Monday, September 24, 2018

Fighting for First Place

James 3:13 - 4:3, 7-8a

Mark 9:30-37



Ambition.  The world tells us we need to be ambitious.  The world tells us that we need to strive for money, for success, for power, for fame.  We know this.  It is all around us.  Every advertisement is in some way about pleasing each of us with comfort, with “feel good” stuff that we obtain with money; and often the advertisements make it clear that with that new “stuff” we will be showing the world that we have made it in terms of success, power, and fame.  All of us are susceptible to this.  No matter how many times we have heard this passage that the first shall be LAST and the last shall be first – that winning the most success and money and power will not put you ahead but, frankly, far down the line with God – no matter how often we hear this, personal success, personal accomplishment, the obtaining of more “stuff” is a temptation hard for many, if not most, of us to resist.

Pastors are not exempt from this.  I remember talking at one Church wide event with a New Church Development Pastor who measured his personal success, his well-being, his sense of self, by how many people were in his church each Sunday. There was a subtle “I am better than you as a pastor because my congregation is bigger than yours” attitude. And a not so subtle, “I am a more effective and successful pastor because my congregation is big” attitude.  It came across clearly in the words, “what are you doing in ministry if your church isn’t growing in terms of numbers?  How do you measure success except by the numbers?” And while bringing more people into the Good News, bringing more people into the fold of family communities like Clayton Valley or other churches is a worthy goal, today’s texts warn against the cultural norms of how to measure success.  They also warn against the very desire for “success” for oneself, they warn against trying to be first, or best in terms of worldly values; they warn against coveting the things that society tells us we need or that should be our goals.  Instead, we are to approach every action, every task with humility, and more importantly with a bigger vision that says that we are about the work of God, not about the work of being first or best.  Listening to this other pastor really emphasized that for me.  “What are you doing that has made your church grow so successfully?” we asked him. 

“Well, at our church we have big screens and show beautiful slides with each song we sing.  We have tables rather than pews where people sit with their coffee and their electronics, we have “tweeting” going on during sermons so people can comment and discuss while they listen, our songs are very emotion producing and each week is like a revival and a concert and a show.”  Okay.  So that brings people into the church – people like to be entertained, they like to feel good, they like to be able to drink their coffee and I get that.  I see value in doing what will call people through those doors.  But then what?  What keeps them there?  “Well, then we have golf groups and we have dinner groups and we have surfing groups and other interest groups and small groups.”  They have bible studies, but these aren’t well attended…Okay, those keep the people connected to the church during the week.  And then what?  “Well….” And at this point he admitted that their church was in many ways a very efficient club, a “feel good” place where people were served, were given “products” or services such as feel good worship, golfing and outing activities, places to meet others.  Were they doing any mission and service to the poor?  Not YET, he emphasized.  Were they reaching out to the outcast, the disenfranchised, those who had no other places to go and be?  Well, not YET.  Were the lives of those who came changed by their faith in any other way than that they now had a Sunday commitment and maybe some new friends to play golf with?  Well, again, this was a growing edge for them.  Successful church?  Well, in terms of numbers, yes.  In terms of growing faith, changing lives, making a difference to people who are poor or struggling, challenging the members to be more loving, active, better, changing lives in radical ways?  In terms of the things that matter to God?  Maybe not so much.

There is a wonderful piece of music written by David Bailey entitled “head of staff”.  The words are:

Some folks they got no ambition
They know the numbers but they can’t do the math.
Reckon that’s why I got this position;
Look at me, I’m the head of staff!

Well I know that my mama would be proud
Of this powerful title that I have
I’m not just some lowly Reverend
No no no no no no no  - I’m the head of staff!  That’s right!

Last week the men’s breakfast had no coffee,
And the choir, they don’t like their brand new gowns,
Youth group wants to go to California,
And the cross in the chapel is, it’s falling down.  I’m the head of staff!

Sometimes I get a little hectic
Catching all the balls my people hit.
That’s when I do what a head of staff does best

   and I hand my glove to my associate.

Someday I’d like to be a Pastor
Visit the sick, maybe even preach.
Seminary ought to have a class in politics -
that’s something that I am now qualified to teach, as the Head of Staff!

Some folks they got no ambition.
Some folks get what they deserve.
But the man on the cross said the first shall be last
And the greatest is the one who learns to serve!
I’m the head of staff on a learning curve!



By saying that we should not be about personal ambition, I am not saying that we shouldn’t use our gifts, shouldn’t work hard or shouldn’t try.  We are called to do all of these things.  As you may have heard before, Frederick Buechner says “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Personally I think this misses an element.  I think our gifts also need to be part of that equation.  For me the saying should be, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness, the deepest gifts God has given you, and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  My colleague was clearly gifted at bringing people into the doors of his church.  And that undoubtedly is meeting a hunger of the world – an emptiness, a loneliness that only God and God’s community can fill.  But I think that as long as he is doing it for the numbers, doing it to achieve an affirmation that he is succeeding, that he is being successful, as long as it is about his success as a pastor, and not about serving God regardless of the ways in which humans measure success, depth will not come for the people of faith in his community.  True connection to something beyond simply the comfort that God offers, and on to the call God also gives us to grow and serve and love - this will be elusive for his parishioners. It is easy to call God’s people to hear the comfort, joy, fun and Good News.  It is harder to retain God’s people when we confront them with the fact that God does not call us to remain in the same place or to act only in our own interests, but God calls us to change, to grow, to move in our faith into deep caring and love for the other.

            I think it can be hard to put aside the internal voices asking us to measure our worth by how much we succeed.  It can be hard to put them aside long enough to really hear God’s voice calling to us, guiding us, leading us forward.  Still, we are called to walk with humility, to walk with a wisdom that says “this is not about me, this is about serving God and God’s people.”  So how do we measure that success? 

Well, according to the passages we read today from the gospel of Mark, the way that God measures success has to do with who we include, who we reach out to, who we invite in, who we love. As Jesus says in Mark, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” This follows his comment that the first shall be last.  They are connected, they are the same.  Taking the time to be with those who are cast out, who are excluded, who are hard to see as “full humans”, taking time with them, loving them, welcoming them - that is the measure of success in God’s eyes. It’s not competing with others, it is including others, especially those hardest to love.

