Monday, October 23, 2017

A Failure to Listen

Exodus 33:12-23
Matthew 22:15-22

               “Just listen”.  These are words we hear said, they are words we do say, often when we are simply in disagreement with another person.  And there is truth in them.  Sometimes when we are sure our opinion is right, we simply cannot hear any other view point.  When we know what we believe, we don’t bother to put ourselves in another’s position to hear how they see things or view things.  When we are certain we are right, why would be take the time to try to understand an opposing view?  Why would we even bother to listen?   I know I am guilty of failing to listen or seriously consider a differing view point at times, even when I try to be open-minded.  There are certain ideas that simply won’t get a hearing when run by me.  We simply fail to listen at times. 
In the children’s movie, “Brave” there is a wonderful scene about a mother and her teenage daughter.  They have just had a terrible argument, and the scene moves back and forth between each of them as they discuss the argument, separately, each with someone else.  It is a wonderful scene as each practices or envisions a conversation with the other.  But what is most relevant to today is that each one is certain that the other is simply failing to listen.  And as they practice what they will say to each other when they are next together, the scene moves back and forth between each saying repeatedly to the other, “if you would just listen!”  “I think you would understand if you could just listen!” 
               This is a familiar conversation, I think, that parents and teens experience.  Each has their own view point, and they either truly don’t listen to one another, or they are accused of not listening because they continue in their own opinions even when they do.  But as with the movie, Brave, in which the entire plot is centered around both the mother and daughter’s failures to listen, to respect or to even try to understand the opposing views, similarly, when we fail to listen, fail to hear, we tear rips in our relationships with others, we block true intimacy by blocking our ability to truly understand one another.  We can learn to disagree while still listening and helping others know that we hear and understand them, but this takes work, it takes effort.  And most of the time I think we simply choose not to really listen.
               So then when we look at the scriptures lessons for today, we can relate to the conversations that we hear, first between Moses and God, and second between Jesus and the Pharisees.  In the Exodus passage, God promises Moses that he will go with him to help him lead the people.  But Moses either doesn’t listen or doesn’t trust what God is saying.  Because right after God has promised, “I’ll go myself and I’ll help you,” Moses jumps in with “If you won’t go ….”  .  And even after God promises to do exactly what Moses has asked again, Moses pushes, “Well, show me your presence.”  He pushes and pushes, not hearing what God is agreeing to do, and failing to trust what God is saying.
               Then we come to the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees.  The Pharisees’ question to Jesus about taxes is one in a long line of questions that they have asked him with the purpose of entrapping Jesus.  They know that if Jesus answers that they shouldn’t pay this tax, he will be accused of sedition.  They also know that if he says that they should pay the taxes, he will enrage many of his followers on religious grounds because he will be going against the religious laws of the time.  They ask him a question that they believe he can’t win as they try to undermine him in any way they can.  They continually ask him questions, this one just being the last in a series, whose sole purpose is to discredit him with the people.  But the point here is that they are so focused on trying to knock him down, that they, too, are unable to listen, unable to hear what he is telling them again and again, with every sentence, with every statement, with everything that he does.  They have an agenda, and nothing will dissuade them from that.  Their ears are simply closed to any new information, to any new vision, to anything that might challenge or change the mission they have set for themselves to discredit Jesus.
               It would seem every effort God made to get Moses to listen was met with resistance.  And it seems that nothing Jesus did could help the Pharisees to hear.  What helps us to hear?  When we are entrenched in our opinions and our beliefs to the point that we are unable to listen, to be open even to God’s movement or message among us, what moves us from that place to one of hearing? 
Sometimes, someone says something that can catch us in a way that nothing else has.  I’ve shared with you before about the movie, “The Color of Fear” which is a documentary about a weekend retreat for men on the subject of racism.  I shared it in the context of opening our eyes, of seeing.  Hearing is the same: it is hard, and we are called to do it, so I’m choosing to share the story again.  Men of all backgrounds and ethnicities came to participate in this conversation about racial prejudice.  They made a commitment to be open in their conversations, to trust one another, to explore the topic of racism.  But there was one white man who quickly became the center of the conversation.  He kept insisting that there was no longer any racism in this country and that the men who were sharing their experiences of racial prejudice, were in fact, just blaming others for their problems.  Some of the men of color, having heard these accusations, left the conversation saying that it was not their job to change this man, that his ignorance made him not worth their time.  But most of the men stayed with the white man, sharing stories, telling of their own experiences.  They stayed steadfast in their commitment to justice, and their commitment to care for this one man, even in the face of his anger, his denial, his rudeness, his accusations and his blame.  They calmly and consistently shared their stories with him while he continued to say that they were hurt, ignored, passed over, and much, much worse because of their flaws, not because of racism.  But despite their care, despite their calm and simply presence, despite the stories they told again and again, this man simply could not hear them.  And nothing they did was impacting that block to listening.  Finally, towards the end of the weekend, the leader of the retreat turned to this white man and said, “What would it mean for you if the stories you are hearing are true?  What would it mean for you if we really have experienced the racial prejudice, hatred and discrimination that we are sharing with you?”
This question caught the man off guard.  He became very quiet, for the first time all weekend as he reflected on these words.  Finally, he said, very slowly, very quietly, “It would mean that the world is not as beautiful as I need to believe that it is.”  He began to cry as he continued, “and it would mean that I was part of the problem.” For this man, a question helped him to listen.  He was caught by a moment that surprised him.
But we know that it can take even more for people to learn how to listen.  Sometimes it takes “hitting bottom” for us to be able to hear, to listen and to change.   It takes experience to change.  We know that this is true with people with addictions.  Often people cannot make the choice to hear what others are telling him or her about having an addiction and needing to do something about it until they hit some kind of bottom – become so ill they have to change, or lose their jobs, or lose a relationship.  The same is true for all of us who are stuck in a place where we are unwilling to listen, even when what we might learn could make our lives better, more full.  In the movie, “Brave” which I shared about at the beginning, it took a trauma that threatened to destroy their family for both mother and daughter to finally listen and hear one another.  It literally would have been the end of life for the mother if she had not listened, and the daughter would have lost her mom if she had not listened.  While it is a story, a movie, it reflects the truth that listening is hard.  And sometimes we just would rather not do it.  For many people, prejudice of any kind – against people of different cultural backgrounds, races, ethnicities, LGBTQ folk, people of different religions – the prejudice is not overcome until we really know someone in the category of those we would dismiss: a son or a daughter or a family member is often the most able to help us change because they are people we love already.  But we also know the experience of changing our opinions, of growing, is hard; and sometimes very painful.
A rabbi lived in a rural area with his son. As the boy grew, he began to take walks each day in the woods around their home. The rabbi thought it was good for him to explore on his own in order to build his self-confidence. He noticed, though, that the boy was gone longer and longer each day. The rabbi began to worry that his son was straying too far and might get lost or encounter danger. The next morning, he talked to him about his concern. "I've noticed how much time you are spending in the woods," the rabbi said. "What do you do there?"
"Oh," said the lad, "I go into the woods to listen for the voice of God."
"Ah," smiled the Rabbi, "that is a good thing, but don't you know that God is the same everywhere?"
The boy pondered a moment and then replied, "Yes, Father, but I am not the same everywhere."
There is life in the listening.  There is healing in listening.  Finding the best way for each of us to listen is vital. There is depth in being willing to strive for understanding of another view point.  For Moses, listening to God would have created in him a sense of peace, comfort, dimmed the anxiety, given him a strength in continuing even when the people turned against him at times.  Eventually Moses did listen, despite the challenges that posed for him, and so he was able to fulfill his call to the people, to do the work God gave him to do and to exit in peace.  But it took time, time that could have brought him peace sooner.  For the Pharisees, their failure to listen meant they missed out on God right there with them.  The Pharisees were the legal faith authorities of the day, the legal leaders, the church authorities.  And yet these men, these people who had dedicated their lives to God’s law missed out on God’s presence right there with them.  I can’t think of a greater tragedy for these people than to miss out on the very thing they were striving to be part of their whole lives.  We know that for some, even hitting bottom won’t be enough to help them to change, to grow, to move.
I also want to state the obvious here, that listening does not mean agreeing.  We can listen and still come out with very different opinions and very different understandings.  However, taking the time to listen, to say to someone, “This is what I am hearing you say…”, taking time to repeat in your own words what the other is saying and only then stating your own opinion – these are choices to listen, to be in relationship, to build bridges, and deepen communication. These are choices that state that the relationship is more important than the disagreements, and it can be a huge step towards reconciliation and healing.
Where, then is the Good News in that?  We see in both of these Biblical stories that God continued to be loving and faithful, even when the people wouldn’t listen.  God remained faithful to Moses, responded to Moses, gave Moses what he wanted, even when Moses was challenging God, even when Moses was unwilling to listen.  God remained steadfast.  The tender compassion that God has for God’s children continued no matter what.   Jesus similarly does not refuse to talk to the Pharisees.  He does not ignore their question even.  He stays engaged with them, even in his anger, even as he realizes that he is being set up.  He continues to be present and he continues to try to show them a better way.  He speaks to them in a manner they don’t expect, turning the question around  in a way that might, just might, jar them into actually hearing him.  He says, give to God what is God and to Caesar what is Caesars.  And he leaves it to them to figure out what that means.  He tries to engage their higher thinking and their higher listening for a deeper answer.  What does it mean?  Caesar’s face is on the coin, but ultimately doesn’t everything, including Caesar, belong to God?  Jesus throws it back as a question, as a challenge for the Pharisees.  What really belongs to God?  What really belongs to Caesar?  Who is ultimately the one in charge of everything? 

