Monday, November 30, 2015

Sunday's sermon - Reading the Signs and Thanksgiving

Reading the Signs
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Luke 21:25-36

In today’s lesson from Luke, Jesus is talking about a new day coming.  He is announcing what that will look like when the new earth begins.  But the pictures that he draws are not pretty.  “On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea.   People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.”  These catastrophes, these crises, these traumas, they are the sign of the new world coming, a new life coming.  They are the sign that things are changing. 
Do we experience these things now?  Of course we do, as did the Israelites in their time as well.  People are scared, people are angry.  We hear a lot about fear, anger, and hate.  At some level this happens in all times, but right now it seems particularly acute once again.  And the scriptural message to us is two things.  First, when horrible things are happening, these are invitations for us to rely more fully on God, to trust in God knowing that God is with us in these changes, in these challenges.  And second, these difficult signs and hard times are actually fertile ground for new birth, for new life, for a resurrection that comes again and again, and again.  These hard times provide an opportunity to approach life differently, to do it again, right this time, to truly seek to live in LOVE rather than fear or hate.  To work towards good rather than towards polarization and enmity.  Again, to live as we are called to do, in gratitude, hope, and love rather than in anger and fear.
Today we begin the new church year.  Today is our New Year’s day in the church.  And we begin the new church year with anticipation of the new life that is coming, as we look towards Jesus being born anew into our lives.  We remember that out of whatever chaos we have and do experience, new life will come.  And yet, Advent is not the time when that new birth has happened.  It is a time of waiting for the birth of Christ.  We wait for God’s presence to show us how to live and what to do.  We wait for God to come anew among us.  We wait for the new thing God is doing.
Waiting is hard.  We aren’t a people who wait easily.  In our instant gratification society, it is especially hard to wait.  We don’t want to wait for food so we get “fast food”.  We don’t want to wait for the mail, so we do our correspondence instantly through email, or even faster through texts.  And yet, advent calls us to do exactly that.  We start the year by doing the thing that is hardest for us to do – to wait.
I can’t think of a more appropriate thing to do when the world is in chaos.  I know we want answers now, we want solutions NOW.  We want it fixed now.  But wisdom does not come instantly.  The beginning of the church year teaches us, right off the bat, that there is great learning to be done and great gifts to be found in being patient, in waiting for God to come, as God does – at Christmas in the form of a baby, but among us as well, in many, many forms.  Waiting does more than this as well.
Jack Shriver shared with us at lectionary group this last week that according to Buddhism there are really only two emotions and we have to choose which one we go with.  There is fear, and there is love.  There is a reason that throughout the bible God’s angels say, “do not be afraid” again and again and again.  It is in our scriptures over 100 times, and  out of Jesus’ mouth over 20 times.  Why?  Because when we are in fear, we cannot love.  We cannot have compassion.  We move towards anger, which moves towards hate, which causes suffering, as Yoda would say.  But when we are in love, we see with eyes of compassion, of grace, we see with an effort to understand the other rather than judge the other.  We see with eyes that move towards wisdom and deep solutions. 
When we are in fear mode we tend to be reactive.  Psychology tells us that when we are afraid or angry, certain parts of our brains, in particular the higher thinking, actually get shut off.  There was an article out about that just this week of a study done at Bangor University that showed this to be the case.  Do you not experience this yourselves?  The stupid things we say tend to only be said when we are angry or afraid.  The really dumb things we’ve done tend to be done in times of fear and anger.  As a side note, for some reason this doesn’t come up in conversations about easy access to weapons and it should.  It isn’t just mental illness that causes people to react in violence.  There was a story out this week about a waitress shot to death after asking a man to not smoke in the Waffle House.  He got angry. And when people become fearful or angry, those higher processes that say, “don’t do this really stupid thing” - they literally turn off.  The angrier or more afraid we become, the more fully they turn off – for ALL of us! Obviously we all need to work some on anger and fear management, but we will get angry, we will become afraid.  And in those times our higher thinking will shut down.  That is not where we want to be when we are making the difficult decisions about how to deal with crises like we are facing as a world today.  But those feelings of fear and anger cannot be turned off immediately when we are in crisis.  It takes time, and often prayer and meditation, or quiet listening, to still our hearts and minds to the point where we can move more towards love and from there make good decisions.  In other words, waiting, the call of Advent to WAIT, allows us to move out of our fear and into the more rational, logical, helpful, loving and wise parts of our brains.
There is an old Cherokee story in which a man told his grandson, “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all.  One is Evil.  It is anger, it is hatred, under all of that it is fear, and from those places it does evil.  The other is Good.  It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, compassion and truth. and from those places does good.”  The boy thought about it, and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?”  The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”  Waiting is taking the time before feeding either wolf to listen for God, to be led by wisdom, to watch and hope. 
I like very much that Advent follows immediately after Thanksgiving.  Because I think that wisdom and waiting also have to begin with gratitude.  Being grateful, focusing on the good, remembering that God has blessed us with so very much in every day also quiets the heart and mind and stills the fear. 
            Some of you, I know, have begun gratitude journals.  These take different forms.  In one gratitude practice, at the end of each day you are asked to list 5 things for which you are grateful.  In another there are specific areas you look at each day over 30 days in which you name something for which you are grateful.  It doesn’t matter how you do this.  A recent study showed that taking time each day to be grateful improves our overall outlook.  It improves our sense of well-being.  It makes us calmer in the face of crises.  It lifts depression.  And it increases our ability to make good decisions rather than panicked, fearful decisions.
            It also reminds us to live in hope.  We don’t just wait.  We watch and we hope. 
            The God we wait for, the Jesus that we anticipate coming came to give us LIFE so we could LIVE.  He called us not to live in fear, but to aim for love in all things.  Gratitude helps us to wait, to watch, to be hopeful.
            Psalm 140, translated by Nan C. Merrill reads like this:
Deliver me, O Giver of Breath and Life, 
from the fears that beset me; 
help me confront the inner shadows 
that hold me in bondage, like a prisoner 
who knows not freedom. 
They distract me from all 
that I yearn to be, 
and hinder the awakening of 
hidden gifts 
that I long to share with others.
For are we not called to make Love 
conscious in our lives? 
You are the Light of those 
imprisoned in darkness. 
Surely You will guide us 
into the new dawn, 
that we may live as co-creators 
with You.
        Jesus was born into a chaotic and broken world as a baby, helpless, innocent, gentle.  But we are not at the birth yet.  As we begin our new year, I invite all of us to begin again, and to begin again by being still, by waiting, by watching for what God is doing and where God is leading us.  I invite us all to start with gratitude and remember all the good that God has done in each of our lives.  We can trust in those blessings, that they are there every day for us, that they will come every day.  We can have the wisdom to not live in fear, but to live in love.  We can take the time to wait for wisdom to come, as God comes all the time, as Jesus came to us at Christmas.  We can watch for where God is coming now, and we can being the year with Hope. It is, after all, what we are called to do on this the first Sunday of Advent.  

