Monday, July 25, 2011

Neither Heaven Nor Hell

I grew up outside the Episcopal Church – outside the Book of Common Prayer – outside a three year lectionary cycle – outside the church calendar with it's seasons and colors. I knew nothing about the Season after Pentecost, for instance, and that green was the associated color. The idea that there would be formally written prayers for virtually any situation imaginable, was unimaginable.

We made up our prayers – out of our own hearts, out of our own experiences, and out of our own courage and conviction. Instead of Prayers of the People, we prayed our “Joys and Concerns” out loud and spontaneously. That made for some rather simple prayers – but they were, for the most part, deeply heartfelt. They were also, often – too often – centered on family, friends and self. And it's true - our Heavenly Father wants us to tell him what is on our heart and our mind, and to pray deeply and fervently for those we love.

Belonging to a “free” church is a heritage I treasure – But perhaps because of that background, I am even more conscious of the treasury of the Book of Common Prayer, and the lectionary and colors and all the rest that goes along with being a “liturgical” church – because each of those things takes us beyond our personal joys and sorrows and plunks us into the wider sphere of the grand diversity of biblical witness, the depth of church tradition, the heritage of the saints who have lived faithfully in a variety of circumstances, and in the world around us.

The structured format of the prayers of the people causes us to lift our eyes up from only personal needs to also look into the eyes of hungry children around the world. We are compelled by the structure of the prayers themselves to look outward to the needs of creation, to the decimation of species and to political and social needs – to continue begging of God that our leaders would be inclined towards the ways of justice and compassion, rather than self-centered interest.

But the truth is, whether our prayers are inward and silent, or out loud and informal, or out loud and formal – they are nothing but clanging brass if our hearts are not turned in the direction of love and if the Holy Spirit is not present – praying with us and through us and for us. It is an illusion to believe that the powerfulness of our words, or the beauty of our phrasing or the poetry of our position before God can weave any spell that would make God bend his ear in our direction and do as we have asked. God does indeed care – more than you can imagine – and God provides – in ways you cannot fathom. But you cannot command his caring and provision, whether your prayer is homemade or formal. What you can do is ask for a discerning heart that wants what he wills and trusts in his ultimate goodness and never failing love.

This is what Paul was pointing towards - this discerning heart that wants what God wills and trusts in God's goodness and love. He was convinced that all things work together for good for those that love God – not because he’d had a bad time and then things got better – but because he saw everything that happened through the lens of the cross and resurrection of Jesus - this trust that Jesus had towards his Father even as he shouldered the cross down the stone streets of Jerusalem. Paul lived through eight attempts on his life, countless beatings and being jailed, hunger, loneliness, betrayal, being shipwrecked. He was eventually martyred in Rome. So – he is not saying that if you love God enough, with enough fervor, and if you pray just right – everything is going to work out hunky dory.

It may seem odd – but I find that comforting – because it reflects reality. And as I get older, I find that I want truth more than anything else – I find myself more and more attuned to what is authentic and what is not, what is real and what is not. Children are like that as well, I’ve noticed. So I like that Paul tells the truth – sin brings death, following Christ can be difficult, suffering is real – And I like that his vision is very deep and thoroughly grounded in the death and resurrection of Jesus – because it leads to this other truth that Paul is adamant about - this truth that has been tested and lived out by so many saints and believers through the ages - that there is nothing – no dire circumstance, no hardship, no illness, no loneliness, no bad choice, no personal disappointment, no bad business deal, no boss, no public failure, no dark dream, no anxiety, no economic meltdown, no crazy congress, no power on heaven or on earth – that can ever separate us from the love of God through Jesus Christ.

It is easy enough for this truth to get obscured and lost amidst the daily ups and downs of life. It’s easy to forget that God is unequivocally for us, especially when outward appearances don’t easily reflect that depth of divine love. The parables are helpful to restore our vision. Because Jesus tell us that the presence of God’s kingdom is like a tiny mustard seed – almost imperceptible, found in what might seem like insignificant gestures of kindness and goodness, in fragile beginnings of understanding and compassion – in unlikely places of hope. We tend to look for the big and the obvious. But Jesus tells us that the presence of God’s kingdom is more like the 2 tablespoons of yeast that leavens an entire loaf of bread. You must pay attention or you will miss it.

