Friday, December 16, 2022

Campaigns of Attack

             There was recently an election in a town close to my own in which the winning strategy was, as has become more and more common, mudslinging.  There were candidates who refused to participate in this practice, and they lost.  The ones who won were those who effectively insulted and put down (often with untruths) those they were running against. Those same people had no real campaign.  They didn't comment on issues, they never made it clear where they stood on things or what they would do once elected.  They ran, and won, an entire campaign based on how horribly they could vilify those they were running against.  

            Of course, this is not an isolated event.  More and more this is how our elections are won.  Those who are, frankly, better humans, people who are kinder and more compassionate, those who are more truthful and have a great deal more integrity, they lose on a regular basis.  They lose because they will not participate in that kind of vicious destruction of others.  They lose because they choose not to engage in dirty tactics and childish behavior.  They instead choose to be open and honest and to speak about the actual issues in the campaign rather than focusing on character assassination, and, more often than not, this is not a winning strategy.  

            I tend to believe that they are assuming, wrongly, that the general public will see through the mudslinging.  They assume, as thoughtful people often do, that people would know and think about the fact that those who sling mud do so because they have nothing real to say.  It is also true, as I have said again and again, that those condemning others are mostly condemning, in the others, what is actually true about themselves. When we think about this, we know this to be true.  I think about the election in which the person running kept calling his opposing candidate a liar.  The name caller turned out to be a pathological liar, who was actually incapable of telling the truth.  He took his own very serious character flaw and used it to condemn the other.  I remember another election where the person keep calling his opposing candidate "gay"(or actually, he used a much more derogatory term, but same condemnation).  That name caller was caught in a same-sex liaison after he was elected.  I could go on and on.  We attack in the other what we cannot overcome in ourselves.  And, as an election strategy, this seems to be, unfortunately, very effective.  

          Those who are compassionate and intelligent tend to believe that others will see through the mudslinging, character-assassination tactics.  

          Sadly, too often, they don't.

           In the movie The American President, a character attack and mudslinging campaign was waged on the president who was up for reelection.  His opposing candidate used it as his sole strategy to try to win the presidential election.  And at first the president would not engage in it.  He wouldn't even respond to the attacks.  He wouldn't respond because he had more integrity than that.  He knew that by participating in a mudslinging, character-attack campaign, the opponent was not talking about what really mattered: about the issues in the campaign, about the positions that each candidate held.  He knew that by engaging in a mudslinging campaign, his opponent was acting like a child, trying to gain power by stepping on, hurting, judging someone else and inviting others to join him in his attack.  None the less, the president finally came to a point where he realized he at least had to respond to the attacks that were being made against him.  Was he right to do so?  It was necessary.  But it shouldn't have been.  People should have been able to see it for what it was: both an avoidance of the real issues and a distraction from what was valuable.  They should have been able to see that the character of those who participate in this kind of behavior is, in fact, a character that is not suited to leadership, that is immature and lacks compassion and kindness.  But they could not.    

          As I thought about this, I remembered a time, many years ago now, when I was being badmouthed in the local community.  Ironically, I was being accused of talking smack about someone.  Do you see the irony here?  They were successful in damaging my reputation by accusing me of talking badly about them.  And while I heard third or fourth hand that this was happening, I was never asked or addressed directly about these accusations from people who actually heard them.  I had faith that my real friends would see through this mudslinging attack, or at least would have the courage and decency to ask me if they were unsure.  I would not bring the accusers up, I would not and did not talk about them to others, despite the fact that they were talking about me in such a hurtful way.  I, too, found myself having mistaken faith in other people.  I lost friends who did not have the courage or strength to admit to me that they were listening to local gossip and choosing to believe it.  

        We expect people to be smarter than this.  We expect people to be wiser and more discerning than this.  But they aren't.  

         So what do we do with this reality?  Are we forced, then, to behave as others do to "stay in the race" as it were, or to hold on to the relationships that matter to us?  

          I think this is another situation in which we are called to be "in the world, but not of the world."  I believe we are called to continue to hold on to our values of honesty, integrity and maturity, even if that means losing the race, even if it means losing friendships.  But I also don't think that we are stuck or limited by these choices.  We can and should remind people (as I am trying to do here) that mudslinging is not a characteristic we should desire in our leadership. I think it is important to say, loudly and often, that what we want in our leaders is integrity, honesty, and an ability to self-reflect so that the leader can adjust, change and grow into their position.  Mudslinging generally shows an inability to be self-reflective or honest because usually it is a sign of undealt with character flaws by the one slinging the mud.  While we may not represent the majority of those in our country who vote, choosing not to vote for those who avoid the issues and simply run character-assassination campaigns will only be more and more important as we move forward.  

          We must choose to do all we can to create the world we want.  I personally do not want a world where campaigns are won through personal attack rather than a look at the issues.  And I don't want a world where condemnation of others is rewarded whereas compassion and kindness are somehow seen as signs of guilt, weakness or inferiority.  So I will not vote for those who continue to engage in the mudslinging.  I won't listen to gossip and the maligning of others.  And I will talk to people directly if I'm hearing things that I believe are defamatory.  

Monday, October 10, 2022

Covenant Relationships


1 Samuel 17:55-18:9

Matthew 5:33-37



               Both of the passages that we read today have to do with commitments, with promises, or with, as I would say Covenants.  So to start, what exactly ARE covenants?

               Well, what is a contract?  A contract is generally between equals, or is about offering one thing in exchange for something else that is considered of equal value.  I exchange my house for this amount of money in a sale: that’s a contract.  We agree that the house is worth this much and we exchange it.  I contract to hire you to build something: we agree that your work is worth this amount of money.  Those are contracts.  And they are usually created based on what is generally considered fair.

               Covenants, as we saw in the Samuel passage are very different.  For example, the covenant relationship that is entered into between David and Jonathan is anything but equal.  Jonathan was the son of a king: a prince.  David was the son of one of the king’s servants.  As such, he had nothing to give that could possibly be of the same worth to what was being offered.  Jonathan gave to David his robe, tunic, sword, bow and belt and in “exchange” David stayed with him.  It was a covenant that in many ways mirrors the covenant relationship that God has with us:  God as the creator has everything.  Everything and all things belong to God, were brought into being by God.  We are called to be God’s  people, in our covenant.  And God’s part in the covenant is everything that we are given from God: life, family, friends, food, a beautiful planet on which to live, bodies that can eat, sing, dance, play, stretch.  We are given everything in this covenant and asked, for our part, to simply love God and one another in return.  It, too, is an extremely unequal, uneven, some might say ‘unfair’ CONTRACT.  So much so that it is no longer a contract, but a covenant. 

