Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - The gifts of suffering

John 16:12-15
Romans 5:1-5

            In J.K Rowling’s book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,( New York, NY : Arthur A. Levine Books, 2003.  p823) there is a conversation between Harry and Dumbledore that follows Harry’s great loss of his god-father.  Harry is suffering, he is struggling.  The conversation follows as such:
               “I know how you are feeling, Harry,” said Dumbledore very quietly.
               “No, you don’t,” said Harry, and his voice was suddenly loud and strong.  White-hot anger leapt inside him.  Dumbledore knew nothing about his feelings.
               “You see, Dumbledore?” said Phineas Nigellus slyly, “Never try to understand the students.  They hate it.  They would much rather be tragically misunderstood, wallow in self-pity, stew in their own –”
               “That’ enough, Phineas,” said Dumbledore.
               Harry turned his back on Dumbledore and stared determinedly out of the opposite window. …
               “There is no shame in what you are feeling, Harry,” said Dumbledore’s voice.  “On the contrary…the fact that you can feel pain like this is your greatest strength.”
               Harry felt the white-hot anger lick his insides, blazing in the terrible emptiness, filling him with the desire to hurt Dumbledore for his calmness and his empty words.
               “My greatest strength, is it?” said Harry, his voice shaking as he stared out at the Quidditch stadium, no longer seeing it. “You haven’t got a clue…You don’t know…”
               “What don’t I know?” asked Dumbledore calmly.
               It was too much.  Harry turned around, shaking with rage.
               “I don’t want to talk about how I feel, all right?”
               “Harry, suffering like this proves you are still a man!  This pain is part of being human –”
               “THEN – I – DON’T – WANT – TO – BE- HUMAN!” Harry roared, and he seized one of the delicate silver instruments form the spindle-legged table beside him and flung it across the room.  It shattered into a hundred tiny pieces against the wall. Several of the pictures let out yells of anger and fright and the portrait of Armando Dippet said, “Really!”
               “I DON’T CARE!” Harry yelled at them, snatching up a lunascope and throwing it into the fireplace.  “I’VE HAD ENOUGH, I’VE SEEN ENOUGH, I WANT OUT, I WANT IT TO END, I DON’T CARE ANYMORE - ”
               He seized the table on which the silver instrument had stood and threw that too.  It broke apart on the floor and the legs rolled in different directions.
               “You do care,” said Dumbledore.  He had not flinched or made a single move to stop Harry demolishing his office.  His expression was calm, almost detached.  “You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it.”
--
            We all have times of suffering.  It is part of the human experience.  It is part of being alive.  None of us want to suffer.  None of us enjoy suffering.  And yet, the passage I just read tells us that suffering is our greatest strength.  That it IS what makes us the people we are.  Paul said it in today’s passage as well.  “suffering produces perseverance;  perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
            But the truth is we have choices about how we react to the pain of suffering.  We have choices about what we will do with our suffering.  Paul Pearsall in his book, The Beethoven Factor (Hampton Roads Publishing Company, 2003) says we tend to react to trauma or suffering in one of three ways.  We can become victims, or become beaten, bitter, sorrowful because of what we have endured.  We can become survivors, which means we make it through but continue to wear the scars.  Or we can become thrivers.  Thrivers take what they have endured and create something new and beautiful out of it.  I believe that our faith can have a great deal to do with how we respond in the face of trauma.
             While I was in Ohio, I was part of a wonderful and amazing lectionary group - a group of 12 pastors who met together weekly to study scripture, pray together, eat together, sometimes sing together and sometimes play together.  We were brother and sister Christians on the journey towards a deeper understanding of Christ, of God, of the Spirit and of love.  But we were/are also friends - people I know I can call on and count on in crisis, people I do call on and count on in crisis. We were a "house church" in the truest sense of the word, a community offering care that is not just theoretical but practical as well.  I am so deeply grateful for every single person in that group, deeply thankful for their thoughtfulness and faith, their contributions to the community, their abiding friendships, the gifts they gave simply through their weekly presence. 
           One week when we gathered, our group members had much wisdom to offer on this passage from Paul in Romans 5:1-5.  At one point in the conversation we were particularly discussing verses 3-5.  To quote it once more, "And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us."
            I admit I had been very quiet that morning. It was a week of anniversaries - difficult, painful anniversaries and I am not unaffected by these.  I was even, I found, a little concerned that I might be bringing the group down with my sad energy.  But I found it more than a little interesting that the group was discussing how unhelpful it is when people tell each other that they are supposed to be grateful for their sufferings.  Comments like "everything happens for a reason" and "God never gives you more than you can handle" are not helpful. These comments minimize the pain we suffer, they discount our experiences in the moment.  Telling people they should be grateful for their suffering because it will produce endurance which produces character which produces hope is not and cannot be helpful.  I agree with all of this.  But then somehow it was either said or implied that people can't really be grateful for the deep traumas they endure.  And there I was, sitting in pain, sitting in grief, sitting in memories of the previous two years when my family had gone through an unbelievable time of loss and tragedy and scandal and humiliation and my life and the lives of my kids had radically changed as I became a single parent and sole provider for my family, for my household; a leader of a congregation without a partner to support me, sitting in memories of hurtful attacks aimed my way, sitting in regrets for things that should have been or could have been done differently, sitting in loss - and from that place, from that place of pain I heard myself saying, "I am grateful for the suffering that I have endured."  Huh?  Did I just say that?  "I have deepened - in my person, in my faith, in my compassion and empathy, in my ability to understand and forgive, in my commitment to see what really is and what is not, mostly in my connection to God.  I have deepened and become more the person I strive to be, the person God calls me to be, because of my struggles."  Silence.
"Okay," came the response finally, "but would you have said that two years ago when you were actually going through all of that?"
"No", I laughed.  And then, again to the surprise of myself more than anyone I added, "and yes."  During that incredibly difficult time for my family there came a period when I thought I might actually be broken by what was happening, when I felt that maybe I would not be able to hold it together.  The world was nothing like I thought it was.  My marriage, my life, my ministry, my views of other human beings, my understanding of the world - nothing was what I had thought it was.  And the things I prayed for were answered by "no" and "no" again.  Every morning I found myself just repeating the mantra, "Please, God.  Please, God!"  over and over and yet things were not getting better.  Every day brought more pain and new levels of hurt.  And yet...and yet, it was in the midst of that, in the midst of the deepest, darkest time ever in my life, that I felt God's presence so incredibly strongly.  I felt God's arms holding me, carrying me, speaking to me of companionship and love and care.  And it was not just with God directly.  I connected with people whom I never would have connected with at such deep levels, I made meaningful and enduring friendships (including with folk from that very group) who were amazing and supportive and wonderful and who continue to shine God's light for me.  I learned who was real and true and caring (most of the people I knew and connected with, actually!) and who could not walk with me through the crisis, and I came to understand that those who could not walk with me - that too was not out of meanness, but out of their own experiences and needs at that time. People shared with me their own sufferings at a much deeper level because they knew I would get it, and so it deepened my ministry as well.  And I developed a much, much stronger appreciation for the beauty around me in the midst of darkness.  I am more grateful now for the birds singing, the sun shining, the breeze blowing, for little gifts and kind words, open smiles and firm hugs, the presence of children in my life, play, dance, music.  I see blessings and feel blessed where I did not see them or know them or love them before.
            Did I want the difficult tragedies to happen?  Of course not.  In my wildest, deepest, most awful nightmares I never saw this coming and never could have imagined the pain and suffering that I or my kids would have experienced.  But it would be inaccurate to say that I am ungrateful for it.  Because God did bring gifts, God did bring life, God brought presence in a way I had never experienced before and it came to me THROUGH the experiences.  And while I am still a person who makes mistakes, big and little, who "sins", who hurts others, I see that I am becoming more fully the person God calls me to be because I have deepened through the suffering.  How could I not be grateful?
Paul starts this passage with the words, “we boast in our sufferings”.  I would not say that I "boast" in my suffering.  I would not say that I "take pride" (different translation) in my problems.  In truth, I find that problematic.  When we become “martyrs” for a cause we can lose sight of the real meaning – of serving and loving God and one another.  We can become too focused on a single issue and forget to see the forest for the single tree.  It becomes at some level about us and about our ability to withstand, to have integrity, to be strong.  Again, our call is to be about love – loving God, self and each other.  Boasting in our suffering is not about loving.  But while that part of the passage does NOT speak to me in this way, I would say that God has been present for me through all of the pain we endured, that I am different because of it, and that, yes, I am grateful for the struggles. 

