this?  There’s not a way to accurately answer that question, but my hunch is this:  not many.

It’s not that we’re bad people.  I believe that a great many individuals and a great many communities of Christ-followers really do try to rely on God for their sustenance, their direction, their vision in life.  I also believe that quite a few of those people and groups manage mostly to succeed in this endeavor, at least on the best of days.  But the key word here is “mostly”.  Because we don’t truly rely on God until we do it FULLY.  Not partially.  Not halfheartedly.  Not as a last resort after all our other plans and schemes have failed.  FULLY.

Just as the goal with a safety regulation is full-compliance, our spiritual goal is full-reliance.  And just as it is physically dangerous to settle for less than full compliance with safety regulations on a work site, it is spiritually dangerous to settle for less than full reliance on God.  We aren’t perfect, and we have to acknowledge that we will often fall short of this goal, but when we don’t strive for full-reliance, more and more of our own agendas start slipping into the mix.  Our vision becomes more about our own desires and pride and less about God’s hopes for the world.  When we don’t strive for full-reliance, we slowly cease to work for the Kin-dom – and more often than not, we fail to notice.  Our wants become “God’s wants”, our views become “God’s views” and our work either becomes stagnant or destructive.

A church that ceases striving for full-reliance on God is a church destined to fall apart.


All of this can sound rather negative.  So many of the wider conversations about “The Church” that are happening these days tend to take the negative approach:  the Church is declining, the Church is losing members, the Church is no longer relevant in the world, the Church will cease to exist in X many years…  And it is very true that the Church (with a “big C”) and our church (Hillside) both have real challenges that have the power to erode our witness to Christ and our usefulness for the Kin-dom in the world.  The danger of this moment is very very real.

But there is also great hope in this moment!  Not that sugary pseudo-hope that sings “everything is fine” despite all evidence to the contrary, but REAL hope.  Resurrection hope.  A hope, rooted in reliance on God, that can move us to stare faithfully and courageously INTO the face of our challenges instead of pretending that they don’t exist.  A hope, grounded in God’s own vision, that can turn our gaze toward the future Kin-dom rather than a nostalgic past that never really was.  A hope, woven through with God’s purpose, that can put flesh on our dry bones that we might get up and work for justice and beauty and on-the-ground love in the community around us.  When I look around us in this moment, I see that real hope just as clearly as I see the challenges we face.

This is why I am so excited about the process of spiritual renewal that is taking place at Hillside.  By entering into 40 days of prayer for our church, we have acknowledged some powerful truths:

1.We are facing some serious challenges that need to be met faithfully and head-on.

2. We want to live and to be fruitful! 

3. We need to make a shift towards full-reliance. 

4. God is still speaking in the world – and God has something to say to us in this time and place.  God has a vision for our church and wants us to receive and live into/out of that vision. 

5. You can’t rely on God without listening for and to God’s voice.  Prayer (in all it’s diverse forms) is how we “shut up and listen” to God.

6. If we take the time to ground ourselves in prayer, we will come out of this time with a clearer sense of purpose, vision and hope – and that clarity will come from God, not our own desires, agendas or pride. 

In my heart of hearts, I know that all of these things are true.  And, based upon the number of you who have committed to pray for our church for 10 minutes each day and to meet and pray with two other people for 30 minutes twice during these 40 days, I can see that you know these things are true as well.  We’re not at full participation yet, but by the end of these 40 days I believe that a majority of you will have participated in this process.

Our prayer has power!  It has the power to change our own minds and hearts, to reconnect us with God’s vision, and to strengthen and deepen the bonds between us (and between us and our neighbors).  And while ten minutes may not seem like very much, it can make all the difference in the world.  It can be the difference between halfhearted reliance and full reliance.  It can be the difference between abundant, vibrant, challenging life and a slow, easy decline into death.

So, if you’re already praying – let Rodger, Shandra and me and your fellow church members know how it is going.  If you’re catching glimpses of God’s vision, tell us!  If you haven’t seen anything yet, be patient and hopeful and tell us that too.  If you’ve made the commitment and have fallen short, don’t beat up on yourself.  That’s time wasted that could be spent getting back into your commitment to pray.  And if you’d like to join in this process, let us know – we’ll jot down your name and make sure you get teamed up with two other prayer partners.

Throughout our 40 days of prayer, I will periodically share some of my experiences with you in writing – and with your permission, I’ll share some of yours.  If you have something you’d like me to share, send it to me at: lara@hillsidecc.com or give me a call at the church.

