Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Even more personal reflection on listening... and a personal confession.

           As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog post, Sunday night at our family service I showed a clip from The Lord of the Rings.  It was the part at which Frodo offers to take the ring to Mordor and to destroy it himself, even though, as he says, he does not know the way.  As I said yesterday, it is an incredibly profound scene for me, a necessary and true step for any hero to take: first to say “yes” to the call that is in front of one, but second, to admit to needing help, guidance, a map to find the way.  I love that scene and it touches me at the core.  Every time I see it, it makes me cry.  But Sunday night when I showed it, the kids were in a different place.  I was with this profound scene, but as soon as I showed it and tried sharing with the kids how it touched me and why, I had one boy pop up with “that actor was the same guy as in this other movie I saw!”  And another kid (one of my own) responded with, “Well, that was just stupid and funny.  It didn’t stick to the novel at all but made it into a clowny scene!”  Another popped back up with commentary on the other actors in the scene.  And I felt like I’d been stabbed, personally assaulted by their comments. They did not want to hear how this touched me. They did not care about the fact that we are all called to do something and that even the smallest of us, especially the smallest of us, can make a profound difference. They didn't want the message I wanted to give them. This is central to my beliefs and who I am, central to my theology and my understanding also of who God is and how God calls us into discipleship: calling on us in our vulnerability, in our weakness, in our smallness to trust and to follow even when it seems impossible and even when we do not know the way.  And the kids, frankly, didn’t care.  The service ended and as I was cleaning up projector and computer and putting cords and screens away, my daughter was still ranting on about the stupidity of taking perfectly good books and over dramatizing them with scenes such as we just saw. And that was it for me. I had had it.  I handed my car keys to David, asked him to please drive my zoo home, and announced my intention of walking home, before taking off on a "walk" that was more of a run (and would have been an intentional run if I hadn't been carrying my computer bag): working hard, breathing hard, pounding out my frustration and hurt with each step and sweating out my grief with breaths that bordered on sobs.
        “What am I doing?!” I found myself yelling in my head.  “I am not getting through.  I am not making a positive difference here.  I am wasting everyone’s time and energy trying to teach and pass on what to me seem to be profound truths but which to everyone else are just interesting cinematic opportunities to be critical and to see favorite actors.  I’m DONE with this!  I don’t need to be working so hard to put together services that make no d___ difference.  I don’t need to be spilling my heart out with the moments of revelation that we see and experience in the world including in stories and movies.  I don’t need to be working so hard here for no outcome at all.  What am I DOING?!”
        But as is often the case for me, when I come to God with the honesty of what I am feeling; when I throw out there the truth of all that is me, when I run off enough energy in my ranting that there is room finally, to do nothing else but listen, it is then that the voice of Truth can be heard.  “You are right.  That is not supposed to be about you.  It is supposed to be about them.  Your truth is not what they need.  They need space instead to discover their own truth.  Your experiences, your opinions are not what matter here.  What matters is hearing them.” 
       I wasn’t ready to hear this.  I wasn’t.  I heard it.  But hearing is only the first step.  Taking it in, that often comes later.  I finally came home, more because it was too dark to be wandering the neighborhood alone rather than because I really was done with my walk.  And my daughter was STILL going on about the movie.  I asked her to please go take a shower.  The truth was I still needed more time apart, more space from the cynicism around something I cared about.  By the time she came out of the shower, though, I was probably more ready to hear, more ready to listen.  But she surprised me.  “Mama,” she said, “I have something to say.  I realize that you work hard to put together services that are meaningful and have a message.  I realized I did not make that easy for you today.  I was not helpful.  And I’m sorry.” 
A shock ran through me.  When did it happen that my children became more adult than I am?  At what point did they surpass me in wisdom, courage and grace?  Why was she apologizing to me when it should have been me apologizing for not listening well, for not being present with her, with them?  Such is my life.  But I still wasn’t where I needed to be.  I moved again into explanation of why that scene meant something to me.  Her response?  Tears.  Probably the only thing that could have moved me out of me, finally, was seeing her pain.  Ouch.  I got it now.  I’m listening.  This wasn’t about me.  This was about her.  What was underneath the cynicism?  What was underneath the anger at the movie?  What was she needing me to hear from her, finally?
So I listened.  And we talked.  And I heard.  And today?  Today I’m realizing that my feelings of frustration and burn out Sunday night were a gift, a wake up call telling me that I’m not doing this the way it is supposed to be done.  How will this affect our evening family services?  Not sure yet, but it will.  I need to listen more.  And I need to keep remembering that if I’m really doing what I’m called to do here, it will not be about me.  It will be about those I am striving to serve.  Thank you, children of the church, for reminding me of what I am to be about.  I don’t learn these lessons easily, and I am certain there will come many more days when I need to be reminded of this.  But thank you for this day and this reminder.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Being Heroes

        "I will take the Ring," he said, "though I do not know the way." (1)

       What is it to be a hero or heroine?  We know what it is.  All of our story books as well as our histories tell us.  To be a hero is to find ourselves in the place and time where we are called on to do something hard, and to say "yes" in that face of that call.  We don't choose whether or not that call will come.  We don't choose where we will be in that moment or what the challenge is that will call us into action.  All we choose is whether or not, in each of those moments, we will say "yes" to the call or not. When we don't have any idea how to do what we are called to do, when we "do not know the way" but we choose to do it anyway because we see it is something that needs to be done for the good of others, that is heroism.
      Every time I have read this part of the Lord of the Rings (right now I'm reading it to my middle child and have just come to that point again) and every time I have seen that part in the movie, I find myself weeping.  Today I showed that small scene at our evening family service, and once again, I was overcome with tears. It touches me because in the story it is the smallest, most unnoticed, apparently unexceptional person who appears to be called on to do this all but impossible task, and he answers that call with "yes" despite the fact that he does not know how to get there.  I looked at our children this evening at church and I saw in each of them the ability to answer that call with a "yes" as well. I saw that God often does use the unexpected, the unnoticed, and that all it takes is a "yes" to become that hero.
       But I also was struck by something different this evening.  In the story, Frodo saved his world. In most of our classics and histories, the hero making the decision to say "yes" to the impossible saves something, someone important: the family, the country, the planet, the universe... something big.  But how many times is it not also heroic, when we really look at it, just to say "yes" to the burdens we are given each day? Burdens that we also, often, don't really know how to carry? When we say "yes" to the incredibly difficult job of daily parenting a challenging child, when we say "yes" to sitting up with someone in crisis even when we ourselves are beyond tired, when we say "yes" to choosing to live each day while struggling with chronic, debilitating pain; when we say "yes" to working a job in which we are miserable because it supports our families; when we put up with meanness for the sake of someone else, when we stand up to someone who is unkind to others, when we risk loving the unlovable or talking with the person society rejects, when we choose to do that which is unpopular but which is the only thing we can do if we are true to our values, when we get up each morning after the death of a child - in all these actions, we are choosing in that moment to be heroic.  All of these things may not change the world or make the news or seem that big of a deal in the larger scheme of things. But each time we say "yes" to carrying the burdens we find at our feet or facing the challenges or making the world a tiny bit kinder and gentler for someone else, we are choosing to be heroic. Other people don't have to know or record or celebrate what we've done for it to be big and for it to mean something in God's eyes.
         All we are called to do is that which is in front of us to do: for some of us that is big and changes the world.  For most of us it only changes us.  But that is enough. All we are called to do is to say "yes" when the call shows up.
         To phrase this another way: I see that it is a big deal, that it is in fact heroic for each of you to walk the journeys you do, to face the difficulties you face, to keep going in the midst of adversity and to keep saying "yes" to life, especially when it is hard.  I hope you can see it too and that you can celebrate the choices you have made in each day.


1. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, (Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1966) p. 164.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

More on Listening: Understanding

       A few days ago I wrote about the importance of working hard to hear one another more deeply.  I wrote from a very academic place, however, rather than a personal one.  The day I wrote the post though, I was reminded of what a personal thing it is to really hear and understand one another.  As I said the other day, it can be very hard to really hear one another to the core of our being.  But what I didn't say was that part of what makes hearing someone's heart so difficult is that it is sometimes hard to even share a basic understanding with one another.  We speak different languages and even within those languages different dialects.  But what's more, even when our language is the same, we speak differently and understand differently.  Just the differences I found in the way people communicate between CA and OH were astonishing to me. But even within states and within areas, within subcultures and within similar life styles and world views it can be very hard to understand one another.
      There is a person in my life, someone I interact with on a weekly basis, who I just plain miss in the sense that I regularly misunderstand what she is saying. I find my interactions with this person to be incredibly stressful for me because I know I often misunderstand.  I try hard, I try to offer support and presence, and I just don't do it well.  Almost weekly this miscommunication happens with this individual.  It's gotten to the point where I find I don't even want to talk around her because I know I will say something that will show how little I have understood and my lack of understanding always offends or hurts or in some other way upsets her with the reality of my lack of "getting it".  I don't know why this is the case.  Mutual acquaintances seem to understand both of us just fine.  But my interactions with her consistently include communication from her that I have misheard or just responded inappropriately to what she has said.
       On the other side, there is another individual in my life (who I fortunately don't interact with very often) who always mishears me.  I feel like I am speaking clearly, but this person indicates that the messages I am communicating with him are always heard very differently than what it is I am trying to say, what it is I think I am saying.  And again, I don't know why.  We have many mutual friends and acquaintances in common who do not seem to have this trouble with either of us.  What is it about the way we each present ourselves or hear others that makes our communication so very, very difficult?
        When I think about how hard it is to communicate with these two people, people who are in my same world in terms of language, economics, education, cultural background, area of interest even, and location, it amazes me that people across the world are really ever able to understand one another. The wars and fights we have had with people of other cultures and experiences are not so amazing when you realize how hard it can be to understand the person next door.  What is amazing is not that we struggle to understand differences. What is awesome and wondrous is when people of differing backgrounds and cultures and experiences do understand one another.  When people across the world can work together and learn from one another and see one another, it is utterly fantastic and, frankly, miraculous.  That is something worth celebrating!
       We can all work harder to understand one another.  We can all try to hear below the words people are saying to the messages they are really trying to communicate.  We can all strive to honor our differences and to remember how they affect the way we speak so we can listen better.  It can be hard work.  But the ability to hear, the joy in listening and learning from someone who is different, the gift in experiencing other worldviews, thoughts and feelings - these are gifts worth the reach, work the effort, worth the work.
        Today I am taking the lessons I have been given from the person I struggle to understand as well as the one who does not understand me - I am taking those gifts for what they are: reminders of the necessity of taking the time and effort to try to hear and see.  They also help me, once again, to find deep gratitude for the times when communication does flow easily, and when laughter, information, feelings, thoughts, love and care connect us.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Listening and Seeing.

"When a person realizes he has been deeply heard, his eyes moisten. I think in some real sense he is weeping for joy. It is as though he were saying, ‘Thank God, somebody heard me. Someone knows what it’s like to be me."~Carl Rogers
A friend I deeply respect and value posted the above quote today and it really caught my attention. It caught my attention from both ends: both from the listening (or failing to listen) end as well as from the position of being the one heard (or failing to be heard).
      We don't often listen deeply. Even those of us in "healing professions" or caring professions... we don't often listen down to the core. Those with training in listening sometimes do a better job, but I think it is difficult even for listening professionals to hear, really hear, into someone's center. For me personally, I am better at listening to those who come into my office wanting counseling or support. I have been blessed by seeing those moistened eyes in those situations. But even then, I don't think we listen with depth often enough. We can find ourselves thinking about how we should respond. We can catch ourselves thinking in what ways we need to support the other. We think about how we can express care and love. All these are good things in theory. Of course we want to respond in a loving, compassionate, helpful way to the other. But these thoughts and concerns that fill our minds keep us from really listening. They move us out of truly being with the other, being in each moment and hearing from our hearts. I think this can be even harder in a situation of colleagues or friends. In those cases, we usually want a mutuality, a conversation. It is a back and forth: you share, I share. I share, you share. And in those cases especially real listening can sometimes be hard. It can also be hard when we love the other and they are sharing something painful and we don't know how to help: we can get caught in our feelings of helplessness or even paralysis, or our own pain that they are hurting, and be so focused on being afraid of what to say, afraid of doing it "wrong", or of wanting to fix it so we no longer hurt, that listening can be challenging for us. It can be hard if we want to be known as much as we want to know the other. Striving to be known by another takes focus off that other. A mutual back and forth sometimes can help in that, but only when we know when to stop sharing and when to listen instead. Not easy.
      Every time someone shares with us, every time we are even with someone else, there is an opportunity to see and to hear the other. In that seeing, in that hearing, there is an opportunity to make a difference for another human being, to validate who they are. In a sense when we really see or hear another we make real their being. By acknowledging their core, by seeing them at that depth, it is like naming something, making it true. That can be a profoundly deep experience for the other person. It can also help them to see themselves. When we are seen, sometimes the sight the other has can help us to glimpse our own being in a new way, to a new depth. I don't always like those moments when a mirror is held up for me. But when it is done from a place of real listening and love, it can inspire genuine change. It can challenge us to see ourselves and to have compassion for the rough parts first. From that place of self compassion it is much easier to sand down those rougher places, to work on the changes that will heal ourselves and our interactions with others. What a gift we give then by really listening and seeing.
      But the truth is that when we fail to do this it is not just a loss to those we have not heard. It is our deep loss as well. My truest experiences of loving another have come from really seeing or hearing the other. To see into someone's core being is an amazing gift to the seer. It gives us glimpses of eternity, glimpses of our connections that go beyond anything we usually experience. To love one another is to care for them. But to see another involves a different kind of love. I have felt my heart swell, grow beyond caring to a kind of love that is transporting through truly seeing and hearing another. It is an experience that brings the other close; or rather, that recognizes the closeness and connection that already exists in a real and profound way.
          But I'll tell you this: when you do not feel seen or heard in some place in your life, it makes it almost impossible to see or hear anyone else.
      This is part of the reason I feel strongly that people in helping professions should also receive help. If you are a pastor, counselor, or spiritual director, receiving counseling and/or spiritual direction is really crucial to listening well to others. If we are not heard in a place of depth, if we are not truly "seen" by another, how can we see or own those rough places that need sanding? There can also be a dangerous human tendency to project the parts of us we don't want to see onto others. That, too, makes it very difficult to see the other for who they really are. Accountability in our own being and self-reflection allow us to see more accurately what is our stuff and what truly belongs to the other. This also means that in seeking out a counselor or spiritual director, it is crucial to find someone who can see you, can hear you, for who you actually are, and who can hold up a mirror in a loving and compassionate way.
          The quote I started with stands on its own and probably doesn't really need all of this unfolding. It is a gift to hear, to see. It is a gift to be heard, to be seen. And the good news is, this is a gift we can all work on, all claim, all give: Just by listening with our hearts as well as our ears, eyes, arms - all of our senses.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Sunday's Sermon: You have heard it said

