Monday, June 26, 2017

On Being Humble

Genesis 21:8-20
Matthew 10:24-39

            Have any of you, like Sarah in the passage from Genesis, ever felt jealous and/or threatened by the power, popularity, achievements or even just the potential of others?  Even those who have less power and stature, like Hagar, who was not Abraham’s wife, but his slave: still, Sarah felt threatened - threatened that he had another child by another woman: threatened enough that she wanted Hagar and her son sent away - in other words she wanted them dead for a woman and her son would not survive in the wilderness apart from the tribe.  She felt so jealous and threatened that she wanted Hagar and her son to die.  She must have felt an amazing amount of pain to feel so vindictive against Hagar and her son.  And while we may not act on feelings of jealousy or threat in such a way, almost all of us experience some degree of jealousy, or threat to our sense of place and status at one point or another.  Most of us, I think, experience situations and places where it is important to us that people know who we are, what our status is, what our accomplishments are.  We feel threatened and even angry or lost when others don’t value us in the way we would like, recognizing us as loved, as successful, as... whatever it is that matters to us. 
            When Jonah was eight he broke his collar bone at school.  The school called me, told me he had fallen running and that I needed to pick him up and take him to emergency.  When I got to the hospital, though, before I could tell the doctors and nurses that this had happened at school, I found the general assumption was that I had been abusing my child and that this was how his collar bone was broken.  The hospital personnel had their minds made up from the second we walked into the hospital as well.  They barked at me, treating me as if I were an uneducated, uncaring, awful mother who deserved to lose her child.  They put him in a room that I was not allowed into while they "interviewed" him.  I was already going through a horrible time because I was worried about my son. But it was also a matter of humiliation for me.  I wanted to shout at them that I had a degree in psychology, that I had a doctorate, that I was a pastor, that I had three children and all of them were wonderful and amazing and brilliant despite the tragedies they had experienced.  I wanted to shove layers of credentials in their faces because they made me feel little, small, unworthy and un-valued. In the end, I found myself grateful that his accident had happened at school, even though he did not have the comfort of a parent with him, because the possible consequences of this having happened at home were made absolutely clear to me through that experience.
            But I am not alone in this need to be seen and valued.  When I had surgery a dozen years ago: the doctor came out to talk to my family about how the surgery had gone, he still had on his scrubs, with a stethoscope around his neck, the little mirror thing around his head: My family got a clear impression that this was not so much that he felt in a hurry to talk to them as it was important to him that the other people in the hospital know that he was a doctor, not one of the patients, not a nurse, but a surgical doctor.  
            At Jasmyn’s school at one of the back to school nights, I found myself talking with another parent whom I did not know before and found that she was very quick to make sure I understood that she was not just a mere parent at the school, but a teacher as well.  Her sense of identity and sense of accomplishment needed to be validated by my knowing she taught as well as parented. 
          At many programs where the poor, homeless or marginalized are served, the volunteers all have name-tags stating their status as volunteers - distinguishing them from those who are being served.  There are always reasons for doing this, some of which are good, valid, helpful.  But at some level one has to ask what import it serves to separate us into categories in this way?  For some of the volunteers, this distinction is important.  For the newest volunteers especially, it can feel important to not be mistaken for a person in need.
          Again, I think we all have felt some sense of threat to our identity at some point, some need to stand up and say, “Wait!  That’s not who I am!  Look at what I’ve done, or who I know or who I am!”
            But today’s scriptures point out several things.
            We are told, first, that whatever is not known will be known.  All will be revealed.  In this context that means that our real selves will be known, will be measured, will be opened for all to see.  And that real self is not going to be judged by our status, our job, our accomplishments, our wealth or our popularity.  Our real self, our core self, has to do with our care and love to God and God’s people.  And by “care” I don’t mean the good works we do so much as how we approach God’s people, all of God’s people every day.  Even more, our real worth is a gift given to all.  For our real value, our worth is actually about the fact that we are God’s children - all of us - none of us loved more highly than another, none of us loved less highly than another.  Jesus assures us in this passage from Matthew that all will be known.  At that time, we will be measured by our hearts: and we will be found valuable simply by the fact that we are God’s children.  Those who would judge us then, who would hurt us, who would take away our wealth, our popularity, our health, our status, we are told, should not be feared because eventually their worth, too, will be shown and all those marks of status we value so much in this life will be found to be meaningless: those who would hurt us will also be shown as the equal children of God that they are.  Even family connections, we are told, will be brought to nothing.  Those then, who would separate us out, by our lack of these things: connections, popularity, fortune, these who judge us and put us down, who disrespect us, who treat us as “less than” are not to be feared.
            As the beginning of the Matthew passage says, “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master.”  In other words, all our attempts to be of more value than someone else have no worth.  God calls us to be God’s servants, doing the work of loving and caring for God’s creation.  That is our job.  And that work is not neat or tidy or beautiful or glorious: that is not work that will earn human praise or honor: but it is the real work of being God’s people. 
            One summer while I was in college I went to the most rural part of Alabama as a Volunteer in Mission for the Methodist church.  I worked that summer for a parish - or a group of ten very small congregations spread out over this very rural area: some of these churches had only 4 or 10 members, but they kept on meeting, worshiping together.  The parish center united these ten churches but it did more than that.  It ran a clothing thrift store, it kept a food pantry, and most importantly it ran a building program.  Groups of youth from around the state would come to this parish spot for a week or two and help repair and build houses for the poorest of the poor, the disabled, and the elderly: those without education or income or anything except the little pieces of land or house passed down through the generations.  I came to this program full of myself as a person who would go to seminary and become a missionary, for that is what I believed I would do at the time.  I went ready to be a community organizer and to work hard with these youth groups and with this building project.  But one week Dorsey, the pastor in charge of this project, asked me to help out with the thrift store.  I went in and Dorsey’s wife, who ran the thrift store, asked me to go into the back room and sort through boxes of donated clothes, helping to sort them by size, checking for holes, making sure they all had price tags.  I went back and began to do as she said, but found that there wasn’t a lot for me to do.  Most of this work had already been done, and I began, after time spent mostly waiting and watching, to feel resentful and even self-righteous about this.  I was a college student at Cal, I was going to be a pastor, I was going to be a missionary, they were putting me in the “hang out with thrift store clothing” box because I was female when I was just as capable as men to do other more useful work, I was....this and this and this...all reasons why the work of waiting, and the work of looking to see if anything else needed to be done, the work of looking at old discarded clothing felt somehow below me.  I hated this, and I made sure that message was conveyed. 
            The next day Dorsey asked me to go with him to a building site for a potential house.  We went out and Dorsey and another man talked about water and pipes while I stood impatiently to the side, uninvited into this conversation, and standing around waiting once more.  After twenty minutes of standing there Dorsey said, “Barbara, please go get me my wrench.”  So I walked the two feet over to his tool box and brought him back his wrench.  I continued to stand there and after another forty minutes had gone by he again addressed me, “Barbara, please bring me my measuring tape.”  I did so and again stood around waiting.  After another half hour had passed I finally lost it and said, “Dorsey, is there something useful I could be doing here?”  He looked up at me sternly for a minute, then excused himself from the conversation with the other man and took me around the corner for a lecture I will never forget.  “Who are YOU?” he demanded “that this work is too good for you?  Who are YOU that you decide what is useful and what is not?  Who decides what is God’s work?  Who decides what is needed?  You will never be God’s servant until you are able to see that God’s work is often the most humble of work, often the least recognized work, often the least glorious work.” 
            He was right.  And that day I learned a most humbling lesson.
            But it wasn’t the last day of my lessons on humility for this summer.  Remember, as I said, the houses we were building and repairing were for people who grew up in a very different culture and place than this.  Many, most, had no education at all.  Many times their rural southern accents were so strong that they were almost speaking another language.  This particular week the house the team needed to repair belonged to an elderly man who had probably never been farther than five miles from his little run-down house in his entire life.  He had been born there, he had been raised there.  He lived in extreme poverty and even squalor.  And we came that week, with a team of youth from the city to replace the original roof on this 100+ year old tiny and run-down abode.  The roof that was there hardly existed anymore.  So up we climbed onto the beams of the house, me and a team of six teens, one of whom was an African American girl, no more than 14 years of age.  And as we laid black roofing material in 100 degree humid weather and pounded nails into this man’s new roof, he stood at the bottom, on the ground and shouted up at us about how evil black people were.  He quoted scriptures that in his mind were proof of their inferiority and even their lack of humanity.  He stared at the African American girl as she built him a new roof and cursed her, again and again.  And as I listened and watched, incredulous, I noticed that the African American girl, who clearly heard every arrogant, prejudiced word that this man said, still, despite everything, put 100% of her effort into doing a good job for this man.  She never quarreled with him, she never challenged his words: she just did her work.  I tried to challenge the man and was told by her to stop.  At the end of the day we discussed the situation and she told me that she did not believe this man would change through argument or anger.  She did not believe the man would change old ingrained beliefs even through other scriptural quotes.  She said her job and our jobs that week were not to change this man, to “educate” this man.  Our job was to love this man by building him a new roof.  Our job was to be God’s hands and feet and do our best to care even for those who would hate us.  If God used that to change him, so be it.  If the man never changed, so be it.  But our job was clear. 
            Doing God’s work is not pretty or glorious.  Sometimes it looks like waiting.  Sometimes it looks like fetching objects.  Sometimes it looks like pounding nails into a roof while being cursed at from the bottom.  Sometimes doing God’s work of caring for the least of God’s people - the poor, the homeless, the oppressed, the children - sometimes that means losing friends, or losing a job, or losing connections or losing popularity, fame, glamour.  It is messy work.  It is hard work: it is not easy to stand up to someone you care about.  It is not easy to keep building on the roof even when you are being cursed from the ground.  But this is God’s work.  And we are called to do it without asking for recognition or popularity or glory.  We are called to do it as servants - servants who are loved beyond anything we can imagine.  Amen.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Sermon - Sight

