Monday, September 30, 2013

It's what you choose to see...

       I have written before about re-framing, and once again find myself called to write about it again. I shared some hard realities in my sermon yesterday about our experiences visiting down at the prison.  The point of my sharing was to say that we often fail to see those who do not have the same privileges or rights that we are given.  We don't see their need, we don't see how we contribute to their suffering, we don't see how we use (or abuse) our privileges, we walk with a sense of entitlement and are unaware of it, unaware of how we place ourselves above others in unjust ways.  We are unaware...until we are put into a situation in which we are forced to open our eyes, forced to see things in a new way, forced to face those who simply do not have the privileges we take for granted, or when we are put in situations in which our own privileges are revoked for a time and our sense of entitlement does not get us the things we think we deserve (such as basic human respect).  That was the point I was trying to make yesterday.
       But I fear that I may, instead, just have given my hearers more reasons to worry about the difficulties we are facing each day.   So I'd like to put these things in perspective as well, and try to describe, once more, how I see events in my life, how I am choosing to look at or frame my life events, and how I therefore move through each day, with the hope that those who read this might also find ways to see their own struggles in a different light.
       Simply put, I see the struggles and challenges in my life as blessings - as opportunities to grow and learn and become closer to God and to God's people.  I've said this before.  It isn't something new.  And as amazing as that may be, it continues to be the truth.  The challenges are blessings, blessings for which I am, most of the time, grateful.
       As I've also said before, that doesn't mean there aren't limits.  Last week I hit one of those days when I thought I was at my limit.  My son continues to struggle, which means that all of us struggle; the situation with the prison is difficult, to say the least; being alone, single, and on my own to raise three children, one with special needs, while working more than full time and taking care of the house and new kittens (who are sick) and a car that keeps breaking down, etc, etc, etc can be, at moments, overwhelming.  There was a moment on Friday when I really thought I had reached that limit, after another incident with my son, there was a moment when I thought God had simply entrusted me with too much and that the struggles of life had finally reached the point to which I could not continue to endure them.
       BUT, I did go on.  With the help of God and God's people, I went on.  And so, while for that moment I felt overwhelmed and at my limit, that moment passed.  It passed with prayer, friendship and support.  And the gifts that have come from it, are coming from it, continue to come from it are numerous.
      To name a few:
      First, and the biggest blessing - Jonah made a breakthrough after all of this and was finally able to tell his father, on the phone, how hurt and angry he is with him.  That is HUGE!!!!  It has been almost a year and a half since his daddy went away.  And Jonah has been afraid to express his anger to the one person to whom it really should be directed.  He expresses it to everyone else, instead, which, as we know is dangerous (and ended up with him first being in the hospital and then being suspended!!).  Sometimes we really do need to "hit bottom" to change.  Jonah hit that bottom, and was able to do something different, to take a new step, to move forward.  The rest of the weekend was so much better with him...my compassionate, sweet, caring boy was back.  The angry boy only appeared for a few minutes here and there, and when he did, the anger passed quickly.  I am grateful, grateful beyond words that he was able to say, to name, that he was angry, and why and with whom.
       Second, I have heard from dear friends and family these last few days whom I have not talked to in years who reached out to offer support and care through this crisis.  Friends and family who to me represent and show God's love to me.  Of course, my daily and weekly companions also reached out.  To all of them, I am so deeply grateful.  I hear God's voice in their voices, I see God's face in their faces, I know God's presence through their presence.  And for that I am incredibly grateful.
       Third, I am learning.  I continue to learn.  And this, too, I don't take as a small blessing in any way.  One of my life lessons continues to be to not judge.  Whenever I do judge, I end up in the place of the person I judged.  This isn't a fun lesson.  But it is a real lesson that I have to learn again and again.  I admit, before I had kids I had some judgments on the parents of difficult kids.  I did not take the time to see that kids go through intolerable stressors and that kids with special needs are sometimes born with those special needs, or have events that happen to them (sometimes even in-utero) that effect them so greatly..  I did not offer the compassion to understand that there really are "invisible disabilities" (such as ADHD, sensory integration disorder, Asperger's, depression, etc.) that we cannot see but that limit and affect children as much as a visible difference does. It isn't easy to have a special needs child.  But I choose to be grateful for the lessons it has taught me, and to use them to become a better pastor, parent and person.
      I have also learned a great deal about the prison system that again, I won't share here (at this point), but that I feel has deepened my vision, understanding and compassion.  I know what it is to be privileged now in a way I did not and could not understand before.  I also know what it is to be in a place where one has no power at all, and has to make choices between evils rather than choices between good things.  And this, too, deepens my ministry and care for others.  
     I have learned about myself through my life events.  Some things I learned were hard to learn.  For example, I didn't like learning that I have blind spots - even about things that go on in my own home.  I didn't like learning that what I thought I knew about individual people and the world could be wrong.  But there are also good things.  I have learned that I am so much stronger than I ever thought I was.  That I can and do walk through these things and come out on the other side.  I let go of anger and pain so much more quickly now, I forgive so much more quickly now.  And I don't hold things in any more because there isn't room inside to do that.  I am learning to speak my truth directly and with love, to ask questions when I think I might have been slighted, rather than make assumptions.  Mostly, I am learning to see the good in the most difficult of situations.  I am learning to see God in the most difficult times and places and people.  And those are lessons one just can't learn without walking through the fires.
       I spent my weekend with people, connecting with people, praying, meditating, listening, journalling.  I spent my weekend connecting to God, self and others.  I am renewed to face, again, whatever challenges may come.  I can't say I look forward to them always, but I can say that I am grateful for the lessons I learn after they come.
       It's all how you frame it.  Am I living in a very painful, difficult time?  Or am I living in an exciting time of learning, growing, strengthening, and becoming more a person of love, compassion and hope?  I think it is mostly the latter.  I choose to see it as the latter.  I choose to look for God, to look for good, to look for love, and to celebrate that.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Part of Today's sermon - God, Have Mercy

(caveat - I used some examples in the spoken sermon that I am not going to include here.  They were examples from our visits to the prison.  I fear that my putting them out in public could put someone at risk at this point, so if you want the examples, please feel free to email me and I will send a "real" copy of what I wrote and said.  Unfortunately, in this public place I just need to be more protective and careful.)