            There is a story about a young monkey who set for himself the goal of climbing to the highest branch of the tree.  Every day he would climb a little higher and then call down to his grandfather monkey, “Grandpa, did you see how high I climbed?  Did you?  Did you?”  And every day the grandfather monkey would solemnly nod his head, “yes, I did grandson.  I saw how high you climbed.”  Then one day the monkey finally made it all the way to the top of the tree.  He was so proud of himself and was dancing all around bragging and demanding to know if everyone had seen how high he had climbed in the tree, if everyone had witnessed how much higher than everyone else he had been able to go.  Finally, after demanding again and again from the grandfather monkey if he had seen, the grandfather monkey finally said, “Yes I saw it grandson.  But the thing is, the higher you get into the tree, the more your ass shows.”

            Let us strive in all things, not to be highest in the tree, but simply to serve God in all that we do, with all of our being.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Gossip


                                                     Proverbs 11:9-13

James 3:1-12



               I want to say that I don’t usually believe in focusing a sermon on a particular “sin” or error of behavior.  I don’t like this for many reasons, not the least of which is that I think we all must be extremely careful about looking at the specks in other people’s eyes without dealing with the logs in our own eyes.  Pastors are not exempt from this.  I was reminded recently story teller, Willie Claflin’s, twist on the Little Red Hen story.  His version begins the same as the one we all know:  the little red hen invites friends to help her in making loaves of bread from scratch: planting the wheat, harvesting the wheat, mixing the bread, baking the bread; but at every step of the way, all her friends find reasons why they can’t help: they are too busy, too sick, too involved with other things.  Then when the four loaves of bread are finally baked, she asks who will help her to eat them and everyone is suddenly available to share in the bread she has worked so hard to make.  But unlike in the traditional story, Willie Claflin goes on to say that at that point the little red hen gobbled down all four loaves of bread herself with the words, “then I will eat them myself!”  And the result is that she makes herself very ill eating all of that bread on her own.  The friends, it turns out, were just offering to try some of her bread to be polite.  They are not sad to have missed out on the bread at all.  They do have concerns over their sick friend, however, who has eaten herself into a coma.  Willie Claflin ends his story with this line, “and the moral of the story is, if you are doing something in order to teach someone else a lesson, it is likely that the one to receive the lesson will be yourself.” 

Given that, I find that the best sermons I’ve written are the ones I write to myself and that picking specific “flaws” or errors to confront in a sermon can be counterproductive.  Still, the lectionary passages for today all focus on the sin of gossiping.  And I think, honestly, that this is something we can all work on, including myself, so I beg your indulgence as we focus on gossip today. 

               When we look at scripture, there are many, many passages that tell us that God abhors gossip.  On one bible commentary web-site, I typed in the word “gossip” as a search and was rewarded with nine pages of biblical quotes that denounce gossip and lying. Some examples:

               Ephesians 4:29: let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths.

               Proverbs 6:16-19: There are six things that the Lord hates…(and then three of those six things include..): a lying tongue, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among siblings.

               James 1:26: If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue, but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.

               Psalm 101:5: Whoever slanders his neighbor secretly I will destroy.

               The list goes on and on and on. 

               It is clear: lying about other people, gossiping by saying untruths or spreading slander is anathema to God.  This is not surprising.  What perhaps, IS, surprising, is how hard it is to refrain from gossiping.  And how absolutely damaging it is to gossip.

               Almost ten years ago now I was invited to be part of a group of pastors who were experiencing crisis.  It was a small group that gathered together for a week to share experiences and to be gifted by the support of counselors, spiritual directors, and other helpers.  Within our group there was a clergy couple who shared a story about being the victims of truly malicious gossip.  The couple had just been let go, fired, from a church that had a history of firing their pastors after just a few years.  The process for booting the pastors at this church was always the same. This was a significant congregation in a very small town.  And there was a particular powerful individual who would decide when it was time for the pastor to go.  She was powerful and when she made that decision she always went about getting rid of the pastor in the same way: she would start spreading a rumor: something that was… well, it was a lie. She would take a kernel of something that resembled truth, but would twist and turn it into a falsehood and then spread it along.  She would start the gossip and it would morph, it would expand, it would take on a life of its own.  With each telling it would become more outrageous.  And it was always something that there was no ability to disprove, no way to confronting, no way to tear down.  Once these terrible rumors would take off, the story would be forever in the minds of the parishioners until the pastors were forced to resign.  Again, this was a pattern of behavior in this church.  But the originator of the story felt justified every time in her gossiping, first because it started with a grain of truth, and second, she deeply believed it was time for the pastor to go; and she told herself that the ends, of getting rid of the pastor, justified the means – the gossip that she began. We know that of course, this is false.  The couple that I met had been destroyed by these lies.  They had not just been forced to leave their church, but had been forced to move out of the area.  And still, with social media and the increasing small-ness and connectedness of the world, were being followed and haunted by these false lies, false stories.  Their kids had suffered bullying at school, one of the parents of this couple had suffered a complete break-down in health, a sense of safety and well-being for an entire extended family were destroyed, and all of them have left church, permanently, after seeing what churches can do to people through the simple use of gossip.

               The church also did not escape the damage of the gossip. Some people left the congregation, and the faith, entirely. But even those who stayed were damaged. Everyone knew the pattern.  And everyone knew who started the lies.  They also knew that if they went against the person who instigated the gossip, that they risked being the next to be torn down by this woman.  They all participated in the evil of the gossip because they knew to stand up against it meant they would become the next victims of it.  An entire community became entrenched in this evil behavior, and could not see their way out.

               I wish this story were unique, but it isn’t.  I know too many pastors who have gone through similar nightmares that all started because of gossip.  And as you know, this is not just limited to people in my profession.  It happens in our schools, it happens in all of our places of work. 

