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.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Unkindness when it's at home.

          A friend shared with me that she was at a family gathering and was telling a story that she found interesting and which she thought would interest her family.  As she was telling her family her story, one of the three family members with whom she was speaking turned to another of the three family members and began a conversation about something else entirely, talking right over my friend. My friend was very hurt. Of course she was hurt. The one who wasn't interested in what she had to share would have acted more kindly by just saying, "I don't want to hear this, I'm really not interested in it." Kinder still, he would have given my friend the two minutes to tell her story even if it wasn't interesting to him.  My friend is not overly verbose, her communications tend to be short and clear. But apparently, two minutes "wasted" was too much for her family member.  Instead of being kind, instead of carefully but honestly communicating a lack of interest in what my friend was sharing, his behavior also communicated that he didn't respect or value the sharer herself. He didn't respect her enough to even offer her common courtesy or to be willing to spend two minutes on her.  But she wasn't just hurt by the incredibly rude family member, but also by the second, the one to whom the first family member was talking, because this second family member failed to say, "Can this wait? I'm trying to hear what 'Sally' is saying."
        She asked me what she should have done in that situation.  To be honest, I was at a loss.  My training tells me to use direct communication, to use "I" statements, to express feelings clearly and without blame. "When you began a different conversation about something else while I was talking to you, I felt hurt because I felt you were telling me that I didn't matter enough to you for you to listen to me." Okay. But I found myself wondering. The family members didn't care about her enough to bother being polite. So they probably wouldn't care enough about her to respond with any kind of grace, empathy or understanding in the face of a clear communication from her about how it felt. Still, I felt that her clear communication, with honesty, without rancor, might have felt better to her than doing nothing and leaving feeling discounted and invisible.
       As we continued talking, she shared with me that her family treated her like this on a regular basis because they really, truly, didn't respect or value her.  They felt she was stupid, naive, and foolish because she had different beliefs than they did.  And they felt that because she was not equal to them in intelligence, in understanding, in vision, that it was okay to treat her in this way.
       I see this more and more in our culture.  If someone disagrees with us, it has become acceptable to treat them badly, to fail to offer simple respect. It has become okay to be unkind, to express our disapproval in dismissive, abusive and belittling ways.  Once we've opened the door to treat even one other person this way, the gap seems to widen as we find others we don't agree with, don't like, or don't understand. I hear more lip service given to bridging the large political, economic, world view differences in our country.  I hear people on both sides of any issue talking about being open, listening, trying to disrupt the polarization in our country by making an effort to hear each other.  But when it comes down to actually being kind to others?  It doesn't appear to translate.
        I realize being kind to those with whom we disagree is hard. I realize respecting people who do things we don't like can be hard.  But treating others with kindness and respect, even if we don't like them, even if we can't respect them - it's not just for the other person, it is for us as well. I mean this at two different levels.  First, who do we want to be in the world and what do we want to contribute?  Do we want to be the bringers of good to the world?  Or do we want to be people who cause pain for others?  Do we want to lift burdens or add to them?  Do we want to help others be the best they can be, or do we want to polarize the community even more?  Second, I continue to believe that we are deeply connected and that what affects you affects me and visa versa.  By harming another, we harm ourselves.  By lifting the other, we lift ourselves.  Even if you don't believe in this connection of all things, we know this to be true in other ways.  Being generous with others helps us to feel good. Being caring for others literally changes our sense of self-worth and value.  Taking the time to really listen to another, especially if they disagree, helps us to grow.
        Sometimes it is hardest to be kind to those in our own families with whom we struggle.  But if we can't practice it at home, it will be harder to maintain kindness in the world.  It takes practice, sometimes, to learn how to see the Divine in each other, to see beyond what annoys us to the inner core, to treat each other with respect even when we can't feel it.
        I don't know how my friend should have responded in the face of the unkindness of her family.  I do know that sometimes the best way to teach is by example.  And that other times, examples are too subtle to effectively teach.  But her experience calls on me to try harder to be kind to those around me, starting with my family.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Doing All that Jesus Asks

