Sunday, December 26, 2010

Peace for All.... It's Christmas

I collect Nativity sets – though I did not set out to do so. It just kind of happened.

I have one from Honduras, a sweet set, very petite, with figures about 3” high. My daughter gave it to me when she spent a year working with Honduran Episcopalians setting up micro-financed co-operatives.

Another is from Mexico – from the Veracruz region. The brown figures are trimmed in pink – the angel’s wings are pink; the Kings wear pink headdresses; even baby Jesus is wrapped in pink swaddling cloth.

One is from Bethlehem, carved in olive wood – When I visited Palestinian refugee camps there, I met Christians who made their living carving olive wood doves and Nativities, praying for peace as they carved.

Another set is from Ecuador. That one is the largest, and the faces of the figures are a wonderful kind of earthy rich red brown. Joseph sits by the manger playing what looks like an accordion.

A friend has santons from France. Santons are traditional nativity figures, dressed in clothing of the middle ages – but it’s not just the wise men and shepherds gathered around the Holy Family; so are the notables of the village, the mayor and the parish priest; and the craftsmen, like the baker, the butcher, the cheese vendor. There might be a winegrower, a fisherman, a basket weaver and a potter. There are musicians and dancers who dance with joined hands. And joining the ox and ass, are sheepdogs with bells under their necks, sheep, goats, rabbits, pigeons on the roof. And don’t forget the ravi. This is a man or woman throwing up their arms in delight, either a simpleton or a very happy person!

When my son worked in Xalapa, we visited him one Christmas and saw Nativities that took up entire hillsides, large figures of all varieties and conditions of people and animals coming to see the Baby Jesus. They carried gifts, like chickens, to the Holy Family. And it wasn’t just the hillsides and parks – post offices, stories, government buildings – all had cleared large areas of space for Nativities, it was a culture that wanted very much to bring to life the wonder of the Christ Child’s birth and to honor that birth with all the materials they had at hand.

I love seeing the Christmas story depicted through the eyes of those of different cultures, with the characters appearing in a way that challenge and stir my imagination. An American artist, Jan Richardson, drew my attention to the artist Garcia Moia, a Nicaraguan artist whose painting Gift of the Magi depicts a Nicaraguan scene in which the wise men offer an armadillo, a rabbit, and what looks like an iguana!

It’s what I loved about the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth with life sized depictions of Mary and the baby Jesus from all over the world. From Japan, there is a stunning Mary in a pearl studded kimono, and the Baby Jesus swathed in oriental robes. From Nigeria, Mary looks particularly energetic and stunning and her baby boy is about to leap from her arms.

We all know that our culture is not the only one – we know this – and yet it is helpful to experience the very familiar stories of our faith – and what more familiar story is there than the birth of the baby Jesus in a manger – to experience this through different eyes and to really and truly honor and respect and wonder over what is Other – what is Familiar and yet Not Familiar.

One of the gifts that we have as children of God is an unbroken communion with those who are not familiar to us because they lived so long ago – and yet their voices echo over the centuries to us who live now among ipods and ipads and nuclear weapons. Hear the beautiful reflection of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian monk of the early 12 century.

“Let your goodness Lord appear to us, that we, made in your image, may conform ourselves to it. In our own strength we cannot imitate your majesty, power, and wonder nor is it fitting for us to try. But your mercy reaches from the heavens through the clouds to the earth below. You have come to us as a small child, but you have brought us the greatest of all gifts, the gift of eternal love. Caress us with your tiny hands, embrace us with your tiny arms and pierce our hearts with your soft, sweet cries.”

As God, under the vulnerable cover of human flesh and blood comes among us, whether in ways familiar or strange, let us be always ready to welcome his coming. He may come as a newcomer, bearing the good news of her great joy in finding a church that is “everything she could have wanted in a church.” He may come in desperate need of hospitality, as did the homeless men who spent the night here last Sunday, or the impoverished children and their families for whom you have so generously provided bedding, and clothing and toys. Or he may come as you have, each of you, tonight, offering the gift that only you can offer – your heart.

May we, with the angels and shepherds, sing of the glory of the Christ Child and bend our Godly will and works towards peace on earth for all peoples.

Resources: The Advent Door, Jan Richardson

Answering John .... 3rd Sunday of Advent

Last Sunday, after church, Jane Barker went to the hospital with what turned out to be pneumonia with complications. With her daughter Beverly, her son Andy and her granddaughter Caroline by her side, she passed away peacefully early Friday morning. The memorial service for her will be this Tuesday, at 11 a.m.

Jane had been unable to come to church for about the past six months – so the church went to her. She was a vital member of the knitting group – and when she could no longer attend their gatherings, that group went to her.

Whenever I visited, there was some new book by her side that she was reading – and I was usually surprised by the titles – any of you with young women in your lives will recognize the Twilight series! She enjoyed all kinds of music – from Bruce Springsteen to Bach.

One time, on a Wednesday morning Eucharist, she and I were the only ones that made it that morning – so we shared Eucharist together – the whole service. It was one of the most intimate and joyous occasions of Eucharist – when I said, The _____ of God for the People of God – there we were – the two of us - people of God - and I knew in my bones, what the communion of saints meant – a blood knowing, a soul knowing, and Jane, with her eyes sparkling and a smile on her face, knew it as well. In the months to come, all we needed to do was to hold hands and that knowing was present all over again.

I will miss her. And I know that I am not the only one who will.

In the relatively short time that she was here, she made deep friendships and became a vital part of this church – not because she sat on committees or did a lot – in her day, she had been a very active participant in her large church in Florida, but in her elderly years, the ones she shared with Good Shepherd, and let me tell you, she made it clear that she LOVED Good Shepherd - she was a vital part of this church simply because of who she was - because she was so affirming, so generous with her encouragement and her expressions of gladness to see you, so full of faith … and so / well / Joyous.

I’m sure there must have been moments, especially in the last few months, when that was not the case, when the people who cared for her day in and day out saw discouragement and despair at the confinement she so disliked. She must have known some discouragement over this, over her loss of the ability to knit, or to read, but the truth at the center of her life was that, in the wilderness of great age and infirmity and diminished abilities, she allowed the Grace of God to carry her into Joy, allowed the Grace of God to tend so deeply to her soul and her spirit that she bloomed into a thousand blossoms.

That Grace of God that Jane knew is the same Grace of God that Isaiah so poetically calls upon. They will rejoice, he says! Isaiah doesn’t say when the wilderness will blossom and the dry land run with water – he only says where that will happen – and he says that clearly and repeatedly. Isaiah locates God’s promise within the wilderness –within every human grief, every human lack and loneliness, and every earthly desolation.

For Isaiah’s people, wilderness had many meanings. It is a place that you ran to when you were in trouble – and it was a place of freedom. Deadly animals lived in the wilderness. Water was hard to find and crops did not grow there. It smacked of danger. Wilderness for Isaiah’s people was a wide place where it was easy to get lost. (Genesis 16, 21; Exodus 3, 13). (Deuteronomy 8:15). (Exodus 15, 17), (Exodus 14:3). (Deuteronomy 1:19). (Num 32; Psalm 107:4).

Wilderness was also the place where God’s people learned to trust their God. In the wilderness, God carried them, and fed them, and gave them water. In the wilderness God found his people and guarded them and cared for them and lifted them up.
(Deut 1:31), (Exodus 16), (Exodus 17) (Deuteronomy 32).

This is the wilderness that sings – that shouts with joy and blossoms like the crocuses in spring. This dry land, this desert, this wilderness will shout with joy because it will bloom with shoots of new growth that bud and bear fruit.

Do you believe this happens? Did happen? Will happen ever? John did. Even from the beginning in Elizabeth’s womb – remember how Elizabeth said to Mary – my child leapt in my womb because he recognized the One who is Coming whom you carry in your womb!” And many years later, when the grown up Jesus came to the grown up John at the River Jordan, John recognized him - You are the One who is Coming – sent by God. I am not worthy even to tie your sandals – you are the Mighty One of God.

And to prepare people for this Mighty One of God, John preached fire and brimstone from the wilderness – "prepare for the Coming One – he will separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire" – but finally his preaching got him into hot water and he found himself in the real wilderness of Herod’s prison, in the wilderness of a small cell with only one way out – his head on a platter.

And quite understandably, John began to wonder – Are you the Coming One? These works, these relatively minor miracles? Really? Is this what God has in mind? Where are the fires of Justice? Where is the Brimstone of Righteousness? Where is Salvation? From prison? From Rome? From oppression?

Let’s be honest. Who among us has not wondered something of the same thing. Really? Is this the salvation God has in mind? Where is it? I’m having trouble finding work. After months and months of resumes. 

Really? Is this the leaping joy thing that God has in mind? I don’t really have the joy joy joy down in my heart. I don’t really know the peace that passes understanding down in my heart. Sometimes I do. But definitely not all the time. And heavens to betsy – the world is really in a tailspin. Where are the shoots of new growth that will bud and bear fruit. Maybe you don’t think these things. Maybe you don’t. And if you don’t – blessings, all blessings upon you. But I do. I understand John’s question. Are you the Coming One? Are you the Savior of the World? And if you are - What does that mean? It’s a common enough observation that the world really does not appear to be a whole lot better off than it was 2000 years ago.