Isaiah 9:2
Luke 24:13-25

We read today’s story as part of Easter-tide, but I found myself coming back to it again.  Because it is an odd story that calls us to look deeper. The disciples were walking with Jesus.  But they did not recognize him.  How could they not recognize Jesus?  Why did they not see? Just as on Pentecost I talked about how sometimes it is really hard to hear and understand one another, sometimes it is also very hard to see. So I ask you to take a moment and reflect on these questions: What do we fail to see because we don’t expect what is actually there? What do we fail to see because we don’t want to see it? What do we fail to see because we don’t believe it? What do we fail to see because something isn’t where we expect it to be?
There once was a little boy named Sam who was very excited about Halloween.  But his parents kept putting off getting his costume until finally the day of Halloween his mother came home with a costume that Sam hated. It was of some comic book character who had been big once but who now was seen by all the kids to be ridiculous and only for the littlest of children.  Sam was devastated. How could he ever wear this?  He couldn’t possibly go out on Halloween in this costume!  He was so upset, he ran down the street to where an older couple who had become surrogate grandparents to Sam lived.  He ran into their house and cried and cried about the terrible costume his mother had picked out for him. Well, Norm, the older man thought for a few minutes and then he said to his wife, “Don’t we have some old costumes up in the attic from when our kids were children?”
“Why, I believe we do!” she replied. Up they all went into the attic and down they came with an old ghost costume. Really, it was just a sheet with holes cut in it for the eyes. But Sam was so thrilled with the costume, he just couldn’t wait to put it on. With a look of awe in his eyes, he pulled the sheet down over his head and before anyone could stop him, he went running out the door to go trick or treating and ran straight through the yard and bam into a tree!  Norm saw this and he dashed out after him, picked up the little boy, but before he could stop him, there Sam took off again, running as fast as he could until bam he ran smack into another tree!  This time the force pushed him flat onto his back where he lay still until Norm came running up.  Norm wondered what on earth was going on until he looked into Sam’s face and realized that Sam had not lined up the eye holes to match his eyes. He had been virtually blind, running around the yard, completely unable to see where he was going. Norm gently but firmly took hold of the sheet, pulled it around until Sam was able to see through the eye holes, tied a rope around his waist to hold the costume in place and sent Sam off on a much more successful and enjoyable Halloween evening of trick-or-treating!
One day a boy was walking down a road when a frog called to him, “Boy, if you kiss me, I will turn into a beautiful princess.” The boy picked up the frog, smiled at it, then placed the frog into his pocket. A few minutes later, the frog said, “Boy, if you kiss me and turn me back into a beautiful princess, and I will stay with you for a week.” The boy took the frog from his pocket, smiled at it, then put it back into his pocket. A few minutes later, the frog said, “Boy, if you kiss me and turn me back into a beautiful princess, I will do anything you want!” The boy took the frog from his pocket, smiled, and put it back. Finally, the frog cried, “Boy, what is the matter, I have told you that I am a beautiful princess, and if you kiss me, I will stay with you and do anything you want!” The boy took the frog from his pocket and said, “Look, I am an engineering student, I have no time for a girlfriend, but a talking frog is cool!”
The boy saw a different reality from the frog.  The boy saw farther, or at least he saw differently. 
About twelve years ago, on my birthday, Jasmyn brought me a present wrapped up.  Jasmyn was the ripe age of four and a half.  She was little and she was a typical young child who couldn’t really see beyond herself in so many ways.  I knew it was a store-bought present, as opposed to something made for me.  And I had been told by all of the adults who knew what the gift was that I should not to expect much in this gift because Jasmyn had insisted on buying this particular present despite being strongly encouraged to pick something else.  It was given to me with looks of apology and even discomfort from the adults who knew what the gift was.  So I opened it without much hope or expectation.  This is the gift (show them the miniature).  What do you see in this? 
I’ll tell you what I see.  I see Jasmyn herself.  Especially at that age…a little dancing fairy girl.  She found a replica of herself at that age, what I saw most profoundly, most deeply within herself at that age. And that is what she gave to me: a memory of Jasmyn at the age of almost 5.  And I felt that in her insistence on this particular gift, she actually had a deeper insight into what I loved most than anyone else around her at the time.  She had sight into who I was, into what I saw, and into what I valued, that the adults around did not see.
A wise woman who was traveling in the mountains found a precious stone in a stream. The next day she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food. The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked the woman to give it to him. She did so without hesitation. The traveler left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime. But a few days later he came back to return the stone to the wise woman. “I’ve been thinking,” he said, “I know how valuable the stone is, but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something even more precious. Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me something so very precious -  Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me the stone.”
Sometimes the darkness or the challenges in life themselves carries a gift for us.  I am reminded of a MASH episode in which Hawkeye had a stove explode in his face which caused eye damage in both eyes.  He lost his vision and he didn’t know if that loss was permanent or temporary.  The day before he was to see the doctor to have the bandages removed – the day before he was to discover if the eye damage was permanent or temporary – he seemed in a frantic mode of insisting on walking around and moving around. BJ confronts his frantic walking around and going out saying, “Hawkeye, I know what you’re trying to do. And I know how you feel…You don’t want to think about what might happen, so you keep running.”  But Hawkeye insists that that’s not the case.  He says, “Look, when Dr. Oberman comes in here tomorrow, and unwraps my eyes, I hope to God I’ll have my sight back. But… something fascinating has been happening to me…One part of the world has closed down to me but another part has opened up.  Sure, I keep picturing myself sitting on a corner with a tin cup selling thermometers, but I’m going through something here that I didn’t expect. I spent two incredible hours this morning listening to that rain storm.  And I didn’t just hear it, I was part of it. I bet you have no idea that rain hitting the ground makes the same sound as steaks when they’re barbequing. Or that thunder seems to echo forever.  And you wouldn’t believe how funny it is to hear somebody slip and fall in the mud…  This is full of trap doors, but I think there has to be some advantage to this.  I’ve never spent a more conscious day in my life.”
            When we are given the opportunity to see things, hear things, understand things from a different perspective, it is an incredible gift.  It helps us to see, to really see, beyond what our eyes tell us. And sometimes our eyes get in the way.  I have a friend who did some work helping people fix up their houses.  She was painting rooms in a house one time and told me that the old paint in one room had had to be scraped off before they put on the new paint because the wall had been textured.  However, the previous paint had been sponge painted on.  That meant that the wall looked textured even where the texturing had already been scraped off.  She told me she had to scrape the walls with her eyes closed because her eyes did not tell her the truth about what she was seeing, about whether the wall was still textured or just looked that way because of the sponge paint. 
As you know, World War I was a very bloody and aggressive war, a time of great death and tragedy and loss.  At the Western Front it was bloody and violent like everywhere else.  But on Christmas Eve, 1915, things changed for a moment.  Soldiers heard across the lines, across the divisions in politics and beliefs, other soldiers singing Christmas carols.  In listening to one another, the German soldiers from Saxony were inspired to make a brave choice.  Bringing food across the front, and singing Christmas Carols, they came to the British soldiers they were fighting in a Christmas spirit.  The British soldiers, shocked at first, were also moved and found themselves responding by joining in the singing and offering up what they had to share in the festivities as well.  After a time of singing and faith celebration, pictures were shared, personal stories began to be told, sometimes only through hand signs, between people of many different nationalities.  In one version of this story, officers had to break up the comradery as they realized fighting would soon become impossible between these two groups if they continued to get to know, share and celebrate with one another.  In another version of the story, the bonds made that night were so great that those soldiers could not be compelled to continue fighting those they had come to see as human brothers and sisters.  These soldiers, then, on both sides, would no longer kill each other and had to be moved off the front.  In the midst of tragedy, in the midst of war, in the midst of violence and death and anger, new sight was gained, new vision given, through sharing, through seeing one another as the human beings that we all are.
A mother told this story: We were the only family with children in the restaurant. I sat Erik in a high chair and noticed everyone was quietly sitting and talking. Suddenly, Erik squealed with glee and said, 'Hi.' He pounded his fat baby hands on the high chair tray. His eyes were crinkled in laughter and his mouth was bared in a toothless grin, as he wriggled and giggled with merriment.  I looked around and saw the source of his merriment. It was a man whose pants were baggy with a zipper at half-mast and his toes poked out of would-be shoes. His shirt was dirty and his hair was uncombed and unwashed. His whiskers were too short to be called a beard and his nose was so varicose it looked like a road map.  We were too far from him to smell, but I was sure he smelled.. His hands waved and flapped on loose wrists. 'Hi there, baby; hi there, big boy.. I see ya, buster,' the man said to Erik. My husband and I exchanged looks, 'What do we do?' Erik continued to laugh and answer, 'Hi.' Everyone in the restaurant noticed and looked at us and then at the man. The old geezer was creating a nuisance with my beautiful baby. Our meal came and the man began shouting from across the room, 'Do ya patty cake? Do you know peek-a-boo? Hey, look, he knows peek- a-boo.' Nobody thought the old man was cute. He was obviously drunk. My husband and I were embarrassed. We ate in silence; all except for Erik, who was running through his repertoire for the admiring skid-row bum, who in turn, reciprocated with his cute comments. We finally got through the meal and headed for the door. My husband went to pay the check and told me to meet him in the parking lot. The old man sat poised between me and the door. 'Lord, just let me out of here before he speaks to me or Erik,' I prayed. As I drew closer to the man, I turned my back trying to sidestep him and avoid any air he might be breathing. As I did, Erik leaned over my arm, reaching with both arms in a baby's 'pick-me-up' position. Before I could stop him, Erik had propelled himself from my arms to the man. Suddenly a very old smelly man and a very young baby united in love and kinship. Erik in an act of total trust, love, and submission laid his tiny head upon the man's ragged shoulder. The man's eyes closed, and I saw tears hover beneath his lashes. His aged hands full of grime, pain, and hard labor, cradled my baby and stroked his back. No two beings have ever loved so deeply for so short a time.  I stood awestruck. The old man rocked and cradled Erik in his arms and his eyes opened and set squarely on mine. He said in a firm commanding voice, 'You take care of this baby.' Somehow I managed, 'I will,' from a throat that contained a stone. He pried Erik from his chest, lovingly and longingly, as though he were in pain. I received my baby, and the man said, 'God bless you, ma'am, you've given me my Christmas gift.' I said nothing more than a muttered thanks. With Erik in my arms, I ran for the car. My husband was wondering why I was crying and holding Erik so tightly, and why I was saying, 'My God, my God, forgive me.' I had just witnessed Christ's love shown through the innocence of a tiny child who saw no sin, who made no judgment; a child who saw a soul, and a mother who saw a suit of clothes. I was a Christian who was blind, holding a child who was not. I felt it was God asking, 'Are you willing to share your son for a moment?' when God had shared God’s son for all eternity. How did God feel when God put Jesus in our arms 2000 years ago. The ragged old man, unwittingly, had reminded me, 'To enter the Kingdom of God , we must become as little children.' Sometimes, it takes a child to remind us of what is really important. We must always remember who we are, where we came from and, most importantly, how we feel about others. The clothes on your back or the car that you drive or the house that you live in does not define you at all; it is how you treat other people that identifies who you are.
            A blind person asked God once, is there anything worse than losing your sight?  To which God responded, “yes, losing your vision.”
            When we try to see with our eyes, we often fail to do so. That blindness, that inability to see without help is a common problem for humans.  We walk around in the dark, not because it is dark, but because our vision is covered, obscured in some way. It can be obscured by our politics, obscured by our beliefs, obscured by what we expect to see or what we fear seeing.  It can be obscured by our pride, or even by our shame. Oftentimes this blindness causes us to err, to sin, to take a wrong path so that somebody gets hurt, ourselves or someone else. We all have blind spots, we all need God’s help to see.   

