Monday, December 6, 2010

What Are You Waiting For?

I realize I am a week behind but this is the sermon I preached last week in my my home parish for Advent 1- it is my hope that it is still appropriate for our time of waiting.

Grace and peace to you my sisters and brothers in Christ- it’s good to be in your midst after a year away on internship, and time serving as a supply preacher and a chaplain, all of which adds up to my only being here about five times in the last year and a half. I felt like I might never be in your midst again. When I was invited to preach I confess that waiting for this day has been the hardest part. But our lives are full of waiting. Some things have already happened, others are yet to come. We all dread those words “not yet.” We’re all waiting for something. So take a moment now and ask yourselves- What are YOU waiting for?

I’m going to go out on a limb and venture a guess on a couple possibilities. Particularly for the kids among us, perhaps you’re waiting to open Christmas presents. Thanksgiving has happened already. Christmas morning is “not yet.” Here in the congregation for some of you, maybe you’re waiting for the call process to be completed- the committee’s in place, the conclusion is “not yet.” Others of you may already be wishing this sermon over- to which I can say “NOT YET.”
“Already but not yet” also describes the season of Advent- we’re waiting to celebrate and remember the birth of Jesus which happened already. But we are also waiting for the return of Christ and God’s fulfillment which is “not yet.” I think we tend to focus on the “Baby Jesus” part. Is there anyone here who when I talked about what we are waiting for who thought first of waiting for the second coming of Christ?
It’s hard to wait for something when we’re told we can’t know the details. It’s hard to maintain that sense of “being ready” or “keeping awake” after all this time. It was probably just as hard as it was for the Israelites hearing the prophet Isaiah speak of a world that they couldn’t imagine. Or those in the time of Noah, doing all of the things we do in this season, eating, drinking, socializing. Or those who first heard our gospel. God’s people are used to waiting. SO, If you weren’t thinking about the return of Christ, you’re not alone. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, almost 60% of American Christians don’t believe Christ will return in their lifetimes. But shockingly, another 21% don’t think Christ will ever come. American Christians.
Perhaps then it’s easy to see the images in the Gospel of the women grinding in the field as just mindlessly living out the same old same old in a world where we say “life goes on” as a way of saying we don’t really expect anything more.
Maybe we can identify with the words of popular song writer John Mayer in the song entitled, “Waiting for the World to Change” which speaks of not acting in response to current world conditions because until something changes it makes no difference, because we lack power. He says:
Now we see everything that's going wrong with the world and those who lead it
We just feel like we don't have the means to rise above and beat it
It's not that we don't care, we just know that the fight ain't fair
SO we keep waiting for the world to change.

It’s hard to not nod off after trying to staying awake too long; with all of the news in our world, it’s hard to not be numb to what’s happening in the here and now. Maybe it’s easier to conserve our effort for when it really matters, wishing we knew when it mattered because until then “life goes on.” Maybe we’re even a little angry to hear the image of our house being broken into, our world rocked, wondering what it means to be “left behind” and hearing “if only you had been paying attention!”
But these words get our attention. In fact that’s their primary purpose- not to keep us up at night wondering about who is left behind and what it means, but to get us to wake up from our waiting.
SO maybe we’re called to something more than waiting for the world to change.
Consider instead the words of another song writer- Philip Nicolai. Raise your hand if you’ve heard his latest hit. If you haven’t heard of him, it’s not surprising, but actually you’ve heard his words and sung them. Nicolai was a Lutheran pastor in the late 1500’s during religious wars in Europe. Several times he had to flee or go into hiding and minister to his congregations secretly. And to top it off, while he was pastor, the plague took 1300 of his parishioners, mostly in the latter half of 1597. The next time Pastor Domines thinks he has a lot to do , Pastor Nicolai buried 170 in one week! Yet, to comfort his parishioners, he wrote a series of meditations which he called Freudenspiegel- translated means Mirror of Joy! Mirror of Joy!
And he wrote two hymns to inspire his people in this time of gloom, waiting and longing for a better day. Today we’ll sing one of them- "Wake, awake, for night is flying," which proclaims belief in the triumph of God. Written in a time when it would’ve been easy to just sing about waiting for the world to change. Instead lifting up what our gospel tells us-
Be expecting something! Don’t let being hung up on the logistics lead you to doubt, or let time lead you to be complacent. Be ready! The readiness we hear in Nicolai’s hymn is not wondering if anything will ever be different or better, but waiting in a way that proclaims that the work of the Christ has already begun. To remember that while we live in a time of “not yet” we triumphantly proclaim the hope of “already.”That the promises of the Kingdom are true and already in motion. And for us to be in motion, demonstrating our belief in Christ for others to see as a sign of hope. Seeing our world with eyes wide open, but living as people who expect to see something more and who respond by participating in its arrival. Maybe that kind of waiting looks like this: When Catherine was little, one Xmas we decided to get her the Playmobil Enchanted Castle-what any little girl fascinated by princesses would long for- a beautiful castle with two spiral staircases, and a sparkling chandelier, and flags flying from the turrets, an elegant banquet hall and a throne room. Can you tell I loved it just as much?
I bought it at the toy store, brought it home and hid the boxes so she couldn’t find it. Fully assembled, it would be too large to hide, so I had to wait ‘til just before Christmas to put it together. Which I did after the late service on Christmas Eve, which is actually Christmas Day.
This is when I realized it had about 500 pieces. So I was up into the wee hours of the night, laboring. But what kept me going was the absolute joy I knew would be experienced in the morning! This kept me awake and motivated. That very real anticipation. It’s the same sense of wonder and excitement we teach our children and grandchildren about Christmas and Baby Jesus.
What would it mean for us to live our lives in that sense of expectation? To wake up not only ourselves but others to the reality that the world as we know it has already begun to change? To live in the belief that God’s truth is already victorious? To proclaim to a world that has no expectations that the birth we will remember is the source of hope, and joy and peace and the best is yet to come? Living in eager expectation is to not only long for but to work for the vision where swords of destruction become plows that grow life, of trusting the power Christ brings and sharing moments of the in-breaking of Christ already. So sisters and brothers- What are you waiting for? Christ has triumphed and will come again-
Wake awake!

Monday, November 22, 2010


Earlier this fall in our Seminary chapel one of our New Testament professors provided a vivid description of having to return a scary and smelly sheep. This week I was preaching in Chapel on a "shepherd" text knowing that many of us had already been regaled with many sensory images of having to retrieve a scared sheep- you can use your imagination on that one. Below is my sermon on the text Ezekiel 34:11-24 ( our psalm for the day was Psalm 100:

For those of you who earlier this semester heard Dr Carlson’s vivid description of sheep, you may not appreciate me for this: Greetings, fellow sheep! It’s soon time to sit down and “tie the feed bag on” over Thanksgiving dinner, that annual celebration of consumption. Then groan and push ourselves away from the table to be ready for one of the biggest days of the year-Black Friday. That day kicking off our weeks of preparation, known to many not as Advent, but Christmas shopping days. I remember working at a discount department store and we dreaded opening the door on Black Friday- as the lock on the door clicks open, shoppers run amok, shoving and jostling on that quest to get more “good stuff cheap” than we need, get our fair share preferably before someone else can. You could tell the path of the herd by the trail of flung merchandise.

Some see it as progress that we being shopping even sooner now with “Black Friday leaks” of advance sales to get a head start. We’ll do that again this year while others will look on in ever growing need, shoved to the outer corners of our awareness. This is the state of our flock.

Around the world In China the flock faces profound water pollution and water shortage due to rising demands of the factories that feed our “wants.” New dams across rivers for hydroelectric power mean that as business prospers, those downstream suffer. Parched farm fields have developed cracks up to 33 feet deep making it too dangerous to farm. I can’t even fathom that. New dams mean relocating scores of villages, people scatter, forced to come to cities where they’re ill-prepared to survive. The flock farther downriver is stressed too- Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, India, Thailand and Vietnam all say China's aggressive dam-building is depriving their most needy of water, but they lack the money or political ability to build dams and reservoirs as quickly as China. They’ve been outmaneuvered. Yet those profiting from this boom ramp up their personal consumption, new gadgets and appliances, homes with gardens, cars that need washing, and more food, which needs growing, golf courses that need watering and ski resorts creating man-made snow while someone somewhere else, dies of thirst. This too is the state of the flock. In a word: SELF-ABSORBED. And I wonder as we prepare to celebrate a day that began as a way of remembering God’s providing survival how we have instead become a world that celebrates the winner of “Survivor?”
Truth is we’re a long way from the words of our Psalm, rejoicing in the sufficiency of our Lord’s providing, and arrangement. On National Public Radio’s blog, “Cosmos and Culture” I read a post by Ursula Goodenough, who teaches cell biology and molecular evolution. She also explores the religious potential of our scientific understandings of nature, in her book, The Sacred Depths of Nature. Considering our human predicament she says: all organisms, by definition, seek self interest, “Self-maintenance and self-protection are biological imperatives.” But social organisms –including us- can remain self-interested, yet also cooperate in activities like gathering food and predator protection. The mandate to flourish as individuals and in community can be seen from tiny bacteria to wolves in packs.

