Monday, January 14, 2019

Baptism of the Lord


Isaiah 42:1-9

Matthew 3:13-17



               What is baptism for you? 

               For me Baptism is several things, but it starts always with a recognition that God has called us before we can even respond, before we are even aware.  We honor God’s choosing us when we baptize our children, our babies who cannot choose it for themselves.  We also honor God’s choosing us when we say “yes” to our own baptisms and declare that we accept this calling from God. 

               Maybe the bigger question then is, does baptism change anything?

               I saw this Calvin and Hobbes cartoon this week…


               Unlike what Calvin says about change not being a positive, baptism is a declaration of choosing to follow God’s will for our lives and for our families.  That does involve change.  I love what Frederick Buechner says about Baptism.  He describes baptism in this way: “Baptism consists of getting dunked or sprinkled.  Which technique is used matters about as much as whether you pray kneeling or standing on your head.  Dunking is a better symbol, however.  Going under symbolizes the end of everything about your life that is less than human.  Coming up again symbolizes the beginning in you of something strange and new and hopeful.  You can breathe again.” (Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC: New York: Harper and Row, 1973. p5).   I love this.  “the beginning in you of something strange and new and hopeful”.

On a daily basis, baptism should affect how we behave, what we say, what we do, how we interact with people who are mean to us, or those who at any moment act as “enemies”.  To love them, to strive to love even those we fear, we hate, we condemn: that has to involved constant change and growth.  Baptism is a commitment to follow in the ways of Christ, to care for each other, to love one another, and to study, pray, and listen for God’s direction for our lives.  If we take it seriously, it WILL make a change in our lives.  Baptism doesn’t change that God loves us.  It doesn’t change that God has called us.  But we hope that it will change how we respond to God.  We make a commitment through our baptisms, through the baptisms of our children and through the promises we make when anyone in our church is baptized, to live lives of grace, faith, compassion, but mostly of love.

               I see this in your lives, in the lives of those within this congregation.  I see that you are people of love and support and care.  I see that you are people committed to ministry as you minister to each other, to me, and to people beyond this congregation and beyond this community.  On Thanksgiving Sunday when I ask everyone who contributes in any way to stand and pretty much the entire congregation stands up, I see how much each and every one of you gives to this place and to the community beyond.  I see in those who are not necessarily serving in official capacities but who help with our many mission projects, who do the sanctuary flowers, who provide coffee hour, who write cards, who sing in the choir,  who come to Thursday adult ed, who help with the children on Sunday, who usher, serve communion, attend our programs or even those who just come Sunday mornings – I see in all of you a deep commitment to living out your baptism promises.  You are choosing to live out those baptism promises.  You are choosing to live faithful and committed lives.  You are choosing to be people renewed, reborn, re-committed as baptized children of God.

Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday.  It is a time of remembrance and renewal.  We remember that Jesus, too, had a time of renewal, a cleansing, a rebirth.  For Jesus in the book of Matthew, his baptism began his time of leadership in the church.  It was a changing point for him in which he took on full-force the commitment he made to serve God with all of his being, even to the point of being killed.  That deep commitment, the promise of that accepting of God’s call began with Jesus’ baptism as it may for us, too. 

As an aside, baptism, the embracing of new life, the deeper commitment to living lives of fullness in love and compassion and grace: this is NOT an invitation to beat ourselves up over the past.  I recently re-watched one of my favorite Star Trek the Next Generation episodes (Tapestry), in which Captain Picard was given the “glimpse” of seeing what his life might have been had he made a different choice than one he had deeply regretted making during his life time.  That one choice would have led him down a completely different path, one that ultimately had little value, little meaning.  Regrets are useful only in that they can inform us how to make different choices for the future.  But they are not useful in terms of wishes that we had chosen differently in the past because we would not be the people we are now if our paths had gone a different way.  After seeing the glimpse of what might have been, his comment requesting to return to his old life was profound: “I’d rather die as the man I was then live the life I just saw.” 

Our baptism invites us into change, but not into regret.

Jesus’ baptism was also a time for God to declare ‘this is my beloved child with whom I am well pleased.’  We recognize in our baptism the same declaration from God.  God has called us all God’s children, chosen us before we were even aware of our own existence, God has claimed us as God’s own.  We celebrate that, we remember that as we are baptized, as we baptize our children, as we make the promises of the congregation to support those baptized on their faith journeys.  Today I would also like us to remember that commitment and that promise of God’s love and God’s call that we received through baptism, through a renewal of our baptism vows.  This is a time for us to remember that God calls us before we are aware of our own existence, that God loves us before we are born, that God chooses us before we can even respond.  I am going to invite you in a moment to come forward at this time as you feel led, to be anointed with the oil and to remember that God calls you before you are able even to respond.  

“Remember that God loves you, has chosen you, and calls you into new life.  May you follow Christ in all you do!”

 

Sometimes what starts as a mistake, ends as a gift.

