Wednesday, February 25, 2015

We've got to stop labeling people "good" and "bad"!

I was reading an article yesterday about a con artist.  She has hurt a lot of people and she is now in prison for her cons.  But what struck me was that the article kept saying things like, "There are a lot of bad people in the world," and "She is simply a bad person."  And I found myself looking at the eyes of this imprisoned woman and seeing in them hurt, poverty, desperation, pain, and a lost-ness that didn't make her look like a "bad" person to me, but rather, a person who was broken and in need of help.  Is she conning me, too, then with her look?  Perhaps.  However...

I remembered a changing point in my childhood when as a culture we seemed to realize that saying certain children were "bad" was not helpful.  We were taught and told that instead of saying, "he is a bad boy", it is much more helpful, to both the child and to the rest of us to recognize that he is not in fact a bad boy.  He is a boy who has done something we don't like or don't approve of.  We might say, he is not a bad boy, he is a boy who has done a bad thing.  A great deal of that change in our culture came about as we started to look at each child's life.  We started to see where those behaviors that we describe as "bad" stem from, we started to see the child in a context, to understand the pains and challenges each child experiences and to have compassion for those. We learned that once we understand what is causing a child to act out in a specific way, we can deal with those causes, as well as simply addressing the unfortunate behavior, and hopefully help a child to become an adult who does not continue those behaviors but who is a responsible and compassionate member of our society. But while I think it is a huge and wonderful step for us to do this with children, we fail to apply those same principles to adults.

We are told, as people of faith, that everyone, EVERYONE is a child of God. That means we can begin with an assumption that there is good, somewhere, in everyone.  Their motivations may be wrong, their thinking may be off, they may choose a negative behavior that we know to be wrong. But have we ever looked at why? We rarely do that. We fail in this obvious step of actually taking the time to see why people do the things they do. Of course we fail in this. If we had to actually see why someone did something, we might have compassion for them and then where would we be?  We'd have to rethink how we handle punishment. We'd have to step back and take a look at how we deal with criminal behavior. We'd have to change society in major ways. So it is easier to just label people. And not just people who do things we don't like, not just people who break the law, but whole countries of people, whole religions of people, whole groups of people who think differently than we do. My people are the good people. Your people are the bad people. It makes it all much easier.  We don't have to take time then to know people. We don't have to take the energy of really seeing or understanding someone is different from us.  We also, and I believe this is probably the most important point in all this, we also don't have to look at our own culpability in someone else's actions. It is so easy, as an individual, as a community, as a COUNTRY, to simply avoid looking at how we have encouraged, added to, created, been complicit in, been GUILTY in creating the "bad" behavior of others. And that refusal to look at ourselves, that refusal to own our own sinful (because that is what it is) behavior, leads us to feel self-righteous, angry, wanting to see revenge, wanting punishment for the other, without any repentance or ownership or change on our own parts. And while that is comfortable, and helps us feel superior and self-righteous, THAT is bad behavior.

Who is better for this attitude we have of seeing others as bad?  Who benefits from this kind of thinking?  When I can simply relegate you to being "bad" then I don't have to deal with you except to express anger, to administer punishment, to aim destruction at you.  But I also don't have the learning and grace that comes from getting to know someone who is different from myself. I don't have the challenge to my own thinking that might cause me to grow and think differently.  I don't get to understand what causes someone else to act in ways I don't like, and I don't have the opportunity to learn a deeper compassion than what I now feel. I also don't have the opportunity to take a hard and honest look at myself and choose a different behavior.  I don't have the opportunity to repent, to change, to really improve myself or my world in any way. And the person I am judging as bad? Well, my experience with people of every age is that once you are labeled "bad" there is no motivation to do or be better. None. When I tell my child, in contrast, that I know they are a good person but I don't like their behavior, I do see an effort to try and act differently. I just wonder, as I think about our overcrowded prisons, and our desire to go to war so quickly at times, and the way we so casually and callously label people as "bad" rather than working with them to change behavior, how much we are actually creating the "bad" we throw out as labels so freely onto others.