Paradoxically, God’s reign is also large enough and perfect enough to contain the wheat and the weeds, the good and the bad, your prayers and mine, handmade and formal - all are undergirded and empowered and held in the hands of his perfect, unconditional, utterly trustworthy love.

Photo of Dominus Flevit Franciscan church, Mt. of Olives, Jerusalem, by author

Friday, July 15, 2011

Blackberry Bliss

Ever been to Jamba Juice? My favorite is Blackberry Bliss. And there's all kinds of add-ons – protein powder, vitamins – I usually get one - it's free! - and it makes me think my drink is healthier.

Now, I’m going to make a really awful comparison – so please don’t boo at me too much – but - Jesus is not protein powder – He’s not an add-on to an already full life. He’s the Blackberry Bliss itself.

Because the biggest thing about Jesus is Resurrection. The biggest thing about Jesus is what God can do - The biggest thing about Jesus is that there is nothing that sin can do to us or through us or with us that God cannot redeem and raise up to new life. There is no barrier to new life in the Spirit – and by that I mean, and Paul means, new life through and through – in your body, in your mind, in your spirit, in your soul. God can, and does – all the time - create something out of nothing - create in you and in gatherings of believers, an entirely new order of being. At the baptismal font, an Ontologically new order of being is created – grafted into the eternal vine that is Christ, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, that never leaves, regardless of what life brings.

This is happening now. It’s happening to you and to me and it’s happening in the world around us. The Lord of Life is free and on the move – and there is no power in hell or on earth, or above the earth or below the earth, or in the halls of the greatest powers of the nations or the multi-nationals or the militaries or the police states or at the heart of gang violence or in war plagued places, where the Son of Man, the Lord of Life, is not raised up by the Eternal and Everlasting and Almighty Power of Life and Love. God claimed Jesus as his own Son and there is nothing that can undo that and no power that can sever that connection and flow of energy and life.

And you and I belong to that same Source. That same Eternal and Everlasting and Almighty Power. The biggest thing about Jesus is Resurrection – and it’s the biggest thing about you and me as well. We are Resurrected and Resurrecting people.

We do not belong to the powers of death and sin – sin being that orientation of mind and life towards self over and above all others, preservation of self over everyone else. Sin destroys community and it eats up soul spirit. And it is a fact of life. You cannot escape it because it is woven into you – there is no moral judgment about that – it just is – it just is as surely as your feet are below your head. When I say there is no judgment about that, I mean that there is no God pointing his finger at you because of it. You are born into it – you cannot help it.

Let me tell you a story about this...

When my daughter was five, she was invited to a birthday party. She knew about birthdays and she was very excited. When her daddy picked her up, she got into the car and burst out crying. When he asked her what happened, she said, between sobs, that there were lots of presents – but none of them were for her. We explained that the presents were for the birthday girl and that when it was her birthday again, she would be the one getting presents. She said, “I don’t want that other girl to get presents. I want all the presents.”

We learn, of course, that it isn’t nice to want all or most of the presents – and that we need to share. But deep down – when we’re not getting presents and other people are – there is that little voice in us all that refuses to believe – believe in the sense of trusting- that we are one body in Christ – and that if you get something good – it is just as good as if I got something good. That when Jesus said to love others as yourself – he surely meant others as yourself – that we are that fundamentally related. This desire to consume more than we need and almost always at someone else’s expense is built into us – until we enter a new way of being – a new order of being.

And that new order of being that we are born into through the action of the Holy Spirit in us – it changes our orientation – it changes our mindset – it changes who we are from the inside out and from the outside in.

We begin to see differently. Not all at once of course …. We still live in a world that sees things as separate and some people as lesser than and others as greater than but gradually we notice that we are more and more content with whatever our lives have brought to us, and more and more at peace with our bodies and our neighbors and our spouses and our lives. More and more at peace.

As we are working through this letter to the Romans, I have to say - it's really growing on me. This letter is a practical working out of the resurrected life in a community of real people who are beginning to come apart over matters of race and class and gender –just like we find ourselves in our own culture. This letter is about the practical working out of what it means to be a forgiven, healed, renewed, restored, resurrected people who belong to God and who are “in” Christ – and our reading today begins with this astonishing amazing truth about this new order of being –

There is, Now, in Christ, No Condemnation. Take that in..... No condemnation for those in Christ....

Yes – you want all the presents - or at least more of the presents. Yes – you lied on your taxes. Yes – you cheated your brother when you were older and were supposed to be taking care of him. Yes – you don’t know what you think about Jesus, and you doubt his resurrection. Yes – you took the shortcut the wrong way down a one way street.

