Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Coyote

      David often goes home (back to his apartment in Pittsburg) pretty late in the evenings.  He often doesn't arrive back from work until 6:30 or so, at which point I am often leaving for meetings.  So if we are going to spend any time together, it usually doesn't even begin until 9 (or later) at night.  The result is that when he finally heads over the hill to his own abode, it can often be quite late (or what I consider late, being that my natural bed-time is really about 9pm).  The other night, arriving home at 11:15, he walked up to his apartment to find a scroungy, scraggly dog laying on his welcome mat in front of the door to his small, one-bedroom apartment. This rough, scabby looking dog glanced at him as he tried to approach his door, but also made it clear that he was not moving. David talked to the dog, trying to encourage it to go "home" or at least to move enough that David could get inside his apartment, but the dog just looked at him balefully and continued to lie on the mat. He tried to intimidate it by making loud clapping noises against the side of the building, but nothing would move the dog. Fortunately, the neighbor was still up and invited David to come inside while they figured out what to do. He texted me and I said they should call animal control to get some help.  By the time animal control arrived (a long time later... after all, this was the middle of the night and they are not as well staffed after hours), the dog had died.  And, it turned out, it was not a dog: it was a coyote.
       We live in coyote country, which is one of the two main reasons my cats have had to become strictly in-door animals since we have moved here (the other being that we live only a block from a 6-lane, 55 mph road).  Neighbors and friends have all shared with us stories of their pets becoming dinner for the neighboring coyotes, whom we know have to eat.  Since we would prefer our cats not turn into someone else's meal, we keep them inside.  This is the coyote's land.  We are the invaders, we are the new-comers to this place.  While it is not common to see living coyote's out here (they are basically shy animals, especially when it comes to people), it is common to hear them at night, or to see signs of their presence in the area (or to find them dead alongside one of our busy roads).
     Still, I found I was struck by the choice of the coyote's final place to die.  The complex in which David lives has over 200 apartments of various sizes.  David's is not on the end of one of their rows, his porch is smaller than many, but is a common size for the complex.  Why choose his doorstep?  Why insist on remaining there as a place to die?
     So, because I tend to look for meaning and symbolism, I started studying up on coyotes. Reading the science behind the animal gave no understanding of why the coyote would choose a place near humans to die. They don't like people, they avoid people. If they come across people, they run or, if backed into a corner, might become threatening.  This coyote did not have any intention of leaving, but neither was it hostile towards David. David didn't touch it because it looked scruffy, not because it appeared wild or anxious.
      So I started looking at Native American sites and understandings of coyotes. As a spirit animal, Coyote has been associated with deep magic and creation.  Coyote is a jokesters, a symbol of playfulness and paradox, his teaching is not direct but is through subterfuge and symbolism.  Coyote encourages us not to take life too seriously, and to look for the unexpected.  Coyote can be an omen of bad things about to come, but he encourages survival and resourcefulness to meet those challenges and hardships.  Coyote is a symbol of growth through the difficult and unexpected.  He teaches that wisdom and folly go together. If a coyote enters your life, you are called to look at something you may have been avoiding.  One site I read said that if an animal dies near you or around you, it is a strong call for you to pay special attention to the messages of that spirit animal.  I'm taking all of that in, even if it is mostly for David.  But I also found myself thinking in another direction.
      David is kind, he is warm, he is accepting.  The coyote may have been there because the mat on his doorstep was dry, welcoming, warm (it was a very rainy, stormy evening), and felt "safe."  David does that.  He creates warm, unthreatening spaces.  He is not judging, he is very loving and open.  He is affectionate, protective, caring and safe.  The coyote was at its end.  He may simply have found that small space, the welcome mat on David's tiny entrance way, to be that safe place to end his journey here.
       What is the point of all of this?  It once more gave me something to strive to be as well: I want to be that safe place for others to come, to feel my warmth and presence.  I don't want to be scary or intimidating to someone in need, someone in pain.  I want my welcome mat to always be warm and inviting.  I am so grateful that I've found someone who embodies that safe, warm, welcoming place for me, as well as someone who can teach me to embody that for others.
        I also find myself mourning the coyote, carrying the coyote's spirit with me, even though I never even saw it.  I feel touched by it's story: a life that ended after seeking a warm, safe place to finish its journey.  Today I am carrying that coyote spirit in my heart and looking for its message for all of us.
Image result for image, coyote