This passage is not meant to answer the question of taxes for us.  Instead, it is a story about Jesus, and therefore about God.  It tells us that even in those hard questions, those things we struggle to understand, God chooses to be present with us.  It tells us that we are called to think through things by listening with open ears.  It calls us to be present and to engage further with our questions, our thoughts, our hopes, our doubts, and ultimately all that we are.  To listen.  And when we can’t listen, to rest in the love of a very patient and very present God who will wait for us to be able to listen, and will still be talking when we are able to open our ears.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Ageism

     I've read a number of articles recently that have been talking about the ageist culture that we live in here in the United States.  Youth is considered the ideal.  Part of our definition of beauty includes having gray-less or white-less full heads of hair; smooth, unwrinkled and spotless skin; tight, flab-less, droop-less, and hair-free bodies; and perfectly white and straight teeth.  People who are older have a much harder time getting jobs, they are treated with less respect, and at some point they can even start to be almost invisible.  The needs and issues of the elderly are mostly pushed under the rug, hidden away.  Additionally, the images we have of older people on TV are mostly of people past their usefulness, past their meaning, past being contributing members of society.  If we do see them active, they are usually golfing with other older people; not volunteering, working, or giving back to the society, and certainly not teaching or mentoring or working with younger folk.We celebrate and idolize our youth.
     This is especially true for women.  My 17 year old took a drama class over the summer in which they actually spent time looking at what ages and what percentages of women and men are hired for differing acting roles.  Men, they found, tend to be hired for more jobs as they age, up to a point.  Women have, almost without exception, about a 5 year period in which they are highly sought after, after which they 'age out' and are no longer hired, especially for key and prominent acting roles.  The same is true in the church: older men's experience is valued, but without exception my female pastor friends are finding they "age out" at about 50 in terms of being able to get a new pastoring job.  The ads on TV mostly aim to make women look younger.  Men, with the exception of a culture that pushes for full heads of hair, do not need to pretend to be younger than they are by changing their bodies to look younger. 
      Again, there is article after article out there about this problem.  I don't need to repeat them all.  We know it to be true.  We no longer value the wisdom of age, the old images of the "wise woman" are no longer prevalent (though we still have a few of the wizened older man), and a huge portion of the advertisements we see focus on ways to make us look younger for longer, to try to hold on to our youth rather than to age with grace and even joy.
       Instead of repeating what we know, what I want to talk about is the change we need to make to confront this.  It will take courage and it will take intentionality to do so.  But I believe one of the ways we can fight this is to actively, publicly and with commitment and intentionality step into our own aging with delight and pride, rather than with despair and shame.  That means a number of things:
     1. Refusing to dye our hair when it starts to become white or gray, but instead choosing to see the different colors for the beauty, the variety, the signs of experience that they are.
     2. Stopping spending large amounts of money on "anti-wrinkle creams", botox treatments, anti-cellulite treatments and instead seeing every wrinkle, scar and age mark as the medals of having really lived.
     3. Sharing our age with a sense of pride and acceptance rather than shame. 
     4.  Talking about the joys and gifts, as well as the struggles and pains of aging, not in hushed whispers but in open conversations, both with others who are our own ages, as well as with younger folk. 
      5. Talking to potential employers about the gifts we've gained through experience and with the wisdom of our age. 
      6. Refusing to become stuck in our ideas and mind-sets as we age, but using the time we've been given to continue to learn and grow, striving to become better human beings. 
      7.  Seeing ourselves as mentors for younger folk and not being afraid to offer our wisdom, knowledge and advice.  Acknowledging to the world that we really do grow with time, we mature and learn through experience.
      8.  Be willing to turn to folk older than ourselves for advice, mentoring and wisdom: practice valuing the aging as well as the elderly and model that valuing for others.
       I know there are many other ways and I would love to hear your thoughts about them.
       I also understand that this is not easy to do within a culture that actively fights against aging and does not value our elderly.  I know this from my own experience.  The other day I pulled my hair back into a pony-tail and my son responded with "That makes you look older."  Without even thinking about it, I said, "Well, that's too bad," and I removed the pony-tail. 
        Fortunately, I've been talking about ageism with my kids and my eldest daughter called me on my response right away.  "Why is it too bad?" she asked.  "Isn't it a good thing to celebrate looking older? Isn't that what you are teaching us?  That you are okay with the growing gray?  That you celebrate the wrinkles and signs of age?"   
        "You are right.  There is that loud voice of culture still in my head and in my life, even as I fight against it.  Thank you for the reminder.  I need to step back into my intentionality of aging with grace and joy."  I put the pony-tail back in my hair.  But I could not deny that there was still a part of me struggling with the idea that I'm looking older.  It remains a part of me that I have to intentionally confront, regularly.
         I look forward to hearing your ideas about confronting ageism.  I look forward to seeing the ways in which we, together, can change a culture back to one that values the wisdom and experience that time give.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Winning Points by Being Mean?