It’s “instinctive.” But we Primates are better than sheep- we’ve been given minds capable of keeping track of friendships, mastering changing social structures. The ability to enhance stability and the flourishing of even larger groups- and this is most developed in humans.
But the demands of self-interest versus group cooperation create conflicting impulses. Under stress we revert to the default behavior of all creatures-being self-absorbed. Sadly we often really are sheep after all.
SO WHERE ARE THE SHEPHERDS? WHERE IS THE JUSTICE? Seems like when we really need them, the shepherds in our midst disappear or engage in blame-storming of their own. The recurrent theme in our country is that it’s the shepherds’ fault- they let it all happen! They failed to protect us! Thank God that God will gather and restore and heal after judging those shepherds. But it’s in verses 17-19, the ones our lectionary omits we are faced with a message-“Not so fast, sheep!” The prophet turns and speak to us directly- we the flock- with an indictment we don’t want to hear.
As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord GOD: Isn’t it enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you trash the rest? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest? What about the other sheep? Must they suffer because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak, scattering them far and wide? Words spoken to us. It’s not just about shepherds who fail. We have a capacity and a role in the bigger flock. And we have a role in the events I described earlier, in our celebrations of consumption.
“We’ll always be self-interested and want stuff…maybe it’s time we want what we already have more. What we’ve got is a splendid planet; what we need to want is that it and everyone on it flourish” (Goodenough). For that we need a better shepherd.
Thanks be to God we know that the promise of that Shepherd for us has been fulfilled. A Shepherd who is strong enough to be our ruler but gentle enough to be our Shepherd. A Shepherd who calls us to step away from herd mentality and to seek a path that leads to life and not death. To bring us back, heal us and strengthen us so we can rely on those other “Shepherd” words we know well- “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want” and not only say them at funerals. To instead contemplate the ways we are cared for by God right now and how we can rest from our jostling and trampling. Our Shepherd who feeds us not just physically but with what we need to grow in awareness of our ways and their consequences. And more importantly, to grow in the emotions we are uniquely gifted with by God- fair-mindedness, respect, reverence and empathy.
Fellow sheep, Thanks be to God for our true shepherd who still proclaims “I will save- they shall no longer be ravaged.” Our God, whose steadfast love and faithfulness endures and outlasts our behaviors. Our Shepherd, who is still seeking us and who still promises “I will feed you” and “I will be your God.”
This year when we sit down at the feast perhaps our first prayer should be –
“Thank you Lord for being our Shepherd. Shepherd us still.”

Monday, October 18, 2010

Where Do You Put Your Persistence?

Last week we heard about faith and explored faith as being about more than what we can see-recognizing God’s presence and power to bring healing and wholeness. In faith we are made well-warm fuzzy thoughts of the leper healed and restored. But today it seems we see the opposite in the widow. Things are supposed to change, but when? By the time the Gospel of Luke was written, those hearing it expected Jesus to have returned and completed the fulfillment of the kingdom by now. We hear from Jesus that God’s kingdom is present in his life and in our lives this side of the cross. Yet at the same time we too wait for more to come at a time we do not know. How do we keep the faith when our sense of timing is not met and when so much of the news in our world makes us weary? What is God’s word while we wait and live in a world full of unjust judges and burdensome situations? It’s in this context Jesus speaks of prayer as a way to not lose heart, ultimately asking if when the Son of Man returns will he find faith on earth? Will we rely on turning to God in prayer? Easier said than done. What do we do when it’s not the way we expect?
One possible response comes from the show my daughters and I watch- “Glee” which recently tackled prayer and faith in crisis or injustice. One of the regular characters is Sue, a power hungry overbearing high school teacher and coach who regularly butts heads with everyone, particularly the students who sing in the Glee Club. When Kurt, one of the glee club students faces the sudden collapse of his father, now unresponsive in the ICU unit, teachers and students all respond in different ways. Some try to encourage Kurt to pray and have faith in God. But Sue is furious-public school students can’t do this at school. She’s clearly very passionate about opposing this. Then it’s revealed this has hit a nerve from her childhood. As a little girl, Sue idolized her older sister. But at some point Sue realized other people not only didn’t idolize her sister, they mocked her and picked on her. Sue’s older sister was “different”- she was a child with Downs’ Syndrome. Sue prayed to God to cure her sister, so she’d no longer suffer the injustices she faced. Nothing changed.
Sue decided she was just not persistent enough. Yet, years went by and her sister was still a person with Downs’ Syndrome whose life would never be like that of others. Sue concluded that no one was listening to her persistent prayers-God must be a cruel myth. Injustice was an unchanging cold hard reality and “survival of the fittest” was the key. This is the mindset of the judge in the gospel- who cares about this widow who hasn’t mastered the game of life? Yet she continues to turn to him, over and over. And we never hear that the widow prays. When wrestle with times of crisis or injustice, who or what do we turn to? It’s natural to turn to our systems of “survival of the fittest”-of law and medicine and research.
Have you ever noticed how we give incredible latitude to these systems? We need time for the medicine to work, time for research to find the answer, time for the case to come to court, time for the law to be passed. We might whine while we wait, but we’ll keep turning to these systems even when we, like people of every place and time can be tempted to lose heart-in times where we live with our question of WHEN?
When will this crisis I am facing end? When will what I long for happen? When will I know? When will a change of heart take place? WHEN? We continually turn to and pursue every earthly alternative even when we have no reason to know or believe those people or things deliver. When we know the systems are flawed and unjust.
Do we use that same level of persistence in prayer with God? Or do we expect immediate gratification? When we don’t receive what we seek or it doesn’t happen when we expected, do we lose heart and decide that it’s God who is unjust?
Another possible response came in the story of the rescued Chilean miners, trapped in a dark mine since August 5th. One of them, Mario Sepulveda, described the struggle of waiting. During the waiting and wondering he also pondered the injustice of a workplace that caused his plight. He battled losing heart- that sense that all of the injustices and shortcomings really will prevail. That sense of deciding that God really isn’t with us. Sepulveda said of his experience,” I was with God and with the devil (in the mine) and I reached out for God.” This is the heart of our gospel.
God knows that in all of the in-between times it is hard not to lose heart. The parable of the widow demonstrates a God of grace who understands who we are in these times and where we tend to put our trust. The point of the parable is not to simply identify our insufficiency, nor should we come to view God as the unjust judge who might, eventually, relent to some of our persistent petitions. Such a response leads us to believe that it’s just about wearing God down or proving a work of prayer righteousness.
Rather, because of the witness of how God is faithful, we can trust that what God has promised will come. And we should be as persistent as the widow in turning to God in prayer so that we can be sustained, and strengthened, and guided. And in the process maybe even shown new things. In the “Glee” episode, in the midst of uproar at school, Sue visits her sister who lives in an assisted living facility. Surely her sister will agree there’s no God!
But when Sue asks her sister whether she believes in God, she immediately smiles broadly, then asks Sue- Do YOU? Sue explains she doesn’t because she prayed God would stop what happened to her sister, but nothing changed. Her sister emphatically shakes her head and says basically- But I have faith in God and I am not a mistake. She’s able to live now and for the future on that. And she offers to pray for Sue.
Sue’s sister’s physical condition didn’t change, but her life did because of the depth of Sue’s love, care and advocacy for her. Now Sue could be sustained by the love, care and wisdom of her sister who allowed Sue to see things she might never have seen otherwise, including how she was bullying someone else.
When we face all our in-between times in prayer, we find strength when we’re overwhelmed and insight into our own actions. We are not always the poor widow. Sometimes we’re the ones acting unjustly. In continually turning to God first, by naming all of the people and places and situations on our hearts and minds we are shaped by God and not the world. We begin to grasp and trust in God’s different system of justice and timing. God deepens our faith in God’s greater purposes. And the “much more” we have not yet seen becomes God’s promise we work for, and pray for, and in which we can place our hope and trust here on earth.
While I preached this sermon I noticed two people in the campground congregation were visibly moved. Before our prayers of intercession I always ask for prayer concerns or thanksgivings. The man who’d been moved to tears offered that he was thankful because a year ago he was told he had less than six months to live. He went to the doctor with a bulging neck and neck pain. They told him, without testing, that he probably had muscle strain. Being poor he decided to ride it out. They told him to come back if it did not get better, but what does that mean? Until he had a lump and went back to find out that he had a stage 3 tumor on his neck. He could have been mad but instead it had encouraged him to faith because of the witness of people of the campground. He’d come back to celebrate and say thanks because it looks like he has actually beat the odds. And he brought his mom because the campers who told her about worship encouraged her to believe there was something worth experiencing.
Not a dry eye as I left the lectern and came to hug them and bless them before prayer. The best sermon was in his life. Don’t lose heart, have faith even when it seems too much. I am so blessed to have spent three months with them.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Connecting Names to Hunger

