Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Scammers abound

I received a friend request on Facebook from someone I'd never heard of.  We had no friends in common and I couldn't place him, so I just deleted it.  That happens once a month or so.  No big deal. Just requires a delete.  We know they are scammers and we just delete and sometimes "report" them. A couple weeks later, today, the same person (or someone(s) using the same name) contacted me through google plus.  I still don't know him, still have no friends in common that I can tell. This time he was required to leave a message of some kind and the message he left was, "hi barbara....i must confess you really look amazing.hope we could femiliarize sometime."

Uh huh. According to his google plus profile he's an ad consultant in San Francisco.  I don't know how he found me.  I don't know what in that tiny little blurry picture of me on the beach that serves as my google plus image and does not show my face with any kind of clarity would look "amazing".  If he had read anything I'd written, he would know that I don't really care about looks that much anyway and would be much more likely to respond had he commented on something I had written. I'm not interested in being "picked up" by a stranger, and even in that situation I would prefer being admired for my thoughts or strength, for my faith, for ... well for anything other than looks. Additionally, I would assume that ad consultants would need more than a basic understanding of the English to use words as well as how to spell them.  Maybe I'm wrong here, but since I've never seen the word "familiarize" used in this way before, let alone spelled in that interesting way, I'm guessing he is not "for real."  He probably lives somewhere outside of the United States (I read that most of the pick up scam artists going after women are in Nigeria, and most of the pick up scam artists going after men are from Russia...don't know if it's true, but it would explain the interesting "accents").  "He" is probably a team of folk taking turns working these scams (another article I read).  And this is how they make their living, sending notes and forming "relationships" with single women only to have a 'grandmother suddenly die which means they need money, just to borrow temporarily, for the burial and for the...', or 'I have money to give you, just give me all your bank information and I will deposit it in your account."

I have to admit that if I wasn't afraid he might be dangerous or that opening a message from him might open much more to my computer and my life than I could handle, I would be curious.  I would be curious to see how the scammer operated.  I would be curious to see what kind of tactics he thought he could use to scam me out of money I don't actually have, or whatever it is that he wants. I also have to admit that I would enjoy being flattered and charmed and kissed up to.  I know what I have to give, and what I don't have.  I wouldn't be scammed that easily.  These scammers don't seem very sophisticated so I think I'd have a pretty good chance of outwitting them.  I'm the person who goes to the 90 minute "time share" sale and walks away with nothing.  I'm the one who can spend all day at the Home and Garden show or at the County Fair and not buy a thing.  "No" is easy for me when it comes to spending money or giving personal information such as my mother's maiden name, my kids' names or my social security number.  I am not afraid of that.  I am afraid of opening an email that opens up viruses on my computer or exposes my children to risk in some other way.

But either way: no.  I have too much integrity to play that game.  Still I'd be lying if I said I wasn't curious...

However, more than curious, I found myself sad.  I am sad that there are people who do this to other human beings.  I am sad that there is such a need that some people believe the only way they can make money is to use and abuse others.  And I am deeply sad that there are enough desperate and lonely people out there who would respond to something like this that choosing to act this way has become a lucrative career choice.  At some level I guess all of us are lonely.  At some level I think most of us would like a "friend" who flatters and charms us.  It isn't worth the cost, and it is a lie, not a real friendship, but I get the appeal, I understand the pull to respond to an invitation like this.

So in the face of this, what can we do?  I think it is a call for all of us to reach out more to those who are lonely.  The best way to prevent something like this from happening is to offer people real relationships instead, to be present and loving even to those who are "unappealing", to search for the human core in every one that unites us and makes each of us valuable and worthy of being loved. Rather than feeling sad that people give in to these scams, we can actively work to prevent their success just by offering friendship to those who are lonely.  It starts with a smile and a "how are you?"  Not so very hard.  And we may find ourselves blessed through the effort, making a friend with depths we didn't imagine, growing in getting to know people who are different from us.  That, I think, is an effort worth making.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Sunday's Sermon - Those who aren't against us

Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22
Mark 9:38-50

So she ran over and said "Stop! Don't do it!"
"Why shouldn't I?" he said.
"Well, there's so much to live for!"
"Like what?"
"Well... are you religious?" He said yes.
She said, "Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?"
"Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?
"Me too! Are you Presbyterian or Baptist or…?"
"Wow! That’s amazing.  Me too!  Are you Presbyterian USA or Presbyterian Church of America?”
“Presbyterian Church of America”
To which she responded, "Die, heretic scum", and pushed him off the bridge.

