Wednesday, September 28, 2016

More on the disturbing nature of miracles.

     Despite the title I have given to this blog post, I want to talk about finances for a minute.  I realize we don't usually share in public anything about finances, especially personal finances, but I'm going to break that rule for this blog because I think it is often the things we most avoid discussing that are really the most important things to discuss.
      So let me start by saying that I am very fiscally conservative in my personal life.  I don't "do" debt.  I pay off my credit cards each month, I'm big on saving, I don't buy a new car until I can pay for the whole thing up front (hence still having our 2001 Toyota), and frankly, I'm uncomfortable even carrying a mortgage on a house, let alone doing the "shared equity" thing that I am currently doing with my church in order to afford to live here in the Bay Area.  I've also had financial help from my parents, on more than one occasion: something I'm not proud of, and something I've worked hard to pay back as quickly as possible.  Still, I am so deeply aware that the reason I am able to "not do debt" is because I come from a place of extreme privilege.  I have parents who have been able to help me financially, and not in small ways.  I'm part of a congregation that had the resources to be able to join me in a "shared equity" agreement on my house.  These are gifts that are in no way small.  And I therefore understand that other people who do go into debt are usually doing so from a place of less privilege.  I have no judgment on that situation, therefore.  It truly is because of the advantaged situation into which I have been born (not through any actions or choices of my own) that I can claim the healthy financial situation in which I have lived through my life.  There have been huge financial demands that have arisen at various times.  The fact that I was able to get through those times - through savings, through equity built up on our house, through the help of family... again, I do not at all take for granted that that came from extreme privilege.
     But what I want to focus on in this blog has more to do with times when we came close to having serious financial crisis.  I mentioned in the sermon I posted yesterday that there was a time when I had a half time, presbytery-minimum salary position, we had just moved into a three bed-room house from a two, and at the last minute the people who had been buying our old house pulled out leaving us with two mortgages, the shower pan in the bathroom cracked, damaging the floor and walls as well as making the bathroom completely unusable and it was Christmas: a  Christmas with three kids who would not receive presents from their parents that year.  I didn't tell the end of that story which was that just as we came to the month when all of our savings would have been used up, the old house did sell, fulltime better paying work did come along, enough that we were able to have the bathroom fixed without a problem, and my kids were blessed with so much at Christmas from those around us that they did not feel deprived despite my not having the finances, personally, to buy them gifts.  We were cared for.  We were okay.  That has happened other times as well (needing to pay legal fees of close to $100K for example), where I have come close to needing to go into debt or needing to borrow from family or needing financial help but because of savings or other privileged situations, the money has always appeared, has always been there. When disaster happened in our family, I was able to take on full time work immediately and our finances were never in danger.  At all of these times I have recognized our financial well being for the miracles they have been. And this month it happened again.  I had personally payed for the building supplies for our church work day (part of my contribution to the church for something I felt very strongly about).  But then the car broke down, my mortgage company failed to pay the insurance company out of my impound account and my insurance was about to be cancelled so I had to pay it directly out of my account, and a large medical bill for one of my kids came due.  All of it happened at the same time.  And when the bills came, I wasn't sure how I was going to pay them.  But then today I received two large checks in the mail: one from my insurance company back in Ohio that needed to pay back an overpayment (and a LARGE overpayment) on the house I used to have there, and one for work I had not thought I would be paid for.  Neither were expected and the timing of both was, in fact, a miracle.  They came exactly in the right amount and exactly at the right time.  I felt the hand of God in the timing.  I felt truly "taken care of" by the Divine when I was starting to panic and feel financially fragile.
          But my next feeling was one of being very disturbed by the miracles, by the timing, by the gifts, by the reality that I have always been so well cared for financially.  Why is it that I have been taken care of, again and again in these concrete ways, when there are people starving to death in the world?  When there are so many people who cannot meet their bills this month or any month?  People truly in desperate need of food, shelter, medicines, who simply don't have them?  Does God not care about them equally well?  The God I believe in does. I know people who believe that we are taken care of when we help ourselves.  But I've known too many less privileged people, seen how hard they work and how desperate they are at times to get their basic needs met, to have any illusions that somehow these financial gifts are due to something I have done or am.  Some would claim it's because I have faith. Again, not accurate. Many of the poorest folk I know are people of very deep faith. And I know God loves all people just as much, regardless of what they believe. No, I have been lucky beyond my due; and others have suffered far beyond theirs.  So, while I never want to be ungrateful for the well-being and gifts that have come my way, I remain disturbed by the question of why some people receive the miracles they need at a particular point in time while others don't.
         To expand this beyond finances, I have read recently about a family whose daughter miraculously survived and overcame a dreadful precondition that should have killed her instantly. She says she was blessed by a miracle from God. People in my congregations have shared miracle stories of children surviving terrible accidents or diseases as well.  But I also know wonderful, incredible people who have lost children to death of one kind or another, people of deep faith and love.  And the randomness of who is saved and who is lost eludes me. I wonder, for the families who have lost their children, if it is not beyond painful to hear others whose children were saved talking about the miracle of that child's survival.  I wonder if they do not scream at God, "If you could save, Jane, why didn't you save Ramon?"  And my fear is that we end up blaming the victims way too often.  "Maybe their faith wasn't strong enough". Or we come up with other justifications. "Maybe God needed that child in heaven".  "Maybe it is the sins of the father being visited down upon the child". NO.  None of these reasons work for me.  Not one.  It still remains the case that miracles happen all the time.  But some people still experience in this life much more than they can handle.  And they lose children.  Or they struggle with unimagined financial stress.  Or they literally starve or dehydrate to death.  Some suffer torture.  Some die in wars.  Some die of abuse. Some are killed for no reason whatsoever because of where they live, or their skin color, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It isn't okay.  And the randomness of who survives, who receives miracles and who doesn't continues to escape me.
        I find myself grateful that I am aware that I don't deserve the gifts that come my way and can choose to be humbled and extremely thankful for them.  But I still struggle with the bigger questions. Why some and not others?  
       I've posted this before, but this is what Frederick Buechner says: “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.”
       I see that.  I preach that.  But because there really aren't answers, I still struggle with it. While I do see many of the miracles that happen all around every single day, it still hurts to see so many people struggle so much.  But when the question of evil arises, it is one of those times when we are called to live into the question. I also hear in the question a call.. where we see need, we are called to be the miracle for those around us. Remembering how we have been blessed and graced, we are called to bring blessings and grace to those for whom the miracles are not as obvious or so forthcoming.  So for today,  I will take the gifts and the miracles that I am given and do my best to pass them forward.