It is so ironic and poetic and poignant that Jesus does not really ever answer John. He affirms John – he recognizes John and lifts him up as greater than all the prophets who came before him. But then he simply sends word to John that there’s this blind man who could not see, who now sees. And there is a lame girl who could not walk, but now she’s cavorting about. And that person who was as good as dead, is now awake and alive. And the ones who cringe and beg by the roadside are having the good news of God’s love and liberation preached to them. All these images come from the prophet of way back when, Isaiah. And Jesus sends word about the real deeds that bring those old words to life –back to John in his dark, dank prison cell. The wilderness isn’t being torched – it’s blooming.

But it’s in small ways. In individual lives. Rome is still Rome. Prison is still prison. The hungry are still, for the most part, hungry. And 99% of the lame are still lame. It’s Not anything like what John had in mind for the Mighty One of God. But Jesus – from his birth onward, he just does not conform to expectation. His truth is the truth that the miracles – the works of God in Christ – are all around us.

I am one of them…..and, like John, it has taken me an amazingly long time to comprehend that God really and truly does work in small, insignificant lives. I was laid low, crippled, hobbled, and left for dead by a divorce that I had not seen coming – and while I am not singing arias from the rooftops – I am more than alive, by the Grace of God, more fully and resiliently alive in Christ – than ever before. Is this miraculous? Well, for me it is. Is it world changing? No. The wars go on. The economy is in tatters. The poor are getting poorer.

But it is Jesus’ answer to John. The wilderness blooms close at hand, so close at hand it is so easy to overlook. God is at work in the delicious delight of the tartness of the mustard against the ham and cheese of your sandwich. God is at work in the smile your secretary gave you when you came in last Monday morning. God is at work in the hand your child casually laid on your shoulder last night. God is at work in the shy thank you of the family to whom you delivered a mattress so they would have a place to sleep off the floor. God is at work in the gentle hand squeeze of a dear Christian nearing death.

Will Jesus come in any way different than he arrived the first time? I don’t know. But given everything that I do know – from scripture and from real life – I would say that we would do well to listen to the answer John received – and to look close around us for the places in the wilderness where the lame begin to leap, even when the leaps are hesitant and awkward because they are so new.

Sources: Working Preacher; Anathea Portier-Young, Assistant Professor, Old Testament, Duke Divinity

Monday, November 29, 2010

Ants on the First Sunday of Advent

Traveling to Ecuador recently with my 25 year old daughter woke me up to many things – the first of which is that she is her own person – that she conducts herself in the world with amazing grace – and that she really, truly knows Spanish, the street kind as well as the more cultured variety. She knows a lot of things that I did not have a hand in teaching her. And she is brilliant and beautiful – well those traits I knew as soon as she was born!

She is at ease among foreigners. But in this respect, she is not unique among her peers. For younger generations, the world is really and truly small. Children of the Information Age do not focus on just on their own personal world – their focus extends well beyond their personal lives; they are 365/24/7 connected to the rest of the world through the Internet and this informs these generations in anything toward which they might turn their gaze— well, more precisely, their browsers.

The truth is, if you talk to most any young American, 25 years or younger, you will likely hear an emphasis on volunteerism, teamwork and good citizenship. And it turns out that this acute social awareness correlates with demanding a sense of purpose in their careers. According to a recent Harris Poll, 97% of college seniors seek work that will allow them to have an impact for good on the world.

My daughter, for instance, started a nonprofit two years ago to advance education and health care among the very poor in a barrio outside Quito, Ecuador. As amazing as this is to me, she is, again, not unique among her peers. While we were visiting the families who benefit from her nonprofit, we met two other young women, one from Germany, the other from Australia, who, independently of each other, were studying the efficacy of international aid. All three of these young women – from three different continents – had come to the same conclusion - that large scale aid often does more damage than good, whereas smaller projects, built on actual and mutual relationships between the people involved, are able to leverage small amounts of money and know-how into positive and lasting change.

On one of those nights I was trying to sleep in a room not my own, I asked Ella what made her so desirous of doing international work. I would never have predicted her answer – but it was this. “Because when I’m in the United States for too long at a time, I kind of go to sleep. I work better under the stress of the moment.” I asked what the stress of the moment meant; she said it means that when she works with children who have rotting teeth because of not having enough of the right kind of food to eat, time is of the essence – each day counts, slacking is not an option. She meant that an abundance of energy is released when you combine your soul force with others to save lives and make change happen – not ethereal, spiritualized change – but real, on the ground, difference. Loving others, especially those who suffer hardship, by being in real relationship with them is energizing, she was saying, and living too easy of a life is enervating, it dissipates energy and a lethargy of spirit is the result.

Though this waking up kind of energy could happen here as well – for now, she finds it easier to wake up when she spends time outside the country. And she has a point. After all, there are more obese, medicated and addicted Americans than ever before.

It is a good Advent question to wonder what we are numbing ourselves to? What makes it so difficult to really and truly wake up – to be alive and energized?

My guess is that pain is what we numb ourselves to – and it’s also what makes waking up hard. We’ve all had the experience of having an arm or leg go to sleep. And we all know what it feels like when the blood starts to circulate again. It hurts! It’s painful! Still – it’s better than having your arm or leg hang there like a dead weight. Usually you don’t notice when your arm is going to sleep – it’s only when you try to move your arm and you can’t that you’re aware of your condition. So you do something about it – you shake your arm a bit, rub it, pinch it – anything to start the circulation flowing again. And the more you wake your arm up – the more it feels like there are ants biting you everywhere – but you keep doing it until you’ve got your arm working again. That’s a bit what it is like to be in another country where you can’t drink the water without boiling it – even in rich homes – and there is no heat – even in upper middle class homes – and real hunger and want is right outside your door. It’s also a bit what Advent is like – this strange waking up time before the celebration of Christ’s birth.

The truth is, of all the countercultural things the church does – I think Advent is the most countercultural. You come to church after Thanksgiving and family and food and good feelings, and maybe you’ve hung your Christmas lights and been to some early sales and you’re starting to enjoy the jingle bells of this good and lovely season - and you come here with cozy holiday festive feelings and then you hear these biblical texts about thieves in the night and people being snatched away and the clang of the hammer on the anvil as swords are pounded into ploughshares – Bang! Bang! And it’s hardly the sweet Bang of Bethlehem either but the clanging Bang of the Cosmic Christ coming in judgment, to judge the nations and put wrongs to right.

Cyril, the Bishop of Jerusalem in 386 wrote a catechetical instruction for those about to be baptized. “We do not preach only one coming of Christ,” Cyril wrote, “but a second as well….His first coming was to fulfill his plan of love, to teach us by gentle persuasion. This time, whether we like it or not, we will be subjects of his kingdom by necessity. Malachi the prophet speaks of the two comings. “And the Lord whom you seek will come suddenly to his temple”, that is one coming – (the one we celebrate at Christmas.) Again Malachi says of another coming: “Look, the Lord almighty will come, and who will endure the day of his entry, or who will stand in his sight. Because he comes like a refiner’s fire, a fuller’s herb, and he will sit refining and cleansing.” That is why the faith we profess has been handed on to you in these words: “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” Our Lord Jesus Christ will come at the end of the world, in glory, at the last day. For there will be an end to this world, and the created world will be made new.” Catechesis 15, 1 – 3

That was written in 386. It’s now 2010. A lot of time has passed – and it’s kind of hard to get excited about this Second Coming. But it is the church’s witness that this age will pass suddenly – and a new age will arise – suddenly. There will be a reversal – and what was right side up, will be down, and what was down will be up. Perhaps the child whose belly was bloated with hunger will be sitting on Christ’s lap as the nations and communities of the world stand before his throne, their deeds and non-deeds writ plain for all to see.

And perhaps the second coming will not be all that dramatic – perhaps it will happen for each of us in a second, in the flash of an eye. Maybe it will happen in a conversation or travel with someone much younger – or much older than yourself – and suddenly, you will see the world differently, and yourself differently, and the possibilities of being the church in God’s beloved world differently.

However it happens for you, may you have the joy of feeling ants biting all over as the blood of the Body of Christ begins to circulate again wherever you have been numbed to sleep – and you begin to rouse from slumber and dead weight and wake up – more fully than ever before. May your Advent be a happy one – a joyful waking up in the first light of the appearance of the Son of God,

Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Thanksgiving Alphabet a la The Rev. David Ruhe*

A Thanksgiving of ABC's
(Idea for the sermon from David Ruhe, Feasting on the Word)

The appointed Psalm for today is a portion of the 119th Psalm – the longest psalm in the Bible. It is composed of 22 sets of 8 verses, one set for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Within each set of verses, each verse begins with the same letter. “The structure can be like a mind-numbing march – but that may, in fact, be the point – more like a labyrinth or a mantra, than a theological treatise – it seems designed to draw you beyond into a state of being bathed in blessedness.” There is a tradition that King David used this psalm to teach his young son Solomon the alphabet – but not just the alphabet for writing letters: the alphabet of the spiritual life. It figures prominently in Orthodox worship – in monasteries it is chanted daily at the midnight service. Among the Germans, it was known as the Christian’s Golden Alphabet, the ABC’s of the praise, love, power and use of the Word of God. The clergyman, Rev. Venn, echoed the experience of many when he wrote, “This is the psalm I have often had recourse to, when I could find no spirit of prayer in my own heart, and at length the fire was kindled and I could pray.”