1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

               Today we have more passages that follow up on what it is to be people on “the Way”, to follow Jesus as The Way and to be close to God and our understanding of God through that path.  Today we are told that we know God in knowing Jesus.  We know the WAY by seeing how Jesus travelled his life, and being willing to do the same.  We know it by living it.   Bonhoeffer said, “Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God's will.”(The Cost of Discipleship)
We know this is not easy.  We know this because we see how many people no longer come to church. I think Church is too hard, frankly, for many folk.  If we are genuine about our faith, about living that out, we won’t see most of our culture in church because faith and living, following God’s path, are commitments that take time, dedication, intentionality and a genuine desire to know and be in relationship with God.  Yes, the rewards are great.  Life fully lived in all its abundance, life fully embraced, life eternal, relationships with God and God’s people.  The rewards surpass everything.  But unless you have experienced and lived those rewards, fewer people believe in them, understand them, or are willing to do the work of faith and action in order to achieve them. 
               We are part of a culture of instant gratification.  And there is little room in that kind of fast paced, “I want everything and I want it now” activity for time with God, for intentional focusing on faith, for living out that faith with any kind of commitment.  Much of our culture lives a very shallow existence, where taking time to ponder, to talk to God and more to LISTEN to God just simply don’t fit in.  Usually what jars people out of complacency is some kind of tragedy, some kind of suffering.  There are reasons why there are so many death bed conversions.  The fact of suffering, the experience of deep pain can finally jolt people out of a surface level existence and into the recognition that they need to connect to something bigger than themselves, that life has no meaning without a deeper vision and connection which a life of faith can give. 
               A few years ago I was able to go and hear the Christian rock band, Mercy Me.  The lead singer, Bart Millard, shared with us about his childhood experience of being the son of an extremely abusive father.  Bart said, “Calling him a monster would be an understatement”.  But his father was diagnosed with cancer when Bart was a sophomore in high school.  And that led his father to a deep and complete conversion.  Bart said that by the time his father died three years later, he not only respected his father but saw him as the man he would most like to be like.  His father, through his conversion, became the best man Bart had ever known.  That’s what faith can do.  It can change us, turn us around completely, make us new in the truest sense of the word.  But I don’t think most people in our culture these days WANT to be new or changed until something happens that forces them to realize that they simply cannot continue to live the shallow way that we are encouraged to live by our culture and media.
               A fellow pastor and I had a conversation some years ago in which she said that she believes it is actually good news that people are no longer coming to church simply because it is “the thing to do”.  It is good news that the people who remain in our churches are here because they genuinely get the need and value of faith and being connected with others in that faith.  It means the church, when it stops being about “saving its own life” out of fear for the losses in numbers that are being experienced, can now actually BE the church God calls us to be rather than country club organizations and institutions.  And she’s right.  We can be freed to genuinely follow the WAY, living as Christ would have us live when we are not just simply another part of main stream culture.  We no longer have to just fit in with what society would tell us to do but can really live lives on the Way.
               I started thinking about all the things that this congregation does.  It is an amazing and impressive list for a small, aging congregation.  We being with prayer.  We have two adult Christian education opportunities each week as well that study and pray together.  We’ve been offering two different types of worship services each week plus Taize during advent and lent.  We begin with prayer and worship and are grounded in that relationship to God.  And then we continue in “the Way” of following Jesus with all of the service that we do, in the name of Jesus, for other people.  Between the many ways we support hunger issues and other deep needs of people – Winter Nights, our community meal here, the one we support in Pittsburg, supporting Contra Costa Interfaith Housing as well as Monument Crisis Center and Heifer project, going on mission days, our PFLAG meetings, providing gifts over Christmas – to our outreach and education of children, families and adults of all ages through things like Godly Play and our family program, our men’s group, our women’s support group, our quilting group, our faith and film nights, our fellowship opportunities such as progressive dinner, church picnic, Oktober Fest.  Our deacons as well as those who aren’t on deacons serve the congregation with food, transportation and visits.  There is so much that we “do” to be on the way.  And all of it is a way of following Christ and striving to be close to God.
               The people that we see portrayed in our TV sit-coms and media don’t have the time and energy to give like this.  They can’t be bothered with caring for God’s people and it would throw them out of a comfort zone in which clothing, and dances and make up and money and “fun fun fun” are the primary values.  But that kind of shallow existence doesn’t lead to life, won’t lead to life.  And for those of us who have chosen a different way, we know this, we experience this, we live an existence that is richer and fuller because of it.  We live an existence in which we see God by seeing Jesus, and by living as Jesus calls us to live. 
               And the thing is, what we do makes a difference.  At my pastor’s group one week, one of our pastor members was saying, “How do we convince people to come to church?”  And the answer?  It is mostly our actions, it is the things we do outside of these walls that are different and set us apart that get people’s attention.  Everything we do matters.  Everything we do makes a difference.  Are we kind?  Do we show even our enemies love?  Are we giving?  These things matter.  And while it may become frustrating at times feeling like we haven’t brought people in those doors and sometimes it can be hard to see how we have impacted those around us, we do.  The lives we lead, following on The Way of Christ make a difference. 
               In the Movie, “Two Weeks Notice” Sandra Bullock plays a character who has actively followed on “the way” as she understands it.  She has stood up for the oppressed, been a voice for the voiceless, fought against injustice at every level.  But there comes a moment at which she hits a place of despair.  She is done.  Her father is upset by her decision to no longer live a life of action.  And he confronts her saying, “we didn’t teach you to sit on the sidelines.”  She argues that what she does makes no difference.  To which he responds, “Then you change your tactics.  As long as people can change, the world can change.”  She says, “But what if people can’t change?” 
               Can people change?  First of all, yes, we know they can.  The father in the movie I just quoted proceeded by declaring, “Let me put it this way.  I am eating a piece of cheesecake made entirely of soy.  I hate it.  But because of my health issues, I am doing it.”  Yes, people do change.  But the second thing is that again, that is not our job.  Our job is to follow in the Way.  We have to leave the results of that up to God.  And God, as we know, is pretty good at changing people. 
               There was an article on Facebook a while ago about the top things that pastors fear.  And the number one thing on that list was that we fear we are irrelevant, that we make no difference.  My guess, though, is that every person of faith wonders this at some point.  Does what I do matter?  Does it make a difference?  Do the efforts I put into feeding and caring and housing and listening and studying and praying – do these efforts matter? 
               They do.

