Monday, August 31, 2015

Sunday's Sermon - What Comes Out

What Comes
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

         “Nothing outside of a person can enter and contaminate a person in God’s sight; rather, the things that come out of a person contaminate the person.”  I found myself thinking about this passage a great deal over the last few weeks, especially as I was confronted, again and again, with values that are different than what our faith teaches. 
I began thinking around this when I noticed a magazine cover in the grocery store that said this, “Hair, sex, money, happiness” and then under all of that in bold letters it said “Goals”.  And as I stared at this magazine cover, as I reflected on the popular TV programs and the ads that sprinkle through those TV programs, as I thought about conversations overheard in the parent night at the kids’ schools and in the grocery store, I realized those really are the goals for so many in our society.  Hair (or appearance), Sex (or physical pleasure of any kind), Money and Happiness - maybe even in that order.  Some people believe that the first three lead to the last – happiness.  But I’m no longer convinced that even Happiness is the goal our faith sets for ourselves.  Jesus never said, “Do whatever it takes to be happy.”  Instead he said, “Pick up your cross and follow me.”  Picking up one’s cross does not make one happy.  It may bring joy, the joy of meaning, the joy of connecting with God.  But happy?  No.  Being willing to die out of love for our neighbors is not about being happy.
The truth is, being happy is an American value.  It is not a Christian one.  I want to repeat that.  Happiness is not a Christian goal.  Still, I want to be clear.  This doesn’t mean that we won’t find happiness or that we shouldn’t be grateful for life.  But the fact is that setting happiness as the goal often has the reverse result of the one we want it to have.  When we think we should be happy, when we think being happy is the goal, it is in fact harder to be happy.  I’ve shared this before in a blog post for those who read my blog, but a good friend of mine was born and raised in Holland.  And one of the things that she pointed out to me years ago was that people in other countries tend to be much more content, much more joyful, much happier than people in the United States.  And one of the reasons for this is simply that we who were raised here tend to expect life to be happy and easy and fair.  My friend told me that in other countries people don’t expect ease or justice or happiness.  They expect that life will be hard.  But because of that, they take the gifts of life, the good things that happen to them, each one, as exactly that – an unexpected gift that they then enjoy and appreciate with much greater depth.  When things go wrong, they just expect that so they shrug it off.  It’s life.  That’s what life is, no big deal.  But when things go right?  That’s unexpected and amazing and wondrous and to be celebrated.  In contrast, here in the United States we are constantly bombarded with the messages, “you deserve this!”  “Claim your happiness!”  “It’s all there right for you!”  “If you think positively, it will be yours!”  “You deserve to be pampered and spoiled and happy.”  And as a result, when things go wrong, which they will because that is life, we can’t handle it.  We think it’s unfair and not right.  And when things go well, since we believe that’s is how it is supposed, we don’t appreciate it. 
               But the point I want to make here is that whatever it is that we value, those values truly define what we become, who we are and how we act.      Thomas Merton put it this way, “a life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all.  No one can serve two masters.  Your life is shaped by the end you live for.  You are made in the image of what you desire.”  Thomas Merton was really quoting Jesus when Jesus said it like this, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
So, if what you desire is, like the magazine declared, “hair, sex, money and happiness,” your life will demonstrate those values.  Your resources will be aimed towards achieving and obtaining those things, and therefore that is how you will spend your time, your money, your energy. 
             But as I said at the beginning, these are not the things that Jesus calls us to value.  We know what Jesus calls us to value:  The passage in James put it like this, “True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Parent is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us.”  Micah said it this way, “What does the Lord require of you but to love kindness, to do justice and to walk humbly with God.”  In John, Jesus said it like this, “Love one another.  By this you will be known to be my disciples, if you love one another.”  And in the other three gospels Jesus said it more simply still:  “Two commandments I give you: to love God with all your heart, soul and mind. And to love your neighbor as yourself.” 
When we fail to do those things, that is when we “defile” ourselves.  It is not what goes in, it is what comes out of a person.  It is what a person says, it is what a person does, it is how a person behaves, which says everything about who we ultimately are.  The Pharisees had a lot of rules, they were good at following those rules.  But when it came to actually caring for the people who were most in need, they did not follow God’s will or obey what God asked them to do.  Their lives reflected their values.  They valued church authority.  They valued the rules.  They valued a hierarchy and a ranking of people that allowed them to appear superior, righteous, above others.  And in turn, they treated those who they did not “rank” as equal with disdain and without compassion.  Their behavior defiled them.  If you really want to know what a person’s like, what they value and therefore who they really are, take a good look at how they treat those they consider inferior, not those they consider equals.  That poor treatment of those who have less, those who appear inferior, that is what defiles.
               I have a story to tell you that is really more about education and educators than about being a good follower of Christ.  But I think it is appropriate since we just began school this week, and also because I think it, too illustrates the point I’m trying to make:
The dinner guests were sitting around the table discussing life. One man, a CEO, decided to explain the problem with education. He argued, "What's a kid going to learn from someone who decided her best option in life was to become a teacher?" To stress his point he said to another guest; "You're a teacher, Bonnie. Be honest. What do you make?"
Bonnie, who had a reputation for honesty and frankness replied, "You want to know what I make? (She paused for a second, then began...)
"Well, I make students work harder than they ever thought they could. I make a C+ feel like the Congressional Medal of Honor winner.  I make kids sit through 40 minutes of class time when their parents can't make them sit for 5 without an IPod, Xbox or netflicks.
You want to know what I make? (She paused again and looked at each and every person at the table). I make kids wonder. I make them question. I make them apologize and mean it. I make them have respect and take responsibility for their actions.  I make them care about serving other people.  They use their God given brain, and they learn that their brain was made to love and grow in understanding. I make my classroom a place where all my students feel safe and respected.
Finally, I make them understand that if they use the gifts God gave them, work hard, and follow their hearts, they can succeed in life…
(Bonnie paused one last time and then continued.)
Then, when people try to judge me by what kind of salary I make, with me knowing money isn’t everything, I can hold my head up high and pay no attention because. …. You want to know what I make?  I MAKE A DIFFERENCE.”