In today’s gospel Jesus offers us a challenging story. I’d like to offer a story of my own. Years ago a successful businessman was abducted, drugged, beaten, robbed and thrown out of a moving car into the doorway of an office building in New York City. He lay barely conscious on the sidewalk, his clothes in tatters, bruised, bloody and dirty. In NYC, it’s not notable to be lying on the sidewalk in tattered clothes and bleeding- he could’ve been just another drunk, or bum. It’s because someone saw this man thrown from a moving vehicle that the police were called and he survived. The person who called was not one of the many in business suits, who walked around him, but the immigrant street vendor. Lots of other well to do people walked right by him and through that door into their skyscraper. Help was just on the other side of the door, if only he could get there. There are many victims of such events- this man was my Dad. Putting a name to a face changes everything. And every face has a story.
In Lazarus’s story, he didn’t place himself at the gate. Literally, he "had been thrown before it." Many don’t get to that place by their own power. They’re tossed there by others. Whether the gate is a good thing or not depends upon your perspective. If you want to be blind to the Lazaruses at the gate, want to pretend all is well in a personally controlled environment, a gate is good. It’s the phenomenon a resident of the Rescue Mission where I worked called “eyes front.” But if you’ve been thrown there, a gate might as well be that chasm we hear of later between the rich man and Lazarus. Some who have found themselves thrown at the gate were once on the other side of it. Just ask someone now dealing with foreclosure because they lost their job, or had a catastrophic medical condition. They know that feeling of being thrown at the gate. So too do the children of the poor who are powerless to change the equation.

On a larger scale, many in our world struggle with illness, hunger and the threat of death, victims of larger forces, yet seemingly invisible to others. Though then and now, good people want to believe they must have brought it upon themselves. But we don’t hear why Lazarus was in the state he was in-perhaps because it isn’t important. What IS important is that he’s hungry and in need.
But I’m still speaking in the abstract- let’s focus our vision a little closer. Take a moment and picture in your mind what a hungry person looks like… If it’s only the stereotypical image of a homeless person in the inner city or a child in a third world country, it’s time to expand your image of that face. Hungry people also live in rural and suburban areas. They hold down jobs, own homes, and try to raise families. They might live in your neighborhood or work in your building. The number of people in poverty in 2009 (43.6 million) is the largest number in the 51 years according to US Census Data. Hunger is on the rise in Pennsylvania. For African Americans and Hispanic persons 1 in 4 live in poverty. 18% of Pennsylvania children live in poverty.

Nearly 1.2 million Pennsylvanians, almost 10% of our population, live in households at risk for hunger. That’s enough people to fill Penn State University’s football stadium nearly 12 times.

We don’t have to look far beyond the gate to see these faces. But if we do look farther, we’ll see that while a family in poverty in the US is one living on less than $54 a day, half the world’s people live on less than $2 a day. Globalization changes everything. In our world today, there are 8 million Lazaruses at the gate. Eight million people suffering unto death from diseases intensified by poverty like malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and water borne illness. And tens of millions more whose struggles with these illnesses won’t lead to death, but will result in lost income, heavy debt burdens due to health care costs, interrupted education, homelessness, and social stigma.
And every single face has a name. Names like Donna, Angelo, Ster, Abdul and names like yours. Why do I say this? Because names put a human face on a statistic. We may be tempted to generalize “the rich” or “the poor” since so few of us belong to that category. Whenever we generalize people we find it is easy to say that “they” need to fix it, need to work harder. “They made their bed and they can lie in it” or “God helps those who help themselves”- which by the way are words NOT in the Bible. But we always pay more attention to things that affect us directly, to names we know. When we “know” someone we see their plight, and feel their concern because they are a part of us. We find ourselves opening the gate if you will to let them into our world. We find ourselves contemplating the question author Shane Claiborne asks, “What if Jesus really meant all that stuff?” What if it was our name?
The rich man wasn’t condemned for being rich, but for his indifference and uncaring attitude towards poor Lazarus right outside his door. His greatest fault throughout the story was that he never recognizes the humanity of Lazarus. In the entire time Lazarus sat at the gate of the rich man, and after death in the demands the rich man made, we never see him recognize the existence of Lazarus as another human being created in the image of God. This problem persists today while people die every day because they’re too poor to live, as climate change brings rising coastal waters, droughts destroy crop production in the world's most insecure areas. For decades now humanity has had the means for global destruction or global possibility. Our ability to confront these challenges is one of the great pressing issues of justice in our world today. That’s some pretty heavy stuff.
How can we who are living as those blessed by God respond to this call? The name "Lazarus" may be significant. It means "Helped by God". In the parable, Lazarus is a man who can do nothing for himself, who can't even keep the wild dogs from licking his sores. Yet both our gospel and our Psalm today lift up that God helps those who are in need- those who put their faith not in “help yourself” but in God. Those who stop relying upon government, or gate building to protect their way of living. Who remember that rulers after all are busy making a name for themselves-gathering for themselves. We can’t place our trust there.
Instead, happy and blessed are those who help is the God of Jacob. We have a God who desires to be involved and to help us. A God who then calls us to adjust our vision and tear down our gates, to live as those who proclaim we are “helped by God” and are liberated from putting our ultimate faith in ourselves. In this way, one writer suggests, wealth ... is not the proper object of your devotion, but a convincing way to demonstrate and live out to whom your devotion is truly offered.
We live in the center of wealth in this world, as residents of the world’s wealthiest nation. And we live as those blessed to have as the center of our living a God who enables us to live gratefully and with justice. This justice of our God presents a fundamental and radical challenge that is simple yet hard to realize: to recognize our common humanity with all God's children of this world. To believe that all of the faces around us and around God’s world deserve to have their humanity honored, to be comforted, and to live in abundance as children of God. When we do this, faces with a story will be connected to God’s story, to a God who really means it.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Still Blessed are the Peacemakers

Every year on my daughter's birthday I run the post below which has alwyas been entitled "Blessed are the Peacemakers." This year the daughter who is the subject of this post, who was seven that fateful day is now 18. And she has gone off to college to be a Russian and international studies major. She has embark on that journey we talked of long ago- where the road will go we do not know. And while I still mourn the losses of so many I also celebrate God's possibility not the least of which I see in a young woman who was born this day . I still believe that the power of those who believe the world could use more peace and less brinksmanship exists. I pray that it is so.
Here is the first post from five years ago:

This week people across the nation marked the sixth anniversary of the tragedies which unfolded on September 11, 2001. Septembier 11th holds another importance to me- my younger daughter was born on September 11th and was an elementary school student in 2001 when the world seemed like it was falling apart.

It was, in the tradition of the school, her day to be the line leader and the snack person. And it all started out like any other great day. And it is almost always clear and sunny on her birthday, as it was that day.

She had been dropped off with her cupcakes and dressed in red, her favorite color. Her older sister was also at school and my husband and I were at work. The way it worked out, my secretary was on a family trip ( about a mile from where the plane went down in PA). So I had public radio on and I was vaguely listening as I waited for a client to come for an appointment.