               They matter to the people whose lives you touch by serving them for that moment.  And they matter to you because they change you and bring you closer to God.  Because of all of that, they most importantly matter to God.  They matter to God because God delights in people following Jesus on “the Way”.  And they matter to God because God delights in your moving closer to wholeness, which you do by being closer to God in following Christ’s way.  And they matter to God because God calls you to be the people of Christ by following in this way.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Can we change those early messages of rejection?

       A while ago I posted a quote on Facebook and asked for thoughts/comments.  The quote was "By the age of five you've either learned that the world is good and everything and everyone in it stretches out toward you with love.  Or you know that you're a reject.  No one ever unlearns that first lesson."
       The responses to the quote varied though there was universal questioning of the absoluteness of the sentence. "No one" is a phrase that is almost always problematic.  A few people were distracted by the author of the quote, making comments about who she was and whether or not her opinion was important or to be valued. (Notice I'm not naming her here... it is, again, distracting.  It was the idea I was interested in, not who said it. And while who a person is does affect what an idea means or the place of orientation that dictates the idea, sometimes an idea is worth considering for its own merit or lack of merit, distinct from the person who said it.)  The people whose first lessons taught them that the world was good tended to respond by saying the idea was patently false. I understand that. Their early experiences were positive.  They want that positive world view for everyone else.  They are hopeful that it is something all of us can obtain.  They learned the world was good, so the idea that it might always remain a bad, scary, or rejecting place for some folk is not an idea easily accepted.  But it is the responses and thoughts of those who learned otherwise, who were taught that they were "rejects" on whom I would like to focus this blog post.
        People whose early training inclined them towards feeling unsafe in the world were not all in agreement.  Some stated that with a great deal of work they were able to work through those early training sessions and to come out on the other end.  Others said they agreed with the sentiment on the whole, and that, despite the work they'd put into it, their initial reaction to most situations tended to be one of defensiveness, mistrust.  These folk, all very thoughtful, insightful, self-reflective and deep people, said that they choose to act in the world as if it were a safe place, a place of grace and compassion. They choose that way of behaving, despite the fact that the internal alarms yell something different to them.
       Children are very resilient.  We know this.  We also know that early events impact us more than anything else can.  They become part of our DNA in a sense, part of our make-up.  As brain studies show, path ways in our brain thinking and chemistry get emphasized, cemented even, early on in our life times.  Once a path way is formed, especially one that is a response to trauma of any kind, training our thinking to go a different way, to respond in a different way, to follow a new path way can be very, very difficult.  Depending on how deeply those early path ways were carved, re-training those thoughts to not automatically follow the deep gullies dug through out thinking can sometimes be near impossible. We all receive many messages as children, from different sources and in different ways. We know the value of a good care giver and role model for children who are living a hellish home life or who have survived a trauma of great proportion: it can make all the difference in the world, turn a life around, change the way a child moves into adulthood when there is something positive, someone affirming, when an adult takes the time to offer a different possibility, a different world view.  We know of stories of kids who have lived through hell but turned out okay because of someone who took them under their care and reflected back to them a different image of who they are than the one they had originally been given.  But we also know of kids who never have that alternative reflection, who don't ever have someone to tell them that things could be different, that they could be different, that there is good and love out there.