So I commend Psalm 119 to you – but I also commend to you the practice of creating your own psalms, your own miniature ABC’s of wonder, love and praise – I’ve done that for this morning – and I offer it with the caveat that it does not in any way compare with the Golden Alphabet of Psalm 119 in literary style or in spiritual wisdom.

A is for again and again –The poet Hafiz expressed it best: “In the morning, When I began to wake, It happened again – That feeling that You, Beloved, Had stood over me all night, Keeping watch, That feeling That as soon as I began to stir, You put Your lips on my forehead And lit a Holy Lamp Inside my heart.” “

*B is for balderdash - a word I think our Deacon would love! Synonyms are fiddle-faddle, and piffle – try them – they’re all fun for the mouth! Wading through the morass of political ads - it’s tempting to say “Balderdash!”

C has to be chocolate, the darker the better – a gift from the Aztecs, who considered it a gift from their god. And even richer and deeper and darker and sweeter is the C for the Christ, in whom we live - our way, our truth, our life, our wisdom, our bright morning star.

D is for David’s Psalms, the first songbook of faith. It’s also for daring to dream that God has a mission for you and for me and for the Good Shepherd community.

E is for Energy – that elixir of life of which we always want more – advice? sleep soundly, eat well, exercise faithfully, surround yourself with grateful people who see blessings all around.

F is for my Friends – my true estate, as Emily Dickenson so aptly wrote.

G is for Gratitude - the taproot of joy. Listen to Brother David Steindl-Rast: “If you have all the good luck in the world but take it for granted, it will not make you joyful. Yet even bad luck will give joy to those who manage to be grateful for it. We hold the key to lasting happiness in our own hands. For it is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.”

H is for heaven – the heaven on earth that comes from knowing I belong, from knowing that everyone belongs, and from acting in accord with that knowledge.

I is for increasing – from the morning’s epistle: “ because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing.” (2 Thessalonians 1:4)

J is for judgment and justice – words that I fear until I remember that Jesus died to show for ever and ever that love, gift and grace are the ultimate reality. “Strange,” wrote St. Catherine of Sienna, “that so much suffering is caused because of the misunderstanding of God’s true nature. God’s heart is more gentle than the Virgin’s first kiss upon the Christ. And God’s forgiveness to all, to any thought or act, is more certain than our own being.”

K is for kindness. Need I say more?

L is for love and laughter. “Here is a relationship booster that is guaranteed to work,” the Persian Poet Rumi wrote: “Every time your spouse or lover says something stupid make your eyes light up as if you just heard something brilliant!.”

M is for meandering – what life often feels like – and yet, it is a most meaningful meandering because my hand is held by God, and God forbid He should ever let it go– “because then I would weep so loudly and petition with all my might and cause so much trouble – that God would have to come to his senses, and never do that again!” (paraphrase of Meister Eckart)

N is for nice. It’s good to be nice – but too much nice is not so!

O is for the delicious O antiphons of Advent that lead us to the Christ child:
O wisdom, coming forth from the Most High, filling all creation and reigning to the ends of the earth; come and teach us the way of truth.
O root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the nations; kings will keep silence before you for whom the nations long; come and save us and delay no longer.
O morning star, splendour of the light eternal and bright sun of righteousness: come and bring light to those who dwell in darkness and walk in the shadow of death.
O king of the nations, you alone can fulfil their desires: cornerstone, binding all together: come and save the creature you fashioned from the dust of the earth.
O Emmanuel, hope of the nations and their saviour: come and save us, O Lord our God

P is for play and we all know that play does not need purpose – dancing round and round – how fun it is! Pachelbel’s Canon is not needed for life to go on – but isn’t it one of the most magnificent superfluities of life - providing meaning and rest. And of course, P is for pledging – making the life and the work and the play of the church possible.

Q is for all of my queer friends and all that they add to my life and to the life of the world. Q is for all the vast varieties of humankind and the delightful variations of creation.

R is for rest. St. Augustine said it best – "our hearts are restless Lord, until they rest in thee."

S is saints, the whole beloved community of believers, Jane and Gerrie and Stan and Joe and Tim and Susie and Uncle Bill and Grandad and me and you – and the rarified heroes and heroines of our faith – St. Paul and St. Mary and St. Margaret and St. Nick.

T is for trust. I, for instance, trust you to receive this unorthodox homily with forbearance, if not with enlightenment.

U is for unknowing – that cloud which obscures our senses from the Mystery we call God - God, who can only be known by the heart’s desperate yearning and the ripening of love.

V is for victory – which I hope for the Giants!

W is wonder – When people do things that put me into a judgmental frame of mind – I’m often saved by the simple phrase, “I wonder….” “I wonder what it feels like to think about things that way?” “I wonder what led to that course of action?” It helps me too, to go easier on myself – because believe me, I give myself much cause for wondering.

X marks the spot that is somewhere between nowhere and now here – or as t.s. eliot wrote: “The point of intersection of the timeless with time.... the still point of the turning world." We fall into that still point by grace, and we receive it with gratitude.

Y is for Yes – letting myself be carried away like a kite on the wind – flinging everything away in one gigantic unconditional Yes.

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any--lifted from the no
of all nothing--human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened) e.e.cummings

Z is for Zami and Zacchaeus– my dog, who is a true and faithful companion – and Zacchaeus, featured in our morning’s gospel, (Luke 19: 1 - 10) who found salvation when the Lord said, “Make haste to come down from your perch –for today I am abiding with you in your home.” Our name is not Zacchaeus, nevertheless the Lord says the same to you and to me – “come down - put your feet on the ground – because today I am here to dwell with you – to abide with you – to remain with you.”

Maranatha, come Lord Jesus, and be our guest.

*David Ruhe, Senior Minister, Plymouth, United Church of Christ

Monday, October 11, 2010

Lift up your hearts

Have any of you worshipped at what are known as praise churches? You know – words on the screen – hands in the air – joyous, contagious singing – Praise music! Musicians are normally driven crazy by it! It’s not complicated music, and it’s not usually of the genre that will become classic – it’s a more in the moment style, a lift up your heads and your hands and your hearts and say thank you! Praise you! Bless you!

It’s not the kind of music we Episcopalian normally sing! Or the kind of worship we usually go in for. But I have seen it’s effect for the good.

On mission trips into Mexico during Easter week, the teams that I led spent Holy Saturday at an Episcopal church in Fullerton. We slept on the floor of their parish hall, and worshipped at the early Easter service the next morning – before driving the rest of the way across the border into Tijuana.

Fullerton was a praise church – a praise Episcopal church – and the teens had usually never experienced anything like it. Some were deeply deeply moved – and on those mornings, dedicated their lives to Christ – some out of the emotional moment – but others in ways that opened up their lives in surprising ways. Two went into the Peace Corps to countries that I’d never heard of before - and even now, years later, are working in Africa in public health and community development. One is the senior warden of his Vestry and offers technical support to several nonprofits, several went into the military to serve their country.

I’m not suggesting that our choir suddenly break into clapping – and that we wave our hands in the air – but it has been my experience that giving free reign to our joy, to externalizing our joy at our salvation in Christ, gives spaciousness and extra room for God to create something new in our lives and in the life of our community. The truth is - there is something about out loud praise and joy that moves us – that saves us – that makes us whole and healthy inside and outside.

Our Eucharistic prayer begins with praise: Lift up your hearts. We lift them up to the Lord. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. It is right to give him thanks and praise. It is right and a good and joyful thing always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.

The core of our lifestyle as Christians is enshrined in the prayer that is the high point of our worship. Thanksgiving is at the heart of a life of faith and love. And it’s not just for the highpoint of worship, or for that lofty feeling we sometimes get on Sunday morning –it is for every part of our mundane, ordinary, trivial, everyday lives.

So how do you lift up your heart? How do you give God thanks and praise not only as your duty – it is right – but as a joyful thing – always and everywhere?

I don’t know about you - but there are many days when I wake up, and the first thing I’m aware of is not a lifted up heart, but a cast down heart. One that is already burdened before the day has even begun! That’s partly the personality I’ve been blessed with ☺, and partly because I am very aware of the needs of the world and this community and my own needs. We live in a time of rather extreme dislocation – a stubbornly high unemployment rate, veterans arriving home from Iraq and Afghanistan in very bad shape - traumatized emotionally as well as physically. I’m aware that every time I get in my car to drive here – I’m contributing carbon to the atmosphere. I’m aware that my retirement investments are most likely earning money from corporations that profit from sales of weapons around the world or in other ways that do not coincide with the gospel of Christ. And the list can go on. I’m aware that we’re sitting on top of a lawsuit that could go any number of ways. You see – there are plenty of reasons to be cast down. I’m guessing that if we all pooled our troubles – the list would be long and discouraging.

But the scriptures over and over remind us to lift up our hearts. They do not say – when things are going well, lift up your heart. Or when things have all worked themselves out, lift up your heart. They just say – Lift up your heart – now. Wherever you find yourself and in whatever circumstance.