As the appointment began there was a report that a plane had crashed into the Trade Center but the assumption was it was a small plane. Hmm. The client came and we met. When I finished, I called our lawfirm’s main office and people were frantic. Get to a TV, they cried.

So, still wondering, I walked down the street to the coffeehouse and on the TV, the now infamous plane clips that are etched into our collective memory were rolling. I got a coffee and as people were wandering in and sitting down to watch numbly, the first tower collapsed. I watched it as though it was a surreal vision, but it had really happened.

They announced that the last plane was unaccounted for, but was over Pennsylvania. I felt like Chicken Little; the sky was falling. I frantically called my husband, and found out his government office near the school was in lockdown.

The school called and I was on my way to pick up the kids. Driving on a sort of auto -pilot. As it seemed was everyone else. My kids got in the car and it was as I saw the tear-stained face of my young child, I realized that for her this was as much about her day as anything else.

How much do you share with 7 and 9 year olds? They had heard the whispers of a few things. We talked briefly about what I could say, planes had crashed and people were not sure what had happened but that it looked like someone made them crash on purpose.

When we came home, my birthday girl was wondering why anyone would do such a thing. At the time none of us knew who was behind the attacks or why. But it seemed to come from somewhere in the Middle East. I struggled to find a way to explain why any person would embrace death in this way.

I started by saying that people do not always agree about where other people should be able to live, or what religion they can believe, or what people can say and who is in charge. I used the playground as an analogy for who gets to pick the game, or who gets to be on the swings first, or who solves a problem when there is a fight. And I admit that even though grownups tell kids not to act out, and to get along and share, we do not always do what we tell them to do. And so we argue and we fight, even though we shouldn’t. And we try to settle things the way we want and we do not take turns. And we push and shove.

Heads are nodding and I think I have made a connection. Perhaps a little too well. Because then the birthday girl points out that the difference between kids on a playground and adults is that “ when adults fight, the way they settle things is to kill.”

My eyes welled up with tears as I heard the truth of what she so boldly said- yes, sometimes this IS what adults do. And now.. what to say? To my saddened, disappointed bitter child who at age 7 knows us as we can be?

I tell her she is right, and that when people do this, it is wrong, and that it makes God sad. She laments that this is how things are. And suddenly I find a moment of good news. I ask her to think about the fact she is not the only person born on this day. That there are too many to count. And that if she and every other person born on this day says, “ I have had enough!” They can become the peacemakers. They can help to bring the change our world needs. They can work for peace, not just because it is right, but because they know how awful not having peace is. And all around the world, change starts because one person stops saying “there is nothing I can do” and starts saying, “ I can do something.”

Post-script: For years I have said I hope that as the events of the past become further into history, the best hope we have of honoring memories is to work, pray and hope for peace. This past week's events with threats of burning Qu'rans are a sad reminder how far we have to go in understanding others and ourselves within God's world. LC#2 has indicated she wants to pursue a career in international affairs. Maybe she will be a peacemaker after all.

Finally, this past Thursday marked the beginning of the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, a part of time called the “Days of Awe” that begin with Rosh Hashanah (New Year’s) and for ten days, ending with Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement. It’s a time for faithful reflection and repentance and reconciliation, for drawing all back together if possible. In the world of Islam it is time to begin the month of Ramadan, during which Muslims ask forgiveness for past sins, pray for guidance and help in refraining from everyday evils, and to try to purify themselves through self-restraint and good deeds. How might we as Christians in this country also faithfully reflect and respond to God' call in our lives across many issues.I continue to pray that when we remember September 11th, just as it evokes sadness, we also remember that there is life and hope and God’s promise. Blessed are the peacemakers.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Daring Risk of Commitment

If you’ve ever bought a house or a car or refinanced a debt you know there is a lot of paperwork. In that mountain of papers was a form called the “truth in lending” form. It’s required by law to tell you how much it REALLY costs over time to do what you’re doing. The form takes total dollars you borrowed and multiplies it by the interest rate across the number of months of the loan. Most of us just sign and try not to think about it. What really matters is getting the thing we need for ourselves and our families. But though we ignore it there is a staggering amount that represents the true cost of our commitment. That’s why a lot of times there is another form called the right of rescission- you have time to change your mind and back out if you think it is too foolish to commit.

Our willingness to just sign on the dotted line reflects how we’ve become immune to those numbers. Every day media analysts try to get us to think about the real costs of our decisions-the real cost of the war on terror, the real cost of the cleanup in the Gulf of Mexico, the real cost to us of our trade deficit with China, the real cost of the economic crisis in our country. But frankly, I can’t even wrap my head around numbers in the billions and trillions. Can you?

We proclaim that we are followers of Christ and we talk about helping the poor, being peacemakers, caring for creation and being committed to justice. We want to live these out, but our world quickly tells us this cost is too great.
Today we hear that people in growing numbers have been flocking to Jesus. By our standards he should realize capitalize upon this. Instead he speaks words that will thin the crowd. He tells people who say they believe to count the cost- read that fine print. Because to really be a disciple we must “hate our family,” stop building towers, stop being warriors and kings, and be ready to walk away from all we possess. Strong language that takes on our preference to put ourselves in the lead and that tells us there is a difference between saying “I believe” and “I commit.” It involves being willing to separate ourselves from following the usual people and forces that guide our choices and let get behind Jesus’ lead instead.

This change in vision involved hard words then and maybe even harder today for a consumer driven society like ours where the word “sacrifice” is not very popular. It’s Labor Day weekend, on a holiday initiated to focus on dignity of workers and fair trade that has become all about those towers and wars and consumption. While we think nothing of the costs of our world, rethinking our views about labor and trade and many other things in light of the cross will cost us. Maybe it’s too foolish to try. After all, our ways of doing business are complicated. Yet this is a part of our walk of discipleship- it really gets messy.

I was talking with a business consultant about how the store where we can get good stuff cheap regularly violates fair labor standards and immigration laws. We should stand against this. But while at church we can say this is injustice, that retailer is a client of the consultant and its store is the closest to home. It both pays for and provides for the needs of the consultant’s family. What is the right response as a disciple? Which path would you walk? Lest it seem like I am just judging another, I surveyed my own world in a given day. Starting with breakfast-cereal with some raisins and milk. The raisins came from California where a migrant worker who picked the grapes is paid substandard wages and may be here illegally. My milk comes in a plastic jug that takes that oil rig in the Gulf to be made. I discovered my bowl was made in China, where I’m sure no one is paying attention to fair labor and where industrial pollution has destroyed most of the rivers. The bowl was purchased at a store where most of the people employed are only given enough hours to be part time so the employer doesn’t have to offer health insurance. Getting dressed I looked at the labels in my clothes-nothing made in the USA though some fair trade. And it took me awhile to look at all those things because I have a lot.

When I looked at my world, I noticed how easy it becomes to focus upon building our own towers and empires and stockpiles. We are always looking to climb higher, looking beyond or looking inward, yet our eyes are not open to who is in front of us. We think about numbers not faces. I thought about how complicated it would be to change my lifestyle. I started counting the cost of living more faithfully, I realized would cost me a lot more money and take a lot more time. But maybe we’re too busy hanging onto what we have to have. So much so that our hands aren’t open to God’s possibility. I would have fewer choices if I changed my habits. In one way I would be renouncing possessions. But to really think about more permanent change is a challenge!

There’s the weight of that cross- just one example of the challenge in taking what we hear in here and building upon it out there. To stop letting our vision lead the way. If I really started living out a lifestyle that honored the dignity of others in fair trade and the care of creation it would be a struggle and some might even mock me. True discipleship involves being willing to sacrifice our wants and our self-esteem.It’s clear in so many ways that we can’t be those noble selfless disciples. As Martin Luther once said,” I believe I cannot by my own understanding or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him.” We can’t make that commitment.

This is exactly where the good news steps in. Bearing the message of the cross into where we are, where we live and work, is not to show our leadership or to earn something, but as a sign that we follow the one who by the cross demonstrated God’s compassion and love. The other times besides our story today where we hear about foolishness and cost is the story of the cross and of the Jesus who is mocked because he saved others but can’t save himself. Our gracious God knows our limitations, but in compassion and love took on the cost of claiming us and then gave us task of discipleship anyway.

A disipleship that risks living out in words and actions God’s compassion and love even when it means standing with people in need, or devoting ourselves to God’s creation. Even when it means to standing over against the world of our family of co-workers, loved ones, employers and media that tell us it’s OK to do otherwise. Knowing we will struggle.