               And then we come to the Matthew passage.  And it says that we must not pledge or promise or swear to do something.  As Jesus says “Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no.”  Be true to your commitments without needing to make promises or oaths that say that you will keep them.  Why would this be important?  First of all, if you need to promise something or swear something in order to keep the covenant, it cheapens all the rest of your words when you don’t.  It implies that without that promise, without that solemn oath, you are somehow less likely to keep to your commitments and your agreements.  Secondly, sometimes things happen, sometimes things do pop up that make our promises impossible.  And there is no room in an oath for life to interfere, for life to happen, for the unexpected to be taken into account when we judge someone else’s actions.  But once again, this comes down to relationships.  We trust those closest to us, without their needing to “promise” or “swear” things because of the relationships, the covenant relationships with have with them.  And so this, passage, too, is calling us to go deeper in our relationships, to not need those promises, or oaths, but instead to live in trust and understanding. 

               You all have heard the story of the beheading of John the Baptist.  Herod valued John very much.  But when his daughter pleased him he made an oath to her to give her whatever she wanted.  And when she said she wanted John the Baptist’s head on a platter, he gave it to her because he had made an oath.  It was the wrong thing to do, but he felt bound to the oath he had made to do it.  If he had just asked, “what do you want?  I would like to give you something you desire,” there probably would have been more room to talk through what that should look like.  They would have been more closely connected because they would have had to discuss and connect to reach an agreement. 

               But what I want us to do today is to look at several modern situations that occur in the church in which we seem to ignore this mandate not to make oaths, not to make pledges, and discuss with you how this mandate might apply.

               The first situation is the constitutional questions we ask of people when they become ordained in various capacities in the church.  We ask similar questions when people become members.  Here are the constitutional questions:

1.      Do you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior, acknowledge him Lord of all and Head of the Church and through him believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

2.      Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal and God’s Word to you?

3.      Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God!

4.      Will you fulfill your ministry in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, and be continually guided by our confessions?

5.      Will you be governed by our church’s polity, and will you abide by its discipline?  Will you be a friend among your colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit?

6.      Will you in your own life seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, love your neighbors, and work for the reconciliation of the world?

7.      Do you promise to further the peace, unity and purity of the church?

8.      Will you pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination and love? 

And then there is always a specific question for those being ordained to the different areas of ministry: deacon, elder, pastor, commissioned lay pastor, certified Christian educator.

               In addition there are questions asked of the congregation:

Do we, the members of the church, accept whomever as our pastor, chosen by God through the voice of this congregation to guide us in the way of Jesus Christ? Do we agree to pray for them, to encourage them, to respect their decisions and to follow as they guide us, serving Jesus Christ, who alone is Head of the Church? Do we promise to pay them fairly, and provide for their welfare as they work among us: to stand by them in trouble and share their joys?  Will we listen to the Word they preach, welcome, their pastoral care and honor their authority as they seek to honor and obey Jesus Christ our Lord?

               Most of these, one could argue, are not oaths made.  Most are just statements of commitment.  But this isn’t true of all of them.  There are a couple in each that are “do you promise…?”  Additionally, if we are taking seriously the “let your yes be yes and your no be no” do we really need to make these statements?  After all, we would not have signed up to do take these jobs or positions if we were not people of faith committing to care for and serve God’s people in these ways.  And finally, perhaps most importantly, I know that some of you have said you have a hard time making some of these promises, and yet we as a church have traditionally insisted that they be made anyway.  We are setting people up to make statements that lack integrity.  For example, the question I have the most trouble with: “Do you promise to further the peace, unity and purity of the church?”  Because while I am all for peace and unity, I know what those who wrote these words meant when they originally put into these promises that we need to work for the “purity” of the church and I struggle deeply with that.  Originally it was a statement of exclusion: making sure that those who did not fit into the writer’s ideas of “purity” were not allowed to be equal participants of the family of faith without changing, conforming, or denying themselves.  But while that has changed, I still struggle with this.  We are not “pure” people: we are children of God with all of our flaws, all of our concerns, all of our doubts and issues.  And to me, the church has to be a place that embraces and accepts all of us with all our parts and pieces.  It has to be a place where the “unrighteous”, to use Jesus’ word, are still at home.  How can we be a place of healing if we only have room for the pure?  If we only have space for those who are reflections of someone’s ideas of what is “right” and good and decent?  I hate this question every time it is asked, every time it is answered.  And yet, how do we stand with integrity and say, “well, actually, I’m all for the peace and unity, but not such a fan of the purity part of that!”  So I find I have to reinterpret what that question is asking every time I promise to “further” that purity.  In my mind I have changed it to “health” or “well-being”.  I want this to be a place of health, wholeness and wellbeing, so I can work for that.  I want us to help each other become more whole, healthy and well.  But, that “twisting” is uncomfortable.

               And then to go deeper into another situation: our marriage vows are exactly that: oaths that we take, promises that we make in front of the church and one another and God.  When we consider the fact that over 50% of all marriages end in divorce in this country, what do these vows mean?  How can we make these promises to one another to love, cherish and honor ‘til death do we part, knowing that over half of those marriages will not last until death?  Are we confident that we can beat the odds?  Is good intention enough? 

               I also think that it causes problems for those whose marriages become abusive.  There is the discomfort with breaking a vow, even when the other has broken theirs in unjust and unfair behavior.  But sometimes, the healthiest thing we can do for ALL involved is to step out.  Do our vows prevent some from doing that?  Yes.  And then with marriages that do end there are problems too.  Just like when Herod felt he had to go through with his promise to Herodias just because it had been a promise, when people’s marriages end, there is an unusual amount of folk who feel they have failed.  I actually don’t see that.  I’ve seen too many marriages where people feel they are living up to their vows by staying married when this is the worst choice that could be made by either partner.  We end up with people saying “yes” and then being resentful and angry about those commitments.  I’ve also seen many divorces that are not failures at all, but are a step into life for both persons in the relationship.  But they often carry a feeling of guilt for those who make that decision because they represent these broken promises, broken “vows”, broken oaths. 

