Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - Tradition and Change

2 Kings 2:1-14
Luke 9: 51-56

One day as I sat in my lectionary group in Cleveland, we noticed one of the members of our group frowning and staring hard at the clock hanging on the wall.  “What are you looking at?” Pastor Leroy asked her.  
“Well, I’ve just noticed that that clock on the wall is running backwards!” 
“Yes, I know” Leroy told us.  “Apparently it would only take reversing a tiny little piece inside the clock to fix it, but when I mentioned this to our church trustees I was told in no uncertain terms that I was not to fix that clock! ‘You see,’ the head of trustees told me, ‘That clock was a memorial gift!’” 
Today I want to talk about Tradition and Change.  Both of these are important parts of our faith, but we hold them in great tension in the church.  How do we hold on to our traditions but still be a church that is relevant in current society?  How do we enter the world without giving up things that are important and sacred to our church and indeed to our very faith?  How do we support those who find their deepest meaning in the old ways, while still inviting and welcoming those who do not value the old ways and instead, thrive on the new?
There is a tension here, a deep tension here.  We know that change is hard, that change is uncomfortable.  We also know that there is real value in rituals and tradition.  At the same time, in order to stay alive and relevant, the church must find ways of being in the world that are meaningful to the younger generations and especially to the unchurched.  The goal, then, and the challenge, is to find ways to walk in the tension of these values while keeping integrity with our faith.
How many of you have seen the movie Groundhog Day?  The premise of the movie is that the main character, played by Bill Murray, is stuck in repeating the same day, groundhog day, again and again.  He wakes up on the same day each morning, in the same hotel room, in the same town.  He can change his actions each day, but the structure, the people around him, the town, are all the same, every single day.  At one point he is sitting in a bar with a couple other guys and complaining about this.  He says to them, “What would you do?  If you were stuck in one place.  And every day was exactly the same. And nothing that you did mattered?”  To which the two men in the bar respond, “well that about sums it up for me.”  We may not repeat the same day over and over, and yet we can get stuck too.
When we get “stuck” in a rut, we can yearn for some kind of change.  And even though we know that, to use an anonymous quote, "To get something you never had, you have to do something you never did".  Even though we know this, it can be hard to move out of our ruts.  
Other times, we choose to stay the same.  Change IS hard.
Sometimes we resist change not because we are stuck, but because we are comfortable.  Still, all stasis is an illusion.  We know that all things in life are temporary.  And that if things are going well, we need to enjoy them because that will not last.  And if things are going wrong, we can look forward because that won’t last either.
Sometimes, in the midst of the fast-paced changes of society, the rituals and traditions bring a comfort, a stability that would not otherwise be found.  Mitch Albom in his book, Have a Little Faith (Hyperion, New York, 2009) shared the story of Rabbi Lewis who lost his young daughter through a very severe asthma attack.  Albom wrote, “The very rituals of mourning that he cursed having to do – the prayers, the torn clothing, not shaving, covering the mirror – had helped him keep a grip on who he was, when he might have otherwise washed away.  He told how the words of the Kaddish made him think, ‘I am part of something here; one day my children will say this very prayer for me just as I am saying it for my daughter.’  His faith soothed him, and while it could not save (his daughter) from death, it could make her death more bearable, by reminding him that we are all frail parts of something powerful.” (p. 182)
Albom continued, “..ritual was a major part of the (Rabbi)’s life.  Morning prayers.  Evening prayers.  Eating certain foods.  Denying himself others.  On Sabbath, he walked to synagogue, rain or shine, not operating a car, as per Jewish law.  On holidays and festivals, he took part in traditional practices, hosting a Seder meal on Passover, or casting bread into a stream on Rosh Hashanah, symbolic of casting away your sins. 
            "Like Catholicism, with its vespers, sacraments, and communions – or Islam, with its five-times-daily salah, clean clothes, and prayer mats – Judaism had enough rituals to keep you busy all day, all week, and all year.
            "I remember as a kid, the (Rabbi) admonishing the congregation – gently, and sometimes not so gently – for letting rituals lapse or disappear, for eschewing traditional acts like lighting candles or saying blessings, even neglecting the Kaddish prayer for loved ones who had died.
            "But even as he pleaded for a tighter grip, year after year, his members opened their fingers and let a little more go.  They skipped a prayer here.  They skipped a holiday there.  They intermarried (-as I did).
            "I wondered, now that his days were dwindling, how important ritual still was.
            "‘Vital’, he said.
            "But why?  Deep inside, you know your convictions.
            "‘Mitch,’ he said, ‘faith is about doing.  You are how you act, not just how you believe.’ (p.44)…'My grandparents did these things.  My parents, too.  If I take the pattern and throw it out, what does that say about their lives?  Or mine?  From generation to generation, these rituals are how we remain…connected.'”
Still, despite the wisdom of these words, and the comforts we find in rituals and traditions, I question the belief that somehow updating things means that we no longer honor the past.  And I think it can be seriously problematic to believe that in order to be loyal to what was, you have to reject what is.  The Amish community for a long time has been a separatist community of faith because they did not want change of any kind.  And while that has served them for a time, the Amish are now finally having to make some adjustments.  In Ohio where I lived there was a very large Amish population whose farms were becoming unsustainable because of the cost to run them without electric equipment.  They have finally conceded that they have to change.  As hard as that is, they, too have had to change to survive in this world.
But it isn’t easy.  When I was a young adult, the associate pastor and young adult leader at the church I actively attended moved to Africa to do mission work.  She was replaced by an interim associate.  I found that I could not be kind to this new associate.  I could not be nice or accepting of her because it felt somehow disloyal to the previous associate.  I felt that if I loved this new minister, I would be betraying the one who had left.  In the process I caused hurt to the new associate.  Just as those who are attached to long term rituals can feel hurt when those rituals are changed, seeing them as judgments on the way things were done in the past; the reality is that folk new to a community can feel just as hurt by an insistence on sticking with traditional ways of doing things, seeing this as a rejection of their world and hence of them.
Still, the reality is that often God does not give us a choice about whether to remain the same or to change. 
Elisha could not let go of Elijah.  He knew that his master was going to leave him soon.  Everyone around him kept telling him as well.  But he basically kept saying to them “shut up!!  I don’t want to hear it!!”  again and again.  He did not want to accept the change that was coming.  But in the end, he was given no choice and Elijah left.  Still, in rending his clothes after Elijah’s departure, Elisha, too, fell back on one of the rituals or traditions of grief to help him through.  There was inevitable change, but it was accepted with ritual and tradition.
So, too, with the story in Luke.  Jesus wanted to go to a village in Samaria that would not take him in because he was heading for Jerusalem.  The disciples had this plan in their head.  They did not want to stray from it.  They would rather bring down fire from heaven to consume the village than alter your course.  Jesus told them that was ridiculous.  He “rebuked them sternly”, and they changed their plans.  But it still reflects the same challenge.  No, we can’t stay here. There is still work to be done – there is still community to be established, there is still a message to be passed on, there is still a salvific journey for all of humanity that begins with Jesus and therefore must continue forward.  This message was the same for the early church – they could not just stay where they were, they were called to go out and act, to spread the good news, to show the love of God for all people, to teach about God in a new way.  And the same is true for the church now.  The call to spread the news, to form and heal community, to be God’s people in the world cannot be delayed.  We cannot stay in the comfort of our rituals when we are called to change the world.  We are called, to quote Psalm 96, toSing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth.”  And yet still, there are elements that remain the same. While the song is new, it is the same God we are singing to.  And while Jesus died and was resurrected, it was the same Jesus we met both before and after. 
In the end, we must seek, as in all things, to find a balance.  And when old things do change, we must find ways to grieve and to honor what was, what went before.  To take a quote from my big fat Greek Wedding, “Don't let your past dictate who you are, but let it be part of who you will become.”

