Sunday, November 11, 2018

Stewardship Once Again

                                        Mark 12:38-44

Timmy didn’t want to put his money in the offering plate Sunday morning, so his mother decided to use some hurried creative reasoning with him.

“You don’t want that money, honey,” she whispered in his ear. “Quick! Drop it in the plate. It’s tainted!”

Horrified, the little boy obeyed.

After a few seconds he whispered, “But, mommy, why was the money tainted? Was it dirty?

“Oh, no dear,” she replied. “It’s not really dirty. It just ‘taint yours, and it ‘taint mine,” she replied. “It’s God’s.”

               Today is Stewardship Sunday, probably everyone’s least favorite Sunday of the year.  And I want to let you in on a secret: it’s most pastors’ least favorite Sunday of the year too.  Stewardship tends to  be the one Sunday of the year when we talk about money.  We are uneasy talking about money, it feels like a taboo subject in many ways and each year we have to have this uncomfortable conversation.  But, as Rev. Michael Piazza points out, stewardship really should be a year round conversation.  As he puts it,  “(The real issues is)…how we change the culture. Because the church has talked about money only when we wanted some, we have abandoned our greater responsibility to shape the value system of a culture in which people are systematically and relentlessly metamorphosized from Human Ones into consummate consumers.”

 He continues, “We pious types can rant and rave about greed, and pollution, and poverty, and income inequality, and all the other evils that arise from "the love of money," but what we really need to do is repent. The church has treated money the same way we, for decades, have treated sex. We never talked about (it) unless we were ranting against it is some form, and we never talk about money unless we want some of it. In both these areas, the church has utterly failed to inspire transforming values.  …money… (is a) powerful gift.. from God, and the church should have taught us how to be better stewards of (that gift). … people come wanting to know how to raise more money. Frankly, fundraising is easy compared to teaching society how to be better stewards of all the gifts that come from God.   

“Another reason for our impotency around this issue is the third topic the church avoids: death. Oh, we talk plenty about resurrection, but we seldom have the courage to remind us that we all are going to die. If we lack a powerful sense of our own mortality, we can pretend that we earned what we have and that it is ours to keep. It isn't. You ARE going to die and leave it all behind. That is why it is called ‘stewardship.’”

               His points are really good ones: the money that we have been entrusted with is exactly that: money that we have been entrusted with.  We haven’t earned it.  I want to say that again: we haven’t earned it.  We may have worked for it, but we know that the amounts people are paid have very little to do with how hard they work.  For example, some of the hardest workers in our culture are wait staff.  They are also some of the least paid.  In contrast, most of our wealthiest people have inherited at least a good portion of their wealth, and we know they play much harder than they work.  We have different amounts of wealth, not because some are better people and certainly not because God loves those folk more or cares for them more.  But we all have at our disposal some resources, and no matter how we’ve come by them, they aren’t ours.  They are Gods, and we’ve been entrusted with our wealth to use for the work of God and God’s people in this world. 

So, with that information, what are we really called to do with our resources?  Well, as I’ve said before and will no doubt say again, the way we spend our time, money and talents is a clear indication of what we value.   So I invite you to think for a minute about what you value, truly and deeply.  If it is God, then the question remains, what is the best use of your resources?  What is the best way to serve God with those resources?  I realize that there are many areas that each of us care about.  Housing, the hungry, immigrants, children, refugees, racism, LGBTQ+ rights, the environment… there are many, many ways that we help God’s creation and that we serve God.  Church is only one of those and I recognize that.  While we do a great deal of mission through this church and in this church, sharing your resources here is only one way in which we act as stewards of God’s church.

At the same time, to be real and honest about what that means in this place: our budget this last year was about $285,000. With that money we provide worship, education, care for one another, counseling for some, and give a great deal to mission both through our time, talents and our money.  We have about 100 members.  What that works out to is about $2850 per member per year.  Or, $240 per month per person, not per family.  Not everyone can pay that, so that means some are paying significantly more.  Our Old Testament encourages giving (to all the causes you give to) by a tithe of 10% of your income: that’s gross, not net, by the way.  The New Testament goes further, and suggests that if we are giving out of our abundance rather than to the point at which we feel it, we are missing the point of giving.  But I give you these numbers in the hope that it helps us all to be realistic about what it costs to keep our programs and our church community the way it has been.  I also give you these numbers because I think it is easy sometimes to not realize the cost of what we do in this place. 

All that being said, my intention this morning and every Stewardship Sunday is not to guilt trip folk into giving more. 

As Michael Piazza said, giving, stewardship, should be a way of life.  It is not about just paying those who deserve to be paid, or paying your dues, or about being giving people.  It isn’t about trying to assuage guilt, or it shouldn’t be.  It is about remembering, at all times and in all things that all we have is not “ours” at all.  And that out of gratitude for what we have been entrusted with, we are called to use those resources for the good of God and God’s people.  But that is a pretty foreign mindset in this culture.  When I read financial pages, they all encourage saving: but saving for what?  They encourage saving for our future, for retirement, for our children’s education.  They encourage delaying gratification of “now” in exchange for gratification later.  Never have I read a financial site that encourages generosity of giving, that acknowledges that with privilege comes responsibility, and that with resources comes the gift of being able to contribute to the world in a real and meaningful way.