               Just this week I learned about this happening at a local school board situation.  Again, lies were put forth about someone who has been incredibly active but who was trying to become more involved in a position of greater authority. The lies were presented in a way that there was no forum for the person attacked to defend herself, to set the record straight or even to present a different opinion.  But those lies determined the decisions of the committee, to the huge detriment of the board who will miss out on the amazing energy and talents of the individual who was slandered.

We see this in our politics.  We’ve come to a place in our country where we no longer know what to believe, what is true.  We assume that those who disagree with us are lying or are misinformed by lies.  And those who disagree with us assume that the news that we read is false.  Slander, and the quick choice to lie when we are in a tough spot, when we are caught, when we are confronted with something we don’t want to admit, has muddied the waters so much, has become so rampant, that we just no longer know what to believe, who to believe.  It is separating us from our brothers and sisters within our own families, let alone within our communities, and in the larger world.

        While gossiping gives us something to discuss, while it may feel good to be on the “inside” of a story about someone else, while being able to separate the world into “us” and “them” may give us a sense of security and power in the world, there is a good reason why the Bible is so extremely hard on gossip.  It is evil.  It is harmful.  Any “gain” for one’s self made through the use of lying, gossiping and slander does not only harm the one we attack, it harms everyone touched by the gossip.        
           Frankly, our gossip reflects more on ourselves than on those about whom we are gossiping anyway.  And if we were actually aware of how true that is, we probably would refrain from gossip.  Some examples: someone I knew kept saying about other people, “that person is so power hungry.”  “That person is all about getting power.”  And finally, “it all comes down to power you know.”  And it was very clear that actually, it was all about power FOR HIM and that is why he was so focused on that being the case when it came to other people.  We see this regularly.  When someone repeatedly focuses on a particular “problem” with those around them, often that reflects back on who the speaker really is, where his or her focus lies, what really matters most to that person.

               I’ve shared with you that in one early episode of Joan of Arcadia, Joan was trying hard to get in with the “popular” crowd.  And the popular kids basically told her that if she wanted to be one of them, she needed to find out who her friend, Grace, “likes”.  In order to do this, Joan sidled up to Grace and talked to her about how much Joan herself had this crush on one of the other guys at school.  She didn’t really have a crush on the guy, didn’t even know who the guy is, he was just a name of someone that was supposedly popular.  Grace didn’t give anything away.  The next day, people were giving Joan a hard time for having a crush on the guy she mentioned to Grace.  Joan assumed Grace has been gossiping about her and went after Grace, telling her to stay out of her love life.  Grace responded, “I don’t care about your love life and haven’t talked to anybody!  However, it is clear that you have been talking about ME and trying to find out about MY love life so you can share it with your friends!  YOU are the one gossiping here.”  Grace understood that Joan’s accusation said more about Joan than about Grace.

             I'm certain we can all think of people we know who attack others through gossip, by accusing the other of being a gossip.  Most of us see through this, though it is clear that it is difficult for the one gossiping to see it in themself. 

               Some of the Biblical passages tell us to not even associate with those who lie and slander and gossip, and this too is for good reason.  As I mentioned in my first story, an entire community became caught in the web of slander and gossip that one individual perpetuated.  If those in the community had stepped away, or better, confronted it the first time it happened, it never would have grown to the repeating evil that it has become.  But now, in associating with the gossiper, the tangled webs of lies and gossip have become so entrenched that no one knows how to step out.

               It is not easy to step out or to confront someone who is gossiping or lying and tell them that they have it wrong.  But it is necessary.  I remember a situation I was in, in which someone was badmouthing me but made the mistake of doing it in an email to several other people.  I will always be extremely grateful to the person who responded to the email by INCLUDING me in that response and inviting my answer so that I could see the lies, could see the gossip, could see the slander and could address it directly.  The decision my friend made to include me in the email was not an easy one.  It could have ended his friendship with the originator of the email.  But he made that choice, which led to the truth telling, and eventually healing of all involved in the communications.

               There is another side to all of this.  I read an article a while ago that focused very specifically on the fact that women are discouraged from sharing with other women about predatorial men.  According to this article, women who share their experience of being victims are often accused of being gossips, and the social pressure to avoid being labelled as a gossip can prevent them from telling their stories.  Their silence, in turn, has prevented other women from knowing about unsafe men and has led to other women therefore being victims as well.  While I realize there is a gender bias here, this would apply to people of all genders and situations.  The author, Theo Wildcroft, wrote, “A teacher of mine once said that gossip had to be made a sin because it’s a social survival mechanism for the almost powerless. For good or evil, right or wrong, true or false, gossip is the glue that kept traditional communities together, an early warning system and in extremis, call for sanction. Of course it’s traditionally our sin, a woman’s sin.”  But what the author is confronting is a social stigma against the sharing (which becomes labelled “gossip”) of our feelings and experiences.  That is very different from what the bible is confronting when it talks about lies, slander and gossip.  The base difference is truth. What the bible is confronting is the passing on of lies. But there is another difference as well.  Discussing one’s experience is very different than talking about others with condemning words. “I felt x because this happened.  I experienced a because b took place.” These are important experiences to share.  “That person is a blankety blank” or “that person did x” when it is a lie, is not acceptable, has no real experience connected to it, is simply name calling, it is childish and it is wrong.

               The bottom line: God condemns gossiping, lying, slandering.  And that can be hard: hard to follow, hard to practice, hard to change within ourselves.  But it is essential, not only for others but for ourselves as well, that we strive to refrain from gossip, from slander, and from lying.  We are more centered and whole when we speak from our own experience rather speaking words that attack others. No ends justify a means of lying and condemning others with hateful, hurtful behavior that is damaging to our very souls.  It is hard to speak truth all the time, but it is a goal worth striving for, especially when the alternative choice is so harmful.  Gossip is not okay.  Lying is not okay.  AND, the more we speak truth, the easier it is to recognize it spoken by others too.  Thanks be to God.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Arguing with God


Exodus 33:vs. 3 and 12-23

Jonah 3:10-4:11

Mark 7:24-30



Do you feel it is disrespectful to God and inappropriate to argue with God?  Why or why not?

Whether or not you, personally, think it is disrespectful to argue with God, many people do believe this.  Many people struggle with how to be respectful to God, especially at times when they have feelings of injustice or anger or pain which they feel they shouldn’t express to God. 