Sunday's Sermon - Ordinary Miracles or "Can God Defy the Laws of Physics?

Acts 9:1-12
John 21:1-19

When we invited you to write your questions for our interfaith panel, some of them were questions that were more Christian or even Presbyterian in content.  I put those off to focus on the questions that were more written for our guests of differing faiths.  But over the next few months, I hope to try to answer, from my own perspective, some of the other questions that you asked.  Today I want to start by giving my answer to a question that the other panel members did address but which I did not.  The question was, “Does God have the ability to defy the laws of physics?”
This is a question about the validity of miracles, whether or not they really take place, but it also goes a step further into the question of the nature of those miracles, in what ways they happen or in what ways they CAN happen. Does God set up the rules in such a way that God never breaks them?  Or can God break the very rules God has set up for our world and our universe?
Not to put anyone on the spot, but have any of you seen or experienced a miracle?  How about one that defies the laws of physics?
         Today we hear a couple different stories about miracles.  We hear about Paul’s conversion experience of encountering the risen Christ.  And we hear about Jesus’ third appearance to the disciples after his resurrection.  We know that throughout the Bible there are many stories of miracles.  The parting of the Red Sea, Daniel escaping the lions in the lion’s den, Jesus’ many miracles of healing.  It is common to wonder what these stories have to do with us today.  Did these miracles really happen?  If so, do miracles still happen?  If so, why don’t we hear about them?  If not, why not?  Do the old stories, whether historically accurate or not, still have meaning for us today?  And if God gives miracles, why do they happen for some but not for all?  Why do they seem so random?  And how do they fit in with the world God created with its laws and science?  Why have those physical laws if they are just going to be broken on special occasions?
        Frederick Buechner, in his book “Wishful Thinking” speaks eloquently for us in his essay on miracles when he says, “A cancer unexplicably cured.  A voice in a dream.  A statue that weeps.  A miracle is an event that strengthens faith.  It is possible to look at most miracles and find a rational explanation in terms of natural cause and effect.  It is possible to look at Rembrandt’s Supper at Emmaus and find a rational explanation in terms of paint and canvas.  Faith in God is less apt to proceed from miracles than miracles from faith in God.”
            Still, even people of deep faith struggle with the idea of miracles.  There is great dispute among biblical scholars about the historicity of Jesus’ healings, for example.  Some believe these stories of Jesus’ miracles were added later to legitimate Jesus as God’s son.  For these scholars, the miracle stories offend, first because they are attempts to “prove” God to a people who are called to trust without proof.  Second because again, they call into question why some receive miracles while others don’t.  Third, miracles seem to have “dried up,” at least the big ones, which calls into question why God would have done big miracles in the past but allowed atrocities like the Witch burnings and the Holocaust to occur without intervention.  I am not telling you this to shock or upset you or even to challenge you to question those miracles.  But I am telling you this because I find their reasoning fascinating.  Scholars like Marcus Borg and faithful scientists like the physicist Polkinghorn are offended by the idea that God needs to step outside the wonderful, beautiful laws of nature which God has created in order to prove God’s existence or presence, to prove God’s will and intervention in our lives.  They ask, what do faithful people really need in order to believe in God’s presence?  What kind of signs do we require in order to believe God loves us?  Would we still believe that Jesus was the Christ without the miracles we read about in scripture?  Isn’t God’s presence and existence more profound, more deep, more intensive and infused throughout all life than a need for “miracles?”  And what kind of faith is it that requires stepping outside the laws of physics in order to believe truly in God’s existence or love for us?
         There is a great deal of reason to be cautious in our understanding, and expectation of miracles.  Rev. Kay Landers has been a hospital chaplain for over thirty years.  A colleague in ministry asked Kay (through e-mail) about her experiences with miracles and in particular the miracle of healing, and I would like to read to you Kay’s response.  She wrote, “I am cautious about using the word ‘healing’ when I pray with and for my patients and their families.  There are many ways we are healed.  But my own life experience has been that actual healing of bodily ills and wounds is very rare and that those who suffer and are not healed are not deprived of God's presence and that those who experience the miracle of healing have been touched in a way quite unique from the majority of God's children.  C.S. Lewis believed that the miracles we seek are rare and come only when God intervenes in the natural order of life….death is the natural order and eventually carries us all away.  C.S. Lewis then wrote that miracles are generally only for God's youngest "children" in faith, and as we mature our trust in God grows so that we need to increase our faith in God's presence without an outward, visible sign of God’s constant and true presence, for Jesus will never leave us nor forsake us.   There are many times in the Intensive Care Unit at Highland Hospital that family will request that the doctor "do everything" for the dying patient as they "know God will heal their loved one."  There are those moments when a patient will slowly experience some form of recovery and, rarely, a recovery of major proportions.  However, most are not healed in the way the family desires and that will sometimes turn the family away from God because "God didn't do what we asked."  This is a puzzlement to me, especially when those who were strongly committed to "doing everything" no longer visit their loved ones who remain in comas or vegetative states in our Fairmont beds.”