Are there people beyond healing and redemption? No doubt there are people beyond human healing and redemption. But again, I think we contribute to that by so quickly moving to the label "bad" and so rarely giving people chances to explain, to be in dialogue, to be in relationship, and to change. Also, who are we to judge who is beyond redemption?  It seems to me that making the call on who is beyond help is something only God can do and that we are playing God by deciding whom we can't help or work with. And again, this destruction of the other, the one we don't understand, the one we label as "bad" never pushes us to own our own stuff, to really do the self-reflection necessary for genuine growth, never allows for real healing of any of us - either the person we've labelled as bad or ourselves.

I don't know the woman con artist who was written up as "bad".  But it was clear to me that neither did the journalist who so quickly and readily labelled her as "bad".  He had spent no time talking with her at all, and it was easy to simply see her as horrible rather than seeing the desperation that I can imagine might lead to that kind of behavior.  It was clear from the article that she had no family, no skills, no education.  And all of that combined could lead a person to a very desperate place, a place where, if she could find a way to manipulate those who seemed to have everything while she had nothing, she would feel no remorse about readjusting some of her communities resources so that she might have a share in the pot.  Am I condoning her behavior?  Of course not.  But I do understand that desperation sometimes leads people to desperate behaviors.  If she saw no other way, I can see her using in destructive ways the people she probably labels as "bad" - those who have while she has not.  And i wonder if some kind of mutual understanding and a genuine desire to help and work with her might not make a difference - not only for her, but for the people she will inevitably try to con again once she is out of prison if no changes are made, if no real care and help is forthcoming, if there is no one who attempts to care and understand her.

It just isn't helpful to label people as good or bad.  It isn't helpful to them.  It isn't helpful to us.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Sunday's Sermon - Listen to Him