Drawing lines in the sand.  I think all of us are pretty good at that.  It seems to be a natural part of being human to divide our world into us and them.  In sports there is my team, their team; the San Francisco Giants or the Oakland A’s. You can’t support both. In terms of colleges where I came from there was Cal or Stanford. In products there’s Coke or Pepsi. Among our churches, there are Catholics and Protestants. And among Protestants there are divisions and divisions. But even more, there is a growing divide between the evangelical/fundamentalist Christians and the Progressive Christians. The divide is becoming so wide that I sometimes wonder if we actually worship the same God at all. Similarly, politically we are becoming so much more polarized in terms of conservatives and liberals, democrats and republicans.  And there, too, it would almost seem we have two (or more) different understandings of what our country should be, could be and is.
Once we have identified ourselves with a particular group, we can become very rigid and careful guardians of what we feel is “ours.”  We can become very protective of keeping what we know “pure” or “the best.” People side with “their own” even when they actually wouldn’t if left on their own. Even the most open of us fear change and can act that out with rigid boundaries between ourselves in the groups of which we are a part and those outside the group.  We can become possessive of our size “we want to keep this small,” our projects “our committee is taking care of that,” our out-looks, and the credit we get for certain activities.  Once we’ve formed our loyalties, we can limit others joining us, but then find ourselves jealous when those others do similar things to what we do, even if they are good things.  As children, “cliques” form that are often rigid and exclusive and if one of those cliques decides to join a particular sport or compete in a particular activity, any other group who does the same might be called “copy cat” and the strictest social pressures can be put on the second group to stop “copying.”
As adults our possessiveness and our jealousies may be more subtle, but they can be even more harmful.  In the church especially, the Us vs Them mentality can be destructive. 
In one area where I lived, the Presbyterian church in town began a soup kitchen to help the hungry.  As part of their program, each person who was being fed was required to sit through a half hour sermon before they could eat. The Methodists from the church down the street took issue with the way the Presbyterians were handling the situation. They felt that as Christians they were called to feed people without pushing faith and that the best way they could serve Christ was by giving without expecting anything in return, showing God’s love through example. So they opened their own soup kitchen. In addition, a third soup kitchen was set up about the same time by the Lutherans. The Lutherans didn’t preach to their hungry, but they did ask each “guest” to contribute a token quarter per meal. They believed that this gave back to each person a piece of their dignity because they were “paying” for their meal and it was an exchange; not just charity.  Well the Presbyterians were outraged because the Methodists “took” all of their hungry away, without giving them the “opportunity” to hear about God.  The Lutherans were angry because they felt giving someone something for nothing took away a hungry person’s dignity.  Everyone was serving in the name of Christ, but it became a large and divisive problem between the churches; each church competing for the ability to serve the community by feeding the hungry.
There is a popular story about a church that was in an area where there were an abundance of homeless people. The members of the church were uncomfortable around these people, and so using the excuse of “safety” did not allow any of the homeless people in to worship.  One of these homeless women, Sally, thought the church was beautiful, and she wanted so desperately to worship there one morning that she tried to sneak in a window.  When she was found, she was carefully escorted out the back.  She approached the pastor during the week and begged to be allowed to come and worship in the church.  After meeting sometime with the session, the pastor finally decided on a plan.  The pastor found Sally and said to her, “Sally, I’ll tell you what.  You go and pray to God and if God wants you here, he’ll find a way to make you look clean enough that the members of our church won’t be afraid of you, and you can come worship here as long as you like.”  While Sally prayed and prayed, she was never made “presentable” enough for the church members.  But one of those times during prayer, Sally experienced a vision in which God said to her, “Don’t worry, my child, about that church.  They won’t let me in either.”
There is something very comforting about drawing lines in the sand.  I believe it helps us define who we are. We define ourselves in part against others, we know ourselves as much by what we are not as by what we are. It can therefore be helpful to have a clear sense of who is on our side and who is not, what we do and believe that is different from what others do and believe.  It is for this reason that as a denomination we struggled for awhile against joining other denominations in the Council of Churches United, otherwise known as COCU, which later became CUIC – Churches Uniting in Christ.  The purpose of CUIC was that we can, as a larger body, do more to help serve the world and each other than we can as individual churches.  But many in our denominations feared that we would lose our distinction and our identity in joining CUIC, they also fought over things like bishop succession and laying on of hands. There were hard and difficult fights against uniting with other Christian churches, all proclaiming Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
As a denomination we also struggle to determine what view points and behaviors are
“acceptable” as we continue to define who we are as Presbyterians.  One of the ways we do this is by drawing lines around our leadership. You know that we’ve fought passionately over whether or not gay and lesbian persons could be included in ordained ministry.  We’ve also fought over what is required in terms of studying. In our church certain tasks have been reserved for people who have gone through the arduous required process proceeding ordination as minister of Word and Sacrament. Those who have studied for three to four years beyond college in a seminary, who have learned both Hebrew and Greek, who have passed both oral and written ordination exams and who have had a committee interrogating them for several years as well, these people have the opportunity of becoming ministers of the Word and Sacrament. But as you may know there has been a movement in the last fifteen to twenty years to allow lay folk; people who have not gone through all of this process, to do more and more of what pastors alone have been doing.  This movement towards allowing more non-clergy more power has moved very slowly.  I can understand why.  Perhaps these lay folk would not teach correct Presbyterian theology.  Perhaps they would not interpret or understand scripture in an educated, helpful way.  Perhaps they would lead people astray. Isn’t it important that they be educated in the way we want them to be educated? But underneath the perhapses I believe, is the investment of the clergy and the fear of what it would mean to “include” others.  We had to learn Hebrew and Greek, we had to take the exams.  We spent four plus years in school and sweated through difficult and challenging classes.  It doesn’t seem fair if someone else gets to serve and be recognized as a pastor without having to go through all the hoops that the rest of us went through. 
It is a similar situation that we see presented in today’s gospel reading.  The disciples had discovered that through their relationship to Jesus they had been given the ability to heal, or cast out demons.  It was an extraordinary gift, and it drew many people into Jesus’ following.  But on this particular occasion the disciples came across someone else who also had the healing power and who also was given the gift, the ability to cast out demons.  The disciples were upset.  While this other exorcist was helping people in the name of God, even in the name of Jesus, he was not “with” them.  He was not one of Jesus’ disciples.  Perhaps he would gain his own following.  Perhaps he would lead people to believe or do things differently than Jesus was teaching.  Perhaps...But it was not just the perhaps.  He was not one of them.  The disciples were a team, a family.  As individuals each of the disciples had given up everything they had to follow Jesus.  They had left their work, their homes and their families.  I’m sure they felt it was unfair for this other man to get credit for healing and helping when he was not having to also give up everything to follow Jesus.  But at the same time, the disciples also didn’t invite him to join their group.  Instead they felt this other exorcist had to be stopped.
But Jesus did not uphold their line in the sand.  Jesus was constantly about widening circles of inclusion rather than limiting them.  His inclusion of people deemed totally unacceptable to his society was very hard for the people around him to understand and accept.  He was discredited by the pharisees and scribes for including sinners and outcasts of all kinds in his following; prostitutes, tax collectors, Samaritans.  He accepted them, loved them and included them.  Each time Jesus widened the circle of inclusion, the disciples too, not just the pharisees and scribes, but the disciples, were troubled, challenged.  Who were they as disciples when the lines were so unclear?  What was most difficult for the disciples was that Jesus’ love and acceptance was not conditional upon a person’s changing.  Sometimes his love then allowed others to change, but his caring was not dependent on that change.  How were the disciples to keep Jesus’ following pure and distinct if Jesus loved and accepted even those who were sinners?  Who were they as disciples and why did they give up all they had to follow Jesus if Jesus loved and included even outcasts? 
Still, Jesus gently challenged them.  “Let him be,” Jesus said.  “Let him heal, let him cast out demons.  Let him do what we do and be part of who we are, even as he is separate.  I ask you to accept that since he is not against us, he is FOR us.  This other exorcist whom you do not know and who has not joined me in the way that you have is still part of my body, the church.  Draw your circles wider; let those who are different but who are doing my work of healing and loving, let them in. Through serving in this way, they too will grow in God’s way.”
We continue to struggle with the dividing lines, we continue to want to decide for God who is in and out.  Yet it is in our unity, in our inclusion that we are able to most fully do God’s work.  The Church that refused to let the homeless worship missed an incredible opportunity to serve, to learn, to grow with their homeless brothers and sisters.  The three churches competing over the soup kitchens could have worked together rather than against each other in order to do more than just feeding.  Their lines of division limited their vision and resources.  But together they might have been able to provide shelter, showers, maybe even jobs.  So too with CUIC.  In joining with other churches in mission, we could do so much more to serve God’s world than we can as individual denominations. And so too in the case of lay persons who seek to do more pastoral work. The ordination process we have does not allow for many Native American churches, rural churches and smaller churches to have pastors, it does not allow people who are not good test takers, or who cannot financially afford years of schooling to become leaders in the church.  Also, in our rigidity, we are setting stumbling blocks for people who are striving to come closer to God. These lines in the sand hurt us as a church, and they limit our ability to serve God.