Exodus 32:1-14
Matthew 22:1-14
Matthew 21:33-46

As I read through today’s passages, I was struck with the idea that sometimes people think that in being mean to other people or catty behind their backs, or expressing hate towards some people, somehow we end up more united with others.  We can “bond” over our criticisms of others, bond over our hatred of others, connect with some people by making someone else a common enemy.  I look at this passage from Exodus in which the people have been led out of slavery by Moses, have come to him for food and water; and God, through Moses, has provided.  Moses has done an amazing work through this people and as we read the scriptures we recognize the great leadership of Moses.  And yet, when Moses goes off for a time to pray, to recuperate, to reconnect with God, the people take the opportunity of his absence to bond with one another AGAINST him.  They wanted him to be everything for them, they wanted him to be perfect, to have infinite energy for them, to not need time away.  They wanted him to lead them into the promised land, into comfort, maybe even into a kind of luxury.  He can’t do that first because he is a human being and second because it isn’t God’s time yet, there are other things that must happen before they are led into the promised land.  But for all these reasons, for his failure to give them everything they want and because he has taken some time away from them to pray, to reground himself in God, the people feel he has failed them and they quickly turn against him.  “As for this man, Moses, we don’t have a CLUE what has happened to him. …so make for us gods who can lead us, instead.”  And his brother, Aaron, did NOT defend him, but joined them, doing what they asked him to do, my guess is so that he could remain a part of them, too, bonded together AGAINST his own brother, Moses.  I also think he was afraid of their angry wagging tongues and felt that if he stood up for his brother, he would just become the next victim of their attacks and critiques.
It was not only that they bonded with each other in their criticism and rejection of Moses, they also somehow believed that in that criticism and rejection of someone else, they would get more, that this would enable them to walk away with something better than what they would have had had they stuck with Moses and had they continued to follow in God’s way.  They thought that instead of this human person, Moses, they could get gods who would then lead them, made from the rings and gold objects that the people had.  Gods had to be better than Moses, right?  Moses had led them out of slavery.  Moses had made sure they had food and water.  But it wasn’t enough.  They wanted more.  They wanted more.  And it was easy to vilify Moses, to critique him, thinking that this would then get them that more.
Then we come to the gospel passages.  And in the first one we read of people invited to a wedding party who felt they had better things to do.  But again, they didn’t simply say “No, we don’t want to come”.  They joined together, grabbed the servants who had invited them to the party, abused them and killed them.  And we have to ask, what were they thinking?  Did they really believe there would be no consequence for this behavior?  That the king who invited them wouldn’t get angry and seek retribution for their killing of his servants?  But again, they seemed to believe that they would be closer to each other, more bonded with one another and maybe even somehow “get more” as they developed a common enemy.
In the second gospel passage I read for today it is even clearer that this is what is going on.  When the servants come to collect what is owed to the landowner, they kill the servants.  So the landowner sends more servants whom they also kill.  When the son comes they say to each other, “This is the heir.  Come on, let’s kill him and we’ll have his inheritance.”  What kind of thinking is that?  That somehow if you kill all those the landowner cares about that he will then leave to you everything he has?!  From a distance, from our perspective, we can see that this is absolutely crazy thinking.  We can see clearly that those with that kind of thinking won’t survive long enough to inherit anything, but will be utterly destroyed by the landowner.  We see this, from the safe distance of reading about it in a story.  But what about in our own lives?
In our own personal lives, don’t we put down, criticize, condemn and sometimes even seek to destroy, at least emotionally, some people to other people?  And as we join together in criticizing other people, don’t we somehow feel more connected to those we are talking to?  Don’t we somehow believe that if we share a common critique against other people that we will be closer and more united with those with whom we share that criticism?  Don’t we sometimes even create friendships, build relationships over common complaints against someone else?  Sometimes I think we even believe that we will be more fully or thoroughly respected by those with whom we are bonding when we have a common critique of someone else, a common judgment, and especially a common enemy. 
Some time ago I was over at the house of friends when the husband in the couple received a text from a mutual friend.  His response in seeing the text was, “Oh no.  Not again!  These people are always texting us.  I’m just going to ignore it.”  His wife joined in on the conversation and critique, “Yeah.  We ignore his texts a lot but they don’t seem to get the message!”  They looked to me for my support, clearly hoping I would join in on this conversation, to agree with them for their decision to put down and fail to respond to this friend. To agree with them about how annoying our mutual friend was.  And again, perhaps the thinking was that we would then have this “bond” over being annoyed by this other friend.  But I found myself instead very upset by their comments.  I found myself wondering, and asking, “when you don’t respond right away to my texts then is it because you are feeling the same way towards me?  Annoyed?  Bothered? Are the two of you having this same conversation about me behind my back when I text?”  Of course they were quick to tell me, “Oh no!  That’s different!” But that conversation rang in my head from then on when a text I sent was not answered.
I have another friend who, when I am with her, is often criticizing her best friend, complaining about her best friend.  I understand that my friend may need to work out some of her annoyance or anxiety at times with her best friend.  But again, whenever she does this, whenever she criticizes her best friend to me, I cannot help but wonder what she is saying about me, who is not nearly as close to her, when I am not around. 
How many of you receive forwarded emails that express hatred towards groups of people? Christians are called to be “known by their love” but sometimes even the most well-meaning people seem to get caught up in hating behavior and my sense is that this is easier to do when they feel bonded with others in a crusade, even when it is a crusade of judgment or hatred.  Jesus is very clear that we are not supposed to judge and that instead we are called to love even our enemies.  Jesus is very clear that we will be known by how compassionate and caring and merciful and grace-filled and loving we are.  And the hate behavior of people who say they are Christian, especially when their hating is done in the name of God, tends to do absolutely the opposite of what they intend.  It does not win friends or convince people of any quality or ability to self-reflect.  It loses them respect, again, especially from those who are self-reflective, who are caring, who are seeing people.  Unfortunately, it also encourages people to lose respect for Christianity on the whole.  They are not spreading the Good News with judging condemning behavior.  They are not demonstrating a belief in a loving God who embraces the outcast, heals the wounded, and calls us to do the same.  They are turning people against Jesus, while missing Jesus’ message of love completely.
Not that any of us are completely beyond this behavior of trying to bond with one another by critiquing others.  While on a retreat one weekend, I kept receiving phone calls and texts from someone who knew I was on retreat and yet continued to demand my attention, and I found myself quick to criticize that person to those I was with.  I received an email right before writing this sermon, containing an article attacking someone that I quickly answered with “yep, I agree” without pausing to consider what I was doing.  We do this. Judging others gives us something to talk about.  Condemning others gives us something to complain about.  Being critical gives us a chance to “vent”. Criticizing others helps us to think through what we believe about certain issues or behaviors so that we can act differently, and behave according to our true principles and values.
But behaving that way is also, ultimately, against what God would have us do.  When we are judging others, we are failing to remember that Jesus said it was the one without sin who is called to cast the stones and that is not one of us.  We are failing to remember that it is God’s own children we are condemning since we are all God’s children.  When we are bonding in our animosity towards anyone else, we are failing to love our enemies.  And I think we have to ask how God must feel about that. 
The people I trust the most and the people I respect the most tend to be those who choose not to engage in this kind of behavior.  One of the things I love the absolute most about David is first that he is not a catty person, and that second, he calls me on it when I am.  And I respect this in him for so many reasons.  First, seeing that he refuses to gossip negatively about others, I am less concerned about him doing the same to me.  Second, all those who act in loving ways towards all people are so much easier to respect as people truly doing their best to follow in Jesus’ way. 
I want to clarify something here.  I’m not saying that we agree with everybody or everything.  There is room for disagreement, and when we see injustice, we are called to confront it.  Always.  But this is not the same as judging people, or talking maliciously about people.  It is not the same as gossip.  Denouncing unkind, unjust and unloving behavior is also not the same as judging people and condemning people.  We are called to stand up against unjust and unloving behavior.  We are not called to call people names, to attack individuals or to be hateful towards anyone, no matter how much we disagree with them.

But the Good News in this remains that when we fail to be faithful, when we do choose to be critical, God still is with us, God still provides.  In the Exodus story, while God was angry that the people had forsaken both Moses and God, God did not loose wrath on the people but still loved them, still provided for them, still cared for them.  The Good News also is that this God who loves us is ultimately the judge as well as the one who offers us grace.  It isn’t up to us to judge.  It isn’t up to us to critique.  But when we fail to remember that, even then, the choice of who deserves critique is up to God and not us.  We are freed.  Freed to love.  Freed to live in God’s grace.  Freed to be known as Christians, by the love that God calls us to exhibit.  Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

"She will not be comforted, for her children are no more."