All of this recalls me to the musical Fiddler on the Roof.  As Reb Tevye said, “Our traditions have kept us balanced for many, many years….Without our traditions we would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”  And throughout the musical he continues to hold on to many of his rituals and traditions, even as he must let go of others.  He is faced with the challenge of choosing between his traditions and his relationships with his daughters.  For two of them he chooses his daughters, letting go, though it is ever so painful for him, of his traditions.  But for the third one he cannot do the same.  The challenge to his traditions pushes him too far.  And in the face of his choice between tradition and even his daughter, he chooses his tradition.  For us, too, we may come to a point where we feel pushed too far.  But we are called to choose love again and again.  And that love means looking for balance, determining what is most important to us, being willing at times to let go, and at other times to rejoice and find comfort in what we know.  We are called to choose love.  We are called to allow God to bring change within us, both as the church and as individuals.  We are called to sing a new song to the same God.  And sometimes that will mean keeping things the same.  And other times that will mean letting go and allowing change.  Both will be challenges.  But as we say every week…it is all that easy, and it is all that hard.  Amen.    

Monday, June 27, 2016

Lyle's Words on Sunday: Religion and the LGBTQ Community Post-Orlando

I am posting this with Lyle's permission.  Lyle is one of our very active folk at Clayton Valley Presbyterian Church.  He delivered this on Sunday to much applause as well as many tears.  I am grateful for Lyle's courage in sharing his experience and his challenge to us all to be more and do more for those who are so often mistreated by the Church at large:

Religion and the LGBTQ Community Post-Orlando
by: Lyle Swallow
[Delivered at Clayton Valley Presbyterian Church
Gay Pride Sunday June 26,2016]

"I am a gay man in the San Francisco Bay Area who is proud of and committed to his church."  Let me repeat that statement.  "I am a gay man in the San Francisco Bay Area who is proud of and committed to his church."

I say this for an important reason: I am becoming more rare every day.  What you need to know, if you don't already know it, is that more and more members of the LGBTQ community are rejecting religion of any kind – organized or otherwise.  Sometimes they are just being quietly agnostic or atheistic.  Other times – and it is the loud ones you hear – they are openly hostile and vitriolic about religion.  They hate the church and religion.  They see it as evil and the cause of great suffering in the world.  And they are very vocal about it.  The recent incidents in Orlando have raised the fire under that pot.

Let me give you an example.  The Wednesday after the horrible killings in Orlando I attended a meeting of gay leather men in San Francisco.  People were checking in with each other about Orlando and generally trying to take care of each other emotionally.  Someone mentioned the sermon the previous Sunday by the Pastor at Verity Baptist Church in Sacramento and the room exploded.  A thoughtful man I greatly respect said quietly:   "Religion is the root of all evil."  My reply thought was – "No, evil is the root of all evil".  Please note, in my opinion, in acting this way, the LGBTQ folks are actually engaging in their own unhealthy conduct.  They are doing what they say they don't want others to do:  categorizing peoples or groups and then vilifying the entire group.  They are demonizing all religions and all religious people for the acts of some.

Don't get me wrong.  Among my LGBTQ friends in the Bay Area are some who are actively engaged in religious activities and spirituality.  They include a good friend who is the pastor at MCC San Francisco, a lesbian couple who are both very active in their synagogue and at which one is on the board, faculty and graduate students and Pacific School of Religion, and many people whom I consider to be incredibly spiritual, whether or not affiliated with a formal religious organization. 

But, my impression is that the numbers who oppose religion in any form completely are growing.  And the church has to accept that it has played and IS playing a HUGE part in this.  It is no surprise that so many LGBTQ people feel the way they do:
·       Many of them were rejected by or expelled from their churches because they were gay or queer or transgender.
·       Many were told over and over again by their churches that they are hated, they are evil, they are sinners, they will go to hell.
·       Many have been shunned and excluded by their families because of strict religious beliefs.  It is no surprise that such significant numbers of homeless youth are gay and transgender –they have been kicked out by their families, frequently because of religious beliefs.
·       Some have actually been publicly "outed" by others in their religious organization, which threatened jobs and family relationships.
·       They hear about and have to deal with open hatred from so-called clergy, like the pastor at Verity Baptist Church in Sacramento who only wished that MORE gays and lesbians had been shot and killed in Orlando.  There are way too many clergy who preach that gays should be dead.
·       They see a sign outside of a Salvation Army church after the Orlando shooting that says:  "Well, you asked for a sign from God."
·       They drive by a church marquee that says:  "Satan made gays and transgenders"
·       Daily they hear state and federal politicians say awful things about LGBTQ people as a class, and making ridiculous and unfounded statements to support narrow and bigoted views.
·       State legislatures are trying to pass laws to formally permit and sanction businesses discriminating against LGBTQ people because of their religious beliefs.
·       Religious charities go out of their way to prohibit gays and lesbians from adopting kids.

Over and over and over they experience or hear about awful, terrible things that are done to or said about LGBTQ people because of religious beliefs.

So, is it any wonder that these people have chosen to reject the people and institutions that vilify us, that want to deprive us of our rights, even want us dead, don't want us to exist?

And, is it any wonder that I and so many others are ecstatic when a church like Clayton Valley goes so far as to fly a rainbow flag?  I don't think you can fully appreciate what an amazing thing that is to us LBGT folks.

I am going to borrow some questions from a speech made by the Lieutenant Governor of Utah following the mass killing in Orlando and ask that you consider how you and people you know might respond to these questions:

When you heard about the shooting in Orlando, how did you feel? 
When you heard it was mostly LGBT people who were killed, did that change
how you feel?

You care it is gay people now.  Did you care about them on the Saturday BEFORE the

Let me be clear, I am not asserting or even suggesting that the horrible actions and statements I have described reflect the beliefs of many in the religious communities.  I am fairly confident they are not the views of anyone in this congregation.

But, the bottom line is that organized religion is losing ground FAST in the LGBT community.  And the only way to counter that is for EVERYONE to affirmatively do something.  So, I am going to challenge you today.  I am going to challenge you to ACT.  Action will speak volumes – much more that platitudes.  And there are lots of ways you can do that:

·       Don’t tell me how you feel.  Do something.  
·       Don’t tell me how sad you are.  Do something. 
·       When someone tells a homophobic joke in a meeting, stand up and say “you can’t say that around me”. 
·       Write to your politicians and object to laws that discriminate against LGBTQ people.
·       When you hear someone in your family or circle of friends say bigoted or unkind things about LGBTQ people, stop them and educate them.  Tell them it is not OK for them to feel that way or to say those things.
·       Support fundraisers for the various LGBTQ causes – from the Rainbow Community Center, to youth programs, to housing for LBGT seniors. 
·       Don't tell me you support LGBTQ people – DO something.
·       Don't just say that you disagree with evil Pastor Jimenez in Sacramento or the many other clergy who vilify gays – ACT.  Write to them and to their congregations.  Attend a protest rally at the Sacramento church.

Don't get me wrong.  I fully appreciate and applaud all that CVPC is doing with respect to LGBTQ issues and to many other causes.  I literally applaud all of you for that and, again, say that this church's stand and its decision to fly the rainbow flag is more meaningful and impactful than you will ever know.  And I KNOW some of you individually are already engaged and taking action in many ways on many issues.  For that I say a heartfelt Thank You.  And to the rest of you I urge you to – stand up, speak out, act up.  ACT!  And be sure that the people you engage with know of your connection to this church so that they SEE the face of the church  You are the church.