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Not Recognizing Him

Acts 3:12-19
Luke 24:36b-48

They thought they were seeing a ghost.  They did not recognize the truth of his presence with them.  They were terrified by this thing that was happening that they had no context for and nothing in their life could prepare them for.  Jesus’ words and stories throughout his life, though they were intended to prepare the disciples, did not prepare them, the scriptures that had been explained could not prepare them.  They couldn’t really believe what they had been told because they hadn’t seen anything like it before.  And as a result, they simply did not, could not recognize him.
And that’s very real, isn’t it?  We don’t see the things we don’t expect to see.  It is hard for us to recognize the things that are outside of our experiences. We have a hard time assimilating those things that are “other” than what we believe, know, and expect.  Mary at the tomb didn’t recognize Jesus at first, and in the story for today, the disciples thought they were seeing a ghost.  These are not to be wondered at.  I think we would all think and feel and see the same if someone we loved and knew had died suddenly appeared among us.  Because they had no context for believing in a resurrection, they simply did not, could not recognize him at first.
So then the question becomes, how do we recognize the Holy One in our midst?  If Jesus were resurrected or were to return among us today, how would we recognize him?  How would we know him?
Mary recognized Jesus when he called her name: that moment of intimacy, of knowing and recognizing and loving someone.  The disciples knew Christ through the familiar and loving behaviors and actions of the man they knew – eating with them, talking with them, sharing scripture with them.  They recognized him, in other words, by his love for them: by the love in his voice when he spoke Mary’s name, by the love he expressed by acting with his disciples as he always did – honestly, but with comfort, eating with them, sharing with them, serving them, being with them.
I’m reminded of a poem I shared once before:
The man whispered, "God, speak to me" and a meadowlark sang.
But, the man did not hear.
So the man yelled, "God, speak to me" and the thunder rolled across the sky.
But, the man did not listen.
The man looked around and said, "God let me see you." And a star shined brightly.
But the man did not see.
And, the man shouted, "God show me a miracle." And, a life was born.
But, the man did not notice.
So, the man cried out in despair, "Touch me God, and let me know you are here."
Whereupon, God reached down and touched the man. But, the man brushed the butterfly away .
and walked on.
In the movie The Polar Express, the main character, the boy is struggling to believe in Santa Claus.  At one point he has a conversation with a “ghost” about believing.  Despite seeing, despite hearing, despite his experiences, he still isn’t sure and thinks it might all be a dream.  The ghost does not convince him otherwise.  He says to the boy, “But you don’t want to be bamboozled.  You don’t want to be led down the primrose path.  You don’t want to be conned, or Duped, to have the wool pulled over your eyes, hoodwinked.  You don’t want to be taken for a ride, railroaded.  Seeing is believing.  Am I right?”  And then he asks the boy if he believes in ghosts.  The boy shakes his head “no” to which the ghost simply responds, “interesting.”  And walks on, disappearing into the snow.. disintegrating into the snow.
We tell ourselves that seeing is believing, but we are so often guilty of seeing what we know rather than knowing what we see.  The truth is that while we tell ourselves seeing is believing, it is more often the case that believing is seeing.  And in no case is this more true than in the case of whether or not we see God.
We need to be careful, therefore, to not be so stuck in our images of what things are, in our expectations of what should be that we can’t actually see or hear what is around us.  We need to work hard to keep our minds open enough that we don’t miss seeing when God is right in front of us.
One of my very favorite lines in the very first episode of Joan of Arcadia occurs when Joan sees God and talks to God for the first time.  She wonders if there is something special about her that allows her to see God when others don’t.  She asks God, “Why are you appearing to me?”  To which God responds, “I am not appearing to you.  You are perceiving me.”  The truth of that hits me often.  God is all around.  God    is     all     around.  But do we perceive God?  Do we perceive God?
I shared with all of you in a newsletter article about a time when Jasmyn was really struggling.  My very intuitive “almost twelve year old” was struggling with a sense that her world was about to be irrevocably changed.  She was grieving her childhood and the naiveté of that childhood.  She was grieving the easy vision of life, the vision that everything could be fixed with a wave of a wand, and that we could all live happily ever after without scars or trauma.  She talked about her fears that a tornado would hit, that there would be a disaster, that all of her life would change in a second and everything that she counted on would be different.  And that tornado was about to hit for her, changing everything.  There was nothing she could do to control it, to change it, to prevent it.  This fear caused her to wonder about the very point of life.  But in the midst of all that pain and struggle, all that angst and fear and wondering, all of a sudden the most beautiful butterfly landed on the ground in front of us.  “Oh look!” she exclaimed with sudden and deep joy.  And I found myself saying, “God sent you a butterfly, Jasmyn.  There is your answer from God.  There is joy, there is beauty, even in the hard times.  And God is bringing that to you now.” Jasmyn turned and looked at me and suddenly she was sobbing in my arms, just sobbing and holding on, as if her life depended on it.  So we stood there on the sidewalk, Jasmyn crying, watching this beautiful butterfly and just being together.  God knows our pain – God suffered on the cross.  The disciples felt that pain too when Jesus died, when they felt their hopes crumbled, their lives irrevocably changed.  But God appeared for them and God appears for us and does bring the butterflies.  If we keep our eyes open, we will see them.  It is often in the hardest times that God is most near to us, touching us, offering us beauty and a deeper glimpse.
But we have to be open to seeing it.  We have to keep our eyes open.
It goes even deeper than that. Jesus was recognized by his love.  By his calling Mary’s name, by his eating and being present with the disciples.
We too, as Christians, are called to help others to see God, through our love. “They will know we are Christians by our love”.  Different groups of people were recognized by different behaviors and even by different appearances.  This is still the case.  We recognize the Amish by their appearance, Muslim women by the hijab they wear, priests by the collar.  We used to recognize Jews by the clothes they wore, the lack of cutting of side burns for men, etc.  That’s still the case with Orthodox Judaism. Others as well.  We as Christians are to be recognized by our love just as Jesus was recognized by his love.
We see God through our love.  We show God through our love.  My prayer then is that all of us may be given the eyes of love with which to see, and the hands of love with which to act.  Amen.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Humor and laughter and all good things

Acts 4:32-35
Luke 24:1-9

One Easter a priest and a taxi driver both died and went to heaven. St. Peter was at the Pearly gates waiting for them.

'Come with me,' said St. Peter to the taxi driver.

The taxi driver did as he was told and followed St Peter to a mansion. It had everything you could imagine from a bowling alley to an Olympic size pool.

'Oh my word, thank you,' said the taxi driver.

Next, St. Peter led the priest to a rough old shack with a bunk bed and a little old television set.

'Wait, I think you are a little mixed up,' said the priest. 'Shouldn't I be the one who gets the mansion? After all I was a priest, went to church every day, and preached God's word.'

'Yes, that's true.' St Peter rejoined, 'But during your Easter sermons people slept.  When the taxi driver drove, everyone prayed.'
How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?
“Change!?  My grandmother donated that lightbulb!”

"Are limericks suited to Lent?
Yes indeed, in both form and intent:
     They're a well-designed ploy
     To bring insight and joy
With a final, uplifting event.”

"Here's the question that Eastertide begs:
Is it all about candy and eggs?
   No, the point to be praised
   Is that Christ has been raised
And death taken down a few pegs.
         The point of humor Sunday is the same every year: God has had the last laugh, has even overcome death by raising Jesus.  There is nothing to fear, nothing to mourn, nothing to worry about because God has overcome the worst thing to be feared, the worst pain to be overcome, the greatest loss. Maybe that doesn’t bring laughter to your lips, but the absurdity of the one thing that could be counted on: death: that, too being overcome, being challenged, being faced – that should bring a joy that bubbles over into laughter.  If you trust that having even that which is un-challengable challenged by a loving God, if you can have faith that the God who overcomes even the most natural of things is a good and loving God, then all the rest must seem silly, trite, unimportant, and laughable.
            Several theologians wrote this year about how terribly appropriate it was this year to have Easter on April Fool’s Day.  (a very rare occurrence, by the way.  The last time this happened was in 1956). 
Easter, and the Sundays that follow it should be a relief!  All really is in God’s hands, and the outcome IS known.  It will end well, it will be okay. This is God’s world and we get to enjoy it as well as work to make it better for everyone.  We get to delight in the good, celebrate the beauty, and work for wholeness from a place of joy and trust. But even if that is hard to see, hard to trust and hard to take in, the gift of laughter is still there for us.  It is still a gift to be given and received.  We know it helps health-wise, we know it releases tension and stress.  It also reminds us to not take ourselves and our lives so very seriously. 
The funniest things I find are actually situations that happen in my own family, especially with my kids.  When Aislynn was 6, Jonah was 8 and Jasmyn was almost 12, we had a typical morning interaction.  I asked Aislynn, as I often do, "How did I get such an adorable child?"  And then turning to Jonah, who was also there, "How did I get such a handsome son?"  Again, this is part of a familiar morning routine.  But their answers have always been really unpredictable.  That particular morning Aislynn responded, "Well, your heart picked Daddy.  And that is why you now have an adorable daughter, a handsome son, and also an older, cranky daughter!"  
Another story from this year.  We were watching the Olympics and Jonah asked from the other room, “what’s happening on the Olympics now?” to which Jasmyn replied, “Well, it appears to be synchronized skiing. However, they are not doing a very good job because some are trying to outrace the others, which is not good team-work, people!!”
I remember taking my kids to see Zaboomafoo at the Oakland zoo when they were very little.  One of the things that the Zaboomafoo hosts always did was tell knock knock jokes.  But in person, they would bring the mic around and ask the children to tell their jokes.  But what was so funny about their jokes was that the kids understanding of humor was so different from adult humor.  “knock knock” the child would say, “Who’s there?” they would respond.  “Me!” they’d shout and then laugh their heads off.  We would laugh too – both because of their lack of understanding of what makes jokes jokes, but also because their laughter would be infectious. 
My experience in that humor is two-fold.  First, those real life stories are the ones that I remember most, that bring me the most joy and delight in this world.  But second, it is in those moments of utter silliness that I see God most clearly.  I hear God laughing alongside of us, enjoying the creation that He/She made, delighting in the beautiful, the wonderful, the absurd, the silly.
Today we are given two stories in scripture.  The first is a reminder that the early believers shared everything and that we are called to also share.  I believe that in our laughter we share a connection and a depth like no other.  I found the following story about a harried pastor in Alaska who was trying to bring together a very fractious, divided church. The church was in turmoil with a heavy, discouraged spirit. For several years, the pastor had tried everything, without success, to bring the various squabbling cliques together. He finally decided to try a Holy Humor Sunday celebration on the Sunday after Easter. The service was filled with joyful songs and hymns and inspiring Scripture readings celebrating the resurrection of Jesus. Members were encouraged to tell their favorite jokes. And practical jokes were played on the pastor and others. Everybody had a lot of fun. The entire congregation rallied around the resurrection of Jesus. The Holy Humor Sunday service brought everyone together in a spirit of good cheer and camaraderie. "The response was overwhelmingly positive," the pastor wrote. "The congregation needed to know that they could come to worship and just 'let go' for an hour-and that it was possible to come to church and feel good. People have been talking about the service all week. And some, who said they had intended to leave the church and go to another church, said they had decided to stay. "The Holy Humor Sunday service was just what the doctor ordered for our church. It provided much-needed healing."
In the second scripture we are reminded of how scary and unbelievable it felt to the disciples to hear that Jesus was risen.  This, too, the unpredictable nature of life can be scary for us, too.  But laughter, humor Sunday is again another opportunity to listen to the angels who say again and again, “Be not afraid!” and who invite us into joy and trust and faith.
I want to end my sermon with this poem:
"Smiling is infectious. You catch it like the flu."
"When someone smiled at me today, I started smiling, too."
"I passed around the corner, and someone saw my grin."
"When he smiled I realized I'd passed it on to him."
"I thought about that smile. Then I realized its worth."
"A single smile just like mine could travel the whole earth."
"So if you feel a smile begin, don't leave it undetected."
"Let's start an epidemic quick, and get the world infected!"