But you can turn yourself in, and feel the full relief of it – you can know intimacy with God again. Even though there most likely are consequences - there is no condemnation - no secret burden that needs to be carried. No torment from which you cannot be free, no corner of guilt or shame that needs to remain in the shadows, sucking away at your energy and your joy.

Now if you can delve down into your mind and into your soul – and find no shade of guilt or shame that you’ve covered over and hoped would just disappear eventually – you are truly an Enlightened Being or just terribly unconscious – but for most of us –well – the news that there is No Condemnation – well, it knocks me over.

It’s more than astounding, really. It is terribly, terribly freeing – and that may be, in fact, why we prefer to run back to imposing rules and breaking rules – because it is a terrifying gift to be really and truly free. It is a huge responsibility. I mean, now what! What are you going to do with this freedom? This awesome freedom that is yours, in Christ.

Mary Oliver asks the question this way – "tell me, what is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" This one wild and precious life that has been given to you by God, redeemed for you by Jesus – and the central truth about this precious life of unbounded freedom is that the Holy Spirit dwells in you – abides in you. So you don’t have to retreat into fear about making mistakes or not making the perfect choices – God has already forgiven you – you are already free – and you can go down a different road, or continue on the course you are on – either way, and always, you have the Holy Spirit of God within you and within this community to guide you and to listen to you and to love you – eternally.

When you came in - you were given two pieces of paper. One is there to write some hindrance, some burden, some condemnation that you have secreted away, that is in like a thorn in your heart – and destructive to your joy - write it down – and if you’re brave enough to claim your freedom in Christ, you can throw it away in this trash can. During the Confession, during the Absolution – or during the Peace that follows – you can throw it away. There is Now NO Condemnation in Christ – that is the truth - it can be your truth.

The second piece of paper is to imagine what you might do with your one wild and precious life – with your Freedom in Christ . That paper is to keep – put it in your pocket or in your purse and bring it out from time to time – to remind yourself that the biggest thing about you is resurrection and freedom.

And all of this is in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Summer Day, by Mary Oliver - one of my favorite poems!
Romans 8: 1 - 11

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Commentary on the Human Condition via St. Paul

If there is a policeman here - I am sorry that you are going to hear this - but I have broken the law – and even when it was pointed out to me, I have continued, on occasion, to do so.

I drive to church very early on Sunday mornings. There is no one else on the road – or barely anyone else, and I have gotten into the bad habit of doing one of those slow rolling stops at one corner. Now the truth is, for a long time, I was not conscious of this. But one day, a friend was with me – and she pointed out to me that I had in fact, not come to a complete and total stop.

Well then, it became a problem. Before my friend pointed out my law breaking nature – I was perfectly at peace on my drive to church. But after she pointed out to me the inexactness of my stop – it became a contested spot on the road. Internal arguments erupted:

My “ought to”: The sign says “STOP” not “SLOW ROLL”
My “want to”: In the two years I’ve been driving here, I have never seen anyone at this corner, ever. No one will get hurt, and I will not get into trouble for this.
My “ought to”: And your point is….?
My “want to”: It wastes gas to come to a complete stop and then step on the pedal again.
My “ought to”: OK, that’s a good argument – but the Law still says “STOP.” *

Not to spoil your view of me - but even living in the grace of Christ, in the reign of God’s kingdom - I don’t always do what is right, I don’t always do what the better part of me wants to do, I often end up doing the very things the larger part of me doesn’t want to do. Anyone with me?

We are, after all, children of Adam and Eve... “There’s an abundance of ripe, juicy, delicious, tasty, inviting fruits all through the garden just for you, I will walk and talk with you every day, you will delight in each other, and you will talk with the animals,” God said, “There’s just one tree that’s not good for you, so don’t touch it.”

Even if you’d never heard the story before, you could guess exactly what was going to happen! Because they did exactly like you or I do - they became obsessed and zeroed in on the one thing that was off limits.

Here is Augustine from the 17th century:

“There was a pear tree near our vineyard, he writes, laden with fruit. One stormy night, we rascally youths set out to rob it and carry our spoils away. We took off a huge load of pears – not to feast upon ourselves, but to throw to the pigs, though we ate just enough to have the pleasure of this forbidden fruit. They were nice pears, but it was not the pears that I coveted because I had plenty better ones at home. I picked them simply in order to do it …. The desire to steal was awakened by the prohibition against stealing. “ *

Sound similar to any of our shoplifting starlets – awash in money and fame? It is certainly not for the junk jewelry they lift, but because there is something about a boundary that is so sorely tempting.