            Those of you who came to my wedding saw this... I forgot my bouquet (which a dear friend had made for me), so after going half way down the aisle in a non-traditional "processional" group of clergy, myself, David and the kids, I turned around and ran back out of the sanctuary to grab the flowers.  David ran after me; and we both came back in together, arm in arm, laughing, as those attending the service joined us in laughter, cheering and celebrating.  That began the wedding. And that "mistake" set the stage for a ceremony with a lot more laughter, joy, a mess of "real" as we moved around and tried to figure out what we were doing, where we were going, when we were to sit and stand, etc.  People have said to me it was the "funnest" wedding they've ever been to... probably because there was very little solemnity in it.  Of course our vows were serious... we both cried (and laughed) and told stories that were meaningful to us in terms of defining who we are together, how we came together, what it means for two extremely different people from different backgrounds and different value systems to partner in this way.  But it wasn't a "traditional" wedding.  For one thing, we refused to take ourselves very seriously.  And the result was, at least for the two of us, better than we had hoped for.
            I think about this in terms of the bigger picture as well.  Again, using our relationship as an example: our meeting was odd, was rough.  David invited me into conversation and I hesitated.  What I knew about him (very little) already showed us to be so different from one another that I wasn't sure I wanted to even talk with him.  But, due to a set of circumstances that basically meant I had nothing else to do in that moment, I joined him in conversation.  And by the end of an hour, an HOUR, we were "involved".  Again, a lot of that had to do with laughter... laughing at ourselves, laughing at our "mistakes" (I spilled mocha all over myself and David says that's when he knew I was the one for him), just being real in a culture that often values the superficial and appearances over what is inside.  Our mistakes, our flaws (I'm perpetually a bit clumsy with drinks), and even our differences set the stage for something deep, valuable, wonderful.
            It didn't stop there.  The first time we had a serious value conflict was only about a week after we'd met.  The subject of that conflict is immaterial.  What matters is that it was a big enough and important enough difference that for me, at least, I figured that was the end of it.  Why bother to invest more when some basic core values seemed to be in such conflict?  But it was actually because of the way David handled that conflict that we didn't end the short beginning but continued to stay engaged with one another.  David was unfailingly kind, even when confronted with such a radical difference of understanding.  He never became righteous, never insisted that his view was better or right, never became mean or sarcastic or catty.  He never attacked, just listened and asked me what I wanted to do in terms of moving forward.  He expressed care, and sadness about the conflict, but never in a blaming way.  He was respectful, understanding, and only wanted to know what I needed in that situation.  My response was one of "well, this person is really good friend quality at least.  So we can start there and see..."  Our conflict, or issue, or even "mistake" in having that conversation so early on actually led to a deeper respect on my part for the person that David is.
           When I facilitate couples counseling for those who come to me wanting to be married, one of the most important questions I always ask is how the couple navigates conflict.  And the only couple I ever chose not to marry was the one who told me they'd never had conflict.  If you don't know how your partner will deal with problems when they arise, you are missing really key information that you need to know before you step into a full blown commitment to them.  Also, the only way a couple can completely avoid conflict is by staying at such a shallow level with their partner that differences are never seen.  That's not a basis for a long term relationship.  Conflict is a gift that can deepen relationships if handled well, that helps us to see under values and beliefs and world views and into who the other really is at their core.  Mistakes, or errors that we make in our lives or in our relationships: these are opportunities to grow, learn and understand each other more fully.  If we can laugh at ourselves, if we can learn from mistakes, if we can let go of defensiveness and instead embrace the fullness of our humanity when we make mistakes, those mistakes can be launching places into depth, honesty and integrity.
          There is a story about a pastor who forgot to turn off his lapel mic when he went to the bathroom.  While his "business" was being broadcast to the entire congregation, he also cursed under his breath about the "damn women's guild".  When he discovered the mistake, he righteously and in a huff quit his job.  But the story ends with the wisdom that if he had been able to laugh at his own mistake with the congregation, admit his own frustration and need to just vent a little under his breath, if he'd been able to make a joke out of the fact that even pastors have to use the facilities once in a while and it isn't any more glamorous for them than for the rest of us, the relationship he had with his congregation might have deepened as they recognized his humanity, even as he pastored them, and as he claimed a bit of humility.  But because he was not able to get past his own humiliation, relationships were torn in a way that made healing for all parties very difficult.
         Today I am deeply grateful for the "mess" that we are, and for the opportunities to grow, learn and deepen from our mistakes.  Thank you all for being witnesses to my mess and loving me through it anyway.  I offer you the same gift.  Be real, and let us love you through it all!

Friday, January 11, 2019

For My Eyes Have Seen Your Salvation


For My Eyes Have Seen Your Salvation

Isaiah 61:10 - 62:3, Luke 2:22-40

12/30/18

            Simeon was a normal person who, after a long life, was able to see salvation, salvation given, as we are told in Luke, to ALL people.  And that salvation, holding that baby in his arms, finding the peace of knowing that salvation has come to the world and for the world, he now feels he has finished his tasks here on earth, completed what he came to do, and he asks God to then let him go, “you may now dismiss your servant in peace.”   