I pray the same for all of you.  I don't wish pain on you, but pain will come.  And so my prayer is that when it does, that you, too, would thrive through adversity, grow through the struggles, deepen and find gratitude in the midst of it all.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - Gentle and Loving Confrontation

Proverbs 8:1-14
Matthew 18: 15-22

Immediately after college I served as a volunteer in mission in New Mexico.  While I was there the local church music director offered to teach me organ lessons in exchange for working as her piano accompanist for the music and voice classes she taught at the local community college.  It was my first experience with the organ but after just a couple weeks, the music director called me one Sunday morning saying she was very ill and would I play for her in church that day.  Well, as a very nervous new organist I agreed.  The service went fine and afterwards people were very positive about how things had gone.  Three days later I received a letter in the mail.  The letter was written by Sally, a long term member, the widow of a Presbyterian Minister, and a fellow musician.  When I opened the letter the first thing I noticed was that it actually was not addressed to me.  Instead, it was a copy of a letter she had written to the pastor, the music director, the worship committee, and every member of the session.  She wrote,
“I was appalled on Sunday to hear the abominable organ playing done by Barbara Barkley.  She was a disaster.  I have rarely heard anything so disgraceful in church.  I’m writing to you in the hope that you will see to it that such an atrocity does not again take place.”
She concluded her letter by writing,
“In the future, I would be happy to voluntarily serve as a substitute organist at any time.  With love, Sally.”
As you can imagine, I was devastated.  Moreover, I was humiliated.  I had never before received anything like such a letter, and I was absolutely cut to the quick.  For a moment I thought it might be a joke.  But that idea was soon banished by a phone call I received from the music director, followed by another from the pastor.  They each were kind and reassuring in their own ways.  The music director assured me that Sally was just upset that I had been asked to play instead of her.  The pastor told me that I should feel I had really made it in their congregation: I wasn’t really part of the in-crowd at the church until I had received a devastating letter from Sally, something he received on a regular basis as well as most of the leadership in the church.  He also told me he thought I’d played well.  But for all their kind words, I still felt so ashamed that I wondered if I would ever again be able to show my face at the church, let alone continue to study organ.  A part of my confidence, my enthusiasm for learning and trying new things, my spirit was broken, a part that it took a long time to heal.  Sally sinned against me on that day.  She was right to say how she felt.  But out of love, she should have talked to me, alone and in person.  She was right to express her concerns, but in love, she should have been more careful about the words she chose and how she chose to use them.
But actually, it is not about Sally’s errors that I wish to focus today.  Instead, it is my own sin and sins of my cohorts at the church of which I want to speak.  It is about the lack of a loving response on my part, on the part of the pastor and music director and yes, on the part of the session.  Because we all responded to the letter - by ignoring it.  I ignored it, as I ignored Sally from then on, out of fear.  She had hurt me once, what would she do or say if I actually spoke to her?  The choir director ignored it because, as she said, “Sally is old and set in her ways.  She can’t really change at this point.”  The session ignored it because they received so many of these kinds of letters from Sally that they discounted them without a second thought.  And the pastor ignored it in the name of “forgiveness.”  “We need to forgive Sally,” he said, “by just letting it go.”
But in our failure to confront, each of us missed an opportunity for growth, and we failed to heal the wounds.  We also failed to prevent future hurtful letters to be written by her hands.  Most importantly, we failed to really hear Sally and we missed an opportunity to care for her in one of the truest senses of the word.
It is hard to confront.  It is hard to face people who are angry with us or with whom we are angry or upset.  And so we often choose to take the easy way out and not deal directly with the hurts and wrongs others have done to us.  We justify this in a number of ways, “It wouldn’t do any good to say anything” or “I can just as easily process this with someone else and then let it go.” or my favorite, “I don’t need to confront because I have forgiven them.”  But in today’s passage, Jesus does not say, “talk to those who have sinned against you IF you are still angry with them.”  He does not say, “Talk to them IF you think it will do any good.”  Jesus tells us to confront those in our community who have hurt us.  To act in a loving way, to act as a brother or sister to one another necessitates telling people the hard truth about how things affect us, how we feel, how another person’s actions have impacted us.
We confront to let go of our own anger so that we can really see each other as brothers and sisters.  We confront to help one another grow and walk together in our Christian journeys.  We confront so that other brothers and sisters are not hurt in the same way as we were.  Most importantly, we confront as a sign that we think the ones who have hurt us are important enough to deserve our communication, our honesty, even our correction leading to our ultimate forgiveness.
Jesus follows his instructions on confrontation with the command to forgive one another.  These two passages flow together: they are part of the same act.  Communicating hard truths is a necessary part of forgiveness because it says that I love you enough to not let anything come between us.  And I love you enough to want to work with you, together, in our growing.
God does not leave us simply with the difficult direction to lovingly confront.  Jesus gives us guidelines on how we are to deal with one another in our pain, how we are to lovingly confront.  And yet, the directions that Jesus gives us are not easy.  The first direction is perhaps the most difficult of all.  When someone has hurt or wronged us, the first thing we are to do is to go to the person themself and face to face express our pain and our opinions.  This is difficult.  I would much rather write a letter, forget about it, or get someone else to talk to the person for me.  We often want, and too often choose, to discuss the problem with other people.  Or at least process it with other people first.  We want to get our thoughts together, we want another’s opinion, we want support.  But whatever our good intentions in talking to others, often our conversations become gossip.  Our conversations with others can intensify our judgments of one another, and can bring others into a problem that is not their own.  After receiving Sally’s letter, I didn’t want to confront her, so I talked about her instead to the music director, the pastor and anyone else who would listen and care.  My words about her expressed my own hurt, but they were also condemning, critical and judging.  And through my pain, I incited others’ anger and judgment against her as well.  It wasn’t my intention to do this.  But in not dealing with Sally directly, these were the consequences.
In the church especially, avoiding loving confrontation can be damaging.  We are a close-knit community.  And so when there is a problem and it is not dealt with directly, the one hurt can end up bottling the pain.  More often I think when someone in the church is upset with something we have done, we will still hear critique.  But it will come through a third party. But there are many problems with this.  First of all, almost always when we are upset about something it says more about us than it does about whatever we are upset about. The real problems cannot therefore be addressed when issues are spoken about as coming from an anonymous person.  Secondly, when a person hears critique out of context, they often are unable to know what exactly they have done to cause the upset and so they can’t really use the criticism to fix the problem or to grow. We can also focus on the other person’s failure to speak directly about the problem and avoid looking at our own part.  Also when we do not know exactly where critique has come from we can feel that the church itself is judging us.  The anonymous accuser becomes in our minds a menacing group or even the church itself.  The church stops feeling safe or a place where we can trust and learn.
James Angell in his book, “Yes is a world” wrote, “Church ought to be a set of moments when we become most expansively, openly and honestly ourselves.  Yet it is in the church where we often find it hardest to be ourselves: where we are often the most guarded, the most paranoid, the most unsure of being accepted and understood.”  The church is a place in which, every Sunday, we take time to acknowledge our broken-ness and our need for God’s forgiveness to make us whole. But it still remains difficult for us to lovingly speak truth to one another thereby helping one another grow towards wholeness.
In our legal system we have rules that insist that an accused person has the right to see and hear their accuser.  Accusations are not admissible in court if they remain anonymous.  How much more so should this be the case in our church?  We are to be as family to one another.  The passage that we read today uses the phrase, “if another member sins against you,” but the word translated here as “another member” is actually “brother” in Greek.  With family we don’t have to hide behind anonymity. We are called to be fully who we are, to speak directly, to trust that love will carry us through any conflict. And finally, when we do not want others to know what we are saying, that may be a call for us to actually look at what we are saying, to determine if it is really appropriate, true, and helpful or if it is simply hurtful. 
There are times when taking the risk of speaking directly will lead us to nothing, when the person who has hurt us will not listen. It is at that point and only at that point that Jesus asks us to invite others in the church to witness and listen. But the key words here are “witness” and “listen”.  The other church members are there to aid in the conversation, but they remain observers.  The discussion itself still remains between the one hurt and the one being confronted.
The directions that Jesus gives us for confrontation are not easy.  But we alone suffer the consequences of not following Jesus’ words.  Because I never confronted Sally, my fear of her and her judgment remained with me.  It took me eight years after receiving her letter before I could even mention the story with people who weren’t directly involved in the situation.  And while I can share about it now, simply talking to her at the time might have saved me years of shame and insecurity. 
Was Sally wrong? Was she unkind? Was she just unnecessarily cruel in her words and manner of addressing this? Of course. We are called to be direct – a letter is not direct. But more importantly, we are called to speak to one another in love. Attacking words, an attacking posture, attacking, angry language is also not okay. We are called to be direct, but still loving.  And that must affect how we speak things, how we phrase things, and the posture with which we speak.  But recognizing Sally’s fault in this does not, did not give us permission to act in a similarly unloving way. Failing to talk to her, ignoring her unkindness, ignoring her was unkind, and I was the one left scarred by that decision.
Jesus asks a lot of us. And loving confrontation may seem to be one more difficult task for us to take on. But, each of Jesus’ instructions are gifts to the person asked to do them. So today we celebrate the gift that Jesus has given us in this request to lovingly confront one another. We celebrate that we are family to each other and we are called to love each other enough to risk telling the truth, face to face, to our brothers and sisters. We celebrate that as we confront, we ourselves will grow in our ability to care, to understand, to remember that even those who hurt us are human and make mistakes just as we do.  We will grow in our ability to forgive and truly love one another.