Monday, November 23, 2015

Yesterday's Sermon - Giving from our Need

Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17
               Mark 12:38-44

There once was a very poor man who found himself in desperation making a deal with God before a priest and several parishioners.  “I promise, God, if you let me make some money, I will give you a dollar for every ten I make.”  Sure enough after a time he found a ten dollar bill, and just as he promised, he gave one of those ten to God. The man’s riches began to grow.  After a while he found himself making $1000 a month, and still he kept to his word, giving $100 to God, just like he promised.  His riches grew even more and in time he was making $100,000 a year.  This meant though that he was giving $10,000 a year back to God.  This began to feel like a whole lot of money that he was giving up.  He did it, but much more grudgingly.  By the time he made $1,000,000 he became very uncomfortable about giving $100,000 of that to God.  He went back to the priest and asked if there was any way he could get out of his deal with God.  The priest thought about it for a minute and finally replied, “I don’t think so, but if you would prefer to go back to giving only a dollar, I’m sure God would be happy to reduce your income back to 10!”      
Isn’t it easier to give more when you have less?  Statistics prove this out – that the poorest people give a much greater percentage of their incomes to charities, especially the church, than wealthier folk.  But we can see it for ourselves, sometimes in incredibly profound ways.  Jack Shriver told me about his mission work on the border handing out food, water and medicines to those crossing into the United States.  He said that the volunteers who were trying to help avoid more deaths and dying, especially in the children, would call out announcing that they had food and medicine and water to share and that sometimes people would come, though many times, out of fear, they would stay hidden.  One time, however, those hearing the group calling, “food, water, medicine”, came timidly out, with their tiny bags of belongings.  They had misunderstood the call “food, water, medicine” as a cry for help.  And they came out with the little amounts they had, the tiny amounts they had, apologetically offering everything they had left, while knowing that if they gave away the little they had, they might not survive the journey.  Even so, assuming that the group that had come down to help was in fact in need, they offered what they had.  Even in the face of the tiny amount they had to survive, they offered it to those they believed were also in need. 
I experienced the same thing when I was with a group touring Guatemala and Nicaragua.  We met some of the poorest of the poor -  people who lived bunched together in homes put together from what they could find; people who struggled daily just to live.  None the less, these people would gather whatever food resources they had to offer us, wealthy Americans, the best food that they had, food they could not afford, but that they gave from their hearts, just because we were there to hear them, to meet them, to be with them. 
This doesn’t just happen in other cultures either.  There have been several videos circulating recently that have looked at some of the behaviors of the homeless in our own culture.  In one video a man, well dressed, clean, clearly with resources, was asking people on the street for hugs.  Not money, not anything except a hug.  But as he passed all the people heading to shop or to work or to wherever they were going, no one passing would give him a hug.  Not one person.  They were afraid or they were wary.  Whatever it was, they avoided him, said no, walked (ran) away.  So he approached a bunch of homeless people.  And in contrast, not one of them turned him away.  They don’t have resources, but they still had care and affection to give. 
In another video, a man approached a homeless man and gave him a $10 bill.  The homeless man was taken aback and asked him why he had done this.  The first man said he just thought the homeless man could use the money.  The homeless man stared at him for a minute and then said, “Please, sit down for a minute.  Just a minute!  I’ll be right back!”  The first man sat, not knowing what to expect, but in a minute the homeless man returned, with two lunches that he had bought at the nearby store, one of which he gave to the first man.  The first man now was the one who was stunned.  He said, “Why did you do this?  You could have saved that money to spend on a second lunch tomorrow!”  But the homeless man said, “Well, you see, I could.  I had the money and I would like to share this meal with you.”  Out of the little he had, he gave half to someone who wasn’t even asking for it, just because he could. 
In the book, “Richistan”, the author, Robert Frank discussed several studies which showed that no matter how much money a person earned, no matter how much, whether it was $10,000 a year or $10 billion a year, most people felt that if they only made exactly twice what they were making now they would be okay.  Most people, regardless of their income, felt that they just didn’t have nearly enough.  This points to the reality that as humans we NEVER are satisfied, we never feel we have enough, we always think we need more.   The book also showed that actually making more money did not increase happiness, having more money did not increase a sense of well-being.  Money does not in fact make us happier.  It does, however, increase our sense of what we need.  What we perceive to be our needs often grows beyond our incomes, no matter what they are.  We can see it happening in our lives and in the lives of those around us, but it is hard to stop it.  In contrast to the stories I have just told about poor people around the world, a person I know whom I will call “Sally” has an income that exceeds mine by over five times.  Sally spends a great deal of time and energy worrying about her money, and is right now in a place where she absolutely finds it impossible to be generous with time, talents or money.  She is often found lamenting how trapped she feels, how tight things are financially.  She is often found complaining that she doesn’t know how the bills will be paid next month.  And the truth is that she isn’t making this up.  She really does struggle to keep up her expected standard of living.  Her investment properties, her cars, her get away homes, the time she spends with friends of like economic status at vacation spots, expensive restaurants, her home remodel – all of these things do take every bit of the income that she brings in as well as every extra minute of her time.  Of course, for those of us who don’t live like that, it is easy to see the other side.  How much of that is necessary spending?  How much is luxury?  But this is what Sally is used to, what she knows, what she has come to believe is necessary. 
She has forgotten the bigger picture…the picture that says that none of her resources are actually her own.  They are all God’s and therefore should be used for the good of all rather than the good of just Sally.  She has lost touch with the fact that one of the meals she eats out in a month at these luxurious restaurants could feed a family overseas for six months and that this is a better use of God’s resources.  Sally has become owned by her possessions and lost in her material wealth.  And she is poorer because of it.  We do the same.  If each of us were to commit to eating out one less time a month, or giving our coffee money for one week of every month to those who really need it, we could make an amazing difference in the world.  But we stop seeing these things as luxuries.  We forget that we don’t NEED these things.  And we forget that all of these resources are God’s, entrusted to us for the good of the world.
But the reality is that I don’t actually want to guilt you into giving money to the church.  Because we are not called to give out of guilt.  We are not called to give out of guilt.  We are called to give out of gratitude.  Everything we have has been given to us from a God who loves us beyond our imagining.  And that is cause for giving and for celebration.
In today’s scripture the poor widow put more in than all the rest.  She put in everything that she had.  I don’t think she was sitting there calculating what percentage of her things she was contributing to God.  I don’t think she put that money in out of guilt or even a sense of obligation.  She gave all that she had because she loved God, because her faith is what made her rich, not her money.  She was grateful for that day in her life, for the blessings that she had, though others might see them as few, and so she returned to God what she had been given.  How powerful is that?  How faithful is that to return to God all that you have, knowing that God will use that gift – that gift of all of you – for the good of all people?
We are called to lift up our joys every week as a way of remembering the blessings God has given us.  We are called to serve God with everything we do – choosing work that empowers God’s people and takes care of God’s creation.  We are called in every interaction to be loving and caring and warm.  We are called to give back from our talents, from our resources, from our money, from our gifts – not because it is “the right thing to do” (though it is), but because we remember that God has blessed us and continues to bless us in every moment and because of that insight, because of the wealth that our love of God gives to us, we are grateful, we are so grateful, that we can hold nothing back.  It is all God’s and so we are given the opportunity to give it back. 
At a church meeting a very wealthy man rose to tell the rest of those present about his Christian faith. "I'm a millionaire," he said, "and I attribute it all to the rich blessings of God in my life. I remember that turning point in my faith. I had just earned my first dollar and I went to a church meeting that night. The speaker was a missionary who told about his work. I knew that I only had a dollar bill and had to either give it all to God's work or nothing at all. So at that moment I decided to give my whole dollar to God. I believe that God blessed that decision, and that is why I am a rich man today."
He finished and there was an awed silence at his testimony as he moved toward his seat. As he sat down a little old lady sitting in the same pew leaned over and said to him: "I dare you to do it again."