               In contrast to all of this, then, we have covenants.  And Covenants are not promises, or oaths.  Instead, they are commitments to God, to life, and to love.  They are intentional bonds of caring, of love, and of grace.  By love here, I am using Scott Peck’s definition of “working towards the highest good for the other”.  Covenants are the commitments that we make as people of God to being people of God: to loving our neighbors as ourselves and to caring for each person as the child of God that they are. 

I think about Tolstoy’s three questions.  Those questions are: who is the most important one, what is the most important thing to do, and when is the most important time to do it.  And the answers are always: the most important one is the one right in front of you.  The most important thing to do is what needs to be done for that person right in front of you.  And the most important time to do it is now.  When we can honor and act on these things, we are living our covenant life.  We are living THE covenant life. 

               In covenants, then, there is room for change.  There is a recognition that the most loving thing we can do for the other, and the highest good for the other sometimes, and might I say through the course of our lives, often, change.  That means that the covenant might look different from one day to another.  In a covenant, what you need today may be more of our attention and care, and what I need tomorrow may be more of our attention and care.  There is movement, flexibility, and a recognition of our call, our movements towards growth.  In covenants, we can make commitments that recognize the true diversity and differences between us that therefore call for each commitment to be made in a slightly different way for each person.  Are covenants more complex then?  Of course.  They are much more nuanced, and they require really knowing each other and each part of the covenant in order to be genuine.  But that is our call.  To see one another, hear one another, love one another and care for one another.  I invite you to let your yes be yes and your no be no, and to celebrate the changes, movements, and diversities that we share, without legalizing or concretizing them into unmoving, unchanging contracts.  We are a covenant people, called into relationship with God and each other through those covenants.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.


Monday, October 3, 2022

Are We Our Stories?

         About a month ago I was able to attend a conference for pastors and church leaders.  The theme of the retreat was story-telling: the importance of hearing and sharing the stories that make us who we are.  I found myself troubled by some of what was said, but I tried to stay in the positive of what we learned concerning the importance of telling our stories and hearing other people's stories.  The conference ended with lunch, and as I sat with a new friend I had made at the conference, she turned to me and asked what my biggest take-away had been.  I told her that I needed time to think on that, but that obviously she had been thinking about it already, so I wondered what her biggest take-away was.  She said it was a negative take-away.  She is the pastor of an older congregation, many of whom have Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.  She said, "If our stories define who we are, what happens when we can no longer remember those stories? If we are our stories, when those stories are lost, are we lost too?"  And in her words, I realized exactly what had been troubling me throughout the conference.  

          My mother has Alzheimer's.  In her case, it is not so much that she has lost her stories, as that her stories have changed, dramatically.  She is at the place in her illness where she tells outrageous stories of mistreatment (in particular), some that she claims happened years ago, some that she believes to be happening in the moment.  None of them are accurate.  For example, when my father went outside to get something from the car, she informed me that "that man has left me and I don't know what I did!"  I explained that Dad had just gone to the car to get something and she insisted that "No.  He's left me.  He's not coming back."  When he came back in and I said, "See, here he is!" she gave me that look of an abandoned, mistreated child and turned away.  That same afternoon as I made her a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, she told us that when she was a kid she was not allowed to have sandwiches.  Again, I have enough stories of her childhood, shared with me both by herself and her siblings, to know that this is not in fact true.  Still, in that moment these stories were true for her.  

          The stories that might once have defined her, that might once have made her into the person she is are gone.  Nonetheless in so many ways, my mother is still the person she has always been. Her personality is the same in many ways.  There is consistency in who she has become, even with the Alzheimer's.  And while that, too, may change (after all Alzheimer's does take us away from ourselves  and our loved ones, one painful step at a time), she is more than all of that.  She is more than her face and her body (which are changing for all of us all the time).  She is more than her memories, or her lack of memories.  She is more, even, than her personality.  She is more than what she has done and what she has left undone.  The conference answer to the question of who we ultimately are seemed to center completely on stories. And while the conference solution to the fading of memories was that "We therefore need to be intentional about sharing our own and each other's stories" and "In the end, God will remember our stories even when we cannot," I have to say that I found both these answers unsatisfactory in many ways.  

         I agree with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin when he says, "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience."  As humans, we are given the experiences of this life: all of our thoughts, feelings, actions, and stories are a part of that.  What our brain does, with its gifts and its limitations, and yes, its stories, is a part of that experience.  Frankly, the experience of Alzheimer's and other dementia is often also a part of our human experience, a part of living.  It is not an easy part, but it is still a part, still an experience that we have here on this human journey.  And as a person grounded in the deep belief that we are more than our experiences here, more than this human journey, I have to believe that our identity, our meaning, our grounding goes beyond our stories.  

        For me, then, ultimately who each of us is, is a deeply loved, seen, understood and valued child of God.  And, big picture, each of us is part of a whole: deeply, intricately connected to every other part of creation. When we lose our stories, when we lose our memories, when we lose our abilities, and our functionality, and even our personalities, we are still valued, loved, deeply important pieces of a bigger picture that is a wondrous creation.  Each of us are a unique and beautiful drop in the ocean of life.  We are still children of God.  And we are still spiritual beings experiencing that painful and difficult part of the human journey as well.  Again, it is not an easy part of the journey.  But with every breath we take, the Spirit remains with us, accompanying us in our human journey, and being present with us even when that journey ends.  Ultimately, then, we return to being simply the spiritual beings that have had a human experience.  That is who we are, even when the stories are gone.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Our Children as Mirrors

             Yesterday when Aislynn came home from school, I saw that she was wearing makeup.  She doesn't usually, so it surprised me.   I said, “you are wearing makeup.”  And she became defensive about it, saying she hadn’t been feeling confident that morning and thought it might help.  I told her there was no reason for her to feel defensive as I had no judgment about it. And I truly didn't!  I wore makeup in high school, and I occasionally wear it now. But she did not believe me.  And as I thought about the fact that she is often very private with me, often does not choose to share what she is thinking and feeling, I had the revelation that she is not sharing with me because she believes I will judge her.  “I don’t judge you, Aislynn,” I said.  “I think you are absolutely brilliant, creative, interesting, dedicated, hardworking, artistically gifted, hilarious (when you choose to be), and I adore you!  I don’t judge you.” 

