Sunday, December 24, 2017

Being Ready for What God Brings Us

Micah 5:1-5
Luke 1:26-55

This morning we celebrate the fourth Sunday of Advent.  And today’s scriptures show us a study of contrasts.  In the Micah passage, we hear about Bethlehem.  The word “Bethlehem” means “house of food or bread.”  Interestingly, Ephrathah, the same place as Bethlehem, means “fruitlessness”.  So we have the contrast in Micah – the place where the ruler is to come, the place where Jesus is to be born, is both the place of food and the place missing food.  To put it in the context of our focus on Advent, it is the place where the bread of life is born, but it is the place that perhaps needs that bread of life most because of its lack or emptiness.  Which do the residents see?  Which do the people of Bethlehem of Ephrathah experience?  Do they see the fruitlessness, the struggles, the pain?  Or do they wait for and anticipate the Messiah who is to come? - the one who is born who is himself the bread of life, the one to feed us, and to free us from hunger of all kinds with his very being?
In today’s passage from Luke, we are also shown two women in great contrast with each other.  Elizabeth is old and, up to this point, considered barren, desperately wanting a son to legitimize her (because in that day, the only way for a woman to be “legitimate” was to birth a son).  Mary is very young, single and therefore would not be choosing to be pregnant.  We come to see and learn about both women in times that could be seen as either extremely difficult or extremely blessed.  Elizabeth, scorned by barrenness remained secluded for five months.  Mary, after the shame of unexpected and illegitimate pregnancy, stood to lose her legal and social rights as Joseph considered ending his betrothal to her. She could have been stoned to death, or simply left bereft, abandoned and without means. It is in the midst of this that they, too, have choices about what to see, and how to experience their lives. Do they focus on the scorn, on the scandals and rejections of their lives, on their fear because of their difficult situations?  Or do they wait and look and anticipate with celebration the uniqueness of their situations and God’s promised coming to each of them through the births of their sons?
This contrast, as we hear repeatedly throughout Advent, is much greater even than this.  God, we are told repeatedly, is a God who reverses the social order completely.  This, too, then becomes a great study in how God works through these contrasts.  The lowly are brought high, the high are brought low.  In the choice of both Mary and Elizabeth we see this as well.  To the religious faithful in that time, to the Pharisees, to those ensconced in the church life, it would have seemed absolutely scandalous that two women – one old and one very young; poor peasant women – would be God’s prophets in bringing in the Messiah.  This is again the radical, outrageous message of Christianity, of Christ, of Jesus, of the God that we come to know through Jesus.  Jesus shows us the God who raises up the oppressed and outcast into positions of leadership, into being God’s most highly honored and exalted people.  God chooses to work powerfully in and through the people who appear most powerless.
               When God shows up, everything that we know is challenged.  Everything that we held in priority is shaken up and different priorities arise.  When God shows up, it is God’s plans that take precedence, not ours.  And we find that the vulnerable are the ones who are made strong, the rejected are the ones whom God chooses, and the outcasts are central to the story.  As Mary herself says, “God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”  Mary prophesies, along with all the prophets to proceed her, the reversal of all we believe to be true about the world, about the ordering of society, about whom God most values, most cares for, most honors.  Mary sees herself in this as well.  Again in her own words we hear, “My soul magnifies the Lord,  and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of this servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me.” 
               And in this study of contrasts, Mary, too, had a choice about how to see her pregnancy.  She could have been devastated and felt imposed upon, recognizing and experiencing the hardship and risk to her already lowly position because of her vulnerable place.  But she didn’t.  Instead, she focused on the grace of God, on the gift of God’s amazing choice of her as mother of Jesus.  Her choice, in choosing to magnify the Lord, to celebrate with joy and singing and gratitude the amazing and unexpected gifts of God is not insignificant.  It gave strength to Jesus to be who he was, to become who he was becoming, to be the “I am” of God. 
How both Mary and Elizabeth chose to see their situations, how they chose to focus on God’s coming, celebrating the amazing gifts of their sons and what God was doing through their lives, these are not unimportant choices that Mary and Elizabeth make.  To quote Jann Cather Weaver, “(These two women) sought to live radically faithful lives in response to the call from their God.  Not unexpectedly, these women lived lives like those of their soon-to-be-born sons.  Do we think John and Jesus just “knew” how to live radically faithful lives?  How to be preachers?  How to be as eloquent as the Magnificat?  How to be healers?  John and Jesus knew how to live radically faithful lives because they were sons of two women who had faithfully faced a terrifying yet expectant reality.”  As they waited for their sons to be born, as they waited for their redemption, Mary and Elizabeth chose to be faithful despite society’s pressures.  They chose to celebrate the living and real presence of God in their lives.  They chose to wait with open eyes to see what God was doing next, which they knew would be amazing, wonderful and beyond anything they could expect.