Jeremiah 32:1-15, Luke 16:19-31
Today’s parable has hard words for those of us who are the “haves” in our world.  There isn’t a lot of grace for the rich man.  And it isn’t that he was a horrible person.  The rich man in Jesus’ parable is not purposely trying to hurt Lazarus.  The parable simply does not paint him to be cold-hearted or angry or mean.  He just doesn’t really see Lazarus.  He doesn’t see his need, his humanity, his worth - Lazarus doesn’t enter the rich man’s consciousness.  The same is true later in the parable…after they’ve died, the rich man still does not see Lazarus except as someone to be used to help him.  He doesn’t even talk to Lazarus, but instead, he speaks to Abraham.  The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus down, still seeing himself as someone who has the privilege and  right to talk to Abraham but who would probably never consider talking directly to an underling such as Lazarus.  Lazarus remains invisible to him, someone he might be able to use to help himself and his family, but not someone seen.
Who is it that we don’t see who needs our help?  Who is it that we contribute to their suffering without ever knowing it?  Around whom are we the privileged, counting on and expecting rights that others don’t have?  Where does our sense of entitlement over others tend to creep in?  Who is it that is invisible to us?   Of course, because they are invisible to us, it is hard for us to become aware of those we fail to see.  But I invite you to really think for a minute about who fails to enter your consciousness that has needs, real needs.
Whoever it is, we have to remember that that person is Jesus.  We have to remember what we are told in Matthew, that whenever we do it to the least of these, we are doing it to Jesus.  He is the one hungry, thirsty, sick and imprisoned.  He is the one we don’t see, don’t feed – again either literally or in other ways, don’t care for when we do things, even unintentionally, that lead to another’s suffering.  Jesus is the invisible one, without the rights or privileges that we take for granted.       As the commentary, Feasting on the Word puts is, “Perhaps the boundaries and walls we have drawn are not so much between us and others as between us and God. With a mixture of invitation and warning, in the book of Revelation, the angel says to the church in Laodicea, "Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me" (Rev. 3:20).  When someone knocks on our door (figuratively or literally), who is needy or hurting, we need to remember that it is Jesus.  The person we find it easy not to see – that is Jesus.  “That is God's Christ who stands at our wall, knocking. When we answer, we may not find someone who looks like us, but we may very well find someone who looks like our God, if we are paying attention.”
       Based on today’s parable, then, what hope is there for most of the privileged?  The Rich man is told, when he begs for help saving his brothers, those still living, who are still not seeing those in need, not seeing how they contribute to their suffering, not seeing how they might help, that “they will not be convinced, even if someone were to rise from the dead.”  Luke tells this about Jesus to an audience who knows that someone has risen from the dead.  Jesus has risen from the dead.  So in your experience, are people convinced, then, that they must care for the poor and suffering?
We do a lot in this church for those who are poor.  We do tend to see certain people – those who come and stay here with Family Promise we see, we feed, we talk to, we care for.  Those who come to our summer lunch bag program we see, we feed, we talk to and care for.  Those who go to the Bethan meal we see, feed, care for and talk to.  So for us, this story encourages us to think a little wider.  Who is it that we don’t see who needs our attention and care?
       The unfortunate truth is that Luke’s Jesus does not have a lot of good news for those who are privileged and who do not care for those who are not.  Jesus says, “It is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”  Jesus says “woe to those who are rich because they have already received their comfort”.  And today Jesus says through this parable, that if we do not cross the gaping chasm between the rich and the poor in this life, we surely will not be able to do it in the next. At least for those who have more than their share on this earth, we are told, there won’t be a way to cross the chasm in the life to come.  The basic bottom line message?  For the Rich man in our story, he still thinks he has the right to ask for help and receive it, to have Lazarus ordered around.  He still cannot see him as an equal child of God.  He can’t do it.  The greater message then is that “Stepping out of one's privilege is perhaps one of the most difficult journeys of transformation.”   But again, while Luke focuses mostly on the privilege given to those who are economically sound and do not help others, I think we do a pretty good job of trying to serve those who have less here in this place.  But we still have privilege and there are still blind spots in that.
       As I reflected on this passage this week, I found myself thinking about all of the ways in which we are privileged.  All of the MANY ways in which I am privileged.  Economically, certainly.  That is the primary way that Luke addresses our inequalities as well.  But there are other ways, too.  What other ways are we privileged?  I want to share with you a few stories that I hope will not make you uneasy or uncomfortable.  I am sharing these because they are stories which point out to me my own privilege, my own sense of entitlement.  These are lessons I have learned in the last year and a half of
prison visitations.  ...
(this is where real stories have been omitted, and since they are the bulk of the sermon, I apologize for only giving a part of it.  But as I said before, again, feel free to ask for them and I am more than happy to share)