              Still, I want to give you a couple examples from my own personal life of what I experience to be miracles.  I believe I shared this with you the night before I Candidated here and I know I’ve shared it with our midweek program as well, but for me it remains a powerful story.  This was about 9 years ago.  I was working at Bethel in a half time, minimum Presbytery salary job.  My husband had the full time position but his job had ended and he had not been able to find a new job.  Additionally, we had moved recently, buying one house and attempting to sell the other, when the people who were buying our old house pulled out.  Our new house sprung a major leak in one of the two bathrooms and needed at least $4000 of repair work before it would be functional.  We were, therefore, in the situation of trying to pay two mortgages, with a torn apart bathroom (including the floor that had been ruined by water) letting bugs and the cold into the house, trying to support ourselves on my Presbytery minimum half time salary in the San Francisco Bay Area.  I was scared.  Add to this that it was right before Christmas, we had to figure out how to make it a good and meaningful Christmas for our three children without spending any money on presents or an elaborate meal, and…well, you get the idea.  I finally hit the wall.  It is rare in my private prayer time that I pray for specifics for myself and my family, but this was a rare situation in which, driving home from work late one night I found myself praying for a miracle.  “God, we just need a miracle.  We need to get through this, we need it to all be okay.  We just need some kind of miracle.”  The next morning I got up as I had for several weeks, grumpy, scared and tired, when suddenly I heard a yell from the front of the house.  I ran to see what was the matter, thinking to myself, “What now, O God?  Can this really get any harder?”  But when I ran to the living room, what I found was a six foot tall Christmas tree sitting on our front porch, addressed to us, with a little note that just said, “Merry Christmas.”  While my children squealed with delight, I myself was simply stunned.  Was this the miracle I had been waiting for?  It certainly wasn’t what I had in mind.  But since it did a lot to cheer my children, it set the day in a good way.  We got on with our day and I took Aislynn to her little community center class that morning.  But when I got to class, there was a note pinned to the attendance sheet asking me to come to the office.  I went to the office and the secretary started to tell me there was a problem with my class registration.  I was beginning to get all worked up when suddenly she reached behind her desk and pulled out a huge bag of presents for our family from “Santa Claus.”  At first I thought it must be a mistake, but each present was addressed to a specific member of our family.  For the second time that day, we had been given an unexpected and joyful gift.  This one was more practical, too, for it contained things like a gift card to the local grocery store and pajamas for all the kids.  I was again stunned, and to this day cannot figure out who this gift could possibly have been from.  But still, an answer to my prayer for a miracle?  We came home from class, with my confusion moving into a sense of awe.  I sat on the couch with Aislynn and for the first time ever in her 20 months of age (at that time), she reached up, held my face in both of her little hands, and said, “Mama, I love you.”  And in those words, in that miracle, I beheld the presence of God.  It was with her words that I knew the miracle I had prayed for, had in fact, taken place.  Again, not what I had asked for.  It wasn’t a job.  It wasn’t the sale of our old house.  It wasn’t someone volunteering to fix our bathroom issues.  But instead it was an overflowing sign of love – from God, from God’s people, a love that has, and continues to sustain us through the hard times because the hard times are always there if we focus on them.  And the love is always there to sustain us, if we can just see it when we need it.  Miracles, are all around us, every day, if we choose to see them.
         One day towards the end of my pregnancy with Aislynn, I went to pick up my eldest daughter from school just at the time that her pre-school class was filing in from outside.  I found myself caught by the moving traffic of children and I ended up standing just inside the doorway, holding the door open for the kids as they came inside.  As I stood there with extended belly, most of the kids were talking to each other, or fooling around, all anxious to get inside to be picked up by their parents or eat their lunches.  Yet, one by one, as they passed, each child, without having noticed the other children doing the same, reached out and put their hands on my tummy, quietly, but with intention, with focus, with a moment of silent connection.  Not one of those children looked into my face, acted shy about reaching out or in any other way acknowledged me: it wasn’t about me.  And for each child, it was just a moment, just an automatic reaching out and touching.  But personally, I was awed by the experience, deeply touched, and a little astounded.  I felt I had been blessed, that Aislynn had been blessed, by the hands of all these little children of God.  All these three and four year olds who connected to life at all levels, at deep levels, not knowing why or caring why, but being part of that blessing and connection.
        I could go on and on and on about times God’s presence for me has been strong.  Times I have heard God through other people, through nature, and on a couple occasions what felt very directly.  But none of these events, these miracles that I experience as part of simply living in this world answer the question that was asked, “does God have the ability to defy the laws of physics.”  There isn’t a right or wrong answer to that.  And sometimes I think living in the question is more important than ever finding an answer, because God is there in the journey, in the question, in the exploration.
None the less, I will answer the question from my own perspective and place.  When I look back on biblical stories, I don’t know if all of those things actually happened, and I’ll tell you a secret – I don’t actually care if they did or not.  To me, those stories, whether historically accurate or not, have deeper truths to tell us and I think that if we focus solely on the historicity of those events we miss the point of those stories, the deeper wisdom and truths that they have to tell us.  But regardless of whether each of them happened the way they are described, things do happen that we cannot explain. I think that in many ways we are just at the beginning of our understanding of science.  In another 200 years, if humans are still around, we will look back and be amazed at what we thought we ‘knew’ to be true.  I believe what we perceive to be miracles do happen, even things that would give the appearance of “defying the laws of physics”.  But I believe that, given enough time, we might come to understand how those things could have happened within the scientific universe the way it has been designed.  I believe anything is possible because I’ve seen too many things happen that I cannot explain.  But I also believe God set up the world in such a way that we have what we need to make it work, and this does not require “breaking” or “defying” what God has set up.  We just don’t understand everything yet.
        But what is more important to me than if God can defy the laws of physics (and truly, I think God can do anything God chooses.  That is, after all, the nature of God), I think the deeper question goes back to how we know God is there and how we know God loves us.  Does God still interact with humanity?  Does God still play a part?  Does God still care about each of us all the time?
For me the answer goes back to my favorite Einstein quote: “There are only two ways to live your life: as though nothing is a miracle, or as though everything is a miracle.”  Perhaps because I choose the later, I see God around me every day.  All the time.  Our lives are filled with grace, with blessings, with miracles.  Because that is the nature of the God who loves us.  God set up the laws of physics, however we will eventually be able to understand them, out of love for us, out of an understanding that we need order to help us make sense of our lives.  But God is still ultimately in charge of it all.  And God’s choice is always for us, for love, for good.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - The Gift of Gratitude