Friday, May 20, 2016

My Greatest Disobedience

      The wonderful mystic, Hildegaard de Bingen wrote: “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 he 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 absolutely love what she wrote.  While I do not live with chronic physical pain as she did and my life is different in many ways, I relate deeply to the phrase, "My self-doubt is my greatest disobedience." When I was interviewing for jobs, one of the questions commonly asked was what I felt was my greatest flaw or area of growth, and I said then what I will say now, that I know it to be my insecurity. To me, though, it truly is more than a flaw or area of growth.  It is, as Hildegaard de Bingen said it, a disobedience. It is disobedience in so many ways.  It distracts me from doing what I feel called to do. It calls me to focus on self more than on care for others.  It takes up time and energy that could better be spent serving or enjoying the beautiful life God has given us.  But most of all, that self-doubt is a liar. It lies to me on a daily basis and makes me hesitant in my decisions, causes me to question things I have said and done, keeps me out of the present and more in past guilt or future anxiety. It tells me that I cannot succeed at things I feel called to do and keeps me, at times, from even trying, even pursuing what is clearly a call for my life.
        I fight this.  From many people I hide it.  I am certain that there are many who would be very surprised to hear that this is such a huge part of my existence, of my being.  I hesitate even to put it out there now.  But I have found that Catholics and 12-step groups have got it right about confession in many ways.  When we confess what we have done wrong, we have a much better chance of working it through, of letting it go, of "repenting" in the sense of turning the other way and going a different direction. Naming it out loud takes away power that is given to it through silence, through "secrecy".
       But it is actually for another reason that I am choosing to blog on it today. Occasionally I have days that are truly filled with little, what I would call "love notes," from God or the Universe or "that which is beyond".  These are days that call me on something in a beautiful way.  I wrote yesterday about the situation with the dove family and that wake up call for me, especially as the one dove baby was found alive and we were able to help it.  But there was also a series of other things going on. I experienced three different situations in which I had made negative assumptions about the way others were interacting with me.  In one, I was absolutely certain a person was angry with me who, it turned out, was just having a really bad day because of family problems.  In another, I was absolutely certain about a person not liking me who it turned out was just a very quiet and shy person.  And in a third I was absolutely sure a person had regretted my being hired at my church here who completely showed me that she felt differently.  I did not confront any of these three people, each came to me with a different message from what I had understood before.  Three in a row.  And I felt, as I often do, that it took all three of those coming at me in that way for me to get the message.  I got the message.  I need to stop worrying so much about what others think because I will never actually know what they think.  I may as well assume the best because no matter what my assumptions, they are likely to be wrong and assuming the worst leaves me miserable and paralyzed in situations where that is completely unnecessary.  As I have been writing this, I just received an email note of affirmation as well... And that to me confirms again that it really is a love note from the Divine, reminding me to let go of the insecurity again.
       Twelve step programs have a wonderful saying, "It is none of my business what you think of me/feel about me."  The point is that what matters is how people treat us, not how they really feel. But also, we can never really know how another person feels about us, we can never understand completely why someone is behaving the way they are, so worrying about it is pointless.  
       So, for me personally, this is something I will continue to work on.  I will take the things I believe I am called to do one step at a time.  One step forward, I will try the actions that scare me, setting little goals that lead to the bigger picture.  I will keep walking and meditating (both of which center me and bring me out of "me" and back into the present needs of those around me and the present calls to action). I will keep laughter and music around me which also lightens the heavy physical burden of doubt from my heart. I will keep moving forward.  And I ask for your help in accountability around this.  For we all are called to support one another in this journey. 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Signs? Or not?