      When the early messages of rejection are strong, many kids' reaction to that message is so negative in itself that they begin to create and recreate the unsafe world around them. They become the bullies that first victimized them.  They act out the violence or abuse that they have experienced. Then it becomes even harder to change that initial message. They end up in gangs, and later in prisons, in a cycle of abuse and abusers, of violence and rejection.  This is the reality for too many of our kids, though truly, even one kid living through a hellish childhood is one kid too many.
      The bottom line is that trauma and early rejection are hard to overcome.  For some it is harder than for others.  And for some it is nearly impossible.  I'm reminded of a story in the book Leaving Northhaven by Michael Lindvall in which a pastor is reflecting on the life of a young man who was adopted early on but who was born with fetal alcohol syndrome.  Jason had lagged behind his peers, had been completely impervious to direction, was not changed or impressed by any kind of discipline or correction because he could not live beyond the moment.  He had no internal moral compass, but coveted approval from anyone, which eventually led him into a bad gang of kids and finally led him to a lifetime jail sentence.  The parents who had adopted him loved him but could not overcome the condition he was born with.  The story continues, “Ardis, Jason’s adopted mother, had told me that some shocking percentage of FAS (fetal alcohol syndrome) kids end up in prison, that they still loved their boy, but had come to accept the hard truth that they could never have heard when they were young, namely, that their love – unbounded and powerful as it might be – could not conquer all….The boy was an incarnation of all the things that cannot be fixed.  Perhaps his parents love had somewhat deflected his heedless course, but it was never enough.  Jason was Jason.  He was the emblem of that which we may fear the most; not evil, not even death, but the terrible truth that love cannot conquer all.  Like Jimmy and Ardis, Jason’s parents, I once struggled to believe that this was not so, namely, that love – faithful enough, deep enough, tireless enough, bottomless love – could not but win.  Now I sat in an eight-by-eight room in a prison across the table from what looked for all the world to be a loss….Some broken things just cannot be fixed.  There are broken people who cannot be healed in this world, neither by our love nor our cleverness….Some wounded souls heal; but some go to their graves pulled into the earth by darkness no mortal love can ever lighten.”
      We all carry scars from our early years.  Some are easily worked through.  Others are more serious.  Serious ones can prevent us from living the lives we would choose to live, whether that scar be a lack of self-worth, a message that we can't do better, a belief that the world is against us no matter what, a vision of the world as evil and violent, a message that we are rejects, not acceptable, not okay, that we can't do what we want or whatever that message may be. There are sometimes (often based on economic and national privilege) opportunities to fight these early messages, to work through traumas and to strive to live a life not controlled by our early experiences. But not everyone has those chances.  And some people's genetic make up mixed with those early traumas make a true recovery extremely difficult if not impossible.  I understand that we don't want to believe that there is anyone beyond healing. But the stories of our world show us otherwise.
       Personally, I imagine I will continue to work my entire life against early negative messages.  And while I would hope for something different, I have come to accept that I will watch my children spend their entire lives fighting their early experiences of trauma as well. We do the best we can do. And we hope to learn how to avoid imparting these messages to other children.  Faith helps.  But it doesn't fix everything.  Love helps.  But it too, has limits, at least in this world.  The early years of our children are so important.  Spending time working to make those early years the healthiest possible for each child will go a long way, not only towards healing individuals but in healing communities, nations and the world.  We have a long way to go.  But looking towards the children is an important start.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