This is a way of spreading the light and joy: smile, laugh, share, hug, live in the joy of the resurrection!  Amen.
What jokes did you bring to share today?

Knock knock
Who’s there?
Interrupting Cow

Q: What did the alien say to the garden?
A: Take me to your weeder!

Knock, knock.
Who’s there?
Otto who?
Otto know. I’ve got amnesia.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

All in a Word

Acts 10:34-43
John 20:1-18

“Mary”.  That’s all he said to turn her world completely around. 
          One word.
          THE one word that would get her to stop her angst, to stop her grief, to stop her despair - to stop all those things that blocked her ability to see, to hear, to grasp that all was not left in darkness, all was not done, all was not over, all was not to end in pain… and loss… and despair…  and grief. 
C.S. Lewis said, in his book A Grief Observed, “The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just that time when God can't give it: you are like the drowning man who can't be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.”…“You can’t see anything properly when your eyes are blurred with tears.”
          But Jesus broke through that with one word:
          And in that word, her world was made new.  Everything she had known, all that she understood, all the rules that life laid before her were undone. 
         Death, the only thing that one can absolutely count on – death itself had been overcome. 
        Can you imagine?  It’s like the song “Rainbow Connection” – “Have you been half asleep, and have you heard voices?  I’ve heard them calling my name.”  It is that voice that calls your name.  That calls you by name.  It is that voice that sees you for exactly who you are, and names you, calling you out of whatever illusions, visions, and blocks you have about life, about your life, about your experiences, about your path, your journey, and instead sees right through you, to you, to what you are most really, deeply, most truly about.  It is that voice that when it says your name makes everything okay, makes everything different.  And unlike us, Mary didn’t hear it when she was half asleep. She heard it fully awake, fully in the midst of her angst and pain and torture and despair.
         Have you ever had those moments occasionally between sleep and waking in which you’ve heard your name being called?  I have, and it usually has been in those times of despair, times of doubt, times of dry lifelessness.  My name being called in those moments has felt like the voice of God – Barbara, I call you by name.  I see you.  I love you.  I call YOU because I love you.  But again, for Mary, she heard it so much more fully.  So much more tangibly.  Jesus, her Lord, speaking her name.
        I saw this quote a while back that said something like, “the best hugs are the ones that make all the stress in the world just melt away.”  Jesus’ word to Mary was like that.  A single word that made it all okay.  No, darkness had not won.  No, Death had not had the final word.  No, the body had not been taken, evil had not extended so far as to take everything that she valued, that she trusted, that she loved from her.  It sometimes felt that it had, and Jesus owned that with the single word, too.  With that word, he recognized her grief for what it was and had compassion for it.  With that word, he let her know that he knew her suffering.  With that word, he proclaimed that she need suffer no longer, that he was there, no longer dead, but there. Beside her.  With her.  With that word, he reminded her that she was LOVED by a God who would not take away her Lord from her, but would ALWAYS be with her, in her grief, in her pain, and in her joy.
        With a word he offered new life.  Not just the vision of Jesus raised, but new life for Mary as well.  With his resurrection, he offered her new life as well. 
        Today we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection.  We celebrate that death has been overcome.  And that Jesus, God, Emmanuel, Christ with us, is with us even beyond death, even after death.  We celebrate that Jesus lives.  And we celebrate that we are given that same resurrection through him. 
        How does that manifest for you today?  This day?  How does Jesus’ resurrection come for you today? 
         As I prepared for today, I found myself remembering so many resurrection moments, so many times when I have been able to glimpse the promise of the final resurrection through the day to day fulfillment of the promise of new life after death.  For me, each one, each and every one of those moments, those glimpses into eternity, into new life, into resurrection has been a gift, a profound, amazing gift. 
          I was talking recently to a good friend of mine who was sharing with me that after years of struggling in her marriage, she and her husband, for the last few months have really been doing well.  With counseling and hard work, they have been able to start again in some deeply healed and resurrected ways.  Two years ago she was planning the end of her marriage.  Today she is excited to be able to tell me that she is truly married to her best friend, and they are happy together after a long time of disappointment and angst.
         An acquaintance shared with me that after several years of being out of work and looking hard for a job, he had finally found not only a job, but had been offered his dream job.  He is not just working, but working in a job he loves, for people he likes to be around, doing work that he feels good about. The job he had lost had not been a happy place for him, and while being out of work was hard, he also owned that it allowed him time with his family and time to really do a lot of soul searching and training to be in a job that he is now so happy with.
        More personally, a few years ago I attended a national stewardship conference where I ran into a person I had not seen in 20 years.  We had been close, we had dated, all those years ago, and the relationship had ended badly, painfully.  But seeing him in this place, so far away from our pasts and our present lives, we were able to talk and to create healing and reconciliation that many might have said was long overdue.  I don’t know that it could have happened any sooner.  I don’t know that either of us had grown enough or learned enough before to heal those rifts. But I was deeply grateful for the gift of being able to work that through with him, finally finding closure and healing.  Resurrection moment.  Healing moment after a painful loss, a painful death.
        Coming here to this church was a resurrection for me: after having gone through such a difficult time in my life, to be able to come back to beautiful, sunny, Ca: to be near my mountain, and in a church that is open and inclusive and loving…  To be here in this place is a resurrection for me!
         And finally - David, my David, is another resurrection for me.  I didn’t think there would be someone to be close to me again. I thought that was done. That too much trust had been broken.  Too many hurts for me and my kids. But he sits here, in this place, a man who is good with my kids, a man who is calm and grounded, a man who is loyal and deeply loving - a sign of God’s love that goes beyond any of the challenging and difficult things that have been a part of my life.  A resurrection for me that I know was a gift from God.  Not sought, not expected.  But here, grace, a gift given, none the less.
        When Jesus called Mary’s name, her world was resurrected.  And while he then went on to say to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” None the less, she knew then that she would never again be without him.  And she knew that she would see him again and be with him again.  That he WAS alive and IS alive.
        All of that was communicated in one Word. 
         God calls your name too.  Jesus calls your name too.  By Jesus life, death and resurrection we experience the reality of new life.  But our relationship with God, with the divine is personal.  Very, very personal. And our experience of life, of resurrection, is all encompassed in that one word.  We are called by name.  We are loved into being by name.
         “Mary”, he said, and she, and we, came to know resurrection.  Amen.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Are things improving?

