Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Crying Out

Isaiah 40:1-8
Mark 1:1-8

Clementine Von Radics said this, “You silly (person), you think you’ve survived so long that survival shouldn’t hurt anymore.  You keep trying to turn your body bullet proof.  You keep trying to turn your heart bomb shelter.  You silly thing.  You are soft and alive.  You bruise and heal.  Cherish it.  It is what you are born to do.”
               Living is hard.  And so, it is no wonder that we have Isaiah’s words for us today…  “Comfort, O comfort my people.”  We are all looking for that comfort, for that reassurance in hard times.  We are all looking for a sense of peace in the face of adversity.  We are all looking for salvation from whatever we are struggling with.  I saw a post the other day, “If Comedy is tragedy plus time, I need more time.  But I would really settle for less tragedy to be honest with you.”  I think especially this year as we struggle with what is happening in our communities, in our country and around the world, as we struggle with climate change and racism, sexism, heterosexism; as we see increased violence and hatred, as we fight among our families and as we polarize more and more.  As we know people who've lost their homes to fires, to hurricanes, to disasters, to shootings...How do we face it all in this time that is supposed to be happy?  We ask for comfort, we ask for Christmas.
               But even as we yearn, we want, we ask for comfort, for Christmas, Advent is the time of waiting.  The comfort doesn’t come right away, we aren’t healed instantly, the resurrection comes in steps, over time, sometimes so slowly we don’t even see it.
               The journal, “spirituality and practice” lists several things we can do during advent to signal our willingness to wait, our commitment to waiting during this Advent time.  These are:  Let God sit in the director's chair.  Give up your fantasy timetables and go with the flow. Do not try to push the river; all will happen in God's time.  Let go of any negative images you carry around about waiting.  Have faith that all good things come to those who wait patiently.  Grow through periods of waiting that entail darkness and dread.  Work to reduce your anger and frustration about waiting.  Always be a person animated by hope.  Take time during periods of waiting to count your blessings.
               These are great suggestions (if a little na├»ve: all good things don’t come to EVERYONE who waits, and “blessings” take many forms, for example). Still, I admit from a personal perspective that I don’t wait well.  I get really impatient and easily frustrated. This week showed a perfect example of this.  I’ve had my computer for about four and a half years now, which is in itself an amazing thing since I seem to zap computers as well as other electronic devices, as many of you know.  But it has been a long time and so now my computer appears to be in full-collapse mode.  It runs extremely slowly, and it freezes up on a regular basis.  I’ve taken it to get help many times over the years, at this point mostly from David, though I’ve also taken it into the Geek Squad.  Whey Geek Squad “fixes” it, it usually it comes back with more problems than when it left.  When David works on it, it’s fine for a while (after all, he’s managed to keep the thing running for 4 and half years which is the longest I’ve ever been able to keep a computer working), but that “while” is becoming shorter and shorter.  Again, this is typical for me.  My electro-aura simply zaps anything and everything electronic, and since I use my computer a lot, it tends to develop problems quickly.  Being in a close relationship with an IT guy though can actually make the problems worse in that the computer usually works for him.  Just not for me.  This week my computer developed a new issues.  I was working on my sermon and wanted to use some internet resources that I had bookmarked and set aside for this Sunday.  But as I tried to pull up those pages that I had bookmarked, they failed to load.  I sat and watched as my lap top connected to the internet, disconnected from the internet, connected and disconnected itself in rapid succession.  I ran the “trouble-shooter”, which told me the problem was not with my computer but with the router.  But since we currently have a plethora of computers, smart phones and other devices that connect themselves to the internet and none of these were having issues, I knew that no, despite the computer’s desire to blame something else, the problem was once again with my lap-top.  I became extremely frustrated, impatient, did not want to wait until things could be fixed or redone or set up in a new way.  I did not want to borrow someone else’s computer since my sermon was partly written on my own already, I did not want to DEAL with the waiting.  I wanted things fixed NOW.  Can you relate to that frustration and struggle with waiting? 
               More seriously, if you have ever been on a mission trip, you may have found that the hardest moments are those of waiting.  In all my years of leading mission trips, I have found a pretty consistent pattern.  We go to do work, to fix up houses, to help people with their disasters and their homes.  But part of the process of these trips is that we go, evaluate what exactly needs to be done, and then need to purchase the materials.  That involves waiting for people to return with the materials, often discovering they aren’t quite the right ones, waiting for our local carpentry expert to return with ideas and the trailer to go pick up more materials.  There is a great deal of waiting.  When we have traveled far to make a difference and we have limited time to be there, the waiting is extremely hard.
               But as with every challenge, when we have eyes to see we can choose to look at everything that happens as blessings from God.  My moments without internet access have been a gift, if only I would choose to use it in that way, because they did call me to sit still, to wait, and to think about the lessons in that waiting, for me, in that moment.  The article from Spirituality and Practice that talked about the commitments we can make to waiting during Advent also talked about the spiritual gifts that come from the practice of waiting.  These include developing patience, giving up control and accepting what IS, learning to live in the present, compassion, gratitude, humility, and most of all, trust in God. They are invitations to take time to pray, to cry out, if that is what we are feeling, in the frustration and impatience of the moment.  These moments and weeks call us to take the time of waiting as the gift that it is to talk to God, to rest, to wait. The moments of waiting at the mission sites invite us to spend time talking with the people we are helping and with each other.  Those conversations and the building of relationships are so much more important, frankly, than the physical work we do anyway.  Those create opportunities to learn as well.  Why are some people in these situations while we are not?  What have lives been like that have given some so many more advantages and privileges than others?  These opportunities for relationship are also invitations to grow.
               Our culture has become more and more an “instant gratification” culture.  There is very little opportunity for us to learn patience, to learn to give up control over our surroundings and the things that happen to us, to learn to be wholly present in each moment, despite whatever we have or don’t have right now.  There is very little opportunity, as we depend on our things, and on our toys and on the internet and our instant access to information, communication, resources, etc to learn to trust God for what the next moments might hold for us.  With all of that, is it any surprise that people are not as interested in faith issues?  For those who have not experienced needing to rely solely on their trust of God, and finding that that trust really is enough to carry us through, that God really is with us, why would we trust God?  If we haven’t experienced God in this way, how can we trust that God will be there for us in those times?  It is something we are called to practice: to practice reliance on God. 
               Waiting is hard.  But God gives us this gift, and we have the chance to grow from it.  John the Baptist came paving the way for Jesus, inviting the wait before Jesus’ began his ministry.  Isaiah proclaimed the coming of justice, of comfort, of release from oppression.  And he wrote that in a time of exile for the Israelites.  They weren’t home, but exiled to a foreign land. Isaiah’s declaration of God’s promise was sound.  They were returned home.  But none of that was instantaneous.  The Israelites had to wait decades.  These things were coming.  These passages were and are calls to live into hope while we wait.  To trust in God, while we wait.  To let go of control, while we wait.  To learn patience while we wait. 
               I think we will find that there are gifts even beyond the Spiritual gifts I already listed in the waiting.  I found this quote as well from AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh:   “Well, said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think.  Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.”
                I think it’s called “Advent”.
               There is something deliciously wonderful in the anticipation of the good that is about to come.  There is something amazingly wonderful in the moments before you open that first Christmas present, in the moments before you see your new baby for the first time, in the moments before that visitor you’ve waited for has come.  There is something incredibly life-giving in the hope and anticipation of Advent.  Experience it, live it, enjoy it.  For it is a gift from God.