Today’s story on the road to Emmaus is a human story.  A human story of failing to see God, to see Divinity, to see Christ, in the one who is with us, in the one walking along by our side.  The disciples didn’t recognize Jesus.  And we often don’t recognize the God in the person we are with.  But it is our call to try, to crane to see a little deeper, a little more where, what and who God really is.  It is our call to see God in the ones we are with, no matter what road we walk.  My prayer for all of us is sight, is vision.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Forgiveness, again.

I love Don Henley's song about forgiveness: The Heart of the Matter.

        All the words to this song resonate with me.  But there are a few in particular that really speak to me:
Ah, these times are so uncertain
There's a yearning undefined
And people filled with rage
We all need a little tenderness
How can love survive in such a graceless age?

There are people in your life
Who've come and gone
They let you down
You know they hurt your pride
You better put it all behind you, baby
'Cause life goes on
You keep carrying that anger
It'll eat you up inside, baby

I've been trying to get down
To the heart of the matter
But my will gets weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it's about forgiveness,
Even if, even if, you don't love me anymore.

     I've made a lot of mistakes in my life. I've hurt people I've loved.  I've also been hurt by people I've loved. But while it may be that the losses or rifts or hurts that one person experiences may be more or less than what another person experiences, all of us suffer at the hands of one another, and all of us injure each other.  It's part of being human.  And we therefore have to make choices. Do we live lives of anger, bitterness and cynicism?  Do we nurse every pain we've experienced and carry grudges to our death beds?  Or do we learn how to forgive, to let go, to honor what was good and to move on from what was hard?
     Some people are better at this than others.  I recently read a story about a man who had contracted AIDS through a partner who knew he had it but who had chosen not to share that knowledge. The man who was now dying of AIDS harbored no anger or resentment, however. He didn't have room in his life for that kind of pain. He chose instead to spend his remaining days sharing laughter and stories and songs with his friends and family.  
      I envy that level of serenity.  I crave that ability to let anger pass through and out and on so that life can be lived in the "now" with joy and peace rather than anxiety, fear, and pain.  Anger hurts. And the one it hurts most is the one carrying it. It hurts us inside as it tears at us, increases blood pressure, blocks rational thought, impacts memory and cognition, causes ulcers and other physical damage. It can also destroy relationships, or stunt them, or damage them in such a way that they cannot be mended. It can affect how we deal with other people.  People who are very angry carry chips on their shoulders that do not allow them to form positive relationships with others. Anger can prevent us from trusting or from risking deep caring. That is tragic.  The inability to forgive is a fatal human flaw.  It eats us from the inside and creates shell-people: people who cannot see the blessings around them, who no longer delight in the beauty of life, and who often spread more pain and damage to others.
     Anger is meant to be a gift: it lets us know that something is unjust and should be changed.  It is a strong emotion because it must be in order to motivate us to do the work of changing that which is oppressive, dis-empowering and unfair.  But there are things that cannot be changed.  Once the man in the story above had contracted AIDS, his anger could no longer help him. In recognizing that truth, he chose, then, to let the anger go.  That ability to discern when anger can help us to do what needs to be done, and when it is simply a destructive and poisonous emotion can be elusive, however. Moreover, even when people realize their anger is not serving them, the ability to walk through it, out the other side and into freedom from that kind of imprisoning rage is not always easily gained.  
     And there is the other side of this as well: the other people with whom we interact also may not have the gift of being able to forgive. When we love someone who cannot forgive us, we are called to a deeper level of forgiveness yet: one that requires us to both forgive ourselves for our piece in the damage to the relationship, and to forgive the other's inability to forgive: to let go of the relationship or what we had hoped or envisioned the relationship to be: to forgive into finding peace with the schism, with the rift. 
      What helps us to be able to do that?  Number one thing that I've found to help is meditation: centering down, spending time in quiet; praying, if that's what it is for you; listening, as it is for me. Intentional calming of the heart and mind helps me more than anything else. There are so many ways to do this: centering prayer, Tai Chi, Yoga, breathing meditations, guided meditations. But besides meditation there are other things that can help: long hikes or runs where one's heart rate is really increased and the muscles are truly working. Dancing does the same. Playing the piano, writing, creating poetry or art. Finding a hilarious movie or song or joke and just enjoying some intensive laughter.  Notice that none of these things actually focus on the anger itself. And yet they all help more than anything I know.  There are other things that do involve focusing on the anger: talking to a friend, talking to a counselor, journalling about the experience and the feelings.  If there is a way to address the problem directly, it is important to try, but I think calming down enough that the anger is not leading the conversation is crucial. As I said before, anger actually blocks our ability to think clearly.  So when we are reacting from anger, we often end up saying or doing even more unforgivable things. Calming down first is therefore essential.
      All of these help us in striving to forgive.  But underneath there are two other things that are essential:  Time, and a commitment to forgiveness. Time does not heal all wounds.  But it does help. And sometimes that time is the only thing that can move us from anger into peace.  But along with that there must be a commitment, a decision, an intention to forgive.  Without that, there is no chance, no hope for reconciliation, for healing, or for peace with that which can't be reconciled or healed.  
      I continue to work on this, both forgiving those who've hurt me, and letting go of the need for healing and reconciliation from those who cannot forgive me.  It is a process.  And time is with me.  I rest in the time, I let go in meditation, and I walk forward in the hope of a more forgiving existence for all of us.