In Through the Gate

Acts 2:42-47
John 10:1-10

In today’s passage from John, Jesus describes himself as the gate, the gate by which we, as sheep “come in and go out and find pasture”.  Later in John, Jesus says he is “the way, the truth and the life”.  These passages have a depth of meaning for each of us.  Christ is both the way to life (the gate) and Christ leads the way to life (the good shepherd).  One commentator said, “Both of these are intensely relational, which means that these statements tell us who Jesus is in relationship to those who follow him.  Who Jesus is and who the community around him are – these two things are inextricably linked.” 
Jesus calls us to be in relationship with him, and he calls us to follow him, to recognize that his is the way.  We do that by following in the way. 
What does it mean, then, to follow Jesus as the way and in the way?  What does it mean to you that Jesus is the way?  Following Jesus means knowing what he did and how he behaved.  So what are some of the things that Jesus did and things that strike you as important about how he behaved?
He fed the hungry, he visited the sick and imprisoned, he healed the sick, he welcomed the stranger and the outcast.  And when we follow Jesus, these are all important things for us to do.  As the passage in Acts describes the disciples after Jesus’ death saying, “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles,” so, too, we are called to do the same.  In Matthew 25 we are told that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” and so we are reminded to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe those without and visit those in need.  In seeing Jesus as the way, we are called to walk this way and this path in care for others.  As we read in passages such as James 2:14-26, “as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”  We are called to enact our faith in concrete loving and caring ways.
But, we also have to look towards Jesus as the way by looking at all of what Jesus did and there are other parts to Jesus besides his caring for those around him.  He spent forty days in the wilderness by himself.   He fasted, he went away to pray by himself and with his disciples.  He renewed himself by going apart and through prayer, most of all.
We, too, are called to find that balance in our Christian lives and in our Christian faith.  Yes, we are called in the way of Jesus to do as he did in caring for God’s people.  But that must be grounded and supported.  As Glenna Beauchamp wrote in an article from  These Days: Daily Devotions for Living by Faith, “Our faith, like every part of our lives, needs balance.  If I focus only on nurturing my spiritual life, my faith will become disconnected from Jesus’ prayer to bring God’s kingdom on earth.  If I focus only on helping others, I will suffer compassion fatigue.  The prophet Micah sums it up well:  ‘to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.’  Here is the balance we need to live faithfully as God’s people.”
Father Chacour, the archbishop of Galilee and Jerusalem puts it another way, “Vision without action is just a daydream, but action without vision is a nightmare.”  We are called to start with a relationship, our relationship with God.  It is from that relationship then that we are given the gift of vision.  Only then, with our relationship with God supporting us, guiding us, giving us vision can we be inspired to follow Jesus as the way into loving God’s people through the concrete actions of feeding, healing, comforting, visiting and praying with and for one another.
Balance.  I’m reminded of a story: One day, a professor entered the classroom and asked the students to prepare for a surprise test.  They all waited anxiously at their desks for the test to begin.  The professor handed out the exams with the text facing down as usual.  Once he handed them out, he asked the students to turn over the paper.  To everyone’s surprise, there were no questions – just a black dot at the center of the white sheet of paper.
The professor, seeing the expression on everyone’s faces, told them the following:    “I want you to write about what you see there.”  The students, confused, got started on the inexplicable task.  At the end of the class, the professor took all the exams and started reading each one out loud in front of all the students.  All of them, without exception, defined the black dot, trying to explain its position in the center of the sheet.
After all had been read, the classroom was silent, and the professor started to explain.  “I’m not going to grade you on this, I just wanted to give you something to think about.  No one wrote about the white sheet of paper.  Everyone focused on the black dot – the same thing happens in our lives.  We have a white piece of paper to observe and enjoy, while we always focus on the dark spots.” In the story, he goes on to explain that we do this with the bad and good things that happen in our lives.  We are surrounded by good but we tend to focus on the negative little dots that show up.  But for me, this is also a good illustration of other ways in which we fail to seek and find balance, especially in our faith.  Jesus calls us to follow, he is the way, the gate, the shepherd – all of it showing us how to be in this life.  As I’ve said before and as I will say again and again, everything God calls us to do we are asked to do because God loves us, wants wholeness for us.  But we lose balance.  We focus on our own needs and forget about others. We feel that just being ‘nice’ is what it’s about and forget that Jesus wasn’t always nice, instead he was just and confronted oppression. Or we focus on service to others, but forget to pray. Or we focus on coming to church and serving on committees, but forget about making time for the relationship that we are called to have with God. We focus on whatever our eyes travel to first, the black dots in the middle of the paper and forget about the white, the presence of God all the time, every time, with every breath we take. We forget about building the relationship with that whiteness that makes up most of our lives.
It is the putting together of all of these things that make us people on the way, people following Jesus, people striving to be who God calls us to be.  Like with music, which is putting all the notes together along with rests, spaces, silences: it is working together with all the pieces, not just one note, that makes the music, so too our lives need that balance to be whole.
I came across a poem that I’d like to share with you this morning:
You ask why I follow this Jesus?
Why I love Him the way I do?
When the world's turned away from His teachings
And the people who serve Him are few.

It's not the rewards I'm after
Or gifts that I hope to receive
It's the Presence that calls for commitment
It's the Spirit I trust and believe.