Jeremiah 31:15-17
Matthew 2:13-18

            “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation.  Rachel weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted, for her children are no more.” 
This is the other side of Christmas.  The cloud behind the silver lining.  The systematic and senseless killing of every child two and under in and around Bethlehem.  A most horrible tragedy, as we know.  But we experience this as well, don’t we?  And especially this month, this week, as we reflect on all of the natural disasters, the hurricanes, the tornadoes, and, most lately, on the shooting in Las Vegas.  For every person who has died, for everyone killed in any of these losses, there were more parents, children, friends, relatives, anyone who was near enough to know and care; weeping and wailing for the senseless and absurd deaths of so many. “She refuses to be comforted, for her children are no more.”
            We don’t want to think about this side of Christmas.  Christmas is supposed to be a celebration of joy, life, and love.  We don’t want to think about this side of life.  God’s world is supposed to be a place where we celebrate the beauty of creation, of life, or friends and family.  We don’t want to see death and pain, and it is very difficult to make sense out of tragedies, out of these awful events that are happening in our world.  How do we do it?  How do we move forward when there is so much loss and pain in our world?  How do we still trust and believe in a good God when nothing changes?  When the natural disasters get worse with each year and when people still are allowed to shoot at and kill others in this way?  When nothing is done to stop this, when we are owned and controlled by big money rather than the lives of those we love?
            But most of the time I think we still try to put it aside, still try to not think about it, not worry about it too much.  We have to get on with our lives and we are called still to celebrate the good…   
            Unless.  Unless a tragedy is so big and so horrible and so personal that we can’t put it aside for the day.  The event of Herod’s merciless slaughtering of all the young children in Bethlehem was such a tragedy.  The events in Puerto Rico and in the Virgin Islands, in Texas, in Mexico, in Nevada… for the families and friends of all those who have lost loved ones, each one is such a tragedy.  Each is a lightning bolt striking down in the middle of a warm spring day, the shock of being thrown into ice water alone and isolated.  For the families and friends of those children in Bethlehem, there was no Christmas.  For the families and friends of those in the many places I’ve mentioned, there is no celebration.  For the people of Bethlehem, the birth of the Messiah seemed to be the cause of their tragedy.  There was no room for celebration here.  There was only weeping - “Rachel refusing to be comforted, for her children are no more.” 
The people of Bethlehem must have felt, and rightly so, that the birth of this one baby, Jesus, could not possibly be worth the killing of so many innocent children.  Their minds must have been filled with questions.  Why did this have to happen?  Why now of all times?  And why did God warn Joseph and not the other parents?  If God had the power to warn and protect, why weren’t all the parents with young children out of Bethlehem before the slaughter? “She will not be comforted, for her children are no more.”
            According to the Interpreter’s Bible commentary, this story was clearly not meant to be told as an historical event.   Instead, the story is a story about God’s divine intervention.  It is a story about God taking the initiative when it came to reconciling with humanity.  God initiated the coming of the Christ child, initiated Jesus’ birth and saw through to the fulfillment of Christ’s mission against all odds.  It is a story that shows God acting out of love on our behalf, even when we have not prayed for it or asked for it, or done the work that is necessary to bring healing and safety to the world.  It is a tale telling how God fulfills God’s plans of love, no matter what the obstacles.
            This understanding of the story may help.  It may help to believe that God didn’t really warn Joseph while allowing all the other children to be slaughtered.  This may help – until we realize that the story is true.  It is true, as we have witnessed this month.  It is true when we look at the world.  In our world at this point in time, 3% of the population use 80% of the world’s resources.  3% seem blessed by their wealth, success, and comfort, while many, many people in the world do not have homes, do not have the medicines they need, do not have food.  Most children in our privileged country live and love and have enough, but not all of them.  And in the rest of the world children continue to be senselessly slaughtered.  Girl children in some countries are killed simply because they are girls.  In other countries children are killed because it is war time.  Children die in the thousands from starvation because there isn’t enough food or water.  Our storms, fires, tornadoes are becoming worse in the face of Climate Change and many are suffering the violence of our weather. And sometimes, something happens and a person will snap, go on a rampage and kill people for no real reason at all.
            It can be hard to really grasp the depth of these tragedies.  But we sometimes experience them in other ways.  I have a friend whose oldest son of seven kids contracted Spinal Meningitis.  The child had an especially bad and quick attack of the disease and the doctors told my friend that he should not expect his son to live.  But at the last moment the child recovered.  A couple years later, however, another friend of mine lost her only daughter to the same disease in a matter of hours.  My friend whose son survived the disease swears that God intervened to save his child.  But then I have to ask, why did God save his boy and not my other friend’s daughter?  “She refuses to be comforted, for her children are no more.”
            I know that the Christmas story to be real – both sides of it.  It is a true reflection of the world in which we live.  Miracles happen all around us, and at the same time, people suffer cruelties in abundance.  “She refuses to be comforted, for her children are no more.”
            How can we live and celebrate the joy when we know in each moment that we are joyful that others are weeping?  How do we remember the less fortunate and live in the joy of the Good News at the same time?  How do we celebrate God’s love and presence in a world fraught with pain?
            The Christmas story is a whole.  The slaughter of the innocents cannot be separated from the wonderful birth of the Christ child. They go together. The celebration of God’s amazing love for us cannot be taken out of the real world which God loves and was born into and came to save.  Celebrating is good and right.  God celebrated.  Jesus’ first miracle was to turn water into wine to celebrate.  The angels were so excited about Christ’s coming that they announced it to any who would listen, even shepherds in the fields.  The angels rejoiced as God rejoiced.
            But God also came to us, through Jesus, into the real world; a world torn with strife and senseless pain.  Jesus was born into life, even as the innocent children around him were being slaughtered. 
And so we, too, rejoice.  We celebrate and laugh and honor God’s glorious presence in our world.  But it isn’t enough to stay there.  We are called; we are called to be in the world and its pain as much as we are to celebrate its beauty.  Therefore we must use the joy God has given us to strengthen us so that we can enter the world, confront the world and CHANGE the world.  We cannot hide in comfort and celebration.  We must take the celebration and the love into the world and overcome the pain.  WE must stop the slaughtering of the innocents.  We are God’s messengers of love.  And we therefore must bear this good news to the world.  This is God’s calling to us.  Because, just as God laughs and loves with us, God cries with us.  God is suffering.  It is God’s children who are being slaughtered.  It is GOD who refuses to be comforted because HER children are no more.  And we are the soldiers and caretakers of the world.  WE are the ones who must bring God the comfort that She seeks.  We are God’s hands and we must bring life, love and justice to all God’s children.  The Magi tried to protect Jesus – after following the star to see him, they did not return to Herod to tell him where he lay.  We, too, on this day of Christian love and celebration, are called to follow the star – the star that shows us where God is coming and to protect that reflection, that incarnation of God. 
But we are also called to something more.  We reflect God’s sorrow and anger as well as God’s joy and WE must stop Herod from killing any more children, stop the privileged nations from allowing anymore children to starve, stop the gangs from destroying one another, and WE must pay enough attention to the hurting people in our world that we know when someone is going to lose it and WE must care for them and attend to them and get them the help they need before they go into another building and hurt or kill any more of God’s children.  But it is more than that.  Did you know that basic human psychology tells us that when we are angry, the judgement centers of our brains are disabled?  We literally and physically are incapable of making intelligent decisions when we are filled with rage.  It cannot be done.  When we allow people easy access to weapons in those moments when their brains are disengaged, is it any surprise that we end up with the situations we currently have?  We therefore must also work to change the systems that allow money to be more important than lives. We have to start paying attention to the statistics that show us again and again that countries that allow free access to these weapons are also countries where these tragedies occur again and again and again.  We have to look at countries that don’t have this issue and see what they are doing differently.  In the aftermath, we have to take responsibility and we have to work for change.  We have to educate ourselves and we have to act.
 There is a real need to take ownership over our part in allowing these terrible things.  We need to own that we have allowed money to set the conditions for climate change. We have to claim our part and work to change it.  We have to. 
              In the midst of these tragedies, where is God?  God is the mother crying for her children because they are no more.  And God is also the voice that tells us we must stop any more Herod’s from killing or allowing the killing of any more children.  God is the voice that says “enough”.  God is with the helpers.  God is with the healers.  And God is with those who would change systems of oppression and injustice. 

            God has given us much to celebrate.  Out of our gratitude let us help to end God’s weeping by bringing our joy to fullness and fruition, bring the good news of God’s love and presence to all the world.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

A ramble on crisis, strength, and children.