               I talked a few weeks ago about my experience of waiting on mission trips. Each time that we have gone we spend more time than we could anticipate waiting.  We wait for the host church or host site to tell us what we need to do and where.  We wait for the “experts” to show up and tell us how we are supposed to accomplish whatever it is that we are doing.  We wait to get the materials we need to do the job.  We wait some more for new materials, or for the materials that didn’t work to be replaced by ones that do.  We wait for the time, the situation, the opportunity, the tools…all of these things - we spend an incredible amount of time waiting.  This is hard and frustrating for all of us.  We are there to work.  We have a job to do and we want to see it done.  It can be easy in those moments to focus again on the challenges and struggles.  We struggle not only to figure out how we can get the jobs done in the short time we have when we are encumbered by delays and waits and other challenges.  We also struggle at times to understand why we are there when we know things are so hard for the people we are struggling to help that it is hard to see how our little jobs can really make a substantial difference in their lives.  And we ask the harder questions: Why do we bother fixing the floor when the roof is leaking?  Why do we paint the walls when the building should frankly be torn down and replaced?  But as I mentioned before, the waiting was also an opportunity to talk to the people we were helping, whose homes we were fixing, and to talk to each other.  Through listening, through working together, through being together, we were given glimpses of God’s deep grace.  We heard each others’ stories and saw God at work in the lives of those who struggle so deeply.  We heard our own stories anew as we shared them with strangers.  We waited for God’s coming in different ways – sometimes through our own hands as we built and listened and created relationships.  And like Mary, we, each of us, experienced moments when we were touched by the awe of God having chosen us to be in that place at that time, helping God usher in and create something new as we were given the gift of being bearers of a bit of God’s grace to those individuals we met and served.  That choice on our part, too, was not unimportant.  When we chose to serve in joy, rather than focusing on the frustrations of the waiting, of the stumbling, of the jobs that just aren’t done 100% perfectly; our choice to see God’s hand and to look with eyes of gratitude and grace inspired others to do the same.  It inspired those we helped, too, to look more deeply at their lives and to see God’s hands at work.  It inspired them also to give back, to pass forward the gifts of God.  And our choice to look for God’s hands and feet kept us going through the times of waiting until we did have the things we need to build, to work, to be part of bringing in God’s realm in that little corner for that little bit of time.
One day a young man named Tim who had wild hair, wore a t-shirt with holes in it, and no shoes made his way into a very conservative, well-dressed church. He walked into the church with his messy appearance, a little late. Since the service had already started Tim walked down the aisle looking for a seat. It was Christmas time, so the church was completely packed and he couldn’t find a seat. By now, people were really looking a bit uncomfortable, but no one said anything. Tim got closer and closer and closer to the pulpit, and when he realized there were no seats, he just squatted down right on the carpet. By now the people were really uptight, and the tension in the air was thick. About this time, the minister realized that from way at the back of the church, a deacon was slowly making her way toward Tim. The deacon was in her eighties, had silver-gray hair, and a beautiful suit. A godly woman, very elegant, very dignified, very courtly. She walked with a cane and, as she started walking toward this boy, everyone was saying to themselves that you couldn't blame her for what she was going to do. How could you expect a woman of her age and of her background to understand some dirty young man, a kid really, sitting on the floor? It took a long time for the woman to reach the boy. The church was utterly silent except for the clicking of the woman's cane. All eyes were focused on her. You couldn’t even hear anyone breathing. The minister couldn’t preach the sermon until the deacon did what she had to do. And then they saw this elderly woman drop her cane on the floor.. With great difficulty, she lowered herself and sat down next to Tim in order to worship with him so he wouldn’t be alone. Everyone choked up with emotion... When the minister gained control, he finally said, 'What I'm about to preach, you will never remember. What you have just seen, you will never forget.'