The Lord doesn't shelter His faithful
Or spare them all suffering and pain,
Like everyone else I have burdens,
And walk through my share of rain.

Yet He gives me a plan and a purpose,
And that joy only Christians have known,
I never know what comes tomorrow,
But I do know I'm never alone.

It's the love always there when you need it;
It's the words that redeem and inspire,
It's the longing to ever be with Him
That burns in my heart like a fire.

So you ask why I love my Lord Jesus?
Well, friend, that's so easy to see,
But the one thing that fills me with wonder is
Why Jesus loves someone like me.
Yes, we follow in the way that is Jesus by doing what he did, lifting up our arms and using them to serve God by serving God’s people.  But we must begin by having a ground to stand upon.  And that ground is our relationship with God, a relationship that needs to begin with time together, with conversation or prayer, with faith.  Amen.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Who's to Blame?

How easy it is to dismiss our contributions.
How easily we say, 
"Well, that's nothing to do with me"
"I have no part in this."
"That's just the way he/she is".
"It's not my fault."

We forget our inter-connectedness.
We forget that what I do affects you
and what you do affects me.
We forget to care.
We forget to love.

We are all responsible
and while it is much easier
and feels so much better
to blame the other
to blame the one
we don't like anyway,
we all have our part.

When something tragic happens,
each of us has a piece.
And when something beautiful occurs,
we all can claim a small bit.

But that starts with the hard work
of remembering
who we are
and who you are...

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Night on Bald Mountain - the rage that leads into sorrow

        I was listening to Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain and found myself thinking about grief and anger.  I love this piece, perhaps in part because, like the Psalms, I feel it gives voice to the feelings that we sometimes believe to be unacceptable, unutterable.  It puts in music, again as do the psalms of lament in particular, feelings that we feel are just not okay, especially when we express them in social situations.  Art allows their expression.  But I also find in this piece a profound truth about those feelings.
        When I listen to Night on Bald Mountain, I hear a raging, a stomping around, an anger so deep that it borders on the scary, the overwhelming.  It is an acting out of our deepest fury, a temper tantrum, if you will. You hear in it conviction, self-righteous indignation, judgment, and mostly just rage expressed in violent voices that threaten to destroy and damage everything in the path of the one raging.  The violins sound at times like they are thrashing around.  The basses yell condemnation and stand strong.  The flutes too at times sounds like they are throwing up their arms in exasperation.
       But the profound truth of the music is that it not only fails to destroy anything, instead, the rage lends itself to a deep and moving piece of music.  The fury moves.  Sometimes it is stronger and forceful, sometimes it seems almost focus-less with the percussion driving a sense of random movement, stomping, an aimless pounding of the ground.  The speed changes, expressing the frenzy building up and then pausing, slowing for a minute in a triumphant and articulate trumpet statement.  There is a stepping back, a slowing that none-the-less begins to build again as the music gains clarity about its complaint.  And there are even moments that sound cheerfully exultant, as if the one expressing themself has come to a point of realizing what they've said is good and right.
       And then...and then, at the point of strongest furor, of more stomping, of more railing against the world, against life, against all things, suddenly in the midst of that climactic point of uproar and storm, there is a plummet into the sound of bells.  It has always felt to me that the ranting and raving falls into clarity, into focus.  But what follows, to my ears, (unlike in the Disney Fantasia version), is not joy, but sorrow, sadness, grief.  There is real beauty in it, but it is not elation, not happiness. It remains in a minor key.  And it is introspective, insightful, and painful.
      Anger is what we call a "secondary emotion."  What that means is that anger is, at its core, an expression of something else, usually sadness, grief, pain.  That is the truth that underlies the rage.  And Mussorgsky captures that perfectly in this piece of music.  He has this outburst, this wrathful thrashing, he storms around, and then after that moment of clarity, of insight, of "coming home" which is expressed by the bells, the truth under the anger emerges: the real feelings of sorrow, of grief.
      Just as our psalms show us, just as modern psychology tells us and just as this profound piece of music expresses, we have to feel what we feel in order to get through it to the truth and beyond.  This piece does that for me.  It allows the anger that leads into the deeper feelings.  Our psalms of lament do that as well: they give expression to the voices of fury, the feelings of betrayal and injustice that we all have.  They allow us to speak them out loud: "you did this to me!  And I am angry!" before stepping through into healing, sometimes; into sorrow, other times; and occasionally the psalm never resolves (see Psalm 88).  That's okay, too.  That's real.  Sometimes we aren't ready to "move on".  It takes time to live through our feelings.
      One of the most profound gifts of art is that it allows us to express ourselves in "acceptable" ways when raging at our friends and family never will be.  It allows us to vent in a way that will not harm others.  The Psalms were songs, hymns.  They are art as well and give voice to those feelings.  Dance can do the same. Stories, poems likewise. Sculptures, paintings, etchings, photography - all art allows the possibilities of expression of things that are hard with our cultural rules to otherwise state in meaningful and real ways.
      I am so thankful for art, for its power to move us, to help us say what we need to say, to help us express ourselves fully.  Today I am especially thankful for Night on Bald Mountain.  Here, for you to enjoy as well: Night on Bald Mountain.

