Friday, September 28, 2018

Follow up about violent responses, from friend directly affected

The following is from the friend, David Hancock, who found the intruder in his house stealing from him. He wrote this in response to the posts advocating that he should have shot the intruder.  I am sharing it and giving his name with his permission:

Thank you, everyone.

Let me specifically address the responses about shooting the guy.

1- I saw him for three seconds. I thought it was my wife heading to work and I was going to give her a kiss goodbye. So I was kind of surprised that it was a thief. If I were going to shoot him that would mean that I was going out to say goodbye to my wife (who I initially thought was the person in the living room) with my gun loaded, armed, and pointed at her. So that's not a recipe for a healthy marriage. Being in a position to shoot the guy would also have meant being the kind of person who carries a loaded gun around my own house with me all the time. I have no interest in being that kind of person.

2- The Bay Area does not frown upon shooting home invaders. This state's gun laws are incredibly lax compared to where I used to live (Illinois) and to where I am moving in a few weeks (Colorado). In fact, one of the responding officers looked at me and said something to the effect of 'if this guy comes back, California law is VERY lenient with whatever you feel you need to do to protect your home. You can't do anything to him outside, but if he's inside, or ends up back inside, you're free to defend your property however you want.' I bought my first gun in Illinois and I had to go through two full days of safety training before I could buy it and then also complete tri-annual paperwork and updates with the Illinois State Police confirming that I still owned it. Here, I'm required to ever take zero training and didn't even have to register my gun with the state.

3- I've been robbed before, at a job where I worked retail. The kid then had a balaclava on, so I didn't recognize him, and I did have the opportunity to stop him using lethal force had I chosen (that would have meant a lot of risk to me, too, but let's assume that I could have killed him.) The kid who robbed us was the son of one of the police officers who frequented the store and I would have killed the child (who was my age) of someone I knew. So that would have stayed with me my whole life.

I have known people who have killed people and I have seen what that does to them, and the mental difficulties and challenges it brings, repeated nightmares, and, in some, a vacancy behind their eyes that develops over years of worrying about what the act of killing someone does to them and means for them.

It's, frankly, disgusting that Americans are so flippant about ending a person's life. The most common reactions I've had to this event is people saying things like "That would have ended differently for that guy at my house" or "you should have murdered him then had breakfast" or "Why not just shoot him?" All those are exactly word-for-word. Why not kill someone because they have $1K in my camera gear in their arms? Because every human life is worth infinitely more than $1K in easily replaced camera gear. Every person is worthy of redemption, forgiveness, and kindness, no matter the circumstance. Because a camera thief is human, and has in them all the qualities associated with humanity. People don't break into homes and take a paltry little sum of camera gear because it's a hobby. They do it for a need, and whether that need is rent or drugs, that person is in a bad place in their life. I don't need to make it worse. And anyone who writes off a person so easily needs to question their own humanity. I'd much rather be surrounded by camera thieves than people who think it's okay to kill someone because that person is stealing something I can go online and replace tomorrow. All people are worth more than any material item.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Violent Responses