That dare, that challenge applies to us as well.  But not out of guilt.  God has blessed us and we are in gratitude and love given the gift of being able to offer it back.  That is a joy.  And it is a privilege.  Amen.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Today's Sermon - What to do now?

Matthew 5:38-48

Today is supposed to be the day that I preach on Stewardship, or giving to the church.  I had the sermon written and prepared.  It was an acceptable stewardship sermon, full of examples and stories – perhaps you will hear it next week.  You know the point of it anyway, the church can’t survive without you.  You are the church, and therefore we need all of who you are.  Blah Blah Blah.  Important stuff?  Of course.
But it isn’t what is important today.  So last night after being glued to Facebook on and off throughout the day, to friends’ posts about the news and to news sources themselves I realized the sermon I’d written had to be tossed, or at least postponed.  Because that’s not what we need today.  That’s not where we are today as a people.  We are instead on Friday the 13th, 2015.  As I understand it, within a 24 hour period we had terrorist attacks in Paris, an earthquake in Japan, a funeral bombed in Baghdad, Suicide bombings in Beirut and another earthquake in Mexico.  Through these events and these events alone in a 24 hour period it is guesstimated that we lost 115,200 human lives.  In 24 hours.  And that does not count the murders and suicides and deaths to hunger, starvation, dehydration, kidnapping, spousal abuse, or natural disasters around the world other than the two mentioned that went on yesterday.  It does not count the violence, the pain, the suffering that went on in the world that just permanently damaged individuals and communities around the world.  It does not count those lost to disease and car accidents and SIDS and old age.  There was suffering in that 24 hour period.  And beyond that I understand there was an attack on a university in Kenya that ended with 147 dead, also from a fundamentalist group similar to Isis called Al Shabab.  It goes on.  And on.  And the result is real suffering.  Great suffering.
      And not just in isolated pockets.  There is a poem out by Warsan Shire, “later that night I held an atlas in my lap, ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered, “where does it hurt?”  It answered, “everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.”
      In the midst of all of that, what are we to do?  How are we to feel and act and live?  How are we supposed to respond?  How are we supposed to get up each morning like the world is normal and fine and God’s beautiful creation?  And then, and then, the passage our pastor decides to read to us is about loving our enemies!  Is she nuts?  Is she crazy?  That is not where we are right now!  That is not how we feel right now!
      And the truth is, I’m with you on that.  The truth is that feelings like sorrow, like forgiveness, like loving those who hurt us – those things feel weak in the face of what the world is experiencing. How is love a realistic response to what went on in Paris, Baghdad, Beirut, Kenya?!  We know what happens to those who practice love in the face of stuff like this!!  Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi, JFK, Jesus!  Look what happened to them?  They ended up dead!  Killed.  All of them. Dead.  And if it was just our lives on the line, maybe that would feel okay.  But what about when it is our children?  My children?  My family?  My community?  Aren’t we supposed to defend the week and oppressed and downtrodden?  Aren’t we supposed to do something?  And mustn’t that something be violent so the point is made?  Mustn’t that something be so huge and dramatically vengeful that we get the attention of those lousy Isis people and make them stop??!!  They need to suffer as we have suffered.  We want them punished.  Anger feels strong!  Vengeance feels strong!  Retaliation feels strong!  Those aren’t the weak emotions of grief, of sorrow, or of love!  Right?