    Things have been very difficult the last few weeks.  Personally, professionally, family-wise - things have been difficult.  Not that this is highly unusual.  I think that there are always good things to be grateful for and always challenges that give us the opportunity to grow and learn.  The last few weeks have been particularly difficult, but there are going to be times like that, there just are.  Sometimes things are better, sometimes things are harder.  When I compare this to what is going on for people around the world, I know I remain lucky, that my survival is not being threatened and that this, too, will pass.  I know that the nature of my own challenges are such that I have the possibility of growing through and from them, rather than being ruined or devastated by them.
     Still, in the midst of difficult times I strive to see the signs of love, of God's presence, of hope in the world.  I'm not alone in this.  When I shared with my spiritual director about the family of doves that had built a nest in the eaves outside my front window, she felt it was a clear message from God of peace coming, of preace present despite the other things going on, of love and hope.
     So what happens when the signs you turn to for reassurance go south?  My kids and I have watched the Doves build their nest, lay their eggs, hatch their eggs.  We have seen the cute baby chicks being fed and nurtured.  And then this morning we saw that no one was in the nest anymore. Instead, there were two dead chicks under the nest and the parents had left, leaving the nest empty and abandoned.  And I found myself left with the larger question: what happens when the signs of hope become another example of pain, death, rejection and despair?
       The very practical and the very skeptical parts of me rally easily with self talk such as "Well, that wasn't really a sign. It was just a couple birds making a messy nest under the eave, birds who lost their babies and left." And "Well, that is reality, right?  Look at what's happening in your personal world and in the larger world, too.  Stuff happens.  One day things look good and the next they don't. It's just the way it is."
        I've found myself thinking about all the very positive (or Pollyanna-ish, depending on how you see it) memes and sayings out there.  The one that always sticks with me most being the line from Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, "Everything will turn out right in the end.  If it's not all right, it is not yet the end".  I've hung on to that, despite the world which shows me something very different.  I think about the end of the movie Life of Brian, and the profoundly humorous ending song.  Everyone is crucified at the end; Brian, who has really done nothing of any value either good or bad, being among them.  And they are all on their crosses, in agony, about to die, singing, "Always look on the bright side of life".  It's funny because it's true.  There ARE times when there is little to no good to be found. Not, perhaps, for us middle class, white, heterosexual, privileged comfortable folk.  But there are people being bombed and killed, there are children kidnapped into sexual slavery, there are people living in extreme poverty, without food and in some places without water, there are people who suffer hate crimes and there are many others suffering beyond the possibility of survival through no fault of their own.  There are situations when folk simply cannot "always look on the bright side of life" because there are situations in which there isn't a bright side of life. Again, this isn't the case for me or for people I personally know.  I am in a privileged group of folk.  I know this.  But I am all too aware that it is from a place of privilege only that we can declare that "everything will be all right in the end..." or that we can sing, "always look on the bright side of life."  Likewise, it is only people who have never seen a community of children literally starving to death, or have never listened to a person who has just been raped, or have never heard the stories of someone who has been in a war, or have never talked with someone who has experienced human trafficking who can say "everything happens for a reason" because once you have seen, heard or experienced first hand those kinds of atrocities, you know that there can be NO reason, ever, for those terrible things to happen.  There can be no kind of loving God, ever, who would tolerate the kind of suffering that goes on in this world. No, God doesn't plan this.  There is no reason for this.  People do this to each other.  And it is awful. And God weeps and works to bring the highest good out of these horrible things.  But no good, loving God would ever inflict that kind of pain on another human being.
       So I look for the signs of God's presence.  I look for the signs of God's love that are there despite the suffering.  And I see three things.  First, the doves do come.  They do.  Awful things happen, but beauty happens too.  Second, we are called, as always, to refrain from turning away from the hard things and instead to see them, working hard to be the bearers of the kindom (no, that's not a typo) to the world.  We are called to see the pain and strive to create a world where the horrors and cuelties no longer take place.  Third, that no matter what we do, there will be pain we can't prevent.  We can only do what we can do.  We are still called to rejoice in the good, to grieve with those who suffer, to remember them, to carry their messages forward, and to continue to work for a better world, despite the results, despite the setbacks, despite the times when the plans we hatch end up in death on the rocks below.  Sometimes that will happen.  And sometimes the plans will grow into birds who soar and bring messages of peace to others.  Giving up is the worst we can do.  Looking forward to new possibilities and new life, with Love as our guide, on the other hand, is the best.
--
        Since writing the above, we had an amazing thing happen.  As we went outside to get rid of the birds that had died (this happened right outside our front door and a smell was beginning to creep inside), we discovered that one of the two baby chicks had NOT died.  We called the nearby wildlife hospital and brought this baby chick to them to care for.  I found myself reflecting in a very different way on all of this. I had written above about the importance of keeping our eyes open and working to prevent pain, to help bring about healing.  And then we were given the opportunity to do exactly that: to help this little chick recover, despite falling from the nest and despite its parents abandoning the nest.  And this time I was truly struck, convicted, by the lesson present in such a concrete way before me.  We must pay attention.  Because if we had not taken the time to really look at that which seemed painful and perhaps even unbearable, if we had not stopped to see, the chick would not have gotten the help it needed.  It sometimes seems easier to ignore the tragedies in our world.  But our willingness to look, to engage even the tragedies can also give to us insight about how we can help. That help is needed - everywhere there is pain that help is needed.  Turning away will not stop the pain.  And while it is still true that there are things we cannot fix, there are also things we can. There are places and people and situations that need us.  Without our willingness to be present with the painful realities of life the gifts we have been given for the good of all the world are useless.
      I hope that bird, that sign of peace, will fly one day.  Either way, I am trusting that the choice to do good, to offer care where it was needed, makes a difference in some small way.   And I also have faith that many small ways and small choices add up in the end.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Talking

There are some big holes in our education  - how to work finances, geography, understanding of other cultures, empathy being just a few. One of those holes is in the area of communication. We are not taught how to talk to one another in helpful ways unless we go into very specific fields of work. Even then for many the education is sketchy at best.  We are not taught how to confront in ways that are loving, effective, clear or understandable.  We also are not taught how to listen and be with one another during hard times.  Instead people tend to react and respond to their own feelings in one of the following unhelpful ways:

1. When hurt or upset, some people revert to name-calling or other accusatory behavior.  Most people have not been taught that the most effective way to tell someone you are upset is to use an "I" statement:  "I feel x when you do y because of z."  I know that sounds canned, but it really does work. There are other ways to phrase this, but using statements about how you feel instead of talking about the other person is much much more affective than attacking, blaming or condemning the other. When people are called names or attacked, they usually respond by attacking back.  No one hears, there is no possibility of movement or progression, the conflict escalates.  Psychology tells us that when we are angry parts of our brain are literally turned off.  That is why if you have a weapon in your hand when you become angry, it is far too easy to use it.  When we become angry, the parts of our brain that make logical, rational decisions can't function.  We also stop hearing.  Being forced to use an "I" statement has the effect of calming us down to the point where we can actually hear one another and think.  But again, we aren't taught how to do this.  We aren't trained in calming ourselves down enough to be rational or to be able to communicate effectively.