               What do we value?  Do we value the things we are taught by our culture to value?  Appearance, popularity, money, things?  Getting what is best only for me and for mine?  Or do we value service, meaning, purpose, caring – love for God and God’s people?  Our lives tell.  Our lives show.  It is what comes out that defiles, not what goes in.  And similarly, it is what comes out that makes a difference for the better and can change the world.  Not what goes in.  Amen.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Sunday's Sermon - the Cost of Doubt

The Cost of Doubt
1 John 1
John 20: 19-31

Today we hear the very familiar story of doubting Thomas. He has heard the news that Jesus appeared among the disciples and yet he does not believe it - or rather he is unsure, for as he describes it, he is not against believing, he just wants proof. And after Jesus gives him that proof Jesus says to Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."
This reminds me of the story of a little boy, the son of a pastor whose parent told him to go wash his hands after playing in the dirt because of all the germs.  The child refused saying “Germs and Jesus!  Germs and Jesus!  That’s all I ever hear around this house and I’ve never seen either one!”
At least most of us here have probably never seen the risen Christ and so we are part of that group of Christians who, by our very presence in this room, are proclaiming that we believe in some way in a resurrected Christ. Whether you believe that to be literal or a story does not matter.  Your presence here declares that the story has meaning for you, that resurrection and the new life that it proclaims are realities for you. We are, therefore, part of that group of blessed people who have believed in some way without seeing. But we live in a time when Christianity has been around for awhile. I think back to the time of Jesus and find myself wondering how easy it would have been to believe around the time of Jesus’ death?  If we were living at that time, I think it might have been much harder for us to accept that a person we had actually seen and heard about, maybe even someone who grew up in our home town, maybe someone we went to school with, had arisen in any way from the dead. The farther back in time an event occurred, I think the easier it probably is to believe in it: the more distance we have from knowing the person personally, the less their story has to compete with an image of who we thought they were. I imagine that knowing Jesus and seeing him as a person might have made it very difficult for some, like Thomas, to believe without some kind of proof.
The gospel writer John is very clear about his reason for writing his gospel stories.  He says, “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Many scholars believe that the gospel of John was written around 125 AD, so few, if any, of the people who met Jesus were still alive. Still, it was a time close enough to Jesus’ life that it was still probably difficult for many to believe a resurrection story about someone they may have connections with, either through friends or relatives. “Aaron’s cousin, Jesus, was said to have risen from the dead. What do you think of that?” It is in this context - of not knowing Jesus, but probably knowing people who did know or were somehow related to Jesus, that John is writing his gospel. And he is encouraging them to believe without sight, saying this is a blessed thing; to believe even when their senses have not been given the same proof the disciples were given. Hard for many people today. No doubt even harder for the people of Jesus’ time. 
But whatever you believe the resurrection to mean or be about, my question for you today is what does this story tell us about doubt, about our own doubts, about our times of faith struggle, and about where God is in those times and experiences?
With Jasmyn’s permission, I want to share with you some of the faith story of my eldest daughter. Jasmyn is now 15, but, perhaps especially when she was little, she had a very special relationship with God.  She talked to God starting at a very young age, and she would often tell us about things that God had said to her. I believe in those conversations. I think children are in a unique place, before the cynicism of age has crept in, before the “realism” of life raises doubts in them, to really hear God’s voice in ways that most adults can no longer do. Someday I will share with you some of the things Jasmyn has shared with me about her conversations about God.  But today I want to share something different. When Jasmyn was about 7 years old at dinner one night (where all my deep theological conversations with my daughter seem to take place), Jasmyn popped up with “Mama, I’ve been thinking and I’ve been realizing that believing in something doesn’t make it real. I mean, we can believe things that aren’t real, that aren’t true.”
“Yes, that’s true!” I agreed, thinking of the many times Jasmyn had said things to me such as, “I know you don’t think fairies are real, but they are.  I know you don’t think Pegasus’ are real, but they are.”
But Jasmyn continued, “So it is possible that we believe in God, but God might not be real. Our believing in God could just be a belief that doesn’t make God real.”
So I answered, “Yes, you are right, Jasmyn. Believing does not make something real.  That is why our belief is called ‘faith’. It isn’t something you can prove or disprove. It is something you believe without that.”
This answer made Jasmyn very uncomfortable. She thought about it and began to cry, “Well, then how do we know God is real?”
“Well the simple answer is that we don’t know if by knowing you mean having hard, scientific evidence. We believe it. We trust it. But many people, at least, would say that we don’t know in the sense of having irrefutable proof.” After a pause I added, “Jasmyn you yourself have told me on many occasions that God has spoken to you. You have told me of things that God has said to you. So you have heard God. Don’t those conversations act as a proof for you that God is real?” 