Monday, June 5, 2017

sermon - Pentecost

Genesis 11:1-9
Acts 2:1-21

What is Pentecost?  It is the birthday of the church.  But as the two Biblical stories for today show us, Pentecost is also a reversal. It is reversing the story of the tower of Babel. So let’s review for a minute. What is the story of Babel about? What happens in the story? People start united.  They all speak the same language; they all understand each other.  But then something happens and the result is, what?  They no longer speak the same language.
Whether or not you take this story literally, there are oodles of deeper meanings here, tons of insights into the human condition through this story of the tower of Babel.  Because we still don’t speak the same language, do we?  Even here in this church, even when we are all appearing to speak English, we don’t always speak the same language. We misunderstand each other, we hurt each other, we mis-communicate, we argue, we struggle.  We don’t speak the same language.  We are torn apart in this world, in families, in cultures, in groups by our inability to hear, to speak clearly, to be understood and to understand.  
To give some funny examples: When I was pregnant with Aislynn, I went in for a blood test that required fasting for the 8 hours before the test. While on my way, Jasmyn or Jonah asked for some goldfish crackers. While handing some back to the kids, I automatically popped one in my own mouth before remembering that I was not supposed to eat anything before my exam. 
When I went in to take the test, the nurse asked me first thing, “have you eaten anything in the last 8 hours?”  “No,” I replied. But then remembering the cracker I added, “Oh, except for a spare gold fish.” Well apparently this was someone who did not have kids and was not familiar with the goldfish snack crackers. He blanched for a minute, looking a little pale, and then quickly moved away like he had just met some crazy woman who might say something else off the wall or do something even more strange. I was confused by his response at first, and I only realized as he was leaving the room that he thought I meant an actual goldfish. I’m sure hearing my hysterical laughter after he shut the door behind him did nothing to improve his image of the crazy woman behind the door. We were both speaking English, but we were not speaking the same language.
When Jasmyn was in kindergarten, I showed up to be a volunteer for her library time, only to discover that the kindergarten library time had been moved to another day.  When I asked Jasmyn why her library time had been moved, she told me in all seriousness that they had to move the library time because her library teacher had to “run up and down the stairs during her normal library time.”  “Oh,” I said, “Ms. Roby was really busy doing other work at the school.”  But no, Jasmyn was insistent. They changed the library time because Ms. Roby literally had to run up and down the stairs during her normal library time. I’m certain the children were told exactly what Jasmyn repeated to me. And little kids are literalists. If Jasmyn was told Ms. Roby had to run up and down the stairs, then that must literally be what Ms. Roby was doing. Our little literalists often don’t speak the same language as we do.
When I was a kid I remember being told that the world was round.  I thought we were all on the inside however, and kept looking up to see if I could see the people on the other side of the world.
A few years ago I was running an errand at Office Depot when the cashier asked to see my driver’s license.  I flipped open my wallet, showing the cashier the license through the little window in my wallet.  After looking at it for a moment, the cashier suddenly said, “Why don’t you have more tigers?”
“Excuse me?” I replied.
“Why don’t you have more tigers?” the cashier insisted.  “Every time I go to the zoo,” she continued, “I want to see the tigers and I can never see them because there just aren’t enough.  Why don’t you get more?” 
For a moment, this monologue just puzzled me until glancing down at my wallet I noticed the picture space across from my driver’s license held our Oakland Zoo membership card.  The cashier had seen the card and instead of recognizing it as a membership card, she had assumed that I was an employee at the zoo. That was an easily cleared up mistake. But for that moment at least, we were not speaking the same language. There was a gap in communication. We did not understand one another.
David, as you know, spent most of his life in Ohio.  The first time I took him to San Francisco, at one point after we had been walking through Golden Gate Park, he asked me where all the Rice-a-Roni stands were.  Childhood commercials had miscommunicated to him the belief that just as there are taco trucks in other places, in San Francisco, there were Rice-A-Roni stands on each corner.
Sometimes our failure to understand one another is not so funny, though.  Sometimes it is downright tragic.  In foreign affairs, there have been far too many wars started over miscommunication: sometimes this miscommunication is as simple as a non-intended slight or failure to recognize the necessary manners and customs of another culture.           More immediately, how many divorces are caused by failure to communicate well?  How many broken-hearted children have been punished over misunderstandings with parents or teachers?
I went to Korea while I was in seminary, with a group of students.  We had spent the semester studying Korean culture, and had been told on countless occasions that dressing up for church in Korea was extremely important.  People would feel it was disrespectful to do otherwise and would be highly offended.  None the less, one of our group failed to bring anything nicer than jeans. When we had offended and this offense was being explained to this young man, his response was, “Well, I would have known if I was being offensive!”  He failed to understand all of the communication he had been given through our readings and lectures and from the responses of the people themselves, about the differences in our cultures and what would offend and he stubbornly insisted that his way of seeing the world was the only way.
People who suffer from schizophrenia often have an incredibly difficult time being understood. They speak our languages, whatever they are. But we struggle to understand people with schizophrenia, to make sense of what they say. I had the privilege while studying in college of volunteering with an amazingly loving, intuitive, giving Chaplain to the Homeless in Berkeley. 
Alexia met people of all kinds, and she really listened and heard them in ways that were deeply profound and truly life-giving. One time when we were together, a schizophrenic homeless woman approached Alexia. Alexia and I were deep in conversation and Alexia knew that for me, people who said things I could not understand were probably the people I feared most in the world. So at first it looked like Alexia was going to put this woman off for a moment, when suddenly Janet blurted out, “I am God.” Her statement made me uncomfortable. I stood up and was ready to be on my merry fear-driven way. Here was the thing I feared most: craziness, unpredictable behavior: that which made me most uneasy, that which I did not choose to deal with, right in front of me, demanding my energy and attention, and I could not accept her. But Alexia gently indicated to me that I was to stay. She turned to Janet, “Tell me. I’ve always wanted to know...what exactly does it feel like to be God.” Janet looked straight at Alexia with relief in her face, but also urgency to speak, to tell. She sighed a big sigh, “I care and love and care and love but no one pays any attention to me.” Alexia gave me a very poignant stare as we both nodded our heads in understanding. This woman I was about to dismiss because I had no energy for her great needs, had deep needs, but also had gifts for us: gifts of insight, gifts of wisdom.  This woman felt ignored, unseen, unvalued. I am sure she was also accurate that God must feel ignored at times, too. Until she said it, I never knew the god right in front of me and present in this woman.
I learned in my psychology class shortly after that event that the ramblings of schizophrenics are not recognizably different from quotes from poetry.  No one, not even the most highly trained psychologists and psychiatrists can tell the difference between phrases of poetry and schizophrenic phrases. Schizophrenics talk in poetry. But Chaplain Alexia was a person of Pentecost. When she was faced with a person whose language seemed different, other, hard to understand, Alexia listened, asked questions, and came to understand. Though we would think Janet was speaking in a different language, for those with ears to hear, for those Pentecost people, she was speaking the language of God.
 In the story of the tower of Babel, the creating of multiple languages, the destroying of people’s ability to understand one another - this was a story about people losing power, losing strength, losing focus and the ability to be united and together!  The story of the tower of Babel tells us God created many languages so that the people could not “do anything” - could not become like gods and accomplish anything they put their mind to. 
So if the Pentecost story is the reversal of that, what does that now tell us?  God has given back to us the power to understand one another. God has given us the ability to choose to listen to what we are really saying to one another. With that power, we can do anything! We can choose once again to be united. And as a united people, we can be part of healing this earth. We can be God’s hands bringing peace to the world. We can do God’s will and love God’s people and bring the world together. It is out of this experience of unity and understanding that the church was born.  It is out of this love from God; the love that gives us the understanding and power to love and unite with others that our church has come into being.
Before I conclude I want to tell you one more story.  In this story, about a century or two ago, the Pope decided that all the Jews had to leave the Vatican. Naturally there was a big uproar from the Jewish community. The Pope made a deal. He would have a religious debate with a member of the Jewish community. If the Pope won, the Jews would have to leave.
The Jews realized they had no choice. They chose a middle-aged man named Moishe to represent them. Moishe asked for one addition to the debate - to make it more interesting, neither side would be allowed to talk. The Pope reluctantly agreed. The day of the great debate came. Moishe and the Pope sat opposite one another for a full minute before the Pope raised his hand and showed three fingers. Moishe looked back at him and raised one finger. The Pope waved his fingers in a circle around his head. Moishe pointed at the ground where he sat. The Pope pulled
out a wafer and a glass of wine.  Moishe pulled out an apple. The Pope stood up and said, "I give up. This man is too good. The Jews can stay."
An hour later, the cardinals were all around the Pope asking him what happened. The Pope said, "First I held up three fingers, representing the Trinity. He held up one finger to remind me there was still one God common to both our religions. Then I waved my fingers around to show him that God was all around us. He responded by pointing to the ground and showing that God was also right here with us. I pulled out the wine and wafer to show that God absolves us from our sins.  He pulled out an apple to remind me of original sin. He had an answer for everything!  What could I do?" 
Meanwhile, the Jewish community had crowded around Moishe. They also asked what had happened. "Well," said Moishe, "first he said to me that we had three days to get out. I told him that not one of us was leaving. Then he said the whole city would be cleared of Jews. I told him we were staying right here." "And then?" asked a woman.
"I don't know," said Moishe. "He took out his lunch and I took out mine."