1 Samuel 2:1-11Top of Form
Luke 17:11-19

We looked at this gospel passage not all that long ago, but I think a revisiting of this passage is helpful as we honor and celebrate the gifts of those who give so much in this church community.  We have a group in the church that is focusing on Visioning or seeing where God is calling this church to be and to move.  And one of the things that has come up consistently is that we are called to be grateful, both to God for everything we have been given, but also to one another for everything that we do, for all that YOU do.  Today then I want to take a solid look at why we are called to that gratitude, what that is about for us and for you.
 “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”  Your faith has made you well.  He said this to the Samaritan, to the one person who returned to give thanks.  He said this after he had healed all of the ten.  So in that context what does it mean to you?
               The Samaritan’s faith had made him well, but in this context, it becomes clear that being made well was, for this Samaritan, different from the healing that all of them had received.  They all received physical healing.  All the lepers were made clean and they all went away cleansed.  All were healed from their physical illness.  But it is the one who had the faith to return and give thanks who was made well.
               Gratitude.  Gratitude.  Is it simply something we are “supposed’ to do?  I think that gratitude, just like forgiveness, repentance, compassion – all of the actions (and yes, these are all actions, not feelings – we give forgiveness, we change our behavior in repentance, and in compassion we act with care for those in need) – all of the actions that God calls us to serve a purpose in the world.  But more than that - they also heal us at a level that we can’t even begin to understand. 
               Studies have shown that telling people, expressing to people that you are grateful for what they have done helps you to feel better.  And the more depressed you are, the more down you are, the harder things are in your life, the more this is true.  There was a specific study done where people were brought in a tested on a depression scale.  Then they were invited to pick someone who had really impacted their lives in a positive way and write them a letter (not to be sent, just to be written) about what that person had meant to them.  Then they were invited to call that person and read them the letter and finally, they were given the depression test once more.  What they found was that everyone who did this activity had a large increase on the happiness scale after expressing this gratitude to the person who had given them so much.  What surprised them most about the study was that those who measured truly “depressed” on the original test were found to have made huge leaps upwards in terms of their level of happiness, in decreasing their depression after having done this exercise.  There is a reason why one of the therapy tools given to people who struggle with depression is for them to keep a gratitude journal and every single night to write down five things, very specific things, for which they are grateful.  Remembering the good that you have helps.  But what this study showed was that it makes even more difference to express that gratitude to others.  When you are in those bad places, taking time to think about the blessings you have and to give thanks, can make all the difference in the world. 
Personally, I, too, have found this to be absolutely true.  I know that a huge part of what got me through the hardest times for our family was thinking about and then expressing to people and even more for me, expressing to God, what I was and am so deeply, deeply grateful for.  Doing this has helped me focus on the good in my life, reminded me of the many, many blessings that surround me.  Naming them – thanking people simply for being there, or for listening, or for caring; thanking God for the lessons I have learned, for the opportunities to grow, for the chance to see things in a different way; thanking God for each beautiful sunshiny day and for the music of every thunder storm; thanking God for the gifts of laughter and hugs and music and poetry; for the people God placed in my life, the love that I experience daily and the opportunities to love others – that daily thanking people and God reminded and brought home to me how much I had, how many blessings continued to surround me every day even in the hardest times, even in the most difficult of times.  But more, experiencing other people’s reactions when I thank them and they can truly take that in lifted me up even more than just being aware of what it was I was grateful for.  When I say to you, as a congregation, and as individuals of this congregation “Thank you” for being the amazing church of people that you are, for your smiles and your kindness, for your commitment to doing the work of this church, for your dedication in caring for each other and for the needy beyond these walls, for coming together each week to sing and celebrate and share God’s love – when I say this to you, it is my heart that swells with joy.  Mine.  And for that, too, I am deeply, amazingly grateful.
In the book (and I think in the movie too), The Life of Pi, Pi was stranded on a lifeboat for a very long time, and sometimes there weren’t any fish to catch, and sometimes the sun was too hot and the despair was overwhelming and life was impossible.  And Pi said, “You reach a point where you’re at the bottom of hell, yet you have your arms crossed and a smile on your face, and you feel you’re the luckiest person on earth.  Why?  Because at your feet you have a tiny … fish.” (217).   That morsel to eat, that smile from a stranger, that touch of the wind against your face as you walk on a warm day, that gentle hand touching your shoulder – when we take a moment to see these things, to be grateful for these things, when we take a moment to thank God our creator for everything God has given to us, and to name those specifics for which we are grateful, we find joy.  Not just happiness, but joy – real, true, deep.
The truth is that we have a hard time always finding gratitude.  And I believe a large part of that is a sense of entitlement that we have.  I wrote about this in our last newsletter, but I want to state some of what I shared with you again.  We feel entitled to happiness, to freedom, to comfort in this culture.  But the reality is we are not entitled.  We are not entitled to functional cars, to a care-free existence, to riches and comfort, or even to healthy and consistent food.  But our belief that we are entitled to everything good and that somehow it is not fair if we have less than everything we could want leads us, often, to become angry at a life that does not give everything for our ease and comfort.  We become frustrated and upset by the challenges in our life and focus on our “lack” rather than our abundance. My experience is that this is a cultural thing.  Part of the reason that the people I met in Central America were so much more generous than people here in the United States was because they saw, understood, experienced, and knew that everything they had was a gift of grace, given to be shared with others.  They get that they are graced so that they may grace others.  But from a place of believing that what we have is ours and that therefore we have a right to it, and that we don’t therefore need to share it, we find it hard to share, hard to let go, hard to give.  It is that sense of gratitude, a recognition that everything good in life is a gift of grace, one that should be valued and appreciated, without being anticipated, expected, or worse, assumed, these are the beliefs that lead one into a sense of gratitude, a love of life, a joy in life.  These are the feelings that lead us to be generous as well.  We have been graced, we are grateful and out of that gratitude we then give back, out of a sense of how deeply blessed we are in every moment of every day we are freed to share, to let go of the stuff that owns us, and to spread our wealth and our blessings to all we encounter.
The Samaritan who returned to Jesus to give thanks was made well.  This goes beyond physical healing.  All of the ten were healed.  But the Samaritan was made well.  In returning with faith and with gratitude, with eyes that saw the amazing blessing he had been given and being able to name it, to say “thank you” to the one who brought release and freedom – that made the Samaritan well.  And being well is more precious than even physical healing.  To say, “it is well with my soul”.  We will be singing this song in a minute, and I invite you to really listen to the words, to sing them with the gratitude that  life of abundance inspires.  I’m also giving you homework.  I’d like to invite you to try an exercise in expressing gratitude this week.  Find 1-3 people a day to whom you are grateful.  Call them.  Write them a note.  Send them a card.  Give them the flower that I gave you today. Let them know that you are thankful for what they have done or how they have touched you or who they are.  At the end of the week let me know how your expressions of gratitude have affected you. 
That wellness with our souls, that peace, that joy comes as another blessing from God…a blessing we gain simply by seeing, feeling, and giving thanks for the blessings that surround us each and every day.  Amen.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