Once again I hear Jesus’ words, spoken to Christians, spoken to the Presbyterian Church, spoken to me and to you, “Those who are not against us are FOR us.  Let the other exorcists be and do their work.  In doing my work, they can only grow in their faithfulness.”  We are all God’s children.  Together we are the body of Christ, empowered to change the world, empowered to exorcise every demon.  Draw your circles wider, for God’s kingdom has no limit, no end, and God’s love is for everyone.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The writer, the preacher, the person

I've been deeply graced lately by affirmations about my writing and about my preaching that have been soothing balm to this soul who struggles at times. I am so grateful to you who have made those comments, so I want to start just with a simple thank you.  I am grateful that you appreciate what I write, what I preach.  I am grateful when you tell me it caused you to think, or that you felt better having read something I wrote.  I am honored when you share what I've written.  Your words are true gifts to me.  Thank you.

But interestingly, I found myself thinking today about the actors who feel they are loved for their "personna's" and not for who they really are.  Don't get me wrong.  I know that I am genuinely loved by truly amazing and wonderful friends and family.  But I am all too aware that I write from the place of the person I wish to be.  Maybe that sounds odd.  But it is true.  I write from the place of the person I am working to become, hoping to become, wanting to become. That isn't to say that I don't write other things, too.  But I tend to not "publish" the writings that show my most insecure, broken or needy self on my blog.  And I have found that the best sermons I write are the ones that I write to myself. What I mean is, when I am noticing or working on something within me that I know needs to be changed or confronted or improved, I preach about that. I am a person "on the way" as I say in my profile on this page. And that means I get it wrong more often than I'd like, I make mistakes more often than I'd ever want, and I have way too many regrets. Again, as I have often said in my blog, I realize at some level that this is not what we are called to do or be.  We are called to live in forgiveness and grace, not regrets and insecurities.  But I'm deeply human.  Much more than I would like to be, or like to admit.

Anne Lemott says that people heal through their writing.  I think there is deep truth in that.  I work through my stuff often through writing.  It means that only a little of what I write is fit for others to read.  I am jealous of my friend James who manages to publish something on his blog daily that is filled with compassion and grace (see side bar for his blog).  Still, I remain grateful when what you read from me is meaningful to you.

This is one of those occasions when I'm not even sure the point of this particular blog post. Just wanting to own that I'm much more "broken" than I appear here.  And wanting to say thank you for the kind words.  Bless you, dear readers.  You help ease my journey in so many ways!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Our influence in this life time

Last week I was walking with a friend across a parking lot on our way to lunch.  She was talking about very serious things that had gone on in her past life, and I'll admit, I was so focused on what she was sharing that I did not notice that we were walking more IN the parking lot lane than to the side of it.  I was listening to her share about some of the pain she had experienced, some of the joys she had experienced and some of the most challenging times of her life.  I was listening to her voice expressing unhealed pain still, as well as resurrection moments and new life and I was praying for her silently as we walked.  I was focusing on being present with her.  And because of that, I was unaware of my surroundings.  I didn't notice, that is, until someone started honking and cursing at us as they passed. Fortunately, I don't think my friend noticed.  But it brought to mind for me a couple things.

First, we never know what others are going through at any one moment.  The person who was honking and cursing at us did not know that we were talking about deep and important things.  She did not know that there was pain and prayers being shared.  Neither did I know what she was going through in her life at that moment that made her be in such a hurry and made her so easily angry with the world around her.  We do not know what others' lives are like, and because of that, it is probably always a good idea to assume the BEST of people and to give them the benefit of the doubt in any situation.  She might normally be a very nice person who was just having a really bad day.  Likewise, I am usually more considerate and aware of where I am and where I walk.  But there was of course no way for her to know that.  Assuming the best about others, no matter how they are behaving in the moment, is therefore helpful.  We just don't know what someone else is experiencing.

Second, as so many people have said in so many different ways, we have a choice about what we contribute to the world with every single interaction.  With every challenge that we face we have a choice to be kind or to be nasty, to be compassionate or to be judgmental, to be grace-filled or to be oppressing, to be loving or to be hateful.  We have to pay attention.  But as Tolstoy pointed out, the most important thing to pay attention to is the one you are with in any one moment and that one's needs at that moment.  Because it is in those one on one moments that we affect the world.  It is through small kindnesses that we change the world for the better.  It is in the small steps of each day that we create a life long journey that either makes the world a little better, or makes the world a little less compassionate.  There is so much hate and anger right now.  It surrounds us in debates on TV and in road-rage and in nasty passing comments.  Every action we do that is grace-filled counters that a little.  Every kind word, every apology and every affirmation, every time we really look at someone and see them, every time we take a moment to hear another person, every smile that we give to a stranger, every time we give someone the benefit of the doubt, and every time we take a risk and assume the best about the other and offer compassion rather than judgment, even when they are misbehaving, we have the opportunity to make the world a better place.