           Recently, my kids and I were watching one of the many science fiction movies in which a father must choose between going out to save the world or staying at home to care for and raise his kids.  As always in these movies (because there wouldn't be a story if he chose otherwise), the father opts to sacrifice his time with his children in order to save the world, leaving them for years and sometimes life-times, to fulfill his mission.  And we all nod and agree that, of course, that is the right choice.  We don't give it a second thought.  And we see the man as the hero the story makes him out to be.  After all, he gave up so much for the sake of the world.
          So did the kids.  And they had no say about it, no choice about it.  There are victims in these stories, victims whose fates we don't see or acknowledge because, after all, the fate of the world is so much more important than a couple kids.  Right?
          Everytime I see one of these movies I find myself angry.  Why was it that it was only that person, that man, who could save the world?  And why was the cost the kids?  And why do we fail to see that or to care about the kids, except as losses to the hero?  Despite what these movies show us of strong and happy children growing up confident in the knowledge that their dads are heroes and that the kids themselves are loved and just have this little inconvenience, this tiny self-sacrifice that also puts them in the categories of heroes for giving up their dads in exchange for the salvation of the entire world; despite what the movies show us, the reality of kids growing up without a parent is very different.
        Here are just a few of the statistics:  taken from The Fatherless Generation
         
  • 63% of youth suicides are from fatherless homes (US Dept. Of Health/Census) – 5 times the average.
  • 90% of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes – 32 times the average.
  • 85% of all children who show behavior disorders come from fatherless homes – 20 times the average.  (Center for Disease Control)
  • 80% of rapists with anger problems come from fatherless homes –14 times the average.  (Justice & Behavior, Vol 14, p. 403-26)
  • 71% of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes – 9 times the average.  (National Principals Association Report)

  • 75% of all adolescent patients in chemical abuse centers come from fatherless homes – 10 times the average.
  • 70% of youths in state-operated institutions come from fatherless homes – 9 times the average.  (U.S. Dept. of Justice, Sept. 1988)
  • 85% of all youths in prison come from fatherless homes – 20 times the average.  (Fulton Co. Georgia, Texas Dept. of Correction)
       These are just a few of the many statistics based on many studies that show what happens when kids grow up without their fathers, for whatever reason.  While the heroes may have saved the world in one way, what harm have they passed on to the world through creating homes with fatherless children?  What radiating damage was caused by this choice?  
       As I watched this movie with my kids, I made a comment that I felt the choice the dad made was wrong.  I was surprised that my kids all disagreed with me.  They said they felt the dad had made the right choice.  I argued with them that it wasn't fair to the kids.  "Maybe, " was the response.  "But the kids will be stronger because of it."  Really? That's not what the studies show.  They don't show stronger kids, they show broken kids, damaged kids, kids ready to inflict the same pain on the world that the world inflicted on them. "Are you stronger?" I asked my kids who have lived without their father for the last 5 1/2 years.  
      "Yes,"  they all answered, "we are."
       No, they aren't.  That is a myth we tell ourselves so that we can feel better about the fate life has handed us.  That is the story we proclaim to make the tragedies of this life acceptable.  But as the mother who lives with the victims of their particular tragedies, as the one who cares for them and watches them every day, I can tell you about the wounds they carry in great detail.  Since I don't want to betray their confidences or tell their stories, I will name the one that is most obvious: the fortresses my children have built around themselves, thick and strong, are what they identify as personal strength.  But I see those walls for what they are: they are walls made of fear, they are a way to hide from the world, they represent a commitment to refuse to allow others into their inner sanctums so they will not be hurt again.  Those walls do not represent strength, they represent brokenness and fear.  And that truth is painful for all of us, every single day.
       I love our stories, our cultural myths, that say that we grow from trauma, that we grow and become better, stronger people because of the crises we've experienced.  But the truth is that I believe that growth and improvement in reaction to large traumas is rare, an exception that comes with a great deal of commitment, courage and intentional choice to bring good out of pain.  I see those people who grow and become better folk through their traumas, especially the huge ones, as the exception to the rule rather than the norm.  I've been blessed to know some of those people who have taken their traumas and allowed them to make them better people.  But I also know far too many people who have become bitter, or entrenched in their one-dimensional belief systems, or become fearful and angry because of what they have gone through. And even those people who have grown through their traumas still carry scars, still carry trigger points.  I don't know anyone who has gone through a substantial crisis who walks without a limp, who is not damaged in some way. When it comes to children, these traumas are especially difficult to work through.  The very fabric of who each child is becomes changed, becomes resewn, rewoven into a different tapestry.
       My kids are not who they would have been had they not gone through their experiences.  Kids in war torn countries, kids living with poverty, kids growing up in abusive homes or in terrible situations will never be who they would have been otherwise.  No amount of counseling or education or family support can give them back the childhoods that they have lost, or can take away that limp that defines them. These defining childhood stories change way too many kids for the worst, taking away from them a sense of hope or joy or possibility.  That breaks my heart.  
       And while I have always valued the stories of growth and change and strengthening, I wonder what we miss by repeating these stories to ourselves.  Wouldn't it be better to acknowledge the truth that these childhood traumas are severely damaging and that rather than believing good comes out of them, it would be better to work hard to limit those traumas in the first place?
       Life is hard, and we won't be able to stop all trauma.  But perhaps facing the true damage is a better choice than living in a denial bubble that says we are strengthened through the crisis, especially when it comes to our children.  Perhaps this has to start with the stories we tell.  Perhaps the next story I see about a father leaving to save the world will focus instead on the children left behind; on their story.  Or perhaps the next story will focus on the choice the parent (male or female) makes between saving the world and being with his/her kids.  Perhaps in the next story, the parent will choose to stay with the kids and to find someone without small children who can save the world in their place.  And maybe that next person will do a better job anyway.  And the parent who chooses to stay behind will be a hero to the kids for choosing the kids, for choosing to love and care for and raise them.  That is a story I would love to hear.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Peace and Justice

                                                          Isaiah 58:6-9
                                                            Matthew 20:1-16