            As we approach New Year’s eve, I often think about what tasks we have yet to do, what we have yet to see, to learn, or to accomplish here in this life time that will then allow us to go, when it is our time, in peace, work completed, job done, accomplished, finished, a whole life, bookended with a call and a response, created in love and allowed to move forward in peace.  New Years is often a time of reflection.  We reflect on our past year, but we can also use it as a time to reflect on the whole of our lives.  What have been your life lessons?  What has been your life calling?  I think these are often different: some things we are called to accomplish, some things we are called to learn. It usually is not just one thing, but I think God does call each of us to certain tasks in our lives.  I also think there are specific tasks for each life - they are not always the same for every person.  They are not always obvious, not always clear, but each of us has a call, sometimes multiple calls, throughout our lives, reasons to be here. I think we have things we are supposed to learn and things we are supposed to do. Sometimes those reasons are things that carry us through a long life, sometimes it is something that we have to learn over and over again.  And sometimes we may learn and do things early on.

            Do you know what you are being called to do and called to learn in your life?  To help you think through this, let me give you some examples.  I think I’ve had several life lessons, or things that I have found myself called to do and learn.  One of my life lessons, or something that I feel I’ve been called throughout my life to learn has been what I would describe as the call to be an adult.  While others appear called to learn to surrender to God, to let go of their egos and allow God to be the driver, I find that every time I pray for God to tell me what to do, every time I ask God to make the decisions, I hear God calling me in turn in multiple ways and through many different forms, to take some risks and chances and make my own decisions, some of which will be good and others which won’t, which I will just have to learn from.  I hear God telling me to trust that God will be with me in those choices, but that God will not make them for me.  

I’ve had other life lessons as well.  Such as facing my judgments.  Every time I have judged someone, it comes back at me, and I find I have to deal with that, face that, in my own life.   

What are your life lessons?  They usually are not things that come easily, but they are deep calls to us to be the best and most whole we can be, for God, for others and for ourselves.

            As people reach the end of their lives, I am often asked the question, “Why am I still here?  Why haven’t I been able to die?  Has God forgotten me? I feel done here, so why hasn’t God taken me?” My answer is always the same.  “Perhaps there is something still left here for you to do.  Our job then is, with your time left, to figure out what that is.”  Often a person is not able to completely name what that is, what is left undone, what needs still to be done.  But I have walked now with many people at the end of their lives and I find it is very often an amazing time of coming to terms with their lives, of reconciling relationships, of making peace with what has been and with what is. 

            As I reflected on this, I thought of Thornton Wilder’s book, The Bridge of San Luis Rey (2014. New York: Harper Perennial).  The book begins with these words, “On Friday noon, July the 20th, 1714 the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.”  This collapse began an intense search into the “why” of that strange tragedy.  In particular, a monk was convinced that if we were to look at the five lives of those who died, we would see that each life was at a place where something had been concluded, that each life was “done” in some profound way, that God’s hand was in the bigger picture of the collapse because their callings, their purposes, their “jobs” here on earth were concluded and so it was simply time for God to call them home.  It is a question that many ponder.  Does everything happen for a reason?  Or at least, do we die at an appointed time?  Is there a bigger pattern and bigger picture that determines the very hour and even minute at which we will die?  Or does God call us home when our jobs here are done?  When we have finished our “tests” or our tasks and done what we are called to do, learned what we have been asked to learn?  In many ways, the story doesn’t actually answer the question about providence, destiny and fate.  In describing these lives and where they were at their final moment of death, the story causes the readers to explore more fully their own beliefs.  But it does so while leaving more questions than answers.  Towards the beginning of the book, Wilder says this about whether or not their fates, their lives and their deaths are determined, “Some say that we shall never know and that to the gods we are like the flies that the boys kill on a summer day, and some say, on the contrary, that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.”

But more to the point of this sermon, the book ends with these words, “But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten.  But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them.  Even memory is not necessary for love.  There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

Under all of our calls, under all of our life lessons, there is a bigger call, a deeper call.  It is to listen and follow God.  It is to follow Love, since that is what God is.  It is to bridge and reconcile and heal all of life with that Love. It is to learn to embody and be and act and live that love out. Thomas Merton put it this way, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone." 

Sometimes the distinction between loving God for our own happiness and loving God for God is a subtle difference. “God, help me to find what will make my life whole,” is really a question about me.  It is a question that invokes God, but it still is about me.  “God, how can I serve you?  Where would it be most helpful to you for me to be and what would serve you and your people and your world the most for me to do in that place?” is slightly, but profoundly different.  That difference, between turning to God to make our lives whole, and turning to God so that we might serve God and help God make the world whole, that is the difference between asking God to be with us, following us in our journeys, and following God. 

Simeon had seen love incarnate.  He had seen it, recognized it, allowed it into his heart. He followed God in his call.  He had been given a task, and that task was seeing, recognizing and proclaiming who Jesus was.  Anna, too, had that task.  Their proclamations were about love, were about Jesus.  And having finished their work, they were ready to depart.  They came for the one thing that would make each whole and they did it.  And as Simeon declared, he was then made ready to cross that bridge of love and to be dismissed in peace. 