Changing our mindset, converting our thinking from “this is mine and if I give any of it away it is because I am being generous” into “this is God’s and I’ve been entrusted to use this money, this talent, and this gift for the highest good for all people,” is not an easy thing to do in a culture that says otherwise.  I sometimes wonder, actually, if so many of our problems as a society don’t stem from this basic confusion over what is really ours.  What is yours and really yours is only that which you take with you when you die.  And that does not include any of the resources of this world at all.  So what do we want to leave behind?  Do we want to die known as successful by cultural standards, having raised the bar of what it meant to be wealthy, that we collected so much of the world’s resources to ourselves?  Or do we want to leave behind a legacy of caring for others, making the world better, contributing what we have for the good of the world?   How would we want our loved ones to describe us after we have passed on?  Who do you want to be in the world?

But perhaps even more, a deeper question to ask ourselves, who do we want God to see us as?  I’ve asked you at times to think of what gifts God has given you: what are your talents, what are the things God has blessed you with that God gave you to use for the good of God’s people and God’s creation?  But now I’m asking you, if God were to write a sentence describing who you are, what would you want that sentence to be?  What would you want God to say about how you have been and who you are in the world?  Do those desires match your actions?  Do they match how you walk and how you act and how you move on this planet?  What could you do to be more the person God calls you to be?  What could you do to be more the person you want God to see you being?  What is the best way for you to serve God in this world?

When 9/11 happened, money came pouring in to the Red Cross in order to help.  Apparently, they received a total of about $547 Million in response.  But at first, Red Cross put all the money into their general fund and weren’t going to designate that money for the purpose of helping the 9/11 survivors.  The public outrage at this decision, however, forced the Red Cross to change its mind and they decided that every penny given towards that cause would go towards that cause.

In the same way, perhaps, God calls us to use the money, talents, time and resources with which we have been entrusted to serve and help God’s creation.  Not easy, and God doesn’t take away in the same way that those who donated to the Red Cross could take back their resources.  But God is putting a sacred trust in us and calling us to live that out.

As I wrote this sermon I found myself thinking about J.K. Rowling, a woman who was hugely successful not only because she wrote wonderful books but because she intentionally gave up being a billionaire by giving so much of her wealth to charity especially to the Multiple Sclerosis society and to a group called “Volant” that supports women, children and young people at risk in Scotland.  She has chosen to use her resources in service to other people.  That is a legacy worth leaving behind.

None of this is just about money.  Caryl Aukerman and her husband felt called to work with the very poor in Albania.  They took with them into Albania their three young children, who were sad because in living in such poverty, they found they could not continue to do the things that they loved the most: art, music, and dance, especially.  They felt cheated and the Aukerman’s began to be concerned that they were depriving their children of the opportunity to live into and use the talents that God had given them.  As they found ways to help their children still use those talents, they discovered that the neighboring kids also yearned for these kinds of experiences.  So they began classes out of their homes: they found a way to not only teach their own kids, to allow their own kids to live into their gifts, but to share those gifts with other children as they taught art, music and dance at home.  The children they served were still poor, and their work was still focused mostly on creating ways for these families to have enough.  But they also brought the arts alive into this community and enriched the neighborhood children far beyond the meeting of basic needs.  There are things all of us can do with the gifts God has given us.  It may take time to figure out how to use those gifts, but they are there to be shared, they are entrusted to you to be used for the good of all.

Studies show that most people feel they would be fine if they only had twice what they currently have.  It doesn’t actually matter how much a person has: even billionaires feel that they would be fine if they only had twice what they have now.  Humans “needs” seem to expand with what we have.  At the same time, those studies also show that having more does not equal being happier.  We think we will feel more content, more at peace, more okay when we have more.  But the reality is something else.  What DOES increase happiness is helping other people, and feeling gratitude.  These can make a huge difference in how we feel in the world.  So I wonder if, instead of feeling poor and focusing on getting more for ourselves, we focus on the gratitude of what we have and explore how we can give more to those around us.  Again, I’m not just thinking monetarily.  I’m also thinking in terms of our time, our talents, and our other our resources.

Stewardship is about all of these things.  But the bottom line is that stewardship is actually about your well-being, your wholeness.  We are happier, we are more whole, we are more connected to God when we can remember that we are stewards of what we have and that we are called to use God’s resources to help those around us who have little, who have less, who are in need.  We will feel more content and more full when we are generous with what is not even ours to begin with.  Stewardship is an invitation to remember that all we have and are come from God, are God’s and will return to God in the end.  Thanks be to God. 


The church council met to discuss the pastor’s compensation package for the coming year. After the meeting the chair of council told the pastor: “We are very sorry, Pastor, but we decided that we cannot give you a raise next year.”

“But you must give me a raise,” said the pastor. “I am but a poor preacher!”

“l know,” the council chair said. “We hear you every Sunday.”

Thursday, November 8, 2018

All Saint's Day: Life and Death

Ezek. 37:1-14

John 11:1-45

The old time pastor was galloping down the road, rushing to get to church on time. Suddenly his horse stumbled and pitched him to the ground.  In the dirt with a broken leg, the pastor called out, “All you saints in Heaven, help me get up on my horse!”

Then, with superhuman effort, he leaped onto the horse’s back and fell off the other side.

Once again on the ground, he called to Heaven, “All right, just half of you this time!”