Yet, despite our own discomfort, scripture shows us example after example of people arguing with God.  Today we have three examples of that.   In the passage from Exodus, God refused to go with the people into the land flowing with milk and honey because, as God says, “I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”  Moses confronts this, giving good solid reasons for why God should recant in that decision.  Moses argues that God should show Moses what to do by being with the people.  Moses also says that the people will not know that they are doing the right thing if God’s presence is not with them.  And finally, Moses reminds God that the Israelites are God’s own people and that they therefore need God to go with them.  Moses argues with God.  Moses pleads with God.  Moses pleaded with God on other occasions as well, like when he begged God not to bring disaster on the people after they made the golden calf.  Moses said, “change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.”  Moses went on to remind God that God promised to multiply Abraham’s descendants.  Moses pointed out that if God were to kill the Israelites now, that other nations would think less of God as being a God who just led God’s people out of Egypt in order to destroy them.   And again, Moses reminded God that the Israelites were God’s own people.  So we see that Moses regularly argued with God. 

In the second scripture for today we see that Jonah, too, argued with God.  Jonah was angry that God had told Jonah to deliver a message of destruction that he did not want to deliver and that now God wasn’t going to do the destroying God had promised to do.  Jonah felt that God had made a fool out of Jonah.  And Jonah was angry.  He yelled at God, argued with God and then he sat nearby to watch, waiting to see if God would then change God’s mind and destroy the city after all.  Jonah, too, a chosen prophet of God, argued with God.

In case we feel that Moses and Jonah somehow had authority as God’s special people to argue with God where we don’t have that authority, we have the gospel passage to look to.  Here we have a woman who was considered a nobody, because of her gender, because of her ethnicity or culture, and because of her religion.  She was a Syrophoenician, a woman, a person rejected and excluded by the Israelites.  Even Jesus begins by rejecting her, with the words, “it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,” a comment that would have been considered even more insulting in Jesus’ day than it is in ours.  But this rejected, Syrophoenician, Gentile woman argued then with Jesus, saying, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  So a third time we are shown people arguing, standing up for themselves with Jesus, and with God in the Bible.

These are not, by any means, the only examples in our Bible of people arguing with God.  Take, for example, the story of Job.  Everything was going badly for Job – everything.  Still, he insisted on not arguing with God about it.  He insisted on not talking to God about it.  He believed that this was the right thing to do, that it would somehow be wrong to speak out against something God had decided.  Finally, things got so bad that his wife encouraged him to speak out believing that God would then kill him, and that death was better than the living hell he was experiencing.  Finally, when death did seem a preferred alternative to his suffering, Job, too spoke out against God.  He, even more than the other scriptures I read to you today, argued and even railed against God with words such as “Why did you bring me forth from the womb?  Would that I had died before any eye had seen me, and were as though I had not been, carried from the womb to the grave.”  And even more “Withdraw your hand far from me and do not let dread of you terrify me. .. Why do you count me as your enemy?...I cry to you and you do not answer me; I stand and you merely look at me.  You have turned cruel to me; with the might of your hand you persecute me.  ..you toss me about in the roar of the storm.”  Job, too, then spoke out in anger to God.

The psalms also give many examples of people speaking out in anger or argument against God.  Psalm 4 begins, “Answer me when I call, O God of my right!...” 

And Psalm 79 “How long, O Lord?  Will you be angry forever?  Will your jealous wrath burn like fire?  Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call on your name.”

Psalm 10 - Why, O LORD, do you stand far off?  Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

Psalm 22 - My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?   Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?

Psalm 42 - I say to God my Rock, "Why have you forgotten me?  Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?"

Psalm 44  - Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.  Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?

Psalm 74 - Why have you rejected us forever, O God?  Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture? Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?  Take it from the folds of your garment.



So, if arguing with God is disrespectful, how do we understand these scriptures? 

One commentator explained it this way, “While many of these passages seem … downright disrespectful of God, they are an authentic representation of how the psalmist feels. Is it ever improper to have our prayer reflect the condition of our fallen heart?  In the past, I have tended to restrain my prayers out of respect for God. I am now coming to realize that my inauthenticity is actually an insult, not respect. God knows my heart, and my prayer should not be a facade. If it is, I am only fooling myself.”

I think it is also very important to take some time to look at how God responds when God’s people do argue.  Starting with the passages from Exodus, how did God respond when Moses argued?  Not only did God listen, but God relented, changing God’s mind based on what Moses had to say.  God honored Moses because of the arguments he was able to give God.  As Exodus 32:14 says, “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”  And Exodus 33:17  “The Lord said to Moses, ‘I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.’”  God knows Moses by name because Moses is authentic with God and has the strength, courage and wisdom to speak up and to tell God when he disagrees with the decisions God has made.  Moses found favor in God’s sight because God is proud of Moses’ ability to make good and sound points in his arguments, just as sometimes we as parents or teachers can find ourselves proud of the arguments our children put forth to convince us to change our minds. 

            With Jonah, God wasn’t changed or convinced by Jonah’s arguments.  God didn’t say “yes” to Jonah’s appeal that God destroy the people of Nineveh.  But neither did God leave Jonah alone, or just say “too bad for you!” or even get angry with Jonah for speaking his mind.   Instead, God talked with Jonah, showed Jonah that God has the same compassion for the people of Nineveh that Jonah had for a mere bush.  God was present with Jonah and offered care of Jonah, even as God disagreed.  Jonah’s angry prayer, while not eliciting the answer he hoped for, none the less continued and deepened Jonah’s relationship with God.

In the story of the Syrophoenician woman we see a similar response as the one given to Moses.  Jesus is impressed with her answer and changes his mind, giving her what she has asked for because of the eloquence of her argument.  “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter” he says.  So Jesus shows us a God who stays in the conversation – God continues the conversation and even allows God-self to be bent by the arguments.

With Job, we are given a combination of these responses.  God does argue back with Job.  But God also returns to Job ten-fold the blessings of Job’s life.  But for me, the most important part of Job is that God responds most profoundly by simply showing up.  God doesn’t smite Job or leave Job in silence or alone.  God takes Job’s words and the arguments of Job’s mouth as an invitation to be in deeper relationship with Job.  Job is real with God, and God returns the favor by being real and tangible for Job.