What is the legacy you wish to leave to this world?  Is it kindness and compassion?  Or is it pain and scars?  Is it grace and beauty?  Or is it judgment and condemnation?  Each day gives us a new opportunity to choose.  Each minute gives us a new chance to be the good the world needs so desperately. And each moment gives us the gift of the choice to love rather than to hate, whoever it is that we encounter.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

You Are Okay

Despite what you may believe, you can disappoint people
and still be good enough.  You can make mistakes and still 
be capable and talented.  You can let people down and
still be worthwhile and deserving of love.
Everyone has disappointed someone they care about.
Everyone messes up, lets people down and makes mistakes.
Not because we are inadequate or fundamentally inept,
but because we're imperfect and fundamentally human.
Expecting anything different is setting yourself up
for failure.
- Danielle Keopke

      A friend sent this to me the other day and I then turned around and posted it on facebook because I think this is so very essential a part of what so many of us struggle with on a daily basis.  Of course this isn't true for everyone.  I have met people who will not or can not be self-reflective. But I think that most of us, or at least most of the amazing people I've been blessed to encounter, to work with, to play with and to call my friends, tend to be on the other side of this.  We tend to be people who are all too aware of our failings, our mistakes, our mess-ups.  But instead of feeling human, we feel inadequate, inept, a disappointment to others and especially to ourselves.  We struggle with self forgiveness and struggle to feel "good enough".
       Why is this?  Why are we so hard on ourselves?  Part of the reason I think is that sometimes other people are hard on us.  Interestingly it is often those who are hardest on themselves who also have the hardest time forgiving others.  But those critical and unforgiving voices of other people can become our own strict voices within that tell us we are not okay.  Often that starts when we are young.  Adults who are hard on themselves impose strict and even unrealistic expectations on the kids in their lives and those voices stay within us.  Finding a way to offer gentle correction is hard and time consuming and sometimes it is easier to yell or put down another person rather than correct their behavior in a gentle and encouraging way.  It is easier to just say "bad" than to look at what we can learn from each error and how we can move forward.  Once those voices become a part of us, they are really difficult to banish.
     And yet, I believe a big part of being people of faith is that we are called to do exactly that - to let go of that anger and hatred and judgment - not only of other people but of ourselves.  In Christianity (as I'm certain is true in other faiths as well) we focus a great deal on God's forgiveness of us.  But I think the fact that we don't take that in, don't accept that forgiveness as genuine and full and real is a great part of what leads so many who use the name "Christian" to be so very judging of others.  If we can't see ourselves as simply human people who are loved and accepted and held and cared for exactly as we are, then it becomes difficult to extend that love, acceptance, presence and compassion to others.  But when we can accept that in, when we can really and truly embrace that yes, we are human, we make mistakes, sometimes mistakes that have real life consequences, but none the less mistakes that do not define us beyond that moment, we can be freed to start again in each moment.  That starting again, that taking of mistakes as life lessons, not as judgments on our worth; if we can see our errors as opportunities to grow rather than condemnations that relegate us eternally to being "wrong" and a "disappointment" then we will not have time or energy to condemn others.  We will be too busy learning and passing forward forgiveness, reconciliation, healing, peace, compassion and grace.  There just simply won't be the energy or impetus to judge, condemn or destroy others.
     In other words, it is not just a gift to ourselves to stop judging ourselves.  It is a gift to everyone we encounter as well because it will change the way we see and interact with the world.
     It isn't easy to get there.  I know this.  I, too, can be very self-condemning.  And along with that, I can be hard on others, especially those I love the most.  But I think it is an important goal for all of us to remember the words above by Danielle Keopke.  Because you are okay.  Just as you are, you are okay.  Yes, you've made mistakes.  That gives you lessons to learn.  That gives you an opportunity to grow.  But you are still okay.  You are a beloved child of God (or the Universe or whatever it is you recognize as bigger than yourself).  And that is an amazing thing indeed.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Sunday's Sermon - To Those who Have

Psalm 1
Matthew 13:10-17
Luke 19: 12-26

               “To those who have, much will be given and to those who have not, even what they have will be taken away.”  This seems like such a cruel statement.  Why would God do this?  Take away from those who have not and give only to those who already have?  I do not believe that this is a statement about what God does.  Those sentences that say things like “God helps those who…” and “God loves those who…” fail to see the amazing grace of God that extends to everyone.  So what then is this about? 
Statements such as “to those who have, much will be given and to those who have not, even what they have will be taken away” are unfortunately very accurate description of the world today.  And I think when Jesus is making these statements, he is pointing out the backwardness of human societies.  Look around you.  The truth is that those who have have a very easy time getting more.  And those who have not have a very hard time getting even their basic needs met.  We know that the rich are getting richer while the poor in our country are getting poorer.  We know this, we hear about it. We probably are unaware of exactly how much this is true, but the medium family income has significantly dropped versus the cost of living over the last few years, the bottom 90% of the people in this country, the bottom 90% have only 23% of the nation’s wealth.  That means the top 10% own 77% of the wealth in this country.  And that gap continues to grow.  The top .1% in this country own 25% of the country’s wealth. This is a significant change in the last few years.  The gap is growing.  And frankly, we probably experience it in our own lives. The more you have to invest, the higher interest you can make on what you invest. The more properties you own, the more likely you can own “one more”.  If you have a lot of money, you get a lower percentage on loans.  The more money you put down on a house, the lower your loan interest percentage.  The faster you are able to pay off a loan, the lower the percentage of interest you need to pay.  It should be the opposite – those who need the loans the most should get a lower percentage so they are more able to actually pay it back, but that’s not how it works. 
I’ve found myself thinking about this in terms of those who have been traumatized by the fire.  Money has been pouring out to help those who’ve lost their homes in the fires.  One website said 1.4 million dollars had been donated just through them.  Another site I saw was a Red Cross website that actually said, “we have as much money as we can handle to help these folk.  If you still want to give money, send it through another organization.  Ironically, the other organization said the same thing in reverse, “we have enough.  Please send it to Red Cross…”  The outpouring around this has been amazing, and a truly wonderful sign of the caring that people can give.  People should step up and they have.  But I have found myself wondering, if we are able to raise this much money in this short a time for the victims of the fires, why are we not able to raise the same amount for those who struggle every day, before the fires and after the fires, to obtain enough to eat?  With the amount of money that has come forward to help those in the fires, we could actually wipe out homelessness in CA and more.  Why are we not doing that?  Why are we not able to eradicate homelessness for the children in our country?  While 40% of the homeless population in the United States are children, the poverty level in our country for all children is 22%.  22% of the children in the United States, which is a higher percentage than in any other industrialized country, are so poor they have trouble finding enough to eat.  22%.  Why can we not raise the same amount of money and give towards programs that target families struggling to get back on their feet as we are for those who’ve lost their homes in these fires?  I think one reason is that poverty is seen as a chronic problem whereas the fire burning houses is seen as a one-time problem.  But also, people become afraid that those who are poor will somehow “misuse” the money given to them whereas we tend to trust those who are “just like us”, people who have homes.  We can sympathize more easily with those who have lost their homes to a fire than those who are on the street because they never had homes in the first place.  We have come to believe that the poor are untrustworthy.  Truthfully, most of us at some level blame the poor for their own poverty, and we treat them as such.  I doubt any of us would hesitate when out to eat with a friend to offer to pay for their meal.  And yet, how hard is it to buy a meal for a person on the street who really needs it? And again, the biblical phrase comes to mind once more:  “To those who have, more will be given, but to those who have little, even what they have will be taken away.”
               I admit, I became especially aware of the reality of the “for those who have more will be given and for those who have not even what they have will be taken away” when we were struggling to find a house out here.  Without an address and without proof of residency I couldn’t even register the kids for school.  I found myself thinking about this many times during the weeks that we were, in essence, homeless.  We blame the poor for their own poverty.  And yet, how do we expect those kids who’ve been raise in homeless situations and therefore can’t even register to go to school to somehow raise themselves out of that poverty?  How, without food or resources or a network of support or education, is that even POSSIBLE?  When we consider that 22% of the children in our country are living in poverty, we also have to recognize that these 22% of our children are uneducated if they are educated at all.
               An example of a different kind.  I have a good friend who struggles with clinical depression.  There are times when she is so down that she cannot get out of bed.  It is during those hard times that she is least likely to get the support she needs from her friends.  She has a harder time reaching out during those times.  But additionally, when she is depressed her friends get tired and depressed being around her.  With mental illness too we tend to blame the victims, not recognizing their need or the ways we could support and help them through it.
               When we look at the international situation, the refugees, those most in need around the world are the ones who again have the hardest time getting what they need.  People and countries become afraid of what the presence of these strangers will do to us, to me, to you and I and they close their doors to those in need.
Where is the Good News in that?                             
Well, as I said before, the God that I know is not a God who makes the poor poorer and the rich richer.  The God I meet in scripture, through Jesus and through those around me is a God who points out this reality in order to change it.  The God I know does not go away, leaving us to use our resources however we will, nor does this God celebrate or even condone the fact that to those who have more is given and to those who have not even what they have is taken away.
  Instead the God I know is a God of love.  The God I meet in Jesus is one who gives and gives, especially to those who lack and are poor. This God does not ask if you are worthy or trustworthy.  This is a God of grace who continues to give and love despite the fact that ALL of us fall short, and ALL of us have areas in which we “have not” or are lacking. The God Jesus talks about never leaves, but is with us always, guiding, holding, comforting us along our paths.  And the God of the Gospels is selfless, even to the point of risking and experiencing death because of us.  And even then that same God’s love does not stop but grows to the point at which it overcomes even death and returns again and again with open arms still full of love, hope, and grace.  The God we worship and trust is the God who invites us and calls us to become a part of creating God’s reign on earth.