Paul wrote some of his most comforting and challenging letters to the churches while he was in chains in prison. Jesus lifted his heart in the Garden of Gethsamene as he was about to be arrested. The first Deacon, Stephen, lifted up his heart as he was being stoned for his faith. Our first reading from Jeremiah was from a letter he wrote as he and a few others were left behind in Jerusalem, and all of the scholars, and artists, and builders and stonemasons and carpenters and anyone of means had been carted off in chains to Babylon by the Persian emperor. Exiled. And what did he say – in essence, lift up your hearts, and live fully – even in your very reduced and circumscribed change of fortune.

In the slums of Tijuana, we were invited into circles of worship - outside without any altar or piano or vestments or candles – only pure voices lifted up in praise and thanksgiving by Christians living in circumstances that I cannot adequately convey - no clean water, no kind of sanitation other than terrible outhouses, no comfortable places to sit or sleep, substandard shacks for shelter.

I KNOW that joy and praise and thanksgiving are entirely a matter of an orientation to God like the sunflower to the sun and not dependent upon the world going your way. And when it’s not the way you wake up, or the way that you feel throughout the day - you can still, through intention, turn towards hope in God and find something for which to thank Him.

King David knew this as well. Psalm 43 verse 5: Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? hope in God: for I shall yet praise him, [who is] the health of my countenance, and my God.

This is precisely what the lepers are doing. They cry out to Jesus – they don’t give up in shame and embarrassment at their condition, they don’t give in to despondency or apathy. They cry out – they lift up their hearts to the one whom they’ve heard can help them. And their hope is not in vain.

And for the one who pauses long enough to not only recognize that his leprosy is healed – but to really see what has happened and by whose word it has happened? He received an even deeper healing – a salvation kind of healing when he stopped long enough to reflect and turn around and lift up his heart, this time – not in a cry for help, but in worship. There was salvation healing for the one who gave thanks to God – not just in the prescribed, ritualistic way that the others had gone off to the temple to do – but right there, in the open air, he lifted up his heart in praise and thanksgiving –seeing both himself and Jesus in a new light. In the new light of spiritual sight that does not take anything for granted.

The truth is – all ten lepers were healed. As they lifted up their hearts and cried out in their need, Jesus saw them and had compassion upon them. Their healing is not dependent upon their worship of God through the word of Jesus. His word is faithful and it cannot be chained – and it is powerful.

This is the foundation of our praise and thanksgiving – that whether we see God at work or not - God sees us – sees us in our lightest places and in our darkest places – sees us thriving in community and sees us hunkering down in isolation, in secret self abuse and lack of caring – God sees us and is infinitely compassionate towards us –He accompanies us, rescues us, saves us – this is the ground we stand on – not our faithfulness towards God, but God’s never failing faithfulness towards us – this it the ground we stand on as we lift up our hearts, cry out our need and offer our joyful thanksgiving – always and everywhere.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

All your possessing - give it up!

This long weekend signals the end of summer. I’m celebrating with the gift of all my children visiting! Right on the Sunday that Jesus says to hate your family and take up your cross and follow…. And Paul asks Philemon to forego his rights of possession, and refrain from making a sound business decision and instead act as a disciple of Jesus the Christ – and from Jeremiah, a story about clay and potters and judgment. The lectionary is often like that – juxtaposing the way of God with whatever is happening in our lives, whether that is convenient or not!

So – family is what is happening for me. And I think it has been for many of you throughout this summer. Summer is often a time for families to re-connect, could be vacations or reunions or just barbeques in the back yard. And as we leave summer and move into Fall – some of you are saying good bye to children heading off to college. Some of you are saying good bye for a few hours at the kindergarten door. I’ve watched parents all this past couple weeks bringing their three and four year olds to preschool – and waving at them as they disappear around the corner and into a new world. Some of you said goodbye to children long ago, and now are thrilled – like me – when they come back for a brief visit.

So – whether are children are at home, or grown and gone, our job as parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and family friends, is to let go – whether it is that traumatic first day of kindergarten, or seeing them off on the plane that will take them to Europe or Africa or Latin America. Parenting means giving everything you have, but giving it with a completely open hand. And none of us do that perfectly.

Neither did our parents. We all want to have had parents who gave us roots to ground us and wings to fly with. But the truth is, we are all grounded with roots that are a bit shallow in some places, and we all fly with wings that were clipped here and there. That’s how therapists make their living.

So, the love we give and the love we receive is an imperfect mixture of altruism and selfishness. But it’s good. And it provides us with meaning and shelter in the world. There’s a book with a great title, “I only say this because I love you”. In it, Deborah Tannen writes, “Family represents a sense of belonging – a foundation for everything else we are or do. It feels that if we can fit into our families, we can fit into the world. And if our families can see us for who we really are, we can be who we are not only in the family but also in the world. But the coin has another side: If members of our family are critical, if those who, presumably, know us best and care the most find us wanting, then who will love us?”…But regardless of whether our experience of family is mostly positive or not the majority of us “continue to keep calling – by telephone, email, or in our hearts-because we want the connection that family affords.” So we read with horror this gospel passage about hating one’s family. It goes against the human grain. It’s distasteful.

It was also distasteful to the people to whom Jesus said it. It was a guaranteed crowd thinner.

Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. He knew what awaited him there but the people around him did not. Still when there was a large crowd following him, you might think he’d say: “Glad you’re here!” But instead he said: “Whoever comes after me and doesn’t hate their father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sister, even life itself….don’t bother. You can’t be my disciple. If you want to follow me, you need to carry a cross and give up all your possessions.” It wasn’t the first time that Luke reports Jesus saying things like this. Earlier he’d said, “I come to bring division. A family of five will be divided two against three.”

Traditional biblical scholarship says that this is oriental hyperbole. That’s true. It’s also the way that prophetic biblical language re-balanced the people’s priorities. It’s a big and dramatic kind of language. For example, Jesus called the religious leaders to account because they were so focused on the letter of the law regarding tithing, but neglecting the higher order of kindness and compassion. You are straining for fleas, he said, but swallowing camels. That’s hyperbole to make a point!

Hate is hyperbole that gets our attention. And if we are students of Jesus and not inclined to simply dismiss what the gospels report of him, then it makes us wonder what he might have been driving at with such forceful language. I believe he was pointing our need to re-balance our priorities. If we make our children or our spouse or our parents or our jobs or our church into our gods – then we are not only out of whack spiritually, but we are endangering the very connections that we desire so deeply.

My guess is that, like me, what is most dear to you is your mom and your dad, your children, your husband, your wife, your partner, your life. We are deeply inclined to want to cling to these people. We are deeply inclined to want to possess our life as something we’ve earned. But our life, and the people who are the nearest and dearest to us are gifts. If we try to grasp them, hang on to them, make them be who and how we want them to be, we suffocate them or we alienate them – and either way we end up lonely and unfulfilled.

So the key to having fulfilling relationships is in the final, “therefore” of this passage. “Therefore, none of you can become my disciples if you do not give up your possessions.” Actually, from the Greek, we could also say "all your possessing." "So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessing."

What is Jesus getting at? I think this: our human problem boils down to one of possessing. We don't simply desire the things that are of value to us, the things we "love." We also want to possess them. We love each other to death. It's our possessing things that turns love to hate and life to death. When we give up trying to claim our children and our lovers and our positions and possess them for our very own, we are able to receive them in a way that offers everyone spaciousness and freedom and the experience of true love. How do we do that?

It helps to look to Jesus because Jesus came and did it. Jesus became human like one of us and was able to love in a way that didn’t love us to death. The key mark of Jesus as the form of God in human flesh was that he did not grasp at equality with God but became obedient. God’s love is not a possessing love; it’s a gifting love. It’s a love not bent on possessing, but one that gives, even in the face of death.

God, as revealed by Jesus, is the creator who does not grasp. Who gives us life and breath and being – freely. Who sends rain and sun on the just and the unjust, on the lovely and the unlovely alike, without regard for return gratitude. This God that Jesus revealed, initiated a way of life and a people that that seeks to practice a gracious kind of freedom towards others that lets them be exactly who and what they are, without withdrawing love and respect and value - just as God does for every one of us.

As we learn through the Spirit to live our lives with open hands – remembering always that the people we love, and life itself is sheer gift – as we do this more and more, we are choosing life, not death, blessing not curse. To truly let go, to pry our fingers off the wheel of life and off our children and our spouses and friends and jobs and church and anything and everything that is not God – it can feel like death. It can feel like we are flinging ourselves off into the sheer unknown – and we are. That’s why life lived under the sign of the cross is not meant to be done solo. The Christ life can only be lived in community – as flawed and fragile as community is. We do this letting go looking to the witness of others who live this way as well – and above all to the assurance of Jesus that it is the way to life – abundant life. Abundant love. Abundant wealth – true wealth.