So as we celebrate the birthday of the church today, do we choose to remain a people of Babel, lost in the confusion of voices and understandings?  Or do we choose to remember the miracle of Pentecost?  Do we choose to speak the same language, or rather to do the work to truly and deeply understand one another across all barriers knowing that God has given us that gift of hearing, of listening, of understanding?  Do we choose to turn from Babel and claim the new life, the birth of our church, the new way of being in this world, knowing that the reward is heaven itself? Yes! And again I pray, Yes!

Thursday, June 1, 2017

What is Strength?

      I am coming to see that we need to change our entire approach to understanding and responding to one another's struggles.  We need to understand emotional pain, mental illness, and emotional sensitivity from a very different perspective.  The journey to make this change in our thinking is very slow.  We mostly still see those who struggle with chronic emotional pain as weak, rather than as the incredibly strong people they are, carrying daily burdens of pain and facing each day with courage.  We also still think that what people who are sensitive and easily injured by bullies need to do is just "develop a thicker skin".  Both of these are seriously problematic.  Both of these ways of seeing the world function within a very individualistic, non-feeling model that says that the problems we have are our own, that emotions are to be distrusted and squelched when possible, and that when someone is a victim and someone is a perpetrator, that it is the victim who needs to adjust and change. This world-view supports the idea that we should be in our heads rather than our hearts; it places our hearts and our feelings in a subservient position to our thinking; it elevates an ideal of cold independent distance over a world view that says we are interdependent and that our feelings have their own wisdom, one that should be attended to.  If we want a gentler, kinder, more caring world, that has to start by listening to the wisdom of our feelings; it must recognize that we are created to be in community, and that means understanding that we all need one another (and not just people, but all of creation) to be whole and healthy.
      I've written before that people who live with and function with the chronic pain of mental illness (depression, bipolar, etc) are some of the strongest people I know.  This continues to be reinforced for me as I talk with more and more folk who go through each day carrying the emotional (and physical because the emotional pain is also physically oppressive) burdens they carry simply because they have to: for their kids, for their families, for their God, for whatever reason they choose to move forward each day.
    Unfortunately, it has also been reinforced for me that most people still believe that those who struggle with mental illness are somehow weak.  Part of this belief stems from the misguided thinking that says that if someone asks for help, or calls for support, that they are weak. We should be able to walk this path alone, on our own, without the care or support of others, apparently.  Again, this emphasizes an individualistic model in which people who reach out and need each other are not strong enough to walk alone. It fails to recognize that we all need each other, sometimes more and sometimes less, to help us walk this journey called life.
     Another example: I read a recent article that said that when people have been hurt or affected by cruelty of others they are often told to "buck up", to "get over it", to "develop a thicker skin."  This author was saying that actually, going through the pain, discussing it, and working it out is a much healthier model.  Talking about the things that affect us, that hurt us, sharing and working it through with other people is a better way of healing ourselves and others.  Do we really aim to become people who are without sensitivity?  Without empathy?  Without the ability to care and be affected by and touched by the thoughts, feelings and actions of those around us?  Do we really think that we should permit and tacitly condone meanness because it toughens us and that the issue when people are being treated cruelly is with the one being victimized rather than the one perpetrating the act?  With our children, we have advanced in this area more quickly than with adults. We are coming to see that bullying is a problem and that children need to be taught to share their experiences of unkindness so that all of us can grow and all of us can work harder to find the bullies, confront the mean behavior and change it so that those kids do not grow up to be villains.  But we often still say to adults who are being treated with unkindness, "you need to get a tougher exterior."  Actually, tougher exteriors are not a good goal unless we hope for an insensitive world of tough but unfeeling people.
      I strongly resonated with the author's words on this. Just as I believe it is not about developing a tougher skin, but about working through the pain when someone is unkind, I also believe that when people ask for help because they are suffering emotionally, that this too needs to be recognized not as weakness, but as strength.  It takes courage and trust to ask for help.  It takes self-awareness to know when one is carrying burdens that are too much to bear on one's own.  It takes wisdom to discern who will be helpful to the one struggling and who can be relied on to stand by us in times of trial.
      These are two examples of ways in which our thinking around all of this needs to change.  We have to let go of the belief that we walk this planet as individuals separate and independent from each other.  In reality we need each other at every step of the way.  It is not just a trade model that causes interaction, but a deep seated human need for community.  We have been created as relational, interdependent beings.
       Strength for me is the ability to recognize our needs, to be able to be honest about our feelings, and to risk a community of friends to support one another in our daily struggles.  Strength for me is the ability to walk forward every day when things are at their worse for whatever reason, simply because we have to.  Strength is claiming the wisdom of our feelings and our sensitivities for identifying when something needs to change.
      We won't be able to change the thinking of the world around feelings, independence and strength overnight.  But if we can start with ourselves and our own communities, teaching one another to respect and honor feelings, standing with each other in our relationships, recognizing the strength it takes to ask for help and to walk the journeys, then we have made a step forward. Because again, everything we do affects one another.  The change therefore that starts with the thinking of one person can affect us all for the better.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Sunday's Sermon: Temptation and Protection