Monday, May 1, 2017

And their eyes were opened

Genesis 3:1-7
   Luke 24:13-35

               In the Genesis passage for today we read that the serpent said to the woman, “God knows that when you eat of the fruit, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” And they ate and their eyes were opened.
               What this tells us is that before they ate, their eyes were closed.  That means God created them without sight, without understanding.  And it would seem as we read this story that God wanted for their eyes to remain closed.  God did not want them to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, did not want them to see, to understand, to know.
               At first glance this can be hard for us to understand.  As humanity continues to strive to understand the world we live in through science, through astronomy, through medical research, as we become more connected to information through the world-wide web, this idea that somehow God didn’t want us to know seems absurd.  But in today’s gospel lesson as well, when Jesus is risen, walking with the disciples on the way to Emmaus, Luke tells us that their eyes “were kept from perceiving him.”  They were kept from the knowledge of who he was.  How do we understand this omniscient God who creates us with closed eyes and who “keeps us from perceiving”?
               This story tells us that Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, taking charge of their own best interests.  They chose not to depend on God to know or do what was best for them.  And in making that decision they set up a wall of mistrust between themselves and God.  In eating they saw, but in receiving knowledge in this way, they became filled with shame.  They became aware of their nakedness, or rather their vulnerability and weakness.  Their eyes became open to the dangers of the world and to their own lack of power to face it.  They saw that they were not gods with the power to discern what is best for themselves.  And in their fear and shame they tried to cover themselves with fig leaves.  Because the leaves were inadequate to cover them, they simply heightened their sense of shame.  Only God can cover that nakedness, that shame, that vulnerability but they had separated themselves from God.  So they were unable to cover themselves and they hid.  The serpent had spoken the truth – their eyes were opened.  But God, too, had spoken the truth – in that one action, the innocence of humanity had died.
               This story in Genesis is not a past tense event.  It is a story about growing up.  It is a story about what all of us go through as our eyes are opened, as our naivete is destroyed. A while ago on a TV program about kids and their thoughts and feelings, a well-known host asked a nine-year-old girl what she wanted to be when she grew up. The little girl in a very childlike confident and assured way informed the host that she wanted to be president of the United States.  The host responded by asking the little girl why she thought no women had been president in this country before.  Still with a face of innocence and confidence, the nine-year-old girl told the host and the audience that it was because 2/3rd of all men did not believe in the gifts of women, and would not support a woman becoming president.  The host was astounded.  But he decided to prove her wrong.  So he polled the audience.  He asked the men by a show of hands to indicate how many would support a qualified woman becoming president if that woman represented the values that they supported.  He then asked how many would vote against her simply because she was female.  The child was right, and before her nine year old eyes and on national television, 2/3rd of the men in that room said they would never vote for a woman president.   The pain and confusion on the face of the little girl was hard to watch as her head knowledge became the more experiential learning of seeing their vote right before all of our eyes. 
Kids’ faith in adults and in the world is broken at younger ages.  We hear too many stories of young children whose innocence has been ended by prejudice, drugs, abuse, kidnapping, rape or murder.  Our children’s eyes are opened and they come to distrust their world, to be cynical and fearful.  More frightening still, we see in their knowledge of good and evil the power and ability to choose – good or evil.  The numbers of young people engaged in violence, and even murder in this country rises each year.  School shoot outs are one example of the naivete broken in our kids’ lives.  The numbers of children abused appears to be rising.  And it is hard to blame these children who have experienced so much personal violence for turning to violence themselves.
Perhaps the most painful thing to see is our own part in the world’s evil.  We see the accelerating destruction of our environment and we know our consumerism and waste is destroying our world. We see species on the verge of extinction and know it is because our buying supports this kind of abuse of nature.  Closer to home we experience people acting outrageously in their cars.  We see cynicism in increasingly younger people.  We see the cross and wonder where we would have stood in the crucifixion. 