2 Kings 2:1-14, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-10
Transfiguration Sunday

The Disciples have had a hard time listening to Jesus throughout the time they have been together.  Jesus has spoken about his death.  They deny it.  He has spoken about inclusion.  They still try to send the children away.  He has spoken about love and giving and servant-hood, and they still don’t let him wash their feet, and they still want Jesus to be honored, revered in a way that he doesn’t seek or think is appropriate to who he really is.  He has spoken about healing, and they are still unable to heal on their own.  He has spoken about faith and they still stumble on the water.  He has spoken about many things and the disciples remain confused, unclear, clue-less even at times.  This is proven once again by their speech on the mountain.  They don’t get it.  They want to stay on the mountain.  They want to build shrines and bask in the glory.  They want to continue the mountain top experience, rather than carrying it down with them to the people, as a source of strength to do their ministry, to do their service, to live the lives Christ calls them to lead.  They don’t get it.
In light of that we have God’s words “This is my Son, whom I dearly love.  Listen to him!”  God has three things to say.  This is my son.  I love him.  And listen to him.
When you listen to Jesus, what do you hear?  I would like to invite you to take a moment and really think about that.  When you listen to Jesus, what do you hear?
Do you always like what you hear?  Or are there times when the words are hard to hear, not what we want, but still what we hear?
In my lectionary group each week we read the lectionary assigned scripture passages for the following week.  We often read from different translations of the Bible.  And because of that, we often find that the different translations are translated differently.  For example, a couple weeks back we were reading a scripture in which a man says to Jesus, ‘Jesus if you want, you can heal me”.  The passage continued in one translation, “Jesus was incensed”.  In another translation it read, “Jesus looked on the man with compassion.”  Those are two very different translations.  And the reason is that when we look at the old manuscripts of these texts, they don’t always agree with one another.  There are many old manuscripts and scrolls of these Biblical passages, not one.  And they don’t agree with each other.  It is not always clear which one was written earlier, which one was the “original” or which one is closest to what Jesus actually said.  Therefore, different translators have to pick which text they believe to make the most sense, to be the most accurate, to be the most original. And different translators often pick different original texts from which to translate specific passages. As we sat with the difference between Jesus being incensed and Jesus having compassion, Ogie made the comment that because translators are also, in their picking and choosing, interpreters at some level, they want the passage to make sense and to match with their own theology.  Therefore, the translation that is least comfortable is actually often the one that is the most accurate.  We try to block out things that make us uneasy, things that don’t make sense to us, and even these translators are not immune to that.  So they pick the texts that make most sense to them and translate them according to those texts.  They don’t always pick the ones that really are the oldest, or the most original, or the closest to what Jesus probably really did or said.
The same is true of us.  If nothing in the Bible has ever disturbed us, then we haven’t read it closely enough.  Or rather, we haven’t listened well enough.  If nothing in Jesus’ words has disturbed us, then we haven’t listened well enough.  Because Jesus said disturbing things.  Jesus challenged us.  He challenged us with passages such as Matthew 25: “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. (for) I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink.  I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’”  He challenged us with words such as “I came not to bring peace but a sword”  And “Anyone who does not hate their mother and father, brother and sister, wife and children- yes, and even his own life - cannot be my disciple.” He challenged us with parables which are hard to understand such as the story of the wheat and tares.  He challenged us by breaking biblical rules such as the Sabbath law, curing and picking grain on the Sabbath.  He challenged us by telling us we are to do what he did and follow in his footsteps.  That should make us uncomfortable.  And when it doesn’t, it is because we are not really listening.