       So where is the good news in all of this?  Where is the good news for those of us who are privileged?  The words of comfort in these stories are spoken to the poor, to those who suffer now, to those without rights and privileges.  They are reassured that their lack of privilege will change, that they will have the rights they may not have now.  That they will have a place at the table.  But where is the good news in this for us, who are privileged NOW?
       First, I believe we can learn to see those who are displaced.  We can learn to give to and share with those who have less.  We can learn to see our privilege and we can learn to not abuse it.  It isn’t easy, but what is impossible for humans is possible for God.  In that is good news.  The good news is also that God is a God of grace and mercy.  The rich man in the story appealed to Abraham, and Abraham said “no”.  But we appeal to God.  And as we do, as we ask for God’s love, care and mercy, God will answer us, give us help to grow, understand, see, and love more fully, to not use or abuse our privileges.  God is the God of abundance, grace, love and there is enough for everyone in God’s realm.  We are called to see the invisible, to care for the poor, to offer mercy and compassion.  But we are also given the strength, grace and love to be able to do that, to respond to this call, with God’s help.   Let us pray for the eyes to see and the grace to love even the loveless.  Lord, have mercy.  Amen.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

An Inspirational Story

I found this on line and thought it was beautiful, so wanted to share it here:

DON’T WE ALL
I was parked in front of the mall wiping off my car. I had just come
from the car wash and was waiting for my wife to get out of work.
Coming my way from across the parking lot was what society would
consider a bum.
From the looks of him, he had no car, no home, no clean clothes, and no
money. There are times when you feel generous but there are other times
that you just don’t want to be bothered. This was one of those “don’t
want to be bothered times.”
“I hope he doesn’t ask me for any money,” I thought.
He didn’t.
He came and sat on the curb in front of the bus stop but he didn’t look
like he could have enough money to even ride the bus.
After a few minutes he spoke.
“That’s a very pretty car,” he said.
He was ragged but he had an air of dignity around him. His scraggly
blond beard keep more than his face warm.
 I said, “thanks,” and continued wiping off my car.
He sat there quietly as I worked. The expected plea for money never
came.
As the silence between us widened something inside said, “ask him if
he needs any help.” I was sure that he would say “yes” but I held true
to the inner voice.
“Do you need any help?” I asked.
He answered in three simple but profound words that I shall never forget.
We often look for wisdom in great men and women. We expect it from
those of higher learning and accomplishments.

 I expected nothing but an
outstretched grimy hand. He spoke the three words that shook me.
“Don’t we all?” he said.

I was feeling high and mighty, successful and important, above a bum
in the street, until those three words hit me like a twelve gauge
shotgun.
Don’t we all?
I needed help. Maybe not for bus fare or a place to sleep, but I
needed help. I reached in my wallet and gave him not only enough for bus
fare, but enough to get a warm meal and shelter for the day. Those
three little words still ring true. No matter how much you have, no matter
how much you have accomplished, you need help too. No matter how little you
have, no matter how loaded you are with problems, even without money or
a place to sleep, you can give help.

Even if it’s just a compliment, you can give that.
You never know when you may see someone that appears to have it all.
They are waiting on you to give them what they don’t have. A different
perspective on life, a glimpse at something beautiful, a respite from
daily chaos, that only you through a torn world can see.
Maybe the man was just a homeless stranger wandering the streets. Maybe
he was more than that.

Maybe he was sent by a power that is great and
wise, to minister to a soul too comfortable in themselves.

 Maybe God looked down, called an Angel, dressed him like a bum, then said, “go minister to that man cleaning the car, that man needs help.”
Don’t we all?
Author Unknown

Saturday, September 21, 2013

It's not my job

It’s not my job to change your mind,
It is simply my job to speak my truth.

It is not my job to transform you,
It is simply my job to be genuine, real and have integrity.

It is not my job to make you to grow
It is simply my job to grow myself, modelling self-reflection, repentance, and a willingness to change.

It is not my job to judge you
It is simply my job to love you, forgive you, and offer compassion.

Why is it so hard to remember
That we only have to do
That which is in front of us
With love,
And kindness
And forgiveness
And peace
And leave the rest to God?

It is not my job to save you
It is simply my job to remind you that you are worth saving
And that through grace, God offers you new life again and again.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Just for Fun - and for laughs!

Laughter is such good medicine!  So here are a few of my favorite videos...ones that just get me laughing hysterically every single time.  I hope you enjoy them, too.
(By the way, I do NOT care if these are "real" or not.  They are hilarious either way, so please, no comments about their veracity!!).







Okay, I have to admit the following you can't listen to the whole thing...but the first 30 seconds or so I can't stop laughing!!!




There are others...but maybe that's enough for tonight!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Living Each Day

A couple days back was World Suicide Prevention day.  And I saw this video posted on Facebook:

I have found myself thinking about depression and what it means to live ever since.  Many people do suffer depression in this country.  And there is a stigma about it.  People are generally uneasy admitting that they are affected by depression for fear of being seen as weak, or mentally "broken" somehow.  It almost feels like people with depression are somehow held responsible for that condition whereas people with physical maladies no longer are. (Remember that in Biblical times, many diseases were considered to be just punishment either for something you did or something an ancestor did.  Thanks be to God we no longer believe that!)  This stigma and fear of being judged can keep people from getting the help they need when they are affected by depression.  And in some cases, medicines don't help, are unable to effectively help.  It is hard, really hard, to fully live when every day is a struggle and life feels pointless, meaningless, and devoid of joy.

