Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Sunday's Sermon: You are not Alone

1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21
This passage from John follows up on what we talked about last week.  “I will ask and God will send you another companion who will be with you forever.  This Companion is the Spirit of Truth, whom the world can’t receive because it neither sees him nor recognizes him.  You know him, because he lives with you and will be with you.”  Again, people of faith actually SEE things that the rest of the world can’t or won’t see.  People of faith actually RECEIVE gifts that the world can’t because it can’t or won’t receive them.  As people of faith, we experience God and the gifts God gives.  Today we are talking about the gift of an ever- presence Spirit, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth.  That experience of God, that choice to see with eyes of love, that choice to see the blessings that surround us – that experience changes the way we see the world, and the way we interact with the world.
       When I look at a stranger, I see a child of God, a beautiful creation and that changes the way I interact with that person.  When I hear a song on the radio, I hear messages from God, and that changes the way I receive the music and words – I receive them in a spirit of listening for God’s voice and being blessed by the constancy and steadfastness of God’s presence.  When I take things in such as bread and grape juice, I feel that these are gifts from God, reminders of God’s presence, and that fills me with gratitude.  When bad things happen I can see them as the blessings of opportunities to grow in my faith, grow in my patience, grow in closeness to God and God’s people.  When good things happen, I can experience living in the joy of God with God rejoicing too.  Living a life of faith is different than walking each day as if we were ALONE.  And living as people of faith means recognizing that God not only never leaves us alone, but calls us to stand with one another as well – to be advocates and companions to those around us.  When God calls us to love even our enemies, to love our neighbors as ourselves, I think God is especially calling us to stand with those who cannot see, who do feel “orphaned” in the world, and who do not feel God’s Advocate living within and around them.   Through standing with people who are feeling that isolation and aloneness we can help them feel God’s love, we can bring them to God’s love.
       His name was Tim. He had wild hair, a T-shirt with holes in it, jeans, and no shoes. This was literally his wardrobe for his entire four years of college. He was brilliant.  Kind of profound and very, very bright.  He did not begin college as a Christian.  Across the street from the campus was a well-dressed, very conservative church. They wanted to develop a ministry to the students but were not sure how to go about it.. One day Tim decided to go there, just to see, just to check it out, almost as an anthropological experiment, he wanted to see and understand what these people did on Sundays and why.  He walked in with no shoes, jeans, his T-shirt, and wild hair.  The service had already started and so Tim started down the aisle looking for a seat.  The church was completely packed and he couldn’t find a seat. By now, people were really looking a bit uncomfortable, but no one said anything. Tim got closer and closer and closer to the pulpit, and when he realized there were no seats, he just squatted down right on the carpet.  People were really uptight, and the tension in the air was thick.  About this time, the minister realized that from way at the back of the church, a deacon was slowly making her way towards Tim.  The deacon was in her eighties, had silver-gray hair, and was wearing a beautiful, lovely dress. A godly woman, very elegant, very dignified, very courtly, she walked with a cane and, as she started walking toward this boy, everyone was saying to themselves that you couldn't blame her for what she was about to do.  How can you expect a woman of her age and of her background to understand some college kid on the floor?  It took a long time for the woman to reach the boy.  The church became utterly silent except for the clicking of the woman's cane.  All eyes were focused on her. You couldn't even hear anyone breathing. The minister couldn’t even preach the sermon until the deacon was finished. And then the congregation saw this elderly woman drop her cane on the floor… With great difficulty, she lowered himself and sat down next to Tim on the floor, making the decision to worship with him and by doing so to show him that he won't be, that he isn’t alone. Everyone choked up with emotion... When the minister gained control, he finally said, 'What I'm about to preach, you will never remember. What you have just seen, you will never forget.'  The truth of that came in the form of Tim returning after that service, weekly.  Converted by the love of an elderly woman who made the decision to act as Jesus acts – being with people, no matter who they are, where they come from or where they are going.
After last week’s sermon, I ended up in several conversations with people about those who don’t attend church but say they are people of faith.  Well, maybe.  Maybe they really are people of faith.  But I tend to think people don’t come to church for a couple reasons and one of them is that again, relationships with God take time and work and people simply don’t want to put that time and work in.  Coming to church means taking your faith seriously, taking time to actually work on your relationship with God.  That takes commitment to the real thing and it is a practice that as we here know feeds us, feeds our souls, and invites us to see and experience God at a completely different level.  That kind of commitment also holds us accountable, something people who are not part of church communities may feel uneasy with.  Being part of a faith community helps us to build our faith around sound principles.  It is interesting to me that there is a movement towards people attending non-denominational churches.  The thinking is that these churches are somehow not “tainted” by the dogma built up in our denominations.  But to me, these churches are opportunities to dive into a cultish experience.  Our grounded, sound denominations have worked through their stuff.  They’ve had time to develop, to mature in their faith, to be grounded in practices, beliefs, and understandings that again hold us accountable and make it much harder to go spinning off into dangerous religious tangents.  The practice of showing up weekly invites us into scheduled time with God.  That doesn’t LIMIT our time with God.  We can add more and more time through our prayers, our study groups, our faith disciplines, conversations with other people.  But it means that at least one time each week we will be talking and in conversation with God.  It also means that we have that time each week to remember, again, that we are NOT alone.  The Advocate, the Spirit that Jesus sent is with us, always.  And it is in the strength of that connection with God that we also stand with one another in our faith and in our commitment to love as Jesus loved, to follow in the Way of Jesus, to be his people.
       A member of a certain church, who previously had been attending services regularly, stopped going.  After a few weeks, the pastor decided to visit him.  It was a chilly evening. The pastor found the man at home alone, sitting before a blazing fire. Guessing the reason for his pastor's visit, the man welcomed him, led him to a comfortable chair near the fireplace and waited.  The pastor made himself at home but said nothing.  In the grave silence, he contemplated the dance of the flames around the burning logs.  After some minutes, the pastor took the fire tongs, carefully picked up a brightly burning ember and placed it to one side of the hearth all alone then he sat back in his chair, still silent. The host watched all this in quiet contemplation.  As the one lone ember's flame flickered and diminished, there was a momentary glow and then its fire was no more.  Soon it was cold and dead.  Not a word had been spoken since the initial greeting.  The pastor glanced at his watch and realized it was time to leave.  He slowly stood up, picked up the cold, dead ember and placed it back in the middle of the fire.  Immediately it began to glow, once more with the light and warmth of the burning coals around it.  As the pastor reached the door to leave, his host said with a tear running down his cheek, 'Thank you so much for your visit and especially for the fiery sermon. I will be back in church next  Sunday'.
Jesus has sent us the Advocate.  Jesus has also sent us one another.  We are blessed to be in community with God and with each other.  Our call then is to spread and share that community with others.  Amen.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Making Amends, Part III or..."Rebuilding what was broken"