      I found myself reading article after article written by people I respect, admire, value.  I read argument after argument about the “correct” responses to all of this.  All sorts of ideas are being expressed, as they always are.  David is a Marine.  And he admitted that that part of him fires up in the face of all of this.  But he’s also now very close to a person who takes very seriously Jesus' call to turn the other cheek – I take it so seriously that I pretty much consider myself a pacifist.  I agree with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr when he said “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  But what do we do with either of those philosophies when what is really under them all is simply raw pain.  Grief.  Loss. Incomprehension about what is happening to our world, in our world, around our world.  In our communities, with our friends.  With those we love….
      Anne Lamott wrote this, “So where do we find grace and light? If you mean right now, the answer is Nowhere. It's like after a child dies. Grace always does bat last, and the light always overcomes the darkness--always, historically. But not necessarily later the same day, or tomorrow, after lunch. Wendell Berry told me 25 years ago, in Advent, the darkest shortest days of winter, "It gets darker and darker and darker, and then Jesus is born." But it is only November 13! It gets even darker. What is the answer? Gandhi is almost always the answer. Jesus's love for the poor and refugees is the answer. Adding a bit of light and warmth to these cold dark days doesn't hurt. Candles are beautiful and bring a soup├žon of solace to our souls. People living on the streets could really use your old blankets and jackets.  Grace will always show up in the helpers, as Mr. Rogers' mother used to tell him in times of tragedy. But today, right now, if you have a nice bumper sticker that explains or makes sense of what happened in Paris, it's probably best if you keep that to yourself”
       Frankly, I was tempted to read to you her whole article instead of my sermon because her writing is so profound and beautiful and right on.  But I realized that that would also not be helpful.  Because in the midst of all this, in the midst of tragedy, and pain, and loss, and confusion, what we need most is each other.  What we need most is to be together, to stand with one another, to support and love one another.  And while distant writers and not so distant writers can help us, can be part of the guides that help us through this time, what we need is immediate, is here, is now.  At a time when there is pain, and loss, and tragedy, “distant” is the opposite of what we need.
      If there is any truth to the words of Jesus and Martin Luther King, then we have to start with love. And that love has to start with those we know.  If you are a visitor, that love has to start with those right in front of you, too, from us to you, and hopefully you will feel surrounded by that in this place.  We learn through loving and being loved by those in our midst how to love those who are not in our midst.  We learn by loving and being loved by those we like how to take a chance and maybe, just maybe, love those we don’t like.  We learn from loving and being loved by those we don’t like, the first steps in loving our enemies.  But that, too, is jumping way ahead.
     For today I don’t want to argue about the best way to both love our enemies and defend the powerless.  Today I don’t want to explore what to do about what is happening to our world.  For today, for today, I believe our call is simply to begin by being together, supporting each other, loving each other and those around the world.  And I want to start by telling you that whatever you are feeling about what is happening in the world is okay.  Feelings are just feelings.  Those, too, are gifts from God, that help us know something is wrong, and help us move forward and into solutions at some point.  We don’t grieve by pushing those feelings away.  And we don’t move forward by denying them or deciding they are wrong.  If you feel angry, that’s understandable.  If you feel rage-ful, that’s okay.  If you feel sad, that is absolutely normal.  If you feel lost, or scared, or alone or confused – all of those feelings in the face of these tragedies make sense.  And we are here for you, for each other.
      And God?  Where is God in the midst of all of this?  I’m reminded of another passage.  Matthew 2: 16- 18: When Herod knew the magi had fooled him, he grew very angry. He sent soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger, according to the time that he had learned from the magi. 17 This fulfilled the word spoken through Jeremiah the prophet: A voice was heard in Ramah,
    weeping and much grieving.
        Rachel weeping for her children,
            and she did not want to be comforted,
                because they were no more.