But I also think about the rest of us.  Because you don't have to kill yourself to fail to really live.  Or to put it another way, many people who are alive in body are not really alive in spirit.  Paul Pearsall, in his book, The Beethoven Factor, says that languishing is actually a worse problem in the United States even than depression, and that up to 75% of Americans may experience this languishing or failure to thrive.  He describes languishing as a day to day walking through the motions, again without real joy or a sense of meaning or direction.  It is a "shell" living rather than a real engagement in life.  It doesn't mean we aren't busy.  We are - horribly so.  But how many of us go through life checking off days as if they were simply something else on our to do lists? "Get through today" - check.  And then one day we wake up and we are 45 or 65 or 85 and we wonder where the time has gone, what we have done with our lives, and whether or not it was worth it.

We are called to live.  REALLY live.  To engage life with all of it's ups and downs, it's joys and its challenges, both of which are blessings and gifts.  Thornton Wilder has his character Emily in the play, Our Town, put it this way,  "Oh, Mama, look at me one minute as though you really saw me. .... Just for a moment now we're all together. Mama, just for a moment we're happy. Let's really look at one another!....It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another. I didn't realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. ... Wait! One more look. Good-bye , Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover's Corners....Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking....and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths....and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth,you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it--every,every minute?"

Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?  Some do.  Probably not every minute, but some live life pretty fully.  That is one of the things our faith can give us if we let it.  God calls us into a life that is willing to sacrifice itself out of love for others.  That fragility of life, that realization that love is deeper than life, can move us into real living.  Looking for God in everything around us can help us to realize life.  Being aware of the many, many ways in which we are blessed - again, by both the wonderfully good, and by the challenges - this can lead us into life.  When we are suffering from languishing, even being aware of each breath - Ruach, Spirit, Wind, Breath (all the same word in Hebrew) - can help us be present and fully alive in this moment, in each moment.  Taking a walk and looking at the trees, flowers, squirrels can help us to live life more fully.  Taking time to say "I love you" not just flippantly but with real meaning can help us live life.  Even crying, real true grief, can be experienced as real living.

I am glad that conversations around depression and languishing are becoming more acceptable.  I believe that talking about these things is one of the important steps in trying to heal, grow, move through pain, depression and languishing into life.  Opening our hearts to God's presence in and around us is also an important step.  Looking for life, and committing to live - not just for ourselves but for our loved ones and to honor the God who gives us this life - these are necessary ways of answering God's call to be God's people in this place.

Thanks be to God for the life we are given, this day and every day.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Letting Go

I've been thinking a great deal about letting go lately, and have written about it extensively in my private journal.  But I find myself feeling called to put something about it here as well.

I'm not a person who lets go easily.  Or accepts personal changes readily.  I wish I did.  I wish I could. But I don't and at this point in time I can't.  It is for that reason that it may seem to others that I take an infinitely long time to make big personal decisions (not the case with other decisions that I need to make, like work decisions).

The upsides, or good sides, of this are several.  First, I generally have a pretty stable life in terms of place, friends, work, etc.  I suppose that can seem boring to some, but it isn't to me.  For me, each day is full of adventure and newness without having to move around a great deal.  And I find the longer I am in a place, the better I know it and the people in it, and the more I learn about relationships and places, the more I see the gifts they are and value them.

Second, I love forever.  Once I have loved you, that just doesn't end, whether it be friend, family, parishioner, colleague, partner, place or whatever.  The caring may change - friends become family, or relationships change and my thinking about them has to change, associations with a place change how I see it, but my caring, my love, doesn't end. It can't.  I'm simply not built that way.  Also, I don't believe relationships with people or places ever actually "end".  They change. Even if we don't see each other anymore, or interact anymore, if my thoughts ever go to you, either of their own accord or because your name has been mentioned, the relationship has continued in that way.  And since our time together has impacted who I am, what I see, what I think and feel about life, the relationship continues in that way too.  All other feelings connected to a relationship eventually seem to pass, but love doesn't for me. And I'm grateful for that.  I found myself thinking today about a friendship that ended when I was about eleven years old.  And while it ended with hard feelings on both sides (young girls are not always kind to one another), on the rare occasions that I think of her, I still have fond feelings and care for that old friend.  My memories of her focus not on the ending but on the grace-filled time we shared together.  I hope and pray that she is well.  I feel this way about every one I've truly connected with.  I don't know if this is typical or not.  But it is the way I am.  It's not that I never get angry or upset with people, I do.  But those feelings pass and as I experience life, they seems to pass more and more quickly, in part because I recognize that all of us have failings, all of us have limits and all of us fall short, including myself.

Another upside to this for me is that I keep most of my close friendships, and I stay long enough in places to get to know them deeply.  I still have friends from childhood.  My two best friends from college remain my two best friends.  But I've also made other close friends throughout my life, who are now all over the world and country.  I am deeply grateful for each one of them, they each continue to hold strong and valued places in my heart, and our relationships continue, despite distance and time.  It is amazing to have been on this journey with someone for over 25 or even 35 years.  And again, I find that time passing while relationships continue teaches me things not only about others, but about myself as well.  Also, some of these friendships are so solid and deep that we can be truly open and honest with each other in ways that may not always be comfortable, but again, help each of us to grow, to see things in new ways, to expand our understanding of people, ourselves and even God.  These people are gems I would never trade.  They have helped me to become a better version of me, have called me on my stuff and offered solid shoulders to cry on.  They've seen the mistakes I've made, the ugly marks I wear, the character flaws that are part of my being and they love me still. I've also been given the great gift of walking with them through their life transitions, hearing their struggles and their joys, watching them grow and change as well.  It has truly been an honor to travel with these amazing people.  I am grateful to walk this life with many of them still.  And I am grateful for the ones with whom I am no longer connected for the time we did have together.