When we wonder how we might even begin to live a truer walk of discipleship, it is in prayer, in worship and in studying God’s word we are given guidance. In this way we are empowered by the Spirit. As we grow in faith, we will continue to find ourselves driven into the world despite our resistance and reluctance to serve others to share our gifts and talents and witness to God’s redeeming word. It is challenging to keep that long term commitment, but it is because we have a God who has not given up on us that we can live with a sense of daring we couldn’t manage on our own.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

And They'll Know We are Christians

Back in the 1970’s this was a popular church camp song. If you remember it too, feel free to join in as we sing.

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored
And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
They will know we are Christians by our love
We will work with each other, we will work side by side
We will work with each other, we will work side by side
And we'll guard each one's dignity and save each one's pride
And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
They will know we are Christians by our love

I learned this song was written in 1970 and I sang it in elementary school. Now you know something about me and based upon how many of you joined in I know something about you as well. But recently I asked people to fill in the end of the sentence “They’ll know we are Christians by our ________________.” The most popular answer was not “love” but “potlucks.” One person said she wasn’t sure if she should say they’ll know us by our love or potlucks but that they were both pretty much the same in her opinion. She’s right that how we interact at our church gatherings like potlucks says a lot about us. So what do our gatherings say?

We envision a communal experience that expresses our identity and demonstrates free and generous hospitality and if you are like me growing up in the Midwestern US, throw in a little pioneer spirit. But I would suggest we struggle to live out this vision, confronted with our own structures, just like the Pharisees.
• Raise your hand if your church has “kitchen ladies, and keep it up if you know this is not an open group”
• Raise your hand if when you have a potluck you tell people to sign up, keep it up if you ask them to tell you what kind of food they are bringing.
• Raise your hand if you know that someone will be looked down upon who comes to the potluck empty-handed or who did not sign up. If someone is not on the list and extra seats need to be set up, there is a sigh. I saw some head nods on a fair amount of these questions.

• These are some of the ways that we “domesticate” hospitality and rein in the welcome.

And if you observe our meals from the outside, there is the flurry of activity before the meal. People are bringing in their contribution. Some “up the game” by bringing it in a Longaberger basket, or with a cute label, promising to share the recipe with select people. Some people slyly move another person’s dish so theirs has pride of place. Meanwhile, others are dispatched to secure seats with friends, family and the question is “Did you get us our table?” It is pretty absorbing but, what is it like to be the stranger; the single person; the person with the bad leg who struggles to get to the basement only to find themselves on the edge? One elderly widower who struggled with mobility said he quit coming to potlucks because it was too humbling to have to ask someone to make room at their table much less help him get to the food. Right about now I am wondering if we CAN sing “they’ll know we are Christians by our potlucks?”

Communal meals among worshippers are nothing new. Jesus was invited to such meals, and today we hear he did some people-watching. All around him people are scurrying and jostling to get the best places, walking around “on display,” making sure their status was intact. People who were holy and proper. The two people who are on the edge at first are Jesus and the man with “dropsy”- today we would call it edema- filled with fluid, bloated and dying of thirst. Right in front of them-Impossible not to see him, yet ignored. Because while it was important to give charity to those in need, it was never on their radar to sit at the same table and eat and drink with such a man. No Pharisee would do that. In fact the word “Pharisee” means “separate”- to separate themselves from the world as a sign of being dedicated to God.
But at some point the separateness stopped being about God’s desires and started being about their desire for status. Here’s how far they took separateness in worship, in dining and in their understanding of who God would deem worthy. The following people were excluded:
no one paralyzed in the feet or hands- no arthritis, no one lame, no one blind, no one unable to speak clearly, no aged people who totter, no one who cannot stand still, no one with any visible blemish or impurity.

That’s a pretty long list- It’s a wonder anyone was even there. Add to that list women and children. I can safely say few of us would fit the bill- no hope for God’s favor. This is why the Pharisees were always so critical of Jesus and his dining habits. This is how blessed we must count ourselves that Christ has given us a seat at the table!

One author states, “all of our efforts to domesticate or rein in hospitality are like clouds blotting out the sun of God’s generosity. Jesus spent his whole life breaking through that cloud to bring fresh healing in the sun of God’s love.” Maybe we need to acknowledge our own lists that diminish our living hospitality toward others. The challenge of Christian hospitality reveals our struggles to reconcile different cultures, different beliefs, different abilities, lifestyles and needs.
God’s view of hospitality calls us to fundamentally reverse our views. Christian hospitality is different than just being nice. It is our reflecting God’s gracious hospitality toward us and re-enacting the feast as a foretaste of the feast to come. We are the invited who invite, but the invitation is not to our table, but to Christ’s table. We called to draw others not to ourselves but into the kingdom of God. We do this not because of what it earns us, power, status or indebtedness, but out of sheer gratitude for God’s grace and love toward us. This hospitality is about more than building a better potluck.

But thinking of our meals may be a good place to start. Think of the joy you feel when sharing a meal with those closest to you, to know you belong. Think of the wondrous grace of knowing Christ has made a spot for you. We hear the words “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.” Are you willing to bless ANYONE? This is what we are called to share- to tell others who are hungry for a welcome that there is room. That we will sit and share face- to-face, rubbing elbows, sacrificing our needs and lists and using God’s list instead. To bring healing and dignity and blessing and I think is why healing and breaking bread appear together so often in Luke as we hear a calling to more than just swapping lists of who is in and who is out.

We’re called to embrace a much larger view of the table, where we have been told we need to get out the leaf to make the table bigger, and bigger. And to not just gravitate toward people and places we know will bless us- that doesn’t place God at the center. Instead, to seek those people can’t give us anything. This kingdom living stretches us beyond our boundaries. It’s countercultural. But this is how we are invited to reclaim hospitality as a Christian practice. To constantly ask who is on the margins, including those who don’t take an invite for granted, and greeting them as “friend” and as equal. Living out the literal meaning of the word “hospitality”- showing the depth of love and affection we have for family toward those we see as strangers in a bigger and bigger table.

It ultimately takes us all the way to the cross to live Jesus’ command to love our enemies and to bless them as we break bread together. Blessing and challenge, but when we continue respond to God’s grace in this way, they really will know we are Christians by our love.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Sabbath Living