     Where is God in this?  It is God who is weeping, not just Rachel.  It is God’s children who have been killed.  It is God’s children who are suffering.  Where is God when we are suffering?  Right with us.  Suffering as well.
      Yes, we are called to move forward, to do something, to work this through.  But today, for today, we are called to just be with our feelings, with one another, and with the God who is grieving too.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

That inner ache - the human condition

     The inner ache, that sense of missing something, a feeling I think most of us experience at one time or another, takes on many forms.  For some it takes on the form of loneliness, a wanting to connect to others, to feel understood, embraced, loved fully and completely for who we are. Others have described it as a desire to "go home" and have said that this place (this life) is just not home, somehow. They feel restless, lost, out of place. For some it feels like an absence of meaning or purpose.
     Our culture has, for awhile, tried to find the fulfillment of that emptiness or ache in the form of "true love", something described as incredibly rare and by some as only for "one couple in every hundred years". Other practices don't see it as that rare, but still emphasize that this partnering somehow makes us whole. Many faith traditions offer a belief of "the two becoming one". Some honor marriage, therefore, as a sacrament in which God has made one whole out of two halves, a whole that cannot be divided no matter what. I understand the value in that thinking, and maybe for some people that is true. I had a very good marriage. My husband and I were very well suited to each other and rarely disagreed, let alone argued.  We played well, worked well, parented well, partnered well together.  We were compatible in our theology, politics, finances, ideas of parenting, level of cleanliness, foods we liked, activities, books and movies we enjoyed... actually I can't think of much that was incompatible until the end.  For many years, I was happy with him and with the marriage. Still, I never felt that somehow I was "made whole" by the marriage.  And by that, I mean three things.  First, I never felt that I had been only a half a person before. Second, there were still times in the marriage when that ache, loneliness, emptiness, yearning was present for me. And third, when the marriage ended, I did not feel that I became half a person again.  There was a ripping, a tearing, but not into two halves of a whole. Instead it was the ripping and tearing of any close relationship that is injured, damaged, or torn. It was deeper because the relationship was deeper. But it was not because I was torn away from my other half, but because we were tearing another chink into the divisions of the world. I think that, perhaps, the whole idea of "true love" being incredibly rare is an attempt to explain why, despite partnering and marriage, most of us still do feel that ache at times, even in good marriages.  But, at least for most of us, I don't believe we really can be filled by another human being. We aren't "half of a whole, waiting to find the other half," rather we are a puzzle piece in a huge picture, the whole of which is bigger than we can see or imagine.  It includes all of us, and I would say all of creation.  We are pieces of creation, and our separation from that body, into individuals who sometimes seek our own good at the expense of the whole, leads us into this feeling of disconnect, of ache, of separation. Until we are united again in a vision that we truly are one and that what hurts me hurts you, what hurts you hurts me, and that therefore we must work together for the good of everyone - until we have this unity, I think there will be that aching, that yearning, that sense of not "being home" and of not "being whole."  We aren't home, because we are torn from one another and can not rest in a sense of unity.  We aren't whole because we are like a shattered mirror, with many pieces that cut and stab, unaware that until we work together, we will never be a whole.
     I had a wise spiritual director once say that that inner yearning is, ultimately, the desire to connect more fully to the Divine. To me this is a recognition that together we are more than the sum of our parts. Together we have meaning. Together we are a work of art, created by something we cannot begin to comprehend, and yet something that we ache to be a part of.  We yearn to be a note in a beautiful piece of music, not singing it on our own, but being sung as part of a universal chorus.  We ache to be a part of an amazing piece of art, not simply another slash of color painted at random and drifting around, but an irreplaceable part of a creation that has beauty and light and wonder.  We long to be part of a lovely and purposeful dance, not simply a movement on it's own, but a movement with meaning and purpose that works together with all of the other movements to become something we all are part of and that guides and fulfills each part even as it is in itself breathtakingly wondrous.
    Moments of transcendence take us into that larger vision.  But returning is hard as we once again fall into our own unique space and struggle to find the whole once more.
    Still, keep striving.  Keep searching.  Keep reaching out to find your place in that whole.  The ache itself calls us to do that, to be a part of putting the puzzle pieces together and of helping to imagine the picture, the music, the dance, that is bigger than we can see.  It is only together that we can be the creation we were meant to be.  And it is only together that we will finally be "home", and "whole" and connected with that which is bigger than the sum of the parts.  It is only together that we will be with the One who made us and creates us to be beautiful.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Sunday's Sermon - Learning to Love

Ruth 1:1-19
1 Corinthians 13:1-13

            The passage that I read from Corinthians today is a very familiar passage.  The passage from Ruth may be less well known, but it, too, is a common wedding scripture.  Interestingly, Ruth was the assigned lectionary book for today which I thought was perfect timing as in a few minutes we will be celebrating and blessing a most recent marriage in our congregation. 
            Both in honor of their marriage, and because it happened to be the lectionary passages for today, I want to take some time to talk about love, and commitment, and marriage.  Even for those who have never been married or currently aren’t married, I think the same concepts and principles of love apply to our closest relationships with anyone and so it is worthwhile, even on a regular Sunday morning, to spend some time talking about love.
            The first passage from Ruth is one I just love.  There are wedding rings carved with that statement from Ruth because it is so beautiful and is such a testament to what love, true love, of any kind can look like, “Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.”  And even the next verse, “Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried” speaks so deeply to the depth of love, the commitment, the dedication between these two women.  Many conversations have been had about what the actual relationship was between Naomi and Ruth, but whatever you believe it to be, it was clearly a relationship of love, of commitment, and of dedication.  Ruth says to Naomi, I will be with you no matter what.  Even beyond death, my home, my life, my love is with you.  Beautiful, profound, deep.  This is what we want our marriages to be.  A meeting of minds, of souls, of meaning, connection and purpose.  A joining in the deepest sense so that where there were two, now there are one, moving together, walking together, following and being followed, leading and being led.  And again, for other relationships too, that commitment to the relationship, that promise of love is vital, is what we all long for.  It reminds me of a song that I love by a man named Eric Bibb called “Dance me to the End of Love”:
There's no other place I'd rather be
No other face I'd rather see than yours
Hold me as only you can do
And dance me to the end of love

I'll follow you when you want to lead
You'll follow me sometimes too...