And finally, with the psalms…We are not given a glimpse into the reaction of God to the psalms, but we are invited to pray them ourselves – with all of the emotions that they express: we are invited to express our anger, our sorrow, our fear, our gratitude, our joy and love – we are invited to pray or sing the psalms and express all that we are to God.  We are invited to be authentic with all the feelings and thoughts that we have - the arguments and anger as well as the submission and joy.

The important thing here is this: God calls us into genuine relationships.  God really, truly, wants to be with you exactly as you are.  God loves you for all of who you are, completely as yourself, fully as the person, the individual that you are.  But we tend to think that we have to be different than our genuine selves for God to truly love us.  Or we think it is impolite to express all of what we really feel and all of who we truly are.  And that is not only wrong, but dangerous.  For as I’ve said before, the parts of ourselves we squish down are the very parts of ourselves that tend to manifest in dangerous, threatening, violent and yes, even evil, ways.  Because of our fear, we all tend to wear masks, masks that cover who we really are – not just from those around us, not just from ourselves but even from God.  These masks hide the deeper truths of who we are and keep us from being fully the people God calls us to be.  Whether these masks are obvious or not, they exist, and they exist for us all.

I found myself thinking about the movie Don Juan DeMarco.  In this movie, a teenager tries to commit suicide and when confronted by a psychiatrist he tells the doctor that he is Don Juan.  The teen is, of course, committed to the mental hospital.  He was wearing a mask, as the Don Juan in the stories does, but the mental hospital takes it away from him.  He is very angry about this and says to the psychiatrist, “Think how you would feel if you were made to take off this mask that you are wearing?” 

Later in the movie the doctor and Don Juan have another conversation in which the Doctor asks Don Juan if he knows who the doctor is.  Don Juan replies, “You are Don Octavio de Flores, the uncle of Don Francisco de Silva.”

The Doctor responds, “And where are we, here?”  To which Don Juan responds, “well, I haven’t seen a deed but I assume that this villa is yours.”

The Doctor continues, “What would you say to someone who was to say that this is a psychiatric hospital and that you are a patient here and that I am your psychiatrist?” 

Don Juan answers, “I would say that he has a rather limited and uncreative way of looking at the situation.  Look.  You want to know if I understand that this is a mental hospital.  Yes, I understand that.  But then how can I say that you are Don Octavio and that I am a guest at your villa, correct?  By seeing beyond what is visible to the eye.  Now, there are those of course who do not share my perceptions, it’s true….but I see people and this situation for what they truly are…glorious, spectacular, radiant… and perfect - because I am not limited by my eyesight.”

That is the way that God sees us.  That is also the depth to which God sees us.  And if we don’t voice all of who we are to God, that doesn’t prevent God from knowing those feelings and thoughts are there, more fully than we ourselves know them.

In Mitch Albom book, Have a Little Faith,  (p.181) Albom is interviewing or spending time with his life-long Rabbi, and the Rabbi, whom he calls “the Reb” shares with him that when his daughter, Rinah (which means Joy) was four years old she suffered from a terrible asthma attack that took her life.  When the Rabbi was asked about how he responded to this, how he responded when his little girl died so suddenly, he honestly and openly shared, “I cursed God.  I asked God over and over, ‘Why her?  What did this little girl do?  She was four years old.  She didn’t hurt a soul.’”  Albom asked the Rabbi, “Did you get an answer from God?” 

“I still have no answer,” he replied.
“Did that make you angry?”

“For a while, furious.”

“Did you feel guilty cursing God – you, of all people?”

“No,” he said.  “Because even in doing so, I was recognizing that there was a greater power than me.”  He paused.  “And that is how I began to heal.”…His faith soothed him, and while it could not save little Rinah from death, it could make her death more bearable, by reminding him that we are all frail parts of something (much more) powerful.”

That arguing with God, that talking to God, that authentic relationship with God, that is the start of healing, no matter how God answers your arguments or your prayers.  Many times (as we’ve seen from the Exodus and Mark passages) the answer won’t be “no” but instead God will respond with delight and joy in our requests.  Other times, the answer will be “no” but even then, even when the answer is “no” we deepen our relationship with God by being authentic.  God can handle our thoughts and feelings.  And God knows what they are even better than we know them ourselves.  What a comfort then, to not have to “hide” them from God, but to just be wholly ourselves in a loving relationship with our God. 

Amen.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Some times are just like that... AND the bigger picture