There was a wonderful article in Sojourner’s a few weeks ago entitled, “Five Ways I’m the Worst at Following Jesus” by Christian Piatt (http://sojo.net/blogs/2014/12/29/5-ways-im-worst-following-jesus).  He said, “My biggest concern at the moment is that though a lot of us claim to “be Christians,” or even to follow Jesus, a lot of us don’t spend much intentional time trying to figure out what that means and what it looks like in daily life. We try not to be too... (mean) to other people, try not to kill, steal, adulterate (is that even a word?) or worship graven images. We try to love, and to accept love — though we still hurt each other. A lot. The world is messed up and so far from realizing the fully kingdom-inspired image of wholeness and reconciliation to which God invites us. And at least in my theological world, that’s on us, not God. I believe, with all of my being, that the audacious vision of God’s kingdom, here and now, isn’t something we sit around and pray for God to make real for us. Like Jesus said, we can (and should) collectively do greater things than even he did. …So here I am, not so much trying to be Jesus, but trying to at least follow his life, teaching, and example better. And in taking my own personal inventory, I can see that I.. (am pretty bad at it). That doesn’t mean I’m giving up, but it’s clear I have plenty of work to do.”
     Are we aware of the things we do that are failing to follow Jesus?  And again, if we aren’t aware, it means we have not been listening.
But the good news in all of this is that despite our failure to listen, Jesus stays in relationship with us.  God stays with us no matter how we fail to hear.  Jesus brought Peter, James and John up to the mountain top and even though they didn’t get it, he let them see the transformation, hearing God’s voice directly and God’s instructions in a clear voice.  Jesus explains his parables to them, even through his frustration with their lack of understanding.  He repeats his message, repeats his descriptions of what is to come, repeats what they need to hear, despite their lack of deep listening.  He loves them and models for them what that love looks like, despite their reluctance to embrace it, to follow him completely, to walk the path he walked in the way he walked it.  And he does the same for us.
Still, God calls down, “This is my son whom I love.  Listen to him.”  Bonhoeffer said, "The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists of listening to them. Just as love of God begins with listening to his word, so the beginning of love for our brothers and sisters is learning to listen to them." —(Life Together).
Peter, James and John wanted to stay on the mountain.  They had been given a new glimpse of who Jesus was, one that filled them with joy, with hope, with life.  They had seen the transfiguration, they had a real and deep glimpse of who Jesus really was.  And it filled them with a joy that they did not want to give up.  That is understandable.  That is absolutely understandable.  To be given that mountain top experience of seeing God and seeing Jesus as God’s son – what an incredible gift.  To see Moses and Elijah next to him.  To experience these people of God in this way.  It was an amazing gift.  It was a gift that was not withheld simply because they failed to listen and understand.  It was still given.  And the opportunity to listen to Jesus was also given again, with the instructions, direct from God, TO listen.  We, too, make mistakes. But we, too, are not deprived the good gifts of God.  And we, too, no matter what we do or fail to do, are invited every time we hear the scriptures: “This is my son whom I love.  Listen to him.”    Amen.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Instagram, Hate pages, Teen Suicide and Lord of the Flies

The rate of teen suicide is on the increase.  And lately there have been some news articles that trace some of these more recent suicides back to "hate pages" that kids write (and which these other kids then read) using instagram and other media tools that harass, humiliate, belittle and in some cases actually tell the kids they should die, that they'd be better off dead, that others want them dead.  There is a level of anonymity, and a total lack of accountability in these that allows this to occur in such a way that it is reminiscent for me of "Lord of the Flies".  In that story, the fact that there would be no accountability for their actions led a group of normal kids, led by a bully, to almost kill another in a horrible, brutal way.  This feels similar to me.  Children are being destroyed emotionally and the anonymity of some areas of the internet is allowing this to occur in incredibly brutal, painful ways without there being any accountability or even recourse to address it.  The anonymity behind this new form of bullying has sometimes encouraged other kids to participate in this behavior too who, if it weren't for the seeming distance created by the anonymity of the internet, would not be bullies at all.