               God does work in mysterious, wondrous ways.  As today we being the celebration of Christ’s coming to us, as a beautiful baby, but weak, innocent, helpless and poor, we don’t only celebrate but we also anticipate Christ’s coming anew, I pray that all of us might have Mary’s eyes to look with trust, and joy; with hope and celebration, with gratitude and faith for the amazing thing that God is doing next.  Thanks be to God!  

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Good News is Coming

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
John 1:6-8

Today is the third Sunday in Advent and so we continue the process of waiting, of looking, of searching to see God coming anew into the world.  But today I want to focus on how we witness this for others, how we share the Good News of Advent with a world that has a hard time seeing the Good News, and certainly doesn’t want to spend the time waiting and looking, but instead jumps into Christmas – this year even before Halloween.
Today’s New Testament passage talks about John as a witness to the light.  As I just read, “John came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.”   
That is our call, too.  And again, especially during this time of Advent, of preparing, of looking for God’s coming anew, we are called to witness, to prepare a world for God’s entrance, to help people to walk with eyes open to seeing God’s coming.  That’s not to say that bad things don’t happen, too.  But as Christians, as Advent people, we are to look for and usher in the Good News.  Our focus needs to not be on what is going wrong in the world, except in our commitment to changing and confronting it.  But instead, our focus is ushering in the Good News, announcing the Good News that has come and that is coming anew.  Our job is to make the joy of Christ among us real for the world around us.
But how do we do that?  I don’t think it is enough to just talk about our faith with others.  I do not believe that we witness to Christ’s coming simply by saying that we are Christians.  I also don’t believe that we witness to the Good News by trying to scare people into faith with the threat of hell.  That’s not really Good News, first of all. How could the idea of an angry, wrathful God who punishes with hell be Good News for anybody? But second of all, and more importantly, fear based faith is not permanent – it is only as strong as the fear.  When another voice offers a bigger fear, a bigger threat, and offers a different faith as a solution, a fear based faith will alter course to what feels “safest.”  Third, and most importantly, perhaps, every time in scripture that an angel of God appears, the first words out of the angels mouths are “fear not”.  Our relationships with God is not supposed to be about fear.  I posted on FB a wonderful article that talked about how the Peanuts Christmas special has a profound moment in it in which Linus is reading from the beginning of Luke.  He is reading the Christmas story.  Linus, as always has his blanket, his security, his source of comfort with him.  But at the moment in which he reads, “And the angel said, ‘fear not’”, he drops the blanket.  He lets go of his physical security and instead rests, without fear or the need for those material securities, in the love of God.  Fear has been misused a great deal lately to try to push through decisions that are hateful, that are unjust, that are damaging to “the least of these”.  But our faith is clear about this: there is no room in Christian faith for that fear. So preaching a gospel of fear to people is not what we are called to do.
No, to really bring people to the light, we have to show them what that light is.  And that has to start, not from a place of fear, but from a deep place of gratitude that comes from faith.  We are called to show the world that that light makes a genuine difference in our lives, frees us to live lives where we can risk radical LOVE, and calls us therefore to act and live in the world with actions of care for others. Isaiah shows us what that looks like.  According to Isaiah, the coming of God looks like the oppressed being lifted out of that oppression, the brokenhearted being supported and healed, captives and prisoners being released and freed, those in mourning experiencing comfort.  That is what the Good News looks like – that is what we are to witness to, and to bring about through our lives and through our actions.  Isaiah continues, “they shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines.”  In other words, God’s entrance is radical.  It is not calm, it is not quiet, it is not unimportant and it is not ineffective.  It makes a difference – a big difference – in the lives of strangers as well as friends, in the lives of enemies as well as those we consider our own.  We are called to be part of that, by being God’s hands and feet in the world, by sharing it, by reflecting the Good News of God with us. 