I want to close the way I began.  I am VERY proud of this church community.  And I am very committed to this church community.  You have much to show others.  So I urge you to Act.  As Christians and as loving people.  As the Dalai Lama has said:  "It is not enough to be compassionate, we must act."  Thank you and God bless you.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Festival - a bastian for continued sexism

      We went to the Alameda County Fair yesterday.  I always enjoy going and since it had been 8 or 9 years since I had gone, I was really looking forward to it.  There were some really fun things at the fair.  Pig racing was one highlight.  Comedy shows, the interesting new fangled gadgets they try to sell you, the gardens, the animals, the music, people, art - all of it very interesting.  We chose not to go on any of the rides.  We thought about going, as a family, on the ferris wheel but it would have cost us $25 for the 2 minute ride and I could not justify that to myself in any kind of way.  My daughter wanted to do that "walk on the water" thing where you basically get in a big plastic hamster wheel and spin around on the water.  I would have let her do that, even though it was $10 per person, but by the time we were ready for it we'd "lost" where it was in the fair and since Alameda County Fair Grounds are huge, could not see taking the time to search it out.  The cost of food... well, you know how these fair grounds are.
       We had a great time.  And yet, there were a few incidents that continue to rankle in my mind. The most noticeable had to do with the magic show we attended.  The guy was over the top with his bad jokes and attempts to be funny.  But I kind of get into that sort of thing.  The rest of the crowd looked leery and weary of his antics after the first five minutes, but I tend to be more tolerant, especially when I can see someone is really trying.  However, about 15 minutes into the show he asked for a child volunteer.  He called up a little girl.  He kept calling her "sweetheart" and saying he was going to find a husband for her because she was so pretty.  That started setting me on edge, but I didn't think too much about it until he called an even littler boy up to the stage to "help" as well.  At that point, he said that actually the boy was going to be the junior magician and the girl was to stand there and be his "beautiful assistant" because girls aren't the magicians, boys are, and the girl's job is to stand around and be beautiful.  I was stunned.  Floored.  We are in the Bay Area, for heaven's sake! Do people still think that here?!  Do people actually get away with saying stuff like this on STAGE?! He proceeded to work with the boy and let him do magic while the girl just stood there looking awkward, and at one point like she was about to cry.  I was sitting next to my eldest daughter.  My other two were on the other side of the semi circle on the ground.  I could see their faces and I looked over at them to see if this was registering.  They both looked happy and smiley and like nothing had just happened.  My eldest poked me and said, "Why do you look so upset, Mama?"
       "Did you not just hear what that man said?"  I demanded of her.
       "Oh.  Well, yeah.  I guess that wasn't right, was it?"
       "Damn straight it wasn't right!"
        What was more upsetting to me was that as soon as I could reunite with the younger two children and said something to them about what they heard and if they caught how wrong that was, they both said, "Well, that's the way people are, though, right?  They think girls can't do what boys can do and they think it's okay to say that."
       "What people are these?" I demanded.
       "Well, everybody, Mama."  They proceeded to tell me stories of things that had been said to them not just by peers but by teachers and relatives and other people we value who have basically let my girls know that their prospects were limited by their gender, that their roles in life are clearly laid out for them because they are female.  My son quoted things too, but interestingly, he, too, felt imposed upon by these statements, that he was expected to be better than his sisters in a way he knew he could not be.
       "But I've been trying to teach you something different!" I said.
       "Well, yes, we know.  And because of that we tend to see these things while other kids probably don't even see them," said eldest.  "But still, how can we fight a whole culture that says we can't be or do what we want because of our gender?  A culture that tells us who we are as females?  Who we are expected to be, and how we are expected to behave as girls, and later as women?"

       I had that conversation in my head the rest of the time we were there, and no doubt as a result of that I saw other things that I might not otherwise see.  At the "games" area, the call remained, "Boys! Come win a stuffed animal for your sweetheart!" At the cookware show it was "Ladies, these pots and pans will serve you well as you cook for your husband!"  At the garden show it was, "Ladies first!"
       I am a female pastor serving a congregation. Because of that I think it is easy for me to forget that we have not come very far at all in so many ways in terms of equality issues, in terms of treating each person as the unique person they are rather than as a male, as a female, as a this, as a that.
      I'd like to believe that somehow fairs are worse than other places, but I doubt that's true.  I will continue to try to teach my kids a different way.  But I realize I'm fighting an uphill battle if the messages they receive everywhere else continue to be ones that make women "less" and men "more". So I put this out there as well.  Notice the messages out there that descriminate and limit people of any kind.  Confront the messages. Challenge the messages. For the sake of all of us, try to treat each person as the individual they are.  Try not to limit one another by gender or class or appearance or race or ethnicity or background or ability or orientation or any other reason.  It lessens all of us when we do this.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Judging Others, Part II: Special Children

Dear Parent,
          I hear your extreme pride in your child as they go across the stage at graduation.  I hear it as a small group of you stands up to cheer on your kid, your special progeny, as they graduate and move on to the next adventure.  What joy it is for that entire group of people to celebrate your loved, outgoing, popular child as they are lifted up by the full 15 seconds of whooping and cheering and calling of her name as she marches across the stage, looking slightly embarrassed, but more, looking confident and sure in her place as number one kid of all the kids who have crossed the stage this morning.  She knows she is more loved, more valued, because of the loud cheers that accompany her as opposed to all the other chidren who were simply applauded as most are.  But then the next child walks across the stage, and not to be outdone, her family also stands and cheers loudly, even louder, if that is possible, to show that in fact it is their child who is more loved, more valued, more important. This happens a third time, with an even bigger group of people standing and calling and whooping, this time for almost a full minute.
           And then a fourth child crosses the stage -  A child whose sole parent, his mother, works a job that she cannot miss this day.  A child who has no extended family, and whose mother works such long hours that friends and extended community are not easily made and therefore rarely come into the picture.  And as the light applause follows his walk across the stage, I see the tentative smile as he takes his "diploma", followed by the crestfallen look of unease and distress as he steps down and quietly returns to his seat.  Here is a child who has not won the "most popular child of the year" award.  He is clearly not the most loved, most valued, most celebrated.  And he knows it.

           As I watched this painful display at my child's graduation I found myself thinking about the many ways in which we lift up one group of people over another.  We know that girls, people of color, LGBTQ folk, immigrants, Muslims are treated in ways in our school systems that often lead to lack of the same quality of education and the same treatment as others.  We know this.  We experience it.  We know it is not right.  It is unfair.  It is something that must be combatted and fought.  Do we also see that we additionally separate and raise up kids who are more extroverted, who have more family connections, who are more popular, who have more social skills, in ways that hurt and harm less outgoing, less talented, less connected children as well?  There are simple solutions to this.  It would be so easy to applaud all children the same and then take your child out to a party to celebrate them with their family afterwards, to give them the special attention and kudos they deserve away from the children who may not have this luxury.  But we don't do this.  We still seek privilege and specialness for our own kids in ways that can hurt others.
          I am blessed that my child who walked across the stage was confident in herself.  She was one of the first to cross and she had two adults come to her graduation, both of whom are introverted enough that the whooping and cheers were not going to happen to single her out, but she is strong enough to be okay with that.  Still, the face of the boy who had no one there is burned into my brain. I wish there were a way to communicate to other parents that sometimes singling out of our own child for that kind of public praise hurts others.  That again celebrating and lifting up of your own child might be done in a kinder way in other places and at other times.  But I don't think we are ready to hear that as a community.  So I will simply learn this lesson for myself and when I see a kid who does not receive that kind of special praise, perhaps I will be the one to yell and cheer for him or her.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Judging Others Part I: Women and Size