        This has been a challenging month. David remains out of work, which, though he doesn't live with us, means finances for all of us are extremely tight; Jasmyn has left for college, which is both financially and emotionally very taxing; David moved out of his apartment (both because lease is up and also because he can't pay rent without an income) so we moved his stuff to my house and he is staying with my parents - a strain for all involved; we had a flea infestation which meant daily vacuuming the entire house including the furniture as well as combing cats daily, using sprays, chemicals, washing sheets, etc; the cats dealt with it by also peeing inappropriately on my stuff (like my computer bag with computer and papers inside of it, as well as the air purifier - go figure); then this was followed by a pantry fly issue, which involved more cleaning, bagging, spraying; the dishwasher died; the air conditioner/heater completely broke beyond repair (a 10K cost to replace); the car is having issues; I spent hours and hours standing in lines to get my kids the things they needed to start school and get Jonah his driving permit; work has been very demanding lately while these other time-consuming things have been going on; and the air has been filled with smoke for a long time now, which has caused illness over here and the kids have missed school days because of being so sick.  These are only the big and hard things.  Other stressors are also abundant as we try to plan a wedding (good thing, but stressful), as my other two kids begin a new school year and are trying to adjust to one less person in the house, as well as the daily annoyances that fill each day. It's been a challenging time. I know some times are just like this. Stuff happens and we just have to deal with it. Sometimes a lot of big stressors all come at once. There are times when even the good things still bring additional stressors to all of us.
         But in the midst of all of this I've found myself truly feeling how blessed, how lucky, how privileged and how loved we all are.  I think it is easy to focus on what is wrong.  For one thing, sharing our troubles can help us connect with other people, can deepen friendships as we open up about the feelings that may not be as attractive or as public.  Also, if we give time and attention to the things that are difficulties, we can often (usually) find the resources to deal with them. So I understand the inclination to dwell on what is hard.  But again, I've found myself really reflecting a great deal of late on what is so good in my life in the midst of all of this.
        I have three amazing children and an incredible partner.  While David being out of work has been a challenge financially, in other ways it has been a real gift because he's been available to help more with kids, and with just being present.  I've needed that, especially as I've dealt with all of the other things going on.  Jasmyn is doing her best to stick it out at college as well as to stay connected.  I'm immensely proud of her.  My youngest daughter entertains me on a regular basis with her creative and funny additions to the house:
And my son blew me away the other day by telling me he thought I was an awesome mom.  That came out of nowhere.  My son, who has come with so many challenges of his own, is becoming this unbelievably mature, caring, committed, hard-working young man right before my eyes.  For my 15 year old boy to tell me he appreciated me and to choose to come give me a hug... well, I thought I must have entered heaven, which, in a way, I did, at that moment.
          My church and family have been amazingly generous during this time of stress: the men's group buying me a new dishwasher and installing it, as well as just expressing care and love and support in so many ways, as well as the constant care of my extended family.
          But the biggest gift I've been able to appreciate lately is the realization of what time, growth, and previous hard times have given me. They've given me a deep appreciation and awareness of how quickly things change, how the hard times pass, and that things really do continue to move forward. They also remind me to keep looking for the good, for Love, for God, in every moment.  I'm getting better at remembering that. The fact that I can keep walking through, facing each new challenge and still feel happy, content, at peace, has been an amazing gift for me.  I'm not the same as I was ten years ago: and that awareness of inner change and growth, amidst continuity, is a deep gift.
          I choose to be a person who sees the good.  I choose that for my kids, for my church community.  I choose to be a person who walks in gratitude and with a vision for what is beautiful.  I choose to respond with compassion in the face of unkindness, and with grace in the face of evil.  I can't do that for myself, as much as I want to; but I can do that for my kids and my faith community.  Even so, those choices are hard to make.  But I am learning that practice is a really good teacher and that staying in grace and in light becomes easier each time I choose it.  So I am also learning to see the hard times as the true gifts they are: they are opportunities to practice being the person I want to be.  They are chances offering me the choice to respond each time to each crisis in a better way.  I can't learn without the stressors that push on that learning.  So I am grateful for this last month, and for the gifts that come from walking in a path of growth and learning.
        Thanks be to God!

Sunday, September 2, 2018

On Letting Go of Number One: Or Inviting Number One to Spread her Wings and Fly

       I took eldest child across the country this week to begin her first year of college.  Yes, this is a rite of passage in our country.  Yes, we all survive this; we all get through it: we become parents with the understanding that our job is to raise kids strong enough, healthy enough that they can leave us at the appropriate time and step into adulthood, independence, and into a true sense of who they are separate from their parents.  I understand that.  And still, leaving my girl last night was one of the hardest thing I've ever done.

      I don't say that lightly.  Like most people who've lived for half a century, I've had my share of hard times and challenges.  But leaving my daughter to fly home felt like cutting off one of my limbs.
      My eldest daughter taught me, truly, what it is to love another.  I can honestly say that I had no idea until she was born.  There are many people I have used that word "love" with.  And by American definition, I can say that I have "loved" many, many people throughout my life: I still do love many people by American usage of that word.  But as soon as she was born, I understood that real love, deep love, unconditional love - that was something else entirely.  The way I have loved others always involved some kind of give and take.  "I love you, you love me, and together we live in harmony"  or whatever the words are.  But the way I felt when I looked at my daughter for the first time, the way I still feel when I look at her: this is no longer a matter of give and take.  She could hate me, she could reject me, she could return to me nothing and I would still easily give up my life for hers, I would still scale mountains and cross oceans for her well being.  That kind of love - that expects nothing, seeks nothing, wants nothing in return - that is something I really did not understand and had never experienced before.  I am so terribly grateful to her for teaching me love, simply by being born.
       Beyond loving my daughter, I also like my daughter.  I like how thoughtful and intellectual she is.  I love how smart and deep she is.  She has a beautiful voice, beautiful face.  She listens well, she is kind and affectionate with me. She cares about other people and the world we live in.  She challenges me with her ideas and dreams.  She is a good friend, a strong young woman.
       Combine my love for her, my respect for her, my liking of her, and my desire for her to be the best person she can be; along with the realization that she'll be back for Christmas, back for summer, that we can still be friends and family on the phone, on skype, through facetime and email; and the choice to take her to college was an obvious one.
       But despite the fact that she went and visited a number of schools, that this school was clearly her first choice (as well as mine!), and that I think they will offer her the moon, it was hard to leave her.
       First, I am worried about her at many levels.  While she is intellectually an adult (and frankly, always has been!  We have a repeating joke in our family about Jasmyn being thirty that we've said on a regular basis since she was five), emotionally she is very young.  I worry about how she will make friends at school - that is not one of her strengths. I was a late bloomer in terms of emotional maturity and she has inherited that.  She is also extremely introverted: much more so than I ever have been.  So I worry about her being lonely, being alone, being isolated. I worry she won't be liked.  I've been her closest friend as well as her mother, for many years.  I worry she won't make new friends. Also, she, like my other two, has ADD - so she misses things like when to turn in assignments, when things are due, when to schedule shuttle transportation to the airport.  I worry about this, too.  I worry about her not being on top of things she needs to do, things she needs to have. She has done on-line schooling for the last three years, which has given her a great deal of free time each day.  I worry that the pace and demands of college will be too much for her.  She values her free time, and like many of us, would rather play than work.  I have concerns about her finding the right balance to be happy as well as successful in school.  I leave her there with worries and concerns.
      Second, I will miss her.  Since she did on-line schooling for the last three years, I have spent a great deal of time with her.  She often has slept in my room at night - wanting space from her sister (with whom she shares a room), but also wanting to just have those night time long mama-daughter conversations that the darkness somehow allows for in a different way than the day time does.  We are very, very close: having survived tragedies together, having walked difficult moves and changes together.  And this is one more loss for both of us of a precious time of togetherness.
      But finally, as I was getting ready to take my leave, she begged me to bring her back home.  She was crying (I was crying), and she told me she just wanted to go home.  I pointed out that all her stuff was unpacked and I didn't have a plane ticket for her.  She said we could easily pack up her stuff and buy her a ticket. I pointed out that we paid a great deal of money for this experience for her.  She just said, "I know and I still just want to go home."
      And I said "no."
      I said "no" to my crying, begging, young adult daughter.  I chose for her what I believed to be best for her, not what she wanted.  There will not be too many more times that I will be the one making those big choices for her, but this was a choice that I made, despite what she said, what she asked for, what she wanted.
     And that doesn't feel good.
     I believe this school will offer her an excellent education, will open doors for her that will carry her forward for the rest of her life.  I believe they will take care of her, and will work for her success not only academically but socially, emotionally, spiritually and physically.  But while this was similar to taking her to kindergarten that first day 13 years ago, this time I will not see her for four months.  I can't afford to fly her back for Thanksgiving and, considering that this would be two full days of flying for only two days of "together", it doesn't make a lot of sense either.  So it will be Christmas when I see her again.  And that feels like a really long time to enforce the "I'm doing this for your own good" with my young adult daughter.  And if it doesn't work out?  If she gets injured or has a break down or, or, or... then I will hate myself for making the choice I believe to be best for her now.
        I know we will both survive this.  But as I said, this was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.
       The point?  Perhaps there isn't one.  Love is hard.  Real love, the kind that wants and works towards nothing but the highest good for the other, that is challenging.  I believe in the call to love in this way, and I chose what I believed to be for her highest good.  But my self-doubts in the face of her desires, as well as my own, made this one of the most challenging choices for real love that I've made. God be with her.  God be with all of us, as we walk this transition forward, along with the countless others walking this same path this fall.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