            But, despite the roses and the celebrations and the joy of being together, there is another side of love, and of any relationship as we know.  For while we are united by our love for one another, we also remain individuals.  Even in marriage, we remain individuals even while being brought together.  And even the closest two people are never going to agree on everything.  We know this.  I love the passage from Corinthians because it was written to a congregation in the midst of deep division and strife.  Paul’s exposition on love is his sermon to a congregation saying that despite their struggles and discord, despite the anger and hostilities among them, despite the differences, the tension, the fighting, that they were called as Christians to act in love.  For love is a choice.  It is an action.  And that action, even in times when you do not feel love, when you do not feel loving, when you are angry, when you are hurt, when you are struggling, even then, that love, that choice to love requires you to be patient, kind, enduring, hopeful, faithful, and truthful.  It requires you to put aside envy, resentment, and even irritation to be present, giving and to take care of each other’s feelings, of each other’s beautiful but delicate souls. 
This isn't an easy thing to do in the face of conflict.  But every commitment, whether it be to a church, or to being a parent, or to a marriage will have its times of struggle.  Struggle in itself is not a bad thing.  Within struggle are opportunities for growth in ourselves, and even more, growth in our relationships to one another and to God.  But if a relationship is real, if it is genuine, if it has integrity, it will have times of struggle. 
And still we are called to love.  To stick with the promises made and to work through them.  To care for and about one another with integrity, honesty, carefulness and compassion.  But let me be clear that I’m not saying that love tolerates abuse.  Allowing another to abuse you damages their souls as well as our spirits.  There are boundaries even within our love. 
            Which brings me to something else I would like to share with you today.  Kahlil Gibran wrote this in his book, The Prophet.   It was written about marriage, but I again think it really applies to any close, intentional, committed, deep relationship.
            He writes, “Love one another, but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.  Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.  Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.  Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.  Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.  For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.  And stand together yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, and the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

            The Title of my sermon today was Learning to Love.  Loving one another, truly caring for one another, unconditionally and fully, is not something I think we are born knowing how to do.  When we are born, we love, unconditionally, our parents at least, out of need.  But as we grow, we learn how to love more fully by practicing it.  Again, I believe, deeply and fully, that love is an action.  And that love is a choice.  We learn to love every time we do not respond in anger but instead respond with and out of compassion.  We learn to love every time we listen to the other, fully and completely.  We love every time we are kind, every time we are patient, every time we are compassionate and forgiving.  We love when we do put aside envy, rage, resentment and irritation.  We love when we make a choice to care for and about the other’s best and highest good and to work towards that.  That is loving in any relationship.  That is loving in every relationship. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

More on Rage

Two more rage incidents encountered, or rather experienced, yesterday.

The first one, I was driving on Clayton Road which is a pretty fast 6 lane road.  All cars were driving at about 45 miles an hour but the light ahead of us changed to yellow, so, I slowed down and stopped at the line right after the light turned red.  The car behind me, though, wanted nothing to do with stopping and so honked crazily, swerved into the lane next to me and ran a completely red light while cussing me out the whole way.  Ironically, he then had to stop about 20 feet ahead of me behind other cars that were stopped at the next red light, meaning that I had to pull up next to this crazy, screaming man.  I don't know what he gained by running through a red light.  I do know he almost hit a pedestrian who had started to cross the street once the light changed to red.  I don't know what he gained through being so angry, but, again, I don't know what he was going through that day, that week, that month or that year.  Maybe he just needed a place to yell and I was a convenient target.  I do know that he added an edge to my morning, one I didn't need.  It won't change my behavior.  I still won't run red lights.  I don't really think we need to be in that big of a hurry that we risk other people's lives (like the pedestrian).  But I found myself wondering again about what good his rage did.

Then last night I was driving my daughter to dance.  I have to go through a parking lot and I am always pretty slow about doing that, recognizing the 10mph parking lot law and being aware that people cross wherever they want and you have to be careful.  None the less, a teenager wearing all black (and this was after nightfall) was sauntering across the parking lot without regard for anyone else.  I stopped in plenty of time - about 12 feet behind where she was crossing.  None the less, her mother, who was several feet behind her, started screaming her head off at me about ...well, actually, I don't know what she was screaming about, since I couldn't hear her.   I reacted the way any normal human being would.. knowing she couldn't hear me I immediately started using Sign Language and signing at her to "wait" and "stop" yelling at me.  Well, okay, maybe most human beings don't actually know sign language, and that wouldn't be their first reaction.  But it was mine.  For some reason this caused her to just scream more.  It was only later that I realized that the sign for "wait" could look like that "WHAT THE HECK?!" sign that many people give when they think you are doing something wrong.  So she may have misinterpreted my meaning.  Still, I don't actually know what prompted her initial rage.  I had another adult in the car and I asked both him and Jasmyn, "Did I make an error here?  Because I'm confused about why she is screaming at me."  Both of them said, "No".  I was driving slowly.  I stopped way back from where she was.  There was no reason for this outrage on this woman's part.

And yet, there it was.

I admit, I probably am affected too much by other people's rage heading my direction.  But I couldn't shake the painful, negative feelings for a while. And I wondered, again, about the purpose, the helpfulness, the goodness of rage.  What is the point?  Will her rage change my behavior at all?  No. I will still drive slowly through parking lots. I will still do my best not to hit anyone. Did her rage make her feel better?  I doubt it.  The times I feel rageful I just feel sick afterwards, not better.  When people reflect on their anger, I know they sometimes feel guilty, too, for attacking someone else who may not have deserved the outrage at all.  She might not be self-reflective enough to feel guilt, but either way, what could that expression of rage at a total stranger really do for her or for me or for the other passengers in my car?  Her daughter remained oblivious (which again shows how far away I actually stopped), so she wasn't affected.  But I can't help but wonder what kind of good these expressions of rage do.
 For anyone.