The children have a wonderful book that I shared at our Christmas Day service and that I want to tell you about this morning as well.  It is called the Fourth King, and it tells the story of another Magi who didn’t end up making it to the stable.  He set out, like the other Wise Men, following the star with presents for the newborn king.  But as he traveled on his journey he heard a little girl crying out in a sand storm for help.  So he stopped and carried her through the sand blizzard until he found her parents.  He started out again, but came across a merchant caravan, lost without a map.  He led them across the desert and to safety, but then found himself even further behind in following the star to Bethlehem.  Next he came across a wall that was being built by a tyrant using child slave labor.  And he stopped to try to free the children, ending up becoming one of the slaves himself until the wall was completed and he was able to help the children escape.  Finally, he ran into some shepherds who told him about Herod’s plan to kill all the children.  And when he met  a family trying to escape from Herod’s devastation, he could not help but stop and help the family to safety.  At every crisis that he met, he realized he had a choice.  At every juncture he said “What was I to do?  What was I to do?” Should he go see the baby, the thing that his heart most desired?  Or should he help the people in front of him – God’s people, in need.  At every step he chose to follow in the way – not the way that he wanted – not the way that led him to actually meet the baby Jesus in the stable – but the way of God, the way Isaiah talks about.  In the end, he did finally make it to the stable and he found it empty.  The book continues, “We were too late!  Our journey had been in vain.  I fell to my knees and wept.  And then, in the depths of my despair, the most wonderful thing happened.  I heard a voice speak softly, ‘King Mazzel, you have not come too late!  You were always with me.  When I was lost, you showed me the way.  When I was thirsty, you gave me water.  When I was captive, you freed me.  When I was in danger, you saved me.  You were always there when I needed you, and I will be with you forever.’ ”
Lyle shared with me a story that Michael Piazza wrote about.  He wrote about Bishop Leontine Kelly’s father, who also was a Methodist preacher, and who was assigned to an inner-city church in Cincinnati, Ohio.  Apparently, the church was an amazing, Gothic structure building with stained glass windows and a huge crystal chandelier. The parsonage was also amazing and included an old, huge boarded up cellar. As the children were exploring this cellar one day, they found a hidden passage that led to a tunnel which they shared with their father. The tunnel, it turned out, ran under the church and then led off toward the Ohio River, which flowed just five blocks away. Apparently, these tunnels had been part of the Underground Railroad and had been used to help move escaping slaves to freedom.  Bishop Kelly’s father said, "Children, I want you to remember, as long as you live, that the greatness of this church is not this huge Gothic building, but those tunnels. We are on sacred ground because these people risked their lives to do something great for God and good for our people."
This particular hummingbird decided it would do something. It swooped into the stream and picked up some drops of water and went into the forest and put it on the fire. Then it went back to the stream and did it again, and it kept going back, again and again and again.
All the other animals watched in disbelief; some tried to discourage the hummingbird with comments like, "Don't bother, it is too much, you are too little, your wings will burn, your beak is tiny, it’s only a drop, you can't put out this fire."
And as the animals stood around disparaging the little bird’s efforts, the bird noticed how hopeless and forlorn they looked. Then one of the animals shouted out and challenged the hummingbird in a mocking voice, "What do you think you are doing?" And the hummingbird, without wasting time or losing a beat, looked back and said, "I am doing what I can."
John 14:6 says, “Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  Notice that this does not say we come to God through belief.  Jesus says he is the way, the truth, the life.  And we are called to come to God by following in that way, by living in the way.  It is through our following in the way – through our ushering in of the way of Christ, a way of setting at liberty the oppressed, raising the valleys and making the mountains low, by feeding the hungry and visiting the sick, this is how we know God, this is how we live the Good News, and this is how we witness to the light for all those around us. 
We will be saying this poem as a prayer of confession in a couple weeks,written by Ann Weems, but I want to read it to you now because I think it very much applies:     
“What concerns me, what lies on my heart, is this: that we in the church papered and programmed, articulate and agenda-ed are telling the faith story all wrong, are telling it as though it happened two thousand years ago or is going to happen as soon as the church budget is raised.  We seem to forget that Christ’s name is Emmanuel, God with Us, not just when he sat among us but NOW, when we cannot feel the nail prints in his hands.”