          I had bronchitis a couple weeks ago, which really knocked me flat for a few days.  So I was at home during the day (a rarity for me) and I was flipping through TV channels.  I came across an old Andy Griffith show rerun, one of the early ones.  My memory is of enjoying these "wholesome" programs when I was a child, so I thought, "well, this should be fun!" But the first thing I noticed, not surprising since it is still often an issue, was that every character in the story was white as snow. Then we get into the story line. In this particular episode, there was a young woman (meant to be 16 or 17) working her father's farm.  Andy's girlfriend got it in her head that this young woman would much prefer to exchange her work clothes and base look for dresses and make-up and a stylish hair cut, so she troops out to the farm to give the girl some of these items.  The girl's father rejects the gift for the girl, saying he needs her help on the farm.  So Andy, Barney and Andy's girlfriend, after a conversation in which they accuse the father of being abusive for not allowing his girl to have these "girly" things, basically kidnap the girl ("arrest" her?), dress her up, give her a hair cut, make her up and then bring her back to present her to the girl's father.  He admits that she looks very nice, but then explains that it really is just the two of them and he needs her to now get back into her work clothes (dresses are not helpful for the work that must be done on a farm) and help him with the farm. At this point, Andy takes the girl by the hand, leads her over to some boys who just happen to be working nearby (on the next farm over?) for them to ogle her, and then returns to the father.  Andy explains to the father that he is not "using" his girl to the best of her abilities.  Surely, he explains, it would be better for the father to have a male helper than this useless girl.  So he could use her better by allowing her to attract a male who can then work the farm with the father.  The father agrees and they all live happily ever after (?!).
          Needless to say, I was absolutely appalled. And I don't think I even need to list all the things wrong with this.  I don't need to list them because it is obvious that this devalues women's work, women's worth, women's person-hood.  It is obvious that the girl in this story never had a voice and was never able to express what she wanted.  It is obvious that she was just a resource for the father, as either a helper or as a person to attract a "better" helper (ie a male).  It is obvious that gender roles were so fixed in this scenario that there was no possibility of seeing her for anything other than a second class citizen. It was very disturbing.
         But I also found myself reflecting on the fact that things actually have changed and moved over the last 50+ years.  Not everywhere.  And there is a long way to go still towards recognizing women's humanity.  We still don't pay women equal wages for equal work, we still treat them as sex objects, we still value their appearance over their talents, we still abuse and use women. There are still fields of work and study that are restricted by gender (women cannot be priests in the Catholic church, for example), we still treat them as second class citizens. But, at least here in my community, I know that the large majority of people here would be equally appalled by this TV episode, and that shows movement, that shows growth in our understanding, in our vision, in our appreciation for who women are, what we can do, and what our best gifts are.  I am not, in any way, the only person who would watch this episode and wonder what the girl (who remained voiceless in the episode) would say for herself.
        This episode gave me perspective.  It has been hard to not fall into despair when I read about the racism, the sexism, the rejection of other people, the increase in poverty and in the huge gap between rich and poor in our culture, the cruelty towards immigrants and LGBTQ+ people, the abuse of others and of our earth that seems to have escalated in the last couple years.  It is hard to not fall into a sense that everything is moving backwards in terms of our understanding of one another as siblings, as family, as connected to each of us in a way that makes it absolutely necessary that we care for and love one another.  I am blessed by the wisdom and perspective of people who are older, who have lived through other troubled and dark times, who remind me that "this too will pass".  But their words don't always drive away the growing sense of a damage done that may not be reversible.  To see this episode, though, reminded me that in the midst of all of this, there is movement still.  At the time that episode was written and aired, my grandmother was working our family ranch by herself.  No one questioned that.  Not one person felt she was less than competent to do so.  But still, the episode aired.  While it was aired again a few weeks back, it is a rerun shown.  I don't know of any new programs that could get away with a horrible message like this.  And that is good news.  If our art reflects life, we are moving, we are growing.  And that gives me hope, indeed.
        I'm also attaching a link here to a commercial that I think also shows this movement.  Granted, this is a New Zealand ad.  Also, the language may be a little much for some.  I apologize for that.  Still, I love the message here.  Hope you enjoy it.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Spiritual Discipline of Confession