These past couple of weeks, I’ve been watching and hearing the children and teachers of the preschool get acquainted. I think I can sing the bathroom hand washing song in my sleep! I’ve watched the children unknowingly follow Jesus’ command as they turned their backs on their parents and step out into a new corner of the world. And I’ve watched their parent help them to do so – being encouraging and available and trustworthy – without attempting to hold their children back. They were all growing in the image of God, whether they knew it or not.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Hatched Open Hearts

During vacation a couple weeks ago, my mother and I looked through old family photo albums. I have this ongoing project to rescue old photos by scanning them into my Macbook Pro and then creating individualized books with them. I’ve discovered that looking through old albums unlocks forgotten stories. When I ask Mom, “tell me what was happening here and who these people were,” I have to be ready to type fast as I get the story of my great uncle’s kidnapping in Hawaii, and my great grandmother's mincemeat pie recipe. The stories, just like the photos, are loosely organized – but they are all about memories, connections and meaning.

Parishes stories are like that too. Over the last year – I have heard a lot of stories. About the tree dedicated to Michael Agliano in the front. Now accompanied by the tree dedicated to three year old Sebastian Balch. The watering system and the work that Charlie Haberkorn put into it. The BBQ area and how Bill Deming decided it should be cleared and then organized the people who came together to do the work and how Bill then built the big picnic table that we still sit around on Wednesday evenings. The kneelers – and how the women searched for designs from all over the world – and finally decided upon their own design featuring the birds and animals and flowers of this area. The windows – and how Carol replaced one of them with shower door glass when her daughter was going to be married here, and she wanted the windows to match, at least somewhat! And I’ve heard about shenanigans as well. Something about abandoned cars down the creek, and boys going off on adventures to bring various parts back to build forts… I think Mike could probably provide the details! Just like old family photo albums - the stories fit together – sometimes quite loosely, and sometimes we’re only able to recognize the thread that binds them all together after a long time has passed. But the thread is there – and almost always the thread that binds families and parishes together, as well as individual lives, has to do with love and loyalty, faithfulness and forgiveness.

Today’s epistle is like looking through a congregational photo album. The letter to the Hebrews gives what appear to be random snapshots – of hospitality, prison, marriage, adultery, finance, but they are bound together under the banner of love. “Let mutual love continue,” the writer begins, echoing Jesus’ commandment to “Love one another.”

But how did that congregation turn a broad injunction to love others into actual behavior that led to a measurably, demonstrably different way of life? How did they “let mutual love continue”? How do we?

The letter writer began with hospitality, first with those closest to you and then widening the circle wider and wider until you are including the stranger, the exile, the one who has no one else. So your first stop in this practice of graciousness is with the person with whom you share your tube of toothpaste. Then it widens to your parish partner with whom you put on coffee hour. The truth is, this parish lives on mutual love. We have several elderly who are no longer able to come to church and they thrive on visits – the thing is, as I hear over and over from you and as I know from my own visits – it’s you, the visitor, that gets the greatest blessing! Mutual love is just that – it’s mutual –everyone gets blessed! Then the circle widens and includes our greater church family. There are pictures and thank you notes on the Outreach table in the back from Iglesia Episcopal San Pablo Apostol, an Episcopal mission church in Seaside, with whom we partnered to provide back packs for children in need. The children’s smiles tell it all!

The next photo shot in the Hebrews album is about showing hospitality to strangers. Actually “hospitality” is philaxenia – which means phila, as in Philadelphia – brotherly love – and xena- as in xenophobia. Xenaphobia means fear of the stranger. You’ve heard that in the news recently about border immigration and the building of an Islamic Center in the blocks around Ground Zero. But this photo from the Book of Hebrews is about just the opposite – right after mutual love for other believers – is philaxenia – showing brotherly love for the stranger. Maybe you start small – with the new clerk in the check out line at the grocery store who doesn’t know what he is doing, and you are running late. You smile at him – from your feet, to your liver, to your heart, to your mind, to your face – the whole of you graciously smiling. Try it. You will get a blessing for sure – he may or may not be an angel in disguise, but you will be.

But the clerk in the grocery store isn’t where we stop. This morning’s gospel gives us a clear and discomforting picture of hospitality to strangers, especially to the desperately poor and those on the margins of society. Jesus didn’t talk about handouts. He talked about the more costly path of relationship, of real conversation, and of kindness that is vulnerable to the realities of being human together.

I read recently in the NYTimes about the death of Judith Peabody. Anyone know that name? I didn’t either – she’s a New Yorker! – but I’m glad I do know. Judith grew up in a world of privilege. She attended Miss Hewitt’s Classes in New York City and graduated form the Ethel Walker School in Connecticut. Her coming out party was held at the Piping Rock Club on Long Island. Her name and countless photographs appeared in Women’s Wear Daily and New York Social Diary and in fashion and social columns in Vogue and The New York Times. And yet, this was not her whole world. Her whole world included Hispanic gang members in East Harlem, as well as recovering drug addicts from the tenements of Harlem. In the mid-1980’s, she showed up at a home for gay men dying of a new, dreaded disease, called AIDS. She showed up, without fail, every other Friday for years – doing the work of physically caring for men who were social pariahs. At a time when people thought that just being in the same room could cause you to catch the illness.

The truth is, there are many such angels here this morning. This letter to the Hebrews encourages you to continue letting your light shine at home, with other believers, and with all the complications and blessings of widening your circle further and further to include real relationships with real people who are real different.

And these final double sided snapshots – “keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have.” I love how the scriptures zing right to the heart in such a few words – like all worthwhile pictures do.

The good news is that Jesus stepped in to save us from the death trap of preoccupation with self. To help us become content with exactly who we are, at rest, in God. To set us free from having to buy the next best self-help book that promises freedom and happiness.

But what a way Jesus opened to us! Open your life and your heart to those who don’t matter; to those who don’t count; to those who are overlooked, to those who cannot pay you back with social invitations or with anything resembling the currency of prestige. Jesus pointed us towards Life by pushing us to the edge of our very human, fundamental fears about not mattering, about being nobody, ultimately really about death.

That is why Christianity is dangerous and why the Pharisees were “watching him closely”, not in a friendly sort of way at all. Because the pulsating generative truth at the heart of the gospel is that you must lose your life in order to save it. Or as the modern theologian, Marcus Borg puts it; “your heart must be hatched open.”

The snapshots contained in the letter to the Hebrew’ show us what a hatched open heart looks like. It is an awakened heart filled with gratitude and wonder and the mystery of joining hands with our spouses and our fellow believers and with the prisoners and the poor. It is a lively heart that imitates Christ who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant.

This is our family album, bound together by love and faithfulness. It is a series of snapshots of each one of us, out in the world, practicing our religion, letting the Holy Spirit work through the sacraments and the scriptures and our daily encounters with others to break our hearts open so that we do, in truth, let mutual love continue and we are known for our brotherly love toward the stranger.

The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg
The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz
Peace, Walter Brueggemann
Christian Century, 8/24/04, Living by the Word, Bruce Wollenberg
New York Times, July 27, 2010, Obituaries

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Faith Stories

"Faith is the assurance of things hoped for / the conviction of things unseen."

The verse lends itself to being on a plaque, don’t you think? It’s easy to memorize and it’s comforting because we know in our bones, that it is true. Who among us has not experienced being assured of something that hasn’t happened yet – but that you know will happen? Or been absolutely convinced of things you can’t see or feel or touch?

But also just as surely – who among us has not doubted, not questioned, not had those wondering/wandering thoughts? It’s a popular misconception that if you have faith – you don’t have doubt. But that is not the case. Doubts and questions are not the opposite of faith. They are often the indicators of a faith that is pulsing with life and that is strong enough to welcome questions and wonderings and dark doubts as members of the family with secure places at the table. So don’t let doubt scare you. Don’t let questions frighten you. They are part and parcel of mature faith.

Mature faith is also filled with paradox. The author of this letter to the Hebrews isn’t shy about that. He holds in creative tension to very different directions that faith takes. The first direction is into the past / faith holds fast to that which has been received and experienced. The past is how we get our bearings. How we know who we are. Active, mature faith is grounded in tradition and in experience. And that tradition and experience is passed on – mostly through stories.

In my family – a hold fast story is about my great grandfather who was a banker in the Midwest and lost everything. He sold all his possessions to try to make his depositors whole, and then, penniless, brought his family to California. He never recovered from that disaster, his sons did somewhat, and succeeding generations have even more – but the story is carried forward in the McConnell clan, to say, this is what faithful people do – they hold fast to integrity, regardless of personal cost, and they move forward, regardless of fear.

The author of Hebrews immediately follows the verse that defines faith with stories about the ancestors – Abel, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham. And interestingly, he re-interprets the story of Abraham – smoothing out the rough edges of that mixed bag of an Old Testament man and making him into the epitome of New Testament faithfulness. Kind of like I just did with my great grandfather’s story!

So, the first movement of faith is for the past to be made useful – for definition and direction- and the second movement is into freedom of action. I am not speaking about linear or hierarchical movements. In God’s realm, in the realm of active faith – these can happen simultaneously as well as in a back and forth sort of way. The important things is that as you listen with one ear to your life and to the life of your community and world - as you listen with one ear to the actual circumstances and times in which you live – and with the other ear tuned to the Living God – as you listen this way – the way Noah listened, and Abraham listened, and the people who built this parish listened - you are summoned into a new way of being, into an open future of possibilities you could not have imagined on your own.