        I want to start this post by acknowledging that I am a small woman.  I've always been a small woman.  At my "biggest" (pregnant) I was still only about 20 pounds more than I currently am.  Some might say therefore that I really have no place or no right to write about this.  But I'm going to anyway because I think that if we don't stand WITH one another in whatever we are going through, then we truly will fall alone, each and every one of us.  Also, I am hoping that maybe as an ally, as a "stand alongside" person, that maybe more people will hear this message than otherwise might.
        So here's the bottom line - a person's size should not matter.  Period.
        For women especially there is such attention to size, such "concern" about size, but frankly, I see no real justification for this. It is blatant prejudice, judgment, meanness.  But we hide our prejudice and judgments under the guise of "concern".  We are "concerned" about the health of bigger people, we say.  That's why their size matters to us, because we "care" about their health.  That's B.S. Sorry, folks, but it is.  If this judgment is out of concern about people's health, why are we not more "concerned" about women's health CARE?  Why are women's health care issues so much more expensive to address?  Why do we not fund more proactive women's health care if we are truly worried about this?  Also, why are we not concerned about women who wear high healed shoes all the time, thus injuring their backs?  Or those who spend so much time in the sun, thus exposing themselves to skin cancer? Why are we not more concerned about how much alcohol or caffeine others consume?  Why do we not care more about artificial sweeteners and pesticides?  Why do we feel it is okay for women to inject their faces with a poison in order to minimize wrinkles? Or to have elaborate surgeries to change their shape when it is unnecessary for health reasons? And the thing is, even when we are concerned about those things, we are concerned about those things, not about the people who participate in them.  We don't carry the same judgments, and we certainly don't express those judgments.  We understand that would be rude, would be unkind, is frankly none of our business.  But somehow we justify our prejudice, our meanness towards larger people under the guise of "concern" for their health.  (A big part of the irony of this is that if we weren't so attacking and judgmental, people would probably find it much easier to lose weight if they chose to do so.  That judgment itself makes it so very hard to shed the pounds that can sometimes act as a buffer between ourselves and those judgments.)
       But as I've thought about women and size, I've wondered if the issue might not go deeper.  Why is it that we want our women to be so small? Again, I do not accept the answer that we are worried about their health.  That's bogus.  No, I think it may come back to power, to fear, and to control.  We have valued women being so small that they almost disappear.  Too many women have died from anorexia or bulemia, too many women suffer health issues for being underweight (but again we aren't judging them are we?).  I wonder if there isn't instead a fear of women becoming too big because size is power, is influence.  We shrink our women by paying them less.  We shrink our women by setting a glass ceiling beyond which it is hard to rise.  We shrink our women by taking away reproductive rights and control over their own bodies.  We shrink our women by blaming them for their own abuse, rape, victimization, thereby allowing their abusers to continue to claim "power over" by not holding them accountable for it.  And we shrink our women literally by insisting that they are not worth as much, that they are not worth our time and attention, that they are not worth being paid as much, or being able to do what they want (especially if that involves going into acting, singing, modelling, etc.) if they are not tiny.
         Some women are bigger than life.  And somehow that scares us.  So we control it.  In my humble opinion it would do us well to rejoice in that bigger than life quality, to celebrate it, and to see what amazing things women (all people, really) can do, regardless of their size. We are the ones who miss out by shrinking others, or even by allowing them to be shrunk by those around them. Personally, I'm moving from being a person who was always careful about staying small, to finding that there are times I wish I were bigger: bigger in confidence, bigger in courage, bigger in joy. Maybe that needs to start by claiming the space that I take up rather than striving always to be smaller than I physically am.
           I want to own that all of us are affected by the judgments that our society has about bigger people, and so I apologize for anything I may have inadvertently said that judges size.  I will strive to do better, too. But as a society it is something we need to work on.  People of all sizes are beautiful. Let us strive to not be intimidated or scared into meanness by the power, the size, the beauty of others.

After writing the above a friend sent me this link to a program that NPR did on this topic.  It was very well done and worth listening to as well!!  Click the link below to hear or read it:
"Tell me I'm Fat"

Monday, June 20, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - When God Shows UP

Luke 8:26-39
1st Kings 19:1-15a

            As you know, last Sunday morning there was another tragedy, another mass shouting, another attack of hatred and anger and fear, this time not at a school, not on a campus, not in an apartment complex or a mall, but in a gay bar. 49 people died, many others were injured. I would hope and trust that no matter what you believe about anything else, the loss of more lives in yet another act of hatred and anger would be upsetting, would be challenging, would be a cause of pause, for questioning, for looking at how we handle our anger, our fear, our hatred and how we might do all of that differently. When there is more and more violence and more and more hatred and anger and disagreement and political polarization we may find ourselves asking again and again, where is God?  When will God show up?
                        (from Chicken Soup for the Soul):     One cold evening during the holiday season, a little boy about six or seven was standing out in front of a store window.  The little child had no shoes and his clothes were mere rags.  A young woman hurrying by to get home to her own family was none the less caught by the needs of the little boy and the longing she read in his pale brown eyes.  She took the child by the hand and led him into the store.  There she bought him some new shoes and a complete suit of warm clothing.
            They came back outside into the street and the woman said to the child, “Now you can go home and have a very happy holiday.”
            The little boy looked up at her and asked, “Are you God, Ma’am?”
            She smiled down at him and answered, “No, son, I’m just one of God’s children.”