               

Friday, December 8, 2017

Loneliness

      I believe we are living in a culture that is experiencing an epidemic of loneliness.  I see it in the social media boom: people "talk" constantly through their tweets, Facebook and other social media as a way to try to connect to others.  People seem much more compelled to "speak" through these media sound bites than to actually spend time together.  Often, now, people become fixated on their social media even when they are with other people.  The other day I was having a very intense personal conversation with a friend who wouldn't put down his phone and was Face-booking and responding to emails even as he asked me personal questions.  I felt strange talking to a bowed head and the back of someone's phone.  It felt almost shaming to have a person ask me something very private while not making eye contact with me, but while, instead, typing away on his phone.  I felt invisible.  I clearly wasn't the priority in that moment.  But since he was asking me personal and deep questions, I also didn't know how to deal with the situation.  Looking back, I probably should have said, "I can wait until you are done" before continuing, but in the moment, that did not occur to me and I couldn't think how to be polite but also clear that I was not going to have that intimate conversation with the back of someone's phone.
      I found myself wondering why emails, Facebook and tweeting are so much more compelling than actually talking to the person in front of you.  Perhaps it's because it feels like we are talking to a whole bunch of friends at once.  We also don't have to worry about being interrupted.  We type what we want to say, taking the time we need to be specific and thoughtful about our words (or not), we don't always know who will respond or "listen" but we can expect that at least someone out there will.  Also, it is fast and we can disengage as quickly as we want.  We can, in a cyber way, connect with someone else for 30 seconds or for ten minutes without the pressure of an entire conversation, or with the awkwardness of beginnings and endings to one's time with someone else.  In our instant gratification society, that quick fix of a five minute interaction with a group of folk may feel very satisfying.  Some of us are more observers, others more sharers, but on social media we choose whether we just browse and read others' comments, respond to them, or start a line of conversation ourselves.  It seems perfect. It takes away the loneliness, gives us instant support when we need it, an instant entertainment otherwise.  It does not require much from us, we only engage it when we want to for the length of time that we choose.  We get to engage more than one person, usually, at a time, and we can talk about anything we choose, saying whatever we want in the time and space we want to say it.
      Sounds ideal, right?
      Except for the long list of downsides to this.  First, we are forgetting how to really talk to each other, how to truly build relationships, how to go "deep" with another person, something that takes time and intentionality.  We are physically isolated in our homes with only our electronics to keep us company.  We no longer touch and engage real people.  I ask you to consider, how many close friends do you have at whose homes you could just show up at any time?  Most of the real "talking" we do with close friends is still done through electronics, mostly done by text or by phone.  How often in a week do you get together with friends to just be together?  It's not like the way it used to be when people saw each other daily and met for coffee in each other's homes with regularity.  We live in our little boxes, rarely know our neighbors, those who actually live and breathe and work and eat near us.
      This also means that we tend to only be friends with people who have similar ideas and visions to ourselves.  We are friends with those with whom we work, perhaps, or those in the same fields.  We aren't pushed to know the next door neighbor who has radically different politics or a different faith from us.  We only connect with like-minded people, and we are the ones who lose out as a result.  Our ideas are not expanded, only supported by others who are similar to us.  Our vision and thoughts aren't pushed or challenged.
      Another obvious problem: people can become mean behind the anonymity of media.  It is easy to forget that the person you are talking to is a real, flesh and blood human being with feelings and thoughts and worries and histories and experiences which make them vulnerable, fragile, REAL.  We've all read about the damage done through cyber bullying, the teens at risk because of the cruel words spoken to them or the images sent to them that damage psyches and sometimes lead to suicides.  This happens to adults, too, in case you were wondering.  The habits of anonymous and cruel cyber bullying grow with the cyber bullies into adulthood and become a pattern of terrible meanness that injures far more people than we will probably ever know.
      All of this also leads to further emotional, psychological and even physical issues.  There is a wonderful video out about the causes of addition that suggests that a large part of our personal problems stem from social isolation, from loneliness, from a lack of support. While I don't agree that this is the only cause of these problems, I do think that we need to start looking at the social causes (and social solutions!) to these issues with much more seriousness.
      We know our politics are becoming much more polarized as we forget how to talk to each other, and more, how to listen to one another.
      What if, for one day a week, everyone were to put down their phones, computers and other electronic "friends" and actually go spend time with their real human friends, or, even more radically, with their neighbors?  How would our lives change?  How would things be different?  Might we start learning to talk and listen to each other again?  Might we begin to close some of the gaps in our thinking and understanding and visions for the world?  Might we learn and grow and deepen in new ways?  And, most of all, perhaps we would find we aren't so lonely anymore.  And that would not be a bad thing!