I’m guessing that as my great grandfather and great grandmother drove their rickety car across the Rockies and into Los Angeles, they had absolutely no idea what to expect. From a grand home with a grand piano and parties and horse racing across the plains of the Midwest, to a small, dark home in a crowded California city – they had no way of knowing how things would turn out. What they did know, just as Abraham knew, and countless people of faith have known, is that God not abandon his people, AND he calls them forward, even through the terrors of the unknown.

It is true – what the author of Hebrews reports – that some of these died before they reached the promised Land – the promised hope. Moses acted out of the assurance of God’s dream of freedom for slaves, but he died before he entered the promised Land. Martin Luther King lived in the conviction and assurance of the hope that God’s dream of justice and righteousness could be realized in the United States of America, but he did not live to experience it.

And back to Abraham – he too died before God’s promise of starry descendents and a promised land had been realized. The point is – the life of faith is not necessarily about the full realization in your lifetime of the hopes that God has planted in your heart – the life of faith is about faithful action in response to God’s call. God called Abraham out of his ease and into the unknown – and Abraham obeyed. He took care of all the practical details– and then … then …. He waited, because there was a long gap of many years – over a decade – before he ever heard from God again.

As if no time had elapsed, God appeared to him in a dream with the preposterous statement that Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the starry heavens….at which point, Abraham talked back. “Not sure if you’ve noticed, God – but I’m an old man, and my wife Sarah, is WAY past the time when it would be possible for her to have children.. It’s ok and all….I don’t regret having followed your call / but let’s get real here.”

And then, lo and behold, Isaac happened. Isaac – meaning Laughter! They named their son that because Abraham and Sarah had laughed so hard they cried when the angels came and let them know that they were going to have a baby. Can’t you just hear those two old people having the time of their lives – “Laughter, come here, your mom wants you.” “Laughter, stop that right now!” “Laughter, dinner’s ready!”

And then, without any smile in his heart….“Laughter, come, we’re going to the mountains to sacrifice.” “But dad, I see the wood and the knife – where’s the lamb?” “God will provide, Laughter, let’s just keep putting one foot in front of the other.”

This is faith. When there is no joy, when there is no peace, when there is no reasonable explanation – there is still trust. Because ultimately Faith is not a noun. It is not something we can possess and patent. It isn’t something we can conjure up. It is a gift. It is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. To pour it out for you – this is God’s desire and God’s pleasure. What is your part? Well – how do you receive joy? You open yourself up as much as you can – and receive it and it creates a state of being that makes things possible for you that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

It was all gift. Abraham and Sarah’s wealth was a gift, as was their journey, as was their trust in the God who promised descendants more numerous than the stars, as was their continued trust when their one son, “Laughter” was almost snatched away from them.

Can you receive your life this way - as pure and total gift - your resources, your bank account, your home, your spouse, your children, your employment, your lack of employment, your situation, whatever it is – happy or sad – whatever it is? This is the groundwork of faith. This is the substance of things hoped for - to participate in in the Great Thanksgiving, the Great Eucharist of thanksgiving for the brokenness that is our wholeness. This is the life of faith – lived in both directions – re-interpreting the past and moving with freedom into the future – offering thanksgiving for life, and bread, and wine, and water, and the shelter of companions – thanksgiving for the very life of God that is with us and in us.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Pray Like Jesus

During my rotation at Novato Community hospital, I was called to the bedside of a twenty five year old man with a painful and incurable disease that would not kill him. It would only leave him more and more disabled and in pain that could not be completely addressed by opiates. He’d been in and out of hospitals for years, and here he was once again. He let me know that before now, he had always been able to talk himself back into believing in the goodness of God, but this time he said he’d just hit a wall and couldn’t get past the bleakness of his situation. Why?” he asked. “Why doesn’t God hear me? Why doesn’t God answer me? I am Christian. I have many people around the world praying for me. But things only get worse, with no end in sight. I’m not even praying for healing any more, just that I would find purpose and meaning – but I don’t hear God. Still, I am not done praying.”

When we enter into prayer – we enter into deep mystery and there are often not very satisfying answers to our questions. Because when there is a disparity – as there often is – between our expectations and the results – there are basically two options we have to explain this: The first option is about me – I’m not good enough. I’m not praying the right way. I don’t have enough faith. And the second option is about God: God doesn’t care. God doesn’t listen. Or finally, God doesn’t exist. Because most of us are pious, we usually take the first option and think that there is something wrong with us. But I’m guessing that some of you know people who have taken the other option – and given up on God.

What was remarkable about this young man who had suffered for most of his life, and could only see further suffering into the future – was that, as far as I could tell, he hadn’t taken either option. He clearly did not believe there was something wrong with him or with his faith or with the purity of his prayers. And he had not given up on God. What he had done instead was enter into deep relationship, into deep struggle with God, into conversation with Mystery where most of us would hesitate to step. But it is the kind of conversation that Jesus had in mind for his disciples. It is the kind of relationship into which the Christ invites you and me. Because basically, “a Christian is someone who is engaged in lifelong training in how to pray like Jesus.” Will Willimon

The first think I notice about this prayer is that it is not sentimental, or pious, or particularly devotional. It is a prayer for people on the road – a prayer for people who are figuring out, step by step, how to live with God in Christ.

So this prayer just starts - "Father." Not as someone who has to beg for a hearing, or for forgiveness, or for anything for that matter. Father. Almost like a teenage son asking for the car keys so he can take his girlfriend out. There’s an incredible presumption of familiarity and trust.

When my son was about three years old, he would make the rounds of the dinner table, looking to see what was on everyone else’s plate and asking for a share in whatever looked good. Somehow the zucchini on my plate looked better than the same thing on his plate. He was completely shameless in his asking.

And I say shameless for a reason – our translation uses the word “persistent” - the friend is persistent in his knocking and so gets a response of the three loaves of bread - it is easy to think that wearing out your knees in prayer is one way to get God to answer – but the word does not mean "persistent" so much as it means "shameless." Be shameless in your asking - it has a different flavor than persistent doesn’t it.

On the Good Shepherd camping trip last year, one of the young children, much like my son, quite shamelessly made the rounds asking each of us what our snack was. Someone had an orange, someone else a cookie, someone else a sandwich. Whatever she liked, she simply asked for a bite of it – or the whole thing if it was especially tasty to her. This is the kind of shameless asking that Jesus is recommending. The same kind of boldness. The same kind of familiarity and trust in our status as beloved children of God. By the way, my son grew up to have excellent table manners and is socially quite competent – so our parental indulgence did not spoil him! And I’m quite sure our young parishioner will have excellent manners as well! Jesus however, isn’t interested in our manners when it comes to prayer. He didn’t teach a formula - 2+2=4, pray this way and get this result. No, he taught boldness, confidence, trust and surrender. Above all, he taught childlike receptivity.

I was at the Kodet household earlier this week, and watched Todd carry his baby granddaughter, Charlotte, off to bed, wrapped up in a towel after her mommy had bathed her – Charlotte was completely relaxed and cooing in his arms – a picture of trust and happiness. Even when she began crying, her trust in the solidity of his arms did not diminish.

Jesus trusted - and when the soldiers were on the way to arrest him, he prayed: “Father, if it is your will take this cup away from me.” He asked, he pleaded, he wept– and he did not get what he wanted. Nevertheless, his trust remained, through the absence of any positive response from his Father to his prayer.

This is what I was privileged to be a part of in the hospital room of the young man hooked up to a morphine drip that barely masked his pain. A conversation that did not, from any human point of view, look satisfactory. A man willing to have deep relationship with God and not turn aside. In truth, I was the one tempted to turn aside by offering pat answers. But when you are face to face with the cross, with suffering, any glib response crumble to ash in one’s mouth. All I could do was to stay with him, listen to his questions and his struggle, and not turn away.

So the disciples asked Jesus what you and I would want to ask him – how to pray. And at one level, his answer is not very satisfying. He gives no mathematical formula, and he doesn’t give any assurances of outcome. In fact, if his life is any indication, there are certainly no assurances of the things we often pray for: ease, prosperity, health, lack of suffering. Quite the opposite, in fact.

On the other hand, what we are offered is of immensely greater value – and that is a living, amazing relationship of familiarity and boldness with God, an invitation to shamelessness on our part, in what we ask for and how we are invited to approach our God. This section on prayer ends with the assurance that God readily desires and is ready at any time to give us the gift of the Holy Spirit – of God with us – the Lord, the Giver of Life – the one who will sustain us in all trials and temptations and who will deliver us from all evil. The Holy Spirit is ours for the asking – our challenge is to receive. Receive. Receive. When we lift up our hearts before God, our hands open in prayer, it is this that we are truly praying for, asking for – and which we can, without any hesitation, affirm that God pours down upon us.