            The little boy then said, “I knew you had to be some relation.”
Larry Green wrote: "When I go through a drive-thru the person taking my order says something like, "does that complete your order?" I always respond by saying, "unless you would like me to buy you something." Usually they will giggle and say they appreciate it, but decline. The young lady today asked, "are you serious?" I told her to add her meal to my order. When I got to the window, there was this young lady with tears streaming down her face. She thanked me profusely and began to tell me her story. Folks, you never know what others are going through. The people taking your order at the fast food place are often working 2-3 jobs just to get by. This young lady was working 3 jobs, pregnant, and was evicted from her apartment yesterday. She now lives in her car. All this info because I bought her a salad ... yes, she ordered herself a salad.”  Larry spent 45 minutes with her, giving her community resources, listening, feeding her in spirit as well as body.  And I am certain that in that time, Larry was God showing up for this woman.
So it seems it can be when God shows up: unexpected beauty in the midst of what can feel like chaos and confusion. Sometimes it can also feel like chaos and confusion in the midst of what has become “normal” for us as well, though.  For when God shows up, is it ever in the way we expect?  Is it ever with the message we expected or thought that we hoped to hear? 
Today we have two biblical stories.  Both of which show us God showing up in unexpected and unsought ways.
In the first story, Elijah is running away. And when he finally stops and faces God, he asks for God to end his life.   He says - “It is enough.  Now, O Lord, take away my life.”  But instead of God answering his death wish with a “yes” God tells him instead that he has a long, hard journey ahead of him. Just what Elijah wants to hear, I’m certain. But Elijah does what he is told - he eats to prepare for the journey and goes to the place where he is to meet God. And then we are told again, that God does not show up in the way we might expect. Do we expect God in the noise, in the rush, in the moving around? We are told God was not in the wind. Do we expect God in the big shakes, in the natural movements? We are told God was not in the earthquake. Do we expect God in the fire that guides us, giving us heat, energy, light, warmth, passion? We are told God was not in the fire. Where does God show up?  In the sheer and complete silence. In the stillness. In the calm after the storm. 
This story in 1st Kings reminded me of C.S. Lewis’ book, “A Grief Observed.”  C.S. Lewis, as many of you know, was a remarkable Christian author who wrote both novels such as the Narnia series as well as theological conversations such as “The Four Loves” and “Surprised by Joy”.  In 1945 he experienced the death of a close friend.  About this death he said, “The experience of loss (the greatest I have yet known) was wholly unlike what I should have expected.  We now verified for ourselves what so many bereaved people have reported; the ubiquitous presence of a dead man, as if he had ceased to meet us in particular places in order to meet us everywhere...” he continued, “No event has so corroborated my faith in the next world as Williams did simply by dying.  When the idea of death and the idea of Williams thus met in my mind, it was the idea of death that was changed.” 
But 15 years later, in 1960, his wife of very few years, Joy, died. And that experience was also unexpected for him - but in the complete opposite way. As he said in the journal he kept following her death, “After the death of a friend...I had for some time a most vivid feeling of certainty about his continued life; even his enhanced life. I have begged to be given even one hundredth part of the same assurance about Joy. There is no answer. Only the locked door, the iron curtain, the vacuum, absolute zero.” And in contrast to the experience of the presence of his friend’s death changing his faith for the better, after the death of his wife, his faith was tested beyond measure.  As he continued, “go to (God) when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain and what do you find?  A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside.  After that, silence.  You may as well turn away.  The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become.  There are no lights in the windows.  It might be an empty house...not that I am in much danger of ceasing to believe in God.  The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him.  The conclusion I dread is not, ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but, ‘So this is what God’s really like.  Deceive yourself no longer.” Deeply disturbing words of pain and despair from a deeply faithful man.  Have any of you ever felt that way?
God’s coming, or seeming lack of coming is very rarely what we expect. 
And so it was in the second scripture we read for today, of the Gerasene demoniac.  For the people around the healed man, God’s coming was nothing less than terrifying. They didn’t, perhaps they couldn’t, understand or know how to take the change that had come over the man healed of the demons. Before he had been naked, an outcast, sometimes so strong with his infirmity as to break the chains that people put on him to bind him, to confine him. While the people may have feared him before, at least they felt they understood him. They knew what to expect. They knew of his violent and odd behavior and they knew how to deal with it: bind him or let him live away from them among the tombs. But Jesus’ healing of the man threw all that they knew into confusion. The man seemed normal now. Would it last? The man was changed. Would Jesus change them as well? Not only was the man different, but a herd of pigs had gone crazy, and gone into the water and died. Scary things were happening, things they didn’t understand and they were afraid. 
And how much more so for the man himself, for the man possessed by the demons.  He had cried out to Jesus for Jesus to leave him alone. For the only thing he knew was his demons, how to live with them, how to survive with them. Never mind that his existence was miserable and that he went between being tied up with chains and being isolated and living naked without protection in the tombs. This was what he knew. But just as God did not agree to Elijah’s request for death, God did not agree to this man’s request to stay stuck with his demons. He healed him, and again, while we can only imagine and trust that the man’s life was better after that, just like for Elijah, this man was invited in his healing to enter a long hard journey. He wanted to go with Jesus after he was healed. But that would have been safe. He could have hidden his past, hidden his change behind Jesus’ loving protection.  But Jesus called for something else for this man, something more.   Instead, this prayer, too was turned down with a “no” and he was told he was to stay.  He was called to the hard, hard challenge of staying and telling his story and trying to live his life amongst those who had known him, starting again, starting anew. 
I think we can probably relate to the fear of having our demons healed.  For we all have demons.  Some are more serious than others - alcoholism, and other addictions, mental illness, these are the serious ones.  But there are others that aren’t as obvious, or don’t feel as serious. 
A “victim” complex, a struggle with low self-esteem, a struggle with food addictions or a bad relationship with spouse, child, sibling. As much as we may experience those demons as burdens, we also depend on them. What would it be like to live without them?  How would we reenter the world, changed, if they were suddenly lifted, suddenly gone?  How do we live without our crutches, without that which is most familiar?  But God comes.  And God comes unexpectedly.  And sometimes, we are asked to be different, to be healed, to live without the demons and situations we know.
If we are willing to live through the hard times, to accept the gifts of change that God brings, if we are willing to take the risk of healing and being new in God’s way, God’s coming is always better than we can imagine.
C. S. Lewis, too, got through his “dark night of the soul.”  He got through the confusion and struggles with his faith that he had after his wife’s death.  His faith was never the same: for it had entered a new level and reached a depth he never dreamt of before.  It had been tested, and it had come out new.  As he said, “I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted.  Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face?  The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs.  Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to heard.”  And from that place of reconnection he continued simply but powerfully, “I know the two great commandments, and I’d better get on with them.” 
So where is God when refugees like the Syrians are feeling their homes?  Where is God in the earthquakes that have rocked Japan and Ecuador? Where is God when people are beaten up or killed because of their skin color or their faith beliefs or their sexuality? And where was God last weekend? We have to look for God in the unexpected. With the escaping Syrians, God is with those families who have taken them in, who have offered care and love and home and support.  Where is God in Japan and Ecuador? Also with the people coming to help with their resources and their love and their thinking through how to make communities safer in the face of earthquakes.  And last weekend, God was with the communities that came together after the tragedy, hundreds of folk lining up to donate blood, to grieve together, to support each other, to plan, and to imagine the possibilities of a world that functions differently, without the violence of hate and anger and fear. Where is God? God is wherever love is. God is wherever that love becomes an active verb, working for the good of the other, sometimes at our own expense. God is wherever people are willing to take risks to care for those who are rejected by the larger world, just as Jesus cared for and loved the Syrophoenicians and the Samaritans and the women with bad reputations and the tax collectors. God is wherever we dare to love in that same way. We are called to follow Jesus and go out to love God and love one another. After each meeting with the unexpected God, we will enter life in a new way, but still with the call to love.  We, too, know the two great commandments.  And we, too had better get on with it. Where is God?  Where we are doing God’s work. That’s what it’s all about.  Amen.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Post Trauma and Personal Change

I've written before about a wonderful book by Paul Pearsall called The Beethoven Factor (Canada: Hampton Roads Publishing, 2003).  He shares that people have basically three ways to respond to trauma.  They can become victims and be forever made cynical, bitter or weakened (always acting a victim) in the face of what happened.  They can become survivors, who live through it and continue on.  Or they can become thrivers which means that they deepen, become more whole and live more fully as a result of what they have experienced.  He is quick to point out that being a thriver does not mean that you are always happy or always positive.  It means that you live life fully engaged and allow what you experienced to make you more you.  Thrivers cry, they laugh, they feel joy and deep sorrow but they do it all with depth, fully present in whatever it is that life brings at each step.  They do not allow themselves to become bitter or jaded, they don't exist in the past trauma or future fear but stay in the "now" moment and deal completely with whatever comes to them.

The book was recommended to me by my spiritual director when my family was going through our deep crisis five years ago because he said that he saw me as an absolute thriver, someone who was truly deepened and who grew through the crisis rather than being stunted by it or just surviving it.  I read an article that I re-posted on Facebook recently about a woman who went through a similar crisis to my own.  She wrote that she is a much better human being now because of what she went through. She talked about coming into her own, not depending on someone else for affirmation or a sense of self, being much deeper and more real with everyone.

Does this sound sunny and cheery and Polyannaish?  "It was horrible, but we survived it and are much better for the experience."  "What doesn't kill us makes us stronger."  And my own, "God is there to bring resurrection out of every death and it can and will happen if we are open to the movement of the Spirit."