Deut. 19:16-21
Matthew 5: 17-48
                                             
In today’s passage from Matthew, Jesus says repeatedly, “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” Where did the people that Jesus was speaking to, where had they heard these things?  They heard them in scripture.  Jesus says, “you have heard it said ‘do not murder’” –well, as you know, it’s not just that they have heard this said, but this is one of the ten commandments.    Jesus says, “you have heard it said, ‘Do not commit adultery’” - this, too, is one of the ten commandments.  Jesus says, “you have heard it said, 'Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.'  This comes from Deuteronomy 24:1.  Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’” This comes from three different places in the old testament – Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deut. 19:21. Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘'Love your neighbor] and hate your enemy.'  Well, the first part of that comes from lev. 19:18 and while the second part about hating your enemy is not a direct quote from scripture, many people would say that there is ample example of hating your enemy throughout the old testament, as Joshua instructed the Israelites to divorce any wife who was foreign, the taking over of Canaan, the fighting of the Philistines, etc, etc, etc..  All of these are scriptures that Jesus then takes to the next step.   
As Jesus, himself, says, it is not that he is throwing out the law.  It’s just that the Law and Prophets that he is fulfilling are the law of Love, the law of God.  All of these Old Testament rules that Jesus counters were a step towards fulfilling the law of love.  For example, the “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” law was meant to actually be a restraining rule.  It is too easy, as people seek revenge against those who have hurt them, to go much further than just repaying the original evil with an equal measure of evil or pain.  In retaliation for injuries done, it was and is too easy to respond by injuring the other much more than the original hurt; or extending the injury beyond just the person who did the original hurt to others as well.  We see this in many of the situations in the Middle East.  We see this in gang retaliation.  We may experience this at a personal level. that when someone has hurt us, it is very easy to want them to hurt even more than they have injured us.  “An eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” was a rule insisting that the most harm a person could do to another was what was originally done.  This was a rule attempting to work towards love, rather than anger or hatred.  The same was true of the rule, for example, that said that if you divorce your wife, you must give her a certificate of divorce.  This was intended to protect the wife, who was seen at that point in time as property and therefore could be punished severely for what looked like leaving her husband.  The certificate of divorce would allow her to present proof that she did not leave him.  It was an attempt to protect her.  This is true of all of these Old Testament rules that Jesus refers to in this passage in Matthew. 
But Jesus goes much farther than this.  He insists that fulfilling the law of love, God’s law, must go much, much farther than the rules of “an eye for an eye” or a certificate of divorce or anything else that is less than full love, forgiveness, and charity for the other person.  In the case of divorce, Jesus knew that a woman without a man attached to her had very little chance of survival since she could not, at that time, support herself.  So he said that divorce itself was unacceptable.  He also said that revenge of any kind is unacceptable.  Evil must stop with the original initiator.  He insisted that the law of love calls us to respond with forgiveness, and not with hatred, revenge or even with anger.
Is this easy?  Of course not.  Do most Christians find this law, this law of love, of forgiveness, of compassion even for the enemy easy to follow?  No and frankly many Christians, if not MOST Christians simply choose to ignore Jesus’ words here, to completely disregard this call to go the extra mile in love; to work for reconciliation in all things, to forgive and offer love, even to your enemies, even to those who have hurt you. Most Christians, when they have been injured, seek revenge. They sue when bad things have happened to them, they seek to blame the other when there is a conflict within marriage that cannot be reconciled, they seek “justice” in the form of revenge for any injury, or harm, that has been done to them. I don’t mean to blame them here.  Because I think this is very, very human, and I think because of that most people who say they are Christians cannot really even hear these passages from Jesus that make it so clear that revenge, blaming, hatred, even anger (in the sense of holding on to and acting out of a grudge) are not acceptable responses.  But again, Jesus is very clear about this.  “But I say to you,” he says, “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,…. Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.”  Are not these words clear?  But we find it hard to even hear them.  And I think this is because at a basic level we simply do not know how to let go of our anger, to stop seeking the revenge we faithlessly call “justice”, we do not know how to love our enemies, we do not know how to forgive.
I see examples of this all the time. People in the news saying they want God’s justice of “an eye for an eye,” people who say that is their favorite biblical passage, people who cannot or will not remember that Jesus called for something much further on the scale of love.  Again, people suing to get as much as they can after being “injured” in any way, even if it is their own fault.  People encouraging others to “go after that guy” legally, monetarily or in some other way rather than talking to the person and working it out. 
Several years ago I was listening to a radio broadcast about forgiveness.  A woman came on who explained that her fiancĂ© cheated on her so she had found a friend and cheated back and that because of this "getting even" she was now very happily married to that same fiancĂ©.  She said, "My motto is, 'a lady's best revenge is forgiveness...after she's gotten even.'"  I understand that she was hurt.  I understand that she was angry.  I understand the feeling of a need for revenge or “justice” in the form of an eye for an eye.  But, as with any revenge, I cannot believe that it actually helped them or healed their relationship.  There is no way I can believe that now their relationship is now ‘fine”.  How does this revenge build trust?  "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" may be popular, but it leaves everyone blind.  If I were either party in this marriage, I would have a very hard time trusting the other.
How many of you watch Grey’s Anatomy?   In one episode years ago a man was featured who felt the hospital had killed his wife and he wanted revenge.  He ran through the hospital shooting (and in several cases killing) doctors, security guards, all in the name of “justice.”  He explained to one of the doctors that this was justice, that this was “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” and while he neither stopped at the one in exchange for the one (the eye for an eye) that was his wife, nor took the step further of forgiveness, he still made it clear that he was a man of faith, believing himself to be following Biblical mandates for justice, still expecting heaven to await him on the far side.  He could not hear these words of Jesus.  I don’t believe it is just that people don’t accept them, I really believe that people truly don’t even hear these words of Jesus.  They are just too hard for us to fathom, to take seriously, to make real.  They are “not realistic” (they call us to be the “Fools for Christ” that Paul tells us to be), and they don’t actually make sense in our world views.
Still, every week we stand here in this building and we pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  And we forget, that we are saying that God should forgive us as we forgive others.  Do we forgive others?  Can we let go of our anger against others?  Can we choose something other than anger, revenge, what we as humans call “justice?”  Can we strive to follow in these words of Christ?
In my philosophy class in college one year, we got into a debate about ethics and laws and if there are behaviors that are always bad, always wrong.  One student said that stealing was always wrong, so our professor posed for us a scenario, based on an Aristotle essay.  A man walks into a grocery store and steals a loaf of bread.  Is that wrong?  Based solely on that information, most of us said it was.  Next we were given the information that the man stealing the bread was starving to death and that all he stole was the single loaf of bread.  Is it still wrong?  The next information we were given was that he wasn’t actually stealing the bread for himself, but for his sick, dying wife and one year old child.  Now is it wrong?  What about for the child and wife?  If she is unable to get up from her bed and the child is a young child, they are both starving but they know the bread was stolen, is it still wrong for them to eat of it?  What if we now learn that the store the bread was stolen from was a little mom and pop store that barely made enough money to support the owners.  Now is it wrong?  What if we add to this that the man who stole the bread worked at this little store for many years, was always underpaid and was fired for unjust reasons.  That he begged for help from the owner who turned him away. Now is stealing this one loaf of bread wrong?  What if we discover that there was a feeding program just down the street from this store that was handing out bags of groceries.  And finally, we learn that the man who stole the bread does not speak the native language and did not know that there was food being handed out anywhere. 
In all those scenarios is there anyone here who will adamantly say that it was still 100% wrong for that bread to be taken?  Generally, ethical questions are not black and white.  Even big “sins” like murder might become fuzzy or confusing in certain situations.  For example, a mass murderer was holding hostage an entire class room full of children, threatening all of them when the teacher, in a physical confrontation with the murderer ended up accidentally shooting and killing him.  I’m not saying that death was okay.  I am saying that “good” and “bad”, right and wrong, the sinner vs. the righteous - all these can become fuzzy in certain situations.
Following laws can sometimes be a dangerous thing to do if we are not always keeping in mind the ultimate law of love.  Many of you are probably familiar with the Milgram Obedience to Authority experiments.  Stanley Milgram was interested in understanding why so many people obeyed Hitler, following him to participate in atrocious acts against other humans.  So he conducted a series of experiments in which volunteers were told they were part of an experiment on learning.  The volunteers were put in front of a switch and told that they were to ask a person in the next room a series of questions.  If the person in the next room gave an incorrect answer, the volunteer was instructed to flip a switch which would give the other person a minor electric shock.  With each incorrect answer, the volunteer was instructed to give a shock with a higher volt.  In reality, the person in the next room was an actor, and was not given any shocks.  But the volunteer did not know this.  With the experimenter present in the room, encouraging the volunteers with every “wrong” answer to up the level and voltage of the shocks, 65% of the volunteers gave what they believed to be electric shocks to the level of 450 volts, even though the volt meter in front of them clearly indicated that no one would survive that high a shock.  While these volunteers were uncomfortable giving shocks to this level, none the less, with only the “authority” of the experimenter present with them in the room, they obeyed and gave these “death” shocks, even when hearing the actor screaming and then grown silent in the next room.  Disobeying rules, even the suggestion of a rule in the form of an authority figure is not easy for us.  Yet, sometimes we are called to do just that, in the name of the ultimate rule of love.
Martin Luther King Jr., Ghandi, Dorothy Day, all broke civil laws by participating in non-violent demonstrations and protests against injustices.  Breaking these laws threw them into jail and worse on different occasions.  But breaking these laws helped change unjust situations and continue to inspire us to speak out for love towards all God’s people.
I want to be clear.  I’m not saying the laws don’t matter.  They do because they give us insights and guidelines for how to live out the law of love.  But when we make idols of the rules, when we forget that they were written to make life better for people, not harder, when we forget that all the laws are subservient to THE LAW of loving God and loving neighbor as self, then we are in danger of being pharisaic and harmful to God’s people. Paul put it this way, in Romans 4:16-17 , “The Law brings about wrath. But when there isn’t any law, there isn’t any violation of the law. That’s why the inheritance comes through faith, so that it will be on the basis of God’s grace.”  
The gospel is the good news.  So in the midst of these words, I want to try to offer the comfort, the good news in this call to “Be complete, therefore, as your heavenly Abba (Daddy) is complete.”