I’ve shared with you before about the movie, “The Color of Fear”.  A group of men from different ethnicities, backgrounds, races gathered together for a weekend to talk about racism.  One white man who was present dominated most of the weekend fighting hard against the idea that racism was even real.  He kept saying to the men of color in the room, “Why do you see yourselves as different?  We’re all the same.  Why can’t you be just like me?  You’re imagining your oppression.  No one really treats you differently because of your appearance.”  No matter what the other men in the room shared with him, he could not hear their experiences of racism, of abuse, of oppression.  Finally one of the men said to him, “What would it mean to you if what we are telling you about our experience were true?”  The man looked startled for a moment.  Finally he answered, “It would mean the world isn’t as safe or beautiful as I had thought…And it would mean that I was part of the problem,” and with those words he began to cry.  It hurts to see.  And from this vantage point we can wish desperately that the end of our innocence had never begun.  But innocence has been broken, and we die constantly in our “enlightenment.”
I took Jasmyn to see Beauty and Beast last weekend. One of the lines that Beauty sings is, ““I was innocent and certain. Now I'm wiser but unsure. I can't go back into my childhood, That my father made secure.”  And again, that is the story of humanity.  It is the story of growing up.  It is our story.
               So where is the Good News in this?
               I do not believe that God is AGAINST humans obtaining knowledge.  I believe deeply that God does wish for us wisdom and growth.  But God does not want our insight into good and evil to come through disobedience, through breaking the trust between God and humanity.  When it does, our first glimpse, our first understanding of good and evil comes through seeing our own inadequacy, misjudgment and our first response is always both shame and fear, often with some denial thrown in for good measure.  But the good news in this is that we don’t reap what we sow.  God is the God of life, who, even now, even after we turn from God and mortally wound ourselves, God continues to love us.  God maintains relationship with humanity, and clothes our vulnerability with grace.  Then, God leads us out of the garden so that our immortality will not be lived out in the dangerous, shameful world we have envisioned for ourselves.  In other words, God calls us to see past the crucifixion, past death.  God calls us to keep looking, keep our eyes open, past the pain.
               On CNN a while ago there was a story that traced the old legal practice of sterilization.  It turns out that in our country in the 40s there were places that regularly sterilized people with mental disabilities and other disabilities.  IN addition, some hospitals at the time were considering using euthanasia on those same people with the justification that they had no quality of life.  But this ended abruptly during WWII with people’s awareness of where such atrocities could lead.  These little insights, these small changes which come from seeing, happen all around.  Many who were abused as children work on educating the communities and on healing the survivors so abuse doesn’t continued.  Mothers Against Drunk Driving began as a result of the loss of a child from a drunk driving accident.  Mothers against Gangs which educates and works to find after-school alternatives for kids began, again, with a mother who lost her child through gang activity.  That is not to say that there is good in evil situations.  Nor am I trying to say, “just look on the bright side”.  There is no excuse for evil.  But even out of the most awful things, even out of the deaths we die each day, if we keep our eyes open, God can help us find ways to bring new life, bring grace, bring good.
               The two disciples on their way to Emmaus had seen only enough to know that Jesus had been crucified.  They were in deep sorrow.  They had seen only enough to believe that their hopes had been shattered.  Their friend, leader and lord had been killed in a most horrible way.  The one they’d hoped would rescue them from Roman tyranny and oppression was dead.  And after three days it seemed, on top of everything, that his body had been taken from the tomb.  But God would not leave them there.  God did not leave them there.  God brought about the most amazing miracle in all the world.  Jesus was alive.  Death had been overcome.  Christ was arisen!  He came and walked among them.  Still they did not see.  He interpreted for them all scripture and the prophets, the foretelling signs of his resurrection.  But still they could not believe in the risen Christ.  Finally he broke bread with them.  He ate with them.  He was present in a most intimate way with them, and they saw him.  Just for a moment they saw – long enough for them to believe and know that he was risen!

               Still, the question might be asked, why did God “keep them” from recognizing Christ at first?  For most of time and for most people in the world, we have been unable to see first-hand Jesus resurrected.  And so God began then what God calls forth from us now: that we might learn to see with our hearts and our faith as clearly as they saw with their eyes.  God knows we are imperfect.  And for this reason God does give us signs, God does help us to see, through Bible stories, through our experiences, through one another.  We are called to keep our eyes and our hearts open.  Because while it is true that some things we have to see to believe; the things that are most important, those things with the most value and meaning and promise, those things we have to believe in order to see.