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Unkindness and self-righteousness

     We live in a time when self-righteous judging is just a fact of life.  We judge each other, condemn each other, without listening, without even talking about what specifically we don't like or why.  It's just judgment, just condemnation, just attacks and accusations, without the conversations, without real engagement with folk about their thoughts, their ideas, their feelings, their histories, or what creates the world views and opinions that we each have.
      I saw an article (well, video) recently that said that contempt is the current biggest problem with American politics.  It really resonated with me because, again, we aren't kind.  And it seems to me there are a few basic, human things we could do to begin to change this.
    1.  Confront ideas rather than attacking people.  We don't have to call people names or condemn people, even those who've done really awful things.  We can, instead, critique ideas or even behaviors (like, for example, the behaviors of being self-righteous and attacking).  One of the gifts of this is that it gives people the benefit of the doubt.  It recognizes the humanity of the other person which should supersede a person's ideas or even their actions.  It is a way of saying that we believe the other to basically be a decent person who just sees the world differently and explores the possibilities of why that might be the case.
    2.  When we disagree with something, don't like it, or think it is wrong, we should say what specifically we don't agree with and then say why.  Global statements, "you are wrong" or even "I don't like what you said" or "the way you do this is not acceptable" are not helpful to anyone because they are not specific.  Statements like that create enemies, they set up walls and barriers between people without there ever being an opportunity for learning, understanding or bridge-building.  Specific statements, "When you said x, it was unjust or unfair because of y" or even better, "when you did x, I felt y because z" (so putting it back to ourselves, claiming our part, claiming what bothered me specifically rather than attacking the other person) are much, much more helpful because they allow for dialogue, they open the possibility of learning and exploration of ideas, they move us forward in communication with each other.
    3.  Chose always to start with compassion and understanding rather than fury, rage, or hatred.  This one is harder, MUCH harder.  When we are attacked, it is normal, it is almost instinctual, to respond with a counter attack.  But taking a deep breathe and trying to hear under the rage, to hear under the anger, to listen to the pain, to the life story of the other person will go a long way towards building bridges, creating communication and furthering the possibilities of learning, growth and movement.
    4.  Try to have real conversations, not through social media, but in person and using our words, rather than memes and constant attacking posts.
     
      There are other ways we can work towards building bridges as well, but I think that these really simple things are so important to the way we communicate with each other.  We are becoming increasingly isolated, increasingly polarized, and we make enemies far too quickly of people who should be our allies, should be other human beings on the same journey as we are, should become friends and family.  We miss out simply by failing to be kind, failing to listen, and failing to communicate specifically, clearly, and directly when we disagree with something.

      Personally, I was just confronted with a situation in which I was attacked by someone who should have been a support person, through social media, for something I said without the specifics of why what I said was a problem; and, equally, without any comprehension that I was sharing about a problem that I, myself, carry and deal with every single day.  The cruelty and condemnation of the other person was overwhelming. I tried to respond with clarity and and an apology, only to be met with silence. This happens. I had a choice then, in that moment.  Do I practice what I preach and try to stay engaged?  Asking for more clarity?  Speaking with love and compassion?  Or do I let the door that the other self-righteously and judgmentally slammed stay closed?  I'll admit that in the moment I was not able to continue the engagement. There was no way to have a real, actual, in person conversation. Plus, the attack had been far too personal, far too intimate an attack for me to stay engaged in that moment. And finally, my attempts at communication were met with silence, without explanations, without specifics. I've had to realize that not all people who claim to be loving and compassionate can be, or can be at all times. Some carry their own scars, some carry their own chips on their shoulders that they are simply unable to put down; and some, I've finally come to believe, are simply not good people. They attack the weakest and most vulnerable among us at their weakest and most vulnerable moments, without self reflection and without a willingness to hear others.  Sometimes that means we have to turn away, simply to take care of ourselves.
      But most of the time, I think we can use the reasons I've just listen as my own, as an excuse to fail to engage in real conversation.  And my sense is that the more we practice bridge-building communication and listening, the better we will become at it.  Also, we have a responsibility to stand up to bullies, not by bullying back, but by engaging them in the ways I've listed, if not for our own sake, then for the sake of those who are not as able to stand up for themselves.  We never know when our own choices to be compassionate may change someone else.  We never know when we actually touch someone or make a difference.  But I can pretty much guarantee that we don't change others for the better by being cruel, condemning, self-righteous or judging.
      No doubt I should have tried harder in my own situation.  But I suppose the self change and choices to engage start with an awareness that we have choices; that we can choose compassion in the face of cruelty, that we can be bridge-builders even with those who don't know how to listen or communicate without judgment or condemnation; that the place of power is one not of being reactive to others' anger or hate but being proactively compassionate and grace-filled.  It's a goal for me.  I hope it will be for you, too!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Keep Awake