As a result, many other people choose option 2:

2.  When people don't like something, some people revert to the silent treatment. Instead of confronting (because they've realized that blowing up in someone's face doesn't work), many people opt instead to withdraw.  This, too, is very unhelpful.  It assumes the other person will notice and come to you.  But if the other person is also a "withdrawer" then the result can be the disintegration of a relationship that otherwise could probably have been healed, worked through, reconciled. Sometimes people feel they need to pull back and just "get over it" on their own.  But this, too, often backfires because the next time something happens, the unresolved issues have a way of popping back up as well.  It also does not give the other person the opportunity to learn and grow.  We all need help to be the best we can be, so honesty is a good thing.  It calls us to learn, to grow, to do better in our relationships with other people.  But people are afraid to speak their truth, especially if it is different from what other think, in part because they don't know the words to use that will help them to be heard, they are afraid of the response of the other (because again, few have been trained in how to do this), or they are afraid of creating conflict.  There are ways to present things (again, using "I" statements, avoiding attacking or name calling another person's ideas or thoughts, presenting ideas as just that - ideas, rather than "truth"), that make it much easier for others to hear and understand.  But these ways must be learned, they are not innately known.

As a result, many people additionally choose option three:

3.  Some people choose to "process" with other people.  There is another word for this: gossip.  It can become worse than this, it can become a situation where people are incited to turn against others.  But even if it doesn't go this far, gossip is still incredibly damaging.  There is no way for a person to respond to gossip, to grow from gossip, to change because of gossip.  Gossip again works only to alienate, isolate, and hurt others.  It doesn't make things better.  It damages relationships.

I want to list one more thing here that isn't helpful and is another choice many people make when communicating to others:

4.  Giving advice.  I've found that even people who are trained, who "know better" still cannot seem to resist this particularly bad way of responding to others.  We know that when people talk about what is going on with them, they are wanting to be heard.  We know that when people share their pain and frustrations they need to feel understood.  Giving advice does not lead to a person feeling understood.  It usually leads to a person feeling put down. The advice giver is implying that they understand the situation better than the person in the situation themself.  The advice giver is implying that they are more knowledgeable, wiser, more understanding than the person themself.  Unless a person specifically asks for advice, therefore, it is much better to empathize, to be present, to listen.  But even those trained in this often seem to have a hard time refraining from offering advice.

In contrast to these ways of responding to one another, I find myself thinking of two phrases that are helpful when we communicate with one another.  The first is THINK:
Is whatever you are communicating:
True,
Helpful,
Inspired,
Necessary and
Kind?

The other is RESPECT:
(take) Responsibility for what you say and feel without blaming or attacking others.
(use) Empathetic listening
(be) Sensitive to differences in communication, in experience, in view points.
Ponder what you hear and feel before you speak
Examine your own assumptions and perceptions.
(keep) Confidentiality
Trust ambiguity because there usually is not one right or wrong.

There are other ways to communicate badly and there are other ways to communicate well.  But for today that is enough.  To return to my original paragraph: we really need to begin teaching communication for everyone.  The world would be a much saner place if we could simply learn how to talk to one another, and even more, how to listen.

Sermon - 5/15/16: Deepest Faith

Acts 2:1-21
1 Cor. 12:3b-13
John 14:8-17

Pentecost

Faith.
It gives us eyes to see.
It invites us to celebrate the gifts of the Spirit.
It invites us to consider more deeply what those gifts are really for.
It invites us to use them for God’s glory.