How are you called to follow the way of Love?  How are you called to serve God with eyes of love rather than fear?  As we enter the New Year, my hope for us all would be to move more fully into a commitment to loving God and serving God with our whole beings.  It is the call, the meaning, the resolution that matters most.  Amen.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

If there is anything worthy of praise, Live in the Joy.


Zephaniah 3:14-20

Philippians 4:1-13

Luke 3:7-18





            The Advent candle that we light for today is the candle of joy.  As we read today’s passages, each one of them touches on the subject of joy in different ways.

            Starting with the passage from Zephaniah, we see a community of people that have experienced deepest darkness.  They have been taken from their homes and sent into exile, they have lost everything they valued and no longer have a home, a center, a temple.  It seems that God has abandoned them, left them, forsaken them.  And the reason God gives for this is that they have been acting unjustly.  They have oppressed their poor, their widows, those already in pain and grief they have injured more.  According to the prophet it is their own behavior that has led them to this place, this place of exile and alienation from God.  They are at rock bottom, and there is nothing more to lose, nothing more to grieve.  All is gone.

Still, it is from that bottom, from that place of despair and absolute loss that the light begins to shine.  There was nowhere to go but up, and when the Israelites hit that bottom, only then was there room to finally make the changes they needed to be able to return home, to reclaim their lives, to begin again and to live into joy.  Only then could they look at their own oppressive, hurtful actions.  Only from that place of themselves experiencing some of the pain they had inflicted on others could they begin to change. Only then could they really look and see the way that they held power and wealth at the expense of those who had little.  Only then could they choose to be faithful to God’s call for their lives, and in that faithfulness be answered by God with the promise of return to new life.  It is after the weeping, after the exile, after the horribleness, after the dark night that Israel is able to repent, to change and find herself then with the promise of restoration, light in the darkness, and new life.  That recommitment to God, that recommitment to living the Godly life, to answering the call for justice and compassion, that look towards what God is doing, towards the light that God is shining, only that will bring the joy that God promises, that will bring the joy of new life. 

Next we heard the passage today from Philippians.  This passage contains the direction, the admonition, to “rejoice in the Lord always.”  ALWAYS.  But committing ourselves to joy, fully, and at all times is frankly not an easy task.  When we reflect on our own lives we know this, but also as we reflect on the Biblical stories, like the one from Zephaniah we know this to be true.  We all go through struggles, we all go through times when we feel God’s absence, when it feels that there is little or nothing to rejoice about.  Our challenge is to remember in those times that joy is not the same thing as happiness.  Also, joy comes to us as grace from God.  It is a God-given gift.  We still have the responsibility to claim it or reject it, but it is a gift from God, not something we can create in ourselves or by ourselves.  My friend and colleague, pastor James Lumsden, said it this way, “I start to realize that while God continually offers me the gift of joy, I have to make room for it – if there’s no room in the inn of my heart for Christ’s blessings – then the Spirit of Jesus is going to be born someplace else and I’ll be the poorer for it.”  JOY takes practice, and it takes discipline.  It is a gift of grace – God offers us this joy, but unlike the “happiness” that comes with Christmas, Advent joy, the preparing for Christ’s coming joy, requires effort on our part, it requires us to make room for that joy.  And that takes work.  It does take looking at our lives, repenting our lives, striking out in a new direction and choosing to follow God’s call.  That makes room for joy.

Fr. Richard Rohr speaks of this commitment to joy in this way.  He says, “I have committed myself to JOY. I have come to realize that those who make space for JOY, those who prefer nothing to JOY, those who desire the utter reality of JOY, will most assuredly have it. We must not be afraid to announce it to refugees, slum dwellers, saddened prisoners, angry prophets: now and then we must even announce it to ourselves. For in the prison of now - in this cynical and sophisticated are - someone must believe in JOY.”

What does that mean practically?  It goes back both to the Zephaniah text, but also to the passage we read today from Luke.  We cannot claim joy, real joy, unless we are doing God’s work, are part of ushering in the kingdom to earth, are part of making the valleys rise and the hills lower.  We do this, as John tells us today, by giving our second coat to the one who has none, by sharing our food with those who do not have.  These aren’t really choices for Christians.  John says we MUST share our coat if we have more than one.  We MUST share our food if we have more than enough.  That is following our call, and that is how we claim the joy of God.  Sister Joan Chittister says, joy is  the deep-down awareness of what it means to live well, to live productively and to live righteously (that is for justice and compassion).  In other words, Joy is God- centered, not us centered.  Joy requires looking beyond ourselves, and looking beyond the moment of our own pain or struggles or thoughts, even beyond our own happiness.  Instead, Joy is centered in doing God’s will, doing God’s work, seeing beyond pain and death and into the awe and wonder and amazing gift that is God.

In Ben Mikaelsen's book, Touching Spirit Bear, a 15 year old juvenile delinquent named Cole has been given the opportunity to change his life, change his path, change his future by spending a year on an island by himself rather than the rest of his life in jail.  At first he is not ready to change, but he, too, hits “bottom,” like the Israelites, when he is attacked by a bear and faces the real possibility of his own death.  He then comes to a place where he really is ready to repent, to change, but there is much he has to learn in order to do that.  He goes back to the island after his physical recovery from the bear attack, accompanied by two men, Garvey and Edwin, Native American men who try to help him see his world differently.  They tell him that his first step that evening is to cook them dinner.  This is what follows.