And this is where the gospel stories returns.  Because in order to be a part of bringing heaven to earth, we do have to be willing to listen, even when the words are hard, to hear the truth in the parables and stories Jesus shares with us.  In order to be a piece of God’s kingdom, we have to trust God, depend on God, use what we have been given to serve in gratitude the God who gave us everything!  God’s kingdom is here and now.  But we are called to be part of ushering that in. 
When we choose, like the slave with the one talent in Luke’s story, to see God as greedy and punishing, we exclude ourselves from the life God offers us. Fearing that we will lose all, we take no risks.  We imprison ourselves when we choose not to see God’s light, God’s miracles, God’s beauteous renewing of creation every day.
The slaves with the ten pounds and five pounds saw and believed in a master who was loving and good.  They risked because they trusted.  And in return, they found the love they expected, they were met by a generous master, and they shared in God’s kingdom.  The slave with the one talent didn’t just have less.  He chose to see and believe in a harsh master and in fear he lost everything.
As loving and merciful as God is, this is a choice we make.  Do we choose to hide and protect what we have, believing in an angry, jealous, harsh God?  Or do we see the God of love who has given us everything we have and out of gratitude do we then help bring about the kingdom of God for ourselves and those around us?  Do we offer those in need the things they need, giving more to those who have not than those who have?  From a place of trust and faith then we can risk offering a homeless person food, we can stop and say a kind word to someone who is alone, we can take a few minutes to listen to someone’s story.  Out of our abundance, we can be part of creating a world of abundance, even out of nothing.
That’s not to say it’s easy.  From those who have, much is expected.  We who have are expected to give more in order to fully be part of God’s kingdom.  It is also not to say that bad things won’t happen.  God is not a magic fairy whom you can pray to and expect to have your wishes granted.  God is generous, but God doesn’t stop the world from playing out, often with bad things.  But God is present with us, holding us, loving us in the midst of those challenging times and situations.  And God calls us to be part of creating the kingdom on earth with the resources and gifts we have: God calls us, invites us to be part of this no matter what is going on in our lives.
A young boy and his grandmother were walking along the sea shore when a huge wave appeared out of nowhere, sweeping the child out to sea.  The horrified woman fell to her knees, raised her eyes to the heavens and begged God to return her beloved grandson.  Amazingly, another wave reared up and deposited the stunned child on the sand before her.  The grandmother looked the boy over carefully.  He was fine.  But still she stared up angrily towards the heavens.  “When we came,” she snapped indignantly, “he had a hat!”
Which God do we see?  The God who saved the child?  Or the God who did not rescue the boy’s hat?  Which world do we choose to be a part of?  A world in which everyone else is out to get us and we just have to hold on and take care of our own?  Or a world in which, when we share and give and love, God gives back ten fold?  God invites us to be part of God’s new and glorious creation.  God hopes for us to trust, and love and live and be joyful.  God calls us to be God’s heaven on earth and to share it with others.