Pentecost is the birthday of the church, a day for celebrating that God called us into being, brought the Spirit down upon those who were open to seeing and hearing, and united all by reversing the tower of Babel – instead of people no longer understanding each other, all could and did understand. It is an amazing incredible day to remember the power of the Spirit and the gifts that the Spirit gives to our community.
The story of Pentecost also shows us that those who were not open to hearing and seeing God coming, those who could not see with eyes of faith continued to fail to receive what people of faith do receive.  People who either cannot or will not open their eyes in wonder to see God miss out.         They missed the party, they missed the celebration!  God included everyone in this event.  Even those who would not see were included in the party and invited to experience the amazing gifts of the Spirit on that day.  But those who could not see with faith could not accept into themselves the party gifts of the Spirit.  They missed what God was doing so vividly right in front of their eyes.  They explained the Holy Spirit’s coming in terms of people being drunk.  The fact that those in the room could understand each other across language differences and barriers, that their experience was described as tongues of fire descending on each person, that the room was filled with a sound like rushing wind – that someone could try to explain this as people simply being drunk shows how far some would go to deny an experience of God’s presence with them.  But I find myself again being moved with pity for them.  They missed out.  They truly missed out on the amazing blessings and experience and gifts that the Spirit was giving them on that day.  And I feel simply sad about that loss for them.
Faith gives us a different perspective.  Faith allows us to frame the events in our lives in very different ways.  Are the difficulties that come our way problems for us to whine about, or are they blessings, opportunities to grow and learn and deepen in our faith?  Is the weather that we experience just the interesting ebb and flow of the seasons?  Or is it God’s reminder to us that what we experience today will be different tomorrow, that there is hope, there is movement and all of it is glorious?  Everything is seen and experienced differently when we do it with eyes of faith, eyes that seek out God.
In the series, Joan of Arcadia, God talks face to face with a teenage girl. God appears in the different people that surround Joan and at first Joan is really unsure why this is happening to her.  She asks God, “why are you appearing to me?” To which the God figure responds: “Correction: I am not appearing to you.  You are perceiving me.”  I think there is great wisdom in that.  God is all around us.  But our sacred moments, our moments when we are touched by the Divine happen when we have the vision to perceive God.  Again, we see the miracles, we hear God’s voice, we see God’s presence, we receive the Spirit, only when we are open to perceiving it.
             There used to be a restaurant called the Bella Italia Inn, which had no inn attached to it at all.  It was an Italian restaurant, though the owner/cook was Indian.  This was the first thing you would notice when you walked into the restaurant - the Indian cook behind the counter in the kitchen cooking the food.   In case you missed this, you would be reminded of it by the choice of music - Indian music playing over the speakers.  The waitress who worked there was from Central America, and spoke very little, if any, English, only Spanish.  The decor in the restaurant was an odd mix of quality and...lack of quality - the wood work in the restaurant was high quality, truly lovely stuff.  But the tables would rock back and forth on their uneven legs.  The rugs were beautiful, but filthy both with current grime and with deeply set stains.   Drinks that you would order would be brought to you in glasses that didn’t match.  The last time I went, my friend was given a beautiful large crystal wine glass out of which to drink her coke, and I was given a beautiful, small and differently designed plastic wine glass out of which to drink mine. There were beautiful glass oil and vinegar holders on each table right next to the cheap plastic salt and pepper shakers.  If you were able to order your food (if you were able to communicate with the Spanish speaking waitress) she would bring you hot food on cold plates, and cold food on hot plates.  If you asked to split your dessert, they would “split” your two layer piece of chocolate cake by cutting off the top layer, so that one of you gets all the frosting and the other all the filling.  The waitress wouldn’t bring you a spoon with your spaghetti nor a pen with the credit card slip if you pay by credit card.  If you ordered mineral water, they brought something that wasn’t carbonated.  One time when I went, I had to wait for an hour to be served, though it was obvious that there was only one other couple in the entire restaurant - “we’re understaffed tonight,” we were told.  But in the midst of this very chaotic and strange place, the food is fantastic.  The seasonings exquisite, everything cooked to perfection.   Truly wonderful Italian food cooked by this Indian man in these strange circumstances.  If you were put off by the circumstances, the d├ęcor, the incongruity of the place, you would miss out on one of the best Italian meals in the Bay Area.  We could have seen the problems, but instead, we experienced the gifts.
             I had the privilege while studying in college of volunteering with an amazingly loving, intuitive, giving Chaplain to the Homeless in Berkeley.  One time when we were together, a schizophrenic homeless woman approached Pastor Alexia.  Jane came over, looked Pastor Alexia right in the face and blurted out, “I am God.”  I was a young college student at the time and her statement simply made me uncomfortable.  But Pastor Alexia looked at Jane very seriously for a moment and then said, “Tell me.  I’ve always wanted to know...what exactly does it feel like to be God.”  Jane sighed and said with relief in her face, but also with an urgency to speak, to tell, “I care and love and care and love but no one pays attention to me.”  Alexia gave me a very poignant stare as we both nodded our heads in understanding.  This woman I probably would have dismissed had deep needs, but also had gifts for us: gifts of insight, gifts of wisdom.  This woman felt ignored.  I am sure she was also accurate that God must feel ignored at times.  I heard God’s voice in this woman, though it was unexpected.
Several years ago, I was helping out in Aislynn’s classroom.  I was walking with the children to their computer lab when we passed the school janitor.  Aislynn’s teacher said hi to the man and he responded, “Just Keep believing”!  But as he said it, he turned to me and locked eyes with me for just a moment.  And I had that feeling, that feeling of being hit by lightning, that feeling of having heard a message just for me, that feeling of having met an angel, a messenger from God who had something that I needed to hear in that moment.  If this stranger had actually spoken these words to me directly, I doubt that I would have taken them in the same way.  I would have heard them as trite, or would have felt “preached at”.  He was the janitor, someone some people might dismiss.  But through his voice in that moment and at that time, I saw God.  I heard God.
           Albert Einstein said, “There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.”  That is faith.  That is what faith does for our perspective and our experience of the world.  That is what happened for some on Pentecost.  They experienced the Spirit, the gifts of the Spirit, the miracle of God’s presence with them because through their faith they had eyes to see.
Which isn’t to say that the people of faith who were there got it right.  The disciples were still, even now, even after Jesus’ return and even after this amazing event, they were still getting it wrong.  What did Peter say about this?  He assumed that the world was ending!  He assumed that this gift signaled Jesus’ return and the beginning of the end days.  As he said, “this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:  ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.   Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.  And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.  The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.”  Well, that’s not what was happening.  The sun was not turned dark on that day of Pentecost, the moon was not turned to blood.  And Jesus did not return in a few days’ time to usher in the end of the world.  But their experiences were so deep and profound that Peter could not simply be in them, could not simply accept the gift of the Spirit’s coming, but had to try to interpret it, make sense of it.  It would have been better if he had just experienced the gifts but perhaps even then his faith was still growing, developing and he wasn’t yet in that place where he could just be with the Spirit.  
Poem:
The man whispered, "God, speak to me" and a meadowlark sang.
But, the man did not hear.
So the man yelled, "God, speak to me" and the thunder rolled across the sky.
But, the man did not listen.
The man looked around and said, "God let me see you." And a star shined brightly.
But the man did not see.
And, the man shouted, "God show me a miracle." And, a life was born.
But, the man did not notice.
So, the man cried out in despair, "Touch me God, and let me know you are here."
Whereupon, God reached down and touched the man. But, the man brushed the butterfly away,
and walked on."
Even when we have faith sometimes we still miss God.
 
Faith.
It gives us eyes to see.
It invites us to celebrate the gifts of the Spirit.
It invites us to consider more deeply what those gifts are really for.
It invites us to use them for God’s glory.
Can you see?  Can you experience God?  That is the gift that our faith invites us into.  Come to the party!  Celebrate what God has done!

Sermon 5/8/16 - Love One Another - Mother's Day

Luke 13:31-35, John 13:31-35

After God created Adam and Eve, one of the first things God said to them was “Don’t.”
“Don’t what?” Adam replied.
“Don’t eat the forbidden fruit.”
“Forbidden fruit?  Really?  Where is it?”
“It’s over there,” God said, wondering why God hadn’t stopped after making the elephants.
A few minutes later God saw the kids having an apple break and God was angry.  “Didn’t I tell you not to eat that fruit?”  the first parent asked.
“Uh huh,” Adam replied.
“Then why did you?”
“I don’t know,” Adam answered.
God’s punishment was that Adam and Eve should have children of their own…
---
It is not easy to love even our own kids all the time, and as we know, not every parent does it well.  Mother’s day can be a really hard day for a lot of people as they reflect on their childhoods.  It can also be a hard day for a lot of women who wanted babies but couldn’t have them, or who lost them, or who raised kids but struggled to be good moms.  Far too many children suffer abuse, neglect or simply an absence of love at the hands of their parents.  While we cannot condone this behavior from any parent, I think there are moments in every parent’s experience when they might have just the slightest understanding of what might lead to the tragedies of abuse.  Even the best parents suffer disobedience and rejection at one time or another at the hands of their children.  When we tell our children “no” to something they really want, it is not uncommon for a child to strike out.  Even toddlers push parents away with angry tears.  For parents of many teenagers the words, “I hate you” are not unfamiliar.  Jesus described this experience well when he said in the Luke passage, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you were not willing!”  And yet Jesus continued to act loving.  Good parents continue to care and love their kids even when they are rejected, even when their children disobey.  It is not easy, but it is part of parenting.
Parenting is hard for another reason.  A good parent will risk anything, everything to protect their child.  When we love, we want to protect them just as Jesus wanted to gather the children of Israel to himself as a hen with her brood, protecting them from the foxes in that society.  And this protection is impossible.  We cannot protect our children from every bad thing.  There are horrible things out there; kids shooting other kids, pedophiles, murderers, kidnappers.  More universally, all children get their hearts broken, get sick and suffer disappointments.  Even though sometimes these trials help kids to grow and be strong, every time my child hurts, a part of me dies.  We lose parts of ourselves daily in the process of loving as a parent.  It is hard to love in this way, and as I said before, not every parent is capable of this kind of love for their children.
In todays’ passage from Luke, Jesus describes God’s love for us as the love of a mother hen gathering her chicks in to herself.  In the John passage, Jesus refers to his followers as little children and then proceeds to ask them to love one another as he loved them.  Jesus asks us to love one another with God’s love.  The closest we can come to understanding the depth of this love is to compare it with the kind of love we have as parents for our children.  Even a parent’s love falls short of what God asks, but it is the closest we have in human understanding for the kind of love God asks, and expects us to return to God by loving one another.  But this is hard.  It is hard to love our own children well, and it becomes increasingly challenging when we apply this to others, to strangers, to enemies, to people we fear.  But it is something we are called on to do as Christians.  It is also something we promise to do every time we baptize someone.  We promise to help raise the child, or adult, in the way of Christ, a promise we can only keep by loving with the depth of love of a good parent.  Even beyond the bounds of our membership and baptism, we are called to “love our neighbors” with the same love Jesus had for us; the deep love that we are closest to experiencing when we love our children.  And in this way, because of those promises, every one of us is a parent, a mother, to everyone else in this room.
Barbara Brown Taylor shared a story about bringing home a Blue Silkie Chicken
because she had heard that they made good foster mothers. She shared about
her nervousness in letting a guinea chick be introduced into the pen with the silkie.
But everytime she would do this, the Silkie would invite the orphaned chick under
her wings. She pointed out that it was counterintuitive for the mother hen to do this.
In terms of preserving her own species, it did nothing to help these orphaned chicks
of other kinds. Still, without fail, the mother would always invite the chick under
her wings, care for it, nurture it, and raise it. She ended her story this way, 
"'Jeruselm, Jerusalem, How often have I desired to gather your children
together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not
willing!' Jesus had chicken neighbors too, I guess, and from them he learned
about God's wings. Watching them he knew what he wanted to be and do. 
One cluck from him, and I know too." (Barbara Brown Taylor, "Barnyard Behavior"
Christian Century. October 2006).