“What would you guys do if I refused to cook anything?” Cole asked with a wry smile, as he sharpened a sapling for a hot-dog stick.

Garvey crouched beside the fire and reached his palms toward the flames to warm up.  “First, we’d get hungry.  Then we’d take you back to Minneapolis (and to jail).”

“What’s the big deal if I fix a hot dog or not?”  Cole asked.  “It’s not the end of the world.”

“The whole world is a hot dog,” Garvey said.

“What does that mean?”

“Go ahead, eat a hot dog and I’ll show you.”

Cole poked a raw hot dog onto the stick and held it over the fire.  He hadn’t realized how hungry he was, so he held the hot dog in the flames to cook faster.  All the while, Edwin and Garvey stared patiently.  When the hot dog was charred, Cole placed it on a bun.  “Now what?” he asked.

“Eat it.”

Cole squirted on a glob of ketchup, then devoured the hot dog.  Edwin and Garvey kept watching.  “There,” Cole said, finishing.  “I ate the hot dog.  Now what?”

“How was it?” Garvey asked.

Cole shrugged.  “Okay, I guess.  Why?”

“That hot dog did exactly what you asked it to do.  You asked it to feed you, and it fed you.  No more, no less.”  Garvey held out his hand.  “Pass me a hot dog.”

Cole pulled another one from the cooler and handed it across the flames.  Garvey took the hot dog carefully in his hands and examined it.  “This is a fine hot dog,” he said.  “The finest I’ve seen all day.”  Carefully he slid it onto the stick.  He started humming.  Soon Edwin hummed along.  For ten minutes they hummed the melody over and over.  All the while Garvey patiently turned the hot dog over the coals, careful not to burn it.  Finally, when the hot dog was a glistening, crispy brown, Garvey drew the stick back from the fire.  “The song we hummed is a song of friendship,” he explained.

“What are the words?” Cole asked.

“There are no words because each person makes up his own.  That’s how friendship is.”  As Garvey spoke, he rummaged through the cooler, pulling out salt and pepper, cheese, a plate, cups and a tomato.  He leaned a bun against a rock near the coals to let it toast lightly, then wrapped it around the hot dog.

“You going to eat that thing, or play with it all day?”  Cole asked.

Garvey smiled and kept working.  He cut the hot dog into three pieces on a plate and lightly shook on salt and pepper.  Next he cut slices of cheese and tomato and put them on top.  With a flair, he added a small circle of ketchup to each.  Last he poured three glasses of water.  He handed one to Cole and one to Edwin.  “This is a toast to friendship,” he said, raising his glass.

After taking a drink, he handed Cole and Edwin each a piece of the hot dog he had prepared.

“That’s your hot dog,” said Cole.

“Yes, it is, and I choose to share it,” said Garvey.  He began eating, savoring each bite.  “Eat slowly,” he said, raising his cup again to toast.  “Here’s to the future.”  After each bite, he raised his cup for a different toast.  “Here’s to good health.”  “Here’s to the sun and the rain.”  “Here’s to the earth and the sky.”

When everybody had finished eating, Garvey turned to Cole.  “How was my hot dog different from yours?”

Cole shrugged.  “You shared yours and acted like it was a big deal.”

Garvey nodded.  “Yes, it was a big deal.  It was a party.  It was a feast.  It was a sharing and a celebration.  All because that is what I made it.  Yours was simply food, because that is all you chose for it to be.  All of life is a hot dog.  Make of it what you will.  I suggest you make your time here on the island a celebration.”

Cole scuffed at the dirt with his shoe.  “What is there to celebrate?”  he asked.

“Discover yourself,” Edwin said.  “Celebrate being alive!” (2001: New York. Harper Collins. p145)



Celebrating being alive is choosing joy.  Looking at things not with eyes of every day cynicism or pain, but with eyes to see where God is moving, where God is acting, where God is calling us to be, that is choosing joy.  It sometimes takes hitting bottom, going into and through the darkness to come to the place where we are ready to repent enough to be open to God’s joy.  But when we do that, when we can take our experiences as launching places into new life, then we become ready to do the work of repentance and opening ourselves to God’s joy.  Thanks be to God that the gift of that joy, the grace of that joy is offered in every day and in every moment!  Amen.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Crying Wolf