The good news in this is that the word “complete” that in other Bible translations is often written as “perfect” here has more of a sense of the wholeness of Shalom than it does a mandate to be more than we can be. The good news is that we are called towards wholeness, not just for the sake of God or for God’s other people, but for our sakes.  As we strive to follow God’s call, even or maybe even especially the hard words, we find a closeness to God that is more rewarding than anything we can imagine.  We will find a wholeness, a peace, within our very selves that is beyond our imagining.  The good news is, that as hard as it may be to let go of our anger, our inability to love our enemies, God will help us to do it, if we ask.  We don’t have to start perfect in this.  We can ask God and other people of faith around us to teach us how to forgive.  And the good news is that the reward for letting go of that anger, the consequence for letting go of that anger, the result of living in love, is our wholeness, our peace, and our increased closeness to God.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Why I believe our government needs to help with social services.

         A friend who is politically the polar opposite from me asked me recently through a Facebook comment why I believed government should be in charge of social services, rather than people of faith living out their faith.  I've sat with his question for the last couple weeks for several reasons. First, I've never seen it as an "either/or" kind of thing, so I found it hard to answer because the basic assumption didn't hold for me. But also, I realized the answer to the question was long and has many facets to it, so it could not be a simple or short answer: certainly it would not fit as a "comment" to a Facebook post. Third, I struggle at times with choosing to speak when I believe it won't matter, that opinions will not be changed.  As I've listened to friends and parishioners express their different opinions on the current political issues, it's really come home to me that we don't start from the same place, we don't trust the same news sources or even the same recounting of history. How can you have a genuine discussion with someone when what you say they won't believe and what they say you "know" to be untrue (and yes, I put that in quotes. What we hear in news and in history is always told from the perspective of the teller.  There is always bias.  None of us ever hear or even witness complete truth because we always interpret even our own experiences through the lenses of our beliefs and perspectives)?
        But at the same time, the question, and the answers that I have inside have continued to rattle around within me so I am answering the question here.  While it may make no difference to his understanding, articulating my thoughts around this has the potential to make a difference for me. And there is always the hope that it may create more understanding of our differences even if it doesn't change where we both come out in the end.
       With all of those caveats, here goes:
       The scriptures in Matthew 25 that talk about finding Christ in the "least of these" are pretty central texts for me.  In particular vs. 34-45: "Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’"
      These are vital descriptions to me of how we are to live out Jesus' two commandments to love God with all we are and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Tie that into his descriptions of who those neighbors are, (Matthew 5:43-48: "You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even Gentiles do that?") and you get a very clear picture that we are to love everyone in the same way and to the same degree as we care for ourselves. This is THE message, the commandments, or, as Jesus put it in Matthew 22, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”.  We are to love even those people we fear, even those people we don't like, even those people from other countries and other ethnic backgrounds and other sexual orientations and other religions and other genders and ages and abilities, etc, etc, etc as we love ourselves.  It's that simple.  And it's that hard.  And what that looks like is offering and helping them to have the same resources, opportunities, chances and choices, the same rights that we have.
      So I begin there.  Do I think then that the government has the sole responsibility for caring for others?  Of course not. I believe we are called to share our talents and our resources in every possible way with those who do not have as much.  We are to be stewards of what we have been lent by God.  And that is how I see it.  "My" house is not "my" house: it is a resource that belongs to God that has been lent to me to use for the good of all people. "My" income is not "my" income: it too is a resource that comes from God that has been lent to me to use for the good of all people.  My talents, my gifts, my abilities: all are to be used to love God.  Loving God means taking care of God's people, and, frankly, all of creation: all of God's earth, all of God's creatures, all of God's beauty.  God loves it all.  And when we use it for ourselves, when we abuse any of it for ourselves, or even for our "own" people, when we do this, I think it makes God incredibly sad. I don't think any of this has been given to us to create luxury for me and mine. I don't find in scripture or in my own experience of God a God who wants us to use the resources lent to us for our own over-indulgence while others suffer. My own experience is that the more I give, the more I find I have enough.  Again and again and again.  It has only been in the times when I have knuckled down out of fear and hoarded what has come my way that I have felt in need.
      Getting back to the original question then, of shouldn't people of faith just do this without the help of the government, again, my answer is no. I don't believe God is asking us to care for each other just as a practice in faith, or as proof of our love for God.  I genuinely believe that God loves all of God's people and all of God's creation.  It hurts God to the core (and, just as was written in Matthew we are doing it to God-self!) when we fail to take care of each other.  Therefore, we have a responsibility to do that by every single means possible.  Individually?  Yes.  As faith communities?  Yes.  As countries?  Absolutely.
       Looking at history (and again, recognizing we don't read the same interpretations of that history), the number of people who were in extreme poverty before FDR put his welfare and social systems into place was astonishing.  The number of people he helped by setting government aid into place was extraordinary, and that has continued to be the case.  Were there individuals at the time who could have ended poverty in this country on their own?  Probably.  But the point is, they didn't. When we look at the wealth discrepancy in our country now, it is far greater than it was then or ever. And it remains true that the wealthiest people give the least amount in terms of percentage of their incomes towards helping others.  The poorest give the most, consistently. This is statistically true (see The Charitable Giving ), and it is also my own personal experience.  I never experienced as much generosity as when I have been and when I am with poorer people, both abroad and in this country. While the giving of wealthy individuals in this country could wipe out hunger and homelessness, it doesn't, because those with the resources don't share them as they should.
     This isn't just my experience in the United States.  When I have spent time in other countries that do not offer the same kind of aid, the poverty is extreme.  I spent a summer doing mission work in Brazil in the early 90's.  The amount of people living in cardboard boxes, the children who were so skinny you could almost see through them was beyond belief.  Their implementation of social programs has also made a huge difference in that country.  (see Social Welfare Programs Worked). Since I was working there with some of these extremely poor children, I heard their stories, I lived their stories with them.  I cannot begin to believe in a God that would be happier to have those children suffer than to have them supported by government help.  The government reflects us and our values.  I would hope that our values would strongly reflect care and love for one another.
     I realize that people fear that the resources the government gives to those on welfare are misused.
I know this is a great fear, despite the fact that statistics tell a very different story (welfare chartcheating welfare).  Conservative estimates give a percentage of about 10% cheating the system. Other sources say as low as 2%.  To me, that's still worth it.  It means 90% or more are not cheating the system.  Is this help necessary?  Again, if you want to return to the days before FDR set his system in place, we can cancel our welfare programs to find out.  But I'll tell you as someone who has volunteered for years with homeless families, in shelters, with emergency assistance programs and with feeding programs that when you know these families' stories, it is easy to see that they would not survive without BOTH the government programs and faith community help.  There are members of my own family who almost fell through the cracks completely, and who would not have survived without this help.
     One story in particular:  I am very close to someone (whom I will not embarrass by naming in this public place) who grew up in extreme poverty here in the United States.  His family lived on food stamps and welfare help for a few years. The local church also helped them to survive with food bags on a monthly basis. But still, there were many kids in the family, many little people who needed watching after, and a single mom who could only get work that would pay her about as much as she would have had to pay for child care.  This person has shared with me stories of outgrowing the one pair of shoes he would receive each year and then simply going barefoot or cutting holes in the shoes so his toes could stick out. He has told me about stolen food being the only thing they would eat sometimes, and he has also shared times of pure hunger.  Without the checks that family received, they simply would have died.  I have no doubt of this after having seen children die in Brazil in similar situations before there were social service programs there. Was his family taking advantage of the system?  I do not believe so. The mother now has an education, has worked very successfully and the entire family has moved into a middle class economy.  But they needed that help for those few years after the father of the family had died and there was no real way to support these little children. Again, volunteering and working in interfaith emergency programs, I have heard and seen this story playing out again and again.  And the great majority of the time, that assistance is temporary, despite what some would tell you.  It gets a family through during a rough patch until they can get back on their feet.  But without both the faith community help and the emergency assistance from the government, I know these families would not make it.
      Finally, we know that in countries where there is less poverty and more education and health care, crime rates and mortality rates are much lower.  There is less disease for everyone because there are less severely sick people spreading that disease.  There is less crime because there is not the desperation and need that pushes people to steal what they need or to act out in rage at a country full of people who don't care. There is a much more general sense of well being because people are making educated, informed decisions about what is best for everyone.  It benefits everyone in the country when the country cares about the people, all the people, within its bounds and takes part in ensuring that people have their basic needs met.
      I deeply believe that we are all connected.  I deeply believe that everyone around me really is my brother and my sister.  I believe beyond a doubt that somehow we are all one (John 17).  I know that if my child or my sister were in need, I would want to bring every resource available to help that person.  And when I see people in need, it feels like it is my child or my sister who is hurting.  I can't help everyone on my own.  But I will do whatever needs to be done to assure that all of my siblings (everyone) has what they need.
      I want to be part of a place that cares about its people, that recognizes that we all are less when even one of us is suffering and that is focused on taking care of its own so that each of us, and therefore all of us, have what we need to live whole lives.  This mirrors my faith beliefs but also mirrors my hopes for a country that is more loving than hating, more compassionate than afraid, and more giving than hoarding.  Again, our government should reflect us and our values.  And those are the values I would hope would be central for all of us.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Children's Sunday Sermon