Isaiah 64:1-9
Mark 13:24-37

“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. ..Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn.  If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping.  What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’” 
               Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and we are told, once again, to keep alert, to keep watch.  We need to be faithful, to not wait by sitting and doing nothing, but by actively preparing for the coming one by doing those things that create in us a space, first to see Christ when Christ comes; second, to be ready to receive God in the most unlikely of places, and third to be ready for our lives to be changed quickly and completely by Christ’s presence.
               Again, this does not mean failing to be active.  It does not mean sitting and waiting.  “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”  It means watching from a place of living fully, and of being ready for the coming of Christ. 
               We just don’t know what tomorrow will bring.  I am reminded of the passage from Mitch Albom’s book, “for one more day” in which his characters have this dialogue, 
“Life goes quickly, doesn’t it Charley?” 
“Yeah” I mumbled.
“It’s such a shame to waste time.  We always think we have so much of it.”  I thought about the days I had handed over to a bottle.  The nights I couldn’t remember.  The mornings I slept through.  All that time spent running from myself.
              
Most of us struggle with different things, different issues, different situations.  But we all struggle with something, avoid something, get lost in something, give up times of really loving in one way or another.  If we knew that our life would end tomorrow, what would we do differently?  More to the point of today’s story, if we knew that Christ was coming tomorrow, what would we do differently?  If we knew that our world was about to turn on its head, that the prince of peace, our wonderful counselor, the alpha and omega, the God of Love were coming tomorrow, what would we do differently? 
               During Advent we prepare by remembering that God came to us as a baby, helpless, little, innocent, new (ie in an unexpected way), and to an unexpected mother in an unexpected time and place.  We remember that those with eyes to see did see and were blessed, deeply, in the seeing.  We remember that others saw and felt threatened, and that most people just didn’t know, couldn’t comprehend that God would choose to come to us in this unusual way, at that unusual time, in those unusual circumstances.  We prepare, we wait and watch, by remembering all of this. 
But here’s the thing: God does come anew each day if we have eyes to see God.  Being ready to see God, being prepared to see God is being open to seeing God.  Where is God moving today in your life?  Where is God showing up today in your life?  During Advent we are reminded to pray, to ask, to be able to see God’s presence, care, love, amazing grace when it comes each day.  And sometimes we do see it.   And what about when we can’t?  We are often guilty of seeing what we know rather than knowing what we see.
I am reminded of the movie, The Whale Rider.  The girl, Paikea, is part of a Maori tribe in search of its new chief, a new whale rider who will lead their people.  Her grandfather has very set ideas about who this person must be.  His set ideas do not allow him to see.  They do not allow him to really look with open eyes.  And despite all the signs that say that his granddaughter, Pai, is the new whale rider, he rejects this again and again until finally, from that stubborn place, his actions lead to a great tragedy. It is a wonderful movie that we will show for Faith and Film night, probably in January, so I will not give away the ending.  But I am aware that this is another “true” story, in that it tells the truth that happens again and again.  People fail to see what they do not expect to see, what they do not want to see.  People fail to see anything that challenges their mind sets and values.  We are also often guilty of only seeing what we fear…
A school principal told this story: Like most elementary schools, it was typical to have a parade of students in and out of the health clinic throughout the day. We dispensed ice for bumps and bruises, Band-Aids for cuts, and liberal doses of sympathy and hugs.  As principal, my office was right next door to the clinic, so I often dropped in to lend a hand and help out with the hugs. I knew that for some kids, mine might be the only one they got all day. One morning I was putting a Band-Aid on a little girl's scraped knee. Her blonde hair was matted, and I noticed that she was shivering in her thin little sleeveless blouse. I found her a warm sweatshirt and helped her pull it on.. "Thanks for taking care of me," she whispered as she climbed into my lap and snuggled up against me. It wasn't long after that when I ran across an unfamiliar lump under my arm. Cancer, an aggressively spreading kind, had already invaded thirteen of my lymph nodes. I pondered whether or not to tell the students about my diagnosis. The word breast seemed so hard to say out loud to them, and the word cancer seemed so frightening. When it became evident that the children were going to find out one way or another, either the straight scoop from me or possibly a garbled version from someone else, I decided to tell them myself. It wasn't easy to get the words out, but the empathy and concern I saw in their faces as I explained it to them told me I had made the right decision.
When I gave them a chance to ask questions, they mostly wanted to know how they could help.   I told them that what I would like best would be their letters, pictures, and prayers.  I stood by the gym door as the children solemnly filed out. My little blonde friend darted out of line and threw herself into my arms. Then she stepped back to look up into my face. "Don't be afraid, Dr. Perry," she said earnestly, "I know you'll be back because now it's our turn to take care of you."
No one could have ever done a better job. The kids sent me off to my first chemotherapy session with a hilarious book of nausea remedies that they had written. A video of every class in the school singing get-well songs accompanied me to the next chemotherapy appointment.  By the third visit, the nurses were waiting at the door to find out what I would bring next. It was a delicate music box that played "I Will Always Love You.." Even when I went into isolation at the hospital for a bone marrow transplant, the letters and pictures kept coming until they covered every wall of my room. Then the kids traced their hands onto colored paper, cut them out and glued them together to make a freestanding rainbow of helping hands. "I feel like I've stepped  into Disneyland every time I walk into this room," my doctor laughed.  That was even before the six-foot apple blossom tree arrived adorned with messages written on paper apples from the  students and teachers. What healing comfort I found in being surrounded by these tokens of their caring... At long last I was well enough to return to work. As I headed up the road to the school, I was suddenly overcome by doubts. What if the kids had forgotten all about me? I wondered, What if they don't want a skinny bald principal? What if… I caught sight of the school marquee as I rounded the bend. "Welcome Back, Dr. Perry," it read. As I drew closer, everywhere I looked were pink ribbons - ribbons in the windows, tied on the doorknobs, even up in the trees. The  children and staff wore pink ribbons, too.
My blonde buddy was first in line to greet me. "You're back, Dr. Perry, you're back!" she called. "See, I told you we'd take care of you!" As I hugged her tight, in the back of my mind I faintly heard my music box playing . . . "I will always love you.."