“Well, it’s occurred to me that those things I thought God told me just might be my own voice inside my head.” She was clearly very distressed by this. And I found myself both a little sad and a little proud. The sad part was that she had finally grown beyond the innocent blind acceptance of her faith. That magical childhood time of unwavering and unquestioning faith she had begun to leave behind. When Jesus said, “you must come to me as a little child”, I believe he meant we must come knowing that there is more to learn, that God is not done with us, that we don’t have all the answers. I believe Jesus meant we must come searching for answers and wanting to know more. I don’t think he meant we need to come without questions or doubts.  But still, as with any parent, there are some moments of grief as our children leave aspects of their childhood behind. I had enjoyed hearing about Jasmyn’s conversations with God and it occurred to me that they were now changing, or her absolute faith in them was now changing.   
The pride part for me held a recognition that she was also beginning to engage her faith with her mind, something God also calls us to do. Yes, those who can believe without proof may be, as Jesus said, “happy.” I mean face it, it is easier to have all the answers. It is easier to have an unwavering faith. It is easier, and I would say happier even, to believe 100 % without doubts or reservations in a God who is with us, who loves us, who has been resurrected and calls us into new life with God. 
But God calls us to love God with our whole heart, soul, strength, and Jesus added MIND to the list - and that mind engagement is going to cause moments of doubt, moments of crisis, moments of questioning and exploration. As we’ve discussed before, it is, according to the spiritual development experts, those very periods of crisis, including periods of doubt, that cause our faith to grow, to develop, to become deeper and more real. Real faith is a living, breathing thing. It must be allowed to be explored and searched. If we keep it boxed into a rigid tight doctrine, it is not real, it cannot spread roots, it cannot grow up to the heavens, it cannot be firmly rooted in the creation God has made.
In other words, doubt is a gift. Frederick Buechner describes doubt this way. “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
None the less doubt is uncomfortable. It isn’t comfortable to be unsure, to be in crisis, to be in a time of spiritual turmoil. This is not comfortable at all. And it has the possibility of leading into cynicism which is unhealthy and causes unhappiness. But for those willing to truly engage it, look at it, explore it, doubt is a gift. For it calls us to take our faith seriously, to explore with God what it means to be a person of faith, to continue to grow in our relationship to God and in our understanding. 
It does even more than that. In today’s scripture when Thomas doubted, how did Jesus respond? Did he say “well, forget you, Thomas. You needed proof, so I no longer accept you as one of my own!” Did he say, “Happy are those who believe without proof and cursed are those who need it?” No. Instead, what did he do? He came to Thomas. He came to Thomas and invited Thomas into a much closer relationship with him: he invited Thomas to touch him, to experience him with his eyes, his ears and even his sense of touch. Jesus was their teacher, the “Rabbi” as they described him, and for him to allow himself to be touched would have been breaking, once again, some of the most important Jewish rules of the time: to be touched in this way at this time would have made Jesus “unclean” by the laws of the day. But Jesus crossed this line: he chose intimacy with Thomas, he chose relationship. Helping Thomas believe was much more important than anything else and Jesus was willing to do whatever was needed to meet Thomas and offer this gift of faith to him.  For Thomas, his doubt brought him this deep gift. Doubt brought his faith to a deeper and more intimate level.
For those of you who are curious, my answer to Jasmyn, as it would be to any of you in the middle of a faith crisis was simply this, “I believe in those conversations (or experiences) you had with God. The God I know and love does say or communicate the things you have told me about; things like ‘This is my world’ and ‘I am always with you.’ But if my belief in your conversations with God, if my belief in God is not enough for you right now, that is okay too.  Because my God is okay with your doubt as well as your faith. My God loves all of who you are, with your struggles, with your questions, with your confusion, with your doubts. And God’s love for you and God’s faith in you, even if you do not have faith in God, is enough to save the whole world.”
But the story didn’t end there. Just like Thomas, Jasmyn was not content to just stay in the doubt. For months after her first expression of this doubt she continued to do what felt like “badgering” to me. Every day or so she would pop up with things like “Well, except we don’t really know if God is real or not,” and she sounded defiant or angry every time she said it, like she was testing me, I thought. But finally, I heard it a little differently and I said to her, “Jasmyn, it sounds like your doubt is really upsetting you.” She acknowledged that it was. So I said to her, “Jasmyn, as I’ve told you before, God can handle your doubt. So take it to God. Ask God what to do with or about it. Ask God how you can feel sure that God is real.”
A few days later as we were driving home from school, Jasmyn said to me, “You know, God loves this earth and really wants us to take care of it.”  
Her tone was so different from the last few months’ conversations about God that I had to ask, “Jasmyn, you really sound sure about that.  Did you talk to God like I suggested before?”
“Yes,” she told me, and she continued, “I talked to God about whether or not God was real and God said to me, ‘Jasmyn, I am more real than any of you. I’m more real than your friends, I’m more real than your mama, I’m more real than your sister and brother, and I’m even more real than you.’ So I don’t doubt anymore. God is more real than any of us.”  Out of the mouths of babes.