The downside, as I said at the beginning of this post, is that it is hard for me to let go.  Even when others reject me, I don't stop caring.  And while I think God calls us to love and care for everyone, sometimes that caring hurts.  When it is not reciprocated, when it is dismissed or rejected, when it is not valued, when trust is broken, it hurts. And for me, it sometimes hurts longer than it should because of the way in which (the depth to which) I love.

That being said, I've come to understand "letting go" a little differently, finally.  Because, as I said, I don't really "let go" ever.  Instead, I simply have to work to accept that a change has happened.  And I continue to think, feel, live with my heart connected to many, some of whom no longer reciprocate that connection.  That's okay.  My thoughts and feelings remain my own.  For my own wholeness, I choose to dwell on the good.  I think about someone and find myself smiling at the thought of her face, or his quirky behavior.  I remember the goofy things as well as the deep conversations and find myself grateful for whatever time we had.  I choose to forgive and to love and to care.  I let my thoughts stray to whomever they go, and I pray for whomever those thoughts encounter.  Eventually, those prayers heal me, even though that isn't their intention.  And finally those prayers move me more deeply into a sense of grace, compassion, empathy, forgiveness and love, even when there is no possibility of reconciliation or reciprocation of that caring.  Sometimes that process is slow.  Sometimes it is quick.  Either way, by God's grace, today I am at peace with the world.  By God's grace, for today, there remains no one with whom I am angry, hurt or upset.  For today, with God's help, I think of all I have encountered with love.  And that, THAT, is by the grace of God, indeed.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Today's Sermon - Self Esteem?

Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139:1-18, Luke 14:25-33
     We have three scriptures today that look at who we are in relationship to God.  The Jeremiah passage appears condemning – saying that God will tear down and destroy the evil nation.  Psalm 139 is a psalm of comfort that reminds us that we are known before we are even in existence, and that God is beside us in all that we say and do, with us, creating us, supporting us.  And finally we end with the passage from Luke which seems to say that we cannot be accepted as disciples unless we give up all we have, including our families.
       So how do we reconcile these three passages together?  How do we understand who we are to this God who loved and created us, who knows us inside and out - with passages that appear to condemn who we are, our limits and our failings, as completely unacceptable?
       Our self-esteem in the Western World is very fragile.  And I think there are a lot of reasons for this.  For one thing, we are slow to forgive.  We like revenge.  We like vengeance.  We are not just slow to forgive others, we are slow to forgive ourselves.  Despite the Lord’s Prayer that we say every single week, and for some of us a whole lot more often than that, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” none the less, we struggle to do this….with others and with ourselves.
      But second, I think that passages like today’s passage from Jeremiah and today’s passage from Luke make us feel that there is nothing we can do that is “enough”.  Looking specifically at the Luke passage, from Feasting on the Word, “Three times in this passage, Jesus says that without definite decision, a person cannot be his disciple. First, he requires a person to hate parents, spouse, children, siblings, and even one's own life. Second, he commands carrying the cross and following him. Third, he demands the giving up of all possessions. Even if we soften his word "hate," Jesus still leaves us with his requirement that we make family ties and normal self-preservation subordinate to following him. The pastoral work of the Christian community involves a clear and frank acknowledgment of the great challenge, the fearsome requirements of becoming and doing what Jesus expects of us.”  Jesus also declares that we shouldn’t even begin becoming his disciples unless we are prepared to go all the way.  Discipleship costs. In fact, it will cost us everything .  So much for family values.  And so much for loving others as yourself.  It feels when we read passages like this that there is nothing we can do to be accepted and acceptable.  How many of us are able to “hate mother and father”?  For those of us who take passages such as this seriously, these words hit, hard.  Are we ever going to be enough for God?  Will we ever be accepted or acceptable?
     And then we read passages like the one from Jeremiah.  And it would seem that maybe the pain we undergo is a punishment because we aren’t enough, because we haven’t given up enough, because we still care about our stuff, the people in our lives and even our families?  So we ask, are the things that are happening punishments for what we have done?  When we are going through difficult times is it because we have done evil?  And what makes it even harder is when we don’t know what it is that could have led to such pain and punishment.  When we search and search our souls but cannot find what it is that we have done that would deserve the hardships we endure.  “What did I do to deserve this?” we ask.  “Why me?”  And it is not just we who do this.  We want life to be fair, so we can impose on others reasons for their suffering as well.  For example, I had a person this week inform me that the reason my family life has been so challenging these last three years must be because I did something horrible in a past life.  The person is familiar with the life I have lived now, can’t find a reason why all of this would have happened to me based on anything I’ve done in this life, and so has made it “fair” in her mind by declaring that I did wrong in my last life.  I get it.  And passages like the one from Jeremiah make it all the harder to accept that sometimes things just happen because life is not fair.
      Brian Konkol, Chaplain of Gustavus Adolphus College confronts these ideas.  He said it this way, “One of the intellectual foundations of Western thought is "Cogito ergo sum," or "I think therefore I am." This statement from RenĂ© Descartes has greatly influenced modern life, especially in the west.  It assumes that human existence can be self-reliant, and gives birth to various terms in the English-language with "self" as a prefix. For example, we often hear of self-confidence, self-conscious, self-expression, self-criticism, self-deception, self-defeating, self-denial, self-discipline, self-esteem, self-expression, self-importance, self-improvement, self-interest, self-respect, self-restraint, self-sacrifice—and the list goes on! Amazingly, the equivalent of these "self" words cannot be found in many non-Western languages, which reveals a great deal about our continued fascination with (and celebration of) the so-called "self-made woman" and/or "self-made man."  In wonderful contrast to "I think therefore I am," the African philosophy of "ubuntu" states, "I am because we are."  Among other things, ubuntu recognizes that individual autonomy is impossible; a person is only a person through being in relationship with other persons.  In other words, all people are products of their environment, and thus all people have to rely upon others each and every day. While ubuntu recognizes personal initiative, drive, and the ability to shape our surroundings, it also acknowledges that relationships shape existence, and thus connectedness is essential to a full understanding of life.”
      The “clay” that Jeremiah describes in today’s passage, the clay that is remolded and remodeled in this is communal.  It is not individuals who are being molded, remolded, plucked down and built up, but God’s will for God’s people.  God’s will is being remolded for a community as the community responds or fails to respond to God’s call.  God is the same, but God’s actions and plans change, or as today’s scripture said, “If that nation turns from its evil, I will change my mind.”  God interacts with us according to how we interact with God.  Additionally, the image we are given today from Jeremiah is of a potter who took the clay and did not throw it out when it became marred, but rather shaped and created it into something new and beautiful, something God thought it was best to be.  God does not throw out the community, but recreates it, using the clay that already exists – the people who already exist – and making God’s will for it into something better.
        Still, this may still sound harsh.  But the God of punishment isn’t the God I experience, which isn’t to say that God fails to hold us accountable.  I do think God, and life hold us accountable.  There are consequences for our actions, and sometimes those are devastating and hurtful.  We make mistakes with people and those mistakes can deeply affect our relationships, no matter how much we apologize or strive to make amends, for example.  We live in a world that sometimes we cannot fix the mistakes we make, and sometimes we have to live with those consequences.  But it is also true that many of the bad things that come to us as individuals are undoubtedly the results of the world we live in, the communal world, the world of our communities and our nations and our earth.  Bad things happen all the time, not always because of individuals, but individuals remain affected.
       Where is God in this?  Well, that’s the other part of this.  I do think that God calls us, every time, to learn from the painful experiences, to grow closer to God and closer to what God calls us to be, what God intends for us to be.   I can’t put that in a context of punishment, because for me God’s call to make us better, God’s desire for us to grow, is out of love and out of grace.
         Malachi 3 reminds us:  “ But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver.”  Because God loves us, God will call us to change, God will remold us, God will refine us.  Not comfortable.  But if we can see our trials as opportunities for growth, they can be gifts and blessings.
         Looking once again at the Luke passage, we need to remember that discipleship is a process.  We are all “becoming” disciples, which means that there will be times when we put the needs or demands of other people or ourselves above God.  Eventually, we hope not to do this because, as we will discover, when we put God first, the needs of those around us get met.  But this really is a process of becoming a disciple.  It takes time, it takes commitment to love both God and God’s people.  But also, as Bonhoeffer says, "The call to discipleship is a gift of grace and that call is inseparable from grace."  Therefore, even as we struggle to be disciples, it is God who gives us the ability to do that, to grow in discipleship and faith.
        So, returning to the self-esteem question, are we enough?  Are you enough?  Well, we are enough that God loves us more than anything.  And we are enough that God continues to work with us in becoming the most whole we can be.  And that should be the highest comfort indeed.  Who are we to judge ourselves as unforgiveable?  Who are we to judge ourselves as not good enough?  Who are we to fail to love ourselves as our neighbors when God loves us more than anything?  So hear the Good News.  You are loved.  By none other than GOD!  That makes you valuable, and worthy and wonderful.  God loves YOU.  And that is an amazing and wondrous blessing indeed.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