       I think most of us do this at least occasionally. Most of us raise alarms about things that are minor, exaggerate problems that aren't really as big as we make them out to be, complain about things that really don't deserve that attention. There are exceptions: people who never exaggerate or make things bigger than they are, people who never overreact to situations, worrying that they will become something other than what is real. But most of us, especially when it comes to telling our own stories, do, at least on occasion, make them out to be bigger, more dangerous, more significant, more threatening, and more in need of help and support than is completely accurate.
        It's usually pretty easy to see this in other people.  And sometimes, as a result, this need to exaggerate can really backfire.  I have one person in my life whose exaggerations border on, and sometimes slip into, outright lies.  We all know this about her, we all see it.  As a result, very few people actually respond to her alarms of personal distress.  So, she ups the story even more the next time, trying to get the responses out of all of us that she is seeking: the care, the support, the concern, the expressions of love.  Instead of the care she wants, however, she is usually met with eye rolls, with attempts to "talk her down", and sometimes with even direct confrontations, "You know that isn't true.  Here is the real story."  I can't imagine that any of that feels good to her.  And yet she continues to weave these stories that bear no semblance to the truth in her quest for support, love and care.  She needs that, she needs it deeply enough that she manipulates the truth attempting to obtain it.  But this method is not working for her and she can't seem to get out of that rut of seeking it in this way.
        As I said, it is easy to see it in other people.
        Yet, this observation, this vision into how one person's exaggerations give her exactly the opposite of what she wants, this insight into the failure of the extended stories, does not seem to change or stop those around her from continuing to exaggerate from time to time as well.  I include myself in this.  I realize that while I can see that it is not helping this woman at all, that insight does not prevent me from occasionally exaggerating and seeking attention with a built-up story of my own.
          And that causes me to think.  Why is it so compelling that we seek attention in this way?  What is it that makes some people do this when others don't seem to have that same need?
         At the base, at the heart, this crying wolf is a call for attention.  It is a call for care and support and love.  At its root, the cry of "I've had it rough!" is one that includes, "Pay attention to me and tell me I'm loved!  See the pain I've felt, acknowledge it, and tell me that it is worth your care and your comfort!"  Most of us have insecurities, and one way to act that out is to cry for attention and care in this way.  Those who truly don't have a feeling of lack of love, those who feel they are loved enough, held enough, cared for enough, undoubtedly don't have the same impulse to gain attention and care by exaggerating stories.  Of course there are other ways people ask for this affirmation and attention too. Social media feeds this at some level by inviting people to share minute details from their day, by "counting" the number of friends one has, the number of likes one receives on posts, the number of comments made.  The whole "bridezilla" thing comes from a deep need for attention and care as well.
          Some people might say, "Well, this is the human condition: one of feeling lonely, alone, vulnerable, and needy for others to love us and care for us."  Maybe.  But I think it is absolutely true that it is the condition in white Western culture, where we value individuality to the point of forgetting our dependence on one another.  We live in our isolated boxes and we interact with the world only when we choose to do so, usually when we are feeling that need for connection.  But just as we don't really feel our thirst until our body is almost dehydrated, I'm not sure that we recognize our need for connection until we are drowning in our loneliness.  Additionally, we have so many rules about what is socially acceptable that it is hard to be genuine and therefore to connect with people who really see us, let alone who then can really love us for who we are.  Which brings me back to the exaggerations.
         When we exaggerate, when we tell stories that aren't true or even aren't completely true, when we "cry wolf" we will not receive care for what is real. We might succeed in capturing attention, but that attention is not for what we really have experienced.  At some level, I wonder if that doesn't add to the sense of loneliness and isolation.  We are receiving notice, but it isn't really for us, for what is real, for what we need.  It is like drinking salty or caffeinated drinks when we are thirsty: it only deepens the thirst.
         My commitment this year is to be authentic in all things.  To laugh more, cry more, reach out more, not with stories that are exaggerated, but with the honest, "I'm needing a friend right now.  Can you be with me" words.  But I have a secondary commitment as well.  And that is to try to hear underneath the exaggerated stories that come my way and to hear the cries for care and attention that they really are.  My commitment then is to try to offer that care more to those who would seek it in this way, not so much in response to the stories, but in response to their beings.  We all need care and love.  And I plan to give a little more to supporting those around me in special need.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Preparing

                                            Luke 3:1-6
Malachi 3:1-6

               I read this story recently reflecting on how we see our resources and how we use them:   

She asked him, 'How much are you selling the eggs for?'

The old seller replied, '$.25 an egg, Madam.'

She said to him, 'I will take 6 eggs for $1.25 or I will leave.'

The old seller replied, 'Come take them at the price you want. Maybe, this is a good beginning because I have not been able to sell even a single egg today.'

She took the eggs and walked away feeling she had won. She got into her fancy car and went to a posh restaurant with her friend. There, she and her friend, ordered whatever they liked. They ate a little and left a lot of what they ordered. Then she went to pay the bill. The bill costed her $100.00. She gave $110.00 and asked the owner of the restaurant to keep the change.

               I saw something very similar to this when I was a college student in Guatemala.  We visited an outdoor market where extremely poor people were selling the work of their own hands.  Some were so poor that they did not have shoes, and were wearing very old and worn clothing.  One of the young men who went down with us prided himself on his ability to haggle.  At one booth a woman was selling beautifully embroidered backpacks for $10 each.  My friend haggled her down to $1, and was so proud of his accomplishment.  But another member of our group went up to the woman and asked her how long it had taken her to embroider the bag.  It had been very carefully stitched and she admitted to us that it had taken the better part of a week.  A week’s worth of hard work for $1.  My friend said, “Your work is worth more.  I will pay the difference.” And she handed her a $20 bill.  The tears of gratitude in the woman’s face spoke volumes to both of us.