In this context, asking publically and in common, that God gift us with the presence and guidance and courage of the Holy Spirit, I turn to a vexing issue. As many of you know, Good Shepherd has been challenged for some time with the Gordian knot of a gift of twenty acres that entailed a bank loan, in that the guarantor of the loan became unable to follow through. We have an excellent negotiating team which has been working hard to resolve this for the past year – however, in this past week, Rabobank filed a complaint against the church for nonpayment of this loan. The Vestry has referred the lawsuit to our attorneys to evaluate our options and to advise us in responding to the bank’s lawsuit. The Vestry has asked the land committee to continue to work on solutions – and we will keep you informed of all material developments. Because matters like this requires that all communications between an attorney and client be kept confidential, however, we cannot respond to specific questions. What I can say is that, while the person who guaranteed the loan has also been sued, we don’t know of any basis by which anyone else – parishioner or Vestry member or priest, could be found responsible for this loan which was taken out in the name of the parish.

I know that this announcement kind of takes the wind out of the room – and that it most likely raises lots of questions and emotions. And my guess is that everything I’ve just preached about has likely flown out of your minds. The truth is, however, that this is precisely the type of situation in which disciples of Jesus flees to God, to pestering God shamelessly for what? For relief? For guidance? For bad things to go away? For solutions? Yes – for all that. But even more – for the Holy Spirit to descend, to cover, to encourage, to enable us to bear witness to the ways of the Kingdom. And as we run to God in prayer for the Parish, we will not just pray for ourselves, but for all those who are affected by economic downturns. We will pray for all those who need word of God’s Love – the Word which is the reason for our being and the wellspring of our life.

While the Land committee and Vestry are taking care of the legal issues, I would like to invite anyone who would like to form a weekly prayer group to see me after the service in the side chapel.

We pray, just as we live, just as we move and have our being, In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Content and Contingent

Anyone know what the acronym KISS stands for?

Right! Keep it simple stupid!

It’s a principle used in software development, in mathematics, in scientific theory, and in AA. It can be traced back and back - through the Franciscan logician of the 14th century – William of Ockham, and before him, to the Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas, and before him to Aristotle – and before him – to Commander’s Naaman’s servant in the 2nd book of Kings.

“If he told you something difficult to do, wouldn’t you go all out trying it? How much more, since he gave you very simple instructions.”

How we love to complicate things! Especially when it comes to things that are important to us – like love, like relationship, like healing, like God. And most of the time, it’s the complications of our head – of our thinking – that trips us up and creates problems. Thus - the relevance of KISS wisdom – the servant’s wisdom in this story about the Commander and Elisha.

Don’t you just love his question! “If he’d told you something really difficult to do – wouldn’t you go all out doing it?” It reminds me of fairy tales – you know the fairy tale drill: before you get to marry the princess, you have to steal the golden harp from the closet in the dragon’s cave, but first you have to ask the mythical bird that nests on the highest mountain peak to find out where the dragon’s cave is, and then you have to cross the barren desert to get to the dragon’s cave…and on your travels you will fight giants. And of course, the hero always says – “YES! Let me go on the quest and I will come back triumphant or die trying.”

But Elisha didn’t ask the war hero to go on a complicated quest. He simply told him to go immerse himself seven times in the Jordan River – the quentissential River of Israel – the River of the Hebrews, the same River in which John would later baptize Jesus.

It wasn’t physically difficult to do this; but it did mean swallowing his pride in several ways:

1. The Jordan River is not known now, and was not known then, for being a beautiful river. It’s muddy. It’s not impressive.

2. There were much nicer rivers in the Commander’s homeland.

3. Why should his healing happen in Hebrew river water, when his own people’s river water was clearly better?

4. Why was he even talking to this slightly insane medicine man out in the desert who wouldn’t even come out of his shack to personally greet him, the General of all the King’s men?

So - Elisha’s instructions were simple – but following them was not. It meant that Commander Naaman had to break all his patterns of habitual behaviour. He was the right hand man of the King, the Commander of the Empire’s armies - accustomed to giving orders. Accustomed to being obeyed. Accustomed to luxury. In other words, he felt entitled. At the very least, Elisha should do something showy and complicated – a shaman dance, wave his arms around, perform magic – something to compliment and confirm his importance. Instead Elisha gave him the one thing necessary for his healing.

I’m guessing that this is, in fact, why this scientific principle has been adopted by recovery groups. Because we are all at least a little bit addicted to our own sense of importance – to our own sense of entitlement. And the truth is, we cannot become truly sober, truly in tune with reality, until we get a truer perspective on where we actually stand in the order of things – until we lay down, let go of a sense of inflated importance.

For some of us, that sense of importance isn’t always on the positive side of things. We can also become inflated with our sense of being terrible sinners – so terrible that God couldn’t possibly really forgive or love us. My friends – the conviction that somehow you are much worse than your neighbor – is just as inflated as the sense that you are much better than your neighbor. We all carry shame of one kind or another. We all carry hurts of one kind or another. We all carry weaknesses, and we all carry strengths. We all bleed. And we all breathe.

William of Ockam, was a logician and Franciscan monk in the 14th century. His theorem popularized the idea that the best explanation is usually the simplest explanation. For Ockham, the only truly necessary entity was God; everything else, the whole of creation, is radically contingent through and through. That means that you and I and everything we see and know is not eternal – we cannot generate our own existence. In other words, God can make something out of nothing. We cannot.

The corollary to that is that, in reality, no one person is more important or less important any other person.

Elisha’s simple instructions sent Commander Naaman colliding with this truth – and he went into a rage – a tantrum really. A few Sundays ago – also in the book of Kings - we heard about another tantrum – remember? King Ahab crawled into his bed, and cried and wouldn’t eat anything, when he didn’t get his way with the small landowner, Naboth. He wanted Naboth’s vineyard, and Naboth said no.

It’s obvious from these stories in the Book of Kings, that entitlement leads to a kind of psychological and spiritual fragility, a lack of resilience and actual illness. Would you agree with me that it is much more difficult for those in positions of privilege to accept this core truth of universal dependency on God and absolute equality with every other person?

When Jesus taught, “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.” “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God,” I’m guessing that at least one aspect of what he had in mind was that blessedness lies in contentment with our dependency on God and our equality with others. Content and contingent. Simple, yes?

There is healing for you and for me – let’s not hesitate to wash in whatever our version of the Jordan River is.


Sunday, June 20, 2010

Tell Somebody

Luke 8: 26 - 39

My brother and sister in law were visiting yesterday, on their way north. My son and his girlfriend and my mom were over for dinner as well. You know how it is when you’ve got family or friends over. You tell stories while you cook. Christy had brought green beans from the farmer’s market. While she snapped beans, I made the rice and the guys grilled the mahi mahi. Christy started to tell us about a new vegie burger she liked. She obviously really liked it – and she told us all the details – it wasn’t trying to be meat, it was clearly a vegie burger – and it was stocked with veggies! A fava bean fell out of it when she was eating it! She told us where she bought it – Trader Joe’s – Where it was located in the store – the frozen section – What it had in it – tofu and vegetables – How you could eat it – in buns or tacos with salsa – Half way through her testimony, I was pretty sure that when I was at Trader Joe’s next, I would go to the frozen food aisle and see about these vegie burgers.

Testimony – Witnessing – it just means telling stories about how this happened to me, and it was really great– and I want you to know about it. It’s called viral marketing – people telling other people. It’s the kind of marketing that you can’t buy but every business covets it. It works far better than any advertising.

It’s how you and I came to faith. Someone, somewhere, let us know that this was important to them, and that something good, maybe even something miraculous happened for them through Jesus the Christ. I came to faith through a lot of people and stories – but the ones the jump to mind are a Sunday School teacher, Miss Emma, and a minister, The Rev. Vernon Story and a piano teacher, Mrs. Phyllis Corn. Did any of these people sit me down and tell me about Jesus? No. On my birthday, Miss Emma made me a little book that had nothing to do with religion - but it was as clear as day to me that the sweetness of her gift had everything to do with her faith. The Rev. Vernon Story talked about Jesus because it was his job – but what really communicated to me about his faith was the way he listened to me – and how I saw him really listening to a lot of people, some of whom didn’t like him very much at all. I don’t ever recall my piano teacher, Mrs. Corn, saying much of anything in particular about God, but I knew she sang in the choir and that music and religion were connected. If you think back into your own life, my guess is that there are people scattered throughout your history that told you their story – whether in words or actions or both - in a way that opened doors for you into your own faith journey. If you’ve ever been a part of a small group – maybe a bible study that meets consistently – you know that hearing how other people are making connections between what is in the book and what is in their lives is what really keeps you coming back week after week – it’s the personal stories that open doors for you keep to going deeper into your own life with God. It’s how we learn - from each other.

And it’s not just advertisers and marketers that know that. Jesus knew it too. When the man who had been healed of all those demons wanted so badly to get into the boat with Jesus and go with him into his next adventure – Jesus gently, but firmly, said “no. Go back home. Let everyone see you, see how you are healed, see what a difference there is in your life. Tell everyone what God has done for you.” And that’s what the man did.

Did he talk about it much? Well, I’m guessing that he did. It was a pretty dramatic turn around for him. It was worth a lot of corner store talk. But more than his talk – I’m guessing that what really piqued people’s interest and attention and respect – was the simple fact that something profound had happened to him. He was no longer dogged by truly awful demons. He was in his right mind. He was cleaned up and clothed. He was a full fledged disciple of this Rabbi teacher that had visited them. He didn’t have to say a whole lot to get their attention.