When the struggles are overwhelming

     So, our family has experienced another major crisis.  Another...major....crisis.
It would seem that in the past almost 3 years now, our family has been in constant crisis.  Some of which I've shared, and frankly, some of which I haven't, if you can believe that there has been even more going on than you already know about.
     In reaction to the challenges life throws us, I blog about thriving through adversity and I believe we are called to do that. I blog about the joy that God gives us in the midst of pain, and I know that this is real. I write about the fact that my vision and understanding of life has deepened and changed.  I now believe with every fiber of my being that life is about growing - growing in love, understanding, and in our ability to forgive, growing in our relationships to God, growing in our compassion, empathy and relationships to others, growing in our relationships to ourselves.  I believe all of this.  I believe it, I feel it, I hear that it is true, I experience it.  I write about being thankful and being more able than ever before to see the gifts and blessings that surround me every day - including the challenges.  This, too, is a truth, deep and powerful, that keeps me connected with God, with Good, with amazing and loving people.
     BUT...
     But...
     We know that the saying "God never gives you more than you can handle" is just about as bogus a statement as there is, for a number of reasons.  First of all, I'm not convinced that all of the junk we go through in this life was "given" to us by God.  People are born with free will and as a result, people hurt each other, they mess up, we create pain and problems for each other that God does not wish anyone to suffer.  Where is God when we are in pain?  On the cross as well, suffering too.
    Second of all, we all know that there are things that people can't or don't recover from.  We know this. Sometimes people do experience "too much" and they have break downs, or they commit suicide, or they lose their minds.  To a lesser degree, some people become bitter, cranky, jaded...they fail to live full lives because they've been "broken" by their experiences.  We try to support each other and care for each other enough so that this does not happen.  We encourage a faith that is life-giving and meaningful so that people experience the love and insight that they need.  We do what we can to help one another and ourselves grow through pain and develop scars that are places of strength rather than open wounds that are places which get picked at and continue to bleed.  Still, I think that everyone has moments when they just have to say "enough!"  "No more!"  "Done!"
    Where is the good news in this?  Where is the message of hope when what we are given seems to be over the top, over the limit, of what we can endure?
    There still is Good News.  The Good News is that "this, too, shall pass."  Having a larger vision - a vision that says that while today is hard, tomorrow is a new day - I think that vision is essential.  Annie's trite, cute song "The sun'll come out tomorrow" may seem Pollyanna-ish, but it is a truth.  If we can hang on for another day, things will change.  There's no choice in that.  Tomorrow will be different.  And while at times that may fill us with fear, mostly I think that is a great message of hope.  To put it in Christian terms, God does bring the resurrection out of death.  Yes, Jesus died.  Jesus died.  He suffered as we suffer and it was "too much" for him as well.  It overcame him and he died.  Unlike some of the Old Testament stories (like Daniel in the Lion's den and the story of Shadrach, Meshach, & Abednego who are saved from the fiery furnace), death does get Jesus.  For three days evil does win.  But I find this much more hopeful than the stories of Daniel, et al, because we know this is real.  We usually aren't rescued from the furnace.  We usually aren't saved from the lion's jaws.  We have to go through it.  We do go through it.  The hope is not that we can avoid the pain.  The hope, the promise is that there is life on the other side of it.  And while the three days that Jesus experienced in the tomb may seem unfairly short in comparison to the three weeks, three months, three years (in my case) or three decades (for others) that we experience, none the less, we need to keep our eyes open for that day of resurrection.  Our faith promises us that it will come.  And that is the Good News that can pull us through.  Hope.  Hope for tomorrow.  Hope for the sun to come out.  Hope for a new day.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Today's Sermon - or at least, what I had PLANNED to say in today's sermon...not what I actually said.