          I was browsing FB the other day and saw a post by a friend of mine who was describing a terrible and scary incident in which he awoke to find an intruder in his home.  The man grabbed a couple things and left. No one was hurt, my friend was able to replace the missing items with fairly little trauma.  It wasn't a pleasant experience but neither was it scarring.  What I found more interesting (here translated "disturbing") was the responses of some of his friends.  Several posted in response that he should have shot and killed the guy.  And that was usually followed by "that would have taught him".
        I have to admit, I find this response shocking and upsetting for so many reasons.  The first is simply the obvious one: once you're dead, there are no more lessons to be learned, folk.  Killing somebody doesn't actually teach them anything.
        But beyond that, why do we feel that we should react to unpleasant things by escalating the violence?  This is a mind-set that seems to have taken over the U.S. at this point in time.  We seem to greet every slight and every affront with an incredibly disproportionate response of revenge and increased harm. This must be a long time human flaw.  In the Hebrew scriptures, we are told "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." This was a law put in place to limit the amount of damage that could be returned in response to an injury of any kind.  It was necessary to make those statements at that time because people DID tend to escalate the problems.  "An eye for an eye" meant that you could only return in equal amount what was done to you.  So in this case, you could take something from the other person in response to their taking something of yours (NOT their life, by the way.  That's NOT what you could take in response to their stealing an item.  That is not an equal response.).  The Christian scriptures take it much further.  (Mt. 5:38-42): "You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and a tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you."  This takes the actions of love and kindness exponentially further.  Not only are we supposed to refrain from killing the people who upset us, not only are we to refrain from retaliating by inflicting the same injury to a person who has injured us, but we are to take loving a giant step further and try to respond to evil with goodness, try to respond to hate with love, try to answer anger with peace, and try to meet injury with caring.  
           Is this hard?  Of course.  Does it bring justice?  Not in the way we have come to understand it, that's for certain.  Is this normal behavior, even for people of faith? Not by any stretch of the imagination.  These tend to be passages that people of faith ignore, "forget," or simply fail to apply to real life.  It is hard to walk with love towards those offering hate.  It is difficult to not want revenge when someone has hurt us.  It is absolutely counter-cultural to not hit back when we are hit.
          But as I say in my sermons almost every week, the things we are asked to do by our faith traditions, while they may appear hard, are always things that invite us into wholeness as well: they aren't just for the "other".  They are meant for our own good, for our own betterment, for our own growth.
          So looking at it from that perspective, what are the consequences for different responses in this case?  Let's say my friend had shot the guy who broke into his home.  Instead of dealing with the, not minor, but not overwhelming either, trauma of an invasive house break in and theft, he would carry the scars for the rest of his life of having taken someone else's life.  Maybe there are people out there who can just dismiss another life as somehow not worthy of continuance.  Maybe there are people who would feel proud of putting out the life of someone who is making a bad choice. But my friend is a thinking person: he knows that just because someone does bad things does not mean they are an evil or worthless human being.  We never know the stories behind other people's actions.  We never know if someone is truly beyond redemption. We never know what has led up to that moment, nor where someone will go next in their life. To quote Gandalf, "Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends."  For those of us who believe in the sanctity of life, taking life away from another human is something you just simply cannot heal from.  Ever.  Even if he could heal from it, he would end up going through the court system as a result of his actions: and that, too, is frankly extremely hard to get over, even if he were exonerated.  He also pointed out to me that since he didn't see the person very well, at first he wasn't even sure it was an intruder.  It could easily have been his wife returning from work.  Would you really want to go out shooting and risk hitting your spouse?
         In contrast, there are many stories of a response of love changing the hearts of anger and evil in the other. How does it affect us to behave with love?  It helps us build resilience, loving builds more love, even in our own hearts; forgiveness helps us to completely let go of the anger and pain we carry. In this case, their ability to forgive has meant that a terrible incident is truly over for them, not something they need to carry forward into any other situations.  In reality, there wasn't time for any response on the part of my friend to the intruder.  But if there had been, we never know how a choice for kindness will affect others, and even our own hearts, down the road.  We never know.  And it isn't our job to determine.  Our job is to be kind, to be compassionate, to "love our enemies" as Jesus would tell us, and to be open to allowing the love we have to grow and change us. The results of that are just not up to us.  
          I find this quick response of "you should have shot the guy" extremely disturbing because it shows an inability to seek empathy for those who are different, for anyone who has done wrong, for someone who has hurt us. It shows a way of thinking that is violent, aggressive, and non-sympathetic.  It reflects a lack of ability to see the humanity in people who harm us. It is an action that also demonstrates a forgetfulness of our own mistakes.  While we may say, "Well, I've never done anything that bad," I don't know that rating our mistakes is very healthy or even fair. Again, we don't know what has led up to that moment for the person choosing that behavior.  This reaction also fails to see beyond this moment into the future consequences of our choice to react with violence and revenge.  
           I would hope for us that we could start the pendulum swinging back towards greater compassion, towards a deeper understanding that the difference between me and you is only time and space: that when we hurt the other, we are injuring ourselves: and when we choose love, we are also choosing love for ourselves.  I think that road may be long, but it's an important journey to walk.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Fighting for First Place

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

Mark 9:30-37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   and I hand my glove to my associate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 18, 2018


                                                     Proverbs 11:9-13

James 3:1-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

               The list goes on and on and on. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Arguing with God

Exodus 33:vs. 3 and 12-23

Jonah 3:10-4:11

Mark 7:24-30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For a while, furious.”

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

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

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


Wednesday, September 12, 2018

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

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