On Death

I am often called upon to do memorial services.  When they are for parishioners, people whom I know, I usually speak about the person's life, what it meant to me.  I emphasize that death is part of life, a normal part, a transition into something else; that our relationships with those who have passed are not ended, just changed; that we keep those relationships and those spirits who have passed alive in our telling of stories, in our memories, and that we learn to relate to their spirits in new ways.  I stress that all feelings are welcomed and honored by God: that we celebrate their lives but also grieve our loss of them.  When I do a memorial for someone I don't know, I say the same, often relating stories told to me by the family.  Inviting laughter as well as tears.

But I am aware that there is much that I don't say.  I don't use memorials as a time to berate others to "believe or fear the wrath of hell!" I don't believe that, so how could I say it? I don't talk about what heaven will be like because I have no idea what happens after we die and I'm really clear about that. To me, scriptural references to "heaven" or "eternal life" are a way of talking about moments in which we experience the Divine.  Not sure they have much to do with what happens or where we go after we die.  I know that may surprise some of you, but it's my truth.  I do think our spirits continue in some way.  Just from a scientific perspective the law of conservation says nothing new is created or destroyed, just changed.  I tend to feel that applies to our spirits as well.  But again, I see that as more of a scientific belief and less of a religious one.  I have felt the presence of loved ones that have passed, but I also know that could simply be a strong memory emerging, a smell I encounter that feels or reminds me of them.  There have been strange moments: I swore I saw my grandfather standing in my room in the night just slightly after he died but before I knew he had passed.  Since there is a collective unconscious of sorts though,  perhaps my experiences are just tapping into that.  

Many people use their faith as a kind of life insurance.  It is a protection against death, a belief that if they just do or believe or say the right things that death will not be the end.  Still, as I walk with people towards death, I find that some people of astonishingly deep faith are still afraid at the end of their lives, and that other people who do not consider themselves people of faith are okay with the "letting go" that happens at the end.  Despite what we tell ourselves or what we believe, I don't know that belief in a heaven always makes things easier in the end.

But because I have no idea what happens when we die, obviously my faith isn't about that for me. Still, just as I find comfort in feeling a presence of love that is bigger than myself, I believe that presence, too, will follow me into whatever comes next, even if it is "nothingness". And while I have no idea at all what that "next" will be, I also find I don't need to know.  I'm okay with the unanswered questions.  I'm comfortable with not knowing what will come.

Perhaps part of that for me is that I don't cling to life in the same way many other people do.  I see that death is just another part of life. But more than that, I experience life as both wonderful and horrible at the same time. I am deeply grateful for the beauty I have seen, heard, smelled, touched, felt, tasted, and experienced.  But I also see that there is so much pain, so much cruelty and unkindness in this world. This life I have lived to this moment has demanded that I be all I know how to be. I have been challenged again and again to be better than I have been before and I am comfortable with striving to meet those challenges.  But at times I am tired, and the thought of an eventual "rest" is comforting in those moments.

It is interesting to me that my thinking on this seems to have been passed down to my daughter.  She brought up death to me today.  She told me she thinks of death as a worthy adversary, but not an enemy.  Death, she said, was a sparring partner: someone we fight and engage with through our life until, ultimately, death wins.  At that point, she said, she would say to death, "Thank you, good and worthy opponent.  I have done my best, but have been defeated in the end.  I will go with you now into the great unknown."  But then she raised the question: how long and for what do we continue the fight? She talked about specific diseases, wondering if fighting them was worth the effort always, or if sometimes the choice to keep fighting is a choice to let go of quality of life in favor of quantity, and if the fight itself ends up losing us some dignity as well as honor.  I have wondered the same, especially as I've walked with people at the end.  She said that for her, she felt that she would continue to fight as long as there were loved ones who valued her staying.  But I found myself (inside) questioning even this.  Life is a series of losses. Our loved ones will lose us or we will lose them. It is inevitable. So at some point we let go knowing that loves ones will experience the grief of losing us.  How do we decide at what point it is okay to let them go through that pain?