“Jesus wept.”  The shortest verse in the Bible.  “Jesus wept.”  What does it mean to you that Jesus wept?  What do you think about Jesus weeping?  

Today we celebrate All Saints Day, and while by “all saints,” we include ourselves (because “the saints” are all of those who are communing with God both during and after life), it tends to be a day when we honor, remember, celebrate, and grieve those who have gone on before us. We remember our loved ones who’ve died.  We celebrate the lives they led, and we remember that death is a temporary physical separation from those we’ve loved.  Death is a change in our relationship from one which is material, to one which is purely spiritual.  But while All Saints Day is a day to remember and celebrate, it is also appropriate that those memories would bring up some grief for us as well.  And All Saints Day is a day to honor those feelings as well, to remember that while we can rejoice in lives well lived, while we can celebrate the end of pain, while we can carry forward the legacies of those who led the way forward for us, while we can honor those who’ve passed by leading the best possible lives forward that we can, none the less, there is grief involved for each of us when a relationship changes from one of physical interaction to being simply one of remembering, celebrating, or speaking to our loved ones that have passed without tangible reassurance or promise of an answer.  That grief is a good thing.  It is a sign of the depth of the love we have for the other.  And it is a God-given experience: an opportunity to express the changes that happen within and without when someone we love has passed.

Sometimes people struggle to accept the grief they feel, thinking that in comparison to others, the loss they are experiencing is minor.  Or they feel they shouldn’t grieve as long as they do. Or we feel that we should just be thankful for what we do have and not mourn what we have lost.  I cannot tell you how often people say to me, “I shouldn’t feel this way.  I’ve been so lucky…”  But grieving is not unfaithful.  It is a recognition that we have loved and loved deeply.

“Kierkegaard said, ‘the most painful state of being is remembering the future… particularly the one you can never have.’ ”   I want to say that again, “The most painful state of being is remembering the future…particularly the one you can never have.”  In other words, the deepest grief comes when we realize that the future we envisioned for ourselves, for example, with another person, is no longer a possibility. 

Grief is an invitation to work that through.  When we are able to do that, then we can live lives that honor and celebrate those who have gone on before us.  When we try to stuff the grief, that is when we get into trouble.   

Many years ago, a parishioner died whose husband had spent the last thirty years caring for her.  It was his purpose and his focus in his life to care for her.  And when she died, her husband was left not only with the grief of losing his wife, but also with the feeling of having lost his purpose and his meaning in life.  He could not deal with the pain and he avoided

it by jumping into another relationship almost immediately, interestingly with someone who also needed a great deal of care.  He was remarried within six months of his wife’s death.  But while that whirl-wind romance put off his feelings of grief for awhile, it could not keep them away in the long run.  The result was that he then had to do his grieving within the context of a new marriage.  His new wife, not understanding grief, felt hurt by his pain over his wife who had passed.  She felt that he hadn’t let go or that he didn’t really love his new wife enough.  It made their relationship very difficult as he struggled both to live within his new relationship and to honor his old relationship through the honest and natural process of grieving.  In addition, the woman whom he married, as I mentioned, was also extremely needy and probably not someone he would ever have married had he taken the time to heal from his last relationship.  He jumped in to this relationship, he ran away from his grief into this relationship, not making the best choice for the long term.

That’s not to say that grief has to look the same for everyone or that there is one right way to grieve or even a right time line.  There isn’t one right way and grief looks different for everyone.  While grief specialist Kubler-Ross identifies as normal parts of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance, there is no prescribed order to these feelings and many experience them in different amounts, at different times, and in different ways, sometimes experiencing each of these stages multiple times and again in multiple ways, other times skipping one or more of these stages altogether.  Other grief specialists add “pain and guilt” into their lists of normal feelings associated with grief saying that even in cases in which a person could have done nothing differently, we feel guilty about things not done, about things that might have been done, things that should have been said.  But however one experiences grief, grief is a natural, normal process in life that we can’t avoid as human beings, as real honest people.

I remember a conversation I witnessed in which a parent was trying to protect their child from grief, keeping the loss of their grandmother from the child, not allowing the child to attend the memorial service, telling others not to mention the grandmother around the child, removing the child from any situation in which the grandmother’s name might be mentioned.  The mother thought she was doing what was best for her daughter.  But the daughter in her wisdom, as she grew a little older, finally told her mother, “I have to go through this. By forbidding me to grieve, you are taking away from me something that is extremely important and beautiful.  Please don’t take my grief away from me.”  Unlike her family, she understood the deeper truth that not going through the pain of grief was in some way denying her something important.  There is a gift in that grief.  There is a gift that is hard to see when we are in the midst of deep pain.  But the gift of grief is that it leaves us open and able to see things as they really are.  It leaves us able to move on, to heal, and to be ready for what God will bring in the future.  For Christians, the gift in the celebration of the Saints who have gone on before us is that we are invited once again into a deeper relationship with God, for God is with us in our grief, grieving with us as well.  And God is the God of resurrections, bringing new life out of every loss.  But again, we have to grieve, have to go through the death of the past in order to be open to the new life that God brings.

And that brings us back to today’s verse, “Jesus wept.”  It can feel difficult to understand this verse at some level because Jesus kept saying to all those around him both before and after Lazarus had died, that Lazarus would live.  Jesus knew that Lazarus was not really gone forever.  In light of that, what does it mean that before he raised Lazarus from the dead, that he wept for him?  How could his grief have been sincere when he knew his loss was not long lasting or real?