Well, it's true.  I am a much better and deeper person because of it.  I have more compassion.  I am more present with other folk and less trapped in my own being, my own thoughts, my own crises most of the time.  I am wiser and know that whatever is happening really will pass - I know this at a body level, not just in theory anymore.  I am calmer, more centered, more grounded.  All of that is true.

But, the truth is that there still are scars as well.  And there are negative changes in me, also.  Damage has been done.  It would be less than honest to fail to name that reality as well.

Many of you know the biggest one:  I struggle deeply with trust.  I am seeing a wonderful, amazing man right now. He is truly a good person, one of the best people I know in fact. He is kind, generous, loyal, affectionate, loving and present. My past does not scare him. My present does not overwhelm him. My commitments to full time church work, justice work, caring work and to three children who are also recovering and need a great deal of care do not leave him feeling abandoned or neglected. He takes on supporting me and helping to care for my kids (one of whom comes with extreme challenges) with commitment, dedication and deep love. But I hold him at arm's length in many ways. I could create a list of ways in which we are not as compatible as .... But the bottom line is that he is truly a good man, an extremely caring partner and a loving helper for my kids.  And the real issue under it all is that I have no idea how to trust again. I look at him and wonder what secrets I don't know that are lurking under the surface ready to throw my life and the children's lives overboard once again and into an ocean that requires us to struggle to simply float and not sink so far from shore. I am working on this. And I will continue to work on it. But this is a deep wound that will take a long time to heal.

Perhaps a more serious change is the anxiety that plagues me now concerning other people.  I've always been affected by how other people think/feel/act, always struggled with insecurity in particular.  And I had hoped that having survived all the attacks and humiliations and nastiness that came our way that my skin would have toughened and I would have realized that "names will never hurt me" in a real sense - that if we could survive that, what would it matter what people say or think or feel about us now?  But in fact, my experience has been the opposite.  I am more anxious than before.  The damage that was done to us by mis-information, by gossip, by mean-spirited people choosing to be spiteful was real. Yes, we survived it.  But our lives look very different than they did before.  So while in fact I have seen that nastiness does not kill us, I have also experienced that it can alter one's entire life, dramatically, radically, and in devastating ways. So new meanness carries a threat for me that is hard for me to put aside. I work on this, too. Meditation and centering excercises help, walking helps immensely: all of it brings me back to what is most important which is choosing love in the face of whatever comes - love of God, love of others and love of self.

My point here, though, is that I don't think people are one of the three things named by Paul Pearsall. I don't think we are victims, survivers or thrivers.  We may tend towards one of these more than others.  But the reality is that everything that happens to us affects us in a multitude of ways.  Each event has lessons for us, and each brings gifts and challenges. We aren't just made better by the traumas that come our way. We also carry scars. And we aren't just damaged by the life that comes our way, we are also gifted. We do have choices. Do we work through the hurts, working those sore and torn muscles towards healing?  Or do we allow them to stay torn and to atrophy?  Do we choose to walk forward with integrity and commitment towards growth or do we become bitter or frozen in a cynical weakened way?  Do we take our abuse and abuse others?  Do we take our pains and become victimized and weak?  Or do we grow and hopefully figure out ways to make things better for ourselves but also for those around us?

I write about this from a personal perspective, but I am thinking about the larger traumas that we have experienced recently in our country as well. When we choose to really feel the pain that comes and to walk through it we have a better chance of stepping forward with strength, with integrity and with the possibility of change.  We can make that choice.  But not without recognizing and taking time to honor, or respect, or recognize that damage has been done.  Genuinely.  Each person affected directly by these tragedies (or even indirectly) will need to take the time to grieve, to feel, to be angry and sad and scared and, and, and; and to work with and nurture those sore places so that they can heal.  That process will look different for everyone.  Some things won't heal right away.  Some things may not ever heal fully.  We still have choices about what to do with the pain.  But we are all victims, survivers and thrivers.  And we must be gentle with each other as well as with ourselves.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Words for Orlando Vigil

          My name is Barbara and I have the great honor and privilege of serving as the pastor of Clayton Valley Presbyterian Church.  We are the congregation on Kirker Pass Rd – which is what Ygnacio becomes heading East, that flies a rainbow flag from our sign.  While Clayton Valley has always been an open and affirming congregation with a strongly diverse membership in terms of sexual orientation in particular, we have only been flying the flag for the last 8 months.  We made the decision to fly the flag when we became aware of the bullying of LGBTQ youth going on in two of our local high schools.  We came to realize that while for us celebration of diversity has always been an important and obvious component of what it is to be people who profess to believe in a God of love, that parts of our larger community still do not have the eyes to see that we are all family, all created to love and to grow and to learn.  We made the decision that we needed to make a statement that expressed that love, affirmation and celebration of diversity in a prominent and clear way. 
               In the last eight months, then, since we began flying the flag, we have also had our concerns about the hatred and anger that still exist in the larger community confirmed.  Our flag has been stolen, has been burned, and notes of condemnation have been left for us.  We have experienced fear. Some of the parents of the preschool children who attend our children’s center on campus have especially expressed fear, fear that the violence done to the flag might escalate into violence aimed at those on the campus, even the children.  We have experienced fear from some of our members; one, a gay man, sent word that they could not come to church yesterday because they were afraid our flag would attract violence after what happened in Orlando.
               But the reality is that the expressions of hate and anger that we have experienced are nothing in comparison to the tragedy that hit yesterday in Orlando.  Lives, people, our family members, died yesterday; and whole families were devastated by each one of those losses.  Fear has reared its head again, both as a cause and as a result of the violence. 
               It is in the midst of that fear, it is in the face of that hatred that we stand here today, people who are diverse and yet who are all persons, united by our ability to love, united by our ability to care, united by our commitment to be those who celebrate diversity rather than condemning it.  We have a long way to go.  Acceptance of diversity seems such a small goal and yet even that small step towards true celebration, even that small step seems elusive in times like this.
Still, I stand before you declaring that each day there are more people who see, more people who choose love, more people who take that step towards openness.  My congregation as well as so many in this community, in this country and in this world will stay strong in our conviction that love is stronger than hate; that acts of grace and forgiveness are more powerful than violence, anger, or revenge;  that it is possible to build bridges across our differences, to build communities that are, like the rainbow, beautiful because of their celebration of different colors.  We choose to walk in hope and to stand together knowing it is the only way that we can change our world and make it the place of love that it is meant to be. 
As we grieve those who have died in this tragedy, we vow to be part of the solution and part of working to create a world where everyone is safe, despite their race, color, ethnicity, culture, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, differing abilities, religions, creeds, etc etc etc.  We want a world where everyone is free to love and to know they are loved.  We want a world where diversity is recognized for the gift it is.  And where unity does not mean “sameness”.  I am honored to be part of this vigil, though I grieve deeply for the need of it.

O Great Mystery, hold us all in the arms of your love.  Bring us a vision of love, of understanding, of acceptance, of celebration for what each of us are and can be.  Help us to see a way towards healing, towards compassion and towards grace.  In your many names we pray.  Amen.

Sunday's Sermon - praying for forgiveness

Before you read this, I want to say that in light of what happened over the weekend this was not a time appropriate sermon.  However, I was only aware of the events in Orlando as of that morning, slightly before worship.  So I did edit what I said (because I never actually say what gets posted here...I preach more impromptu and only refer to my written sermon as an "outline" of sorts or when I am quoting someone else and need it to be exact) but I'm still posting here what I wrote.  It would be better for another week, but because these are posted to our website as well, I'm going ahead and putting it here.  I apologize for the lack of a timely sermon.