While I was on study leave at the beginning of this week I met a man who ended up telling me his story.  He told me that he had grown up extremely poor in Mexico.  His cousin invited him to come to the United States to help make money that he could then send to support his aging parents in Mexico.  He was 16 years old when he came to the United States, he did not speak a word of English, and his cousin dropped him off at a restaurant where he was told he would work and live.  He worked every day, 17 hours a day, no days off for a year before he knew enough English and finally had the courage to confront the restaurant owner and ask why he’d never seen a penny.  The owner told him that he basically had been given to the restaurant owner as a slave to pay off his cousin’s debts, and that because of that, he would never see a dime.  The man then beat him up and dumped him on the street.  He was now 17 years old.  After three days on the street with nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep, he went back to the restaurant and asked the chef for help.  The chef’s girlfriend was there who was fluent in Spanish and they agreed to take him in.  They helped him gain citizenship, helped him enroll at the local college and helped him to get back on his feet.  My new friend told me he would forever be grateful to that couple, who became surrogate parents for him, and truly acted with kindness, compassion and sympathy.  This is in great contrast to the restaurant owner who had many opportunities for kindness but practiced none of them.
          Michael Piazza quoted Dr. James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree,  “When (Martin Luther) King agreed to act as the most visible leader in the civil rights movement, he recognized what was at stake. In taking up the cross of black leadership, he was nearly overwhelmed with fear. This fear reached a climax on a particular night, January 27, 1956 in the early weeks of the Montgomery bus boycott, when he received a midnight telephone call threatening to blow up his house if he did not leave Montgomery in three days ...”  He went on to tell a story that Dr. King often told about what he called his "spiritual midnight," when he struggled with what could happen to him, his wife, and newborn baby girl. That night, after receiving the threat, Dr. King heard God say to him, "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even to the end of the world." Three nights later, while Dr. King was at a bus boycott meeting, his house was bombed. Fortunately, his family escaped harm, having moved to the back of the house when they heard something land on the porch. When Dr. King was told at the meeting that his home had been bombed, he calmly asked about his family and then went home to comfort them. "Strangely enough," he said later, "I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it."
When I look at scripture what I see is a path of love that led Jesus to the cross.  And Jesus told us to follow him in that path of loving, even to the cross – literally, not figuratively.  Loving is not easy.  While referring to his own love as that of a mother hen, Jesus refers to Herod in this passage as a fox.  And as we know, the fox will get the chicken, foxes do get chickens that come in front of the, and Jesus was killed.  If we too care about the world as a mother hen cares for her chicks, if we too would go out and meet the fox face to face to protect others, if we too would love to the point of putting ourselves in the path of a fox, we too risk death.  Loving is not easy.
Many Sundays you participate in a benediction and charge which ends with the phrase; “Care for one another and love one another.  It is all that easy and it is all that hard.”  Mostly, I think, loving one another as Christ loves us, loving one another as a parent loves, is hard.  We are called to see one another as we really are.  WE are called to be good news to the poor and liberation to the oppressed.  We are called to lay down our lives for one another, even as Jesus laid down his life for us.
So where is the good news in this?  The good news is that loving is itself the greatest most fulfilling experience we can be given by God.  Loving as a parent loves a child is a deep love like nothing else one can experience.  Loving my kids is truly the greatest gift I have been given.  There is a woman I know who has been unable to conceive.  Every mother’s day she avoids church because hearing about how wonderful mothers are reminds her of her own inability to become a mother.  Her story is not unique.  And she would not experience such despair and loss were it not the case that the deep love one experiences in being a parent is its own reward.  I tell you this not to say that we shouldn’t celebrate the gift of motherhood because we should.  We do need, however, to celebrate that gift in a way that is still loving for individuals who find mother’s day a challenging holiday.  And while I do not want to diminish her loss or the loss of others in her situation, I think that in spite of that loss we are still all called to love one another to the depth of a parent loving a child.  And I believe that in every case where we learn to truly love to the depths of our being, the loving itself is more fulfilling and rewarding gift than we can imagine.  Even when that love is not returned, real love is a gift to the lover.
Not only is the gift of loving its own reward.  Also, when we are able to love like this, I believe we are given the ability to see God.  We see God’s face in those we love, we experience God’s grace through the act of loving.  We experience God’s resurrection.  Every time I die a little in loving my children and experiencing their pain, I am born again stronger, with a greater ability to love my kids, with a greater ability to love others.
It is not easy to be a Christian.  We are required to love with our whole beings, with our total selves.  But loving and the ability to love ever more fully and deeply is its own reward and promise.

Sermon from 5/1/16 - Do You Want to be Made Well?