Luke 18:15-17, Matthew 18:1-5

The disciples thought Jesus was too busy to bother with children, but they were wrong about that.  Jesus enjoyed children very much and the Bible tells us he was happy to spend time with children.
With the children ask: Children are very important at our church too.  Do you know this? 
Why do you think that children are important here?
How do you know that children are important here?
I want you to think of things the church does for kids and youth here. These don’t just happen on their own – people make these happen.  Who leads these programs? Why do you think all these people do this?  What is the main thing that you have learned here at church?  The folk who work with you here believe it is important for children to know and love God.  They want to share the love of Christ with you.
What do you give back to the church?  Back to God? 
Harder questions: What more should the church be doing for you?  What don’t we do that you think would be helpful to you?
What other thoughts do you have about today’s scriptures or about kids and church?
--
After the christening of his baby brother in church, Jason sobbed all the way home in the back seat of the car.  His father asked him three times what was wrong.  Finally, the boy replied, "That preacher said he wanted us brought up in a Christian home, and I wanted to stay with you guys."
            One of my pastor friends told me about a time he came to an intersection at which the lights were down and a police officer was directing traffic.  But as Leroy approached the intersection, he saw the officer doing this (one hand in “stop” and one hand pulling traffic towards him).  He was really confused by this gesture, as I’m sure any of us would be.  Was he being told to stop?  Was he being told to go forward? 
            Today’s scripture passage calls us to welcome the children to Jesus – to not turn them away from Jesus, to not declare that Jesus is too busy for them.  But I think, like the officer that Leroy encountered in the street, many of our churches send very mixed signals to our kids.  I think this is at least one reason why our youth often stop coming to church and as young adults and adults then rarely return.  What are some of the ways that churches do this, that churches send our children mixed messages?
            Churches declare that they want more young people in church, and then some work very hard to invite them to come.  But when they get in the door, what do these churches do?  Often churches don’t welcome children into worship – they send them to Sunday School, and often the Sunday School feels to the children like just one more day of instruction.  Some churches use translations of the Bible that are written in archaic language that the children don’t understand.  This, too, excludes them from Jesus. They cannot hear the message, they cannot understand the message. Churches do this with prayer as well.  At a SAFE service, I asked the children what the words to the Lord’s Prayer meant.  I asked them what “art” meant (Our Father who “art” in heaven), I asked them what “thy” and “thine” meant.  I asked them what “hallowed” meant.  The children don’t know these words because they aren’t modern English words.  They aren’t in use in our vocabulary any place except in an occasional prayer in church.  We have come to associate these words with holiness so we insist on using these words.  But “thine” was actually the ultra familiar term for “your” – when it was part of the English language, it was even less formal than “you”, not the way we insist on using it as a holy and formal word now.  When we insist on using old language and old translations for prayers, not only do we fail absolutely to capture the original Biblical meaning of the prayer (which again, was one of closeness and familiarity) but we also fail utterly to welcome our children to Jesus by using a code language in our prayers that they cannot and do not understand.  How is it welcoming children to Jesus to insist that they talk to Jesus in a language they don’t speak and can’t understand?
            Sometimes the “children’s time” in churches is really meant for the adults rather than the kids – the kids pick up on this when that happens and feel un-included when it does.
            In some places where children are included, they are expected to be absolutely silent and inactive in church.  While teaching good church behavior to our children is important, expecting them to be something they are not and cannot be is a way of excluding them from Jesus.  They can’t sit completely still or be completely silent.  When we accept this about them, even as we encourage and try to teach good behavior (just like at school), we welcome them to Jesus.
            Parents, grandparents and others can also be uncomfortable talking to our children about our own beliefs, why we do what we do, why we believe what we believe, and, more importantly, what difference it makes in our lives to have the faith we have and to be the church we strive to be.  Choosing to share with our children our faith stories and beliefs is crucial to inviting them to have faith lives of their own. 
A Sunday school teacher asked her children as they were on the way to church service, "And why is it necessary to be quiet in church?"
One bright little girl replied, "Because people are sleeping."

Being aware of the messages we send to the children by our actions as well as our words, sharing with the children our faith stories and why our faith matters to us, incorporating our faith in all aspects of our lives, radically, and showing how our relationships with Jesus make a difference in our lives – these are the ways that we welcome the children to Jesus, that we invite Jesus into their lives, that we open the door for them to be children of faith, passionate about their beliefs, and willing to live and to die for them.    