Matthew 4: 1-11
John 17:6-19

What do you think are the most common temptations for humans today?  The three that were mentioned to tempt Jesus were food (appeasing the senses?), the temptation to test Jesus’ relationship with God, and power.  While power is still a temptation for many of us, I think we are currently very tempted by possessions or wealth, by popularity or fame, by things that feel like they make us happy temporarily, things that make us feel good, things that we can tend to become addicted to – drugs, alcohol, fast paced life, etc.
How many of you have seen the movie, The Devil Wears Prada?  The movie’s main character, Andi, starts as a person with goals and integrity.  She wants to be a journalist, and she has written about injustices such as poor work conditions.  She is in a committed relationship and values her time with her friends.  She enjoys her life, and has a cause or meaning, a purpose in her future.  Her values do not include shallow things like appearance, being thin, high fashion, owning expensive purses, clothing, things.  She puts work in its proper place as one aspect of who she is.  She is down-to-earth, centered, and knows where she is heading and what she wants.  When she first applies for the job as Assistant to the Director of Runway Magazine, she is appalled by the value system that surrounds her – the emphasis on accessories that make no real difference to one’s well-being, the insistence on being thin, on looking “right,” on dressing “right.”  She scoffs when 2 belts that most of us would think are identical are held up to a dress with the comment, “Oh, I just don’t know which is best.  They are so different!”  But when she takes the job, she finds her values and her identity being slowly challenged, slowly and subtly being undermined.  She finds herself giving up more and more of her time with her friends and significant other in order to work.  She finds herself being pulled into the drama and the appeal of a fast paced career with models and glamour and eventually into valuing the entire system of clothing and accessories and being thin and owning purses that cost thousands of dollars – all things she didn’t used to care about.  The choices she is faced with – to choose depth, meaning and relationships, or to choose appearance, glamour, fame and achievement are subtle choices, but she finds herself choosing for the latter again and again, and she finds herself saying to those who would challenge those choices, “well, I didn’t have a choice!” She chooses to do what her boss asks her to do, even when it means that she ends up deeply hurting a colleague who was becoming a friend. And the entire time she is slipping she repeats that phrase, “I didn’t have a choice.”
What made her descent, her decline into a life that the movie, and I imagine many of us, would consider sinful so easy for her was that she didn’t realize she was being tempted, tested or making bad choices in the face of those temptations.  She didn’t realize that she was choosing “evil”, even when she did something that devastated another human, that took away another human’s hopes and dreams.  She told herself that she made that choice because she had to keep her job. But that lie that she told herself, that the job was the most important thing, that lie led her more and more into “hell”…she lost her friends, she lost her significant other, she lost her sense of self and her values.  As her boyfriend breaks up with her, she receives a phone call from Miranda, her “devil” boss, and she says, “I’m sorry.  I have to answer this,” still not realizing she is making a choice.  As her boyfriend walks away he says to her, “You know, in case you were wondering?  The person whose calls you always take – that’s the relationship you’re in.”  Even after all of those losses she still didn’t realize the choices that she was making or that she had a choice to make, until the “devil” character, her boss, Miranda, in the film pointed it out to her by comparing Andi’s choices with her own.  Andi could see that Miranda’s choices were hurtful, were harmful, were devastating.  But until Miranda pointed out that Andi had made the same choices, Andi couldn’t see. Until the one who asked her to do these terrible things points out to her that she chose to do them in order to get ahead, she did not see them, could not see the choices she made as choices.
Jesus, in his temptations, knew he was being tempted.  Andi didn’t.  How much easier is it for us to slip down that slippery path when we are unaware of the path we are walking? I think about this for the alcoholic (or for anyone struggling with an addiction).  At one point the alcoholic person was just a person having his or her first social drink.  Most people in this culture do drink socially, and there is nothing wrong with that. But the alcoholic, at some point, went over the edge into the addiction, into the action which was damaging to him or herself and others. Which drink was it that was one too many? How was he/she supposed to know which drink that was? Was the line clearly marked in the sand that said, “you can go this far, but no farther?”  No.  Of course it was not.  I think the same is true with everything else that tempts us to take what we want at the cost to others (and to ourselves).  I don't think we always know that we are choosing something destructive, damaging, evil until it is too late.  Sometimes we don't even see it then.  Are we aware of how our buying choices affect people around the world?  Are we aware of what we do that damages the environment?  Do we know when we have taken more than our share and failed to care for others?
I think about the disciples.  In Matthew 16: 21-24, Jesus is talking about his coming crucifixion.  And Peter says to him out of love, compassion and probably fear, “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” to which Jesus replies, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”  Did Peter know he was making a mistake?  That he was offering something dangerous and ungodly to Jesus?  If we had been in Jesus’ shoes, would we have recognized the temptation that Peter was offering him as a thing of evil?
Frederick Buechner says in his book Wishful Thinking: a Theological ABC, under the term “Devil”:  “To take the Devil seriously is to take seriously the fact that the total evil in the world is greater than the sum of all its parts.  Likewise the total evil in yourself.  The murderer who says, ‘I couldn’t help it’ isn’t necessarily just kidding….”
            Whether or not you believe in a personified devil isn’t the issue here that I’m taking on today.  (If you are interested in discussing that, come to our bible study on Thursdays) But I am going to use that language today to talk about evil because I think it is helpful in acknowledging that evil is something bigger than ourselves.  Satan, or evil is known for cunning, for disguise, for being shady in the deals Satan makes with us.  Evil seems to offer us an ease from pain, a distraction from the struggles of life, it offers us comfort, enjoyment, fame, power, fortune. And it seems to sort of work for awhile, which is why people are willing to sell their souls for the distractions or “pleasures” or gifts that Satan gives.  If you drink, you don’t feel.  If you get into a numbing drug, or get high off of your latest purchase, or your latest achievement, these things distract from the emptiness, from the grief, from whatever it is we are trying to escape. If you get distracted by glamour or your job or your aim for a higher achievement, these too can work well as distractions from loneliness, from emptiness, from feeling unsure about who we are, what we are about, what we are doing.
These things, even the achievements that are escapes from what God calls us to, are bad or evil because they do take us away from God’s purpose for our lives, and because they hurt people, those who fall into the temptation most of all.  These distractions and these things we want that hurt us or others, these things that were supposed to take us out of pain end up causing us their own pain…addictions become slave drivers of their own that own us, eating up our money, our resources, our time and our attention, destroying our health, and sometimes again, destroying a lot more than that – relationships, work, etc. Destructive behavior destroys not only the other, but eventually our own beings as we care less for others, as we distance ourselves from love. Also, these pleasures can only distract for so long and then the pain comes back, usually more strongly since it has been “building up” in our systems un-dealt with.  We do have to deal with the pain and an addiction or distraction can only postpone those feelings, it can’t actually take them away or erase them.  At the point at which the distraction no longer works, we have to make another choice.  Do we find something else to distract us from the pain?  Do we find something worse or do we dig deeper into our addictions, into our avoidances, so we don’t have to feel?  Or do we come out and face the music?  Do we choose the hard road - the one that leads us through the pain but back to life?  I'm reminded of the studies that show us that everyone who has their basic needs met believes they would be "fine" if they only had twice the income they currently have.  Everyone.  Regardless of their net worth and current income thinks they would be okay if only they had twice what they have.  More doesn't make us happier.  It never has and it never will.  But we think it will.  And so we take more than is our need, more than is our share; and we hurt others by not giving what they need at a basic level.
“An old Cherokee told his grandson, “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all.  One is Evil.  It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies and ego.  The other is Good.  It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy and truth.”  The boy thought about it, and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?”  The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”

The second scripture passage from today gives us an intimate glance into Jesus praying to God.  And he is asking for what we all might ask for in light of the tenacity, subtlety and cunning of evil.  Jesus prays to God for protection for us from temptation, from evil.  He prays our prayer. He prays for us. And yet we remain in the world. And we remain faced with temptations at times. The Good News in this is that when we do choose to abide in God, God will help us to see Evil and will help us to avoid or overcome temptations. When we choose to spend our time feeding the “good wolf” – spending time in prayer, with relationships that our healthy, with choices that are healthy, when we choose to spend our time productively and not ‘escaping” then we feed the good wolf within us and God helps us to win in the battle for our souls. 
In the end of the movie, The Devil Wears Prada, Andi does finally see the choices she is making and she chooses something different.  She chooses to walk away.  We always have this choice.  We always get the option to choose better next time.  On this last Sunday of Easter-tide we are blessed with the Good News of new life, a new choice, a new chance every time we choose for destruction and death.
Still, my prayer for all of us is that God would help us to discern the temptations. My prayer for all of us is that we, with God’s help, might have the strength to say “no” in the face of those temptations. My prayer for all of us is that we have the courage to feed the good wolf, no matter how painful to at times, and to rely on God’s protection even in the times of struggle when Satan is most near, most tempting, most cunning.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Unexpected struggles