We are called to witness to that truth of Emmanuel, God with Us, now, as we look to the coming of Christ through this Advent Season.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Crying Out

Isaiah 40:1-8
Mark 1:1-8

Clementine Von Radics said this, “You silly (person), you think you’ve survived so long that survival shouldn’t hurt anymore.  You keep trying to turn your body bullet proof.  You keep trying to turn your heart bomb shelter.  You silly thing.  You are soft and alive.  You bruise and heal.  Cherish it.  It is what you are born to do.”
               Living is hard.  And so, it is no wonder that we have Isaiah’s words for us today…  “Comfort, O comfort my people.”  We are all looking for that comfort, for that reassurance in hard times.  We are all looking for a sense of peace in the face of adversity.  We are all looking for salvation from whatever we are struggling with.  I saw a post the other day, “If Comedy is tragedy plus time, I need more time.  But I would really settle for less tragedy to be honest with you.”  I think especially this year as we struggle with what is happening in our communities, in our country and around the world, as we struggle with climate change and racism, sexism, heterosexism; as we see increased violence and hatred, as we fight among our families and as we polarize more and more.  As we know people who've lost their homes to fires, to hurricanes, to disasters, to shootings...How do we face it all in this time that is supposed to be happy?  We ask for comfort, we ask for Christmas.
               But even as we yearn, we want, we ask for comfort, for Christmas, Advent is the time of waiting.  The comfort doesn’t come right away, we aren’t healed instantly, the resurrection comes in steps, over time, sometimes so slowly we don’t even see it.
               The journal, “spirituality and practice” lists several things we can do during advent to signal our willingness to wait, our commitment to waiting during this Advent time.  These are:  Let God sit in the director's chair.  Give up your fantasy timetables and go with the flow. Do not try to push the river; all will happen in God's time.  Let go of any negative images you carry around about waiting.  Have faith that all good things come to those who wait patiently.  Grow through periods of waiting that entail darkness and dread.  Work to reduce your anger and frustration about waiting.  Always be a person animated by hope.  Take time during periods of waiting to count your blessings.
               These are great suggestions (if a little na├»ve: all good things don’t come to EVERYONE who waits, and “blessings” take many forms, for example). Still, I admit from a personal perspective that I don’t wait well.  I get really impatient and easily frustrated. This week showed a perfect example of this.  I’ve had my computer for about four and a half years now, which is in itself an amazing thing since I seem to zap computers as well as other electronic devices, as many of you know.  But it has been a long time and so now my computer appears to be in full-collapse mode.  It runs extremely slowly, and it freezes up on a regular basis.  I’ve taken it to get help many times over the years, at this point mostly from David, though I’ve also taken it into the Geek Squad.  When Geek Squad “fixes” it, it usually it comes back with more problems than when it left.  When David works on it, it’s fine for a while (after all, he’s managed to keep the thing running for 4 and half years which is the longest I’ve ever been able to keep a computer working), but that “while” is becoming shorter and shorter.  Again, this is typical for me.  My electro-aura simply zaps anything and everything electronic, and since I use my computer a lot, it tends to develop problems quickly.  Being in a close relationship with an IT guy though can actually make the problems worse in that the computer usually works for him.  Just not for me.  This week my computer developed a new issues.  I was working on my sermon and wanted to use some internet resources that I had bookmarked and set aside for this Sunday.  But as I tried to pull up those pages that I had bookmarked, they failed to load.  I sat and watched as my lap top connected to the internet, disconnected from the internet, connected and disconnected itself in rapid succession.  I ran the “trouble-shooter”, which told me the problem was not with my computer but with the router.  But since we currently have a plethora of computers, smart phones and other devices that connect themselves to the internet and none of these were having issues, I knew that no, despite the computer’s desire to blame something else, the problem was once again with my lap-top.  I became extremely frustrated, impatient, did not want to wait until things could be fixed or redone or set up in a new way.  I did not want to borrow someone else’s computer since my sermon was partly written on my own already, I did not want to DEAL with the waiting.  I wanted things fixed NOW.  Can you relate to that frustration and struggle with waiting? 
               More seriously, if you have ever been on a mission trip, you may have found that the hardest moments are those of waiting.  In all my years of leading mission trips, I have found a pretty consistent pattern.  We go to do work, to fix up houses, to help people with their disasters and their homes.  But part of the process of these trips is that we go, evaluate what exactly needs to be done, and then need to purchase the materials.  That involves waiting for people to return with the materials, often discovering they aren’t quite the right ones, waiting for our local carpentry expert to return with ideas and the trailer to go pick up more materials.  There is a great deal of waiting.  When we have traveled far to make a difference and we have limited time to be there, the waiting is extremely hard.
               But as with every challenge, when we have eyes to see we can choose to look at everything that happens as blessings from God.  My moments without internet access have been a gift, if only I would choose to use it in that way, because they did call me to sit still, to wait, and to think about the lessons in that waiting, for me, in that moment.  The article from Spirituality and Practice that talked about the commitments we can make to waiting during Advent also talked about the spiritual gifts that come from the practice of waiting.  These include developing patience, giving up control and accepting what IS, learning to live in the present, compassion, gratitude, humility, and most of all, trust in God. They are invitations to take time to pray, to cry out, if that is what we are feeling, in the frustration and impatience of the moment.  These moments and weeks call us to take the time of waiting as the gift that it is to talk to God, to rest, to wait. The moments of waiting at the mission sites invite us to spend time talking with the people we are helping and with each other.  Those conversations and the building of relationships are so much more important, frankly, than the physical work we do anyway.  Those create opportunities to learn as well.  Why are some people in these situations while we are not?  What have lives been like that have given some so many more advantages and privileges than others?  These opportunities for relationship are also invitations to grow.
               Our culture has become more and more an “instant gratification” culture.  There is very little opportunity for us to learn patience, to learn to give up control over our surroundings and the things that happen to us, to learn to be wholly present in each moment, despite whatever we have or don’t have right now.  There is very little opportunity, as we depend on our things, and on our toys and on the internet and our instant access to information, communication, resources, etc to learn to trust God for what the next moments might hold for us.  With all of that, is it any surprise that people are not as interested in faith issues?  For those who have not experienced needing to rely solely on their trust of God, and finding that that trust really is enough to carry us through, that God really is with us, why would we trust God?  If we haven’t experienced God in this way, how can we trust that God will be there for us in those times?  It is something we are called to practice: to practice reliance on God. 
               Waiting is hard.  But God gives us this gift, and we have the chance to grow from it.  John the Baptist came paving the way for Jesus, inviting the wait before Jesus’ began his ministry.  Isaiah proclaimed the coming of justice, of comfort, of release from oppression.  And he wrote that in a time of exile for the Israelites.  They weren’t home, but exiled to a foreign land. Isaiah’s declaration of God’s promise was sound.  They were returned home.  But none of that was instantaneous.  The Israelites had to wait decades.  These things were coming.  These passages were and are calls to live into hope while we wait.  To trust in God, while we wait.  To let go of control, while we wait.  To learn patience while we wait. 
               I think we will find that there are gifts even beyond the Spiritual gifts I already listed in the waiting.  I found this quote as well from AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh:   “Well, said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think.  Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.”
                I think it’s called “Advent”.
               There is something deliciously wonderful in the anticipation of the good that is about to come.  There is something amazingly wonderful in the moments before you open that first Christmas present, in the moments before you see your new baby for the first time, in the moments before that visitor you’ve waited for has come.  There is something incredibly life-giving in the hope and anticipation of Advent.  Experience it, live it, enjoy it.  For it is a gift from God.

               