John 5:1-9
Luke 17:11-19
5/1/16

In today’s lesson from John, Jesus asks a man who has been ill for 38 years if he wants to be made well.  What is interesting is that the man doesn’t say “yes.”  Instead, he makes excuses for why he is not yet well.  “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”  He has been sick for 38 years, and yet he has not been able during that whole time to get himself into the waters that he believes will heal him?  Hmm.
Do we do this?  Sometimes it is hard to take the steps towards healing that we need to take.  Sometimes we become used to the way things are, even if they are painful and difficult, and choosing to step forward into new life, into something different is so frightening that we simply cannot do it.  Change is hard for all of us, even if we know it would be better for us in the long run.  It is so hard that sometimes we are even willing to die with the way things are rather than changing things to what they might be.
I’ve mentioned to some of you before that I volunteered for a while on a crisis line for battered and abused spouses.  And what I heard again and again was that despite the threat, not only to their bodies, but to their very lives, these women could not leave their spouses.  They just couldn’t.  Help was there – we had a secure and hidden shelter that led into retraining programs, job counseling, help finding places to live, therapy for the children and women, and legal help in getting divorces and restraining orders.  But still, most of the women we counseled could not or would not leave their spouses.  Even when their children were being threatened or harmed it was extremely difficult.  And it wasn’t that they couldn’t leave because they were afraid of being hunted down.  It also wasn’t so much that they loved their spouses, though sometimes this is the reason they would give.  In my experience listening to these women it was more that the idea of change was so hard, the idea of trying something new was so daunting, they had gotten used to the life they had and just could not envision something different.  Changing was too hard, too scary.  But I think it was even more than that.
We hear about this in church communities as well.  People say they want things to be different: they want more children and more young adults in the church, for example.  But often times they aren’t actually willing to do anything that will change what they know even if it would successfully bring in those people.  We say we want change, we want things to be different, but it is hard to be willing to make the changes that will make things different.  One of my good friends is currently pastor of a congregation that is facing what many congregations are facing – his congregation is experiencing a slow atrophying death due to lack of growth and loss of financial support.  They have explored the possibility of being a church without walls because it is their building that is costing them so much strain and difficulty.  But again, they can’t do it.  They would rather become what is becoming more and more known as a “chaplaincy church”, a church that has made the decision to stay the same and to simply die out rather than trying something different.  Another friend was pastor of a church that was in the process of joining with another congregation and made the decision to close instead.  It was easier to close than to envision being church with other Christians, other Presbyterians, other...  And again, we ask, what is that really about?
In the passage from Luke we have a story in which 10 lepers are begging for Jesus’ help, but when he heals them all, only one returns to give thanks.  Our first tendency on hearing this story is probably a bit of righteous outrage.  Why wouldn’t they thank Jesus for turning their lives around?  For saving them?  For healing them?  We can imagine these people today, as modern day lepers – those whose lives have been consumed by their “illness” or situation.  Today those “lepers” might be drug addicts, prostitutes, people from the middle East, homeless persons, people with a mental illness like schizophrenia, gang members, ex-convicts, immigrants, Muslims – in other words, anyone who might make us feel uncomfortable or who we might fail to see as anything other than their condition, situation or other quality, or fail to include because of one of these aspects: those would be today’s lepers.  We can imagine what it would be like if Jesus came to them today and offered them healing.  He would be offering to them a place back in society, he would be offering them acceptance once again into their communities.  Why would anyone not want that?  Why would anyone not be grateful for that?  The ten lepers in today’s passage were healed.  Shouldn’t they be grateful?
The question is, what makes these changes, even these really positive changes, so hard to embrace, to accept, and to be grateful for?  I think at the deepest level, at the deepest level, we come to accept what is into our beings in a way that not only becomes familiar, but actually comes to define who we are.  Our very identity becomes mixed up with those things that are part of our lives, or that are part of our daily living.  We do this to other people and we do it to ourselves. Whenever we refer to a person by a label we are doing this.  I saw a sign in a women’s restroom recently that said, “be aware of purse snatchers”.  And it struck me that by calling them “purse snatchers” we claim that as the whole of their identity.  It wasn’t “be aware of people who snatch purses.”  It was “be aware of ‘purse snatchers’.”  That, then, is who they become for us.  They aren’t mothers or fathers who are potentially in need.  They aren’t people who are struggling like us, to find their way.  They aren’t people who have lives outside of snatching purses. They aren’t children of God.  Instead they are “purse snatchers.”  We can do this with anyone with whom we are uncomfortable.  People without homes become “bums”.  People who struggle with addictions become “addicts”.  People who join gangs become “gang members” or “juvenile delinquents” or “thugs”.  It becomes their identities.  For us, and even for them.
In both of today’s gospel lessons, it wasn’t just that others had applied these labels to the “lepers” or those who were sick.  The people in today’s stories applied those labels to themselves.  Jesus actually didn’t.  He refers to them as “people with leprosy”, “people with disease”. My guess is that their identity, though, became tied in to their illnesses, to their struggles, to their societal labels.  Is it any wonder, then, that these things that defined them would be hard for them to give up?  Who are we when things change?  For the battered and abused spouse, who is she once she leaves her home?  She is no longer the married woman, she is no longer living in the same house with the same friends or company.  Often an abusive spouse separates his or her partner or spouse from his/her support system, so often the person who finally has the courage to leave is left with no other support people to ground them, to care for them.  Who, then, do they become?  Sometimes there is no choice about this change in identity, but that doesn’t mean the change in identity is any easier.  A spouse dies and we are no longer “the wife” or “the husband” of so and so.  Instead we get a new identity “widow” or “widower”.  We get divorced and for the rest of our lives on the forms we fill out, we are not “married” or even “single” anymore, but “divorced.”  We get a new identity, one that is not so very attractive.
In the movie, Pleasantville, the characters are stuck in sameness, in black and white, in a life that is calm, expected, “pleasant”, but in a life that is also uninteresting and not lived to fullness.  They are “languishing” or failing to live life deeply, to live a life that has any excitement or real meaning in it.  But things begin to change in Pleasantville and some people begin to live with passion, with intensity.  With it, though, their identities change.  And that change in identity is shown as they become “colored” – or rather, they go from being black and white to having the normal colors that we associate with life, with living.  This becomes extremely threatening to many of the people to whom the old identity is so important that they cannot face the possibility of change, even when it means adding passion and interest, real LIFE to their living.  They cannot do it.
This is what happens in both of today’s stories.  Jesus comes and offers healing to the one man in John.  And that man has all kinds of reasons why he has been unable to accept healing.  But my guess is that it is a deeper issue for him.  He has been sick for 38 years.  Who will he be without his illness?  Who will he be if he is really cured?  It is easier to come up with reasons to not step down into the water, to find reasons why he hasn’t been able to do it than it is to take the step that means his life will be completely changed.  His life would be changed for the better, we know, but he may not be so sure.  Who will he be?  And the same for the lepers who were cleansed.  Why did they not return to give thanks?  Well, my guess is that for some of them, they weren’t thankful.  Maybe the gifts they thought they sought came to them and they realized they no longer knew who they were or how they would be after the healing.
Still, Jesus doesn’t leave us there.  We are challenged to grow, we are challenged to heal, we are challenged to find new ways of being in the world.  The man in John never said to Jesus that he wanted healing, but Jesus gave it to him anyway.  The lepers said “Have mercy on us” which was the phrase used to ask for alms.  They, too, were not actually asking for healing.  The gifts of healing, the gifts of challenge and change may change our identities, or rather our sense of who we are.  But God loves us too much to leave us with identities that are less than wholly who we are called to be.  God loves us too much to leave us without opportunities to work towards healing.  God loves us too much even to leave us “comfortable” when God can bring transformation, shalom, and wholeness.  Will it be hard?  Of course.  But it will be healing.  And it will bring us closer to the whole people God calls us to be.  Amen.