Still, the telling was in fact a big piece of what Jesus had sent him back to do.

“Go back home. Tell what God has done for you.” There was a small Episcopal church in the Midwest that called a priest, but had trouble paying it’s bills. Small was getting smaller. Now they are growing and thriving and vital. What happened? Pretty much only one thing. They began telling their stories. They began to adopt Pentecost ways – prophetic ways – which simply means they began to notice and to share what God was doing in their lives.

Now the truth is – that is not the way we normally see our lives. We don’t naturally have that grid – so to have stories to tell, we need to see with new eyes. And that’s what the people in this church began to do. They began to see with Easter eyes – which means they began to see the events and people and situations in their lives through the eyes of Resurrection – through the eyes of people with whom the Christ was living and breathing and present. And when they began to see their lives in this way, they began to have stories to tell – and they told them. To themselves. To each other. And the fire was lit.

The Vestry met this past week – and we did just that. Broke into groups of four, and told each other what God, through Christ, had been doing in our lives since the last time we met as a Vestry in May. We heard about everything from listening with Jesus’ ears to a grieving child, to being calm in the midst of major trials at work, to finding deep peace while making decisions. And you know what? We went on to conduct the business of the parish with listening ears, with calmness and deep peace – and a lot of laughter and joy. When we see our lives through the eyes of faith – through the eyes of people who are sustained by the living presence of the Christ in us and with us – and when we share that, so as to encourage each other, and build one another up – something happens.

There’s a song – remember music and religion go together?

C Em F G
It only takes a spark to get a fire going.

And soon all those around, can warm up in the glowing.
That's how it is with God's love,
Dm G Dm7 G Dm7 C
Once you've experienced it, you spread His love to everyone;
You want to pass it on.

We can do this. We do experience God’s love here. And we can pass it on. Ultimately, it’s what we have as a church. It is our primary mission. We don’t have to make anything up, or make anything bigger or better than it is. We don’t even have to tell it to strangers. Telling each other will do.

So what has God, through Christ, been doing in your life this past week?

Resources: Pass it On, by Kurt Kaiser

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Indwelling Unity

Before he died on the cross, Jesus prayed for you and for me. Just that’s enough to make you stop in your tracks. My grandmother prayed for me – especially during my college years! - and even though she died some time ago, her prayers continue to reverberate in my heart. Knowing that Jesus prayed for me and for you – for all the believers that would come to believe – knowing that Jesus prayed for us before he died – that rocks! And his prayer continues to reverberate in the life of the church. It guides the life of the church. Jesus prayed for the Indwelling Christ to sustain us and guide us. He prayed that we would know unity – with each other, with people who are very different from us, with God.

Now it’s easy for us to confuse unity with uniformity. But they are not the same thing. Unity doesn’t mean voting the same way, or having the same opinions. It does not even mean that we all like each other – although not actively disliking each other certainly helps. The unity that Jesus prayed for, and that the Holy Spirit gives, does not depend upon agreement.

The unity Jesus prayed for is a gift from God into which we are born. Because the baptismal waters – whether they are the actual waters of baptism in a church – or the waters of baptism through crisis - either way, these are our spiritual birth waters. Baptism begins a life time journey that begins in that big word – Change. It is a journey in which we pass out of the world’s ways that are centered in self-gain and self-protection, into a new life in Christ that is centered and grounded in the security of God’s creative and eternal love. Our unity is born in the unfathomable grace of God and it is nurtured through our attentiveness to God’s still, small voice.

But where do we actually experience unity? Here’s three stories of unity that I’ve seen recently:

First story takes place right here in this Diocese. We are a living experiment in unity that does not depend upon uniformity. Just ten miles away at Mission House in Seaside is a thriving Latino congregation, San Pablo Apostol, that does not look, in any way, like Good Shepherd – from the overflowing numbers of children, to the language spoken, to the issues in which people are engaged – and yet we gather around the same Table and the same Bishop. We began to build visible bridges of unity when Juana, an officer and long time member of San Pablo Apostol, catered the Good Shepherd Vestry retreat dinner with the most delicious chicken mole, and it is my hope that some of the children of San Pablo Apostol will join us for our Vacation Bible School.

Second story takes place right here through Bishop Mary. Through her and with her, we share humor, affection, worship and service with a conservative African Bishop and Diocese in Western Tangyanika and a high Catholic leaning English Bishop and Diocese in Gloucester, England. In these deepening relationships, we know the unity of the indwelling Spirit of Christ, rather than a more superficial uniformity of theological interpretation.

The third story is not a wow! kind of story – but an everyday, right under our noses, kind of story – it’s the Meals that Heal for those undergoing illness or emergencies, the I-Help Dinners for the homeless, the Prayer Shawls, the Women for Women project in Afghanistan, and a hundred other examples that take place right in our own lives – these are all testimony to the Indwelling Spirit of Christ that creates natural bonds of unity that simply flow out of our hearts. It is a unity that ceases to appear remarkable but it is second nature – or really, what becomes first nature – as we live into Christ.

But we have also, all of us, experienced disunity – in our own lives and among our brothers and sisters in Christ. Disunity is a kind of prison in which we are locked away from warmth and love and each other and God. What locks us into the prisons of disunity? And what unlocks us – frees us - into unity?

Three stories from the gospels point us towards the freedom of the unity which Jesus so deeply desired for us, the unity that arises from the Indwelling of His Spirit in us.

First story. Jesus was surrounded by people eager to hear him, eager to touch him. A gaggle of children arrived, their faces and clothes dirty from a hard day of play. They zeroed in on Jesus immediately, with that instantaneous knowing that kids have about who’s safe. So they jumped up and down, tugged on his robes, hugged him, and he hugged them back, tousled their hair, stopped what he was doing to play with them. But the disciples were more than annoyed. Jesus was important. Their relationship with him was precious. And so they shooed Jesus’ young friends away. They worked so hard to understand Jesus and to protect their relationship with him, and they completely misunderstood and locked themselves away from laughter and joy.

Sometimes, we do the same thing ourselves. When we think that we’ve got the real message and that others don’t, we misunderstand Jesus. When we think we need to protect God from how others relate to the Divine, we lock ourselves into the prison of alienation and disunity.

What unlocks us into unity? Jesus pointed the disciples to the openness and wisdom of a child’s heart. “Unless you become as little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” he told them. Children don’t try to make everyone think alike and act alike – they just know they need a third baseman! They know the unity that arises out of the wonderful astonishment of simply playing together.

Second story. Jesus and the disciples were headed towards Jerusalem. The disciples lagged behind Jesus, arguing. Later, Jesus asked them about it. Turned out they’d been arguing about who would sit at his right and left hand in the coming kingdom. They were locked into the prison of power – arguing about who was the greatest, who was the most important.

It’s an argument as old as Cain and Abel. It’s an argument we know. It happens between people, between races, between nations, between religions. Who’s closest to God? Who’s got the power to make things happen their way? Whenever we are under the illusion that our safety and our identity depend upon having power over others, we are locked into the prisons of false power. But Jesus showed the way to freedom.

Jesus unlocked the prison doors of the disciples’ arguing by getting down on his knees with a servant’s towel and washing their crusty feet. He didn’t argue. He didn’t try to make them different. He stepped out of the way, and did something different. He attended to their need.

Paying attention to others is a way to freedom. A way to unity. When we cease to compete for control and cease to insist upon our own way, we open the way for Love. Love, St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, is patient and kind. It is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It is slow to take offense and it is always ready to excuse. It hopes. It hopes and endures. We find unity on our knees, in loving service to one another.

Third story. Jesus was arrested, tortured and killed. The disciples scattered to the four winds, terrified that the same thing would happen to them, blind with grief and fury, ashamed at their lack of courage and loyalty. The disciples were spiritually crucified on the cross of fear, fury, and shame just as surely as Jesus was physically crucified on the wooden cross. And just as Jesus’ body was buried in the tomb cut into rock, so the disciples’ spirits were buried in the prison of disunity within themselves, disunity from each other, and disunity with God.

Certainly, you must know from your own life that fear and shame and fury can bury you alive. I do.

But the Wisdom - the Christ, that existed from before the beginning; the Wisdom – the Christ, by which all things have their being; this Wisdom – this Word – this Christ - cannot be silenced. And so beyond the torture, beyond the cross, beyond the grave, beyond the betrayals and the shame and the fear and the fury, God resurrected Jesus. And Jesus found the disciples again, one by one, out where they had scattered, and gathered them together and breathed freedom and forgiveness and eternal life into them. He promised the Holy Spirit to live within them, to inspire them, to guide them, and to bring unity.

And that’s what happened. The Spirit came upon the disciples as they prayed together. And when the Spirit descended on them – they exploded out into the streets with the great good news of God’s Love – a Love that no power on heaven or on earth can end. Unity in the Spirit was experienced as unity in a common mission to spread the good newsThe church was born.

How do we experience unity? In the same ways that Jesus showed the disciples – through wondering and playful imagination; through paying attention to the needs of others and serving them; through joining in mission to tell about the good news of God’s eternal and abiding love.

Play. Service. Mission.

Or as the poet Mary Oliver so succinctly put it: “Pay Attention. Be Astonished. Tell about it.”