          Her response was, “Yes, you do.  You judge everyone.  When you talk about other people, it’s always judgment.” 

               I was stunned.  I’ve often wondered if I share too much with the kids.  For the longest time, I was very careful about what I shared with them.  After all, it is not their job to take care of me, and I've always been very clear about that.  But after a conversation with a friend about this, I had started to think differently.  My friend had shared that she felt it was important for our kids to hear our struggles as it taught them to step out of themselves.  It gave them practice in listening to other people, and in being compassionate and empathetic to what others experience.  Also, two of my three kids are now "adults" at least in the sense that they are over 18.  My middle child frequently asks me what is going on with me, and when I don't have much to share, he pushes me on it.  He seems to genuinely want to know what is happening in my life, what I'm feeling and thinking.  So, especially with the older two, I have started to share more.  But Aislynn sometimes hears these conversations, just as she often hears the conversations I have with David.  And while I have never seen or experienced myself as a judgmental person, I realized as I’ve thought about this that I am much quicker to share my frustrations or hurts at the hands of others, and slower to share the amazing good I see and experience at the hands of others.  That needs to change.  

      At first my reaction was "I will need to be more careful about what I share with the kids."  I envisioned myself "going quiet" in terms of my own personal struggles.  But I think that will not correct the mistake.  Instead, I think I need to be much more intentional about sharing the positive of people, the good I experience and see, than the negative.  This will not be a bad change.  I think about gratitude practices, and the spiritual and psychological disciplines of remembering each day what good has happened and what good has been experienced.  There is great power in these practices.  They help with depression, they help with healing.  As far as I can see there is no downside to sharing the good rather than the negative.  But focusing on the good, reporting the good, remembering to share where people have been kind and unexpectedly thoughtful: these are practices that will require a change in me.  The mirror that Aislynn held up to me yesterday hurt.  But that mirror is an opportunity to grow.  One that I will accept as a challenge in my moving forward.

Monday, August 15, 2022

Community and Suffering

 Ruth 1:1-22

The book of Ruth in so many ways shows us exactly the opposite of the book of Job.  In Job when everything goes wrong, he first piously pouts and prays, and then as things get worse and worse, he eventually yells at God.  I’ve shared with you before that I love the book of Job because it shows a God who responds to our pain, responds to our cries, responds even to our anger when it is expressed directly to God.  Our God shows up, is present and loving.  And in the end of Job, all that he had comes back to him in greater abundance than before.

But, while I deeply love the message of Job that God is there when we are honest, real and completely open with God, I think I love the book of Ruth even more.  In the book of Ruth, we see a very different response to a similar situation.  Naomi, who is, in many ways, the real star of the book of Ruth, has, like Job, lost everything.  As you know, women had no agency at this point in time.  They could not own property, they could not hold jobs.  Everything they had and everything they were was dependent on the men to whom they were attached.  So when Naomi loses not only her husband, but both of her sons, when her spouse and her children are dead and along with them, her livelihood, her property, and all that she has, she, too, has truly lost everything.  This can’t be understated.  Everything she knew was gone.  And as she says here herself, she is too old to remarry and produce more sons.  Unlike Job who can go on to remarry and have more children, Naomi is past that.  So, like Job, she too is angry and grieving.  As she says, “Don’t call me Naomi, (which means pleasant) but call me Mara (which means bitter) for El Shadai has made me very bitter.  I went away full, but the Lord has returned me empty.”  

Like Job, Naomi is angry.  Like Job, Naomi is in deep grief.  Like Job, Naomi seems beyond hope.  But unlike Job she does not act like she is beyond hope.  Job sits and complains.  Job sits covered in sackcloth.  But Naomi moves herself into action, instead.  She picks up to move back to her home land, having hope that there will be food there for her.  She doesn’t start with a complicated plan.  She just starts by putting one foot in front of the other.  We are told, “She arose… because while in the territory of Moab she had heard that the Lord had paid attention to his people by providing food for them.”  So while she may have been expressing pain, expressing despair, she chose to act out of her hope.

And what she finds, in this first step, this unclear, unplanned, but decisive first step to go home is that she is not alone.  Ruth, who has also lost her husband and therefore her livelihood as well, commits to going with her.  And Ruth is adamant in that decision.  Naomi takes a step into life, and in doing so finds she is not alone.

This is my message for each and every one of you today, and what I hope you will take from today.  When we choose to step forward in hope, to take action despite our feelings of grief, of loss, or of despair; when we follow the call to act, we will find that we are not alone.  We will not be sent on the journey by ourselves.  The helpers are there, and they will come.  And along with them, there is often a plan, often a vision, often the insight to see the call into the next step, and the next, and the next.

My family has been watching the series, “Call the Midwife”.  This week we watched an episode from the second season in which the main character, Jenny, is trying to help a woman who had been forced, out of complete destitution, to go into the workhouses in London.  She had been there for 35 years, until they closed.  And now her life is one of agony, one of deep poverty.  But at the base of her pain and her grief is the fact that when she had first gone into the workhouses, she had entered with five little children.  The way these workhouses functioned was that all children would be taken from you when you entered into the workhouse.  All five of these very young children were taken from her.  This woman, now an old woman, has no knowledge of what happened to her kids past the day that they were taken from her.  But she yearns for them, calls for them, cries out for them.  When one of the nurses goes to help her, all this woman can talk to her about is seeing her hope of seeing her daughter, Rosie, who at the time was the eldest of the five, and was 8 years of age, in particular, again.  The nurse, Jenny, is so upset by all of this that she decides to find out what happened to the children.  And she discovers that all of these five very young children died very quickly after being taken from their mother.  “Failure to thrive” it was said.  The system destroyed the children by taking them away from their mother.  Jenny doesn’t know what to do with this information.  She brings it back to Nanatus house, devastated by this history that she has discovered.  And the response?  “And what do you propose to do, Nurse Lee, now that you have garnered these unedifying facts?”  When Nurse Jenny Lee says she doesn’t know, the nun continues, then, to quote the apocrypha, “you have been curious in unnecessary matters.  The past remains the past.  The present, unamended.’”  Another of the sisters joins in, “Sister Monica Joan is right.  It’s what happens in the here and now that counts.”  Nurse Jenny Lee responds with, “Forgive me but her life in the here and now is not safe or filled with love.  She waits every day for a child.  For children that are never coming home.” The nuns respond, “Then you should turn your mind to that.”  And so she does.  Nurse Jenny goes and does more research, and she finds where the children have been buried, which is in a mass burial ground.  But within that mass grave, there are specific locations for each of the children.  She memorizes where each child is and then takes the old woman to the grave site.  She says “We are standing by a public grave.  There are many put in here.  This is where they buried the workhouse inmates.”  