A modern day story:
It was a typical Sunday, but then one of the ushers came to tell the pastor that there was a strange woman at the back of the church. The church was lovingly maintained by a dedicated crew whose work it was to ensure that all was as it should be, as it had been for centuries. The candles are the right height, the flowers in place- the stray petal that had fallen to the floor, removed. The beautifully gleaming altar properly set. The bulletins proofed and re-proofed were now in the hands of those who greeted and distributed greetings, smiles and handshakes to those expected, who were then handed off to those who would seat them in the usual spots. All was ready so that at the appointed time worship would occur in the time honored ways, quietly, respectfully and thoughtfully, where everyone knows when to sit, stand, sing and pray, in a dignified and orderly way with reverence. Because that’s how the typical SUNDAY is done.
The usher is clearly flustered by this woman. “Is she in any distress?” the pastor asks, putting on a robe and microphone. “Well, no, but we don’t know why she is here or what she wants. If she needs a voucher for groceries she can’t get that today, and we don’t have anything to give her. We wondered if maybe YOU knew her, or knew what’s going on because we’ve never seen her before.” The pastor peeks out and sees “Anne,” easily recognizable by the blue ski cap and long down coat she wears regardless of the season. It’s a lot of work being homeless, shuffling through downtown from sunup to sundown. Each day rising at the emergency shelter, trudging to the free breakfast with the Episcopalians, then to the public library until lunch with the Catholics, followed by hanging out around town until dinner somewhere else, then waiting for the shelter to open. Once a week the free meal is here at the pastor’s church. Anne has come weekly for years, longer than the pastor has been the pastor, towing a metal cart on wheels containing her possessions, tarped to protect her belongings. She walks head down, and often seems preoccupied and distant, slumped over her cart. Week after week she’s walked past these ushers to breakfast seemingly unnoticed by them as they were focusing upon their work. The pastor wonders what led Anne to change her routine and worship, but remembers the usher still standing waiting, and says, “Why, yes, that’s Anne!” The usher stares awkwardly, The pastor to ask if there is a problem. “Well, you see, it’s just that she has this cart full of who knows what with her.”
“Yes,” the pastor smiled, “she usually does.”
“Well, it’s in our entryway. We don’t know what to do and it’s in the way. Frankly, I don’t know how she hauls it all around in the first place. It’s not a good time for her to be here with all that stuff!
The pastor heads to where she is sitting, usher in tow. Anne’s tired face crinkles into a smile. She straightens up and it’s clear she is wearing bright pink lipstick- she has “dressed up” for church.
“Hey there, Anne! It’s good to see you came inside today!”
“You know this is such a beautiful, peaceful place,” she says. “I come here during the week when no one is here and just sit in the stillness, just me and God. Usually after breakfast I sit in your library and read a devotion book, but today I just needed to come.”
At this point, the usher points to his watch- it IS almost time for worship to start.
But the pastor sits down in the pew with Anne who keeps talking. “You know I’m not always sure about this whole church thing. It seems like there’s a difference between what Jesus says and how people in the church act sometimes. I can get pretty angry with how people treat me and look at me when I am walking around. And I’m not stupid. I know what they’re thinking. They try to pretend like they don’t see me or if they look at me it’s not friendly. It wears me down. But when I come in here, I know I God is here. I can put it all aside and we’ll talk, God and I, and somehow, things get straightened out and I can stop being bent out of shape.”
And each week after that day, Anne could be found in her “usual” spot, smiling, sometimes with a friend she had encouraged to come. And Jesus continues to teach and heal.
Maybe we can say that here at the campground we don’t wrestle with these issues as much. But what about when we go back home? Those whose existence is restored, whose lives are transformed, immediately go on to praise God and tell everyone- to teach with their lives. Every day the woman labored to walk by the place where people worshipped, for years unnoticed- until Jesus saw her. No one called out to her, or heard her. Are we ever people preoccupied with our work each Sabbath, observing all the formalities of worship so much that we hear God’s word taught, but are not living the Sabbath with others in need? Every healing is a moment used by Jesus to re-shape understanding.
Let’s start with how we see ourselves. You may not realize it but we are crippled too. When we are slaves to “our work” in life and forget to set it down, we don’t even realize the ways this distorts us and weighs each of us down. We become inflexible, and bent over our own “to-do” list. We may think that others are the downtrodden and crippled, but they are us. And even here today, each of us entered this space with the work we can’t put down that keeps us from really worshipping. Each of us, you and I, need an encounter with God to reshape us. Without it we’re unable to see eye to eye with our world around us. We need God to tell us we are free from what keeps us hunched over. Again this day Jesus calls to us to come and be in God’s presence this Sabbath day. Hear the good news that though we have again become crippled by sin, we’re again set free-by a God who steps into our midst and sees us when others don’t and who loves us when others won’t. By the power of God in Christ we are healed!
If you’re still with me, it’s time to think what it means to live as the healed. A few years ago, I visited the basilica of Sainte Anne de Beau PrĂ© outside of Quebec. For hundreds of years, pilgrims have journeyed there believing it’s a site where God is especially present for healing. When you enter the enormous worship space, before you can even take in the stained glass, or the carvings, you are confronted by columns of crutches, leg braces, walkers, and canes that are strapped to the columns from floor to ceiling. Brought back immediately by those no longer crippled and offered as a witness to God’s healing in their lives because everyone needs to know. Today as you leave, leave your crutches and props behind. Walk out empowered to live as those whose lives have been transformed for Sabbath living, to tell everyone what God has done and there’s nothing typical about it!

Transition moments

Sent LC #1 off to college with a very loud Big Ben-type alarm clock. She is immune to more polite alarms so a sturdy clanging double bells on the top type it was. Not electric, not digital, no remote, no encryption or password needed, just put in a battery and set the time and flick the little switch on the back to ON to set it and OFF when you get up. ON before you go to bed. How hard could this be? Six 18-19 years olds were mystified and could not get it to work and were calling her in the a.m. every five minutes to make sure she was up. Old school is so difficult!
LC#2 is adapting to the fact that she can no longer: steal her sisters clothes and shoes, leave a mess and claim it was not her. No one to yell at on a bad day and they manage to miss each other's schedules when texting. Thank God for Facebook!
And we had to buy another graphing calculator because the one they shared when they had math opposite semesters is now at college.
I just bought books for the first of the last two semesters (I hope) and had to wrack my brain for my Blackboard signin which I have not needed in a very long time. And I know I should start learning that Hebrew alphabet- but I am a little lacking in the inspiration department. Fortunately I am still trying to coordinate the high school, college and seminary schedules including two sets of football.
One way another may the three of us get where we need to be, do what we need to do.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Words in the World

I have been thinking about the impact of words in the world. As a person who endeavors to bring the Word into the world, I am walking with a blog, and Facebook and multiple electronic ways of communication at hand. I am often glad for the people I have been able to be in touch with that otherwise might be out of reach. As a person who enjoys writing I am blessed to be able to stay connected with wonderful reflections and musings of others that have enriched my own process and hopefully even improved it(or at least I hope so). But for all of the wonderful aspects of rapid fire communication there is a rising trend that I wrestle with. For those of us who blog and serve in ministry there is the question of transparency- how revealing is too revealing? A question each person resolves for themselves. I resolved to err on the side of caution and grace.
But what about Facebook?
Years ago there was a commercial for a shampoo where the thrilled consumer told two friends about the product, and they told two friends, who told two friends, and so on and so on... Each time the telling happened the number of photos on the screen increased. Facebook is like that. Whatever I say is then in the feed of the people who are my "friends"- all 300 of them (thinking it's time for a purge but that is a separate consideration). But what it also means is that when I am on my friends' pages I see everything else that all of their friends, who may not be my friends, are saying.
Which leads me to my concern. Lately I have seen a real rise in carping about a congregation's practices or processes in Facebook which is a much broader forum than one person's friend list. Let's say that something is happening in a ministry setting to which you belong or which you are serving which has made you mad or frustrated, or you think is just plain wrong.
Do you post about it where many more than your intended audience will see and dissect it? Do you account for the difference between how face to face communication and electronic communication are perceived? Would we stand before said congregation in a room and say what is being said?
When we blow off steam in this way, what is the purpose? If a change is desired does anyone think public airing will aid or hinder such a path? What if we are wrong in our perceptions, if there is more to this than we know or meets the eye?
Luther's explanation of bearing false witness exhorts us to always place our neighbor in the most positive light- as we endeavor daily to live out our faith, there is an ever greater challenge to how our words impact our world and how our words affect our credibility to proclaim the Word.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

We Don't Race Alone

Another week leading worship at the campground and each week surprises- so far in addition to amazing people I had been surprised by a dog running in when I talked about the Holy Spirit and the bingo board lighting up during my sermon. Today as I was about to read the lessons twenty more people walked in, Mennonite and Amish families camping,adding about 14 extra children to the children's message time. And we gathered round our collective news of the week and ran the race together:

As I prepared for this week, I began thinking about Luke and the fire and by Wednesday found myself wondering about life after a fire. But then Wednesday we learned about the killing of 10 medical aid workers for Mennonite Central Committee in Afghanistan. And on Thursday morning the first parish I served while in seminary located in Dillsburg, was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. The cross on the belfry was struck and shattered and the pieces caught the building on fire some say. These events showed me about life after a fire but also about perseverance to continue to run the race we hear of in Hebrews this day.
Walter Elliot in his work, The Spiritual Life, claims “perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after another.” There’s truth in the notion that our lives are a series of beginnings when all seems bright and hopeful in our vision. I thought about that last week as we prayed for all those newlyweds. Somewhere after the beginning, amidst the blessings are those times when a painful reality bursts in, devastating times of our lives when it feels that all is stripped away. Some people believe that if you just have the right faith you will achieve prosperity and your life will be immeasurably blessed. I’m sure that some if not many of those early believers in Christianity imagined this to be true-a new and glorious day would come to fulfillment in their lifetimes. After all, throughout the Old Testament there are stories of faith that conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war and put foreign armies to flight.
But sometimes not. And sometimes not right away- those great stories of faith often are about “not right away.” Welcome to the reality check that feels like a bitter slap in Hebrews, a book that speaks of “faith” more than any other book of the New Testament- 24 times in the 11th chapter alone. I’m glad for its sting because who wants a faith that denies the gap between vision and reality here on the ground? Literally or figuratively we too know those feelings of being destitute, tormented- from emotional strain to those who this week gave their very lives to live faithfully. Times we find ourselves wondering and wandering in .places where we feel like those who live not fully seeing the promise, or worse, experiencing great pain and loss and suffering that take things away seem like they can’t be replaced. It can be overwhelming to conjure up the persistence needed amidst the shock, numbness and the dark shadows where once there was light, when we’re weighed down.
These past weeks in our prayer time and conversations many of you have shared these places in your lives and in the lives of those you love. Where we feel like we’re dying where we hear words like “inoperable,” “divorce” or “total loss.” We are flogged and torn amidst “final stages of cancer,” “hospice” “Parkinson’s. ” We can all add to this list. This was also the world of that first parish I served during seminary struck by lightning. Fire can suck the oxygen out of room. Hearing what happened took my breath away. A profound sadness settled in like the weight of all that water soaked ash. So many thoughts flooded my mind- the faces I know well; their new pastor who was just installed this past Sunday. Built in 1894, it’s a country parish still affectionately known as "Filey's Parish" though its formal name is Christ Lutheran Church, where I heard tales of when the church did not have indoor plumbing, and of the spring that runs through the basement of the house the next field over. Of generations of seminarians who have been trained there, perhaps some now part of the cloud of witnesses of the church. Where I learned important things about being a pastor, including no Easter Sunrise breakfast is complete without pickled tongue. I can reminisce how they patiently worked with me to teach me the right way to ring the bell, including how not to lose the rope up the belfry. What amusement I provided as I struggled to pull hard enough to ring without double ringing. Now that belfry is gone. But it was also the first pulpit I ever preached in with the nervous altar guild lady who plied me with water when I had bronchitis so I could get through the sermon. A place where you could tell the passage of time by the various styles of architecture in the sanctuary. The light up stained glass Jesus, and the giant cross that looked like a matchstick cross with the ends singed and the windows from the 1900’s all together, all lovingly given out of someone's vision of the promise.
I think of all of the baptisms, weddings, confirmations that filled the space where God laughed and rejoiced with them. And of the funerals where God cried with them. As lightning leveled their world, how the lectionary for this day and it's baptism of fire must sound. Could they even have the strength to be exhorted to faith much less to run?
But at their prayer vigil Thursday night, they are still teaching as they spoke of the gift and promise in the ashes-there is something about these experiences. The same thing I learned from a friend battling cancer who wrote me one day and told me her cancer was a gift. It brought clarity and brought her closer to God. When all else is stripped away, we can see what matters. That fire and cancer and all of the other trials and tribulations cannot destroy what endures- the faith and hope of the cross, the promise made sure in Christ. So it is for each of us. Still there is the promise, the reality of the cross of Christ that allows us to step out in courageous new ways. To live in the way song writer Andrew Peterson calls “dancing in the minefields.”
In a moment we’ll hear his song. I thought I would share some of the lyrics first.
We went dancin’ in the mine fields. We went sailin’ in the storms.
It’s harder than we dreamed but I believe that’s what the promise is for
Don’t give up. Don’t give up on me. Don’t give up.
So when I lose my way, find me. When I loose love’s chains, bind me.
At the end of all my faith, to the end of all my days, when I forget my name, remind me.
Cause we bear the light of the Son of Man, so there’s nothin’ left to fear.
So, I’ll walk with you in the shadow lands, ‘til the shadows disappear.
He promised not leave us and his promises are true,
So in the face of all this chaos, maybe I can dance with you.
So let’s go dancing in the minefields and kickin’ down the doors. This is harder than we dreamed but I believe that’s what the promise is for.
Someone once said, “The greatest oak was once a little nut who held its ground.” To the world around us we are a little nuts. People tell us to give up, that it’s not worth it, that our faith is a sham. The pastor of Filey’s was asked by the media if she thought the fire was an act of God against her church. We know that’s not our God talking, and that there is more to our lives than meets the eye. We’re following Christ who goes before us, who has secured the future. Our faith and perseverance come from knowing that God’s promises are sure and that God’s purposes won’t fail to be achieved even when everything or everyone around us speaks to the contrary. And we know we don’t race alone. We’re in the company of each other and that cloud of witnesses by our side, sometimes walking, sometimes running and sometimes even dancing, cheering us on in the joy and pain together, ever reminding us of God’s promise. AMEN.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Old Enough to Say "I Love You" Freely

I have worked twice this week at the Big Hospital in Amish Country. Post-internship for me and for them means more work available to cover shifts. Post-internship I have been careful to avoid obvious places where boundaries of internship parish and my life would cross for the sake of myself, the parish and the new vicar. Earlier this week, I was only working four hours- so how much contact could there be? I came in to learn that one of the ladies from the Bible study I led was in and had a lovely visit with a fellow chaplain who indulged her in a lengthy time of life review. At 93 she is experiencing limits others reach far sooner and while normally there are a couple of us on board at any given time, for those four hours it was me and the hospital, come what may.
I set about the visits requested, and along the way encountered a family in the hall of one of the intensive care areas. While I was checking on them I hear this gradually louder voice calling my name- by the third time it was a downright bellowing yell, followed by "aren't you coming in here to see ME?" So much for boundaries. I entered, fully gowned and gloved for another visit if for no other reason than the strain she was causing herself in the yelling. We chatted as though only days had passed and she introduced me to her nephew with all of the pertinent facts. And I offered prayers and a blessing for her.
Upon which she looked up with absolute clarity and declared-"I Love YOU!"
While I declared my love in return I know that it was not with the absolute sincerity that a person whose very life is in the balance generates.
Tonite I was back at the hospital and meeting a woman I have never seen in my life who shared she was fine, followed by the but... for three days they have prepped her for a heart procedure and then it is delayed. Her husband is in tears from the stress. She is trying to be strong for him, she the one with the heart problem. We talk about how God does not turn a back on us even when we shake our fist. Seeing the copy of "Our Daily Bread" on the table I encourage conversation about her devotional life. When we pray I pray for the daily bread that has nothing to do with food and everything to do with sustenance. And as we finish this 83 year old looks up with tears and tells me she loves me.
While I believe it is really an expression of love for Christ, I wonder about our lives- those of us, myself included who do not see the precarious nature of it all. How often do we deny these declarations and how often do we thus deny ourselves and each other true sentiment?
It is said that little kids and old ladies speak the greatest truth- because they have no need to be afraid. Are we afraid to be so bold? Like the way we do not say in life the things we hear at funerals and memorials?
And the ways and times we fail if nothing else to acknowledge the Christ in each other?
Wondering who I have failed to say "I LOVE YOU" to.
I wonder if anyone else feels the same.
Believing that maybe we should lower the age on true expression.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Fire Can Suck the Oxygen from a Room But Not the Life From the Church

Fire will suck the oxygen out of a room.

Hearing of a devastating fire at my former teaching parish had the same effect on me as a profound sadness settled in like the weight of all that water soaked ash.
So many thoughts flooded my mind as I imagined the faces of those I know well and of their new pastor who was just installed this past Sunday. Built in 1894, a country parish still affectionately known as "Filey's Parish" though its formal name is Christ Lutheran Church. I remember tales of when the church did not have indoor plumbing, and of the spring that runs through the basement of the house the next field over. Of generations of seminarians who have been trained there, perhaps some now part of the cloud of witnesses of the church. Of those I know who preceded me. I was the last teaching parish student.

Some years ago, the parish proudly had finished an addition of offices and class and gathering space. Sturdy. I ponder all of the records that now may be lost, and reminisce of how they patiently worked with me to teach me the right way to ring the bell, including how not to lose the rope up the belfry. What amusement I provided as I struggled to pull hard enough to ring without double ringing. The Easter Sunrise breakfast, complete with pickled tongue.

The first pulpit I ever preached in. The nervous graciousness of the altar guild lady who plied me with water when I had bronchitis so I could get through the sermon. The way you could tell the passage of time by the various styles of architecture in the sanctuary all lovingly given out of someone's vision of the promise.
I think of all of the baptisms, weddings, confirmations and funerals that filled the space where God laughed and cried and rejoiced with them. But on this day when lightning has leveled their world, how the lectionary for this coming Sunday and it's baptism of fire must sound. How the description of those who lived not fully seeing the promise, or worse, those who experienced great pain and loss and suffering must feel. How to imagine the persistence needed amidst the shock, the numbness and the dark shadows where once there was light.
And yet, in all of this, the fire cannot destroy the faith and hope of the cross, the promise made sure in Christ, and the cloud of witnesses and community in the here and now. So it is for each of us. Our lives are a series of beginnings when all seems bright and hopeful in our vision. But amidst the blessings are those times when a painful reality bursts in, in the devastating times of our lives when it feels that all is stripped away. Still there is the promise that is the reality of cross of Christ.