Luke 7:36-50

Matthew 18:21-35

            Most of the time I’ve preached on forgiveness, I’ve focused on the human need to forgive others.  That is incredibly important because, truly, it is only in our acts of forgiveness, our choice to let go of our anger, our hatred, and our resentment that we can be made whole.  But while that is a worthy topic of conversation, today instead I want to focus on God’s forgiveness of us.  The title of today’s sermon, “praying for forgiveness” sums up what I want to say, which is that there is purpose and meaning in praying for forgiveness. 
            I say this, and yet I am aware of the many problems that have been created, especially for some people, through the weekly ritual of the prayer of confession.   My caveat before I begin here is that I am speaking in generalities and quoting studies that also spoke in generalities.  I realize that no generality can apply to every person or even any person all the way. 
That being said, much had been written at the time I was in seminary in pastoral counseling books and other counseling books which emphasized that men’s greatest flaw, or sin, is to blame others for the bad things that happen to them in their lives and to fail to look at their own issues, contributions and their own faults in creating problems for themselves and others.  When men were the majority of those who attended church, then it made a great deal of sense to remind them weekly that they weren’t the great, unerring creatures that they may, at times, believe themselves to be. 
But in study after study, women (and again this applies to others as well, but in this study it was predominantly women) behave and understand the bad times in their lives very differently.  Women tend to blame themselves for everything wrong that happens to them.  Women, on the whole, are overly quick to name their flaws and to take responsibility for almost everything that can possibly go wrong. For those who know Amy Schumer, she has recently done a parody on the number of times, for example, that women say “sorry”.  It is a constant and often completely unnecessary part of their conversation.  Someone interrupts a woman, she is likely to respond with “sorry”.  Someone bumps into a woman, she is likely to respond with “sorry”.  Someone takes something she was reaching for, she is likely to say “sorry”.  Women do this, one study said, partly as a learned behavior but also partly as a way of claiming control in situations where they have little to no control.  If this problem over here is my fault, than I can fix it or I can make sure it doesn’t happen again.  But whatever the reason for it, the prayer of confession that we say every week has sometimes failed to serve women because of their different orientation to the pain and problems in the world.  Women’s greatest flaw or sin is taking on too much blame and responsibility.  And so the prayer of confession, which may confront the flaw of those who do not claim enough responsibility, caters to the flaws of those who claim too much.  It can reinforce for those who are already too down on themselves that they are to blame for everything and that it is their own errors that make the world less than perfect.  This, too, then, can set them up as more than human.  They see themselves as more powerful, more in control of the pain in the world because it is their fault.  Now that 77% of our church attendees in the United States are women, this weekly prayer can become a problem.
            While these studies were done a while ago, while I was in seminary, I would say that for many people this continues to be truth.  Many of my close friends have shared with me that they often feel a constant strong sense of not being good enough.  They share with me a sense of failure, of guilt, a feeling that they have disappointed God.  One women in particular told me, “I know that God loves me.  I know this.  But I have come to the place in my being where that love is not enough.  I am acutely aware that I have disappointed God; that I have not and cannot live up to God’s hopes and expectations for me.  God is not proud of me.  God is disappointed in me.  Knowing that God loves me, if anything, adds to the pain when I realize I don’t deserve it.  God loves me in spite of myself, not because of myself.  How can I possibly continue to live with God’s disappointment?” 
Honestly, have any of you felt this?  Have any of you been so filled with a sense of unworthiness, of guilt, of failure that you feel God’s disappointment to be overwhelming?  How  would you respond to this? 
Hildegarde de Bingen, was, among other things, a Christian mystic in the 12th Century.  I pasted this quote on my blog a few weeks ago, so some of you may be hearing it again, but I love this particular quote of hers.  She said, “A divine voice spoke to me, saying, ‘How fragile you are, Human, made of dust and grime, but I am the living Light.  I make the darkness day, and I have chosen you to see great wonders, though I have humbled you on earth.  You are often depressed and timid, and insecure.  Because you are conscientious, you feel guilty, and chronic physical pain has thoroughly scarred you.  But the deep mysteries of God have saturated you, too, and so has humility.’
    “When I heard the Voice, I began trying to live a godly life.  The path became difficult as I questioned myself again, saying, ‘This is pointless.’ I wanted to soar. I dreamed impossible dreams and started projects I could never finish.  I became dejected, so I sat and did nothing.  My self-doubt is my greatest disobedience.  It makes me miserable, and I struggle with this cross daily.  But God is by my side, reminding me that (God) created me.  So, even in the middle of my depression, I walk with wise patience over the marrow and blood of my body.  I am the lion defending itself from a snake, roaring and knocking it back into its hole.  I will never let myself give in to the devil's arrows.” 
I love that line, “My self doubt is my greatest disobedience.”  For many of us, if there is anything that we need to confess, this is it…that we take on too many of the problems of the world as our own fault, that we are too ready to live in guilt and a sense of our own failure, too ready to see that we are not enough rather than just as eager to trust that “God don’t make no junk.”   We do not trust that we are beautiful and good, and called with a Godly purpose that we can accomplish.  I love this quote from Hildegarde de Bingen because it challenges us to step beyond guilt, beyond self-doubt and into the forgiveness which God hands us in every moment.
            Is this to say, then, that there is no value in the prayer of confession for those who torment themselves with their flaws?  Of course not.  But what I am saying is that I think we have a work a little harder to find the gift in it.  If we choose to wallow in the errors we believe we have made, then we are missing the point and it will not serve us.  If instead, we can use our prayers of confession to truly let go, to really release any guilt that we have keeping us from growing, keeping us from loving, keeping us from resting in God’s loving arms; in other words, if we can accept into our hearts the forgiveness that God is offering us, then we can truly be healed by our prayers for forgiveness.
            About six years ago I went to see a movie through the International Film Festival called “Bomber”.  The plot of the story involves a man haunted by something that he has done, needing to apologize, needing to let go of a past that has imprisoned him for over sixty five years.  He was, through the course of the movie, able to go and make the apology that he needed to make.  More importantly, perhaps, he was able to receive forgiveness from the one he had harmed.  The result of apologizing, the result of receiving the equivalent of human forgiveness, the result of releasing his guilt allowed him, through the course of the movie, to change, deeply and honestly.  How much more is this the case when we can receive God’s forgiveness?
            God’s forgiveness is there, offered to us before we can even ask for it.  We say the prayer of confession so that we can accept that forgiveness into our hearts.  Then we can allow that forgiveness to heal us.  God’s forgiveness is complete.  It is a wiping of the slate.  In this moment you start again.  In this moment, you are made whole, again.  In this moment you have the opportunity and the chance to really live by what you say you believe, to live a life of love to God, others and self.  God does not stand in a spirit of disappointment in you.  God stands in a place of grace and forgiveness, loving you completely, accepting you completely, forgiving you completely in every moment and making you new and whole again every time.  Can you take that to heart?  Can you accept that we are called to follow God’s law of love not only to make the world better but because God wants the best and the most for each of us?  My prayer for all of us is that we can realize our flaws so that we can move towards wholeness for ourselves and the world.  But I pray even more that after our self-understanding, we can feel the amazing, life changing power of God’s grace and forgiveness; and that from that place we can begin whole again. 

As the passage in Luke pointed out today, the consequence of the women’s loving much was that she was also much forgiven.  Jesus then continued by saying that the consequence of being much forgiven is, in exchange, an increased ability to love.  Accept God’s forgiveness, be renewed, begin again, and you will find you are able to fulfill God’s law of love more and more.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - the Problem of Miracles.