“I had too many,” Mrs. Jenkins says.  

“Yes, and they are all here.”  Jenny replies.

“Together?” she asks.

“I was able to get plans of the cemetery and the graves in the public records.  It’s all written down.  Percy and May are lying next to each other.  Just over there.  Alice is to the right, over there.  I think in the summer that tree must cast some shade there.  And George is by the cross.  Rosie is right here, Mrs. Jenkins, almost underneath your feet.”  The old woman bent down, putting her hands on the snow over the grave of Rosie “I’d have liked her in with me to warm her feet.  But I can see she’s tucked up safe.”  She sobbed and cried, but was then was able to grieve properly and to finally find some peace, knowing where they were, knowing what had happened to them.  Jenny then invited her into a new life: invited her to help her community to sew and make costumes for the Christmas pageant.

Nurse Jenny had seen a problem: the suffering of this older woman who had no closure, no way to grieve, no way to move on past those horrible 35 years.  And while Jenny did not know what to do, she took her own suffering, her own pain, her own despair to her friends.  While they didn’t give her the exact answer, they pointed her in the right direction.  And in the end, after Jenny had taken the steps to learn, to share, to help move Mrs. Jenkins forward, it was the entire Convent that helped Mrs. Jenkins to find work, to find meaning in making the costumes.  They, together, invited her into their community, and they, together, helped her to grieve, to mourn, and to find peace.

 I think about Moses who knew what he had to do but was afraid to do it.  In choosing to step forward, God provided that Aaron and Miriam would go with him and would help him.  He was not alone.  

I think about the women who started MADD: when Candace Lightner’s child was killed by a drunk driver, she knew something had to change.  She put it out there and Cindi Lamb joined her (who had also lost a child due to a drunk driver).  Together they were able to make a huge change.  MADD has lowered the number of those who have died from drunk driving by half!  That is huge.  

The work that people are doing to help refugees from the Ukraine they are doing together.  The work that Hope Solutions is doing to help the homeless in Contra Costa County started with people from a church dreaming and envisioning and planning together.  There are so many needs in our world.  But when we get stuck in the “I don’t know what to do” there is no movement.  Pray, ask God what is the thing that is concerning you the MOST right now.  And then speak about that!  Share with us your fears, your concerns.  Do you try to solve these problems alone.  Together we can do so very much!

When we are in pain, when we are grieving, when we are struggling against loss and fear, we are called to listen to that pain as a calling from God to act.  And when we do not know what we can do to act, the first thing we must do is to say “yes”.  That’s it.  Say “yes, I will act.”  The second thing then that we are called to do is to remember that we are not lone rangers.  None of us is here alone.  Not one of us has been put here on this planet to solve the problems of the world on our own.  We are made for connection, we are made for community.  That pain in your heart, that tugging on your sleeve, that call to action: it is not given to any one of you alone.  Our lone ranger complexes keep us stuck in inaction.  And while God showed up for Job, and God will always show up for us, too, Job was not able to do what Ruth and Naomi did.  Job stands as a lone book.  Ruth, in contrast, is an ancestor of Jesus.  Our ideas that we should be able to figure it all out on our own keep us from acting at all.  We end up being Jobs rather than Naomis when we forget that God has not put us here alone.  

It was together that Ruth and Naomi were able to rise above their situation and survive.  It was together that Ruth and Naomi were able to make enough difference in the world that Ruth is listed as one of the ancestors of Jesus.  It was together that they were able to thrive.  And it is together that we, too, will change our world.  All we have to do is say “yes”.  And then look for the helpers.  They are there.  God makes sure of it!

Monday, August 8, 2022

Mental Health sermon


1 Kings 19:1-4 (5-7) 8-15a

Galatians 3:23-29

Luke 8:26-39


               Today I want to talk about a subject that we tend to avoid in church, but that is a very important part of our lives, and that therefore needs to be discussed in our faith communities.  All three of these passages deal with it, but in different ways.  What I want to discuss with you today is mental health. 

               And I want to start by asking the question: How do people in faith communities usually deal with mental illness?   

               Obviously, there are many different kinds of mental illness.  And yet I think people can end up lumping all mental health issues, as well as the people who struggle with them, together, very inappropriately I might add.  I have heard people make very fear-based comments that imply, for example, that anyone with a mental illness is somehow dangerous because they are more prone to be violent or unpredictable.  That is a completely unfair prejudicial stereotype that is not, in fact, born out.  Your likelihood of being unpredictable or violent is based on many factors, but a person who struggles with depression or social anxiety, bipolar disorder or even schizophrenia, say, is not going to be necessarily more likely to be unpredictable or violent than someone who does not struggle with those issues.  Until you understand what the person is dealing with in full, you cannot simply decide that they will be more unpredictable or violent.