               The Oakland Peace Center, where we have been part of a couple mission projects, building bunk beds, doing some painting, etc, asked the congregations that support it to focus on peace and justice this Sunday.  As one of those congregations, we have chosen to be part of that.  In particular we’ve been encouraged to focus on the connections between peace and justice.  Do you see connections between the two?
               What images or ideas come to mind when you think of peace? Doves, calm, nonviolence, non-conflictive, everyone getting alone.
               What images or ideas come to mind when you think of justice?  Courts, laws, punishments for those who did wrong, retribution, fairness, giving people what they “deserve.”
               These two can seem contradictory, or hard to reconcile.  Justice brings thoughts/images of violence, wrong doing and “pay back” in equal amounts.  Peace seems to exclude conflict at all.
               But today’s story about the laborers shows us something very different, something that is difficult and hard for most of us to grasp, let alone for us to feel good about.  You know the story.  The owner hires different workers at different times.  That means the workers work different amounts.  Yet, at the end of the day, each worker is paid the same amount.  And the laborers are upset about this.  They feel this is unjust.
               We can relate to this right?  Parents, grandparents, guardians spend a lot of time sometimes, trying to figure out what is “fair”.  To use some less serious examples: In our family, for example, Jasmyn got to go out with her grandparents for “special birthday time” starting when she turned 5 or six.  The grandparents decided though that it wasn’t “fair” for the younger kids to get to go out that young so they made the decision to wait until each child turned 5 or 6 to have that “special time” with the grandparents.  Does this seem fair?  Well, from my thinking, the grandparents aren’t going to be able to take the kids out forever and each child should have the same amount of time with them, so I think that each child should start at the same time being able to have that special time with their grandparents.  You see, it is a little complicated.
Another less serious scenario – when I was growing up, the older child always got a bigger piece of pie or cake or whatever because they were “bigger” and needed more.  Does this seem fair?  IN my family, it is my youngest child who needs the most calories and who eats the most despite being unusually skinny.  How do we define fair?
When we lived in San Leandro, Jasmyn went to Head Royce, a private school.  It was an amazing school that gave her basically a free ride.  They were committed to diversity, to taking care of others and the planet.  Part of their curriculum required each child to do some kind of community service, and they taught important values about caring for the world.  However, most of the kids who attended this school were filthy rich.  While Jasmyn got a free ride, the tuition per child was $24,000 a year.  And while they taught great values, one day Jasmyn came home and said, “Why don’t we have a play castle in our back yard?  Why don’t I have my own pony?  Why don’t I have my own bedroom?  Why didn’t we go skiing in France for our winter vacation?”  It didn’t matter what the values were that were being taught.  She was put in a situation where those she compared herself to made her feel poor, made her feel that life was unfair in the way that she didn’t have enough, didn’t have as much.  She could have compared herself to those in our community who lived on the street.  What I wanted for her was for her to realize our many, many blessing and riches and to realize that because of our blessings we have a great responsibility to care for those around us, to be as generous with others as God is with us.  But instead, she had the experience of being in a place where she was the “poorest” and she left that feeling that her life was “unfair.”
               I think about the times when people have offered us grace: like the time I was pulled over for running a light that changed just as I entered the intersection.  I normally forget about that grace that I was offered, though, when I see people speeding in their cars and find myself wishing that they would get pulled over.  I find I can make assumptions about who they are, what their motives are.  I fail to see with God’s eyes, eyes of compassion and understanding and insight in those moments.  I want justice for others and grace for myself.  But again, my definition of justice is subjective.
A more serious example: How many of you have seen the movie, “the Gods Must be Crazy”?  In it there is a native group of bush people who are filmed and who act in the film.  After the film was made, an article was written by an anthropologist who had lived and worked with the bush people about the devastation that the filming had created for this bush tribe.  There are rules, good rules, mostly that require that when anyone does work, he or she is paid for it.  If a person isn’t paid, it is a kind of exploitation.  But what happened in this particular case was that not everyone in the tribe was in the film.  So before the film was made, everyone in the tribe had the exact same amount; everything was shared, everything was in common.  It was very little, people had almost no material possessions before this film was made.  But still, all the people in the tribe felt grateful, felt rich, felt they had more than enough.  But then the filming crew paid some of the tribe members for their participation in the film.  In so doing, they introduced inequity into the tribe.  And that inequity led to a sense of unfairness on the part of those who weren’t paid.  Now some had things that were just theirs, and others were lacking in those things.  People began to feel poor, and eventually the tribe began to fight within itself and the tribal culture for this one group at least, was utterly destroyed.  Ironically, the film that destroyed them included a story line that told it’s own story about this very inequity and about the dangers of “things” being introduced into these cultures.
               The truth is from a personal perspective, in our definition of justice, nothing is EVER fair.  When we fail to understand or have compassion or care for others, when we can only see from our own needs, our own experiences, then nothing is ever fair.  We don’t get what we think we deserve.  Others seem to get more than we think they deserve. 
But what I call us all to focus on today is the end of today’s parable, which reads, “‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
As Rev. Sandhya Jha, the director of the Peace Center said it, “What we see in this story is a redefinition of justice.  Typically, we define justice as ‘what someone deserves’ based on their actions or particular qualities….But in this story, the landowner redefines justice to mean a state in which everyone receives what is fitting to a laborer, regardless of their specific actions as a laborer.  This is a radically different notion of justice form our common usage.  The question of deservingness is separated from action, or personal qualities, and instead centers on identity.  This means that all people, as children of God are equally deserving of the fruits of labor.  In other words, it is a metaphor for God’s justice, which is a justice that gives freely to the measure that is sufficient to the needs of the person….justice or what is right is that status in which needs are met for all people equally….On God’s terms of justice, giving more to some and less to others based on merits is not right.”
So what does this mean for us?  Well, first, we have a choice about how we look at life.  Do we focus on what is Unfair?  It is unfair that I work hard for little while others don’t work at all and are given much.  It is unfair that I have to struggle with this challenge or that challenge while others seem to have charmed lives.  It is unfair that I do my best and still go through painful situations.  Life is unfair.  Or we can look at the many blessings that fill our lives:  Each of us in this room has enough to eat.  Each of us has a bed to sleep in.  We each have family and friends and a church that loves us and supports us.  We have educations and vacations and toys for all ages.  Our lives are filled with blessings and we can choose to focus on them and be grateful for God’s generosity to each one of us.  We have much more than we need, after all. 
               But more deeply than that, God’s definition of justice does not take into account what people deserve and instead focuses solely on what people need.  That is so hard for us to grasp, so hard for us to take in.  But Jesus presents this definition of justice to us and expects us to also stand up for this justice, this image of what it is to be just.  We are called not to award and discriminate based on what people “deserve” (and again for each of us what someone deserves will be different), but instead to care for and love all people, working hard to make sure they all have what they need.  That is a justice that leads to peace.  When people have what they need, there is room for peace, there is room for living.
               I know this is a really hard concept.  So I want to say it once more.  What scripture shows us is God’s definition of justice is about giving everyone what they need.  It is NOT about what people deserve.  EVER.  And we are called to strive for that same understanding of justice.  

               Next week we will be looking at judgment and God’s call to us to not judge.  That fits in well here.  If our understanding of justice is about giving people what they need, there is no room for judgement in that.  Judgement only confuses and confounds us because it throws us back into thinking about what people deserve.  This is so humanly natural that striving for a different way of looking at the world takes work.  But it is what we are called to do: to look with eyes of love and care, no matter what a person has done, no matter what we think they deserve.  The good news in this is that God looks at us the same way: with eyes that see past whatever we have done or failed to do that has been unloving.  And God wants justice for us as well: for us to have what we need.  This day and every day.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Honoring those who went before: grandparent's day