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The gift of my friend

Another hard day.  House closing has been delayed, and delayed, and delayed - until today.  But it won't happen, again.  Seller is done with this, which is understandable.  Which means that schooling for kids is still tenuous.  And it means still not having our stuff, and still having our poor kitties in a kennel.  And it means still sleeping in other people's houses, trying to be careful with other people's things.  And it means still feeling displaced, homeless, and unsettled, to say the least.  This has gone on for a month and a half.  That's a long time to be "homeless" and it is hard.  The house in Ohio is not selling, which is part of why our lender doesn't want to loan us money for a house out here. And there is not one thing I can do about that. I've put it to the universe.  I've put it out to God (though I don't think God micro-manages house sales).  But otherwise, there is nothing that can be done.  I put a ton of money into fixing it up, did a lot of work on it myself. But now I am in CA and there is simply no more to be done.

It is hard on the kids who don't know if they are coming or going, don't know when they will have their stuff or access to their cats (who are NOT doing well in the kennel), don't know where they will be attending school this next week or next month.

I continue to try to take everything a day at a time.  I continue to try to look for the things to be grateful for in each moment.  I continue to try to focus more on my work and caring for my kids than on the lack of housing or even the future and what it might, or might not, hold.  But there are too many moments lately when I just want to rail at God, "Where ARE you?  What is it that I'm supposed to be learning here?  I know 'this too shall pass' but the last 4 1/2 years have been HARD and frankly, I'm ready for something different. My KIDS are ready for something different!  Do you really want these experiences to define who they are and how they relate to the world?  Where ARE you?!"

And then...

Today, in the middle of a good long cry, I got a call from a very dear friend who I don't talk to but once every few months.  He is someone I respect and value so deeply for who he is, and what he gives to the world and all those he encounters on a daily basis.  I value him for all he has given to me, personally, over the years - the wisdom, the centering, a model for how to be in the world (he is a fighter who has stood up to injustice in concrete and impressive ways), and his constant, unwavering friendship.  He lives in New Mexico, so our contact over the last 23 years has pretty much been restricted to these occasional phone calls.  Still, I have found that his timing is consistently uncanny. He seems to always call exactly when I need to hear from him.  Today was such a day.  Before I could even launch into all of my woes and struggles, he told me he'd been reading my blog and was really impressed by my ability to hold on to gratitude and reflection in difficult times.  He said he felt I'd grown in my ability to be compassionate as well and he saw me continuing to mature and truly deepen through the struggles I'd been through.  He said I modeled all of that for him.  Huh.

My first response was to feel shame.  I wasn't feeling gratitude or compassion in the moment he had called me.  I'd just been feeling sorry for myself, frustrated with the world, "picked on" by the universe.  I wasn't acting particularly mature, I was crying in my office at work.  I wasn't feeling strong or deep, I was feeling like a 5 year old kid who just wanted to be held and told that it would all be okay.

But he is not a "shaming" person.  It wasn't his intention for me to feel that way.  And so that feeling passed pretty quickly and I was left instead with the reminder that what I feel in the moment is not the totality of my being.  What we all feel in this moment is not all of who we are.  What we are experiencing in this moment - not only will it pass, but even in this moment it is not all of who we are.  It is a glimpse, it is a moment, it is a breath in a life time of breaths and moments and glimpses, all of which make up who we are, and who we will become.  Even when we don't feel God's strong loving arms surrounding us, that too is a moment, a glimpse, a breath in which we are not letting go and relaxing into the love that holds us through it all, even when it does not feel like it does.

God was there for me my friend, John.  Thank you, John, for being that face of God for me today when I needed it.  Thank you for reminding me that I am more than I feel I am in those hard moments.  Thank you for showing me that love is still there even when I feel alone.  Thank you - for being one of the angels in my life each day, and especially today.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

And Love One Another...