Ephesians 6: 10-20
Luke 22:31-34, 54-62

                For our last sermon on our Lenten series focusing on spiritual disciplines I decided to take on something a bit controversial in our more progressive churches currently, and that is the spiritual discipline of confession.  For some of you it may come as a surprise to hear that this is controversial at all.  After all, we have a prayer of confession each week in our worship service.  For whom, you might ask, is this controversial?  I thought I’d start today by sharing with you some of the problems with this discipline and then moving forward into why I still see this as an important spiritual discipline, though one that I believe probably needs to be “tweaked” a bit in how we practice it.
                As I’ve shared with you before, for many of us, especially women, though this is an increasing issue for men as well, our biggest “sin” – or to put it in language that may be more meaningful to you – the biggest thing that separates us from God, is our guilt and shame.  I want you to think about this for a minute.  How many of you have ever been awoken in the middle of the night tormented by memories of things you’ve done that you wish you’d done differently?  How many of you are haunted by memories of shameful events or times?  A friend of mine said to me once, “I know that God loves me.  I know this.  But I have come to the place in my being where that love is not enough.  I am acutely aware that I have disappointed God; that I have not and cannot live up to God’s hopes and expectations for me.  God is not proud of me.  God is disappointed in me.  Knowing that God loves me, if anything, adds to the pain when I realize I don’t deserve it.  God loves me in spite of myself, not because of myself.  How can I possibly continue to live with God’s disappointment?”  Honestly, have any of you felt this way?  Have any of you been so filled with a sense of unworthiness, of guilt, of failure that you feel God’s disappointment to be overwhelming?  How would you then respond to my friends’ comments? 
Hildegarde de Bingen, who was, among other things, a Christian mystic, wrote, “A divine voice spoke to me, saying, ‘How fragile you are, Human, made of dust and grime, but I am the living Light.  I make the darkness day, and I have chosen you to see great wonders, though I have humbled you on earth.  You are often depressed and timid, and insecure.  Because you are conscientious, you feel guilty… But the deep mysteries of God have saturated you, too, and so has humility.’ When I heard the Voice, I began trying to live a godly life.  The path became difficult as I questioned myself again, saying, ‘This is pointless.’ I wanted to soar. I dreamed impossible dreams and started projects I could never finish.  I became dejected, so I sat and did nothing.  My self-doubt is my greatest disobedience.  It makes me miserable, and I struggle with this cross daily. “
Andy Kort wrote about his struggle with his five year old son who, in preparing for Santa Claus and thinking about the “bad” list and the “Good list” tearfully and desperately asked his dad if he was bad.  He wrote, “During lent we read from Psalm 51, ‘Indeed I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother’s womb,’ and I wonder how many, like (my son) are wondering to themselves, ‘Am I bad?’  Our book of Common Worship has the congregation pray in funerals, ‘We confess that we are unworthy of your gracious care.’ (We talk) about our inability to avoid and give into temptation, about our human weakness, our total depravity, our habitual practice of placing so many things before God.  How many are thinking, ‘Am I bad?’  To each child of God who, like (my son), may tearfully melt to the floor in guilt, shame and sadness, I want to say, ‘No Beloved.  Of course not!  You are so very, very good.’  I think God would agree.”
Our faith tells us that God created us good, but many churches emphasize our sinfulness to the point where it shuts us down, keeps us away from God (because who wants to be focusing on what is wrong with them all the time), stunts us by our fears of doing wrong, of carrying more guilt and shame, by our sense of being unworthy and our inability therefore to even try.  This is a big problem with our emphasis on confession.
Another big problem is that there are other metanarratives in scriptures.  There is the central and important story of God saving God’s people from slavery.  There is the key story of the exiles being returned home.  These relate to us as well – what are we enslaved to that only God can help us with?  In what way are we exiles searching for home?  But these metanarratives do not get a lot of air time, while we focus on the story of grace and forgiveness weekly.  Shouldn’t these other stories be given some of the attention and time we give to focusing on our mistakes?
But all that being said, there are also good reasons for confession, and I want to discuss those with you this morning, too.  First of all, in our church, the practice of confession is meant to be an exercise in letting go of guilt feelings.  It is meant to be a time when we can lift up the pain and struggles that haunt us, offer them to God, and then release them so that they no longer oppress us or keep us from being our best selves.  The prayer, and along with it the assurance of pardon, is meant to be a time of grace and healing. 
But there is even more to it than that.  We are called to follow in Christ’s footsteps, to be a light to the world, to overcome oppression and hate, to fight evil with love.  Today’s passage from Ephesians tells us: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil…”  We have discussed evil before, and how many spiritual leaders tell us that true evil comes from that place of being unable to face parts of ourselves, putting those parts out there onto others and working then to destroy them.  We see, for example, that the people who are most violent towards LGBTQ+ folk usually are people who are unsure about their own sexual identity but cannot face that within themselves and so put it out there, declare it wrong and work to destroy it by destroying others who are clear about their sexual identity.  Those who fight “bullying” by killing others have likewise turned something within themselves and put it out there and in trying to destroy it have done true evil.  I think of the book, To Kill a Mockingbird, in which a family could not face the girl’s wanting of the African American man and could not face the father’s deeply and repeated abusive behavior and so they projected it out onto the innocent and destroyed the African American man.
  We are called into a battle against evil.  I know that’s an uncomfortable word for many of us, but destroying others, physically, emotionally and spiritually IS evil.  That’s a word we have to be willing to look at, face and deal with if we want to be true to our call to follow God and to be light in the world.  And the first place we have to start that battle is within ourselves.  What are the shadow parts of ourselves, the uncomfortable parts of ourselves that we are afraid to look at, to face, to own, to name?  Granted, not everyone avoids self-reflection.  But, just as with guidance, in which we are called to recognize that we do not always hear the voice of the Spirit clearly by ourselves, we do not always see the things we are avoiding within ourselves without the help of others.      
The prayer of confession then, along with the assurance of pardon, is an attempt, an effort, to help us to look at things we might not otherwise see.  To name and face parts of ourselves that we might not otherwise look at with any seriousness.  It is also an invitation to reconcile with God as well as within ourselves and with other people around those things that we do not want to face and name.
                In some other Christian traditions, including the Orthodox Church, confession and absolution together are considered a sacrament because they convey the grace of God.  Together, they are a sacred way of connecting with God, because together they have the potential to change and transform people.   Twelve step programs also recognize the transformative power of confession, acceptance of grace and reconciliation with others.  Steps 4 through 7 of the twelve steps focus on exactly this.
             Step 4 - Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves
             Step 5 - Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs
             Step 6 - Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character
             Step 7 - Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings
             Step 8 - Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all
             Step 9 - Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others
             Step 10 - Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it
 Over half of the 12 steps are focused on figuring out our mistakes, confessing them not just to God but to another human being, accepting God’s grace and ability to help us repent and then doing the work of repenting  – making amends for our mistakes, correcting them and turning in another direction.  There is a deep understanding through 12-step programs of the incredible healing and release that comes in facing our own “demons”, our own mistakes, our own hurtful behavior: facing it, naming it, repenting of it, fixing it.
As you know, in the Presbyterian Church we don’t do private confessions to another person.  Instead we confess corporately in our weekly prayers.  And there is good reason for this.  We recognize in this way that we fall short not only as individuals but as a body as well.  Additionally, we don’t have confessors because we recognize that pastors are just the same as everyone else.  Pastors are not “priests” in the Presbyterian Church who are believed to be more holy than the rest of the people.  We are members of the body as are all other members of the body, we are people like everyone else.  We have a call to teach in the church, as you have a call to do your work in the church and in the world.  Our call is not more important, more valued or more sacred.  Therefore, we do not get to claim status as your confessors.
However, there is a downside to this way of doing confession.  In confessing corporately, we often fail to internalize or really take inner stock of how it applies to us.  We don’t take ownership of what is really ours because we aren’t connecting, for one reason or another, with the corporate prayer, and we aren’t naming specific things.  In reading a corporate prayer of confession I wonder how much it really calls us into honest self-reflection.  Additionally, we then also fail to accept the forgiveness that allows genuine change, repentance and reconciliation with one another.  If we have not been truly and deeply honest about our shadow sides, we also will not be able to truly and deeply accept the grace and transforming forgiveness that is offered.  I know for myself, admitting to another human being what I have done wrong makes it real at a whole other level.  It also holds me more accountable for “fixing” the problem.  If someone else knows what I’m working to change within myself, then that other person can help me to stay accountable for apologizing, making amends, “repenting” and fixing what I’ve done.  While pastors are not priests, finding another person with whom you can partner – a “sponsor” as they are called in twelve step programs does help us to keep accountable.  It is one of the ways we can fight the “powers of darkness”  - by naming them, naming their influence on us weekly, and rejecting them through repentance and reconciliation.  Again, this is more than just saying we are wrong, it is accepting the grace of forgiveness at the deepest level, allowing that grace to free us to begin again, to open us to be transformed.
In most Presbyterian Churches our prayer of confession and assurance of forgiveness is followed by the passing of the peace.  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 be 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.
One of my previous parishioners once asked me what they were supposed to do, then, if there was no one with whom they needed to reconcile?  They asked how they could pass the peace to their loved ones when they had never hurt them and had no grievances against them?
Well, frankly, I would challenge those statements.  As 1 John 1:8-10 tells us, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.  If we claim we have not sinned, we make God out to be a liar and God’s word is not in us.” There is always something we could have done better in relationship to those around us.  There is always something we could do better in the future.  The peace of Christ acknowledges our humanness and says, “and I love you and trust that you love me, even with all our flaws.”
As I have said each week, the point of each of the spiritual disciplines is to deepen our relationship with God.  The things we do that separate us from God, the acts that are less than loving, the areas of ourselves we don’t see or are uncomfortable facing, the guilt and shame that keep us from acting or working to be our best selves: we are called to name them, to own them, to release them, to change them, and to work for the reconciliation not only of ourselves with God, but of the whole world.  Confession is a piece of that, whether that be the private confessions you share with God or whether it be the corporate confessions we share in this place.  May the sacredness of release and acceptance of grace help transform each of us as well as the world.  Amen.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Spiritual Discipline of Guidance