Exodus 20:12
2 Timothy 1:3-13

A little boy was in church next his parents and grandparents.  During prayer time, he said a small prayer, "Dear God, please bless Mommy and Daddy and all the family to be healthy and happy."
Suddenly he looked up and shouted, "And please don't forget to ask grandpa to give me a bicycle for my birthday!!"
"There is no need to shout like that," said his father. "God isn't hard of hearing."
"No," said the little boy, "but Grandpa is."
--
Grandchildren don't make a man feel old; it's the knowledge that he's married to a grandmother.
It's amazing how grandparents seem so young once you become one.
If your baby is "beautiful and perfect, never cries or fusses, sleeps on schedule and burps on demand, an angel all the time," you're the grandma.
An hour with your grandchildren can make you feel young again. Anything longer than that, and you start to age quickly.
--
A teacher asked her young pupils how they spent their vacation. One child wrote the following:
"We always used to spend the holidays with Grandma and Grandpa. They used to live here in a big brick house, but Grandpa got retarded and they moved to Florida and now they live in a place with a lot of other retarded people.
"They live in a tin box and have rocks painted green to look like grass. They ride around on big tricycles and wear nametags because they don't know who they are anymore. They go to a building called a wrecked center, but they must have got it fixed, because it is all right now.
"They play games and do exercises there, but they don't do them very well. There is a swimming pool, too, but they all jump up and down in it with their hats on. I guess they don't know how to swim.
"At their gate, there is a dollhouse with a little old man sitting in it. He watches all day so nobody can escape. Sometimes they sneak out. Then they go cruising in their golf carts.
"My Grandma used to bake cookies and stuff, but I guess she forgot how. Nobody there cooks, they just eat out. And they eat the same thing every night: Early Birds. Some of the people can't get past the man in the dollhouse to go out. So the ones who do get out bring food back to the wrecked center and call it potluck.
"My Grandma says Grandpa worked all his life to earn his retardment and says I should work hard so I can be retarded some day, too. When I earn my retardment I want to be the man in the doll house. Then I will let people out so they can visit their grandchildren."
--
As I prepared for today’s sermon, I found myself reflecting on how we honor our ancestors, how we honor those who went before, or even those who are still with us but are of different generations.  How do we show that their lives mean something to us?  That the way they did things, though different, is still a valuable part of our heritage, of who we are?
I enjoy going to museums and seeing how my ancestors did things, how the people who went before me lived and worked and played and survived.  I am a 5th generation Californian, my kids are 6th generation Californians, and I take pride in that history.  I enjoy learning about my ancestors travelling to come here to work on the railroad, about their purchasing the land that still remains in our family.  I enjoy learning how gender roles were divided, what women did for the ranch lands and what men did, how they built things, how they washed and cooked and cleaned and made their livings.  It is fascinating to me, and, I feel an important part of my history.
But with every generation there are changes, and those changes seem to be coming at a faster and faster pace.  We don’t just change how we do things, what work looks like, what clothes we wear, what foods we eat, we also change how we practice faith, IF we practice faith.  We change how we do relationships.  Many of those changes we embrace, but I think every change also brings challenges, perhaps especially for those who have gone before.  And I think one of the reasons is that we can see these changes as either judgments on how we did things, or we can feel that it makes our lives irrelevant.
I remember reading in Mitch Albom’s book, Have a Little Faith,
 “I remember as a kid, the (Rabbi) admonishing the congregation – gently, and sometimes not so gently – for letting rituals lapse or disappear, for eschewing traditional acts like lighting candles or saying blessings, even neglecting the Kaddish prayer for loved ones who had died.
But even as he pleaded for a tighter grip, year after year, his members opened their fingers and let a little more go.  They skipped a prayer here.  They skipped a holiday there.  They intermarried (-as I did).
I wondered, now that his days were dwindling, how important ritual still was.
‘Vital’, he said.
But why?  Deep inside, you know your convictions.
‘Mitch,’ he said, ‘faith is about doing.  You are how you act, not just how you believe.’ (p.44)…”My grandparents did these things.  My parents, too.  If I take the pattern and throw it out, what does that say about their lives?  Or mine?  From generation to generation, these rituals are how we remain…connected.”
As I read that I found myself wondering, do we feel personally insulted when our kids don’t do what we did?  And how about the next generation, when our grandkids’ lives are so VERY different?  I know I struggle at times with the choices that my kids make that seem like they will be different from the choices that I have made.  There is a part of me that feels like that choice to do something different IS somehow a judgment on what I chose, on what I did.  It’s not, but it feels that way.  We can see this when we look back… we know it isn’t a judgment on women’s worth as homemakers that women now work outside of the home.  It isn’t a judgment on those who walked everywhere that we now drive places.  It isn’t a judgment on those who hand washed dishes and clothes and scrubbed the floors on their hands and knees that we now use machines to do the hard work for us.  It isn’t a judgment on our ancestors and foreparents who were farmers and ranchers when we work in the city at computers.  But it can feel that way.  It can feel like those are statements that say our way of life, our way of living is quickly forgotten.  What mattered to us no longer seems to matter, what made our lives worth while seems no longer relevant.  What about when they no longer go to church?  Does that feel like they don’t value the things we valued?  And are we okay with that?
          I don’t think that updating things or doing things differently means that we no longer honor the past.  And I think it can be seriously problematic to believe that in order to be loyal to what was, you have to reject what is.  The Amish community for a long time has been a separatist community of faith because they did not want change of any kind.  And while that has served them for a time, the Amish are now finally having to make some adjustments.  In Ohio where I lived there was a very large Amish population whose farms were becoming unsustainable because of the cost to run them without electric equipment.  They have finally conceded that they have to change.  As hard as that is, they, too have had to change to survive in this world.  That is not a judgement on the past.  It is not a statement that says all that they did is no longer meaningful or relevant.
So how do we honor those who have gone before?  If not by doing it the way they did, how do we honor them?
Remembering.
Telling stories. Reading and hearing their stories.
        Caring about history and trying to learn from it.
Spending time with those who are older than us.
Listening to the things they value and trying to understand why they value them.
Avoiding ageism (there is a great deal of ageism in our culture.  We equate elderly with less intelligent and less productive rather than seeing the wisdom and maturity and honoring that.  We need to be better about this.).

And if we are those who would like to be honored, how do we move forward?
Telling stories,
Writing down our stories,
Sharing the histories of our grandparents and our parents so that they, too, will be remembered.
 Sharing the mistakes we've made, how we worked through them and how we moved forwards afterwards.
Choosing to spend time with those younger than us and being open to learning from them.
Sharing our values with our kids and why we hold them: not in a way that shames them if they come out in a different place, but in a way that is simply explanatory: this is why I feel the way I do.

Does that mean we have to stop the world from spinning around and stop the changes that our younger people are making?  I don’t think we could if we wanted to, but more importantly, I think the attempts end up only hurting ourselves as we can end up isolated from those we love.  The world is changing, everything about it is changing.  When I think about the fact that when my kids were born, people did not have cell phones and that it wasn’t until graduate school for me that people had personal computers.  When I think that in my parent’s life time TV was invented and that in my grandparent’s life time cars were made… Church has changed radically too.  Calvin allowed no instruments, and especially not organs in his worship.  And as we know, young folk simply aren’t going to church much anymore.  We can’t stop the world from spinning.  But we can teach our young folk about what matters to us and why.
I shared this with you last year, but I love it.  It’s from Kahlil Gibran’s “the prophet”.  ON children:
Your children are not your children
They are the sons and the daughters of life’s longing for itself
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
They have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Finally, we honor those who went before and we honor those who are to come by practicing love.  By being the people we hope to be: by living lives that are loving and giving and that bring joy, grace, and light to the world.  In our baptism promises, we promise to care for one another, to love each other and to raise each other in God’s grace.  As a result, all of us, whether we have blood relations in this place or not, are our family.
As one commentary I read this week said, “Some of the people we call grandparents are such because they are our parents' parents — they are blood relations. And some of the people we call grandparents — or "elders" in some cultures — are such because of a quality of compassion, concern, wisdom, and generosity that they demonstrate toward us. The Search Institute has identified that children who have at least five caring adults in their lives, in addition to their parents, are more likely to thrive and less likely to become "at risk." Every congregation is blessed with "grandmas" and "grandpas" who love and share their faith in ways that form us as an extended family, a tribe, a clan of people embraced by the love of God.”  So we honor one another especially by loving one another.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

A ramble about boundaries, inner darkness, and listening...