1 Kings 17:8-24
Luke 7:11-17

Today we are shown two miracles of God saving children for the sake of their grieving mothers.  They are wonderful stories about God’s caring for the poor, for the widowed, for those grieving and suffering great loss. 
            But these miracles also raise questions.  What questions do you have when you hear about miracles, then or now?  What concerns do they raise for you?
I have a friend whose oldest son of seven kids contracted Spinal Meningitis.  The child had an especially bad and quick attack of the disease and the doctors told my friend that he should not expect his son to live.  But at the last moment the child recovered.  A couple years later, however, another friend of mine lost her only daughter to the same disease in a matter of hours.  My friend whose son survived the disease swears that God intervened to save his child.  But then I have to ask, why did God save his boy and not my other friend’s daughter?  That is the question and that is the problem with miracles.  While we rejoice in the miracle, the question always remains why some people are given miracles and others aren’t. 

About twenty years ago now, one of the big storms that so often hits the East coast blew through the Eastern Seaboard.  A prominent televangelist took a group of about 12 people down to the coast and they formed a tight prayer circle as the storm approached.  They prayed that the storm would not hit the coast where they were.  Sure enough, the storm went around them.  Instead, it hit the coast a few miles north of where they stood and killed over a thousand people.  This particular televangelist went on TV spouting his proof that prayer worked, and it surely seemed to for those 12 people.  But what about for those who were surely also praying further north?  And underneath this question is an even more profound question – why do bad things happen to good people?  Why do some suffer while others seem not to?  Why do the good seem to be hit hard at times when people who do evil things seem to thrive?  How do you answer these questions for yourselves?
A fellow pastor friend of mine shared with me that while he was a college student he and a couple friends went to visit a small Pentecostal church one Sunday.  Both my friend and his buddies were very committed Christians but they had not experienced this kind of church before.  They found themselves standing amidst people praying in tongues with their hands in the air, some having seizures of the Holy Spirit and all behaving in very un-Presbyterian fashion.  Finally at one point, the pastor, Brother Rutherford, brought forth a bucket of water.  He said that this bucket had been put on the back porch empty the night before and this morning he had found water in it, so he knew this water was holy water.  He then invited a child forward who had a clubbed foot.  The preacher declared that while there were medical cures for such a malady, the faithful parents of the child would not use these cures because they knew that God could heal the malady directly.  Brother Rutherford then put bandages into the “holy water” that had appeared in the bucket over night, wrapped those bandages around the child’s foot and prayed for healing.  He did this a couple times, each time praying with more conviction that his prayers would be answered, but each time with the same result that when they removed the bandages, the clubbed foot was found to be the same.  Finally, brother Rutherford climbed into the pulpit, pointed at the young college students at the back of the church and said – “you know why the Lord won’t give us a healing this morning.  It’s because we’ve permitted three devils into our midst!”  As the crowd in the church turned on these young adults angrily, you can imagine that the three college students hied it out of there very quickly, never to return to that church.  This church blamed the strangers, the visitors, for the failure of the miracle.
At revivals, if a person is not healed by the faith touch that they experience, they are blamed for their lack of faith. 
Other people have other ways of making things “fair”.   One way to do this is to blame karma – if you didn’t do something wrong in this life, it must have been in a past life.  The reason why some people suffer and others don’t, why some experience miracles and others don’t has to do with the amount of good each person has done or has failed to do throughout the history of the universe.

Sometimes we blame ourselves even when we have done nothing really wrong.  Or we try to figure out ways we could have done things differently so that such and such wouldn’t have happened.  But these also don’t really help us to ultimately know why miracles happen for some and seem to fail to happen for others. 
Our theologians also have many different ideas.  Frederick Buechner says this – “God is all-powerful.  God is all-good.  Terrible things happen.  You can reconcile any two of these propositions with each other, but you can’t reconcile all three.  The problem of evil is perhaps the greatest single problem for religious faith.  There have been numerous theological and philosophical attempts to solve it, but when it comes down to the reality of evil itself they are none of them worth much.  When a child is raped and murdered, the parents are not apt to take much comfort from the explanation (better than most) that since God wants people to love God, people must be free to love or not to love and thus free to rape and murder a child if he takes a notion to.  Christian science solves the problem of evil by saying that it does not exist except as an illusion of mortal mind.  Buddhism solves it in terms of reincarnation and an inexorable law of cause and effect whereby the raped child is merely reaping the consequences of evil deeds it committed in another life.  Christianity, on the other hand, ultimately offers no theoretical solution at all.  It merely points to the cross and says that, practically speaking, there is no evil so dark and so obscene – not even this – but that God can turn it to good.”

An anonymous person of faith wrote this:
“Sometimes I would like to ask God why He allows poverty, suffering, and injustice when He could do something about it.” 
“Well, why don’t you ask Him?”
“Because I’m afraid He would ask me the same question.” 
C.S. Lewis says that the miracles we seek are rare and come only when God intervenes in the natural order of life--Earthquakes are the natural order and sweep away millions.  Death is the natural order and eventually carry us all away.  Mudslides in Ecuador are a natural response to heavy rains and sweep cars off the road and down into deep Andean gullies.  C.S. Lewis then wrote that miracles are for God's youngest "children", and as we mature our trust in the Lord grows so that we need to increase our faith in God's presence without an outward, visible sign of His constant and true presence for Jesus will never leave us nor forsake us.  Hmm.  I have to admit that as time goes by I think less and less of this particular idea.  It seems that it is like the people who look at the success of people who do really bad things and say “yes, but those people aren’t really happy”.  It seems a justification – “well, I didn’t get my miracle because I’m more mature in my faith.”  I see people of all faith levels and all faith beliefs who receive miracles.  And I’ve seen people who were every bit as faithful who seemingly did not.
The reality is that some people get the miracles they pray for and some don’t.  Or what is more accurate – sometimes we are granted miracles in the way we would expect and want to see them, and other times we don’t see them because they come in unexpected ways or ways that are harder to notice.  In my own personal life, I see times when I have been blessed by multiple miracles, often things I didn’t ask for, usually involving people reaching out, offering care, offering their wisdom and faith at exactly the moment I needed it.  I have shared some of those with you – times when I’ve received a beautiful and much needed email at the exact right time.  Times when people have come into my life exactly as I needed them to.  Times when a person (often a child) has said exactly the thing I needed to hear at exactly the right time.  And there have been other times when I have prayed most fervently for miracles that appear to fail to come – or again, fail to come in the way that I wanted or could easily recognize.
And in the end, for me, it comes down to the quote I’ve shared with you before - Einstein said - “There are two ways to live life.  You can live it as if nothing is a miracle.  Or you can live it like everything is.” 

We may not get the miracles that we pray for.  But we are surrounded by miracles in every moment of every day.  It is a miracle that each of us is sitting here together in this wonderful community of faith.  It is a miracle that we breathe in God’s spirit with each breath we take and that we are given the rain to bring us water and food in abundance.  It is a miracle that we - all of us here today - walked into this room on our own two feet.  It is a miracle when a stranger gives us a smile for no reason whatsoever.  The birth of each child is an absolute miracle.  The love of our pets is a miracle.  The love we share with anyone or anything is a miracle.  Relationships that last 50 years – those are miracles.  Finding the wonderful friends we have – miracles.  Music – an absolute miracle.  And the list goes on.
Today we read two miracles about children being saved.  And these are amazing and wondrous.  But it is just as wondrous to me every day that all three of my children wake up, healthy, happy, and growing.  It is just as wondrous to me to see you nodding your heads and looking inward in thought as we all strive to listen to God in this place.  It is just as wondrous that God’s presence can be felt, and experienced, and shared in so very many ways.  It is just as wondrous that we have such a Lord and such a God who loves us beyond our imaginings.  We can live our lives as if everything is a miracle, because everything is.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.