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Practicing loving behaviors.

           My kids and I walk a lot.  I prefer to walk everywhere when I can, and since the store is only a half mile away, the church as well, we walk as much as possible.  I'm in the habit of stepping to the street side of the sidewalk.  It's something I was taught as a kid. The bigger, protective people walk closer to the street to protect the smaller people from the cars that are driving by.  Also, this way if a kid stumbles, they will stumble into the bigger person rather than just falling into the street and into the way of on-coming cars. Ever since I've had kids, this has been an automatic impulse: walking in the most protective way. Since the streets around here are not small and slow streets, but fast moving, multi-lane streets, this has become even more automatic. I walk on the street side and often hold the hands of the children with whom I'm walking to make sure no one dashes into danger. Yesterday, however, I was walking with David.  We started with David walking on the street side, but, without conscious awareness, I felt uneasy and quickly moved so that I was on the street side.  He gave me a puzzled look and asked why I had done that.
       "Done what?"
       "Moved to the street side."
        Oh.  I hadn't noticed, but realized that it was again an automatic reaction to a sense of uneasiness or wrongness. Without thinking I moved to that place because I felt uncomfortable walking with someone I care about in a non-protective way.  It didn't matter that David is 7 inches taller and weighs twice what I weigh.  What mattered was being able to protect the person I was with.
        But the whole conversation and realization of my own automatic behavior caused me to pause and think about what behaviors we teach ourselves that then become automatic, and what behaviors we need to reteach ourselves to become automatic from the place of being people of "the way" or people who follow God's call to love one another. The behaviors we practice become habit.  The ways we interact with others become second nature when done routinely. We have a choice about what we practice and the ways we interact with others.  We have a choice about what behaviors become habitual.
       Last week I was in a foul mood.  I was cranky because it had been raining and raining.  The constant dark and the lack of exercise don't agree with me.  And even though we need the water, always, in CA, I was just done with all the wet. I was driving to run an errand I wasn't excited about and grumbling to myself about life, love, work, etc.  I came to a red light and saw a woman crossing the street on her way to the hospital.  I didn't know if she was heading there to visit someone or if she worked there, but I could tell that either way, she was not having a good day.  She walked very slowly, looked down the whole time and her face was filled with sorrow and sadness.  I found myself caught in her expression, and sent up a prayer for her to have a day with joy and healing in it, whatever that might look like. If I'd been in a place where I could have pulled over and parked, I would have done so, but again, this was on a six-lane fast moving street and I knew by the time I found a place she would be inside.  I sent energy her way, and found myself internally reaching out to hug her spirit.
        That one act, taking a moment to get out of myself and focus on another, changed my whole attitude that morning.  I was no longer thinking about ME.  I was focused on someone else's needs and wanting good for her.
        That episode, too, caused me to pause and think about what we practice.  What we practice makes a difference. It makes a difference for me, and when my attitude and behavior changes, it makes a difference for others as well.
        There are so many things we need to practice.  But here are some of the things I am choosing the practice today:
        1.  Gratitude or remembering that we are so blessed by everything that comes our way. We have food, shelter, friends, family, air, sunshine and rain, music, dance and art, bodies that allow us to see, hear, touch, taste, smell; beautiful places to be, flowers, rainbows, exercise, books, movies, puzzles, our faith, our supports, schools, medical care... the list goes on and on and on. The challenges are gifts too because they help us grow. And the things we don't like give us the opportunities to work for positive change. It helps me to start from gratitude to move forward in whatever I have to do.
        2.  Seeing the invisible. As my daughter and I were walking to church today we passed a man air blowing the leaves off the sidewalk.  Even though he couldn't hear, my daughter said, "hello!" to him. I am grateful that my daughter sees even those people many of us forget to see. She sees homeless folk. She sees needy people.  She sees workers.  And she greets them all.  She reminds me to see, too, and to do the same.
        3.  Kindness. Striving to find kind words to say and little random acts to give to all those I encounter.  I am practicing being affirming because I see what a difference it can make.
        4. Humility.  It is easy for me to feel slighted.  I'll admit this. I struggle with self-esteem and because of that, I can take things very personally and feel insulted, undervalued and unloved.  Humility, or remembering that all of us are just people on the journey, imperfect, striving to be and do the best we can, helps me to stay centered and to not focus so much on how others treat or respond to me, but more, how I can treat and respond to others.
     
        There are so many other ways of behaving that we need to practice.  Choosing to react with love rather than fear.  Choosing to react with compassion and understanding rather than anger or hate. Choosing to react with a strong but steady presence rather than running in uncomfortable situations. All of these take practice.  But it's what we are called to do.  And the more we practice, the more automatic and easier these things become.  For me.  For you.  For all of us.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Sunday's Sermon on Forgiveness