It's all that easy, and all that hard!
Micah 6:8
John 13:31-35

Early on in my ministry I worked as an associate pastor in a church in which many AA and 12 step meetings were held.  One such meeting was a weekly Alateen group for teens whose lives have been affected by alcohol. One night a 14 year old girl was dropped off at the church for the Alateen meeting, only to discover that she was a day early for the meeting.  I found her standing in the door of the church looking lost, looking confused, looking scared.  I asked her if I could help her and she said she needed a ride home.  This girl lived with her single mother on the other side of the city, a good 40 minute drive away, and her mother had dropped her at the church on her way to work.  The girl had expected to get a ride home with another friend who attended the meeting, but since she had come on the wrong day she now had no way to get home.  I was scheduled to lead a session meeting that evening, so I went into the meeting and asked if any of the elders might be willing to forego the meeting that evening in order to give the girl a ride home. Can you guess what they said?
The response was unanimous: “That girl could be a car-thief.  That girl could be a con-artist.  “That girl could be carrying a gun or a knife and just waiting for a chance to stab somebody.”
I was floored.  They hadn’t even seen this 14 year old girl, but if they had, I knew it would not have helped her because as she had piercings and tattoos and she would have, for them, only confirmed their stereotypes and reinforced their fears.  I gently suggested that this might be an opportunity to help this girl have a new understanding of what it might mean to be part of a Christian community.  But I was greeted with the response, “God didn’t call us to be stupid.”  I asked if anyone would then be willing to pay for a cab for her.  No, they said, that would be putting the cab driver at risk, they couldn’t afford to pay the cab, what if it was a scam and she and/or the cab driver ran off with the money, or worse, spend it on alcohol.
I was surprised.  I was also very tempted to throw some scripture at them.  Wasn’t every parable and story about Jesus a story of loving to the point of risking his life until finally his very life was in fact taken away?  And weren’t we then called on time and again by scripture to go and do like-wise?  In fact, there is nothing in scripture, not one word, that supports playing it safe.  Where people are in need, when people ask for our help, we are called on to risk everything to love them.
Maybe when you heard this story, you, too, felt the indignation which I felt on that day.  Why wouldn’t these Christians, these elders in the church, help this young girl?  But what if I were to change the story a little?  What if, instead of a 14 year old girl, the person asking for help was a 14 year old boy?  Or a 17 year old boy?  What if, instead of a young person, it was a full grown adult male?  What if that adult male, threateningly or differently dressed were disheveled?  Dirty?  Drunk?  And yet, what Jesus calls us to do for a young, innocent looking girl, Jesus calls us to do for every person who comes to us in need.  And while at that juncture, I felt indignant and angry, the truth is that not very many of us, with exceptions such as Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa, Ghandi, and a few saintly people among our own acquaintances, live up to this commandment.  I don’t stop on the freeway when someone looks like they need help, because I am afraid.  I don’t offer homeless people beds in my home.  And it makes sense that I don’t.  It makes sense that we don’t.  For these activities are dangerous.  What the elders at my church said was true.  It is possible that they would have been putting their very lives at risk to care for this girl as when we care for anyone with the love of Christ.   Not only is this hard for us to do, it is hard for us to support others doing this.  I don’t want the people I love taking those chances or risks.
But when I look at scripture what I see is a path of love that lead Jesus to the cross.  And Jesus told us to follow him in that path of loving, even to the cross – literally, not figuratively.  Loving is not easy. While referring to his own love as that of a mother hen, Jesus refers to Herod as a fox.  And as we know, the fox will get the chicken, foxes do get chickens that come in front of the, and Jesus was killed.  If we too care about the world as a mother hen cares for her chicks, if we too would go out and meet the fox face to face to protect others, if we too would love to the point of putting ourselves in the path of a fox, we too risk death.  Loving is not easy.
      At another church where I served, the congregants were intimately involved with a program that served the homeless.  Through our work and through our time with the homeless people in our community, we developed a very close relationship with one homeless man in particular.  This man was very loving, very giving, very caring.  He began attending our church and when he did so, he offered to run our sound system, he helped with the gardening, and he was always on hand to help us in any way.  He was not unintelligent, but he was a severe alcoholic who could not seem to get through the disease to a place where he could give up drinking.  He would give it up for a week or two and then something would happen and he would be drinking again.  We saw him fight for his life against this disease and we saw him losing the battle.  Because we cared for him, as well as the other people on our church campus, we set boundaries and he was not allowed to be on campus while drinking or intoxicated, a boundary he both understood and respected.  Still, it did not help him in his fight against the disease.  At one point in our relationship with George, his drinking led him to fall and to hit his head very seriously on the street.  The police found him hours later and took him to the local hospital.  His injuries, especially to his brain, were very serious and he was admitted.  However, when the nurses and doctors at the hospital came to understand that he was a homeless, income-less, resource-less man, they gave up caring for him.  He remained at the hospital for quite a while, because he was unable to walk a straight line, he could not speak clearly and had very little control over his movements.  But in large part he was at the hospital for so long because they would not provide the care to get him to a place where they could discharge him.  The only time that George really received any attention – the only time he would be brought his meals even – was when one of us was there to insist on it.  This was a “Christian” hospital, and the doctors and nurses who were hired to work there were, we were told, people of faith.  But they did not see the contradiction in their faith when they served their charges according to their resources, rather than according to their needs. 
       This is NOT how Jesus acted.  And it is not what Jesus calls us to do.  Despite the reaction of those around him, including his disciples, Jesus found time to be present with “the least of these” every time.  He gave of his healing, of his energy, of his attention, even to those who didn’t somehow “rank” or “deserve” it. 
This Sunday I’m inviting you to join me in a benediction and charge which was written by Bruce Reyes-Chow that ends with the phrase; “Care for one another and love one another.  It is all that easy and it is all that hard.”  Mostly, I think, loving one another as Christ loves us is hard.  We are called to see one another as we really are.  We are called to be good news to the poor and liberation to the oppressed.  We are called to be willing to lay down our lives for one another, even as Jesus laid down his life for us.
So where is the good news in this for us?  Well first, we aren't called to fix the world, but only to do what God puts in front of us.  I found this quote from the Talmud this week that I just love, "Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief.  Do justice, now.  Love mercy, now.  Walk humbly, now.  You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it."  Amy Grant puts it this way, "As you daily recreate me, help me always keep in mind, that I only have to do what I can find."  The burden of fixing the world is not on any one of us.  We already have a savior.  Our call is simply to do what needs to be done that is in front of us each moment.
Also, the good news is that loving is itself the greatest most fulfilling experience we can be given by God.  It’s not easy, just as loving any real person with all their quirks and foibles and challenges is not always easy.  But it is rewarding to care about others, to see them grow, to be part of changing and helping lives.  Not only is the gift of loving its own reward.  When we are able to love like this, I believe we are given the ability to see God.  We see God’s face in those we love, we experience God’s grace through the act of loving.  We experience God’s resurrection in seeing lives change and grow. We grow in our ability to love and we become more wholly ourselves and wholly God’s people. 

It is not easy to be a Christian.  We are required to love with our whole beings, with our total selves.  But loving and the ability to love ever more fully and deeply is its own reward and promise.  Amen.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Sermon #2 at CVPC - Evil Talk