We have become a society that is so filled with anger that frankly, I don't know why we are surprised by all these mass shootings.  People become angry at the drop of a hat, they feel justified in their rage, and they act it out, sometimes in these extremely violent ways.  At what point is this not okay? Obviously shooting people is not okay.  What about yelling at someone else?  What about the rageful behavior we seem to see on a daily basis in our communities?  We seem to be okay with this behavior, and yet (not to go biblical on everyone but I am a pastor, after all), Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be in danger of judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be in danger of judgment." (Matthew 5:21-22).  To translate this more simply, even getting rageful at another is harmful. Period. PERIOD.  And the raging behavior is a behavior that will be seen, will be noticed, and you will be understood and judged for it (not by God.  My God has a lot more understanding and compassion.  But other people will see and judge you).

We are told we will be known by our love.  Do we demonstrate this consistently, or do we fly into rages that tell a different tale, not one of love, but one of intolerance, self-centeredness, lack of compassion and condemnation?  Our rage speaks volumes about who we are, about what we think, about what we really are at our core.  And if left unchecked, it will escalate into violence.  Let me say that again.  Rage, left unchecked, left undealt with, WILL turn into violence.  It starts with verbal violence and it becomes something more.  Either way it is violent.  Either way it is an assault.  Either way it is damaging.

Once again, I say, we have to be conscious of what we want to leave here with our time in this place. Do we choose to leave hatred and rage?  Do we truly want our legacy to be one of upsetting others, of hurting others, of damaging others?  Or do we want our legacy to be one of love, of peace, of compassion?  We choose who and what we want to be in this world.  We choose how we will be remembered and what we contribute to this world.  We choose the big picture of our time on this planet.

For me, I pray every day to leave more love and peace.  In the face of others' rage, sometimes this is a challenge.  And yet, closing my eyes and re-centering, taking a breath of peace, choosing to return love and peace for rage and hatred - these are choices I can make.  These are choices we all can make.  Each day.  Each hour.  Each moment we are given the opportunity to choose how we respond.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Assumptions, assumptions, assumptions

I've been thinking about the assumptions we make lately about other people.  Several things prompted this train of thought, but one involved a conversation I had with someone who was of a more fundamentalist theological perspective.  I said something about people who were more progressive in their beliefs and she responded by saying, "Oh, you mean wishy-washy Christians?"  I was dumbfounded.  Do fundamentalist Christians really think that those of us who believe differently than they do are simply wishy-washy in our beliefs?  What an outrageous idea! The Christians I know and hang around with are people who pour their all into their faith, who live it out with every breath they take, who are out serving the homeless, and caring for the disenfranchised, who are actively working to be more loving and compassionate and who truly "pray without ceasing".  They are not wishy-washy just because they believe that their way into the mystery is not the only way into the mystery, or because they believe at their core that God loves everyone, or because they believe that we have no right to judge others.  They are not wishy-washy because they value other traditions, or because they feel that living out their faith in service is as important as what you say you believe. They are not wishy-washy because they aren't beating others up with their beliefs or hammering scripture at others. They aren't wishy-washy because they don't take every story in the Bible as literal or historical but instead look into it for the truths that underlie every story, for the meanings found deep within, for the human as well as the Divine inspiration behind the writings. If anything, it means they are more committed to study and seeking understanding, rather than just easily taking each story as a historic event without deeper meaning or value.

As I thought about this, I thought about the fact that there are two (more, but we will simplify it into two for now) different religions that both use the name "Christian" and that this confuses people who are not part of the church.  I thought about the fact that I don't believe we worship the same God or same image of God or same understanding of what the Divine or Mystery is at all.  This isn't a denominational difference, this is a core difference about how we understand God, scripture, life, etc. It has bothered me for some time that we use the same name to identify belief systems that are so different from each other that at times I believe they share not one thing in common except the name "Christian".

But then again, our faith is not the only place where this divergence seems to be more and more clear and strong.  In politics as well, there are hugely divergent understandings of what makes a country good, what makes a country strong, what we should stand for, what we should allow or encourage our government to do with its money, what our role should be in the government.  We don't speak the same language, we don't see the world in the same way.  We believe different news sources, we also believe different versions of "history", and there are many versions and stories and histories out there from which to choose.

We have different understandings of people, what makes them act the way they do, what makes some make the choices and errors they make, and what will "help" or "fix" the problems of human errors, mistakes, and choices.

It almost seems at times that there are two different species of humans, who just think and see and understand the world so vastly, vastly differently that that bridge is almost impossible to cross or reconcile.  It certainly seems far beyond healing or understanding.  And even farther beyond compassion...

And it was with that thought that I was brought up short.  Yes, I was amazed at the assumptions that my fundamentalist sister assumed about my faith.  The assumption that I was therefore "wishy-washy" was outrageous.  But what assumptions, I had to ask myself, do I make about her and her faith? My dissertation was on fundamentalism.  I studied it long and hard. And yet, I studied it from the perspective of someone who is not and has never been a fundamentalist.  As just a piece of that studying, I interview some who identify with that tradition, I interviewed more who had left it.  But I still came to the conversation as an outsider.  I try to understand "the other" but do I really go deep enough?  How about with those with differing political beliefs, criminal justice beliefs, beliefs about why others do what they do, different parenting beliefs, etc?

I think sometimes we make assumptions and assign motivations to people who differ from us that justify our own beliefs and opinions. If this person believes this way because they are a "mess", then we know we must be right because we are not a mess.  If this person believes that way because they are fearful, or confused, or "wishy-washy", then I don't have to actually look at what they think or believe because I can just discount what they think as being fear-based, insane, or, again, wishy-washy.

