Monday, June 26, 2017

On Being Humble

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

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

Monday, June 19, 2017

Sermon - Sight

Isaiah 9:2
Luke 24:13-25

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

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

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Forgiveness, again.

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 5, 2017

sermon - Pentecost

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

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

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

Thursday, June 1, 2017

What is Strength?

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