      I've been thinking about expectations again.  I shared in a post a while ago about my friend who told me that white Americans are unhappy in large part because we expect things to be easy, to go well, to be smooth.  We have these expectations of a happy life, a successful life, a life of increasing ease and luxury; so when things go wrong, it throws us into despair and upset and trauma.  And when things go well, we don't celebrate that because that's what we expected.  She told me that in other countries and cultures there just simply isn't any such expectation.  People expect things to be hard, to be difficult, to be challenging.  As a result, when things go well, there is great joy and celebration at the unexpected positive events.  When things go badly, it rolls off the backs of those who experienced it because that was what was expected.
      Aislynn and I have been reading the Narnia series.  In one book there is a character, Puddleglum, who is a really negative character. He is constantly saying things like, "well, I expect it will all go wrong, but we must try despite the fact that it will all end badly." As you get to know him, you find that he just has these low expectations. He anticipates disaster at every turn, and is, therefore, thrilled and pleased and happy when things go well. His low expectations don't prevent him from trying, from being brave, from doing what must be done.  He expects the worst, but he still goes forward with strength and conviction. Still, being around someone who is expressing that negativity, those low expectations, is hard, discouraging, exhausting, and often depressing.
      So I find myself wondering, how can we live the way my friend suggested, expecting the challenges and being thrilled by the unexpected successes, and not be a negative presence at the same time?  Is there a way to internalize the lower expectations and to find ways to rejoice in the good without being a downer in our language and in our approach to problems?
       My own life is rarely easy and never without drama.  I think we each have life lessons, challenges that we face again and again until we get them "right" or figure out a way to navigate them.  One of my life challenges is how to continue when things go wrong, how to step forward with joy, patience, and love despite the pull to become bitter, cynical, negative and faithless in reaction to the things life has handed me.  I've found myself reflecting on a quote from the Life of Pi, "When you've suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling." This is a truth for me.  My daughter has a small disappointment and I find myself brought to inconsolable tears over it: she shouldn't have to have small disappointments after what she has gone through, I think.  At the same time I am aware of how small it really is.  It is both trifling and unbearable.  At times I feel close to the edge and at times I want to simply give up, but I am also always aware that we have gone through the worst we probably will, at least in this decade, and wonder why these small things can affect me so greatly when we walked through the big things without hesitation. I never considered giving up in those hardest of times; it just wasn't an option.  
        I think much of this comes back to gratitude, once again.  Gratitude calls us to focus at all times and in all places on what has gone well, on what is beautiful and right and good in our lives. Gratitude does not ask us to turn a blind eye to what is hard or negative. It also doesn't insist on a Pollyanna-ish attitude of expecting everything to be rosy or to end well. But gratitude does call us to see even the challenges as the gifts they are.  It calls us to look for those gifts: to see that we learn from the harder things, that we can grow in strength and forbearance through the tough times.  More, it encourages us to look around and see that almost always there are gifts even in the hardest moments. We are still breathing - that is something to be thankful for.  We have had love in our lives and that is something to appreciate.  Chances are that those who read this have enough to eat, a place to sleep, sunshine and rain and flowers and trees, family and friends, music, art, transportation, education, moments to relax, moments of laughter, public parks, places to walk and run and dance, work, community, libraries that can lend us books, vacation days, etc.  We may not have all of this all the time, but we have many of these things much of the time.  When we can remember this, when we can focus on those gifts that fill our lives, when we can take ten minutes each day to be grateful, then the hard things are easier to bear.
       Perhaps that sounds simplistic.  I don't want to push away the reality that life is hard.  I know there are traumas that must be worked through, losses that must be grieved, problems that need our attention and focus.  But taking a few minutes in the hardest times: a few minutes a day, or even each hour when things are really tough, to remember the gifts, the good - that can empower, strengthen and support us as we face the more difficult challenges.  It can also give us the courage to try again, to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to take the risk of reaching for what we want as it reminds us that no matter what happens, there will always be things to be grateful for, there will always be gifts and blessings to look for and to see.  The pains that come our way are part of life and call for our attention.  But the gifts that come our way also deserve our focus.  And our choice to focus on those good things may enable us to walk with a little more energy, a little less anxiety, and a bit more hope.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Keeping My Commandments - Sunday's Sermon

Mark 11:27-12:24
John 14:15-21

Today’s passage from John starts with the words, “If you love me, keep my commands.”  Then towards the end of the passage, again, Jesus says, “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me.”  These are important words or Jesus would not have said them repeatedly.  He wants it to be clear – you show Jesus that you love him, you show God that you love God by doing what God calls you to do, by doing what Jesus told us and showed us to do.
Not to say this is easy.  It is simple.  All we have to do is love.  But simple is not the same as easy. And while it may be fairly easy to love the people here in church, in our faith community, to love our friends and our family members (most of the time!), it is hard to love the unlovable.  It is hard to love the people on the street, or people who scare us or people who are dirty or smelly, people who are unpredictable, people who just want things from us, people who are demanding or asking, people who are unkind.  Sometimes it is hard to love people with whom we disagree.  And it is really hard to love people who have done things we hate, or people who have hurt us or our loved ones.  Showing these people the same love and care that we show ourselves, our families and our friends is far, very far, from easy.
But Jesus is clear – the way we show him that we love him is to do what he asks which is to love God and love neighbor as ourselves.
         In the blog “Wellness by choice” Susan McMorris told this story: One day I hopped in a taxi and we took off for the airport. We were driving in the right lane when suddenly a black car jumped out of a parking space right in front of us. My taxi driver slammed on his brakes, skidded, and missed the other car by just inches! The driver of the other car whipped his head around and started yelling at us. My taxi driver just smiled and waved at the guy. And I mean, he was really friendly. 
        So I asked, 'Why did you just do that? This guy almost ruined your car and sent us to the hospital!  And then he was nasty about it and yelled at you!' This is when my taxi driver taught me what I now call, 'The Law of the Garbage Truck.'  He explained that many people are like garbage trucks. They run around full of garbage, full of frustration, full of anger, and full of disappointment.  As their garbage piles up, they need a place to dump it and sometimes they'll dump it on you. Don't take it personally, he said. Just smile, wave, wish them well, and move on. Don't take their garbage and spread it to other people at work, at home, or on the streets. The bottom line is that successful people do not let garbage trucks take over their day. 
        McMorris ends the story this way, “Life's too short to wake up in the morning with regrets, So ... Love the people who treat you right. Pray for the ones who don't.”
         That’s where the story ends.  But I think we have to take it a step farther.  It is not enough to just pray for those who treat you wrong.  We are called to love them like the taxi driver, to show them care, even when we don’t want to, even when we don’t think we can.  So our prayers might more appropriately start with praying for ourselves: praying that we are given the strength to show love and care towards those who hurt us or those we love.  Pray for ourselves the strength and then take up the challenge and work hard to treat every neighbor who crosses our paths with love.
        Dan Clark tells this story in “Chicken Soup for the Woman’s Soul”... One cold evening during the holiday season, a little boy about six or seven was standing out in front of a store window.  The little child had no shoes and his clothes were mere rags.  A young woman hurrying by to get home to her own family was none the less caught by the needs  of the little boy and the longing she read in his pale brown eyes.  She took the child by the hand and led him into the store.  There she bought him some new shoes and a complete suit of warm clothing.   They had come back outside into the street and the woman said to the child, “Now you can go home and have a very happy holiday.”
        The little boy looked up at her and asked, “Are you God, Ma’am?”
        She smiled down at him and answered, “No, son, I’m just one of God’s children.”
        The little boy then said, “I knew you had to be some relation.”
         A father told this story about his child, Shay, who was mentally and physically disabled.
“Shay and I had walked past a park where some boys Shay knew were playing baseball. Shay asked, “Do you think they'll let me play?” I knew that most of the boys would not want someone like Shay on their team, but as a father I also understood that if my son were allowed to play, it would give him a much-needed sense of belonging and some confidence to be accepted by others in spite of his disabilities.  I approached one of the boys on the field and asked (not expecting much) if Shay could play. The boy looked around for guidance and said, “We're losing by six runs and the game is in the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and we'll try to put him in to bat in the ninth inning.”  Shay struggled over to the team's bench and, with a broad smile, put on a team shirt. I watched with a small tear in my eye and warmth in my heart. The boys saw my joy at my son being accepted. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Shay's team scored a few runs but was still behind by three. In the top of the ninth inning, Shay put on a glove and played in the right field. Even though no hits came his way, he was obviously ecstatic just to be in the game and on the field, grinning from ear to ear as I waved to him from the stands. In the bottom of the ninth inning, Shay's team scored again. Now, with two outs and the bases loaded, the potential winning run was on base and Shay was scheduled to be next at bat. At this juncture, do they let Shay bat and give away their chance to win the game? Surprisingly, Shay was given the bat. Everyone knew that a hit was all but impossible because Shay didn't even know how to hold the bat properly, much less connect with the ball. However, as Shay stepped up to the plate, the pitcher, recognizing that the other team was putting winning aside for this moment in Shay's life, moved in a few steps to lob the ball in softly so Shay could at least make contact. The first pitch came and Shay swung clumsily and missed. The pitcher again took a few steps forward to toss the ball softly towards Shay. As the pitch came in, Shay swung at the ball and hit a slow ground ball right back to the pitcher. The game would now be over. The pitcher picked up the soft grounder and could have easily thrown the ball to the first baseman. Shay would have been out and that would have been the end of the game. Instead, the pitcher threw the ball right over the first baseman's head, out of reach of all team mates.. Everyone from the stands and both teams started yelling, “Shay, run to first! Run to first!” Never in his life had Shay ever run that far, but he made it to first base.. He scampered down the baseline, wide-eyed and startled.
Everyone yelled, “Run to second, run to second!” Catching his breath, Shay awkwardly ran towards second, gleaming and struggling to make it to the base. By the time Shay rounded towards second base, the right fielder had the ball, the smallest guy on their team who now had his first chance to be the hero for his team. He could have thrown the ball to the second-baseman for the tag, but he understood the pitcher's intentions so he, too, intentionally threw the ball high and far over the third-baseman's head. Shay ran toward third base deliriously as the runners ahead of him circled the bases toward home..
All were screaming, “Shay, Shay, Shay, all the Way Shay”
Shay reached third base because the opposing shortstop ran to help him by turning him in the direction of third base, and shouted, “Run to third! Shay, run to third!”
As Shay rounded third, the boys from both teams, and the spectators, were on their feet screaming, “Shay, run home! Run home!”
Shay ran to home, stepped on the plate, and was cheered as the hero who hit the grand slam and won the game for his team. “That day”, said the father softly with tears now rolling down his face, “the boys from both teams helped bring a piece of true love and humanity into this world.”
Shay didn't make it to another summer. He died that winter, having never forgotten being the hero and making his father so happy, and coming home and seeing his Mother tearfully embrace her little hero of the day!”