               When we fail to have our eyes open, to be prepared, in each moment for the coming Christ, tragedies occur, the greatest of which is missing God right here, among us, every day.  But where there is a risk of tragedy, there is also abundant grace. The grace of Advent is that  God comes even when we aren’t looking.  God shows up even when we don’t feel anything is different or anything has changed.  God shows up in the midst of our fear, our anxiety, and our inability at times to see.  We are called especially during advent to prepare for that coming.  To wait, to watch, to look.  My prayer then for us all is that we have the eyes to see when God comes, each and every time.  Amen.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Ten Who Were Healed

Deuteronomy 8:1-20
Luke 17:11-19

Once upon a time there was a homeless woman named Sam.  Sam had not always been homeless and she wasn’t exactly sure why or when she had become so.  She had some vague recollection that she used alcohol too much and that things had become fuzzy and unclear overtime.  She was fired from her job for being drunk, she lost her home and her family left her because of the bottle. But they didn’t understand. They couldn’t understand. Alcohol was the only thing that gave her comfort, gave her warmth. It was the one friend she could count on to get her through the days. So she slept where she was when she was tired, eating what she found, mostly trying to escape into the bottle whenever she could find the money to do so. People didn’t treat her the same afterwards. They wouldn’t look at her, wouldn’t answer her if she called out to them.  She had become invisible. When people did talk to her it was usually to yell at her to get a job or to spit on her. She wished they would show her a job she could get, or that she could keep. After a while she told herself the way others treated her didn’t bother her anymore. They just didn’t understand.  Sam’s leprosy was addiction.
Daniel was also homeless.  But he was homeless for a different reason.  The voices in his head had begun while he was still a college student.  But without a network of family to support him, he had had nowhere to go when the University kicked him out.  Strangers on the street seemed frightened of him.  They didn’t ignore him - no, they went out of the their way to avoid him.  At least the voices kept him company, though what they said was sometimes mean or scary.  At least he wasn’t alone.  Daniel’s leprosy was schizophrenia. 
Joan was a gang member.  She wore her gang colors and walked through the streets with both the pride and courage of her group, but also with the fear of other gangs.  She walked with a weapon in her pocket, hand on the handle, she walked with her eyes constantly scanning around her.  She walked with the memory of gang members hurt and killed, wearing the scarf of sought revenge.  Her hatred gave her the strength to overcome the grief, to get up each day, to walk each day with plans - but without much hope of living past her twenty fifth birthday.  She saw the fear of those around her.  Their fear fed her determination.  The police harassed her on a regular basis: they too only fueled her courage.  They didn’t know nothin’.  They didn’t understand.  But she would show them. Joan’s leprosy was hatred……
Joe was an ex-convict.  He had a bad start in life, had been abandoned by his mother and beaten by his father. As a result he started very young with bullying, he got involved with the wrong crowd and had found acceptance participating in petty theft, becoming involved in drugs, committing minor assault.  He had been to jail on several occasions now, and had a couple convictions.  He’d tried to go straight.  But he’d found that his convictions meant he was unable to get a job, for the first question on any application is “have you ever committed a felony?”  So he returned to the only life he could lead: one of crime.  He saw enemies all around him, he had to be careful, careful.  And he found himself expanding into bigger and worse crimes as he became desperate and as he found he cared less and less for himself or anyone else.  Joe’s leprosy was his past.
(5.,6.,7.,8.)      Myeesha was an African American woman raised in a neighborhood that still revered the Klu Klux Klan.  Tim was a gay man beaten up again and again for being a “queer”.  Ali was a Muslim man, harassed and even detained because he looked like a “terrorist”.  And Jose was an immigrant who did not speak any English, pursued and attacked because of his immigrant status.  All four had had enough. They were angry, they were bitter. They lived in terror with pains that had not been healed.  Their leprosy?  Social rejection and prejudice that had led in the end to an inflamed terror anger that were eating each from the inside out.
            Suzie had AIDS, Quentin had actual leprosy.  Their diseases were feared and as a result, they were feared.  Poor, at the end of their financial ability to pay for medical care, their leprosies were exactly that: they were outcasts, never to be accepted, never to be healed.
Imagine then, that one day Jesus came to these lepers, here and now.  He came to this town and these ten people.  These “lepers” all approached him.  Still keeping their distance they shouted out to him and called, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”
When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests...to the medics, to those who can say, ‘your leprosy has been healed’ and who can allow you, invite you, incorporate and include you back into society.”  And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when she saw that she was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. She prostrated herself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And she was not one of us: she was not a Christian, not an American, not one of us. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean?  But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”
Where were the other nine?  We can see where they are. One was still bitter that he had gotten leprosy in the first place, not thankful that what was rightfully his was returned to him.  Another, an atheist scientist couldn’t accept that Jesus had anything to do with the cure.  Another didn’t realize she had been cured. Another felt lost without the thing that defined him any longer.  Another ran home to be with the family he had not been able to face for years. Another felt cheated - she hadn’t had to work for the cure and believed that work was an important part of receiving healing. One had gone to preach the good news to all who would listen. Another was afraid of Jesus - this man who had such amazing power. One was doing what she was told - going to the priest because that’s what Jesus had said to do. And another was so happy that he just plain forgot and was too busy dancing in the streets.
Jesus said to Sam, to the one who returned, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”  Sam stood and looked at Jesus.  “No,” she thought, “my faith has not done this - you have done this. God has done this. But looking at Jesus, she saw that what he had said was also true. Sam had chosen gratitude. It wasn’t just happiness, it wasn’t just a “feeling.” God had given all a place of thankfulness within and Sam had chosen to call on that place. Sam made a choice about the way she would look at the world; she chose to recognize all the gifts, including the “leprosy” that had led her to this miraculous place. They weren’t all comfortable gifts, but Sam was thankful for them all. In being healed in body, she was healing in spirit; and in being thankful, her mind was clearing. In seeing the gifts in every aspect of her life, she found the courage to face her pain and let go of her “leprosy”. Her faith that Jesus healed her, allowed her to be part of her healing, too. She chose gratitude: and that is a healing gift that continues, day after day.
--
Bonhoeffer said this, “In normal life we hardly realize how much more we receive than we give, and life cannot be rich without such gratitude. It is so easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements compared with what we owe to the help of others.”―Letters and Papers from Prison.
The Deuteronomy passage goes even farther reminding us not to forget who gave us every good thing. We did not earn what we have: it was all a gift. To repeat the passage, “Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.” 
That memory, the faith that accompanies it, and the gratitude that follows, makes us much more whole, much more happy (as I’ve shared before – studies show that gratitude goes a long, long way towards creating happiness and more, contentment in people), much more able to move forward into the world with success, with conviction and with energy.