Today I want to talk to you about mental illness from a faith perspective for two reasons.  First, anybody hurting in our communities is of a faith concern since God cares about and grieves for those who struggle with anything and calls us to care, as well as offer healing and caring as well.  Secondly, mental illness is a growing reality in our country.  Just looking at depression: the rates of depression in our country are hugely on the rise, and there are more suicides in our country every year than homicides.  If we think this has nothing to do with us, we are naïve at best.  In 2020 there were almost 46,000 deaths by suicide, making it the 12th leading cause of death in the United States.  According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, that same year 12.2 million adults seriously thought about suicide, 3.2 million made a plan and 1.2 million attempted suicide ( .   Estimates are that up to 36% of Americans will undergo a major depressive episode in their lifetimes. That’s over a third of us.  Look around you.  Are you aware of who in your community has suffered serious depression and who has not?  Even if it is a little less than 1/3 in this room who have suffered depression, that is still quite a few people here, in this place, who have experienced debilitating depression at one time or another.  Do you know who those people are?   Are you aware of who might be in this room right now who might be experiencing a severe depression? 

And perhaps the bigger question: if not, why not?  How should we respond to this crisis?  And, as a people of faith, what does it have to do with our faith, with our relationship with God, with our call to serve God’s people?  In the first passage we read today we see Elijah going through a major depressive episode.  Even the prophets struggled with this.  But how are we to respond?

And to point out the obvious, depression is just one of many different mental illnesses.  The church should be a place of welcome, or healing.  And so we must know how to respond to these mental health issues in our community. 

               Theologian Frederick Buechner said, "It is absolutely crucial, therefore, to keep in constant touch with what is going on in your own life's story and to pay close attention to what is going on in the stories of others' lives. If God is present anywhere, it is in those stories that God is present. If God is not present in those stories, then they are scarcely worth telling."  So, in light of that, I choose to share something with you, with permission, that was written by someone I know.  I will not use a name, not because you know the person, but because this could be anyone and I want you to hear it in that light:

               They wrote, “When I was a teenager, I went through a depressive episode that came very close to ending in suicide.  It came close enough that I had a plan, I had acquired the means, I had set a time and place.  The reasons that sent me there don’t matter.  What prevented me from doing it that day also doesn’t matter.  What matters is what I learned from that experience.

               The first is that mental illness is not about being weak.  Depression, which is the illness I struggled with, is not something that you can just “snap” out of or that a happy day can make go away.  It is insidious, it changes not only the way you feel but the way you THINK about life, about yourself, about the world.  I absolutely believed while in that state that the world would be better off without me, that while my family might feel some pain at my loss, ultimately they would be happier with me gone.  I could not shake that thinking.  People telling me to “just get over it” deepened the depression because I was incapable of feeling better.  I could not make myself feel better or have a happier outlook or be more positive.  Sometimes I could name reasons for feeling like that, but other times I couldn’t and therefore nothing in my experience could or would fix it.  I felt helpless, hopeless, and was incapable of eating, sleeping or functioning “normally” in any kind of way.  But I was not weak.  The fact that I got up every morning in spite of those feelings, the fact that I carried on every day in the face of those strong demons telling me my life was worthless was a sign of my deep strength.

               Second, the stigma around it made it nearly impossible to get help.  Granted, this was a few decades back when we did not know as much about depression, but I believe much of the stigma around it continues today.  People are ashamed to admit when they are struggling with any kind of mental illness and that makes it very difficult to get help.  As I said before, mental illness is not about weakness.  It is a medical problem, a medical condition.  And until we start treating it like any other disease, not something to be ashamed of, but something that needs our help and care, it will be hard to treat.              

Third, and along those same lines, mental illnesses are isolating.  I have always heard the biblical phrase, “to those who have much, more will be given.  And to those who have little, even what they have will be taken away” in the context of mental illness, not as something God does to us, but as a reflection on the reality that it is those most in need who often have the hardest time getting the help they need.  People who struggle with mental illness need support and care.  And yet, not only do people with those illnesses struggle to ask for the help they need, when they finally do, they find that often people respond by distancing themselves. Those most in need of the care and attention of others are often the least likely to be able to get it.  I hope this is changing, but as a kid struggling with clinical depression, I learned that if I wanted to be around other people, I had to hide my depression, hide it completely.  I had to learn to put on a “face” that others could not see behind.  Once that face has been learned, it is almost impossible to unlearn.  If I were dealing with depression today, few would know it because that early lesson in hiding that depression remains with me still.

And finally, I learned that the most well-meaning people are often the ones who do the most damage.  Those who say, “cheer up” or “buck up” or “smile” added to the pain.”  I want to pause here and share with you all a wonderful commercial that’s been on the TV recently for an on-line therapy program.  A man says into the camera that he is really struggling with depression, but that “fortunately, those around me are there to help.”  It then cuts to various people saying things like “You have so much to be happy for!” “Just snap out of it!”  “Fake it til it feels normal!”  “Cheer up!”  “It’s all in your head”  “Think of all those who have it worse than you.”  “It’s because you’re a leo!”  And after all of their comments we return to the person struggling with depression just staring bleakly at the camera in complete disbelief as the words “not helpful!”  flash across the screen.

People are trying to help, but you can’t just not feel depression when you have it.  The same is also true of social anxiety or any of the other mental illnesses.  Telling someone, for example, with anxiety to “just don’t worry about it!” will never stop them or help them to have less worry!

My friend’s letter continued, “But the ones who were hardest to deal with were the people of faith who told me that if I just turned it over to God, everything would be fine.  That if I really had faith, I would not be suffering.  That God had blessed me with so much and that my depression was a sign of a lack of gratitude for all God had given me.”

In several of the gospels there is a narrative that describes a “demon” that Jesus says can only be gotten rid of by prayer.  While the demon described sounds a great deal like epilepsy to me, I have also wondered if mental illness isn’t also one of these “demons” that can only truly be cured, at least at this point in time, with God’s help.  It can be TREATED with medication, counseling, friendship, meditation.  But I think it is something that can be CURED only by God.  We don’t know how to fix it yet.  We just don’t.  Even so, sometimes those prayers for cure are answered with “No”.  As my friend continued, “I prayed constantly for God to take away the depression, but it remained.  I asked different people how to pray, thinking maybe I just wasn’t praying right (this idea came because one of these well-meaning people told me if I had been praying “right” that I wouldn’t be depressed anymore).  I tried gratitude prayers, thanking God for removing the depression before it was gone.  I tried surrender prayers.  I tried “not your will but mine” prayers.  I tried everything anyone suggested in terms of praying and nothing “worked”.  But those well-meaning people of faith with their ideas about my lack of faith being the cause or at least preventing the cure of my depression did again a whole lot more damage than anyone else.  Their lack of understanding and compassion, their righteous judgment and impatience with my pain – all of that led me much more quickly to the place of contemplating and planning my own suicide than anything else.”