I think life has much to give and much to teach us. We grow, we love, we live. With each breath we experience life differently.  As I look around I have come to believe that everyone has different life lessons and life purpose. One of my life lessons is overcoming judgments.  Every time I judge someone else on anything it comes back at me.  I've come to welcome that life lesson as one I deeply value. I have come to appreciate growing in my ability to be compassionate and understanding of others rather than judgmental.  That is a gift, has been a gift, that will continue to bless me with the opportunities to know people who are very different from myself.  Life purpose?  One of my favorite quotes comes from C.S. Lewis' book Perelandra, "Don't imagine I've been selected for ...(any task)...because I'm anyone in particular.  One never can see, or not till long afterwards, why any one was selected for any calling.  And when one does, it is usually some reason that leaves no room for vanity.  Certainly it is never for what the ...(person...themself) would have regarded as their chief qualifications."

But my sense is that at some point my purpose will be fulfilled, and my life lessons will have been learned or will they have become "beyond learning".  At that point the Universe will move me on. Yes, there are things I would like to do and like to accomplish before that happens.  But I also feel I have experienced a lot already, grown much, and I will accept when I can no longer move towards those dreams and goals I have set for myself.  That is my sense.  So again, I don't fear death.  It is a page in life, the next adventure.  I'm not anticipating it yet, but I believe I will be ready when it comes, as far as one can be.  As Kalhil Gibran says in The Prophet, "you would know the secret of death.  But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?...If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.  For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one."

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Sermon from the 4th: Honoring One's Family

I have gotten behind again in publishing sermons on my blog.  This is a mixed thing; my other posts have more readers, but I also know the posting of these goes to our church website as well as to parishioners who weren't able to come on Sunday.  So here is my sermon from a couple weeks back.  Apologies to those who prefer other posts... been focusing more on poetry and stories lately (other blogs).