I belief Jesus’ grief was real.  I think that Jesus realized, and reminds us through his grief, that new life never looks the same as old life.  A resurrected person doesn’t look the same or act the same as a person who has never died.  We are changed by the losses we experience, the deaths we live through.  Roberta Bondi sums it up well in her book “Memories of God” with these words, “Even Jesus was resurrected with his wounds.”  Jesus, too, was not the same after his resurrection and he knew that Lazarus, too, would not be the same.  He grieved the Lazarus that died because the Lazarus who was raised would not be the same.  He would be different, he would be changed by his experience of death.

The reality is that it is hard for us to look at those wounds, the wounds of life, the wounds that have forced us into lives different from what we imagined.  It is hard to accept that even though new life has come, the old life is gone, really gone.  But it is.  Lazarus died.  He truly and actually died.  And while Jesus was able to bring new life to Lazarus, he first had to grieve for the life that had died, the life that was, the life that ended.  That, to me, is the message in that one very important Biblical passage, “Jesus wept.”  Jesus knows that we, too, must grieve for what was, grieve for what has past, for what is over, for what is done.  It is only through grieving and letting go of the past that we can really truly be open to the wonders of the present, to the gifts of the now, to seeing the new life around us.

Those two simple words, “Jesus wept” give us permission to not just live in the Easter celebration of new life, but to grieve the death that preceded it as well.  “Jesus wept” gives us permission to recognize that every change includes grief, and that it is okay to feel that even as we look towards new life.  Jesus wept.  And we can, too.

I want to end by reading you a poem by Washington Irving:

There is a sacredness in tears.

They are not the mark of weakness, but of power.

They speak more eloquently than 10,000 tongues.

They are the messengers of overwhelming grief,

of deep contrition and of unspeakable love.

            So today, I would like to invite you to come forward and put your pictures on the tables that are set up and name the Saints that have meant something to you.  If you would like, tell one good thing about that person.  If you did not bring a picture or a momento, I invite you still to come forward and say the name of someone whom you are remembering this day.  For this is our celebration of the Saints: all those who have blessed our lives, and continue to do so with our memories and celebrations of their lives.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Reformation and the World We Now Live In

Job 42:1-17

Mark 10:46-52

Today is Reformation Sunday, the day when we celebrate that an injustice that was going on in the Catholic church at the time was confronted with depth, commitment and a promise that if the Catholic church would not or could not change, that people would step out of it and find another way to be Church in the world.  And while I had an entire sermon planned around this, I feel that the world, once more, has stepped in and needs to take first focus.  So yes, we are going to talk about what it is to be Protestants, reformed people, but we will be doing it today in the context of what is happening in our country.

You know what began the Protestant Reformation.  Martin Luther, a Catholic monk, was incensed at the corruption in the leadership of the Catholic church, a corruption that led to taking advantage of the poorest and most vulnerable in the church communities.  Priests “sold” indulgences, which meant that they were selling “get out of purgatory and hell” cards.  You had to have money to be “saved” in this model, and you had to be giving it to the church.  There were other problems as well, but of the 95 theses, the injustice of selling heaven was a theme that came up again and again, the cruelty of the church towards the poor was a central motif.  Martin Luther was not trying to leave the church, he was trying to change it.  But the selling of indulgences was a lucrative business, and so those in charge at the time were not really interested in the major overhauls Martin Luther was suggesting.  As a result, the protestant church was formed.  Note the name “protestant.” 

Diana Butler Bass says, “Luther and his associates were protesters rather than reformers—they stood up against the religious conventions of the day, arguing on behalf of those suffering under religious, social, and economic oppression. …In the United States, Protestantism has often been torn between the impulse to protest (the abolition movement, women’s rights movements, the Civil Rights movement) and the complacency of content by virtue of being the majority religion. After all, if you are the largest religious group in society—if you shape the culture—what do you protest?  Yourself?”

And yet, that is what we are being called to do again.  The racism, the hatred, the white, “our way is the only way”  and “our faith is the only faith” attitudes are leading to a violence in our country against anything that is other than mainstream, white, Christian.  And these attitudes are not only tearing our country apart, are not only destroying lives, are not only causing irreconcilable divisions, but are, absolutely, unchristian in every possible way.  Jesus never advocated violence. I want to be clear about this.  He never advocated or condoned or supported violence, even as self-defense. When his disciples defended him against the guard trying to arrest him, he healed the guard and told his disciples this was not the way.  He also said, “you’ve heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, do not resist an evil doer.  If someone slaps your right cheek, turn to them the other cheek as well.”  He never harmed another person and he called us to behave in the same way.  There is no excuse, none for shooting people in a school or a synagogue or on the street.  And the hatred and racism and anti-every-other-belief system, and the sexism and heterosexism that we see being demonstrated more and more each day has to stop.  Doing it in the name of God just deepens the evil.  We are protestants for a reason.  And we are, frankly, called to continue to be protestants, “protest-ants.”  We are called to show a different way, to continue to live a radical way, and to stand up for those who do not have the power or authority that we do.   

Easy to say.  Hard to do.