I received a note in my email today letting me know that my eldest daughter's school is now aware of several cases of these anonymous hate pages being written to, for, and about kids at her school.  My daughter is not all that interested in social media, something I am deeply grateful for at the moment. But I worry, because she is sensitive.  And I think she would be an easy target for this kind of thing. I worry for her, specifically, because if she does eventually develop an interest in this kind of social media, she could be deeply injured by it.  But it causes me to worry in general as well.  I worry for the kids who are plugged in in this way, those who have experienced this kind of bullying and those who haven't yet but will experience it.  I worry not only for the kids who are bullied by this, but frankly for the bullies themselves.  What will it do to a kid's psyche to realize that they contributed to the death of one of their peers?  Some may have to live the rest of their lives with a deep guilt and shame.  Others may feel a power to destroy that they then want to explore further.  I worry about how the illusion of anonymity (because in fact, if someone really wants to, that anonymity can be broken through, especially on the internet), is giving license to behaviors that we otherwise recognize as despicable.

Of course, the situations in which it is of most concern involve our young people.  But the truth is that this anonymity leads adults also to behave in despicable ways.  I read the comments left on articles published in on-line journals and papers.  The more anonymous the commenters are allowed to be, the worse and more personally attacking the comments become.  The couple of truly nasty comments I have received at church have come anonymously.  There is not one person in my church whom I think of as unkind.  But apparently, under the guise of anonymity, even the behaviors of the most loving of us can take a mean turn.  It is hard at times to not lose all faith in humanity when we witness and experience what people do when they are allowed to be anonymous.  And I can't help but think that kids don't learn to act like this in a vacuum. We learn to be nasty by experiencing or witnessing others' nastiness.  We learn despicable behavior by experiencing and witnessing despicable behavior.

My challenge then for all of us is to strive to live as if all that we do were seen, because in fact, it all is.  If not by other people, then by God, or the Universe, or whatever you recognize as bigger than ourselves.  We don't go through life anonymously.  But even if we did, it would behoove us to strive, for the sake of those who watch and those who learn from that watching and those who experience our actions, to live life with integrity, compassion, love and a genuine effort to be the best we can be.  It is also something we need to discuss with our kids.  No matter how "safe" they may feel in these seemingly anonymous sites, they should never act with meanness towards others.  Those conversations need to be had.  It is not just the bullied who are being destroyed.  The bullies themselves are being injured too by being allowed to do this kind of damage to others.   It changes you to hurt someone else.  And my prayer is that the hurt we do to others is minimal, for the others' sakes, and for our own.

Sunday's Sermon - Giving up Freedom to Live as God Intended

Isaiah 40:21-31, Mark 1:29-39, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23

As with last week’s passage from Corinthians, Paul is continuing to talk to the Corinthian community about the challenges they face as they live in the tension between the new freedom they have found in Christ, and trying to live loves that show the love, caring and service of Christ.  Yes, he says, we have been given freedom, but that does not mean that we are invited to be so self-centered that we exercise that freedom when it harms other people or, for that matter, any of creation.  Once again, our call to follow Christ is all about relationships, living in love with God and with one another.  And we are called through those relationships to not just sympathize with those who are struggling, who are poor, who are outcast, who are disenfranchised, who are suffering, who are lost, who are confused, and even those who disagree with us.  We are not just called to sympathize with them but instead we are called to IDENTIFY with them, which means understanding them, having compassion for them because we can put ourselves in their places and really understand, at a core level, what it is they experience.  That goes way beyond having sympathy or even empathy for their plight.  And I don’t think as a culture we are good at this.  Instead of putting ourselves in others’ positions and striving to understand where they are coming from or their suffering, we tend to blame and condemn those with whom we disagree or who are different from us, especially when their circumstances are worse than our own.  We blame the poor for their own poverty.  We blame the outcast for their exclusion.  We blame those who have been killed for being killed.  We blame and convict and condemn.  We don’t struggle to understand or have compassion or to identify with these, our neighbors, these, our brothers and sisters, these – the people we are called to LOVE, not condemn.