        I had been taught in my counseling courses at Seminary that, generally speaking, men and women listen differently and share differently. When men listen to someone sharing about a problem, they generally want to fix that problem.  This is at least in part because men tend to share what is bothering them when they are wanting advice themselves, we were taught.  So they expect that when women are sharing, it is because they are wanting advice as well.  In contrast, women share for support.  So women know that when another woman is sharing something with them, they are wanting to be heard, to be understood. If a woman wants advice, she usually will state that, "I am wanting your advice", or she will ask a man.  Until men and women figure out this difference in the way we communicate and the way we listen, it can create real problems between the genders.  Women often feel insulted by the advice or the obvious statements that men make in response to their sharing because they feel the advice or common sense statements belittle them.  We hear the advice as a commentary on our ability to make our own decisions, to see things clearly or to be able to work through a problem.  We talk because we are processing out loud, not because we are children who need help.  In contrast, men can sometimes misread the fact that women don't offer advice as women not having insight or opinions as to what should be done in a certain situation.  We have opinions, I can assure you, but we trust you to make your own choices and feel it would be insulting to try to tell you what you should do.
       This is what I was taught.  And my own experience has been that this is accurate.  I definitely need to process out loud.  But when my expressions of struggle, hurt, or pain are met with advice, or worse, with a "just don't feel that way", or worst of all, stating the obvious, "well, you just need to make a decision", my response is usually further hurt and anger.  I wasn't asking advice, thank you very much.  Telling me to "get over it" is not going to make the feelings just go away.  And stating the obvious makes me feel like you see me as completely incapable of seeing the nose on my face.
       However, yesterday, as I found myself in several different conversations about listening, I heard all of this differently.  I'm no longer convinced that the differences in the way people listen is as simple as "some want advice and therefore give advice while others want to be heard so they hear."  I realized that sometimes our boundaries, or lack of boundaries are the deeper issue.  Sometimes when we have poor boundaries, we give advice as a way of shutting people down because their pain hurts us.  If I tell you what to do, I no longer need to listen.  If I can sum it up in a few words, there is nothing more that needs to be said.  I can then move on from the pain that you are experiencing which is also hurting me.  I can dismiss the problem as "solved."  I can make an artificial boundary of "I've solved this problem therefore it no longer exists" rather than working to build an appropriate boundary of "This is you, and I am me.  I can love you and care for you without being torn apart by the pain that you are experiencing.  I can be with you in your pain and I can walk this journey with you without needing to shut it down, end the feelings, or withdraw."
        A personal example: It is part of my job to listen to folk.  That is a part of my work that I really enjoy.  I like hearing how people are, I enjoy being with people as they live their lives and go through their lives.  I feel truly blessed and honored by being able to provide the pastoral care and counseling that is a large part of my work. It is not only easy for me to listen, but a real joy for me to do so.  I can reflect back, ask questions that I hope will help them think differently about their situation, and sometimes offer a different way of looking at a situation.  I am never tempted to offer advice.  But my boundaries feel very clear in that situation.  In contrast, when my children share with me their pain, I often find myself jumping into "fix it" mode.  Their pain physically hurts me.  I want it to stop. I find it difficult to tolerate their hurting. So I shove it away by trying to tell them what to do so they won't hurt anymore (so I won't hurt anymore for them).  Sometimes I have stepped in where I shouldn't.  Often I have given advice when it was not wanted, sought or needed.  I don't have the same good emotional boundaries with my children, and as a result, I often react differently, in unhelpful, and occasionally hurtful ways.   My lack of good boundaries with my kids cause me to fail to hear well when I am listening to them.  Instead, I try to "fix" it.  It doesn't help.  It makes it worse for my kids who want someone to hear them.  But it is because they are hurting, and because I am therefore also hurting, that I don't handle their sharing well.
        As I thought about this, I found myself reflecting on other similar situations.  When I was giving birth to my second child, I was in so much pain (yes, the reality of childbirth) that it was almost unbearable.  Despite what the experts say about forgetting the pain once the baby is born, it was bad enough that I do remember it.  What I remember even more, however, was that my husband became overwhelmed with my pain.  He was not able to have a good boundary around my pain, and he broke down.  The midwife who was working with us shut that down fast, however.  She said to him, "You have to get a grip!  She has to go through this. She has to.  The end result will be beautiful but she has to go through this to get there. There is nothing you can do about that.  But if you start focusing on the pain that her hurting is causing you, you are no longer with her to support her.  You become your own needy island and no one is helping anyone else.  She needs your support right now!  You have to get out of yourself and how much her pain hurts you and you need to be the support person she needs in this moment!  Get a grip!"
        When I was studying anthropology in college, one of the classes I took required us to read a book about a tribal culture in which the boundaries between people were not so confused as they sometimes are here. People in this tribe were incredibly happy, they didn't complain but laughed a great deal and focused on the good rather than problems. The author described a man who had a serious cut in his leg that needed stitches.  There was no anesthesia so each stitch was painful.  His wife held his hand throughout the process and supported him with her love, with her smiles, with her care.  But the anthropologist who wrote about it noted that if a similar situation had happened in the United States, the wife would have flinched and probably cried out herself every time her husband was gripped with the pain of a stitch.  She might even have excused herself, unable to stand watching her husband suffer in this way.  She would not have been able to stay present and strong with him without being traumatized by his pain.  But in this tribal culture, where boundaries are clearer, she was able to be a support without experiencing the pain herself.  As a result, her presence was a huge help to him and carried him through the experience.  
         I recently saw a youtube video in which a couple fathers were in a grocery store with a couple children who were having temper tantrums because they wanted candy that the fathers would not give to them.  Again, with our lack of boundaries, the normal reaction when our children act up in the grocery store is to grab at them, sometimes harshly, because we are embarrassed.  We try to get them to stop the tantrum because our lack of boundaries tells us that this reflects badly on US.  What is interesting is that our attempts to shut them up usually increase the length of the tantrum, the severity of the tantrum, and their inclination to repeat it when they don't get what they want again; after all, it successfully upset us.  But in this video, the fathers really remained calm.  They clearly stated "no" and stood watching the kids throwing the tantrums, but they didn't allow themselves to get upset or embarrassed or even angry with the kids. They didn't abuse the kids, they didn't walk away from the kids, they didn't threaten the kids, but they also were clear that they weren't giving in.  There was a clear sense of boundary: the fathers did not take on the embarrassment or shame of the kids' behavior.  It wasn't the fathers' bad behavior after all, it was the kids' behavior and they understood that.  And what was interesting is that the kids themselves became quickly embarrassed about their own behaviors and ended the tantrums, again with very little time, themselves.
       One final example.  I know two couples who have this boundary issue in another way.  When one person in the couple says something that the other feels is wrong or stupid, the one hearing the comment responds with embarrassment and sharp critique of their spouse.  They are unable to remember that their spouse is not a reflection on themselves.  And, as with the other examples, their lack of boundaries and the subsequent harsh critique of their spouse then leads to others seeing them as unkind. They are treating their partner meanly and everyone sees that.  While they are trying to avoid the judgment they believe will come their way from the comments made by their spouses, they are instead incurring judgment for their attempts to "correct" their partners, especially in this public way. While trying to avoid embarrassment, they are bringing shame on themselves as those around them watch this painful interaction.
         What is ironic about all of this is that those with stronger boundaries, and a clearer sense of what is mine and what is yours are often also the people who see more fully how interconnected we all are.   Those are the very people who often really understand that we must care for all people in all things if any of us hope to be okay as individuals.  Somehow that clear sense of boundaries, of where I start and end also allows people to be more open to the understanding that under all of it, we are still one.
        All of this leads back to where I began, with the way we talk and listen to one another.  I think we would be better at hearing and supporting those we love if we were able to step back a little and be okay with witnessing (and experiencing) pain.  As with my story about childbirth, most pain must be gone through in order to come out to the gifts on the other side.  Shoving pain down does not get rid of it, it does not end it, it does not solve it.  We have to deepen into those hard feelings in order to come through to the other side.  Even if we cannot set up a boundary that allows us to be with others without experiencing their pain, perhaps we can find ways to go through it with them rather than trying to just make it go away.
            In my spirituality circles, there has been a great deal of focus lately on our desire to avoid the darkness, to avoid the unpleasant and uncomfortable, rather than facing it, feeling it and dealing with it.  But everytime we do that, the darkness has a way of making itself bigger until it finally has our attention.  I'm reminded of J.K. Rowling's Fantastical Beasts.  The magic that is repressed became an evil force.  Our feelings, when repressed, do damage.  Our dark sides, when avoided rather than faced, grow into monsters within us.  We see this again and again as those people who condemn something in others are caught in those actions themselves (our politicians who speak so harshly against LGBTQ folk being caught in homosexual liaisons, for example).  When we cannot face within us what we do not value, do not like, what we condemn: when we cannot look with honesty at all of who we are, those parts of us we try to squish or stomp down tend to reappear in frightening and destructive ways.  Scott Peck, in his book, People of the Lie, says that we do evil when we cannot face something in ourselves so we put it out there onto others and work to destroy it in the other.  If we want to be people of light, people of love, people of hope, we have to be willing to look hard at those parts of ourselves we condemn and to work with them and through them.
         We can start by listening to others, really listening, rather than trying to 'fix' what others are going through.  We do them no favors by failing to truly support them.  Nor do we aid in their recovery by encouraging them to suppress and stomp out their feelings.  We also do great damage to ourselves by denying the reality of unwanted feelings, unwanted thoughts and unwanted pain.  We have to step through.  There is no other way.  "Can't go under it, can't go around it, guess I'll have to go through it" as the children's song tells us.  The pain we and our loved ones experience is not pleasant, but it is an opportunity to grow, to work through problems in a different way, to move forward in our journeys towards wholeness.  The journeys are easier if we travel them together.  But that starts with a commitment to listening and being present, even with those things we would rather not know, rather not hear, and especially, rather not feel.