Philippians 2:12-18, 1 John 4:7-16

Today we continue our look into spiritual disciplines.  As you know, I have been trying to focus on ones that we don’t talk about as often or as much, and today we will be focusing on the spiritual discipline of guidance. 
As people of faith, we recognize that we need God’s guidance.  But how do we seek that?  How do you seek out God’s guidance? 
Many of us are good at asking advice from loved ones when we are struggling to make a decision.  But as a spiritual discipline of guidance, we are called to frame these questions and the conversations with others differently.  Rather than asking, “What should I do?” the spiritual discipline of guidance calls us to ask, “Where is God in this decision?  What is God calling me to do?  Which choice will best allow me to serve God to my fullest potential?  Which choice is best not only for me, but for all of God’s people?”  This last question is especially important because it calls us to see that every choice we make impacts more than ourselves and that every choice we make, therefore, is a choice about if, how and how much good we do for God and God’s people.   It again, honors the Spirit in the “other”.
One way we seek out spiritual guidance is to pray, but then do we take the time to listen for the answers? 
Contemplative listening is a practice that many spiritual directors learn as they listen to their directees, but it is one that we can do with ourselves as we listen to God as well.  It involves asking God a question and then literally sitting in the silence and listening.  We try to listen for God in a non-anxious space.  We try to limit the rattle of our thoughts and our comments to God and simply be with God.  We pay attention to the feelings that emerge in our bodies, the images that come to our minds, the questions that pop into our heads, as ways God might be leading us to think, reflect and move differently. 
Another practice in guidance is reading scripture, but as we use it for guidance, we are called to read it differently, to sit with it, practicing things like lectio divina, which means “divine word” and is a call to really listen to what scripture is saying to us in each moment.   
The spiritual discipline of guidance includes other things though as well.  We are called to recognize that God calls not just individuals but communities, and that God’s wisdom is to be found not just within scripture or within one self but also within the community of God’s people.  We have come to recognize that the Holy Spirit can talk through groups as well as scripture and prayer, and that we are called to seek out the wisdom and guidance of all those whom the Spirit touches.
As Presbyterians, especially, we believe that call, any call (and we believe that all of us have a call) is discerned in community.  Our call process for pastors, for example, involves many people who must affirm and support each potential pastor’s call into ministry.  Each pastor-to-be goes through extensive interviews and examinations in ever widening circles. A candidate for ministry must be trained in a theological school system, must also go through rigorous testing that takes place separate from the school, and also must pass through a committee at their home church, and a committee at Presbytery, one on one interviews as well as interviews with committees, finally ending with an examination before the entire Presbytery to discern if that person really is called into ordained ministry.  This belief that call is discerned in community is very central to who we are.
Several years ago, there was a debate on the floor of the Presbytery I was part of at the time about whether or not a pastor seeking ordination through our Presbytery should be required to attend at least a few classes at a Presbyterian seminary.  There was one pastor who argued vehemently that pastors wanting to be Presbyterian ministers should not have to attend any classes at a Presbyterian seminary.  He himself had never attended any classes at a Presbyterian seminary and he told us all that the Committee on Ministry had insisted that he do so.  He said it like this, “The Holy Spirit was calling me to attend a different seminary, but the Committee on Ministry told me I had to attend at least a polity (church government) class at a Presbyterian Seminary.  I refused to do that, and I’m fine as a Presbyterian Minister.”  But as the debate continued, it became clear that he was not, in fact, fine as a Presbyterian pastor.  He had failed to understand this very basic principle of Presbyterian belief that a call is discerned through community.  The Holy Spirit was calling him, through the committee and through the Presbytery, to take one class at a Presbyterian seminary.  He refused the call of the Spirit, and arrogantly assumed that his wishes were in line with the Spirit despite a whole group of people whose call it was to help others discern, telling him otherwise.  And as a result, he had no understanding at all of what it really means to be a Presbyterian pastor who recognizes and values the Holy Spirit’s strong and amazing work through communal discernment.  Not surprisingly, he left the denomination a couple years after this debate, joining another denomination that does not believe in the call of every individual, nor in call being discerned in this communal way.
Still, the truth is that this is hard for all of us.  We all can become arrogant at times and assume that we know what God wants, especially for ourselves, despite a praying body of people who are telling us differently.  We all can assume that we are hearing the Spirit more clearly than the body.  We all can, at times, fail to follow the call that we are led to through the discernment of the body of Christ in community because we are so individualistic in this culture and we are, frankly, out of practice in discerning God’s will through community.
So, how do we do this with regular concerns?  There are several practices of guidance and discernment that are available to us.  I mentioned above contemplative listening, study and simply asking God and others for help, and guidance.  But there are many other ways as well. 
The Quakers practice something called Spirit Rule.  When Quakers worship together, they sit in silence, listening for God.  Sometimes a Quaker worship service will be entirely silent for the whole hour.  However, often times a person will feel called to speak.  He or she will say what they feel compelled by the Spirit to express and the rest listen for the underlying truth in what is said.  Anyone may speak - woman, man, child, visitor, member.  But they see their worship time as a corporate seeking of God’s will.  All present are encouraged not to respond to what others have said, but to continue to sit in the silence and listen for the Holy Spirit’s words to them. 
Another, non-denominational practice of guidance is something called a “clearness committee”.  A clearness committee can be called by any individual for the seeking of guidance around a very specific issue.  I graduated from seminary with a concentration in spirituality and one of the required classes for that concentration was a semester long course on clearness committee.  We were divided into small groups and each person brought an issue to the group for group focus for a number of weeks before moving to the next person’s question.  The purpose was for the group to work together to listen to and for the Holy Spirit’s guidance.  The person with the question for discernment presents their question, their issue along with any background information that may be informing the question for them.  During the first sitting, the members of the group are not to give advice, but to ask questions with the purpose of moving the questions deeper.  The questions are not to be hidden advice.  For example, “Have you thought about doing x?” is not really a question, but advice.  Similarly, “My brother once tried x and it worked for him” is not a question, it is advice.  Instead, the questions might be, “How do you feel when you think about this part of what you shared?”  “What memories or images come up for you around this part of the issue?”  “When you ask God about this part of what you shared, what do you hear?”  Other questions might ask for more information, clarification, or deeper thinking.  The next session, the person with the question gives feedback as to where their thinking has moved and what has been helpful and then again, the committee asks questions.  At this point, committee members can also talk about how they have been impacted by the issue the one member is facing.  But again, this must never be framed in terms of advice, but more “when I think about x, I feel anxious because I remember when I made a similar decision and this is what happened.”  Or “when I reflected on y, I felt moved to make a change in my own life…” etc.  Also , the focus person may ask clarifying or thinking questions of the committee. There is a great deal of silence during these meetings as well, as people listen for the Spirit, and listen for the movement of feelings, etc.  The process continues for several weeks, but the key component is that while it is a committee of folk helping one person have greater insight and discernment, advice is never given.  We can never fully understand what another person is going through.  So helping another person gain insights, remember factors, explore the issues is helpful.  But giving advice is not because it is always based on limited information.  My own personal experience of clearness committee was that as a listener it was hard not to give advice.  At the same time, all of us found that the exercise or practice of listening becomes impeded when we are thinking in terms of advice.  When we are just called to listen, the listening can go much, much deeper because we are not distracted by trying to think about what we are supposed to say.  As the focus person, it was extremely helpful to not be bombarded with others’ advice, but simply be accompanied in the journey of discernment by wise and thoughtful people who were willing to ask the questions and reflect back what they were hearing without giving direction or advice.  This is a practice that I think would be very helpful for any of us to try, and if any of you would like to be part of a clearness committee, or have a particular issue you would like help with, please let me know and we will put one together.
      The final practice of discernment or guidance that I want to mention this morning is that of seeking out spiritual direction.  Spiritual direction includes many things, and listening to sermons or being part of small groups studying scripture is an aspect of spiritual direction.  But actually visiting with a spiritual director is also extremely helpful.  Their role and their goal, again, is not to give advice.  They listen for God, they help their directees to listen for God, they push questions about where God is acting and what God is guiding us to do.  My personal experience is that seeing a spiritual director is extremely helpful in deepening our relationships with God, which then allows for much clearer decision making.
     I want to point out one last time that seeking guidance as a spiritual practice is not asking for advice.  It is not giving advice.  I can’t state this strongly enough.  The practice of guidance is a practice of listening for God, deepening our relationship with God, being led by the Spirit, truly, whether that Spirit is talking through an individual or a community.  The process of guidance can be distorted, there is danger in it, but the greatest danger comes in the form of charismatic voices trying to give advice, telling us what we need to do, and claiming that they know what needs to be done because God has spoken to them.  This is a good reason in itself why advice should never be part of it.  And when someone is giving you advice in response to your seeking guidance, I would encourage you to be very wary.  Guidance invites you deeper into relationship with God.  Real spiritual guidance never seeks to manipulate or control.
          The purpose then of seeking guidance is not to have all our problems fixed and to know exactly what we need to do in any moment.  The purpose of seeking guidance is to deepen in our relationship with God.  That is why it is an important spiritual discipline.  We deepen our hearing of God, we deepen our seeking of God, we deepen our experience of God.  And we do so with the humility to recognize that we can’t do any of that alone.  We are led by the community of God’s people as well as the Holy Spirit in our deepening.  We acknowledge that none of us have all the answers or really any of the answers.  Only God does, and when we have the humility to seek guidance in these different ways, we remember that God is always there to lead us when we but ask.  We remember that God wants us to be in full relationship with God because in choosing relationship with God, we are choosing to be the most whole, genuine version of ourselves that we can be.  We remember that God’s answers are perfect, and are just waiting to be given.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Commitment to Kindness?