In both letters to the Corinthians, Paul is talking to a community of people who are in conflict, who are disagreeing with one another over issues such as the eating of meat and circumcision.  And he is admonishing them to stop fighting and start identifying with one another as Christ identified with every single person he met.  Jesus had compassion, he opened his heart to them, he did not condemn, but included and healed and loved those everyone else judged and condemned.  And he calls us to do the same.

I absolutely love what Bruce Rigdon says about this in his commentary on this passage in (Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary - Feasting on the Word – Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration.)  He says, “The church is, therefore, not a community of volunteers, but is itself a part of the gospel, the good news. … What Paul asks is that those on each side identify with those on the other side, in order to become as if they were the ones with whom they disagreed. This will not involve a change in conviction, at least not at first, but it means that they are to recognize what it would mean to act in behalf of those to whom they are opposed.  What an intriguing strategy for people in conflict, the more so because it is grounded in Paul's understanding of what God is doing in the world. What would happen if congregations were to attempt this in the pastoral life of the church? Perhaps it would help to set new terms for the conflict itself. Unimagined possibilities might appear, creating greater flexibility and new diversity in place of the increasing hardening of positions. People might learn new ways to speak and listen to one another, thus changing the character of the conflict. Indeed, such an experience might help American Christians in particular, given our culture of individualism, to rediscover Paul's point that the gospel envisions freedom as the right of individuals, not to do as they choose, but rather to relinquish their rights for the sake of others. True Christian freedom therefore expresses itself in service.”  He continues by saying this, “One final word. In a world as conflicted and violent as ours, if the church were to be a place where Christians learned to identify with their opponents and to experience God's power to bring about transformation, the church would realize its calling to be a sign of hope and a witness to God's offer of life to the world.”

I think about debate teams in high schools and colleges.  When you are part of a debate team, you are often asked to take a position contrary to the one you actually believe, to fight for exactly that position with which you disagree.  You are trying to win the debate, and so you are forced, in fighting for a position and a belief that you don’t hold, to really dive into the arguments and positions of those who disagree with you.  Studies have found that while arguing the opposite side doesn’t always or even most of the time change a person’s beliefs, that arguing the other position does give a person compassion for what others believe and a deeper understanding of why they hold the beliefs they do. I found myself wondering, as I reflected on Bruce Rigdon’s article and on today’s scriptures, what would happen in our congregations and indeed in our larger denomination, if we were to ask people to do the same thing, to research and argue the opposite position to the one they hold dearly.  I wonder if it might not open us to doing exactly what Paul asks us to do – to identify with each other in a way that creates compassion and a willingness to give up some of our individual freedoms for the larger good of the congregation and of the individuals within a congregation.

The gospel passage gives us another example of how the healing invitation of Christ, while giving us freedom, calls us to something different.  When Simon’s mother-in-law was healed, we are told that she immediately got up and began to serve them.  They had just left the synagogue, this was the Sabbath once again, and once again Jesus and Jesus’ disciples are breaking the Sabbath law by healing and serving on the Sabbath.  But she gets it, at a level that the disciples really don’t until after Jesus has died and returned.  She, too, gets that her salvation from death through Jesus’ hands gives her the freedom not to spoil herself or luxuriate in self-gratifying abundance, but to serve, love and care for others.  Her call, her joy, her way of rewarding, celebrating and following Jesus was to serve and love his people.  Imagine if each of us had been given a death sentence and suddenly it was waved and instead we were given freedom and new life instead.  What would we do with our new lease on life?  Go travel?  Go exploring the world?  Spend more time with family and friends?

 Disciples of Jesus do what this woman did.  They see the high honor, the privilege and the gift it is to care for one another, to identify and have compassion for one another.  They use that new life to love and serve God’s people.  Just as Jesus ministry was both healing and teaching, we are called to love with both our words and our actions.