We, like the Catholic church of 500 years ago, can become stuck.  Despite our catch phrase of “reformed and always reforming,” it is easy for protestant churches to become comfortable country clubs where what goes on in the world outside is not about us.  We gather together to be friends without recognizing that our call to be together is so that we are then empowered to do the work of Christ in the world: confronting injustice, healing the broken, loving the unlovable, empowering the unempowered, and seeing everyone as our brother and sister, who should have the same luxuries, experiences, gifts and lifestyles that we want and claim for ourselves.

We aren’t called to be comfortable.  Our scriptures for today really point that out.

Change is hard.  Standing up against injustice is hard. But frankly, I believe very deeply that a lot of the exodus we see from our churches has to do with the fact that we claim to follow a God who calls us to justice and action, and yet most of us do not act.  We are comfortable being reminded that God loves us.  We do not feel the need to take the next step into, “and therefore we will serve God by serving, loving and caring for all of God’s people.”  That hypocrisy, I believe in my soul, is the major cause of people leaving the church.  And if we cannot step forward into being the church in a real way in the world, then Protestants too will be split in half, just as the catholic church was so long ago.

God calls all of us to continue to move forward.  Therefore God’s answer to Job, and Jesus’ answer to Bartimaeus did not just leave them where they were or call them to a life of ease and comfort.  Even as God restored Job’s fortunes, God still did not leave Job comfortable. 

Bartimaeus, too, was not allowed to just celebrate his new sight.  He was called to radical change as well.  He answered that call by following Jesus after he gained his sight.

I want to point out, it is not enough to comfort the afflicted.  We are called to live lives and create a world that prevents situations like the Pittsburgh shooting from taking place at all.  Comfort is not enough.  We are called to create a world in which there is justice and people have what they need.  Carl Denis wrote a poem called Editing Job that I think describes the reality of our world right now well.  I am just going to post a piece of it here.  He wrote:

Let Job be allowed to complain

About his treatment as long as he wants to,

For months, for decades,

And in this way secure his place forever

In the hearts of all who believe

That suffering shouldn't be silent,

That grievances ought to be aired completely,

Whether heard or not.

As for the end, if it's meant to suggest

That patience will be rewarded, I'd cut it too.

Or else I suggest at least adding a passage

Where God, after replenishing Job's possessions,

Comes to the tent where the man sits grieving

To ask his pardon. How foolish of majesty

To have assumed that Job's new family,

New wife and children and servants,

Would be an ample substitute for the old.


            The reality is that when we try to offer comfort after the damage is done, it is just not enough. Those lives that died will never be replaced.  The families will never be whole again.  We can’t give them back that sense of a safe place of worship. We must be "protest"-ants still, actively working to change a world in which violence, hate, and fear are the new norm; where that kind of anger that cannot see the other person as a human being, as a brother or sister has become the way of life.  We have to start now, and we have to start today by loving much more deeply, much more fully; by standing up for those who are without voice; by speaking with clarity and demonstrating with our lives behavior that is about love rather than hate, hope rather than fear, and compassion rather than anger.  It starts with us.  And it has to begin today.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Listening and Communication, Part II

       After I had written my blog on listening and communication, I had a very interesting experience.  Let me back up and say that I wrote the blog post on listening while I was on study leave.  I couldn't post it: I didn't have internet access so waited to publish it until I was solidly home.  But I wrote the post while I was gone at the CREDO conference.  CREDO is an amazing and wonderful conference that is given to Presbyterian Pastors (you go by invitation only) that focuses on renewal, education, intense self-reflection and creating a future plan in 5 major areas: physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, and vocational health.  Incredibly helpful, especially if there are areas you avoid or that make you uneasy.  They gave a great deal of information, but also allowed time for processing with a small group and on your own in order to look at what ways the information applied to us personally, and what we would then need to do with the information we were gathering.  At the end of the week, we were expected to have some plans for stepping forward with all the information.  As I was gathered with my small group in order to share those plans, I found myself laying out my ideas in these five areas but stating that there was absolutely no connection between any of them.  And that's when the conference took a complete 180 degree turn for me. My small group all stared at me like I was insane, and then calmly pointed out that not only was there a very clear unifying theme throughout all five of my areas, but that I'd even been using the same word over and over in each area to describe where I was and what needed to be addressed.  The group reflected back to me clarity, they challenged and deepened my thinking, they brought my scattered thoughts together into a single forward direction.
          And as I sat with this information, I had the uneasy revelation that it was not just that there had been over the last few years an increasing number of times when I have felt unheard by the people around me; it was, more seriously and more harmfully true, that I had been and still was unable to hear myself.  And THAT realization felt like a strong punch in the nose.
           I've always felt good about the fact that I am a self-reflective person.  I own my sh...  I easily apologize.  I am more than willing to do the work to figure out which pieces of a problem are my own, and which pieces I don't need to claim.  I am not afraid to ask for help with that self-reflection and to get other people's insights into what is really happening both within and without. When confronted, I take seriously what the other is saying to me and am able to be okay with owning my mistakes and the areas in which I still need growth and change. That is a core piece of my identity: I am self-reflective and willing to do the work of changing. And so, to realize that I had spent a week (and frankly, years before the week) working on specific issues and to have totally and completely missed what was actually at the base, at the root of what I was doing... well, it was a shock, to say the least.
          And it brought me back to the issue of listening.  Meditation is not just about listening to God (or the Divine or the Universe or whatever it is you listen to that is outside of yourself).  It is also about taking the space and breathing deeply enough to listen to yourself.  Training on how to listen to others can also help us to learn how to listen to ourselves.  Journaling, writing, walking, talking... all of these can help us to listen to ourselves.  But if we are not intentional about taking the time, if we are not purposeful and willing to really look deeper at things that may be uncomfortable, listening and being willing to really hear ourselves is not a given.
           I also found myself thinking that if we struggle to hear ourselves, how much are we really able to hear others?  Don't our own unexamined motivations get in the way of truly going deep into hearing what another is saying?
           Looking, then, to take this to the bigger level, I wonder if part of our increasing inability as a country, as a people, to hear one another hasn't started with the busyness of work, social media, entertainment and the blasting of the world with noise and lights that has prevented us from listening deeply, and firstly, to ourselves. It takes time and space to really hear.  It takes enough quietness that our thoughts are not drowned out by everything else going on.  It takes genuine rest and breathing in air that is not cluttered by worries, fears, anxieties, and that thing we have to do next.  If we can't make the space to learn to hear ourselves, how will we ever create a place where we are able to hear one another, especially across differences and diverse world views?
           I left the week with many goals.  But my primary goal is simply to make sure there is time and space to listen: to God, to myself and to others.  This isn't something I can learn once and then move on: it has to be a life long commitment to being in the world differently: without all the noise and distractions and fears.  One step at a time I strive to move into this.  I am grateful for the wonderful people around me who listen better than I.  I have much to learn.  I am grateful for those who have much to teach.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Burn out on Caring in a difficult time, and one response.