        I feel that my commitment to my personal Lenten discipline of looking for and acting with kindness has been sorely tested as of late.  This last week has included one event after another of interacting in unpleasant ways with other people.
         A couple of examples: I was walking through the grocery store parking lot and one of those monster trucks with the 6 foot radius wheels was pulling out of a parking spot.  I was far behind him, as far as I could go actually, walking against the parked cars on the other side, but of course, he could not see me because of the huge height of his cab.  I wasn't concerned about being hit: if he hit me, he would have hit the cars I was walking next to as well.  None the less, when he started to pull forward he did see me, after which he blocked me in at my car and scolded me for walking behind his truck.  I'll admit, all kinds of unkind, angry responses were running through my head, everything from, "Well, maybe you should rethink having a truck with such huge tires that you can't see well enough to drive!" to "It isn't other people's responsibility to help you see.  If you can't see well enough to pull out of a spot, don't park there in the first place."  Instead, at the point at which he said, "because if I were to hit you I'd be libel!" I responded with the really stupid, not kind, non-nonsensical response of, "well, if you hit me, I'd be dead and wouldn't really care anymore if you were libel."  I wasn't able to respond with kindness. I couldn't think of a kind thing to say at the time that wasn't angry or snippy.  I didn't like being scolded by a stranger, I felt I was in the right, I was already fighting some inner prejudice I admit I have against people who drive trucks with unnecessarily huge wheels, and I just wanted to be out of the situation. So I responded with a stupid, snippy response and moved on.
       Second example: I came home after a long, hard day at work today dealing with other conflicted issues and was exhausted.  I haven't been sleeping well because I've been worried about a large number of things lately, both personal and professional.  So I was also tired from lack of sleep.  I realized I could lie down for about 15 minutes before making dinner, taking the kids to dance and heading back to church for two meetings this evening, and so I made my way to the couch.  I had just fallen asleep when the door bell rang.  It didn't ring just once, but three times and then the loud knocking began.  I hauled myself out of my sleep and headed towards the door.  "Hi, I'm from x company and we are selling y.  I hope I am not disturbing you..."  Again, an opportunity to practice being kind.  After all, that's my Lenten discipline, right?  But I couldn't do it.  "Actually, you are disturbing me.  I was trying to take a nap, I need to help my kids with their homework, and I do not have time for this conversation.  I'm sorry, but goodbye."  And I shut the door.  Of course, going back to sleep was out of the question. Instead, I stared into space for the last ten minutes because I couldn't get out of my head that it was another opportunity for kindness and another fail on my part. 
       I am gifted, every day, with opportunities to put into practice what I claim I want to do, to try to be the person I want to be.  I see these situations as the chances that they are.  But these interactions (as well as others I've had this week) have shown me that it is not enough to just say I want to do something. I have to prepare. I have to actually think through what might be kind responses in difficult situations, what might be ways to diffuse an angry encounter. "I hear you are upset. I am sorry if I have contributed to upsetting you,"  "Thank you for that advice. I will think about that. I hope the rest of your day goes better."  "I realize you have the difficult job of being a door to door sales-person, so to save you time in the future, I'm telling you now that we are not going to buy from anyone coming to our door. But I wish you the best of luck."
          I realize I won't be able to prepare for every potential situation because I don't know what they all are.  But I can prepare somewhat by thinking of positive ways to interact with difficult people, by reflecting back on situations that I have not handled well, and I can strive to try to adapt thought -through responses when those situations arise.
        I've used this story in sermons before: One day a woman hopped in a taxi and they took off for the airport. They were driving in the right lane when suddenly a red car jumped out of a parking space right in front of them. The taxi driver slammed on his brakes, skidded, and missed the other car by just inches! The driver of the other car whipped his head around and started yelling at them. The taxi driver just smiled and waved at the guy. The passenger asked, 'Why did you just do that? This guy almost ruined your car and sent us to the hospital!' The taxi driver said that many people were like garbage trucks. They run around full of garbage, full of frustration, full of anger, and full of disappointment.  As their garbage piles up, they need a place to dump it and sometimes they'll dump it on you. "Don't take it personally," he said.  "Just smile, wave, wish them well, and move on. Don't take their garbage and spread it to other people at work, at home, or on the streets. Do not let garbage trucks take over your day."
       It's a great story.  But again, I think it takes more than simply a commitment to behaving with kindness and grace.  It also requires practice.  So I will continue to look for the good around me.  And I will also look for the opportunities to practice kindness in the face of anger, rudeness, and other "garbage."  I saw the look of disappointment on the face of the salesman today.  And while it was too bad my nap was disturbed, I also don't ever want to be the one responsible for making someone else's day worse.  That's a choice I can try to make, each time there is an opportunity to choose between reactive anger or kindness.