Friday, December 8, 2017

Loneliness

      I believe we are living in a culture that is experiencing an epidemic of loneliness.  I see it in the social media boom: people "talk" constantly through their tweets, Facebook and other social media as a way to try to connect to others.  People seem much more compelled to "speak" through these media sound bites than to actually spend time together.  Often, now, people become fixated on their social media even when they are with other people.  The other day I was having a very intense personal conversation with a friend who wouldn't put down his phone and was Face-booking and responding to emails even as he asked me personal questions.  I felt strange talking to a bowed head and the back of someone's phone.  It felt almost shaming to have a person ask me something very private while not making eye contact with me, but while, instead, typing away on his phone.  I felt invisible.  I clearly wasn't the priority in that moment.  But since he was asking me personal and deep questions, I also didn't know how to deal with the situation.  Looking back, I probably should have said, "I can wait until you are done" before continuing, but in the moment, that did not occur to me and I couldn't think how to be polite but also clear that I was not going to have that intimate conversation with the back of someone's phone.
      I found myself wondering why emails, Facebook and tweeting are so much more compelling than actually talking to the person in front of you.  Perhaps it's because it feels like we are talking to a whole bunch of friends at once.  We also don't have to worry about being interrupted.  We type what we want to say, taking the time we need to be specific and thoughtful about our words (or not), we don't always know who will respond or "listen" but we can expect that at least someone out there will.  Also, it is fast and we can disengage as quickly as we want.  We can, in a cyber way, connect with someone else for 30 seconds or for ten minutes without the pressure of an entire conversation, or with the awkwardness of beginnings and endings to one's time with someone else.  In our instant gratification society, that quick fix of a five minute interaction with a group of folk may feel very satisfying.  Some of us are more observers, others more sharers, but on social media we choose whether we just browse and read others' comments, respond to them, or start a line of conversation ourselves.  It seems perfect. It takes away the loneliness, gives us instant support when we need it, an instant entertainment otherwise.  It does not require much from us, we only engage it when we want to for the length of time that we choose.  We get to engage more than one person, usually, at a time, and we can talk about anything we choose, saying whatever we want in the time and space we want to say it.
      Sounds ideal, right?
      Except for the long list of downsides to this.  First, we are forgetting how to really talk to each other, how to truly build relationships, how to go "deep" with another person, something that takes time and intentionality.  We are physically isolated in our homes with only our electronics to keep us company.  We no longer touch and engage real people.  I ask you to consider, how many close friends do you have at whose homes you could just show up at any time?  Most of the real "talking" we do with close friends is still done through electronics, mostly done by text or by phone.  How often in a week do you get together with friends to just be together?  It's not like the way it used to be when people saw each other daily and met for coffee in each other's homes with regularity.  We live in our little boxes, rarely know our neighbors, those who actually live and breathe and work and eat near us.
      This also means that we tend to only be friends with people who have similar ideas and visions to ourselves.  We are friends with those with whom we work, perhaps, or those in the same fields.  We aren't pushed to know the next door neighbor who has radically different politics or a different faith from us.  We only connect with like-minded people, and we are the ones who lose out as a result.  Our ideas are not expanded, only supported by others who are similar to us.  Our vision and thoughts aren't pushed or challenged.
      Another obvious problem: people can become mean behind the anonymity of media.  It is easy to forget that the person you are talking to is a real, flesh and blood human being with feelings and thoughts and worries and histories and experiences which make them vulnerable, fragile, REAL.  We've all read about the damage done through cyber bullying, the teens at risk because of the cruel words spoken to them or the images sent to them that damage psyches and sometimes lead to suicides.  This happens to adults, too, in case you were wondering.  The habits of anonymous and cruel cyber bullying grow with the cyber bullies into adulthood and become a pattern of terrible meanness that injures far more people than we will probably ever know.
      All of this also leads to further emotional, psychological and even physical issues.  There is a wonderful video out about the causes of addition that suggests that a large part of our personal problems stem from social isolation, from loneliness, from a lack of support. While I don't agree that this is the only cause of these problems, I do think that we need to start looking at the social causes (and social solutions!) to these issues with much more seriousness.
      We know our politics are becoming much more polarized as we forget how to talk to each other, and more, how to listen to one another.
      What if, for one day a week, everyone were to put down their phones, computers and other electronic "friends" and actually go spend time with their real human friends, or, even more radically, with their neighbors?  How would our lives change?  How would things be different?  Might we start learning to talk and listen to each other again?  Might we begin to close some of the gaps in our thinking and understanding and visions for the world?  Might we learn and grow and deepen in new ways?  And, most of all, perhaps we would find we aren't so lonely anymore.  And that would not be a bad thing!

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Unkindness and self-righteousness

     We live in a time when self-righteous judging is just a fact of life.  We judge each other, condemn each other, without listening, without even talking about what specifically we don't like or why.  It's just judgment, just condemnation, just attacks and accusations, without the conversations, without real engagement with folk about their thoughts, their ideas, their feelings, their histories, or what creates the world views and opinions that we each have.
      I saw an article (well, video) recently that said that contempt is the current biggest problem with American politics.  It really resonated with me because, again, we aren't kind.  And it seems to me there are a few basic, human things we could do to begin to change this.
    1.  Confront ideas rather than attacking people.  We don't have to call people names or condemn people, even those who've done really awful things.  We can, instead, critique ideas or even behaviors (like, for example, the behaviors of being self-righteous and attacking).  One of the gifts of this is that it gives people the benefit of the doubt.  It recognizes the humanity of the other person which should supersede a person's ideas or even their actions.  It is a way of saying that we believe the other to basically be a decent person who just sees the world differently and explores the possibilities of why that might be the case.
    2.  When we disagree with something, don't like it, or think it is wrong, we should say what specifically we don't agree with and then say why.  Global statements, "you are wrong" or even "I don't like what you said" or "the way you do this is not acceptable" are not helpful to anyone because they are not specific.  Statements like that create enemies, they set up walls and barriers between people without there ever being an opportunity for learning, understanding or bridge-building.  Specific statements, "When you said x, it was unjust or unfair because of y" or even better, "when you did x, I felt y because z" (so putting it back to ourselves, claiming our part, claiming what bothered me specifically rather than attacking the other person) are much, much more helpful because they allow for dialogue, they open the possibility of learning and exploration of ideas, they move us forward in communication with each other.
    3.  Chose always to start with compassion and understanding rather than fury, rage, or hatred.  This one is harder, MUCH harder.  When we are attacked, it is normal, it is almost instinctual, to respond with a counter attack.  But taking a deep breathe and trying to hear under the rage, to hear under the anger, to listen to the pain, to the life story of the other person will go a long way towards building bridges, creating communication and furthering the possibilities of learning, growth and movement.
    4.  Try to have real conversations, not through social media, but in person and using our words, rather than memes and constant attacking posts.
     