Exodus 20: 12
1 John 4: 20,21
Luke 14: 25- 26
Mark 3: 31-34

            Today’s readings in our scriptures appear to conflict with each other. The verse from Exodus is one of the ten commandments and tells us we are to honor our parents. This is followed by the passage from First John which tells us that if we don’t love our brothers and sisters we cannot love God and that in loving God, we love all of those around us as well. So far so good.  Pretty straight forward.  Loving God means loving our family. Honoring our parents is part of that love.
               But then we come to the third passage, from Luke.  This seems to be in direct conflict with our other passages. Let me read it to you again: “Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.’” We see throughout the gospels that Jesus challenges what appear to be concrete and unquestioned laws of other parts of scripture. Is this another one of those times?
              There are many churches that hang their shingle on this very passage from Luke. When I was working on my dissertation I read a book entitled Twisted Scriptures: Breaking Free from Churches that Abuse (Mary Alice Chrnalogar. Grand Rapids, MI.:  Zondervan Publishing House, 2000.), in which the author Mary Alice Chrnalogar discussed churches, often mainstream, regular denominational churches that take on some cult-like personality traits.  They often use a “discipleship” model in which someone who has been part of the church for a set period of time “disciples” those who are newer to the church. This discipling in these particular congregations subtly puts the new member in a situation where every single decision in their life must be affirmed by their discipler, where every personal event must be confessed to their discipler and where they lose more and more autonomy, freedom, and even sense of self under the guise of being “guided in their spiritual journeys.”  Mary Alice Chrnalogar refers to this passage in Luke as she states, “What member of a controlling group doesn’t know this verse? Stressing this verse in the wrong way can drive psychological wedges between church members and their families. It can even lead members to feel disgust for those who love them.”
               These same churches also use the last scripture, from the book of Mark, that I read to you
today. I would like to read that one again as well. “Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.’
“‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ he asked.  Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.’”
            The author of Twisted Scriptures continues “By using this verse, our group was powerfully driven to feel isolated from all outsiders who we believed weren’t as committed as we were. Those of us within the group truly felt as though we were brothers and sisters. I emotionally distanced myself from my blood relatives. They didn’t count as much.....Often these groups make their members paranoid by admonishing them not to allow their own families to challenge (anything) the group... teach(es).” Have any of you been involved with churches like this?
          We know that many scriptures of the Bible can be mis-used when taken out of the context of the rest of scripture. What is commonly called “proof-texting” or quoting scripture without its context or without the bigger message of the Bible can be very dangerous. So we must understand these four texts within their contexts and as they relate to each other and other passages in scripture. What is the message for us in these passages, not as separate sentences but as a group?
             The text in Luke about hating your mother, etc. is not a passage talking about how we are to treat our family. Rather it is a passage stressing that your primary commitment must be to God.  We are to follow God and God’s will for our lives, for our hearts, our souls, our material possessions over all other commitments, even that of family members. Our love for God is to be so primary that if we were to compare our love, the love we feel for the people we are closest to would look like nothing, might look like hatred or rejection, in comparison for our commitment and love of God. That is what this passage is stressing. In concrete terms, if you are forced into making a choice between following God’s will for your life or following what your family would have you do, there is no contest: you must follow God. Fortunately, for most of us, we will probably not have to come to a place where we have to choose between God and family. But even if you do, this passage is simply saying you are called to follow God above all others. This passage is NOT telling you to reject family for other people, even if those other people are church members. It is NOT telling you to follow the will of the church over the will of your family. This is strictly about your commitment to God and how strongly it is to prevail in your life.
        In trying to understand how we are to treat our family members, we have to keep looking beyond this passage because this passage isn’t about how we are to treat family members.
The fourth passage I picked for today is helpful here. In this passage Jesus expands on the understanding of family. He says, “Who are my mother and brothers? All who are doing God’s will are my mother and brothers.” It is interesting to note what he does not say here. He does not say, “Whoever is a member of my church is my mother and brothers.” He does NOT say, “Whoever believes in me is my mother and brothers.” He does NOT say, “Whoever believes in GOD is my mother and brothers.” He says, “All who are doing God’s will are my mother and brothers.”
         Another thing to point out: Jesus also does not say in this passage from Mark that his biological mother and brothers are not his mother and brothers. He does not exclude them.  Instead, he opens up his definition of family. Those doing God’s will are family. Those committed to love and caring and service are family.