         We live in a time when burn out for people who really care is an increasing risk, an increasing likelihood.  If you care about the homeless and the housing crisis in California, if you care about our immigrant brothers and sisters, if you care about people of color, people of faith traditions other than Christianity, if you know any women (and we all do, whether we are aware of it or not), or even men, who’ve been assaulted: if you care about the “least of these” as we are called to do every single day; if it bothers you that we live in a society that manifests increasing apathy towards those who have suffered and even condones violence towards those who are already knocked down then this is a hard time to be active and engaged in our world. If you take seriously the call to love your neighbor as yourself and therefore are able to have compassion for people who are different that you are; if you remember that all of us are God's children, and that by corollary, all of us are siblings to one another; if you are aware therefore that the suffering people are people we are both deeply connected to and called to love like our biological siblings; if you care about the increasing division and growing irreconcilable differences between people in our country, in our communities, and even in our families; if you see meanness and are affected by the lack of simple courtesy and kindness towards strangers, then this is a hard time to keep going with hope and purpose and conviction that we can make the world a better place.

         Of course we hear about things we can do to counter this: focus on gratitude, name five things for which you are thankful each day; make sure that you have room for play in your life; take breaks from the struggles; exercise; laugh; sing.  But there is one other thing that can really help. In the midst of the daily struggles, sometimes the choice to do or be part of service that helps others (or even just one other) at this moment, now, with a real problem they are having  - this choice in itself can bring healing, can bring a tiny and reassuring sense that we can and do make a difference, a glimpse into the possibilities for genuine change and healing that can be brought on by people who care no matter what else is going on in the world.  Find a place to help.  Donate to a food bank, give school supplies, help serve meals, be part of a shelter program, donate to other organizations that make a difference.  Or, join in, give to, and work with organizations that create more permanent long term healing and change for people who are down and out: a new job training program, an education program, tutoring and care for disadvantaged children and youth, be part of a permanent low income housing program.  Yes, advocacy will always be of prime and extreme importance so that deep problems and issues can be confronted before they become monumental traumas and tragedies.  But being involved in a program that is not dependent on the politics of the day, but is simply dependent on our time, energy, resources and dedication and that really touches and changes lives: this can be healing not just for those served, but for our tired and frustrated souls as well.  Truly, we are called, as we are called into any caring work, to do this as much for our own souls, our own minds, our own spirits as we are for others.  I am grateful there are programs and opportunities out there for this kind of service.  They give me the strength and renewal to continue to work for advocacy too.  