Ephesians 4:25-5:2
Matthew 18:15-18

               Today’s passage from Ephesians is rich with advice.  “Be angry without sinning.”  “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.”  “Don’t provide an opportunity for evil.”  “Thieves stop stealing.”  “Don’t let foul words come out of your mouth.”  “Put aside all bitterness.”  “ Don’t lose your temper.”   And then we hear the Matthew passage.  And it tells us to be honest and to talk to those who are hurting us. All of these are wonderfully true and important when we consider how to talk to one another.  But it can also be hard to muddle through.  Still, they all basically come down to the same thing.  Be careful and intentional with your words.
But how do we do this?   Today’s passage from Matthew instructs us to talk to one another.  To “confront” one another, to use a word that most of us find unpleasant and difficult to deal with.  It instructs us how to do this…in a direct, but loving way.  We are to go and talk to one another first one on one in private, and then if we are not heard, to take a witness with us and try again.  This passage is important for many reasons.
First, it tells us what we are not to do when someone hurts us.  We are not to go talking about it to other people.  This is undoubtedly the hardest part of this.  We are to speak to the person him or her-self about what has upset us.  Also, we don’t ask someone to do our talking for us.  If we are upset about something, we are to talk to the person directly and if they don’t listen, we bring in a second person to listen while we again talk to the person directly.   The other person we bring is simply a witness, not an active participant in the conversation.
Neither of these things are easy.  It is much easier to “process” with someone else, or to just decide not to talk to a person about a problem. I was talking with another pastor friend this week about her experiences with her church.  She was telling me about a parishioner who is a real challenge.  This is someone who has no sense of personal boundaries, and who steps into personal space on a regular basis.  This person is loud and aggressive in their language.  This is a person who is offensive.  Yet no one has had the courage to gently say to this person, “when you step that close to me, I feel uncomfortable.”  Or “when you use that tone of voice with me, I feel threatened.”  Instead everyone just collectively, but behind this person’s back, says, “well, that’s just the way Roger is.”  “That’s just Roger.”  “He can’t help the way he behaves.”  “We are all just tolerant and accepting of Roger.”  This is problematic because it has alienated a few people in the church who don’t want to deal with Roger.  It has also made it hard on visitors since they don’t “just know the way Roger is.”  By failing to confront Roger, they are making a choice about excluding other people from their circle, people who might have a great deal to contribute if they were made to feel important and valued enough to stop Roger’s hurtful people towards them.
But I found myself, as I listened to my friend, thinking more about how I would feel if I were Roger and I found out that everyone was speaking about me in this way.  I would feel mortified and humiliated to learn that people were saying, “Well, that’s just Barbara” rather than talking to me directly about something crazy or goofy or offensive that I was doing.  And I would guess that most of us feel this way.  Wouldn’t you rather know that someone was upset with you by hearing about it directly from the person?  Wouldn’t you rather that people not assume that you can’t learn or that you don’t really want to know when you are making a mistake?  Wouldn’t you rather that people think that you are open to learning and are open to hearing the truth? 
When we think about confrontation, we think about how uncomfortable it is for the person confronting, or how hurtful it is to the person who is being confronted.  We don’t as often think about how hurtful it is when we walk around with egg on our face and everyone is afraid to tell us.  Or how hurtful it is to hear about something we’ve done wrong third hand, knowing that others know about our mistakes before we are told. 
As hard as it is to hear this, the truth is that it is a gift to our neighbors, our brothers and sisters in faith when we speak the truth to them in love.  It is a gift to be able to grow from our mistakes and learn from them.  It is a gift to be told in a loving and gentle way when we have hurt someone.  It allows us to grow.  It gives an opportunity for a more real and honest relationship between people. 
To love someone is to relentlessly seek the well-being of the other.  It is to want and work towards the highest spiritual growth for the other.  We cannot do that by failing to be honest with the other.  We cannot do that by gossiping about the other.  We cannot do that by hiding the truth from the other. 
It is also important to not speak for other people.  We need to be careful that we only and always speak for ourselves.   “People are saying” is not a good way to express one’s opinion about something.  It is hurtful because it leaves no room for response, and it is usually not accurate.  People say things, but if they really wanted them to be known they would speak to you directly.  Own your own feelings and speak for yourself and only yourself.  Also, when you use the phrase, “people are saying” you are basically admitting that you are participating in gossip, which again is simply hurtful and tends to  grow problems rather than shrinking them.    
But while we are called to speak the truth to one another, I also think HOW we do that is as important as what we say.  And a helpful way to think about how we talk to each other is to use the acronym “THINK” as in “Think” before you Speak.
Is it True
Is it Helpful
Is it Inspiring
Is it Necessary
 Is it Kind.
When we do speak the truth, sometimes we can get stuck at the “it is true” and forget to consider these other things.  For example, will this be a helpful thing to say?  Going up to someone, for example, and telling them they have an ugly nose, while it may be true, is not going to be helpful since there is nothing they can do about that.  Global statements, “you handled that really poorly”, are not helpful.  What is helpful are specifics, and if they can be phrased in positive ways, that is especially helpful.  “It might be helpful for you next time to not call the person an idiot so that they are better able to really hear what you are wanting to say.”
Second, Is it a necessary thing to say?  It is not necessary to say every thought that goes through our heads.  But sometimes I think we get so stuck on the “is it true” that we forget that we don’t have to say things that aren’t kind, helpful, and necessary.  
Third, can we find a kind way to speak our truth?  One way to do that is to use the formula, I feel x when you do y because z.  Again, we don’t have to attack others to communicate what we want to say.
And finally, is it inspiring.  I left that for last because I think it is the hardest one.  What that we say is truly inspiring?  What changes people?  What motivates people?  What moves people?  Those are good things to say.
The bottom line is that it is not enough to speak the truth.  We have to speak the truth IN LOVE.  And that is not always easy.  When we become angry, when we feel righteous, when we feel defensive, when we are hurt and hurting, it is way too easy to lash out.  I saw a post on Facebook this week that said, “A tongue has no bones, but it is strong enough to break a heart.”  I hope for each of us that the legacy of our words is not breaking hearts, but boosting one another in love. 

Today’s scriptures give us wisdom about communicating with one another in love.  We don’t learn all of these things in an hour or a day, but they are words to grow into.  Amen.

Saturday, August 8, 2015


Gratitude and Compassion really do make all the difference in the world.

"Always pray to have eyes that see the best in people, a heart that forgives the worst, a mind that forgets the bad, and a soul that never loses faith."