Tyler put this in a comment after my last blog post, but I felt it deserved it's own post:

Thanks, Tyler, for the image.  Beautiful, truly.
When we are willing to give what is broken our best effort and materials, what we make can be stronger, more beautiful and MUCH more interesting.

Still the choice is always there - do we put in the effort? Or do we throw away the broken pieces, declaring them beyond repair?

Personally, I think we throw things away far too quickly and easily in this culture...things, relationships, people.
I'm guilty as well.

But look at what we miss out on when we make that choice?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Making Amends, part II

Recently a friend posted on facebook the following:

I found myself thinking about this a great deal.  We do make mistakes.  We do break things in other people and break relationships and break hearts, etc.  Sometimes this is done with malice and intention, but I don't think that's the norm.  We are human and we mess up and people get hurt.  Even when we are careful, even when we are thoughtful and strive to be loving, we make mistakes and people get hurt. On the other side of this coin, loving means risking, so things in us will get broken; our hearts, as I said in an earlier post this week, will be broken.  All of us will do damage, experience damage, make mistakes, and have mistakes made in our direction that injure us.  

So is the point of this little illustration that saying sorry is pointless, meaningless, and does no good?  I don't think so.  I do think starting with "I'm sorry", especially when it is a genuine feeling can go a long way.  But perhaps the point is that it just isn't enough.  Making amends means taking it to the next step. What can we do to help heal the brokenness in one another?  How can we be part of putting the plate that is another person's feelings, ego, pride, or sense of self back together?  That may look like conversations, listening to the damage we have really done and being willing to hear it, sit with it, address it.  Sometimes it means something different.  And sometimes there is nothing we can do except pray.  Sometimes, if the plate is a relationship, it is broken into so many pieces that it simply can't be mended.  There can be healing in letting it go just as there is healing in choosing to work it through.  We also have to recognize that even when the plate is mended, it will never be the same.  Often the glue that puts it back together makes those places, those joints, those broken lines stronger than they ever were before.  But the lines, the scars remain and forever change the face of the plate.  And sometimes the plate is so damaged that rebuilding it looks like making something entirely different.  But the different thing can be even more beautiful if we are committed to working and making and creating it together.