Monday, October 22, 2018

Listening and Communicating

         I have been in a number of situations recently in which it was clear the other person was not listening, or at least not hearing me.  And example: after being away from home for a few days I was asked how I was doing.  I responded, "I’m doing well.  However, I am an introvert and because of that I think it takes me longer to form the deep and fulfilling relationships that maybe others form quickly.  As a result, after five days of being away from home, I'm feeling a bit lonely for those people with whom I do have those deeper connections."  His response, "Oh, yeah, My wife is an introvert too, so I'm sure you must be wanting your alone time."  Huh?
        Another example:  I was looking at a map in order to find a place to hike.  A man was showing me a path by tracing his finger along a road and describing it as a hiking path, "The hiking trail you are talking about; does it run parallel to the road, or is it the road itself?  Is it an actual walking path you are describing, or is it the road itself?"  His response, "No, if you walk on the road, you could get hit by a car."  "So there is a walking path near the road?"  "No. It's a lovely walk.  Just follow the road." "So it is the road?"  "If you walk on the road, you'll get hit by a car." What?
        I wish I could say these are isolated events, but actually they aren't for me.  I run into this problem of being mis-heard, mis-understood, or having my words responded to in a way that shows they were taken to mean something other than what I meant to communicate on a fairly regular basis.  This happens often enough that I have found myself wondering  lately if it is ME that is the issue.  Do I communicate in a way that is less than clear?  Am I somehow communicating things other than what I am saying in ways I'm not even aware of?
       When I ask my friends, or those who read my blog, or those who listen to my sermons if this is the case, they all assure me it isn't.  But even if the fault is at least partly mine (and I'm sure I need to claim some fault here), I also observe that as a people, as a country, we are having a harder and harder time actually LISTENING to one another.  We impose on the speaker our own world views, our own agendas, our own expectations of what we think they will say or mean.  We transfer onto the speaker our own worries, thoughts and cares.  We don't listen.
         Of course there are exceptions.  We can learn how to listen with more honesty and truth.  We can learn how to listen without spending that hearing time trying to think of how we will respond when the other person is done talking.  We can ask questions that try to clarify what we are hearing to be sure we are truly understanding the other.  We can try to stop thinking about how what they are saying relates to ourselves, and instead listen to it for the other person's sake.  We can learn this.  Circles that focus on spiritual direction, counseling, emotional and spiritual care all focus on this intentional and deep listening to the other.  But we seem to have lost this skill in normal, every day living.  And the result is a country torn apart by misunderstandings, by an inability to hear, love, have compassion for and insight into beautifully human and wondrous beings that "others" are.  It is a problem of epidemic proportions.  One which I believe can only be answered first and foremost by a commitment to listening, deeply, and truly, without agenda or ego to one another.
        In the mean time, I am striving hard to remember that every response another person gives to words I have spoken reflects much more on that other person than it does on me anyway.  Our responses are about ourselves.  Therefore when someone does respond to something I've said, it is an opportunity for ME to practice listening as well, regardless of what it was I was trying to communicate.  That's not always easy: if I'm saying something, it usually means I'm wanting it to be heard.  But sometimes the lack of understanding on their part is an invitation, an opportunity, a plea for me to hear them.  So I will start by listening.  And perhaps, once they have felt heard, there will be more space for them to hear me as well.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

I Believe God, Help my Unbelief

James 2:1-17

Mark 10:17-31

Mark 9:24

One year at famous acrobat who wanted to show the world the extent of his talents.  He decided he would push a wheelbarrow with a person inside across a tight rope that was strung over Niagra Falls.  He practiced often and early, working hard to make sure that it would be a success.  As he was practicing one day, an observer came by and said, “Wow!  This is such a wonderful idea.  And I have seen your talents and abilities and I have every confidence that you can do this!” The acrobat replied, “Do you really?”  “Absolutely,” the observer countered, “There is no doubt in my mind that you will be successful at this.”  The acrobat pushed him a little harder, “You really think I can do this.  Even with a person in the wheelbarrow?”

“Yes!  I have complete faith in you.  Even with a person inside, your skill would overcome any danger!” came the quick reply.  The acrobat smiled a huge relieved smile as he replied, “Good!  Then tomorrow you will ride in the wheelbarrow!”

“Are you crazy?” the observer countered, “I could get myself killed!”

We believe, God.  Help our unbelief.

Faith.  We say that we are believers.  But do we really believe?  This joke points out to us that belief, that faith, is not just about declaring that we accept something as true.  Our actions show at a much deeper level what, in fact, we actually believe. 

Historically we know that there has been a division in our church, between those who believe in salvation by faith, and those who believe in salvation by works.  This was one of the key issues that surrounded the Protestant Reformation.  Parishioners in the Roman Catholic church at that time were told they needed to earn salvation, first by doing good things, but also by buying indulgences in order to get out of time in purgatory and into heaven.  And Martin Luther said “no” - we are not saved by the things we do, or the money we give the church, but by our very faith.  Salvation does not have to be bought with action or money or favors or anything other than our faith. He had a good point in saying that grace is a gift, not earned, something we can do nothing to obtain.  But I would dare to say, that what began as an important point, what started as a stand against injustice, has in itself become a corrupted understanding that has now led once again to the creation of injustice in some of our churches.

In bible study, we have talked about one example of this that was really evident in Central America for a long time. For many years, the dominant religious leaders were enforcing injustice, keeping the poor people poor by proclaiming that since they are richer in their faith when they are materially poor, and since God promises their reward will be much greater because of that wealth of faith, that they should be grateful for their poverty and not try to raise themselves up.  This is a corruption of the doctrine of salvation by faith.  It is a misuse of biblical passages, it is a mistaken declaration that future salvation means that the present life doesn’t matter and that it is okay for those who are wealthy to ignore the current suffering of the poor, because we believe that they will be saved after death by their faith.

When I worked as a missionary in Brazil for a summer, I saw a very similar situation there.  There were two kinds of missionaries serving in Brazil, and often standing across the street from one another in an especially poor area.  On one side of the street would be people handing out Bibles.  In Brazil, the Christian church is starkly divided between Protestants and Catholics, and the people handing out Bibles were Protestants trying to “save” Catholics into Protestantism by declaring that Catholics were not really believers.  Across the street from them would stand the other group of missionaries, with a hot pot of soup, a truck full of good, second-hand clothing, a couple chairs for people to sit and rest for a minute.  These two groups of Christians were often at great odds with one another.  Those handing out Bibles told those serving soup that they just obviously did not care about the salvation of the people, the only thing that really mattered. And those handing out soup stood on the passages of the Bible such as the passage in James 2: 14-17: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?  Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”  In the middle of this fighting, the faith itself, Christianity itself, looked problematic to those they would serve; it seemed confused and corrupt, it looked like a faith that was lost.