      There are other ways we can work towards building bridges as well, but I think that these really simple things are so important to the way we communicate with each other.  We are becoming increasingly isolated, increasingly polarized, and we make enemies far too quickly of people who should be our allies, should be other human beings on the same journey as we are, should become friends and family.  We miss out simply by failing to be kind, failing to listen, and failing to communicate specifically, clearly, and directly when we disagree with something.

      Personally, I was just confronted with a situation in which I was attacked by someone who should have been a support person, through social media, for something I said without the specifics of why what I said was a problem; and, equally, without any comprehension that I was sharing about a problem that I, myself, carry and deal with every single day.  The cruelty and condemnation of the other person was overwhelming. I tried to respond with clarity and and an apology, only to be met with silence. This happens. I had a choice then, in that moment.  Do I practice what I preach and try to stay engaged?  Asking for more clarity?  Speaking with love and compassion?  Or do I let the door that the other self-righteously and judgmentally slammed stay closed?  I'll admit that in the moment I was not able to continue the engagement. There was no way to have a real, actual, in person conversation. Plus, the attack had been far too personal, far too intimate an attack for me to stay engaged in that moment. And finally, my attempts at communication were met with silence, without explanations, without specifics. I've had to realize that not all people who claim to be loving and compassionate can be, or can be at all times. Some carry their own scars, some carry their own chips on their shoulders that they are simply unable to put down; and some, I've finally come to believe, are simply not good people. They attack the weakest and most vulnerable among us at their weakest and most vulnerable moments, without self reflection and without a willingness to hear others.  Sometimes that means we have to turn away, simply to take care of ourselves.
      But most of the time, I think we can use the reasons I've just listen as my own, as an excuse to fail to engage in real conversation.  And my sense is that the more we practice bridge-building communication and listening, the better we will become at it.  Also, we have a responsibility to stand up to bullies, not by bullying back, but by engaging them in the ways I've listed, if not for our own sake, then for the sake of those who are not as able to stand up for themselves.  We never know when our own choices to be compassionate may change someone else.  We never know when we actually touch someone or make a difference.  But I can pretty much guarantee that we don't change others for the better by being cruel, condemning, self-righteous or judging.
      No doubt I should have tried harder in my own situation.  But I suppose the self change and choices to engage start with an awareness that we have choices; that we can choose compassion in the face of cruelty, that we can be bridge-builders even with those who don't know how to listen or communicate without judgment or condemnation; that the place of power is one not of being reactive to others' anger or hate but being proactively compassionate and grace-filled.  It's a goal for me.  I hope it will be for you, too!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Keep Awake

Isaiah 64:1-9
Mark 13:24-37

“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. ..Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn.  If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping.  What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’” 
               Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and we are told, once again, to keep alert, to keep watch.  We need to be faithful, to not wait by sitting and doing nothing, but by actively preparing for the coming one by doing those things that create in us a space, first to see Christ when Christ comes; second, to be ready to receive God in the most unlikely of places, and third to be ready for our lives to be changed quickly and completely by Christ’s presence.
               Again, this does not mean failing to be active.  It does not mean sitting and waiting.  “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”  It means watching from a place of living fully, and of being ready for the coming of Christ. 
               We just don’t know what tomorrow will bring.  I am reminded of the passage from Mitch Albom’s book, “for one more day” in which his characters have this dialogue, 
“Life goes quickly, doesn’t it Charley?” 
“Yeah” I mumbled.
“It’s such a shame to waste time.  We always think we have so much of it.”  I thought about the days I had handed over to a bottle.  The nights I couldn’t remember.  The mornings I slept through.  All that time spent running from myself.
              