More on Forgiveness


Matthew 18:21-35



Last week we talked about the call to love and how hard that is.  As you may remember, I spent some of the time focusing specifically on the very difficult call to forgive.  And today I want to talk a little more about this. 

In todays’ gospel lesson we are told to forgive and forgive and forgive.  And we are told, what’s more, that in the same way that we fail to forgive, so God will fail to forgive us.  The way that I see this is more that our ability to accept forgiveness and our ability to offer forgiveness are one and the same.  That it is in learning to forgive others that we are also able to release shame and guilt for our own misdeeds and accept the forgiveness that God offers us.

               As I thought about forgiveness, several stories came strongly to mind.  In the Judy Blume book, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Fudge ruins the class project left in his brother Peter’s room, he swallows his brother, Peter’s turtle.  And to make matters worse, everyone is concerned about fudge when he swallows the turtle and not about Peter’s turtle or Peter.  You can imagine that these would be hard to forgive.  Especially if, when you finally get to a place of letting it go, the other person does something else to hurt you.  Eventually Peter does come to understand how young and not quite bright his brother is and he does forgive him, but it is a tough path for Peter to get there.

 The movie, Spitfire Grill, is about a very young woman who has just come out of prison for manslaughter and is looking to start a new life.  She finds a small town where she is hired to work at the Spitfire Grill.  And while at first there is a lot of fear and judgment towards Percy, as people get to know her they come to see her and love her for who she is.  There is one exception in the movie, however.  Nahum is extremely protective of his aunt, for whom Percy works, his family and his town.  He sees Percy as a stranger, and as a threat.  He doesn’t want to know her story, doesn’t care to actually look at the real person that she is, he only wants her gone.  He cannot take the risk of getting to know Percy or, as he fears, getting hoodwinked by her charm.  In the end, his failure to risk seeing her ends up in a terrible tragedy for the town.  I won’t give away what that is for those who haven’t seen the movie, but I will say that it is only after this irreversible tragedy that he can see his own failure to forgive, to step into love, to risk seeing this other person as a human being.  That failure to risk a new vision leads to a terrible ending, a deep loss for everyone in the town. 

               In the movie “Philomena”, the part that gets to me every single time is when Philomena who has had truly terrible treatment by the nuns in a convent in Ireland goes back to the Convent to find out the truth, to confront those who have taken away from her that which she valued the most in her life, namely her son.  She goes with a reporter who has helped her discover the truth of what happened to her, and to him, so long ago.  And when they arrive, the reporter is outraged and begins to yell at the nuns.  Philomena apologizes to the nuns for his behavior and says to the reporter, “it happened to ME, not to you!”  He in his rage responds, “So, what are you going to do about it?  Are you just going to stand there?!”  And Philomena says.  “No.”  She takes a huge breath, turns to the nun who pretty much headed the atrocities and says, “Sister, I want you to know that I forgive you.” 

The reporter is incensed at this and yells at Philomena, “What?  Just like that?” 

               Philomena responds, “No, not ‘just like that’.  That’s HARD.  That’s HARD for me.  But I don’t want to hate people.  I don’t want to be like you!  Look at you!”

               “I’m angry!”

               “It must be exhausting!”

               While Philomena was based on a true story, it is a movie.  But still, there are other stories of outrageous forgiveness, stories that we know to be true:

               On CBS, for example, there was a story from MI about a man named Jamel who was arrested for dealing drugs.  The officer made it up.  The former officer admitted on this CBS news clip that he had decided he had to have another drug arrest that day, so he had just grabbed someone off the street and falsely arrested this man, “planting” evidence and falsifying reports as he did so.  Jamel went to prison for four years as a result.  Eventually the cop was caught and brought up on charges for falsifying MANY reports, arresting many innocent people, and for stealing.  He was incarcerated for one year and Jamel, as well as other men the former officer had falsely imprisoned, were exonerated.  Still, after four years in prison, Jamel had lost everything.  After they both were released from prsion, the officer and the falsely imprisoned man ended up working in the same cafĂ© together.  The former officer said that he had a faith experience in which he felt convicted in such a way that making amends became a necessity for him.  But in the case of Jamel, he didn’t know what he could do to make amends except to simply apologize to Jamel, and that is what he did.  The officer apologized, and, surprisingly, Jamel accepted that apology, and forgave him.  Jamel said he had been extremely angry, but the apology was really all he needed and all he wanted.  They have since become friends; such good friends that they have become public speakers together on the subject of forgiveness, the power of it, the healing that comes to all parties because of it.  When the CBS reporter asked Jamel for whom he had done the forgiving, Jamel’s response was , “for our sakes”.  This confused the reporter who said, “you mean for yourself?”  “No,” Jamel responded, “For the sake of all of us: myself, the former officer, and everyone else we encounter.  For our sakes I forgive so that the world might see what kind of healing can be done through the act of forgiveness.” 