But for now, be encouraged!  Know that the Lord is with you, and turn your heart to God in prayer.  Even if you are uncertain that this process “will work”, even if you don’t think that you pray well, even if you don’t know what to say, pray.  Just be still, know that God is God, and give a few minutes of your life over to the Creator of all that is good.

I am very much looking forward to hearing what God has to say!

Blessings and hope,

Rev. Lara

Celebration, Loss & Raccoons


It sounded for all the world like a bookshelf or other piece of furniture had toppled and crashed to the floor.  I ran into the living room, looking for the mess – only to find that everything was fine.  Chuck went into the basement in search of the offending stack of boxes – but found nothing.  Again, all appeared to be well.

Then the scratching started.  And the screeching.  And the mewing.

Something in our house was alive and inside the wall.

We went through the process of alerting the landlord and leaving messages for the local animal control agencies, but it was after 5pm.  Everything was closed for the day.  Eventually, we popped in earplugs, finished out the evening and went to sleep.

In the morning, all was silent.  For a moment.  But then Chuck went down to the basement to check on some laundry and there they were:  three baby raccoons.

Somehow, those fuzzy wobbly creatures had managed to work their way through the wall and into the basement while we slept.  One part vicious, three parts precious, they wriggled and mewed around the basement with a certain urgency, never stopping to rest or take in their surroundings.

The kids were looking for mom.

As it turns out, mom was no longer in the picture.  More than likely, during our big rainstorm her den was flooded and she made the decision to move the kids to higher, dryer ground.  The gap in our chimney seemed perfect, so one by one she lugged each wriggling cub up a tree, across the roof and up the chimney, stuffing them away where they would be safe.  After that, she left and, likely hit by a car, did not return.  The kids were on their own.  Not understanding, they began to search for her and, in their searching, they fell down a gap into our wall, ultimately winding up in our basement, hungry and alone.


All week my heart has ached for those little raccoons.  Perhaps it’s because a dear friend recently lost her mother, or perhaps it’s because the hype of Mother’s Day always reminds me of all the people who grieve for mothers lost, mothers absent or neglectful, children gone or children never had.  Perhaps it’s all of that and more.  One way or the other, the thought of cubs lost in a dark and unknown place, thirsting for one who will not return…well, the thought destroys me.

It also convicts me.

So often, dear Church, we do a poor job of remembering these losses when this holiday rolls around.   We give out carnations or daisies to the moms in worship and, if we’re really sensitive and enlightened, we also present flowers to every sister, daughter, aunt and friend in the place.  No one is left out, except for the grief.

In the midst of our celebration, and our fear of truly acknowledging the ugly in the world while inside our safe sanctuaries, we sometimes miss the opportunity to name that unnamed guest in our midst: Loss.

The women taken in childbirth, lost to violence or addiction or mental illness, killed by car wrecks or cancer or other disease.  The children lost to SIDS, birth defects, illness or miscarriage.  The abortions.  The empty cradles caused by infertility.  All of these losses and more will be present in the pews this Sunday, silent specters whispering despair in the pauses between prayer and song.

And if we recognize them, if we name them gently and frankly within the space we’ve carved out for worship, it is holy.  There is no diminishing of our celebration and joy when we acknowledge those who have come before us and those who will not follow us.  Instead, having named that ghostly grief, we give it flesh – and the dry bones of those we loved and lost (or never had) can get up and dance, if only for a moment.

We are a resurrection people.  At our best, we know that death and loss and despair do not have the final word – but instead, there is hope for new life and reunion and joy within the Kin-dom of God.  But in order for resurrection to be possible, we must acknowledge death.  In order for joy to be made real, we must acknowledge despair and grief.   We must name them instead of avoiding them – even when it is frightening or unsettling to do so.

Avoidance and hope are poor dance partners.  They simply can’t sync up, moving to two entirely different beats.  So, as we compose and orchestrate our worship for this Mother’s Day, let’s not invite avoidance to the party.  We don’t have to be disingenuous or go overboard with our lamentations – but we do need to save some space for those we have lost.

In so doing, our celebration is not diminished but broadened because we honor the lives and gifts of women in all places and all times: mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, friends…and maybe even raccoons.

A Slice of Heaven

A Slice of Heaven

Going through the 800+ pictures I took during April’s California trip and ran across this: our backyard at the rental house in Sonoma. This view has been in the back of my mind ever since, nagging me with sweetness, beauty and rest.