(that's a picture of a dragon fly, in case it wasn't obvious)

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Challenges and Gifts

Okay, I promised my Facebook connections a "revised" perspective today on the challenges we've been facing in our move out here.  I have to admit, it is so easy to get caught up in the stress and struggles of living out of a suitcase, moving to stay with different friends and family and then moving again, while waiting for our house to close and then be fixed up "a little" so we can at least flush the toilets, take a shower, not have wood-rotten boards drop on heads, not look through holes in walls, and lock the doors. There are many other even bigger projects that will also need to happen and my awareness of that fact is also stressful as I wonder how long (and how much money!) it will take to really make the house feel like "home", especially for my children who were pretty despairing at the condition of the house when they were finally able to see it.  It is easy to worry about the fact that I will be paying two mortgages for who knows how long (since no one appears even slightly interested in our house in Ohio), and it appears I will need to home-school my high-schooler, which means losing her "advanced standing" placement at school, etc. Beginning a new job in a new community is always a challenge all in itself. And I've been disappointed to discover that the gossip mill in the larger Presbytery (because even pastors, apparently, cannot always resist the attraction of gossip: Ugh!!)  has taken the story of my family's struggles and enlarged and morphed it into something unrecognizable and even more horrific than what actually happened, and that as a result, what I hoped would be a "new start" for my kids and myself has in fact thrown us back into the hell we experienced 4 1/2 years ago as if it were a brand new thing (which, since it's unrecognizable, it is a new thing). Additionally, because of that seeming need to create, expand and somehow "touch" drama, a couple friendships that I counted on are strained, and connections I had every expectation of having for my kids cannot be renewed in a couple cases.  In other words, things are hard. Still. Again.

I am aware, though, of the need once again to choose perspective.  I talk about framing all the time. How we frame the events of our lives is so incredibly important. I also have the words of my dear friend, Anneke, who did not grow up here in the US constantly going through my head, "Americans expect life to be easy, and they think the purpose of life is to be happy. And because of that, the normal events of each day are way too hard and upsetting for many Americans and they let those events make them unhappy.  People in other countries don't have those expectations.  And as a result, they are much happier because they appreciate and are grateful for the things that go well and that DO come easily as unexpected gifts.  And they take the things that are hard as just par for the course, and they don't let those things get them down."  And I also keep thinking about the wonderful book "The Beethoven Factor" by Paul Pearsall which talks about how some people respond to trauma by becoming victims, others respond by becoming survivors and still others thrive through their traumas, grow and become deeper, more real, more full human beings.  Those who thrive still feel down at times, but they don't let themselves be defeated or become bitter, cynical or opt out of life because of their past.  They live in the present fully, wholly and with increasing commitment.  They laugh hard, cry hard, play hard, and pray hard.

So, with all of that in mind, I am striving with all the stress and questions and disappointments to change my perspective once again.  Living in different houses is an adventure.  Right now, all four of us are camped out in a single room at a friend's house.  It's kind of fun, to be honest, to all sleep in the same room and have cable TV (something we don't usually have), and watch movies together and be in the same place at night.  I often would wake up in our old house when I would hear a noise, worried about the kids and how they were.  But being in the same room, I know how they are at any minute. We are meeting a wonderful new community of people, who are awesome and loving and supportive. The number of people who have responded to my 'cry for help' post on Facebook about Jasmyn's schooling has touched and moved me. The number of people who have offered us a place to stay for the night has also been a real gift. While there have been disappointments with folk, there has also been a continuing amazing community of care here for me and the kids. My experience at DMV was so much easier than I expected (Go figure!! the one place I expected things to be hard wasn't. Thanks be to God!). My kids are getting to spend a lot of time with grandparents, which has been good for them - to remember the importance of family and to depend on those loving relationships to see them through. The blue sky and sun have been incredible.  Driving through these hills once again just fills me with a sense of God's amazing hand at work in continued creation.  The sunsets have been beyond compare.  Connecting with friends and community has meant so much to me. And the benefit of Jasmyn being home schooled is that I will have a lot of special time with a very special girl for another year. She will soon be growing away from me. That is the normal path of teenagers and I expect it.  A little more special time with her will be a gift. It's all about perspective. And staying in the moment.  Each moment.  Each day.  I am thankful for the gifts of this day.  And I hope to learn from the challenges and to grow through them once more.  Gratitude helps a lot.

So for today I am grateful for friends, family, church community, sunshine, warmth, chocolate (of course!), opportunities to learn and grow, my relationship with a loving God, and of course, my three lovely children,