Matthew 5:21-26, 38-48

I have always loved these scriptures from Matthew.  I have always loved these passages in which Jesus tells us to let go of our anger, to forgive, to love our enemies.  These verses are central to my understanding of God, a God of radical and all inclusive love who calls us to also be about loving everyone, especially those we most fear or even hate.
But it became different for me at the point at which I actually found myself having people who felt like enemies. It was easy to preach about loving your enemies when I didn’t have any enemies. Yes, there were people with whom I became angry, people who had hurt me, especially as a child. There were people whom I struggled to forgive, but these gave me room for growth.  I saw these relationships as opportunities for me to learn to let go of anger, to learn to forgive. I recognized through these situations that forgiveness is for those of us doing the forgiving much more than it is for the one forgiven. But it was different at the point at which my children were experiencing intolerable unkindness in the community.  It was different when people were making judgments against them based on misinformation, half-information, and at the point at which my children were being treated wrongly for something they had no hand in. When people you love, especially innocent people like children, are being persecuted, when their quality of life is significantly altered because of others’ behavior, when you are stuck and cannot get out of a situation with repeated experiences of unkindness and mistreatment, that is much, much harder to forgive.  I also found that just as a loss can bring up other losses (like when someone we care about dies, sometimes we find ourselves grieving other people we’ve lost at other times), that the injustices that surrounded my kids and I brought up all kinds of other times when I had seen or experienced unfair or unkind behavior.  And while on the outside I could act with kindness and compassion, inside it was very, very difficult to let go of the anger I was feeling.
But I will tell you again what I have said before: we are called to forgiveness not for the sake of the other person, but for our own sake.  It was my dis-ease that I was seeking to heal by striving to let go of my anger.  It was the turmoil inside of me that needed to be released so that I could live a full life.  “Anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
I have shared with you before about a friend of mine, Erin, who grew up in an abusive household.  Without going through the entire story again, it is enough to say that it took her a long time to forgive her parents, but in doing so, she found herself released from years of anger, rage, and pain. Her forgiveness of the other changed her.  C.S. Lewis says, “I do not pray so that I may change God.  I pray so that God may change me.”  The same applies to forgiveness.
         Corrie Ten Boom wrote extensively about her experience in Nazi Concentration camps and what followed.  She wrote, “Since the end of the war, I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality.  Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars.  Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids.  It was as simple and as horrible as that.”  But that didn’t make it easy.  Years after her concentration camp experiences in Nazi Germany, Corrie ten Boom met face to face one of the most cruel and heartless German guards that she had ever contacted.  He had humiliated and degraded her and her sister and worse.  Now he stood before her with hand outstretched and said, “Will you forgive me?”  She wrote, “I stood there with coldness clutching at my heart, but I know that the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.  I prayed, “Jesus, help me!”  Woodenly, mechanically I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me and I experienced an incredible thing.  The current started in my shoulder, raced down into my arms and sprang into our clutched hands.  Then this warm reconciliation seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.  “I forgive you, brother,” I cried with my whole heart.  For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard, the former prisoner.  I have never known the love of God so intensely as I did in that moment!”
          We know this.  Lack of forgiveness hurts US.  When Jesus say, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; and if you don’t forgive them, they are retained” the person who retains them is the one who fails to forgive.  We have a choice when we have been injured.  We can get stuck in the pain, the injury and injustice, the anger, or we can forgive and accept the peace that Jesus offers us.  The passing of the peace is supposed to be a time of forgiving one another.  We can offer and accept peace into our hearts, into our beings BECAUSE we have forgiven others and have been forgiven.  Peace is the consequence of that forgiveness, it is the outcome of that forgiveness, both given and received.
No matter what happens, no matter how things are going, the greatest damage we can allow anyone to do to us would be if we allowed them to injure our souls.  Hanging on to anger and hatred, staying in that place of terror and even the “revenge thinking” that wants to take up so much space in our psyches, if we allow this, that is the way we would allow others to permanently injure us and even to destroy our souls.  If we want to take back our power, if we want to refuse to be destroyed, the only way we can do that is by choosing God and choosing to do as God would have us do.  The only way we can survive is by choosing love, choosing forgiveness, choosing to let go of anger, pain, and as much as possible, fear, and to live instead in a spirit of hope, forgiveness and even prayer for our enemies.  Praying for our enemies -praying for their wholeness that they might have the strength to search for truth, praying for their well-being so that they may have the desire to do good, praying for them wisdom and truth and love and even joy because we believe that, too, comes from God and brings about transformation, redemption, and life: that is part of what we are called to do.  It is not all of what we are called to do.  We still are called to stand up for those who are suffering.  But praying for our enemies is a starting place in what we are called to do.
           The result for me is that I, too, find that I am changed by my prayers.  I find that as I pray for “enemies”, that they become more human in my mind and less the incarnation of evil that my most fearful and angry moments push me to believe.  I find that as I pray for them I gain a sense of deepened hope.  As I pray for them, my mind sees more beauty around me, more light in dark corners, more possibility of redemption and reconciliation.  I see God more fully, through praying for those I see as enemies.
           I invite the same for you.  Pray for those you most fear.  Pray for those with whom you are most angry.  Pray for those who feel like enemies.  And allow those prayers to heal you, to change you, to transform you, to make each of us more into the people God calls us to be.  Again, we don’t stop there.  But when we can act in love and hope and the strength that comes from a peaceful heart rather than in anger and hate, we have a much greater chance of making real change.
            One night in the Bronx a man named Julio Diaz was walking down a subway stair case when a teenage boy approached and pulled out a knife.  Diaz gave him his wallet, but as the teen began to walk away, Diaz said to him, “Hey, wait a minute.  You forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”
             The robber looked at his victim like “why are you doing this?”
             Diaz continued, “If you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, you must really need the money.  I’m just wanting to get dinner and if you want to join me, you’re more than welcome.”  
             The teen agreed and they went to a local diner.  The manager came by, the dishwasher came by, the waiters came by to say hi, and the teen said, “you know everyone here.  Do you own the place?”
            “No, I just eat here a lot,” Diaz told the teen.  The confused teen said, “But you even talked to the dishwashers!”
            Diaz responded, “Well, haven’t you been taught you should be nice to everyone?”
           “Yes, but I didn’t think people actually behaved that way,” the teen said.
        Diaz asked him what he wanted out of life.  The teen looked very sad but either couldn’t or simply didn’t answer him.  Finally the bill arrived.  Diaz told the teen, “Look, I guess you’re going to have to pay for this because you have my money and I can’t pay for it.  But if you give me back my wallet, however, I’ll gladly treat you.”  But then he also asked the kid if he would give him something in return for his paying for the meal.  The teen agreed and gave him his knife.  Diaz said later, “I figure if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right, too.”
            It is not easy to forgive.  It is not easy to love and wish good for those whom we fear, those who have hurt us, those who have power over us.  But the cost of failing to use those gifts that God gives us, to reach out with grace and the accept and offer forgiveness is high: lack of healing, anger, poison in our very minds and souls.  In contrast, the reward for succeeding is peace – the deep peace that surpasses all understanding.  Amen.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

A heart for kindness

           It is clear that because of the separation and anonymity of car driving, we've come to feel that we don't have to treat people in other vehicles as people.  They are either "idiots" who don't move out of our way or they are "maniacs" who drive even more insanely than we do.  I've seen way too many people swerving around, honking at and yelling at other people in their cars this last week.  And so I've started the exercise of watching with my kids.  Does that swerving around and cutting the other person off actually end up saving the unkind driver any time at all?  Again and again we see the answer is "no".  They swerve around a person only to be stopped behind someone else at the next light.  They've managed to "get ahead" by one car space, but that half second won't make a difference if they are late. If their behavior made any difference at all, it was a negative one: it may have upset the person they swerved around, it may have hurt the feelings of the person they flipped off or called an idiot.  It may have succeeded in spreading rage and anger, and may have inspired equally unkind car behavior on the part of others. We've seen too many almost-accidents and it is very clear that it actually is life threatening in many cases, not only to the "other" in that car, but also to the person with the unkind car behavior.  Each time I wonder how much effort it would take to simply breathe and remember that the person in that other car may be a new mother, may have a child or two in the car, may be a grandparent, may be a teenager just learning to drive, may be someone who lost their spouse that day, may be someone who has just been given bad news about their own health, may be someone who lost a job or may be worried about a hundred other things and, whatever their circumstance, would undoubtedly benefit from kindness in this moment rather than the anger, rudeness and rage thrown their way.
        I will say honestly that my time in Ohio changed the way I drive.  Coming from the Bay Area, I thought everyone just drove this way, with an assertiveness that is actually aggression.  But in living in Ohio, I saw people intentionally let other people into their lanes.  I saw people slow down and let other cars merge with them, just because that was the kind thing to do.  I saw people practicing taking turns, and teaching their kids about sharing not only toys, but the road we drive on, without anger or rancor or rage.  Now that I'm back in the Bay Area, I continue to practice this way of driving, though it feels like I am a fish swimming up stream.  In dropping my kids off at school this morning, I saw a woman who was trying to turn onto the street where all of us were dropping off our kids.  Even though we were moving extremely slowly, I saw car after car block her ability to join our line.  "Really?" I thought.  "How is it helping you to not let one car in ahead of you?  Are you really in such a hurry that that half second will make all the difference in your day?"  So I slowed down, indicated that she should come in ahead.  I saw the look of sheer relief on her face as she mouthed "thank you!" and waved.  But the car behind me?  You'd think I had just thwarted his winning of an Olympic gold medal in race car driving.  Honk!  Honk!  Honk!
        What does it do to our hearts to practice being unkind in our cars?  And what does it do to our hearts to practice kindness occasionally instead?  How does our refusal to share the road with other drivers impact the way in which we share with others in all aspects of life?  If it is this easy to see the person in front of us behind their steal and glass vehicle as not-human, as sub-human, as unworthy of our caring and our sharing, how much harder will it be to share with people we've never met?  If it is so easy to label and box the other person in their car as an idiot or maniac rather than as a human being, how easy then is it for us to demonize and vilify whole categories of other people that we don't know?  Immigrants, refugees, people of color, people of different sexual orientation or genders, people with disabilities, older people, younger people, poor people, homeless people, people with mental disabilities and illnesses, people of other faith traditions, OTHER people?  I think the place we have moved as a country, this place of fearing others, of not wanting to share our land, our resources, our health care, our humanity... I think this starts with a very basic inability to share with those we encounter on a daily basis.  If we took seriously the kindergarten lesson about sharing, how would all of this change?
            Micah 6:8 is one of my favorite Bible passages.  It is simple.  It is straightforward.  My translation: What does God require of you but to do justice, love being kind, and walk humbly with God.  But we've come to a place of such fear around losing what we believe is "ours" that we fail in these very simple tasks, the simplest one of all being to act with kindness.  We have opportunities every single day to practice sharing the road (as well as other things) with those we encounter.  It may not be an easy thing to do in the face of the road rage out there, but again, I believe it is an opportunity for us to change our own hearts by practicing kindness, practice sharing, practice loving behavior towards strangers, towards your neighbors in this very simply, very easy way. Try it for a week.  See if it affects you for the better.  At the very least, it should lower your blood pressure to not be in such a stressed out hurry on the road.  At the most, perhaps it will help all of us grow bigger hearts for kindness.  And that could change everything.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Sunday's Sermon - Responding as God calls