Today in the story from Mark we met the rich man of faith.  He had read the scriptures, knew and believed the commandments, he had lived by the law to the best of his ability.  But it didn’t feel like it was enough and it made him uneasy.  So he went to Jesus, and after flattering him (because my guess is that this usually got him the answers he was hoping for), he asked Jesus what was needed to inherit eternal life.  Jesus didn’t play the flattery game, but challenged it: “why do you call me good?  Only God is good!”  He also didn’t just tell the man he was fine and everything would be okay.  He told him in order to earn eternal life, he had to sell everything he had, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus. We are told that the man responded by walking away sadly. It wasn’t that he didn’t have faith, at least not in the way it has often been described: I think he believed Jesus. But he didn’t have ENOUGH faith to believe that what Jesus was offering was better.  He didn’t have enough faith to believe that what God offered would be more full, more filling, more everything.   

The dichotomy which we have set up, between faith and works is a false one.  If we really, actively believe that Jesus is the divine incarnate, then we will believe what Jesus says.  And if we believe what Jesus says, then we must believe that the call of our lives is not only to love God with everything we’ve got, but also to love our neighbors, and yes, our enemies, as ourselves.  If we really believe, at our core, that we are to love everyone as ourselves, then we will live lives that try to make sure that all people, not just our family members, have enough to eat; we will live lives that work to make sure that all people, not just those close to us, have lives worth living; we will do everything in our power to make sure that all people, not just those who agree with us politically or are in the same economic class, same race, same upbringing, same economic class, same country of origin, or same whatever can all live the lives that they want to live: lives filled with enough material good, with education, with healthcare, with dignity, with respect, with joy, with opportunities for their kids, with safety and well-being.  If we really believe, then we will have to take very seriously Jesus’ statement that our call to serve the poor is not just for them - it is for our very salvation as well. 

James makes really clear in this passage that we are asked to do this, we are asked to love our neighbors as ourselves, for our own sakes as well as for the sakes of the poor.  I am poorer in my faith because of my wealth.  It is only in giving that away, in being willing to risk and in living by that faith that my faith is built and increased.  We are called, by this passage, not just to help the poor because they are poor and in need of our help, but for our own salvation, for the increase of our own faith, for the living out of God’s kingdom for all.

Taking this to the next step, then, we have to recognize that this call is hard, hard, hard beyond anything.  As Jesus himself said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  And ALL of us here are richer than the people Jesus was referring to at the time.  The reality is that we are not just short in our works, it is not just that we all fail to earn our salvation, the reality is that we also don’t have enough faith for our salvation.  We just don’t have it.  Very few with resources like we have really do.  Very few are willing to get into the wheelbarrow when we are called to the test.  So where is the good news in this?  Where is the good news that we are promised in our faith when we fall short both in works and in faith?

I am reminded of a story in which a man who died was told by St. Peter outside the pearly gates that he had to have 200 points in order to get into heaven.  The man thought hard and finally said, “Well, let’s see.  I was a member of my church of 47 years, a deacon, and a Sunday School teacher for 32 years.”  St. Peter replied, “That’s very good.  That’s one point.” 

The man looked scared but he continued,  “Oh my.  Let me think again.  I was a good husband.  I never cheated on my wife.  My children loved me because I was a good father.  I tithed, and volunteered at the soup kitchen.  I was in the Lions Club...”  St. Peter responded, “That’s very good, too.  It sounds like you were a man of both great faith and great works.  One more point.”  The man began to sweat as he thought and thought, searching for something that could give him the last 198 points.  Finally he said, “Gosh, if I get in here, it will be by the grace of God.”  At this St. Peter exclaimed,  “And that’s worth 200 points.  Come on in!”

We fall short in our Christian actions because we fall short in our Christian faith.  We believe, God, Help our unbelief.  But the good news in this is that we aren’t saved by our works, and frankly, we aren’t saved by our faith either.  The good news is that God wants to make possible our impossibilities.  As Jesus said to the disciples, “what is impossible for humans is possible for God.”  The good news is that God loves us despite our inadequacies of works and faith.  The Good news is that we are saved, not by works, not by faith, but by Grace.  God saves us through God’s grace which chooses us, forgives us, loves us, and calls us.  It is through that grace and only that grace that we are brought into eternal life.  It is through that love which gave its life for us that we are brought into God’s realm.  It is through that passion by which God overcame even death to be with us, even when we killed God’s son, that we, too, are brought into new life.  We have failed ourselves, each other and God.  But God still loves us more than life and still wants us to be part of God’s kingdom.

I’m not saying that faith and works don’t matter.  They do.  But they, too, are reflections of God’s grace.  Faith itself, Paul tells us, is a gift from God; not earned, but given.  Works are a living out of that faith, a grateful response to that grace freely given.  In other words, it is through God’s grace that we have faith and do works.  It is through God’s grace that we find our faith and have the courage to begin living it out.  Through God’s grace, God helps us to grow closer to God and to love more deeply.

Dear God, we pray that you would give us the faith to see your grace all around us, in every day, in every way.  We pray that You would help us to live out that grace through deeper faith and more generous works.  We believe God, help our unbelief.