We pray, God, that a little at a time, you would lead us to risk and enter the kingdom which you have prepared for us and which is, by your great grace and love, all around us, all the time. Amen.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Sunday's Sermon: Losing your Life

Losing Your Life
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

            Several years ago now I attended a conference called “The church we can see from here.”  And at that conference, we discussed what is happening in our churches.  Mostly the conversation focused on the general fear that seems to be permeating our churches about decline and closures.  For those who aren’t aware, the Church, big C, across denominations, is shrinking at an alarming rate.  Statistics from the Presbyterian News Service in Louisville indicate that in 2014, membership in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) fell by 92,000 members.  When we expand that to look at other denominations, the stats are similar.  20 churches a day closed in the United States last year.  20 churches a DAY.  This does not include congregations that changed denominational affiliation.  This is all congregations who closed because they simply could no longer afford to stay open.  From an article written by the Presbyterian News Service in March of this year, we learn that since 2012, the U.S. dropped 7.5 million more Americans who are no longer active in religion. Over a third of Americans (35 percent) currently never attend a worship service (other than weddings and funerals).  Financially this translated into $110 Million less in giving just to the Presbyterian Church in 2014 than what had been given in 2013.  These are scary numbers.  This is a scary reality.  And it doesn’t give too much comfort to know that this is not only true in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A..  Knowing that all of the denominations are going through this doesn’t help with the general fear.  The Christian Church is on the decline in the United States.
            These facts can be depressing.  And many of us who love our church, who love our God, who love Jesus and are faith filled people often find ourselves asking that hard question, “why?” again and again. Article after article is written in answer to that question, and each gives a different answer. We can find ourselves lost in the despair of this news.  Churches typically tend to respond to these declines in one of two ways.  Many move into a survival mode, in which they begin to shut down every program that actually has the chance to reach out to folks because they are afraid of going bankrupt.  Others throw up their hands in despair, pass the buck to others in the church, bury their heads and choose not to deal with it.
            Are either of these responses what Jesus calls us to do?  I’m not asking what your heart or mind, your reason or your fear ask from you.  What does Jesus call us to do in the face of these numbers, these statistics and in the face of our own fear?
            I want to tell you the story of a small congregation that faced these same challenges.  I shared this story with our elders last month, but it is an important story for all of us, I believe.  This particular congregation struggled to stay alive, they cut staff, they cut programs, and instead of growing, of course, without their staff and programs their decline moved ever faster.  The church was located in a quickly changing urban community.  While the few members of the church were older and white, the neighborhood had become more and more inhabited by people of color and younger families.  It was a distressed neighborhood and gangs were active in the area.  The church members loved their church, but they also feared even coming to the building for their own safety.  Finally, this small church reached the point where it could only really claim about 10 elderly members, and they realized they just could not keep their doors open any longer.  But as they met and discussed the dissolution of the church, one of these faithful older members said, “Okay, we have surrendered.  We choose to give up the life of our institution.  But we will not do it for no purpose.  With the last money, and last energy we have, let’s serve this community with everything we have left.  Let’s truly give up our lives in order that the community might live.”  They began studies about gangs in the community and how other areas had dealt with them.  And after much prayer and research, they went to the school, asking for the names of troubled kids who could be part of a program that paired one of these elderly members of the church with a gang member.  They sold their idea to the school and these pairs were formed.  At first there was great fear on one side (the side of the church members), and great anger and boredom on the part of the kids.  But an amazing thing happened through their time together.  They got to know one another.  And these elderly folk gave these gang members the opportunity to serve them, to care for them, to help them with their grocery shopping and cleaning.  In exchange they helped these young people with their homework, with their studies, with tough decisions, presenting a different morality and a different vision of what their lives could be.  They believed in these young people, which in itself changed lives.  Mostly, they befriended these young people.  Can you guess the result? 
            These young people began to come to their church, and they brought their parents with them.  The church began to grow.  It is now self-sustaining. A church of several hundred faithful, committed, loving and dedicated Christians.  It is not a mega-church.  But it is a church that continues to do this ministry to the gangs, continues to reach out, a church that is relevant in the community and is doing the ministry of our God in the world. 
            The gospels tell us that the disciples who joined Jesus left everything they had to follow Jesus.  Everything.  But I would say that today it is often the most faithful who find it hard to leave certain things, to give up certain things, in following Jesus.  Are we willing to take risks with our safety?  Are we willing to give up some time to spend studying our community and identifying the greatest needs around us?  Are we willing to give up our fixed vision of what church must be or even should be?  Are we willing to give up the institution of the church as we know it in order to see what new thing God might be doing in the world and how we might become a part of it?   Are we willing to give all that we might receive the promise of new life?
            That may not sound like good news to you.  But I tell you, there are always different ways of looking at things.  One of the ways of looking at church decline is to see it as a kick in the pants, encouraging us to get out of our comfort zones and really look at what God is calling us to do.  In the 50s, new people would wander into congregations and we did not need to go out to them.  But that is not the case now.  We are no longer sought out “country club” type communities.  People don’t come to church anymore simply because it is what everyone does.  Instead, when people choose to come to church it is because they are looking for something real.  They are coming because they want to connect to their faith and to God, and to a faith community.  They are coming because they really care about connecting with something beyond themselves.  They are coming because they are looking for meaning and purpose. That is very Good News.  But it is also a challenge to us to strive to provide that for those who come.  People can choose to do many things with their Sunday mornings now.  If they choose to come to church, what will keep them here?  Do they see that other lives are changed?  And if not, why would they come?  If it doesn’t make a difference, why spend your time in this place?  As we consider this, I challenge all of us to listen for God’s voice in the current situation of our congregation and of the Church, universal.  What is God calling us to do?  What position is God calling us to have in what some may consider a crisis in our congregations?  Does God call us to look at the church with fear and to spend our energy struggling to simply survive?  Or does God call us to risk, and to change, and to do genuine, affective ministry in our community, searching out the needs of the larger community and committing to serve them with what we have?  Does God call us to look at the decline of the church as a travesty and a cause for great alarm?  Or does God call us to hear the words of Isaiah 43: 16-19 when he declares, “This is what the Lord says- he who made a way through the sea, a path through the mighty waters,... ‘Forget the former things; I do not dwell on the past.  See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?  I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.’”
            Can you not perceive it?  While many would say this is a terrible time for the church, I ask you to see it in a new way.  This is an exciting time.  God is doing a new thing!  God has chosen us in this time and place to see a new thing. 
            That’s not to say that it isn’t hard or scary.  Many have said that the Church is facing a Good Friday.  We fear the death of the Christian Church, and we cannot see beyond it to what the resurrection will look like.  But our faith calls us, absolutely, to trust that the resurrection IS coming.  As we heard in Mark today, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
            What I am saying is that the Church cannot focus our attention so much on our survival that we fail to do the work of the church, which is ministry in the world and in the community, loving God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, and loving our neighbors, all of them, as ourselves.  I am calling you, even as you keep your eyes open, to have faith that if we choose to serve God and God’s people, if we stop being afraid of death and instead really choose to live a life following Christ, that God will not forsake us, though our life as a church may look different as we seek to do God’s will and follow God’s lead.  I am calling you to pray to God for this church and for its ministry and to listen for where God is leading you in ministry.  I am asking you to search your heart for the visions you have of ministry in this place and to bring those ideas to session so that we can help make those visions and dreams that God has given you a reality.  God has called every member of this church and every member has a vision for ministry from God.  Listen to that.  Dream about that. 
A young and successful executive was traveling down a neighborhood street, going a bit too fast in his new Jaguar. He was watching for kids darting out from between parked cars and slowed down when he thought he saw something. As his car passed, no children appeared. Instead, a brick came smashing into his side door! He slammed on the brakes and backed the Jag up. The angry driver jumped out of the car, grabbed the nearest kid and pushed him up against a parked car shouting, 'Just what the heck do you think you're doing?' he yelled. That's my NEW car!  That brick you threw is going to cost you a lot of money...' he fumed. 'Why did you do it?'
The young boy was apologetic. 'Please, mister... I'm sorry but I didn't know what else to do,'
 He pleaded, 'I threw the brick because no one would stop...' With tears streaming down his face, the boy pointed to a spot just around a parked car.  'It's my brother, 'he said.  'He rolled off the curb and fell out of his wheelchair,' he sobbed.  'I can't lift him up.' The boy asked the stunned executive, 'Would you please help me get him back into his wheelchair?  He's hurt and he's too heavy for me.' Moved beyond words, the driver hurriedly lifted the handicapped boy back into the wheelchair, then took out a linen handkerchief and dabbed at the fresh scrapes and cuts.
A quick look told him everything was going to be okay. 'Thank you so very much,' the grateful boy told the stranger. At a loss for words, the man simply watched the boy push the wheelchair down the sidewalk toward their home... It was a long, slow walk back to the Jaguar. The damage was quite noticeable, but the driver never bothered to repair the dented side door. He decided to keep the dent as a reminder.  To me, the decline of the church is a brick coming out of the air, calling for us to pay attention, and to be willing to risk, to give it all, in order to follow Christ.  For it is only in being willing to lose our lives for God, for the sake of God’s people, that we will find them.  Amen.


Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The opposite of love is not hate

Jasmyn said to me about a week ago, "I've been thinking.  When we have enemies, we actually are a lot closer to them than people we don't care about at all."  Yes, I responded, that's why the opposite of love is not hate but apathy.  But she went on.  She was thinking about the Harry Potter series in particular. And she said that when Voldemort died, Harry must have "missed" him at some level. He'd spent 7 years of his life thinking about him, fighting him, working to defeat him. Seven years of "relationship" even if that relationship was one of animosity or hatred.  She went on, "Harry was closer to Voldemort, to Snape, to Malfoy even, than he was to Professor Flitwick or any of those other folk whose names we heard just in passing.  He was more involved with those people he didn't like than he ever was to folk he had casual relationships with."

I've found myself reflecting on this ever since she mentioned it.  It's true that thoughts go out to people with whom there is some kind of... well, negativity, either in the past or in the present. I went to a Presbytery meeting here in San Francisco for the first time since I'd left. Probably it was the first meeting I'd been to here in seven years. And I saw there a woman who doesn't like me. We were at Seminary together, so I've had an acquaintance with her for about twenty years. Not everyone is going to like me. I get that. And she never has. Not everyone is going to like anyone for that matter. We don't actually know each other, though we have friends in common. We've never had a real conversation, ever. I know, through mutual friends, that we have a great deal in common, but neither of us have pursued making those connections. Sometimes dislike is just an instant thing, not based on any real knowledge or understanding, but sometimes it just is.  This was one of those cases. But what was interesting to me is that I spent most of the drive home thinking about this person (and it was a LOOOONG drive home - it took 2 1/2 hours to get out of the city yesterday).  I thought about this person whom I don't really know. I thought about this person with whom I have had and will have no contact except to occasionally see her at Presbytery meetings, so maybe a couple times a year. And yet, because there is this negativity, this snarling face from her when she looks at me, she took up 2 1/2 hours of my time yesterday in thought. She isn't an enemy, we don't even have that connection, but she is someone who sends negative energy my way, and so even just that small connection is bigger than what I have with most of the other people in that room. I didn't think about those who are acquaintances. I didn't think about those who have been friends and will be friends. I didn't think about who was missing from the meeting or why. I thought about this woman.

And as I thought about her and thought about what Jasmyn had to say, I remembered, in contrast, that probably the most painful thing ever that a person I had cared about years ago said to me was that they didn't even care enough about me to hate me. And at the time, it struck me as odd that that was so deeply painful.  But through Jasmyn's eyes I get it. Hating someone or even just sending negativity towards someone involves a level of care. It involves attention. It involves intentionality. Apathy is something one can't really get beyond.  If someone doesn't care about you at all, could take you or leave you, there is nothing to be done.  If they hate you, well at least you know they are sending thought and energy your way.  And sometimes, that hate can even be transformed because there is some kind of energy behind it. Jasmyn supported and added to her statement yesterday by saying, "When someone goes out of their way to ignore you or avoid you, it usually means they actually care about you a lot."

As I reflected on this, I found myself thinking a couple things. First, it can help to remember that if people are throwing negativity towards you, it means there is some kind of caring there. It may be negative caring, but it is caring. Hatred acknowledges you. Hatred gives you a level of power and respect that says you have impacted them in some way. It isn't apathy, which can be unendurable. Apathy does not see you, does not acknowledge you, gives you no power or respect or even humanity.  Apathy is the eyes that see past you.  Apathy is the ears that don't hear you. Apathy is the refusal to see one's own humanity enough to see yours.  Apathy lacks compassion, grace and caring. Hatred has passion behind it, and again, therefore has the possibility in it of being transformed. Seeing that someone actively dislikes you can reassure you that at least you aren't invisible to them. And there is hope in that.