            I hope that your Thanksgiving was truly a time of remembering all that has blessed your lives.  And my prayer for all of us is that we, too, find healing in our faith, and in our gratitude for all that God has given us.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Is it Ever Too Late?

I Thess. 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

               I would like to invite you to think of an experience you’ve had in which you were simply too late.  It could be a time, perhaps, when you made your decision to attend something too late to get tickets or to RSVP, or signed up for something past the date to enroll or showed up late to meet someone and the person you were meeting had given up on you and left.  Maybe you forgot to pay a bill and then found it after the due date.  It’s part of the human experience that we are sometimes late for things.  We miss deadlines or fail to meet deadlines.  There just simply are times when we’ve put something off, forgotten about something that needed to be done, or took longer to complete something, assuming it would not take as much time as it did, and as a result we are too late.   
               Most of the time these aren’t big important things and so it may have been hard for you to even remember, in this moment that I’m asking you to do so, a time when you were too late. 
               However there are situations in which being late or being unprepared in a timely way is serious, or really problematic. I think about my friend, “Susan”, who had been estranged from her father for years. In her late teens she became very angry with him and cut him off as soon as she was able to leave the house. However, after some time had passed, she worked through her childhood challenges and had finally come to a place where she was at peace with her past, where she remembered the good things her father had done and had enough compassion to understand the mistakes he made.  More importantly, she saw her own mistakes and she came to a place where she was ready to reconcile, to reach out, to apologize, to make amends and to create a new relationship with her father.  It took a long time to get there, but once she finally did, she still found that finding the time to reach out to her father was difficult.   She found herself postponing the reconnection in the name of busy schedules and more immediate concerns.  But it was during that time, a time when she was ready to reconcile but simply hadn’t done it yet when she got the news that her father had had a heart attack and had passed away.  That “being too late” was one she could not fix. 
               I think of a parishioner who a week before his death informed me that he had a burden he needed to confess, but that he wasn’t ready to do it.  While opportunities were offered, he never got to a place where he was ready before he became unable to talk or share.  I can only hope that his soul was at peace in the end. But I could not make him confess what he felt he needed to share, and time passed him by.
               I have another friend who in a rage said some things to a person she deeply loved and cared for.  Her apology was too late. She could not take back what she said, and she could not fix what had been done.  Her sense of what to say, her timing with her apology, her realization of what needed to happen to make the situation as whole, peaceful and healing as possible – all of it came too late.  I remember still another friend who had broken up with a man she had deeply loved.  When she came to the realization that her reasons were small, were trivial, and that this was the man she wanted to spend her life with, it was too late and he had found someone else.
               Personally, I find that the things I regret the most about my life are the opportunities I failed to  take until it was too late, as well as the wisdom about relationships, things that should have been said, could have been said, or might have been expressed differently, that also came too late.  Ralph Waldo Emerson said this about being too late, ”You can never do a kindness too soon because you never know how soon it will be too late.” 
               Friday at Faith and Film night we watched “Pieces of April” - a movie about the healing and reconciliation in a very broken, dysfunctional family.  As we reflected on the movie afterwards, I thought about the fact that the mother’s diagnosis of terminal cancer allowed the family members to make the very important decisions to reconcile.  But many people’s deaths are sudden – car accidents, heart attacks, or other.  We don’t know when these things will take someone we love.  If we aren’t diligent about healing our relationships, sometimes our efforts simply ARE too late.
               As Christians, as people of faith, passages like today’s from Matthew call us to be prepared in a further way, to be ready, and to be on time, to “bring enough oil with us that if the bridegroom comes later than we expect, we still have enough oil to meet him with lamps lit.”  This means putting our spiritual concerns above our worldly concerns, our busyness, our activities at all times. We do not know when we will be called to declare and stand up for our values, when we will be called upon to demonstrate who it is that we really serve. Is it God and the values of our faith that tell us that our primary concern must be about loving God above all and loving everyone we encounter as ourselves?  Or is it the world and the values of our society which tell us to care for ourselves and our own before thinking of others, that say, “go for that luxury because you deserve it?”  Are we ready for the day when we are confronted and forced to make our faith commitments clear by the choices that we make?  When we may be surprised by having to choose between God, faith, and love for others; or the world asking us to do something that is ‘wrong’ by the standards of love and care that our God calls us to uphold, that hurts others, that is a betrayal of our faith?  Most often we won’t even know we have declared ourselves until after the fact. It may be in hind-sight that we see when that moment came and went.  Are we prepared for it?