On Being Humble
Genesis 21:8-20
Matthew 10:24-39

Have any of you, like Sarah in the passage from Genesis, ever felt jealous and/or threatened by the power, popularity, achievements or even just the potential of others?  Even those who have less power and stature, like Hagar, who was not Abraham’s wife, but his slave: still, Sarah felt threatened - threatened that he had another child by another woman: threatened enough that she wanted Hagar and her son sent away - in other words she wanted them dead for a woman and her son would not survive in the wilderness apart from the tribe.  She felt so jealous and threatened that she wanted Hagar and her son to die.  She must have felt an amazing amount of pain to feel so vindictive against Hagar and her son.  And while we may not act on feelings of jealousy or threat in such a way, almost all of us experience some degree of jealousy, or threat to our sense of place and status at one point or another.  Most of us, I think, experience situations and places where it is important to us that people know who we are, what our status is, what our accomplishments are.  We feel threatened and even angry or lost when others don’t value us in the way we would like, recognizing us as loved, as successful, as... whatever it is that matters to us.
Just to give a few examples: the doctor who helped operated on me at a surgery I had a half dozen years ago: when he came out to talk to my loved ones about how the surgery had gone, he still had on his scrubs, with a stethoscope around his neck, the little mirror thing around his head: My family got a clear impression that this was not so much that he felt in a hurry to talk to them so much as it was important to him that the other people in the hospital know that he was a doctor, not one of the patients, not a nurse, but a surgical doctor.
At Jasmyn’s school at one of the back to school nights, I found myself talking with another parent whom I did not know before and found that she was very quick to make sure I understood that she was not just a mere parent at the school, but a teacher as well.  Her sense of identity and sense of accomplishment needed to be validated by my knowing she taught as well as parented.  At many programs where the poor, homeless or marginalized are served, the volunteers all have name-tags stating their status as volunteers - distinguishing them from those who are being served.  There are always reasons for doing this, some of which are good, valid, helpful.  But at some level one has to ask what import it serves to separate us into categories in this way?  For some of the volunteers, this distinction is important.  For the newest volunteers especially, it can be important to not be mistaken for a person in need.
Again, I think we all have felt some sense of threat to our identity at some point, some need to stand up and say, “Wait!  That’s not who I am!  Look at what I’ve done, or who I know or who I am!”
But today’s scriptures point out several things.
We are told, first, that whatever is not known will be known.  All will be revealed.  In this context that means that our real selves will be known, will be measured, will be opened for all to see.  And that real self is not going to be judged by our status, our job, our accomplishments, our wealth or our popularity.  Our real self, our core self, has to do with our service and love to God and God’s people.  And by that I don’t even mean the good works we do so much as how we approach God’s people, all of God’s people every day.  Even more, our real worth is a gift given to all.  For our real worth comes down to the fact that we are God’s children - all of us - none of us loved more highly than another, none of us loved less highly than another.  Jesus assures us in this passage from Matthew that all will be known.  At that time, we will be measured by our hearts: and we will be found valuable simply by the fact that we are God’s children.  Those who would judge us then, who would hurt us, who would take away our wealth, our popularity, our health, our status, we are told, should not be feared because eventually their worth, too, will be shown and all those marks of status we value so much in this life will be found to be meaningless: those who would hurt us will also be shown as the equal children of God that they are.  Even family connections, we are told, will be brought to nothing.  Those then, who would separate us out, by our lack of these things: connections, popularity, fortune, these who judge us and hurt us are not to be feared.
Second, as the beginning of the Matthew passage says, “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master.”  In other words, all our attempts to be of value have no worth.  God calls us to be God’s servants, doing the work of loving and caring for God’s creation.  That is our job.  And that work is not neat or tidy or beautiful or glorious: that is not work that will earn human praise or honor: but it is the real work of being God’s people.
One summer while I was in college I went to the most rural part of Alabama as a Volunteer in Mission for the Methodist church.  I worked that summer for a parish - or a group of ten very small congregations spread out over this very rural area: some of these churches had only 4 or 10 members, but they kept on meeting, worshiping together.  The parish center united these ten churches but it did more than that.  It ran a clothing thrift store, it kept a food pantry, and most importantly it ran a building program.  Groups of youth from around the state would come to this parish spot for a week or two and help repair and build houses for the poorest of the poor, the disabled, and the elderly: those without education or income or anything except the little pieces of land or house passed down through the generations.  I came to this program full of myself as a person who would go to seminary and become a missionary, for that is what I believed I would do at the time.  I went ready to be a community organizer and to work hard with these youth groups and with this building project.  But one week Dorsey, the pastor in charge of this project, asked me to help out with the thrift store.  I went in and Dorsey’s wife, who ran the thrift store, asked me to go into the back room and sort through boxes of donated clothes, helping to sort them by size, checking for holes, making sure they all had price tags.  I went back and began to do as she said, but found that there wasn’t a lot for me to do.  Most of this work had already been done, and I began, after time spent mostly waiting and watching, to feel resentful and even self-righteous about this.  I was a college student at Cal, I was going to be a pastor, I was going to be a missionary, they were putting me in the “hang out with thrift store clothing” box because I was female when I was just as capable as men to do other more useful work, I was....this and this and this...all reasons why the work of waiting, and the work of looking to see if anything else needed to be done, the work of looking at old discarded clothing felt somehow below me.  I hated this, and I made sure that message was conveyed.
The next day Dorsey asked me to go with him to a building site for a potential house.  We went out and Dorsey and another man talked about water and pipes while I stood impatiently to the side, uninvited into this conversation, and standing around waiting once more.  After twenty minutes of standing there Dorsey said, “Barbara, please go get me my wrench.”  So I walked the two feet over to his tool box and brought him back his wrench.  I continued to stand there and after another forty minutes had gone by he again addressed me, “Barbara, please bring me my measuring tape.”  I did so and again stood around waiting.  After another half hour had passed I finally lost it and said, “Dorsey, is there something useful I could be doing here?”  He looked up at me sternly for a minute, then excused himself from the conversation with the other man and took me around the corner for a lecture I will never forget.  “Who are YOU?” he demanded “that this work is too good for you?  Who are YOU that you decide what is useful and what is not?  Who decides what is God’s work?  Who decides what is needed?  You will never be God’s servant until you are able to see that God’s work is often the most humble of work, often the least recognized work, often the least glorious work.”
He was right.  And that day I learned a most humbling lesson.
But it wasn’t the last day of my lessons on humility for this summer.  Remember, as I said, the houses we were building and repairing were for people who grew up in a very different culture and place than this.  Many, most, had no education at all.  Many times their rural southern accents were so strong that they were almost speaking another language.  This particular week the house the team needed to repair belonged to an elderly man who had probably never been farther than five miles from his little run-down house in his entire life.  He had been born there, he had been raised there.  He lived in extreme poverty and even squalor.  And we came that week, with a team of youth from the city to replace the original roof on this 100+ year old tiny and run-down abode.  The roof that was there hardly existed anymore.  So up we climbed onto the beams of the house, me and a team of six teens, one of whom was an African American girl, no more than 14 years of age.  And as we laid black roofing material in 100 degree humid weather and pounded nails into this man’s new roof, he stood at the bottom, on the ground and shouted up at us about how evil black people were.  He quoted scriptures that in his mind were proof of their inferiority and even their lack of humanity.  He stared at the African American girl as she built him a new roof and cursed her, again and again.  And as I listened and watched, incredulous, I noticed that the African American girl, who clearly heard every arrogant, prejudiced word that this man said, still, despite everything, put 100% of her effort into doing a good job for this man.  She never quarreled with him, she never challenged his words: she just did her work.  I tried to challenge the man and was told by her to stop.  At the end of the day we discussed the situation and she told me that she did not believe this man would change through argument or anger.  She did not believe the man would change old ingrained beliefs even through other scriptural quotes.  She said her job and our jobs that week were not to change this man, to “educate” this man.  Our job was to love this man by building him a new roof.  Our job was to be God’s hands and feet and do our best to care even for those who would hate us.  If God used that to change him, so be it.  If the man never changed, so be it.  But our job was clear.
Doing God’s work is not pretty or glorious.  Sometimes it looks like waiting.  Sometimes it looks like fetching objects.  Sometimes it looks like pounding nails into a roof while being cursed at from the bottom.  Sometimes doing God’s work of caring for the least of God’s people - the poor, the homeless, the oppressed, the children - sometimes that means losing friends, or losing a job, or losing connections or losing popularity, fame, glamour.  It is messy work.  It is hard work: it is not easy to stand up to someone you care about.  It is not easy to keep building on the roof even when you are being cursed from the ground.  But this is God’s work.  And we are called to do it without asking for recognition or popularity or glory.  We are called to do it as servants - servants who are loved beyond anything we can imagine.  Amen.