I saw a quote recently on Facebook, "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." - (supposedly by Aristotle).  But perhaps I would take this a step further.  "It is a mark of a person who truly wants to grow to be able to put aside our assumptions, really hear another point of view, consider it deeply and fully, and evaluate it based on nothing but itself, putting aside any assumptions we might like to make about why the other believes the way they do."

We should ask, not assume.  We should ask, rather than assign motivations to others.  And when we cannot ask, perhaps we should simply listen, and consider.  Don't we owe each other at least the courtesy of hearing?

As with most of what I write, I write this for myself especially.  I need to listen better.  And consider more.  And ask more questions without becoming defensive.  And, perhaps, I also need to be willing to take the time to correct the erroneous assumptions I hear others saying as well, especially about my own motivations.  We owe that to one another.  Listening, and believing that maybe, just maybe, the other is open to hearing and growing as well.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Sunday's Sermon - All Saints' Day

John 11:32-44
Revelation 21:1-6a

Today we celebrate All Saints Day – the day when we remember those who have passed on, and we celebrate their continued lives with God.  It is also the day that we look forward with anticipation to the time when, as we heard in Revelation, “Death will be no more.  There will be no more mourning, crying or pain, for the former things have passed away.”
            The story about Lazarus has many levels of meaning for us.  We are reminded that even Jesus grieved.  The shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept” is an important verse for us, reminding us that grief is normal, that God, too, has experienced it, that it is a necessary and yet healing part of life.  We are also given our first real glimpse into that time when death will be no more, when things such as grieving and loss will be no more because even death will be overcome.  Jesus ends death for Lazarus, and in doing so shows us that we don’t have to just grieve, remember and celebrate the past lives of those saints who have passed, but that there will come a time when we can celebrate with them together again.
            Additionally, as we know, our relationships with those who have passed haven’t even ended now – they have simply changed.  In the early church, walls in the sanctuaries were hung with pictures of the “saints”.  These pictures were there to remind congregants that they were not worshiping alone.  The pictures, the images represented a cloud of witnesses that were all worshiping with us.  Some traditions include the practice of kissing those pictures or icons – again as a way of recognizing that though that person has passed, they are still part of our community, they remain part of the worshiping body, that they continue with God and remain here with us as part of our worshiping community as well.  For us, we don’t separate out some people as Saints.  Instead, we recognize that all who have passed on are the “Saints”.  Still, we are also called to recognize that they are here with us, too, worshiping God as we do.  In this way, our connections to those who have passed on also serve as reminders that we are connected to something else, something bigger that unites all of us – that connection is God. 
            We keep the spirits of the saints with us through our memories, through our time spent with them in thoughts, in stories, in looking at pictures, in sharing with others our connections with those who have passed on.
            For awhile, when the kids were very little, we had a Beta fish named Jeriah.  We also had a daily ritual or routine where I would sing Jonah to sleep every night with the song, “the more we get together, together, together, the more we get together, the happier we’ll be.”  And then I would name the members of our family.  “With Jonah and Jasmyn and Aislynn and Daddy and Mama and Sabbath and Jeriah and everyone.”  Well, as happens with all pets, eventually Jeriah died.  After Jeriah died, the kids and I had a little “service” to say goodbye to the fish and to give Jeriah a proper fish burial down the toilet.  Jonah, the most sensitive of my children, was the hardest hit by the death. 
You wouldn’t think a person could get that connected to a fish, but I was wrong.  Jonah, at two years of age, was very sad that Jeriah had died.  That evening when I went to sing the good night song to Jonah, I came to the names of everyone in the family and for a moment hesitated when I came to the place where I had always said, “Jeriah”.  For a moment I didn’t know how to proceed, especially because Jonah had been so hard hit about Jeriah’s death.  But Jonah quipped up with, “Say Jeriah.  Don’t forget Jeriah!”  Still I hesitated.  Did he not understand that Jeriah had died?  Did he think that maybe in the morning Jeriah would just be right there in the fish tank like always?  Finally, I said, “You do understand, honey, that Jeriah is dead, right?” 
“Yes,” he responded, “but even in death, he is still a part of our family.”  Yes, he was right.  Jeriah was still a part of our family.  He will always be a part of our family because death doesn’t end that.  Death doesn’t end those connections, time doesn’t end those connections.   A few years later, my grandfather died.  Now Jonah was 5.  And this death, too, hit him hard.  He talked about my grandfather regularly for the next year and still mentions him on occasion.  But again, he continued to proclaim that even in death, great grandpa remained an important part of our family.  And he was right.

 After the death of a loved one, the relationship does change.  And while the new relationship, the changed relationship with our departed loved one may start with intense grief, over time that changes as well.  We grieve differently, we may spend less time in the pain of the grief, less time focused on that person and the loss of that person.  But a connection once made always remains in some way.  That “saint” that has passed is part of our history and is therefore part of us.  We incorporate their soul, their being, in a different way into our psyches but they remain with us – they have affected who we are, our memories of them, the stories of which they are a part have become part of our very being.  That connection with the Saints, that remembrance of lives once spent together and now connected in a different way, and the future anticipation of a time when death is no more, all of that is a great gift to us.  Following the sermon, I will invite you to bring a flower forward and say the name of someone who has passed but who is still a saint for you, someone who is still part of your being, has been part of making you who you are in some way. I invite you to remember that while those saints have passed, we remain united to them, and they also remain part of our worship, that they, too, are worshiping God with us now even as we are.  And even as they are apart from us physically.  Amen.