               As I’ve said before, the deep truth is that everything God calls us to do, everything Jesus insists that we do, everything… these are for US.  I will say this again and again to you.  You are not called to do the hard things for God’s sake.  God doesn’t actually need our help.  We also aren’t called to do these things solely for the person we are helping or, in this case, forgiving.  The person who benefits the most from our forgiveness is always going to be ourselves.

How does it feel to be angry to someone?  How does it feel to hate someone?  Does that feel good?  Not only does it not feel good, but it takes up a whole lot of space in our psyches.  Space that could instead be filled with good thoughts.  Space that could be filled with love and joy and peace. Space that could be used to be loving and creative and world-changing.  Forgiveness frees up that space in our hearts, in our minds, in our lives.

 I’m not saying that it’s easy.  I’m also not saying that we don’t learn from the ways we’ve been hurt.  I don’t really believe in the saying “forgive and forget”.  I don’t hear in scripture that we are called to forget.  We are called to erase the anger, release the hatred.  But forgetting is a whole other ball game.  And I think the things that hurt us are lessons to us.

Let me give you an example.  If your dog constantly hits things off of the coffee table onto the floor, if that dog breaks precious things that you leave where her tail can hit it and break it, you can forgive the dog, but you can also learn not to leave your things in a place where the dog or dog’s tail might hit those objects and knock them to the floor. 

This applies to people too.  If we see repeating patters in the way a person hurts us, it is appropriate to change our way of interacting with them so we are not doormats to be stepped on again.  If a person shows up late every single time we are to meet with them, we might choose to come to them, rather than having them come to us – or we might choose not to try to meet with them if it is too much of a strain.  If every time we share a valuable part of ourselves with someone only to learn that it gets passed on to other people, we learn not to share in that way with that person.  Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, and it certainly does not mean setting yourself up to be abused repeatedly.  But it does mean letting go of the hurt and anger, and if possible, finding different ways to be in relationship with those who have hurt us.  It means not seeking revenge or vengeance. 

Again, I realize this is not easy.  I found myself reflecting recently on a situation that happened years ago when we tried to sell our very first home in San Leandro.  We were in process with someone buying the house when at the 11th hour they pulled out.  According to the contract they signed, that meant they lost their $5000 deposit for breach of contract.  But they sued us to get it back and then in court they lied about what we had been willing to do to fix up the house.  I was so stunned by the audacity of the lies that I didn’t even know how to counteract them.  I froze up, my “fight or flight” mode went completely into flight, and I literally said nothing in response to this.  I was so angry afterwards at the lies… not the loss of the money, though it took another 4 months to sell the house, and since we had been in contract on buying a home that meant we were paying two mortgages in the Bay Area for about six months.  But the bold faced lies on their part, and their belief that this was an acceptable way of behaving, their willingness to do whatever it took to get what they wanted, their willingness to hurt others through immoral means – I had a very hard time forgiving that. It took time for the revenge fantasies left my head.  It’s been years since all of that took place.  It took time, but I long ago forgave this behavior.  I now feel saddened for them for what I imagine to be a pretty regular behavior on their part, which can only harm them.  Still, I haven’t forgotten.  I am more aware that, especially in court situations and where money is involved, there are people who will do whatever they want to do in order to get what they want.  I am more prepared to speak my own truth, even in the face of lies, than I used to be.  I am no longer angry.  I don’t carry that with me anymore.  But I have also taken from it lessons in human behavior and how I choose to live in the face of that.

Presbyterians do not just pray for forgiveness, we do not just celebrate the forgiveness that has been given, we are also asked and expected to pass that along.  I have mentioned this before, but the passing of the peace is supposed to be a response to having been forgiven.  In this church we have put it at the end of worship as a way to great one another.  But that isn’t actually what we are supposed to do. 

Our Presbyterian Book of Order says this about the passing of the peace is:  “It is important in worship that we take the opportunity to seek and to offer forgiveness for hurts, misunderstandings and broken relationships among ourselves and that we respond to God’s act of reconciliation by exchanging signs and words of reconciliation and of Christ’s peace through the passing of the peace.”  (2.6001b)  So what does this mean?  The passing of the peace is a mending–of-hurts time, an act of forgiveness time, a reconciliation time.  In other words, the people we might approach during this time should include those with whom we feel the need for reconciliation, or for offering or seeking forgiveness.  You can pass the peace on to others as well, but it is as a sign that God forgives and reconciles everyone, and is not a “greeting time”.    It is supposed to follow the prayer of confession and acceptance of God’s grace because it is a sign that we have taken to heart God’s grace and now want to pass that on to each other.  And for this it is a wonderful gift to one another that we can touch and recognize the grace that is physically given to us.

I want to finish with a version of the Lord’s Prayer written by Rev. Dewane Zimmerman

Lord’s prayer (as it might be prayed by God to us):

My children who are on earth:

You reverence my name

But you do not celebrate my will for you.

You pray my kingdom come,

But how can it

When you ARE what I mean by my kingdom?

You pray for your daily bread,

But you have enough-and to spare.

You pray for forgiveness of your sins,

But how often you will not forgive each other.

You ask me not to lead you into temptation,

But what can I do for you

That I am not already doing?

Use the gifts I am giving you

And you will know my power and glory

Forever and ever.

Amen.

My prayer for all of us is a heart of deepening forgiveness, for others, and for ourselves as well.  Amen.