Most of us struggle with different things, different issues, different situations.  But we all struggle with something, avoid something, get lost in something, give up times of really loving in one way or another.  If we knew that our life would end tomorrow, what would we do differently?  More to the point of today’s story, if we knew that Christ was coming tomorrow, what would we do differently?  If we knew that our world was about to turn on its head, that the prince of peace, our wonderful counselor, the alpha and omega, the God of Love were coming tomorrow, what would we do differently? 
               During Advent we prepare by remembering that God came to us as a baby, helpless, little, innocent, new (ie in an unexpected way), and to an unexpected mother in an unexpected time and place.  We remember that those with eyes to see did see and were blessed, deeply, in the seeing.  We remember that others saw and felt threatened, and that most people just didn’t know, couldn’t comprehend that God would choose to come to us in this unusual way, at that unusual time, in those unusual circumstances.  We prepare, we wait and watch, by remembering all of this. 
But here’s the thing: God does come anew each day if we have eyes to see God.  Being ready to see God, being prepared to see God is being open to seeing God.  Where is God moving today in your life?  Where is God showing up today in your life?  During Advent we are reminded to pray, to ask, to be able to see God’s presence, care, love, amazing grace when it comes each day.  And sometimes we do see it.   And what about when we can’t?  We are often guilty of seeing what we know rather than knowing what we see.
I am reminded of the movie, The Whale Rider.  The girl, Paikea, is part of a Maori tribe in search of its new chief, a new whale rider who will lead their people.  Her grandfather has very set ideas about who this person must be.  His set ideas do not allow him to see.  They do not allow him to really look with open eyes.  And despite all the signs that say that his granddaughter, Pai, is the new whale rider, he rejects this again and again until finally, from that stubborn place, his actions lead to a great tragedy. It is a wonderful movie that we will show for Faith and Film night, probably in January, so I will not give away the ending.  But I am aware that this is another “true” story, in that it tells the truth that happens again and again.  People fail to see what they do not expect to see, what they do not want to see.  People fail to see anything that challenges their mind sets and values.  We are also often guilty of only seeing what we fear…
A school principal told this story: Like most elementary schools, it was typical to have a parade of students in and out of the health clinic throughout the day. We dispensed ice for bumps and bruises, Band-Aids for cuts, and liberal doses of sympathy and hugs.  As principal, my office was right next door to the clinic, so I often dropped in to lend a hand and help out with the hugs. I knew that for some kids, mine might be the only one they got all day. One morning I was putting a Band-Aid on a little girl's scraped knee. Her blonde hair was matted, and I noticed that she was shivering in her thin little sleeveless blouse. I found her a warm sweatshirt and helped her pull it on.. "Thanks for taking care of me," she whispered as she climbed into my lap and snuggled up against me. It wasn't long after that when I ran across an unfamiliar lump under my arm. Cancer, an aggressively spreading kind, had already invaded thirteen of my lymph nodes. I pondered whether or not to tell the students about my diagnosis. The word breast seemed so hard to say out loud to them, and the word cancer seemed so frightening. When it became evident that the children were going to find out one way or another, either the straight scoop from me or possibly a garbled version from someone else, I decided to tell them myself. It wasn't easy to get the words out, but the empathy and concern I saw in their faces as I explained it to them told me I had made the right decision.
When I gave them a chance to ask questions, they mostly wanted to know how they could help.   I told them that what I would like best would be their letters, pictures, and prayers.  I stood by the gym door as the children solemnly filed out. My little blonde friend darted out of line and threw herself into my arms. Then she stepped back to look up into my face. "Don't be afraid, Dr. Perry," she said earnestly, "I know you'll be back because now it's our turn to take care of you."
No one could have ever done a better job. The kids sent me off to my first chemotherapy session with a hilarious book of nausea remedies that they had written. A video of every class in the school singing get-well songs accompanied me to the next chemotherapy appointment.  By the third visit, the nurses were waiting at the door to find out what I would bring next. It was a delicate music box that played "I Will Always Love You.." Even when I went into isolation at the hospital for a bone marrow transplant, the letters and pictures kept coming until they covered every wall of my room. Then the kids traced their hands onto colored paper, cut them out and glued them together to make a freestanding rainbow of helping hands. "I feel like I've stepped  into Disneyland every time I walk into this room," my doctor laughed.  That was even before the six-foot apple blossom tree arrived adorned with messages written on paper apples from the  students and teachers. What healing comfort I found in being surrounded by these tokens of their caring... At long last I was well enough to return to work. As I headed up the road to the school, I was suddenly overcome by doubts. What if the kids had forgotten all about me? I wondered, What if they don't want a skinny bald principal? What if… I caught sight of the school marquee as I rounded the bend. "Welcome Back, Dr. Perry," it read. As I drew closer, everywhere I looked were pink ribbons - ribbons in the windows, tied on the doorknobs, even up in the trees. The  children and staff wore pink ribbons, too.
My blonde buddy was first in line to greet me. "You're back, Dr. Perry, you're back!" she called. "See, I told you we'd take care of you!" As I hugged her tight, in the back of my mind I faintly heard my music box playing . . . "I will always love you.."

               When we fail to have our eyes open, to be prepared, in each moment for the coming Christ, tragedies occur, the greatest of which is missing God right here, among us, every day.  But where there is a risk of tragedy, there is also abundant grace. The grace of Advent is that  God comes even when we aren’t looking.  God shows up even when we don’t feel anything is different or anything has changed.  God shows up in the midst of our fear, our anxiety, and our inability at times to see.  We are called especially during advent to prepare for that coming.  To wait, to watch, to look.  My prayer then for us all is that we have the eyes to see when God comes, each and every time.  Amen.