Of course the obvious second lesson is that we do need to be aware, to think, and to strive to not do such damage in the first place.  But again, it is not realistic to expect that we will never hurt one another.  The deeper we go in relationship with one another, the more chances for pain and the deeper the hurts when they come.  That's part of being human.    

We start healing by recognizing that we have done serious damage, whether we meant to or not.  We start healing by seeing the breaks, and not just apologizing for them but offering to help mend them.  We start the healing by recognizing that the damage done means that the design has changed.  We start healing by envisioning new designs together that can be even more beautiful, scars and all.

Monday, May 5, 2014

To risk loving...

David Whyte wrote, "Heartbreak is unpreventable; the natural outcome of caring for people and things over which we have no control, of holding in our affections those who inevitably move beyond our line of sight. Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot, in other words, it colors and inhabits and magnifies each and every day; heartbreak is not a visitation, but a path that human beings follow through even the most average life. Heartbreak is our indication of sincerity: in a love relationship, in a work, in trying to learn a musical instrument, in the attempt to shape a better more generous self. Heartbreak is the beautifully helpless side of love and affection and is just as much an essence and emblem of care as the spiritual athlete’s quick but abstract ability to let go. Heartbreak has its own way of inhabiting time and its own beautiful and trying patience in coming and going."  (©2013 David Whyte.  Excerpted from HEARTBREAK From the upcoming book of essays CONSOLATIONS: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words.)

I've found myself sitting with this quote a great deal this last week.  As I mentioned in my article about trust, loving and trusting are risks we take.  They are part of living, truly living, but they do involve risk.  When we choose to love, we are taking the risk of heartbreak.  When we choose to trust, we are taking the risk of being betrayed.  And I think that most of us strive to find a balance - we choose to trust those we think are trustworthy.  We choose to love the "sure thing" or to love those who are most likely to love us in return so we aren't hurt as often, so our hearts aren't broken.  But even with precautions, our hearts still get broken, in big things and in small.  Even things not being quite the way we thought they were or hoped they would be are heartbreaks that we experience when we truly care.

In the face of that, I love the idea that "heartbreak is our indication of sincerity", and, as he says further in the same article, "heartbreak may be the very essence of being human, of being on the journey from here to there, and of coming to care deeply for what we find along the way…"

I think one of the hardest things about heartbreak can be the feeling that we care so much and so deeply about someone who does not feel the same way (and as always, this can be family, friend or romantic relationship - any of it).  Having our hearts broken while watching our loved one's joy can lead us to feel unworthy, unlovable, "less than".  But I think Whyte's article actually gave me a different perspective to stand on.  To love, to put ourselves fully out there, to risk caring - these are the very things that make us human, that make us "worthy".  The more deeply we love, the more deeply we reach into our humanity and into the greatest sense and source of our worth and being.  (The other side of this then is that when someone can give us up, can let us go, without a sense of loss, or "heartbreak" that is an indication of a LACK of sincerity, a lack of depth to the love they gave.  And eventually, we have to realize that this was not a love we would have wanted or that would have served us in the long run anyway.)

But the next step then is what do we do with that heartbreak?  As a family we just finished watching, for the first time, Star Wars I, II and III.  Watching Anakin descend into the dark side because of his heartbreak was powerful for me in many ways.  First it was a reminder that evil does not manifest from no-where.  Evil comes when people are hurt and handle that hurt badly.  Or, to be even more precise, evil happens when we are willing to do anything to AVOID that heartbreak which is so central a part of life, of living, of being human.  And again, the result?  Even when you strive to avoid the heartbreak, it comes.  No matter what you do to avoid it, it still comes.  Anakin still lost Padme, despite the fact that he turned to the dark side in order to save - BECAUSE of the fact that he turned to the dark side in order to save her.

So once again, we are faced with a simple truth.  We can do everything to avoid the heartbreak.  We can be determined not to love. We can choose evil and hate instead.  We can isolate ourselves.  We can do all kinds of things that keep us from loving and living.  And will we then be able to avoid heartbreak?  Still, the answer remains NO.  So we have a choice.  We can live and love and have our hearts broken.  Or we can die and hate and have our hearts broken.  If we choose the second, we fail to live and our lives are simply dark.  But if we choose the first, while we will still have broken hearts, we will also find love, live love, and experience great joy as well.  And the love that we find and create and participate in can also heal us from heartbreak.  Seems an obvious choice to me.  Not always an easy choice, but an obvious one.