Sunday's Sermon - Beginning Anew

First Sunday at CVPC
Gen. 1:1-5
Ephesians 4:1-16

There once was a little boy named Sam who was very excited about Halloween.  But his parents kept putting off getting his costume until finally the day of Halloween his mother came home with a costume that Sam hated. It was of some comic book character who had been big once but who now was seen by all the kids to be ridiculous and only for the littlest of children.  Sam was devastated. How could he ever wear this?  He couldn’t possibly go out on Halloween in this costume!  He was so upset, he ran down the street to where an older couple who had become surrogate grandparents to Sam lived.  He ran into their house and cried and cried about the terrible costume his mother had picked out for him. Well, Norm, the older man thought for a few minutes and then he said to his wife, “Don’t we have some old costumes up in the attic from when our kids were children?”
“Why, I believe we do!” she replied. Up they all went into the attic and down they came with an old ghost costume. Really, it was just a sheet with holes cut in it for the eyes. But Sam was so thrilled with the costume, he just couldn’t wait to put it on. With a look of awe in his eyes, he pulled the sheet down over his head and before anyone could stop him, he went running out the door to go trick or treating and ran straight through the yard and bam into a tree!  Norm saw this and he dashed out after him, picked up the little boy, but before he could stop him, there Sam took off again, running as fast as he could until bam he ran smack into another tree!  This time the force pushed him flat onto his back where he lay still until Norm came running up.  Norm wondered what on earth was going on until he looked into Sam’s face and realized that Sam had not lined up the eye holes to match his eyes. He had been virtually blind, running around the yard, completely unable to see where he was going. Norm gently but firmly took hold of the sheet, pulled it around until Sam was able to see through the eye holes, tied a rope around his waist to hold the costume in place and sent Sam off on a much more successful and enjoyable Halloween evening of trick-or-treating!
Blindness. The inability to see without help. Walking around in the dark, not because it is dark, but because our vision is covered, obscured in some way. The darkness of failing to realize that we could see, if someone were to just help us adjust our masks, adjust our outlook, adjust our approach, just a little bit. Oftentimes it is this blindness which causes us to err, to sin, to take a wrong path so that somebody gets hit, whether it be just a tree or another person, someone gets hurt: and we obviously do as well. 
I am just beginning a new journey with you and I am so happy to be with you in your walk at this time. But I am coming here with my costume a little bit askew. I am coming with my eyes partially covered. This is your church, this is your home, the place where you gather with God and God’s people each week. I am new here and I don’t know the players, I don’t know the routines, I am on a journey, beginning to learn the ways that things are done, I don’t know where the sacred cows are, the things that matter most to people. I don’t know where the trees are planted that define who you are and what makes this place special to you. I come thinking that I am speaking the same language, like the little boy knowing it is Halloween, knowing he is supposed to wear a costume and heading out into the night. After having served for nineteen years as a pastor in different churches, I know what I am about as a pastor, what I am called to do, but sometimes when we come thinking we know how things are supposed to work, we miss the very cues that tell us our eyes are not seeing clearly right now.
Similarly, when new people come into your space, it is sometimes hard to read them as well and so I, too, will do my best to be transparent and to be clear about who I am and what I believe God to be calling us all towards as people, and as people in this place. I come to you to walk with you, to learn together, to work together, but I also ask for your patience as I learn to see through the eye holes of these new trappings.  Likewise, I promise to offer you my patience and understanding as well. I will try to respect your traditions, try to honor your values in ministry, recognizing that by the very nature of our being different people, with different church experiences we may do things differently, I may step on toes, and while I promise to love and serve you with all of who I am, I will undoubtedly make mistakes.  And so I ask you to tell me your stories, tell me what matters most to you about this place and in your personal lives, I ask you to try to trust me but to do so with honesty, to speak truth, to be the people who, when I have run into a tree can come and adjust the eye-holes with grace, kindness and forgiveness.  And again, I will strive to do the same for you.
I have a little survey that I would like you each to fill out which is in your bulletins today.  It begins with a recognition that we have first received God’s grace and then we give in return. It begins therefore with the question of what Clayton Valley, what this place is giving to you. What programs here feed you? What events feed you? What parts of worship and education and fellowship feed you in this place? Then it goes on to ask what you hope to get from this place in the future. What are your hopes and dreams for what Clayton Valley might be able to offer you?  Are there programs that you would like to see here? Are there events that would help you to grow in your faith and in your journey towards wholeness? Then, from a place of recognition for what you have been given and what you would like to have, it asks you what you give in return.  What service, time, talents, gifts do you bring to Clayton Valley? And where would you like to grow into bringing something more or even, something different that perhaps you haven’t done before but would like to try, or feel that God is calling you to try?
Learning to walk in this place with my costume on straight has to start with knowing who you are as individuals, as a church, and as a community. This survey will help me to know that.  So I ask you to take a few minutes to fill out this form and to place it in the offering plates when you are finished. I also will be calling each family over the next few months and would love to spend time with each of you, hearing about your lives, what brought you to this place and where you hope to go in the future. I want to know you and I find the best way to do that is with one on one time.
We are called always to reflect on the amazing gift that God has given to us by calling us into relationship with God. It is an amazing act of grace to remember that God initiates care for us, and a call for each of us.  It is God who creates purpose and meaning for our lives, before we are even old enough to choose to respond. It is a gift that says, “because I first chose you, because I first brought new life to you, because I begin your life by giving to you every day again and again; now you are called to return that gift to all God’s people, caring back, giving second chances to others, choosing to love and live and care for others in the way that I have cared for you.” 

In all that we do, let us search for God’s call for our lives, invite God’s call into our lives, respond to God’s call for our lives with a “yes” and a “yes” and a “Yes”!  Amen.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Circle of Life

When I was a kid, I used to hike in the foothills of Mt. Diablo pretty regularly.  I would walk for many reasons, probably the primary one being to escape.  But I found God in those hills.  I found comfort and peace and meaning and purpose and beauty in those hills.  There was one hill near our house where I would always start, and since I started walking there when I was very young, it was a big hill for me at first that later became the stepping stone up to bigger places, bigger hills, farther paths that took me closer and closer to Mt. Diablo.  And, starting when I was very young again, there was a tree on that hill that I came to think of as "my" tree.  I would nap against it, I would talk to it, I would hide things in the knots on its trunk.  I felt comfort and peace and familiarity with that tree.  It may sound odd, but that tree was my friend.  I took my eldest daughter up that hill with me today.  And this is what I found:

"My" tree had died.  And as silly and irrational as it may sound, I found myself crying, sobbing over this friend whom I hadn't visited in years who had died.  "Is nothing the same?"  No, nothing is the same.  Nothing lives forever.  Nothing lasts.  Everything changes.  That's reality.  That's life.  You can't really "go home" again.  That isn't real.  You can go back to an area and be near to people you have loved before, but you cannot expect those relationships to be the same, or the place to be the same.  You cannot expect that you will be the same when you return, and that means what you see and experience and feel will also be different.  But as I stood there with my 15 year old daughter, who is now old enough to hike these hills with me and who just wasn't when we left, we also saw this:

A hawk was circling overhead, close by, actually.  And it was beautiful and majestic.  And I thought about the fact that this hawk had not been alive the last time I had been here.  Living things die, and new things are born. And they are all beautiful and they each have their time and their place and their lives to live and to surrender.  
And then we looked around and saw this:  

The circle of life is not always easy.  It involves loss and death for each and every one of us.  But it is beautiful.  I am grateful for what was.  I am grateful for what is.  And I am grateful for what will be.