Whether we live in luxury or not – the truth is, it’s not easy to change our nature. We are fortunate in that there are many more resources available to us than Paul had – resources that are beneficial and helpful – psychotherapy, behavior modification, interventions, medicine and drugs, self-help books that sell because they help, a wide array of spiritual practices from all around the world, we have Oprah! – but the truth of the matter remains: trying harder to follow the rules, whatever those rules might be, rarely produces genuine goodness, deep transformation, real peace of mind.

What can reliably produce transformative change is Grace –– letting your guard down and taking in God Love; Blood of Jesus Love; the "I know exactly who you are, everything you have done and not done and everything you have ever thought and every boundary you’ve ever crossed or wanted to cross, I know your weaknesses and your strengths, and your sadness and your grief and your joy and your brokenness – and I love you and I will always catch you in my arms" love - receiving that kind of love transforms us and puts us on the road to re-patterning our lives.

....puts us on the road …. Even Amazing Grace of God Love doesn’t automatically - abracadabra shazamm! – make all temptation go away, or make it easy to be good and to do good and to love and serve in kindness and compassion.

It's not automatic that our lives become more integrated and whole – but thanks be to God, we are on the way – being re-patterned by grace so that gradually there are fewer divisions between what we want to do and what we ought to do and more peace of mind and heart because our walk and our talk are more and more closely aligned. And of course, there are still many of those times when we completely lose it and fail miserably.

But here’s the secret at the heart of the Cross. God still claims you, no matter what.

When I was deeply, deeply distressed over becoming a single parent through divorce, one of the persistent thoughts I had to do battle with was the thought that I no longer really had a place in God’s household – that divorce put me outside the circle – especially the circle of church. So while I continued to go to church, I felt foreign – and at the same time, I tried very hard to hide that sense of alienation. I remember like it was yesterday pushing my youngest on the swing, and hearing Jesus say, “Didn’t I come exactly for the people outside the circle? Isn’t that who I loved to spend time with? You are as much in God’s household now as you ever were.” That was the beginning of a real transformation for me in terms of how I related to church and to other people – because I got it really straight in my heart that God claimed me when I was baptized and that nothing could happen to me that would ever lessen that. That is true for me, and it is true for you.

And here’s one more secret at the heart of the Cross – and it has to do with the hardest word in the English language. Can you guess what that it? It’s a tiny word with two letters – No. The Holy No. No, I am not going to stop loving you even when what you are doing is wrong. No, I don’t need to save gas by rolling that stop sign, I could go 55 miles an hour and save even more gas! No, I don’t need to feel less than or act less then because of my gender or sexual orientation or race or class or income or work status or how many Facebook friends I have. No, I’m not going to buy that because I don’t need it and I don’t LOVE it – it’s on sale and it’s fine, but no. Some of the finest cuisine has developed because of limits - as has music and many other artistic forms. Boundaries and limits turn out to be necessary to creativity!

So - No is a very useful and powerful word – and whether God says it, or the Law says it, or you say it, it has transformative power – and I commend it to you – and both saying it and hearing it is made all the more easier knowing that we stand in the solid and trustworthy grip of God’s eternal grace.

* In the Grip of Grace, Max Lucado, 1996, Thomas Nelson, Inc
The Courage to Create, Rollo May, 1975, W. Norton & Company
Frugal Confessions - Frugal Living
"No", David Lose, Working Preacher

Saturday, July 02, 2011

For The Rev. Christy Laborda and St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, Sebastopol

A couple disclaimers - I was not Christy’s first choice for offering the homily at her installation. But others couldn’t do it – and the advantage of having another priest in your family is that you can back each other up! Actually, I was delighted that she asked me – thrilled in fact. But then I realized I actually needed to offer something more than testimonies as to how wonderful she is! The other disclaimer – her fiancĂ© is my son – so Christy and I are friends and colleagues and come September we will be related to one another.