          But the young man travelling with us saw this interaction and was outraged.  He said, “you took away her dignity by not honoring the haggling!  If it was really a hardship to her, she would not have made the sale!”  My friend replied, “sometimes a dollar and the food that it can buy, no matter how little, is more needed and therefore a person is willing to lower their price to make the sale.  That is not about giving them dignity by honest haggling.  It is about giving them wanting to live another day.  It also does not give a person dignity to fail to honor the amount of work she put into making that bag.  You did not honor the care and artistry of that work.  No, we gave her her dignity back by honoring the great work she had done.”

               In a similar way, I have known of other people who willingly and intentionally buy items made by poorer people, sometimes paying high prices for them, even though the items are not needed.  In one such case a child saw his father giving even more than was asked for something cheaply sold at an outdoor market.  The child asked why?  To which the father replied, "It is a charity wrapped with dignity, my child.”

               Those moments where vision is bigger than our pocket books, where care and compassion are bigger than our fear of not having enough for ourselves, where a choice to honor the work of another is bigger than our need to have a good deal: those are moments that reflect the promise stated today in the book of Luke, “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.” 

         These small acts of care and compassion: these are responses to the invitation we have from God  to be part of ushering in this new era, this new hope, this new possibility.  These are steps towards bringing the mountains down and filling the valleys.  They are steps towards an even-ing of the plains, evening of the resources, a leveling out of the abundance. 

               Someone said recently, “The powerful are doing what they want.  And the poor are suffering what they must.”  This is not a new thing, as our scriptures show us.  This is something that goes on in every age.  The promise of Advent, the promise of today’s scripture lessons is that God calls us to something different and is about creating that different thing.  The hard part of this is that we are part of those rich folk, just by having places to live, the choice to eat out at restaurants, houses filled with things we don’t “need” but simply want, we are part of the group of mountains that will be brought lower.  I know that’s not a comfortable idea, but I know it pains God to see us spend $100 on a meal when there are children starving to death who could eat for a week on that money that we’ve spent on ourselves.  That is the bad news: in this new kingdom that God is ushering in, we will not have the wealth and riches we have now. 

But the Good News for us is that we are invited to be part of that new creation, invited to be part of ushering in something different for ourselves, for our communities and for the world.

               And that is what is most important here.  This isn’t really about individuals. While we each are called into action, this image of hills and valleys and mountains is big because it is meant to be.  The original concepts of sin and wrongs was not individual but corporate.  And these images that are big: mountains, valleys, are so for a purpose.  Richard Rohr said it like this, “(The Advent scriptures)… focus… on freeing people from religious, political, social, and economic oppression (i.e., what Pope John Paul II called "structural sin" and "institutional evil"). It goes beyond just trying to free individuals from their own particular "naughty behaviors," which is what sin now seems to mean to most people in our individualistic culture. Structural sin is accepted as good and necessary on the corporate or national level. Large organizations--including the Church--and governments get away with and are even applauded for killing (war), greed, vanity, pride, and ambition. Yet individuals are condemned for committing these same sins. Such a convenient split will never create great people, nations, or religions.”  And it is exactly what is being confronted by passages such as what we read today.

             There are signs of hope, both at an individual level and at a bigger level. I think about the work of organizations such as Contra Costa Interfaith Housing.  They provide an increasing amount of housing for people who would otherwise slip through the cracks.  Some of their housing is for families on the economic edge, some of it is for people with mental or physical disabilities, also living on the edge, and some is for individuals who have simply fallen through the cracks: who did not have the support, the network when things went bad for them, to stand on their own.  I’m more aware of this than ever since moving back here to CA. When we first moved back here, the kids and I were without a “home”, without a steady place to live, for several months.  I had work: but in this area housing costs are so high that I was unable to rent a three bedroom apartment anywhere out here (and believe me, we tried!).  We had a very hard time affording a home to buy,  and were only able to finally get into housing by first, buying a total fixer-upper, but second, with the help both of the church and of my parents.  In those few months where we were struggling to find housing, we flipped around from friend’s couch to family couch.  Without a home address I was unable to register my kids for school. Without a home address I was unable to get a California driver's license.  Without a home address I couldn't even obtain a library card, or a grocery discount card.  Without the California driver's license, other doors were closed to me as well.  I couldn't get anything notarized, I couldn't set up a bank account, I couldn't get local checks.  In each of those cases I not only had to give an address, but had to provide "proof of residency", something I simply could not provide.  There was no address to forward my mail to. There was no place to receive my bills.  Without "free wifi" places like Starbucks, I really would have struggled to do basic things like paying bills and staying in touch with those who could help us along the way. Without a cell phone I really would have been sunk in terms of how to connect with the resources that would help us to get "un"-homeless.  Without my car...well, there is just nothing we would have been able to do.