Richard Selzer tells this story: (Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary - Feasting on the Word – Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration.) "I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face post-operative, her mouth twisted—palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed … to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had cut the little nerve. The young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed, and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private…. "Will my mouth always be like this?" she asks. "Yes," I say, "it will. It is because the nerve was cut." She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles. "I like it," he says. "It is kind of cute." He bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I am so close that I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate her, to show her that their kiss still works…. I hold my breath and let the wonder in."

Seeing one another, identifying with one another, putting ourselves in the other’s shoes so completely that we could argue their case for them, and then choosing out of that understanding to love, have compassion and act with care and service towards the other, even towards those with whom we disagree completely.  That is what we, too, are called to do.  Amen.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Another week full of opportunities to look for God

       Well, it's been another week full of opportunities to practice what I preach.  Will I see the negative?  Or will I look for God and see the good?  I talk a great deal about how we frame what we experience and I deeply believe that it makes all the difference in the world.  Do we feel like the world is just handing us bad things?  Are we being beaten up?  Or are the challenges that come our way opportunities to grow, learn, and maybe get out of ourselves and focus more on what God wants for and from us, what God calls us to do that would serve God and God's people?  Will life make us bitter and cynical, or will we thrive through the challenges and become better and more whole?
     My somewhat edited and reduced complaint list for this week:  The brand new washer died, the refrigerator died, the cat died, my good friend and helpmate, David, continues to be really sick (over a month now that he has been out of commission), there continue to be the usual struggles at work, we did not have the turn-out for my dream Academy for Dramatic Arts that I'd hoped for (mostly due to problems with our advertising efforts), I simply have not had the time I need to take care of some really necessary issues (like getting the car smog checked), my feet keep cramping up, the car got stuck in the snow in the drive way and I could not get it out....  Again, I am giving you the limited list.
     In light of all that has happened this week alone, it is tempting to move into a "woe is me" attitude.  It is really tempting to rail against God and the Universe for continuing to throw punches my way.  And there is room for that in our faith.  If we look at the psalms, there are a lot of laments, or prayers, hymns and invitations to speak our pain, our frustration, even our anger at God.  There is room and invitation to be the ego-centric people that we are for a few minutes and to yell along with the psalmist, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest." (Psalm 22).  There is room for that.  And I think if we skip this step, the next steps are not very genuine.  So we get to feel our pain, frustration, anger and ego-centrism for a minute.  To lament, to complain, to cry out.
       But the thing is, we don't get to stay there.  Or rather, we are invited to move on from this place because it doesn't help us to stay here.  For me the next steps include a few things.
        First, can I still see the good even in all of what is going on?  Well, of course there is good in the midst of pain. There is ALWAYS good to be found if we just look for it.  The washer was still under warranty.  The fridge had been a pain in the neck for quite a while and now hopefully that is done.  My cat was with us for 18 years which is an amazing time to spend with a pet as affectionate and loving and wonderful as Sabbath was to us.  That's something to celebrate.  When my car got stuck in the driveway, the snow-plow guy just happened along at exactly the right time and was able to help me out.  The refrigerator delivery guy came early enough that I was able to get to my work meeting on time after all.  We had a snow day on Monday which meant I didn't have to worry about meeting a bus while taking one of the other children to her lesson.  And I've had some really important, good, quality time with my kids lately, remembering who we are together as a family, even if I am the only adult in this family.  Our Academy for Dramatic Arts may not have started off with a bang, but it started and can only grow and get better from here on out.    
        Second, what lessons can I learn from all of this?  Well, the biggest is to keep my eyes open for the good and to keep celebrating it.  Another is patience.  A third is to be grateful for what I have because you never know when it won't be there.  At the same time, to not become attached to "things" because they fail us every time.  To be deeply grateful for the good in people, both strangers and friends, who step in and help.  That is a lesson that truly can't be learned deeply enough.  Another is to remember to reach out to people for emotional support as well as practical support.  And finally, a big lesson that I have not achieved learning yet is to step out of ourselves and to remember the big picture that we are not called to focus on our own issues but called to help others.  When we can do that, focusing on others, it usually helps us feel better about our own problems, too.  Which then leads to...
        Third, where is God leading me to help others through all of this?  Well, for one thing, I would like to remind all of you who are in happy, healthy partnerships of what an amazing gift it is to have someone with you to help you on a daily basis.  This is something that is so easy to take for granted. I did when I had that.  But I see now what an amazing, incredible gift it is to have a partner to meet the refrigerator guy when you have to be at work, or a partner to take one kid to their lesson while the other kid needs someone to meet their bus as they come home from school, or a partner to just give you a break when everything is overwhelming, to give you a hug and tell you you are loved even when it feels like you can do nothing right, to rub your foot when it cramps up and help you decide when it is time to go to the doctor, to rock the car while you hit the gas to try to get it out of the snow, to help dig a hole and say a few words over the lost pet. These little things that are part of daily life are just simply a ton and a half more manageable when you have someone to help you, and when you face the hard times holding hands with someone else.  If you have a partner, please try to not take that gift for granted.  I never imagined myself without one.  I knew I was one of the lucky ones who would have a lifetime spent next to a person I loved deeply.  But that was not my reality.  Here I am, and the hole that is left, even after three years, is so big I wonder if it can truly ever be filled.  So what can I give others?  I hope that I can give you all a reminder of the gift that you have in your partner, even when you are going through hard times.  I also hope that as I learn serenity in the face of adversity, that I can model that and share that, too, with those around me.  I also am reminded that my struggles are small compared to some.  So, thinking about others as I face my challenges calls up in me compassion and a deeper desire to serve and help those whose struggles are even bigger.  I am thankful that I have a house during this cold winter, and a place for my kids to sleep, a refrigerator to keep our food from spoiling, pets to comfort us, and friends to turn to in need.  I hope that I can be more intentional about offering care to those who don't have those basic needs.
       That last step, of finding where God is leading us to serve others through all of our journey is a step I think often takes a while to discern, to discover and to put into practice, so I hope as the weeks go by, I will gain more insight.  In the mean time, I will continue to strive to see the good, learn from the challenges, put into the care of others the lessons I've learned, and not spend TOO much time in the lamenting... ;-)