               So what do we do with this?  As people of faith, how are we called to respond?  People who are struggling with mental illness have a hard time asking for help.  Putting it onto them, demanding that they seek the help they need is like asking a person who is carrying a 100 pound backpack to lift another 100 pounds.  It can be the hardest thing in the world to reach out when you are in that place.  So, as people of faith, we have a responsibility.  We have a responsibility to ask, to look, to see.  We are called to be courageous, and to say the hard words, “are you struggling?”  and then the follow through, “are you considering hurting yourself?”  We have to be brave and start seeing mental illnesses as the diseases they are and offering the help we have to give, not in terms of platitudes about “letting go” or “turning it over” or “bucking up” but in terms of offering to sit with someone, be with someone, listen to them, even when we can’t “fix” it.  This is true of social anxiety as well: just telling someone not to worry fails to recognize that anxiety is not something people CHOOSE.  It is therefore extremely unhelpful to just tell someone with anxiety to simply “don’t worry about it.”  We have to be willing to offer the prayers to God on behalf of that other person, asking what we can do to help.  We also have to be willing to intervene, step in and take the person to the doctor for treatment, even when there aren’t cures.  Mostly, we have to have the courage to not turn away or look away from that which makes us uncomfortable or uneasy.  We have to be willing to put aside our judgments, knowing we don’t and CAN’T understand what someone else is experiencing.

               Mental illnesses – these are struggles that appear to have no meaning.  The loss of life, lives like Robin Williams that were full of laughter and compassion and philanthropy – there is no purpose to these deaths.  But we can help God bring good out of every evil by choosing to learn from those horrible things that have happened, to change the way we interact and care and respond to others, to take a step towards healing our world by being present enough with one another. 

               In today’s gospel story from Luke we see Jesus dealing with the demons, which appear to me in this case to be more about mental illness.  In some ways being able to refer to them as demons made it easier: these mental illnesses were recognized as something the person had, and not the person themselves.  Can we do the same and remember that each person is more than just their illnesses?  Their challenges?  Their struggles? 

I also want to challenge all of us to think about this differently.  The truth is, not one of us is 100% healthy.  We understand this at a physical level.  Each of us has something wrong: we are overweight, or we have osteo-arthritis.  We have need of glasses or hearing aids.  We have high blood pressure or diabetes.  Even as kids, some have broken arms, some have anxiety attacks: whatever it is, not one of us is 100% physically healthy.  And I would say the same is true mentally.  Not one of us is 100% mentally well.  Not one.  Whether you are struggling with anxiety, or fear; whether you deal with your pain by swallowing it down or flying into rages; or if you have a diagnosed issue such as depression or bipolar disorder: None of us is 100% mentally healthy which means that all of us are on a spectrum of mental health.   This isn’t an issue of “us” vs. “Them”.  For some of us the illness might be diagnosed or treated.  For others it might be as simple as being afraid or dealing with anxiety.  But not one of us here is mentally “whole”.  We are on a continuum, and the sooner we can stop dividing the world into those with mental illness and those without, the sooner we can learn to have compassion for those around us who are struggling with serious mental illness.  In today’s passage from Galatians Paul tells us that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free.  He is telling us that in Christ there is NO Us and Them.  This applies to mental health as well.  There aren’t “those with mental illnesses” and “those without”.  In Christ we are one.  We are all connected, we belong to one another.  And the sooner we can remember that, the more compassion, the more grace and the more wholeness there will be, for me, for you, and for the world. 

About a year and a half ago we offered a training here through zoom in how to deal with those who are struggling with mental illness.  I have to give you all credit that the training was well attended.  In many congregations when these things are offered, they are not well attended because people do not want to talk about mental illness.  People are afraid of those with mental illness, seeing them as somehow different, or other. But I think so many of us here were willing to attend the training because we are used to interacting with it, dealing with those who live next door to us, for example, who struggle with mental illness.  None the less, I say again that this is an area in which we have to continue to learn, continue to grow in our ability to address and care for those in our midst who struggle with mental illness.  And that has to start by remembering they are not “other”.  They are us. 

So once again, it comes back to what I said before: Mental illnesses can be demons which seem almost impossible to tame at times.  But we can be present.  We can pray.  And we can learn to stand with and fight with our brothers and sisters in their pain.  I will stand with you if you are there.  And as a community we can make a commitment to stand, as God’s people, with one another.  Amen.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022



1 Peter 4:1-19

Malachi 3:1-3

Matthew 5:43-48


“There stood Beethoven, gravely ill and totally deaf.  Eyes closed, he kept conducting the orchestra even after they had ceased their performance and the audience had risen to its feet in thunderous applause.  As a singer stepped from the choir to turn him around to see those whose shouts of “bravo” resonated throughout the concert hall, tears of elation filled his eyes.  Perhaps the worst loss a composer could experience had been the catalyst for a remarkably adaptive creativity that allowed him to transcend his tortures to become immersed in the thrill of conducting the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, the “ode to Joy”.  At that moment, and not only in spite of but BECAUSE of his adversity, Beethoven had experienced the thrill of thriving through adversity.”  _ prelude of “Beethoven Factor”

I’ve found myself thinking a great deal about suffering lately.  And today’s passages really explore it and call us to look at it once again.  There is a Christian Education study entitled, “If you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat” which explores many aspects of stepping out in faith to walk as Jesus has called us to do, with God and each other.  The study explores our fear, the risks we take, how we perceive failure and also what we do with suffering because when we do take the risks of stepping out of the boat and stepping onto the water, there will be times when we suffer as a result, when we fall into the water, when we fail.  Even though we know there will be suffering, we are still called to do it.  We are still called to step out, take the risks of faith, go through the fire to come out on the other side, purified.  In one of the chapters, John Ortberg looks at what he calls the “resilience factor”.  He wrote, “People who not only survive but grow through difficult situations have (been found to have) three qualities in common:  1.  They take action, seeking to reassert some command over their destiny rather than viewing themselves as helpless victims.  2.  They have a larger-than usual capacity for what might be called moral courage – for refusing to betray their values.  And 3.  They find meaning and purpose in their suffering.” 