Financially, moving across the country, trying to get into housing, dealing with still having a house to sell in Ohio - none of that would have been possible without, again, the safety net and resources of other people: the financial help of my extended family and the church, for example. The fact that I had a decently paying job also made a huge difference.   And yet even with that job, I needed help financially.  I learned it is extremely expensive to be homeless, and to move, and to set up in a new place.  If something had happened to my parents during that time?  All of us would have been in serious trouble.   This is the reality of people we call “homeless”.  These are folk, most of the time, who simply do not have the safety net that we had.  Perhaps they also don’t have the training and education that allows them to get a better paying job.  But even if they did have that, I can tell you from my own experience, it just would not be enough.

Organizations like CCIH provide that safety network, that support so that families and individuals do not have to fall through the cracks.  They are striving, in a small way, to help bring the mountains down and to raise the valleys up: it is something that you participate in, it is a way of ushering in the new era, of doing “advent”, of following God’s call.

               Bonhoeffer said,  “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself…. There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross.”  And then, “Who will celebrate Christmas correctly?  Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger”

               Today we light the candle of peace.  And we are reminded that there is no peace where there is injustice, where there is inequity, where there is pain and suffering.  And as people of faith, we are called to be part of ushering that in.  At Advent we look for that way towards peace, towards justice, towards a raising of the valleys and a bringing of the mountains low.  We look for God’s movement in this, and we look for the ways in which God calls us to participate in ushering this in as well.  It is an amazing gift to be part of this work.  It is a celebration of God-with-us when we can share in this glorious hope for a world in which all have enough and no one is in need.  Thanks be to God that God-with-us is a reality not only 2000 years ago, but today as well as we see God in each other, as we experience God through our own work, as we live faithful and loving lives.  Amen.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Friending, Unfriending, the complexities of relationships...

         I've been thinking about friends and relationships and vulnerability lately, in particular as we've heard back from folk we've invited to our wedding.  Several wonderful, deeply joyous "yesses" have come in from people we didn't expect to come (because of distance and therefore the cost of getting out here) but who have decided to make the trip for our special day. Those have been truly uplifting, affirming, deeply meaningful and very exciting for us.
         On the other hand, there have also been a handful of folk we really hoped would come, people we have loved and do love dearly who have responded with "no".  Some of those have been very painful for David, or for me, or in some cases for both of us.  We have, whether right or wrong, taken those "nos" as an indication that we are not valued to the same depth with which we value the other, and that has hurt. With a couple of folk, it has actually caused me to pause, consider the nature of our friendships, and wonder if I needed to take another distancing step... "unfriend" from Facebook, for example; or at least move the friend into the "acquaintance" category of those who see less of my posts, and those whose posts I no longer see regularly.  Of course in many ways that is a very childish response on my part.  I see it as such.  I know that if I cared less, I would react with less extremism, and that the fact I even consider a distancing act is a sign of how much I really do care. Therefore any such action on my part is more likely to hurt me than the other person anyway. I recognize the impulse for what it is: a desire to strike out at someone who has hurt me. And I see that the one who would ultimately be hurt by that striking out is myself. So I let my revenge fantasies fly for a few minutes, and then I breathe, take a step back, acknowledge the pain for a moment and then make the decision to behave better.
          Still, I'm left with the realization that inviting people to something this important to us is an act of deep vulnerability.  It is so deeply vulnerable that I have thought, more than once, that we probably just should have eloped and avoided the entire big production.  And yet I know that if we had made that choice, other people would be hurt instead.  Also, the decision to celebrate what has been five years in the coming is an opportunity to spend time with folk we don't regularly get to see, and to honor that our relationship does not exist in a bubble.  I believe in the collective connections of our relationships and our community.  We would not be where we are without the family and friends that have surrounded and supported us, that continue (in most cases) to surround and support us.  And so, the wedding is a celebration not only of our coming together, but for me, of all the relationships that have made ours a possibility and a blossoming reality.
          I know some of you will say that our reaction to the "nos" are just over-sensitivity on our parts. So let me just clarify, that not every "no" produces this response in us.  It is just a few very specific folk with specific ways of saying "no" that are causing the pain.  At the same time, there is no doubt that both David and I carry some scars that make us much more likely to jump into feeling rejected than might be warranted.  Still, acts of vulnerability, such as inviting loved ones to a wedding, are risky because they do sometimes bring clarity about where people stand and how deeply people value their relationships to you.  Other times the assumptions we make based on peoples' behavior are inaccurate. But regardless, I think events like this can change relationships, either by making clear what they really are, or by creating assumptions about what others feel that have consequences.  In the bravest folk, perhaps these hurts are invitations for deeper conversations about what a person values and how deeply a person cares about another.  But after the initial hurt, it is hard to take that next step into even greater risk.
         The point?  Relationships are hard.  They are complex.  They are, by nature, risky; and the choice to be in relationships creates a vulnerability that sometimes leaves us wounded.  I wish it were otherwise. I know I have done my share of wounding as well as being hurt.  And for that I'm sorry.  But still I choose to step into that vulnerability. I choose it and pray for the grace of gratitude and joy in the face of the unexpected depths and gifts; as well as for healing and wisdom in the face of the disappointments.