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.