       What does this mean for us practically? Who is our family? Who are the parents that we
are to honor? How are we to know who is doing God’s will and who is not? Personally, I don’t think I am qualified to judge absolutely if someone is following God’s will or not. And again, we have other scriptures to guide us in our behavior. Jesus says, “You have heard it said , ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” but I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you... For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you welcome only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?” (Matthew 5:43-47)
     Who do you struggle to treat as family? A category of people that I personally have struggled in the past to accept lovingly as family is fundamentalist Christians. I know fundamentalists are my brothers and sisters. I know they are even my brothers and sisters in faith. But they truly have the ability to bring out my highest judgement, my deepest anger, and my crabbiest self. So thirteen years ago when an old high school friend called me to say she’d been “born again” and wanted to get together with me, instead of elation at the prospect of meeting with her, I honestly felt sick to my stomach. Our meeting went much as I expected. She proudly informed me that in HER church women were not even allowed to be ushers.  She told me that she would not visit her parents any longer because her father had been married before to someone who was not her mother and therefore he was a divorced man so she would not have anything to do with him. She shared with me that she was currently on a committee fighting to insist that public schools be forbidden to teach science, especially evolution, since it was anti-biblical. I said nothing in response to all of this, feeling somewhat paralyzed by it all: not wanting to “start a conflict” if she didn’t really want to know my opinion, and feeling increasingly that not only were we as different as could be but that in fact we worshiped different gods. But I also found myself unable to block out other things that she was telling me about her faith journey. She was volunteering in a soup kitchen. She was reading the Bible with a group of women. She was taking the time to talk to the homeless on the street and give them both food and her time and attention. After she left those facts stayed with me at a much deeper level than our theological disagreements. She was doing God’s will, she was my Christian sister, she was another child of God, even if I had failed to treat her as such in my silence, in my fear, in my disagreement with her personal theology.
         We are not to be the judge of who is following God’s will and who is not. Instead, we are to extend our understanding of family to include all of God’s people: ALL PEOPLE. Even people of other faiths, even atheists, even fundamentalists. Even...whatever group or individual you personally struggle to accept. Family is not to be limited or defined by blood or marriage
relationships. It is not to be limited or defined even by church boundaries. This can be hard. It can be challenging to look at those around us as brothers and sisters whom we are called to love, serve and care for. And yet we have models of people who have been more than able to love someone who has come into their life though they are not a blood relation, though they are not united by marriage. How many of you have had the experience of inviting someone to become part of your family who is not related to you by blood or marriage?
          The best example I can think of of someone really expanding their family beyond blood and marriage walls is the example of a parent who adopts a child. That parent anticipates that child and loves that child every bit as much as a parent who gives birth to a child.
         As one parent of three: two by birth, one by adoption, told me: “Our adoption journey was a 9-month journey of faith, much like my pregnancies with the boys. Maggie's coming into our family has been just as much of a miracle as the births of the boys, if not more so for me. There were so many days that we worried and stressed and cried about whether we would be able to afford it or whether it was really going to happen or whether or not she was ok or when she was going to come home. But all of our prayers were answered and she is worth all that we went through and much more. She is certainly the baby that was meant to be with us.”
        When we baptize babies, children, and adults into our church, or even when we simply welcome them as members, we promise in a very formal, concrete way to care for and raise these members as family. It is in a sense an adoption by the church of these new members. This is a place for us to practice and take seriously Jesus’ call to expand our understanding of family. Treating each other as family is as simple as saying “hello” and is as deep as inviting someone to stay with you who is down and out, inviting someone to share a holiday with you, asking if they are okay, and sharing your own self - your worries, your hopes, your joys as well.
           The church is a safe place to practice being family. Here we learn to honor all in this room as our mother and father. Here we learn to love and serve each other. Through baptism we practice adoption of one another as children, as brothers and sisters. Here we practice. So that then we may enter the world in that same spirit of love, same openness to seeing God’s family everywhere around us.
           The bottom line is that we honor our family by honoring each other, respecting each other, listening to each other, serving each other.  We honor our family by growing in love towards all God throws our way. That call again that is so very simply, and not so very easy. But worth everything we have.