            Those kids got it.  They understood what it was to love someone else on that day.  May we be able to do the same. Make your life in the image of God, the God of love.  In doing so, you honor God, you show Jesus that you love him.  Amen.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

"It's the end of the Church as we know it, and I feel..."

      I had the great privilege of spending a day and a half with some of my fellow clergy folk over the weekend. We were on a retreat together that for me was very helpful and centering.  But while we were focused on spiritual practices, what I want to write about is more the recurrent themes that I heard throughout the retreat of frustration, depression, and feelings of discouragement.  I want to talk about the pervasive feelings of many (most?) pastors these days of insecurity, of being in a wilderness that seems to have no end, of not knowing the path, of feeling a bit lost in a turbulent and changing sea. As I've mentioned to my congregations both present and past on more than one occasion, the national Church is dying.  Conservative estimates are that within 10-20 years the Church as we know it (across denominations, and even across different faiths in the United States) will no longer exist.  20 churches a day closed in 2013, and that number is on the rise. The estimate was that over 10,000 churches closed in 2015.  In terms of members, 1.2 million people stopped going to church in 2015 alone.  The reasons for this are numerous, and if you are a pastor, you know that there is another article written every day about why and who and how to reverse this trend, what successful churches look like, what the dying ones are doing wrong, what has worked and failed to work.  Article after article and seminar after seminar tell us how to do it differently, what someone believes is the thing that will change this all around.  AND, the reality is, none of it is working.  What might work for one congregation seldom works for another.  We have seen attempts to slow down the decline that have bumped attendance at particular individual congregations for a while, only for a dramatic loss to follow a few years later.  Most successful churches currently center on a charismatic personality, until that person moves on, is caught in a scandal of some kind, or dies, at which point their church usually collapses.  The reality is that our congregations are all aging.  Church is not a priority for our younger families at all, if it is even on their radar.  Church has become very suspect, in large part because the ultra conservative churches are the loudest and espouse an exclusive, judgmental world view that is a real turn off for most of us. Fighting among different faith beliefs and religions doesn't help.  The bad things churches have done shout from our history books, the good we have done is often forgotten. Liberal churches don't believe in evangelizing so we allow the term "Christian" to be co-opted and we don't speak out about who we are. Progressives are afraid to ruffle feathers so we keep quiet, and often become irrelevant: country clubs rather than places that actually do the work of God.  Or we do the work (feeding, housing, advocating, caring for the poor and oppressed), but again, quietly, without fanfare, and so go unnoticed and un-noted.  But even without this, other priorities have taken our time and attention. Spirituality seems to be more individual and less rooted in community at the moment.
     About every 500 years there is a reformation of sorts: things change, dramatically, as far as the religious scene. The Protestant Reformation began exactly 500 years ago this October, so we are due for another one. The clergy I talk to see this. We recognize that God will be doing a new thing, that we can't see it yet, but there will come a time when we know what that is, and that death is just a step towards a new life that looks different; that times in the wilderness often precede very fertile growth and change. It won't be the same.  There is comfort in that, in the belief and hope that a new thing is coming.
      When I can step outside of myself and sit in meditation or delight in the beauty of the creation that God has made; when I can look at my children and hear their ideas and hopes and dreams for the future, when I can do all of that, I am more than okay with where we are heading.  I can be excited to see what is coming next, not seeing a new thing as a judgment on an old thing but as a step into something different for a different time.  I can see the mistakes we've made and make, and I can hope that the new thing coming will be more loving, more giving, more true to what I believe is the intention towards Love and connection and community. The future of faith can look radically different and I am okay with that.  I want a kinder, more understanding, gentler world where we do stand up for the hungry, for the poor, for the underprivileged.  I want a world where people understand that we are all truly connected and that therefore it is in our best interest to make sure everyone has what they need: food, shelter, community, kindness, respect. I can and do hope for a more inclusive, uplifting, empowering sisterhood and brotherhood of love, hope and practice. I am okay with anything that moves us in that direction. I know it will be different, and I look towards the beauty in that.
      But for those of us who have made this our career, I have to be honest and tell you that however faithful we are, however hopeful and trusting and convicted of resurrection we may be, that there is fear that accompanies all of this. From a practical place, finding hope and joy is more challenging. First of all, people need someone to blame and the clergy are the obvious scapegoats for the anger felt by those who are losing their communities as churches close down and can no longer afford to continue. While there are arrogant clergy, most of the good folk I know err on the side of taking on more than is their due.  We take it in, a sense of failure, a sense of not being good enough, and we take that in deeply. Depression is a very common experience among clergy these days as we work harder than ever, longer hours, lonelier hours, with less result, less return, less sense of accomplishment, community, growth. In the world outside of the church there is a huge mistrust of clergy.  To have the constant experience of meeting others, and in conversation sharing what we do for a living only to see the walls come down and the judgments descend, to experience the distancing response of those around us, is disheartening at the least.  We feel like pariahs, too often, and can end up isolated within our declining churches. Along with the depression comes anxiety as we face the questions of our own futures. I need to be able to work another 20 years at least.  I am the sole support for three children.  And not a week goes by now when I don't wonder how I will be able to get them to independence before my career is defunct, along with my ability to support them.  I have had the experience of applying for different work, only to find that the distrust of clergy makes stepping into another career as difficult as remaining in this one. Some of you may say that sounds unfaithful. But my experience is that God gives us freewill, does not micromanage our lives.  Bad things happen to good people, and yes, people are given more than they can handle on a regular basis. (Look at the folk around the world struggling with famine, lack of clean water, war, deportment, exile, and then tell me it is unfaithful to fear bad things coming.  As scripture itself tells us, "the rain falls on the just and unjust alike.")
      Fear can be a gift.  It can motivate and move us to look ahead, to start the wondering, "what if..." and to try to plan accordingly. But in a world where the future is increasingly unclear, where each day brings new uncertainties and new concerns, the future that we fear is very dim.  The "what ifs" are unreal glimpses at what is very cloudy.  We stand at the entrance to a cave.  What is beyond is anyone's guess, and the way through is not marked.
      So we wait.  And we watch.  And we listen.  And we try to hold each other up as we walk forward, reminding one another that we are beloved children of a gracious Divinity.  We search our dreams and our meditations for meaning and direction.  We study and read and attend conferences. We pray.  But we see what is coming.  It is the end of the Church as we know it.  And we feel all sorts of things in response to that: hope, joy, excitement; also fear, anxiety, depression and worry.
       Each day is a gift.  And I rest in that reality as well.  It helps to know we do not walk this alone, even as we often feel alone in our individual faith communities.  And it helps to trust that we have been called to the places we currently serve.  We are called here for now.  This time in the desert is meaningful. We will wait and look for the next summons, the next beckoning forward.  And until then we will be faithful in our work, striving to do what God would have us do, striving to serve as the people call us to serve, stepping forward on the journey even as we wait for the next turn in the road to come.