In the book, the Beethoven Factor, the new positive psychology of hardiness, happiness, healing and hope, Paul Pearsall says a similar thing, especially in regards to finding meaning and purpose in suffering.  He says that some people who suffer don’t become victims or even survivors, instead they become thrivers, people who actually grow through and because of their pain and suffering.  He lists twelve characteristics of such people, but many of them also have to do with finding meaning and purpose.  Number one on his list is that he says those who thrive rather than just becoming survivors, or staying always as victims have found meaning behind the things that have happened to them, though for each individual that will look different.  He also says that thrivers make sense of what has happened or is happening to them.  In other words, both of these studies emphasize again and again the importance in finding meaning and purpose in our suffering if we are to come out stronger, thriving and resilient on the other side.

For much of the Western world, suffering seems pointless.  Our culture tells us the purpose of life is “fun”, or happiness.  And in that context, suffering can have no meaning.  As a result, many people in our culture have a very difficult time when pain does come.  Where is meaning and purpose in suffering when the goal is just to “be happy”?

But our faith paints for us a very different picture.  The Bible never tells us that life is about being happy or comfortable or at ease.  Meaning and purpose have many levels and many layers and therefore we can’t say there is one reason or one purpose behind any individual’s suffering, we can’t determine for anyone else what their suffering is about, or why it is happening or what good God can bring out of it for any one person.  None the less, what we can and do know as people of faith is that God can and will bring purpose, meaning and new life out of suffering if we work with God, if we are open to God’s movement through the pain.  God creates meaning even when we can’t find it.  God brings resurrection out of death.  And for me, today’s passages really touch on the “reasons”, the purpose, the meaning behind all that we suffer.  The passage from Peter says that God uses suffering to “test” us.  I don’t really like the word “test” because for some that can imply that God authors our suffering to see how much we can put up with.  That isn’t my experience of God.  The God I experience does not create our suffering, but can use it to help us to grow, and to change.  And that is actually the truer meaning behind the Greek word that is here translated as “test”.  It is more accurately translated “challenge” in the sense that God uses our suffering to challenge us to grow, to learn, and to deepen in our connection with God and with life.  I find the same meanings present in the Malachi passage.  Our suffering can refine us.  As John says, it also “prunes” us.  Our suffering can lead us to be more godly, but only if we are open to the purpose God can put into it, open to being “refined” through the hardships. 

As Rick Warren, author of Purpose Given Life said in an interview, “We were made by God and for God, and until you figure that out, life isn't going to make sense…Life is a series of problems: Either you are in one now, you're just coming out of one, or you're getting ready to go into another one.  The reason for this is that God is more interested in your character than your comfort; God is more interested in making your life holy than (God) is in making your life happy.  We can be reasonably happy here on earth, but that's not the goal of life. The goal is to grow in character, in Christ likeness.”

As we know, this isn’t easy.  Malachi tells us this isn’t easy when he compares the process to the pruning of branches, to the refining of metals.  Growing in character means loving more fully, more deeply, even those we don’t like.  Getting there is hard.  And knowing exactly how to do this, how to love more deeply and fully is a challenge.  So God pushes, God “refines” us and “prunes” us so that we might bear more fruit, so that we might be the pure, refined silver we are meant to be.  That hurts.  It just does.  But that also gives meaning to the suffering that comes.  Again, I’m not saying that God causes our suffering.  What I am saying is that when we do suffer, God can use it and DOES use it to refine us if we are open.  While I don’t believe God purposely wants us to hurt, I do believe God can bring and create meaning through our suffering by allowing it to teach and refine us into more godly people. 

Some women in a Bible study came across this passage from Malachi, “God will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.”  One of the women offered to find out the process of refining silver and get back to the group at their next Bible Study. That week, the woman called a silversmith and made an appointment to watch him at work.  She didn't mention anything about the reason for her interest beyond her curiosity about the process of refining Silver.  As she watched the silversmith, he held a piece of silver over the fire and let it heat up.  He explained that in refining silver, one needed to hold the silver in the middle of the fire where the flames were hottest as to burn away all the impurities.  The woman thought about God holding us in such a hot spot; then she thought again about the verse that says:  'He sits as a refiner and purifier of silver.'   She asked the silversmith if it was true that he had to sit there in front of the fire the whole time.  The man answered that yes, he not only had to sit there holding the silver, but he had to keep his eyes on the silver the entire time it was in the fire.  If the silver was left a moment too long in the flames, it would be destroyed.  The woman was silent for a moment.  Then she asked the silversmith, 'How do you know when the silver is fully refined?'

He smiled at her and answered, 'Oh, that's easy -- when I see my image in it.'

   “…When I see my image in it”. 

God refines us until we are truly in God’s image.  What an amazing and wondrous act of love on God’s part, to be with us in that suffering to the point where we are truly made in God’s image.  To be in the image of the God of love, is to love.  To be in the image of the God who loved us so much that that God was willing to die for us, is to love each other so much that we are willing to die for each other.  Not easy.  But that is what being in relationship with God pushes us towards, and challenges us to do.

At one church where I shared this story, one of the congregation’s members approached me afterwards and said something that I also think can help us through times of suffering.  She said, “How hot it must be for God to sit there and refine constantly.”  That is the other part of Jesus on the cross as well.  God is with us in our pain, God is with us in our suffering.  And God is standing alongside in the heat, also suffering but still intent on helping us grow through and beyond our trials.

  A Hawaiian elder once said, “God sometimes tears at the fabric of our lives so that we will learn to be better weavers and to show us how to more deeply appreciate being given the chance to weave.  We may not see the final pattern, but we are wise if we try to find new patterns and become more patient and creative weavers.” (Beethoven factor, xxviii)

And it doesn’t end there.  As the passage from Peter tells us, “After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, the one who called you into his eternal glory in Christ Jesus, will himself restore, empower, strengthen, and establish you.”  So finally, the other side of suffering comes.  We are refined, we are made new, and in that newness we are brought to healing, to strength and to a stronger place.  Thanks be to God.