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Spiritual Discipline of Celebration

John 2:1-11
Luke 15

      Today we are looking at the spiritual discipline of celebration.  This one may be one of the hardest practices for us to recognize as a spiritual discipline.  How is it a discipline to celebrate, to laugh to party?  Aren’t disciplines supposed to be hard? 
       No.  As I said the first week we talked about this, the spiritual disciplines are ways to come closer to God.  That is their purpose.  If something is too hard it can be a distraction in itself.  That is the problem, often, with people who choose total austerity as a spiritual practice.  Just as our stuff can distract us from God, total lack of stuff can also distract us from God.  Hardships of any kind can claim our focus, and the purpose of the spiritual disciplines is to limit distractions from God, or to figure out ways to still focus on God through the distractions of our lives.  So then the question might be asked, isn’t celebration also a distraction from God?  When we are partying and celebrating and happy are we focused on God?  Well, it depends on how and why we are celebrating.  If our celebration is about God, and if we include God in our celebrations, they become invitations for joy with God, for dancing with God, for expressing gratitude to God for all that God has given us and continues to give us.  We hear today in the passages from John and Luke all the many times that God celebrates.  God celebrates when we are with God.  God celebrates when we return to God.  God celebrates when we find meaningful relationships (as in the wedding in Cana).  God celebrates when we find new life and when joy finds us.  God celebrates us.  And we, in turn are called to celebrate God. 
         Some may say that lent is the worst of all times to focus on celebration.  It is supposed to be a somber time of reflection and preparation for Jesus ultimate sacrifice.  We celebrate after lent.  But actually, the forty days of lent exclude Sundays.  If we included Sundays, lent would be 46 days.  But we don’t.  Sundays are supposed to be the days off from lent.  They are set aside to celebrate the resurrection, the return to life, the glory and wonder of a God who loves us so much that even death is overcome by that love.  Sunday is the day of celebration – of God’s love and resurrection and new life given to us each day.  So perhaps especially during lent we are called to set aside the seriousness of self-reflection, repentance and preparation on Sundays and simply to be and celebrate God’s love and grace this day.  And while there are some traditions that do away with celebratory words such as “alleluia” and even “Gloria” during lent, other don’t – reflecting that every Sunday is a celebration of resurrection and every Sunday is a time to remember that God created us, first and foremost, good, and that is worth celebrating.  I read an article recently in Presbyterian Outlook from a pastor who intentionally decided to keep using alleluias and glorias during lent as a way to remember that indeed, we are made good and that our time of self reflection is not about beating ourselves up, but encouraging us to grow into being the best we can be.  Sometimes the beating up behavior makes that harder.  It is easier, it is better to celebrate the good and from that place of celebration, rededicate ourselves to working towards being even better.
       It may seem odd to offer up ways to celebrate.  Surely we all know how to celebrate.  But I would say that if the typical traditional church service is any indication, we really don’t know how to celebrate God.  It’s like when a pastor stands up and says, “This is the day our God has made” and gets back a “let us be glad and rejoice in it” in a monotone, somber, distracted voice.  That is not rejoicing.  That is not celebrating.  Are the words we say simply words, detached from the rest of us?  Or are we called to genuinely celebrate with all of our being the amazing things that God has done and is done for us?  Celebration is an expression of true joy.  Celebration therefore involves all of who we are, our bodies, our minds, our spirits, our emotions.  It looks like gratitude, deep: heart- felt gratitude.  It looks like a joy that cannot be contained in a sitting, still, solemn body.  It should look the same way that we celebrate birthdays and weddings and graduations.  But it usually doesn’t, does it. 
       At my last church, we began a family oriented midweek service when almost all the kids in the church were quite young.  The kids would dance in the aisles during the songs, they would move around during the prayers. And I have to admit that I, too, struggled with this.  I felt like they needed to learn “proper church decorum” at some level, and so, while I did not scold the kids in church, I did tell my own kids after services that they really needed to not move around as much.  That was a mistake.  Worship should have been a joyous experience, a celebration.  Instead, we made it like another school day, inviting them to sit and listen.  They gave me the perfect example of true joy.  They truly embodied and demonstrated for me the celebration in each of those services of joy in their faith, in their community, in each other.  But I was uneasy because I, too, had ideas about what “church” should look like.  I was wrong.  And I encourage all of us, as we look at lent and these spiritual disciplines to think much more seriously about how we celebrate God as a spiritual discipline.
          Here, then, are some of the ways that I think we can celebrate God’s love and presence and resurrection:
1. Laugh often
2. Play
3. Attend and throw parties
4. Visit special places
5. Visit friends, old and new
6. Be generous with your time, talents and resources and celebrate that we have so much to share!
7. Dance
8. Sing or make music another way
9. Be silly
10. Notice the blessings around you and practice gratitude
11. Be excited about what is happening and what is coming
12. Let go of fear
13. Anticipate and look forward to events that are coming.
14. Appreciate nature and celebrate the seasons
15. Take time to really enjoy and savor the physical things in life: pay attention to what you are  eating or drinking and savor it.  When you walk, run, exercise in any way; pay attention to how your body feels and enjoy it.
16. Smile often
17. Use all of your senses in life: smell, taste, seeing, hearing, touching.

     I think the hardest time to celebrate is when something bad has happened, when there is a tragedy or a big loss.  I hear people who’ve lost a spouse or a child tell me that they feel guilty celebrating or even experiencing joy after they’ve lost a loved one.  I get that.  I understand that.  But I also know that it is the times of celebration that help pull us through those hard times. 
     When my family was going through its hardest time, I remember dancing, almost every morning, with my youngest child as she got ready for school. The other two kids would have left already, and it would just be my daughter and I getting ready for our day.  Sometimes we would hold hands and dance, sometimes I would pick her up and swing her around the room to some of our favorite music.  We did this, as I said, almost daily - as a way of surviving; of moving when it felt hard to even breathe; of saying, there is still love here and life and that is worth celebrating no matter what; as a way of remembering that joy was still accessible, even when happiness was elusive; as a way of saying, “God, we still experience you in life.  We still honor you with our actions.  We still choose to walk as the resurrection people, even when it feels like death is upon us.”  We did it as a way of being in and held by love for each other and for God in each moment.  We still do this sometimes, though not as often; frankly, not often enough.  The physical activity, the connection with loved ones, the laughter, the smiles, the joy – these things don’t make us forget what we have lost.  They are not sinful distractions from caring about what or who we have lost. Instead, they take the edge off, they renew our strength and energy so that we can get through the harder times, so that we can support each other going through hard times.  They remind us that what is important in life is not just the pain, not just the losses, but the people who continue to love us and surround us and care for us.  They remind us that God still wants good for us, joy, wholeness, peace, even when things are hard.  It is good to take breaks from our grief just as it is good to have a weekly break from our more serious Lenten practices.  It is good to take time to remember the joyful blessings that surround us - the beauty of the earth, the bounty of our food and friends, the smiles, hugs and love that come our way, the unexpected surprises of new friends or seeing old friends, the gifts that surround us daily.
We are so very blessed.  Celebration is a way to honor that.  To acknowledge it.  To express our gratitude to God.  And to say, as God said at the beginning and every day, “creation - it is good.”  Amen.