When it comes to spiritual matters, “being too late” can have great consequences.  If we fail to engage God in a meaningful way that creates in us wholeness and connection, we risk being too late – of missing out on the most important parts of this journey that we are given, of the depth of connections to life, each other, ourselves and God that we could have. The parable tells us that in waiting to connect with God, with Love until it is too late, we risk the possibility of being unknown to God.  And failing to be known by God is the greatest loss we can experience. 
               The reality is that we will probably have such moments.  And as the human beings that we are, my guess is that sometimes we will find, after the fact, that we have not acted in a way that honestly reflects values of love, compassion and faith, that we have chosen for the values of the world instead, that we have not chosen intimacy with God, not chosen to be known by God, have been unprepared in meeting God, but instead have walked and lived in a way that is contrary to the faith beliefs we espouse.
               So where, then, is the Good News in this?  I asked Jasmyn, about three years ago, as I was working on this parable for another sermon what she thought of this parable. She told me that she thought if the wise bridesmaids had been really wise they would have encouraged the bridegroom to give the others a second chance because it was not really their fault that they are foolish. I found great hope in her words, because they show a level of compassion for others that God shows us again and again. God is the God of love, of forgiveness, and of second chances.  We are given the opportunities, even when we mess up, to try again to work out our relationships with God.  When we mess up with God, God does forgive.  When we are too late, God does give us chances again and again to be faithful, to be connected to God, to be prepared to be in relationship with God. As the God character in Joan of Arcadia put it, “The question is what are you going to do now?  That’s what I’m all about – your next chance to do the right thing.  That’s how you know I am who I am.  That’s how you shall know me from all others.  What are you going to do now?  Every new decision is a chance to do the right thing.  You don’t get that from the other side…  It’s all about what you do next.” 
               Additionally, we, too, are called in all things to forgive, both the other and ourselves, when we are ‘too late’ and when others are “too late”.  And, we are given the amazing gift of being invited to learn from our mistakes.  Connie Shultz said, “If we can’t remember the wrong turns, we’re bound to get lost again.”  “Our mistakes and failures connect us to others in profound ways that our successes and conquests never will.  It’s in the moments of humility, when we have no choice but to see our own foibles and missteps, that the seed of compassion takes root in our hearts….I regret how often I hurt others when I was so sure some wrongs were beyond forgiving – until I committed them myself.” Just as God does not set a deadline for us, we are called to not set deadlines for others, but to accept and invite reconciliation and healing whenever it is offered, whenever it comes. That is good news both for us and for those we love.
               I do not believe that God sets limits or a time line on when you can turn to God. But still, God wants us to choose God now for our own sakes. Do we want to miss the wedding?  Do we want to miss out on knowing the God of celebration and of life and of love who is amazing and grace-filled and faithful and awesome?  When we are not prepared, when we are late, we miss out on those opportunities. We miss out on that closeness and wholeness and wondrous support. 
               Will God give us another chance? Of course. Will we mess up? We do, again and again.  But personally, I’m going to work hard to be ready, to not be late, to be present with God at all times.  Because I don’t want to miss the party and have to wait for the next chance. I don’t want the angst of being out in the cold waiting, while others are inside celebrating with the bridegroom. I don’t want the bridegroom saying to me, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.” And I don’t want that for anyone else, either. 
               I want to end with a poem that to me sums up the hope that is in today’s lesson.  It was written by Charles Peguy who is a French poet.  He wrote,
“When grace doesn’t come straight, it comes bent.
When it doesn’t come from above, it comes from below.
When it doesn’t come from the center, it comes from the circumference.
We may finish a way we never began, but we shall finish.
This age, this land, this people, this world, will get there along a road they never set out on.” 
And that is good news indeed.

Amen. 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

What is Love?