Micah 6:1-8
Psalm 15
Matthew 5:1-12

Today we have three wonderful passages from scripture.  And I’d like to just take some time to look at each of them in turn for a minute.  We started with the Micah passage - What does the Lord require of you?  But to do justice, to love mercy (or kindness) and to walk humbly with God.  As I will say more than once today, this is not that God is saying to us that God will not accept or love us without us doing these things.  This is not “works righteousness” in which we earn our way into God’s love through our actions.  Rather, God has already chosen us and God is saying that in response to that love, we are to be faithful people.  If we are faithful, we will respond to God’s love for us with trust that we will have enough and therefore there is more than enough to share with others.  When we lack that faith, we will find ourselves in painful chaos, not because God is punishing us but because we find that there are consequences in life for our actions.  Those to whom Micah was speaking had come to believe that the way they expressed faith to God was through rituals and ceremony, rather than through trust, giving and loving others.  Does that sound familiar?  We know that there are people who come to church not to be supported in their work for God and God’s people, but rather to “prove” their faith to God and to others, or because they believe coming to church is what God wants and is seeking from us.  God is challenging that.  Micah tells us that our response to God’s love should be the way we live our every day lives.  And that it is through justice, kindness and a humility that pleases God.  Justice in this case has to do with caring for the poor and oppressed.  The word “mercy” or kindness here “hessed” is actually about love, loyalty and faithfulness.  The word “humbly” is more along the lines of “circumspectly” and really is about putting God first or living in conformity to God’s will in every area of life – ethically especially.  This passage is a rejection of the idea that there is only one thing that Israel can do to make things right between Israel and God.  Israel is being called to right her relationship with God by a complete change of life style to one of caring for others.  And again, what that looks like is sharing – sharing everything with the trust that there will still be enough for us. Sharing our resources, sharing our space, sharing our time and attention and caring. But again, this isn’t about making ourselves worthy.  This is about allowing God to transform our lives into lives of love, lives dedicated to living for God’s will.
The psalm for today, also encourages living lives of love.  And it, too, appears, on first glance, to be a lecture about what you need to do to earn that love.  But instead, it is a description of what your lives will be like, are like, when you live in God’s love.  Those who abide in God’s love will not slander, will not do evil, will speak the truth from their hearts, will honor other people, all of whom are also children of God.  These will be the signs by which you are known to the world as God-fearing people.
And finally we come to the beattitudes.  While some people interpret these as future promises – (those who are suffering now will reap their rewards in heaven), Father Chacour, the archbishop of
Galilee, a Palestinian priest who is also an Israeli citizen, says that in Aramaic, which was the language Jesus spoke, the word “blessed” here is not a passive word.  He says that actually it should be better translated, “get up and do something about it”.  So instead of reading, “Blessed are those who are poor,” we should be reading this passage, “get up, go ahead, do something, move, you who are hungry for you will be satisfied.  Get up, go ahead, do something, move, you peacemakers for you will be children of God.  Get up, go ahead, do something, move, you who are persecuted for the kingdom of heaven is yours.”  And again, we are confronted by this reading to respond to God’s love with action, to respond to God’s love not by being passive, but by acting with justice, compassion and love towards all we encounter.
My favorite book of all times is Jane Austen’s classic, Pride and Prejudice.  I read the book probably once a year, and have the A&E five hour movie version of the story that I also probably watch at least once a year.  I’m sure most of you know the story, but for those who don’t – the main character, Lizzie, is an intelligent, cheerful, confident and witty young woman who comes from a family in which manners and education are lacking and whose fortune is entailed away on a cousin.  In other words, while Lizzie (and her older sister) have much to recommend themselves, they come from a family with nothing to recommend itself.  The family members are embarrassing and inappropriate in their actions, as well as being basically poor.  In this context she meets a man of good breeding, education and fortune, Mr. Darcy, who is clearly offended by her circumstances but who none the less falls in love with Lizzie.  She is unaware of his feelings until one day he comes to her and proposes, announcing that while the situation of her family makes the match one he cannot at all rationally desire, his feelings for her none the less leave him no choice but to ask her to marry him.  Because of his situation, he has no doubt at all of her acceptance of his proposal, and because he believes honesty to be important, he does not hesitate to put down everything about her family even as he asks her to marry him.  Even though she is aware of the lacking in her family, she is none the less extremely offended by the way he asks her, besides being convinced that he is a proud, arrogant, selfish person, and she rejects him, also being honest about what she thinks of the way he has proposed, describing it as ungentlemanly.  This is the turning point in the story for both characters.  Lizzie learns soon afterwards that some of her prejudice against Mr. Darcy comes from mis-information which she chose to believe rather than checking it out for accuracy.  But it is more Mr. Darcy’s transformation on which I wish to focus today.  Lizzie’s words, mixed with his love for her, force him to look at himself and to genuinely reflect on his own behavior.  This in turn causes a profound change in his person as he works hard to let go of his arrogance and pride and become a genuinely compassionate, “gentlemanly” man.  His love for Lizzie changes him.
Many, if not most, of our classics focus on the amazing power of love to transform people; to make them into wiser, more compassionate, more present, more holy people, more WHOLE people.  But these aren’t just stories.  This actually happens when we allow God’s love to change us.
John Newton was the captain of a slave ship when slavery was profitable and “popular” among the elite.  But after several years of working as a slave ship captain he went through a conversion experience in which he met God.   After his experience he went to seminary to become a pastor and during his time there he developed a more Christian understanding of the incompatibility of slavery with God’s love.  He came to see it for the evil it is and to condemn it and fight against it.  He became a pastor to other sailors, teaching them about God’s love for all and God’s hatred of slavery or anything that oppresses and hurts God’s people, that leaves some people out, that builds a wall against others.  His song “Amazing Grace” is autobiographical as he talks about the blindness that kept his focus on money and fame rather than on the love that God would have us share.  “I was blind, but now I see” - probably the most famous line in the song, in part because most of us have experiences of enlightenment at one point or another, in which the values we held, the lifestyles we’ve adopted, or the beliefs we have held onto so tightly break in the face of hard but deep truths, in the face of love.  For John Newton, his love of God forced a complete change in his life and he became an advocate for God’s justice for all people.
This is what God’s love for us and our returned love of God does for us.  When we stay open to God’s direction and God’s guidance, if we accept God into our hearts, but also into our minds and our souls, we become transformed people, made for love, made for justice.
All three of today’s passages say the same thing to us.  All three say that we are to respond to God’s love with justice, mercy, and compliance to God’s will.  This is not “works over faith” because you cannot earn your way into God’s heart or God’s love through your actions.  Not at all.  The truth is, there is nothing you can do to improve God’s love for you.  That is good news, that is a joyful thing.  That should boost us up, lift us up.  God is not demanding good from us, or really anything from us.  God loves us first, God calls us first.  Our life with God begins with God’s initiative, with God calling us, claiming us.  But when we accept God’s love into our hearts, when we accept Christ into our being, our actions will reflect that, our lives will reflect that, our very beings will reflect that. Our lives do reflect God by being lives not just of ritual or even “right thinking”, but instead by being lives of justice, of mercy, of humility, of kindness.  We become the image of God by living lives of love.