Sunday's Sermon - Authority and Right Behavior

Deuteronomy 18:15-22
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

We start today with the passage from Deuteronomy that calls us to be careful, especially as leaders in the church, of what we say, of what we teach.  We are then led to the Corinthians passage which calls us to be mindful of everything that we DO so that we are not leading people astray or down a bad path.  And finally we come to the Mark passage in which Jesus’ authority is made clear. He both teaches and acts with an authority that astounds and shakes people up.
Of course Jesus’ authority shakes people up.  He got it RIGHT.  He was able to do what he set out to do.  He was able to cure and exorcise demons.  He was able to speak in a way that people heard differently.  He spoke, as we are told, “with an authority that was not like the legal experts.”  Have you ever been in a place where someone was speaking and the words touched you with an authority that shook you?  Where the words felt like they went all the way into your heart in a way that was different from what we usually hear or the ways we usually hear?  Have you ever heard someone speak, even to a group, and know that somehow the words that were coming out of that other person’s mouth were spoken FOR you and TO you even if the person saying them wasn’t aware of it?
Several years ago, I was helping out in Aislynn’s classroom.  I was walking with the children to their computer lab when we passed the school janitor.  Aislynn’s teacher said hi to the man and he responded, “Just Keep believing”!  But as he said it, he turned to me and locked eyes with me for just a moment.  And I had that feeling, that feeling of being hit by lightning, that feeling of having heard a message just for me, that feeling of having met an angel, a messenger from God who had something that I needed to hear in that moment.  If this stranger had actually spoken these words to me directly, I doubt that I would have taken them in the same way.  I would have heard them as trite, or would have felt “preached at”.  He was the janitor, someone some people might dismiss.  But through his voice in that moment and at that time, I heard God.  In that moment he spoke with authority.  I don’t know if he was even aware of it, but that doesn’t matter.  He spoke with authority in that moment to me.
This has happened for me other times as well.  A couple months ago at one of our praise services we read a scripture passage from James 3 and 4 that I had prepared to preach on ahead of time.  Mostly it focused on not judging others, but there was one verse in the passage, “You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”  And while it was one verse among many and not the verses that I had focused on when I was preparing the sermon, when the scripture was read that evening, those passages spoke to me.  They spoke to me differently.  They spoke with authority to me about our relationships with God.  Are we in relationship with God so that we can get what we want from God?  Do we pray so God will bless us and our lives with abundance?  Some preachers preach this idea with a theology called “prosperity gospel” in which the message really is that if we just do x, God will give us y.  It is all about what we can get from God and that is the call they use to bring people into faith.  But this passage from James says something different.  Do we do all of this for ourselves?  Are we here in this place because it will make us happier?  Or do we worship and pray because God calls us to pray, God calls us into a life of faith because God wants us to live lives that serve OTHERS?  Do we ask, how will this benefit me?  Or do we ask, how will this serve God and God’s people?  That verse in James hit me in that moment with great authority, with truth, with depth, with God’s presence.
Sometimes I have been talking with one of you, or more, have been part of a conversation with a bunch of people, and one of you will say something that, similarly, hits me differently.  It will go into my heart in a different, new way as if the words were spoken with authority, as if God God-self had commanded that they be said.  When we hear something spoken like that, when we hear God’s voice behind the words, it is amazingly powerful, and it shakes us to the core.
In today’s passage from Deuteronomy the prophets are being warned.  They are being warned to only speak God’s truth or they will die.  But the reality is we all die.  And perhaps that is in part because we all mess up, there are times even the prophets got it wrong and get it wrong. We know this because we believe there was only one who got it right ALL the time and that was Jesus.  We also know it from the stories of the prophets themselves.  Jeremiah got it wrong by thinking he couldn’t do anything because he was too young.  Moses got it wrong thinking that because of his speech impediment, he could not lead the Israelites.  Jonah got it wrong over and over again – first by running from God and then by being angry that God did not destroy Nineveh.  The prophets were all human and so sometimes they got it wrong.  We are the same.  No matter how faithfully we strive to follow God and to speak what God would have us say, sometimes we get it wrong.  Mostly I’m not even sure we know it when we get it wrong.  We could be preaching with great conviction and still be totally misguided in our understanding.  Sometimes we know we’ve got it wrong after the words escape our lips, and the only thing we can do is apologize.  At my last church I had to do the memorial service for a stranger who was the adult son of a couple of my parishioners and who had committed suicide.  After the service, the father of the deceased man came up to me and said, “That must have been a really hard service to do.”  I looked at this parishioner, a man in his 80s at the time, someone whom I deeply loved and respected and the words flew out of my mouth, “It wasn’t as hard as it will be to do yours.”  The second I said the words I knew they were just the stupidest, most insensitive thing I could have said.  I meant to communicate care to this man whom I really did care about.  But sometimes we just get it wrong.
           Jesus' words and behavior showed us a great contrast to this for he spoke with wisdom, love and authority at all times.  He acted with wisdom, love and authority at all times.  His words and his actions caused even the demons to speak who he was and to be afraid.  His words and his actions touched people and shook them to the core.  His words and his actions caused people to ask why and how he spoke with authority.  And that authority stemmed from love.  That authority came from the place where Jesus cared more about healing others through giving them God’s word and God’s healing than he cared about his own life.  That authority came from the place where Jesus was all about serving and loving US, to the point where he was willing to be killed because of how much he loved us.
In the Corinthian passage we are called to act with that same care.  Yes, we are told, we have been given freedom in our faith, a freedom to live more fully.  But if we enact that freedom in a way that confuses, or misleads another, or worse, causes another to fall away from God, then we have misused the freedom that God has given us.  Does that mean that we are called to make some sacrifices?  Absolutely.  But more, it means we are called to notice.  What are we doing that helps and uplifts others and what are we doing that causes others to turn from their faith, from living their lives as wholly and fully as they can? What are we doing that brings faith and joy and love to others and what are we doing that causes others to stumble?  And are we willing to give some things, not because we have to but because it is the loving thing to do for the sake of those other people whom God also loves?  Are we willing to live lives that demonstrate love for even those people who make us uncomfortable, even those people we may hate, because we love God?  Are we willing to focus on the other, and on God, more than on ourselves?  We have to think about this not only by our actions but by our words as well.  There is a saying that we should THINK before we speak.  Each of the letters in the word “THINK” stand for something.  Is what we are about to say True?  Is it Helpful?  Is it Inspiring?  Is it Necessary?  And is it Kind?
We won’t always get it right.  We don’t have the authority, the wisdom or the love of Christ.  But the more we strive to live as Christ, the closer we become to the people God calls us to be.  Amen.