      I've found myself thinking about love a great deal lately.  We all want to be loved deeply and unconditionally.  But what does that mean?  When I think of love in its purest form, I really value the definition of Scott Peck who says something along the lines of "to love someone is to want and to work for that person's highest good."  I value that definition of love because it is all about the person who is being loved.  It is focused on them: on what is best for them.  It is deeply caring, deeply concerned, deeply empathetic as it requires really knowing the other, really seeing the other, and really valuing the other as the unique person that they are.  We all want to be loved this way: for ourselves.  We want to be appreciated, we want to be cherished.  We want to be seen and understood, to be the focus of someone's attention and affection.
      I believe most parents strive to love their children in this way: to love them for exactly who they are, to want what is best for them, and to work for their highest good. When we hear about parents rejecting their children, for whatever reason, we recognize it for the tragedy and travesty that it is.  We know those parents are not fulfilling their job as unconditionally loving care-givers.  And we see the devastation that results in the suicides and chronic depression that far too often follows parental rejection.  When parental love happens the way it is supposed to, we know it to be the truest and deepest form of love.
       We also envision this kind of love coming from the Divine, from God, whatever we understand that to be.  This love is a selfless, and unconditional caring for the other.  From God we expect that love to see us fully for who we are, to know us completely, and especially, to understand and accept and value us exactly as we are.  That is the ultimate in love.  And when we talk about being called by faith to love one another, this is the kind of love of which we speak.  We are mandated to see, care and have compassion for each other, expecting and wanting nothing in return, even as we work for the highest good of the other.
      But there are other ways in which we usually use the word "love" that I think require a different word altogether.  We often use the word "love" in relationship to romantic attachments, for example.  But this kind of love is not unconditional, and it is far from selfless.  It is a kind of "love" that wants, hopes and expects to be returned.  It is a "love" that is seeking something for the self, a kind of barter-love in which I will care for you if and when you care for me.  And at the point at which you stop caring for me, I will do everything I can to stop caring for you in return because this kind of love feels pain when it is not returned in the same way.  This thing we call love is a desire for something for ourselves - an intimacy, a connection and a care from the other.  It is motivated by self-interest and a yearning for closeness.  It is limited by circumstances and qualified by a trade in affection that we hope will be even.  It is everything the kind of love we hope for from God or from parents is not.  We often idolize this kind of love.  But less and less do I see this as ideal.  Yes, we need relationships.  Yes, we need mutuality.  Yes, we need intimacy.  But is this love?  Not the way I understand it.  Not the way we are called to offer it.  
      The same is true of friendships.  Most friendships require a mutuality, a give and take, a trading of affections for them to be considered "loving".  "Love" in a friendship is conditional upon trust, mutuality and commonalities. But again, this is not "Love" the way we are called to give it.
      I believe all of the deepest spiritual leaders model the first, ideal love for us, but since I am most familiar with Jesus, I will point out some of the ways in which he did this, calling us to do the same.
      First of all, he never demanded that someone change before loving or caring for them.  He loved them and that allowed some people to change, but the love, the unconditional love, always came first.  He prevented the stoning of the woman caught in adultery before inviting her to change.  He offered healing water to the woman at the well before telling her her past history.  He offered to eat with Zacchaeus without reservation or comment and Zacchaeus chose to change as a result.  He healed the ten lepers, even though only one returned to give thanks.  Again and again, he offered care and love unconditionally and fully.  That love was so great and so transformative that it invited people to grow, but it never insisted on it.
     Second, he offered the care that wanted the highest good for everyone, even those trying to hurt him.  He never refused to respond to the pharisees, he never turned against the soldiers who arrested him with violence, he ate in the homes of friends and foes alike.  He was always willing to engage people, wherever they came from on the political or theological or social spectrum because he wanted the highest good for all people, all of them - even when they were seeking to destroy him.
     Third, that care, that work towards the highest good took many forms, depending on the one in front of him.  Some needed healing.  Others needed lessons.  Some needed acceptance and saving from the wrath and rage of others (the woman who washed his feet with tears, the woman caught in adultery).  Whatever the person in front of him needed, he worked for their highest good in offering that.
      We know the result of this.  In return for his Love, those who "loved" him best offered the second kind of love: they wanted more from him than was possible.  He was constantly being pursued when he went off to pray, he was constantly being sought after, even when he needed time to himself.  Judas tried to push him into the actions that Judas wanted and ended up betraying him instead.  People did not see him for who he was, they did not offer him care for who he was, they could not Love him with the kind of love he offered to them.  Offering real Love back to God, or to the world seemed and seems an impossibility for most people.  And still, we are called to love with the ideal love that we have seen demonstrated.
      I have said to many people that I never knew what it was to love until I became a parent.  I am so grateful for the experience of that kind of deep, unconditional caring because it reminds me that I am to strive to love everyone with that same kind of "I will do what is best for you no matter how you feel about me" way.  Being a parent has been practice for me in loving others who sometimes don't want that love, sometimes don't return it, sometimes push it away in angry ways.  It showed me what unconditional, full love really looks like.  It also holds up to me a mirror for those times when I am failing to love in this way but instead am seeking an emotional trade with someone else instead.  Again, we do all need that kind of intimacy and mutual relationships as well.  But that is not Love.  For me, I hope to grow more loving towards all people, even those who are enemies and even those from whom I want that mutual intimacy and emotional trade.  It is a journey, it is a learning.  But it is worth the effort.  For as Jesus said of the one leper who did return to give thanks - it is in that return that he was truly healed.  It is in the Loving that we truly experience the gifts of Love.  It is in the true unconditional caring that we come to meet the Divine.  It is in giving Love that we come to know Love.