Second, I don't really want to give my energy, time, or attention to people who are throwing negativity towards me. This is yet one more reason to forgive, to let go, to turn over to God those people, to pray for them and then let God do what God does and not carry it with me. Not that this is easy.  It isn't.   I'm reminded once more of the Susan Werner song, Forgiveness.
"How do you love those who never will love you
Who are happy to shove you out in front of the train....
And I can't find forgiveness for them anywhere in this
And with God as my witness I really have tried
How do you love those who never will love you
I think only God knows and he is not taking sides
I hope one day he shows us how we can love those
Who never will love us but who still we must love"

However, even if it isn't easy, it is important to keep working towards the goal of turning things over and letting them go, of forgiving, of seeking to "love" in the way of caring for and about but not being constantly hurt by those who would send the negativity.  And, even when it is really hard, remembering that in negativity there is caring hiding somewhere can be helpful. So thank you, Jasmyn, for your insights once more.

Sunday's Sermon - Acting with Faith

Acting with Faith
Prov. 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
James 2:1-10, 14-17
Mark 7:24-37

Dwight Nelson told this story about the pastor of his church. Apparently the pastor had a kitten that climbed up a tree in his backyard and then was afraid to come down. The pastor coaxed, offered warm milk, etc, but the kitty would not come down. The tree was not sturdy enough to climb, so the pastor decided that if he tied a rope to his car and pulled it until the tree bent down, he could then reach up and get the kitten.  So that's exactly what he did, all the while checking his progress in the car. At one point in this process, he figured if he went just a little bit further, the tree would be bent sufficiently for him to reach the kitten. But as he moved the car a little further forward, the rope broke.
The tree went 'boing!' and the kitten instantly sailed through the air – and out of sight.
The pastor felt terrible. He walked all over the neighborhood asking people if they'd seen a little kitten. No. Nobody had seen a stray kitten.
So he prayed, 'God, I commit this kitten to your keeping,' and went on about his business.
A few days later he was at the grocery store, and met one of his church members. He happened to look into her shopping cart and was amazed to see cat food. This woman was a cat hater and everyone knew it, so he asked her, 'Why are you buying cat food when you hate cats so much?' She replied, 'You won't believe this,' and then told him how her little girl had been begging her for a cat, but she kept refusing.  Then a few days ago, the child had begged again, so the Mom finally told her little girl, 'Well, if God gives you a cat, I'll let you keep it.'
She told the pastor, 'I watched my child go out in the yard, get on her knees, and ask God for a cat. And really, Pastor, you won't believe this, but I saw it with my own eyes. A kitten suddenly came flying out of the blue sky, with its paws outspread, and landed right in front of her!'

Most of the time, God’s messages to us are not quite so clear.  At least for me, most of the time my prayers are not answered so quickly, so clearly, or with such an enthusiastic “yes!”  Most of the time we have to listen, in each situation, for the direction God is calling us to.
I hear in today’s scriptures the command to love your neighbor as yourself, again, always, consistently THE message from Jesus.  I hear in the James passage and in the Proverbs verses that faith is active, that being a person of faith means loving our neighbor in the concrete ways of caring for the poor, in particular.  I hear in the passage from Mark that Jesus included many whom we might not include in his care, that he reached across lines to bring healing and comfort and that we are called to do the same.  So it isn’t that God doesn’t direct us or tell us what to do.  But I also recognize that when it comes to every day behavior, every minute action, it can still be hard to hear God, to get a clear message about what we are supposed to do, how and why.  I love stories like the kitten story in part because I wish that God was that clear with me.

So how do we discern?  Well, again, we start with scripture.  We start with the message, loud and clear that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We start there.  That means we don’t start the conversation, or any conversation, with “what is best for me in this situation” but instead with “what is best for you.”  And by best I don’t mean what is most comfortable or even what seems most profitable at the moment.  I mean what is really, ultimately best for the other.  I don’t believe that is something that we can discern on our own.  We simply can’t figure out what is best for another alone…that would be patronizing and condescending.  We figure this out with our neighbors, with the community of faith, with one another and in prayer with God.
            That cliché question, “what would Jesus do?” is frankly the most important question we could ask in our everyday behaviors and interactions.  A friend of mine told me this story…a pastor went to a tribe in Africa that was mostly made up of warriors, fighters.  And after teaching them Jesus’ message, the pastor took them down to the river to be baptized.  But as he baptized the men in this tribe, he saw that each of them kept their right hands out of the water.  They would go all the way in, except for their right hands.  Confused, the pastor finally asked one of them what was going on.  Their answer was that they needed to be able to fight with their right hands.  They had read the gospels, they knew that Jesus would not approve of killing another, even their enemies, so they left their right hands out of the water so that they could still do their jobs of fighting, keeping that part of them separate and unbaptized.

            We do this, too.  What parts of us do we keep out of the water of our baptism?  Is it our wallets, during stewardship time or when someone is in need?  And again, I don’t mean that we should just give anybody who asks us whatever they ask for…we need to do what is BEST for people, which is not always giving them whatever they ask for.  We know this as we care for our children and others.  But what is best for the other is never going to be our judgments when we are angry and feel vengeful rather than seeking out forgiveness, grace and reconciliation.  It will never be our sense of who should be included and who shouldn’t in our hearts, in our lives.  If Jesus is our model, our actions need to be consistently in favor of the poor, the needy, the outcast – and that needs to be every day, not just Sundays.  What parts of ourselves do we keep above the water?  We all have these parts, these areas that are uncomfortable for us to really commit to loving the other.  And our call, as people of faith, is to see them, to remember these passages that call us to act in faith and love, and to be willing to put all of ourselves, even our hands, into the water of our baptism, to ask, “what would Jesus do?” and to do it, too.
Henry David Thoreau said, “Could a greater miracle take place than to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”

Today in the story of the Syrophoenician woman, we see Jesus doing exactly that, looking through her eyes and understanding.  Understanding her desperation to help her daughter.  Understanding her willingness to do anything in order to make that happen.  Understanding her faith, her absolute trust that he could help her.  And through that vision, seeing through her eyes, that understanding led to compassion for her and choosing to do what was best for her.  It is through her story that Jesus’ whole ministry changed.  Before her, his service was strictly to and for the Jews.  After her, his ministry expanded to any and all who asked for his help.  His seeing her was a miracle that changed history for all of us.  His seeing her was a miracle that all of us are called to repeat as we look through the eyes of those with whom we are uncomfortable, those who challenge our ideas of what an “equal” human being looks like, those who need us to have compassion and understanding, those whom God calls us to love as we love ourselves.

            We may not be given as clear a message as the little girl in the kitten story, but the message is still pretty clear.  We are called to live out our faith by loving everyone as we love ourselves.  It’s all that easy, and it’s all that hard.