The truth is, she and I are already related to one another – in the same way that you and I are related to one another and it is the deepest relationship of all, because it exists eternally in God through the Body of Christ. This is the profound mystery of the Church; that above and beyond human welfare, human likes and dislikes, human attractions and alienations, we draw our life from the common bloodstream that is Christ’s. We have many faces, many races, many personality types, many anxieties and dysfunctions, we like each other, we don’t like each other, some of us drive Prius’s and some of us have no clean drinking water – but in Christ, we are one Body and we given this new common life for one purpose – and that is to Love – to love God and to love one another and to serve the world God loves so dearly.

Is the church particularly good at this - Loving and Serving? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But the truth is, the church, you and I are not the subject of the verb Love. God is. God is the subject of our sentences and our lives. God is the one who loves and who woos and who calls and who engages us and who gifts us with this unique way of life – this life whose purpose and whose life source is one and the same – that is, Love.

Of course, I’m not speaking about warm fuzzy feelings – although that happens more often than you might think when the music is good – as I hear it is! - and the worship has integrity. So, I’m guessing that warm, fuzzy feelings happen fairly often here at St. Stephen’s – as things feel right, things click, and the place feels safe, like a place where you can be who you are and know that you are accepted. I’m guessing that you have already wrapped Christy up in the good arms of this parish, and that you know, already, that she carries you in her heart and in her prayers.

She thinks of you – a lot. I know this. I know she loves you – and besides being young and attractive and intelligent and sunny – she has a heart that is trustworthy, because it is a heart that has long been given to Christ.

I also know she is lucky - mostly because she is organized and she thinks things through. When Christy and Kai were packing for Hawaii, a trip she had won through a Bishop’s raffle, she and I went to REI because she wanted a cold carry case the right size for carrying sushi on a hiking excursion she’d planned for one of their vacation days! Right then, I knew she was perfect for my son – and God knows, the Body of Christ can use such detailed strategic thinking!

I know she wonders about the future of the church – about how to bring the good news of God’s compassion and love to an almost wholly secular culture, one that often sees no real need for the Christian God. I know that she struggles with how to message the Gospel for people in their 20’s and 30’s - she thinks about this, she reads about this, she consults with friends and colleagues who are also trying to figure this out. In other words, she brings her whole self to the church – her frustrations, her longings, her dreams, her hopes, her labor and her heart.

Still, even with all of her gifts and abilities, I’m guessing that it felt slightly risky to call Christy to be your Rector. She does not have years of experience – although the experience she does have would take years out of anyone! She has dealt with many difficulties, with aplomb and grace and humility. But the Spirit led, and you listened, and you made a courageous and visionary choice in calling this young woman to lead you into the challenges of tomorrow.

So my hope and charge is that all of you join her at the cutting edge where she lives - between culture and church and that, along with her, you commit your labor and your heart and your resources to continuing to courageously follow the Spirit in moving God’s dream forward into a future that none of you can predict and for which none of you can adequately prepare.

But take heart! You are the Baptized Body of Christ here in this place, and each of you has a God-gifted function that is essential to the working out of God’s purposes for St. Stephen’s at this moment in time. It is tempting of course, to think of the person in the collar and the ones who are most visible to be most important – but from apostolic times forward it has been the church’s witness that there is no one gift that is more essential or more perfect or more valuable to God and to Christ’s Body than any other gift.

This is another of the profound mysteries of the Church and it is one of the distinguishing marks of a Christian gathering – our functions make some of us more visible and give some of us greater authority, but for the mission of the church – which is to Love and to Serve – for this mission to be fulfilled – all must continue growing into the gifts and callings God has given them. Doing that means being ok with some awkwardness as you learn new ways of doing things together, new ways of reaching out, new ways of telling the old, old story of Jesus and His Love.

So, at this inauguration of a new phase of ministry for all of you – a ministry that now embraces Christy as your pastor, priest and leader – I want to direct myself to Christy for a minute.

You cannot possibly do this on your own. I know that seems obvious, but it is amazing how quickly this simple truth can get lost amidst the dozens of balls that you juggle every day. Your life that is hidden in Christ is the single most valuable resource you have to offer – and it must be protected and fed and trusted to be enough.

That means deciding what is essential to your ministry and what is not essential – and learning to be ok with not doing what is not essential. That is harder than it sounds – but doing this one thing – deciding on the essentials and putting those first and foremost will keep your spirit lively and vivacious, because you will be continuously transformed and renewed by the mind of Christ – you will be a green tree planted by streams of living water.

May this be so, now and long into the future.
With all my love. Amen.