So tonite as I head to the prayer vigil, I am thinking of a new song I have heard by Andrew Peterson. Though the song is about marriage, the words ring true. As I reel with them in their loss, I am reminded that the building is not the church- Christ in our midst will triumph.

And we went dancin’ in the mine fields. We went sailin’ in the storms
And it was harder than we dreamed, but I believe that’s what the promise is for…
The only way to find your “life” is to lay your own “life” down and
I believe it’s an easy price for the life that we have found
We dancin’ in the minefields, and we’re sailin’ in the storms and
It’s harder than we dreamed but I believe that’s what the promise is for
Don’t give up. Don’t give up on me. Don’t give up.
So when I lose my way, find me
When I loose love’s chains, bind me
At the end of all my faith, to the end of all my days,
When I forget my name, remind me.
Cause we bear the light of the Son of Man, so there’s nothin’ left to fear.
So, I’ll walk with you in the shadow lands, ‘til the shadows disappear.
He promised not leave us and his promises are true,
So in the face of all this chaos, maybe I can dance with you.
So let’s go dancing in the minefields
Let’s go sailin’ in the storms
Let’s go dancin’ in the minefields and kickin’ down the doors. This is harder than we dreamed but I believe that’s what the promise is for.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Looking for God-incidences

There’s a woman I know who uses a play on words to describe moments of great unexpected blessing. Instead of calling them coincidences, she calls them “God-incidences.” One of those happened this past week. As you know it’s getting to be that time of year where the start of school is coming. This affects three people in our house- high school, college and seminary all start on the same day this year. As the date gets closer we start looking for signs that confirm what’s on the horizon- ads for supplies, calendars of events. We check what we have and decide what we need to be prepared. And we don’t wonder IF school will start, we anticipate it. But while we anticipate the resumption of classes, we find ourselves less sure about what comes next- the challenges, the people, how it will all turn out are somewhat unclear. This can make us a little nervous. Which leads me to the “God-incidence” of the week. A couple days ago our older daughter, Catherine turned 18. She heads to college in a matter of days. A card came in the mail and the return address showed it was from her kindergarten teacher. Cat’s first year in public school was this teacher’s last as she had retired after a long career, so we have not seen her for 13 yrs. The card contained a personal note acknowledging Cat’s birthday and her graduation and offered encouragement to have faith as she continues her journey toward new places. Enclosed was a series of photographs of Cat and her kindergarten classmates, each one with handwritten documentation of what the picture was and who was in it, lovingly and painstakingly prepared. When kids start school, they and their parents have both hopes and fears. Over the years in between the beginning and the fulfillment, there are times when it seems like the future really is unsure. For us identifying, coming to terms with and addressing Cat’s learning disabilities were such a time. It was and sometimes is hard to live in the “already but not yet” time when sometimes you wonder if “not yet” means “not ever.”
This is where we discover the fine line between wondering if something will happen and anticipating it; between anxiety and expectancy. This is true in our faith lives as well. We often speak of the difference between fear and faith as though it is a switch we turn on or off. It is perhaps better seen as a journey from one to the other, with some trips back and forth along the way, places where we need to be reminded of what it all means. What helps us are those moments that break in, and people who live in expectancy with us. I’m overwhelmed by the teacher, who carefully kept track of these kids for 13 years, tending their memories, and waiting for this moment. Ready, prepared and eager. Always looking for the signs on their behalf. To finally offer the moment of “look at what is already true, how far you’ve come” in the dream becoming reality- now have faith as you move on to the next people and places. There is no dollar value on such moments- they are priceless.
We usually hear the “keep alert, get ready” message of today’s gospel during the weeks leading up to Christmas, when we expect to be anticipating “baby Jesus” and it feels real. To hear these words now in the heat of summer, in the endless season of what some call “Ordinary Time” in the church year catches us off-guard. Maybe we sometimes even take a break from looking. We hear that it is in the wee hours of pre-dawn that the master returns, just about when everyone has hit REM sleep. I wonder when we don’t see the realization of it all, can we really be always vigilant for an event that has been foretold for thousands of years? And as our culture moves beyond Christianity doesn’t it sometimes feel hard to keep up that level of enthusiasm? This is what leads some to say that what really matters is the eternal reward and not the here and now. It leads others to wonder if maybe this really is all there is. In our lives when things feel unsure or seem unresolved, we may even ask if there really is a promise after all.
It is into these places throughout Scripture God has spoken, “Let go of your fear” and it is in these times that we then see something revealed about God’s will and saving activity for us. Moments of the kingdom underway. We see this in the angel visiting Mary; in the calming of the storm where the disciples are sure they are doomed but where Jesus revealing something of divine power. We see it this day in Jesus reassuring the disciples that they really can shift from worrying about a worldly focus to a godly one and we see it at the empty tomb. Each time a word that speaks of the certainty not only of what has been but what will be. Moments where God’s gracious presence breaks in and we get a glimpse, a foretaste of the feast to come even as we also wonder how it is we can really get out of our comfort zone like God asks. SO where can we see this kingdom?
If we really want to see these moments, we need to be looking in where God shows up- in the unexpected times, people and places. Preparing our hearts and minds to be open to the times when we may receive or may be used through “God-incidences.” Those revelations we are given of God’s kingdom underway. One way to embrace this is at the end of each day to spend time reviewing the day, asking where we have seen God at work- in both the joys and the challenges. Reminding ourselves of those snapshots of what has been. This is one way of remembering that we expect to see God at work. But there is another component to being alert. This past spring at the Jesuit Center on retreat, my spiritual director encouraged me to not only look backwards, to also anticipate the coming day, and the things, people and places I expected to be a part of my journey. And to then spend time in prayer asking for God to be at work and revealed there as well. Not because God won’t show up unless I do something or pray, but for me to begin expecting God, looking for God, listening for God. Being on the alert and ready to respond. We hear that where our treasure is so is our heart. I think the opposite is also true. Where our heart is touched, we are inspired to give our whole selves.
By expecting God we begin to see people and situations in deeper ways; become more aware of their needs but also see God brought into our midst through them. These God-incidences happen everywhere. Phone calls that happen at the right time. Generosity that springs out of nowhere. A comforting word when it’s needed most. It begins to change how we approach our days in terms of time. To inspire us to think creatively and compel us to consider new things we never thought of to share with others. As we share these moments, and ask others where they have seen God, we are preparing each other, keeping each other alert. We find ourselves encouraging each other- have no fear. All ways God uses to bless us, strengthen our faith together and move us beyond our fears into kingdom living. This week I encourage you to look for the God-incidences in your world, they just might surprise you.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

What Does it Mean to Be Rich?

Sometimes life in the here and now is like a gospel lesson come alive. After I had a sermon all ready to go, sadly I learned of such a "contemporary parable." These last weeks our lessons have presented teaching and challenge on what kingdom living is all about. We find ourselves being stretched in ways that seem hard to live out. And it's hard to keep persepctive.

We hear warning and maybe reprimand, but I'd like to suggest that they are lessons from a God who knows just how challenging it is for us live faithfully. It is in that light that I share the struggle of an adorable couple in their 70’s, who met in later years after the death of their first spouses. Their earlier lives had been a mix of feast or famine, but they’d been blessed with abundance in this marriage. She adored him, and there was a twinkle in his eyes when he saw her. She worked hard to care for their beautifully decorated home in an upscale neighborhood, where everything was “just so.” She once said that because of the gift of her marriage to him, her life was the best it had ever been.

But then he was diagnosed with a progressive illneess that moved quickly. At first when things got rough, she wanted him at home to be with him, to provide the love only a spouse can. But over the last six months, as his needs advanced, there was not only the strain of caring for his physical needs, but worry about her future needs, after all his care was costly but she could live for years. Though many tried to assure her that she would be provided for, she began to be consumed by fears, insisting she needed to keep the enormous home that was too large for her to tend. She scrutinized accounts, and cobbled together a collection of in-home companions because if he went to a nursing home, she was sure she’d lose it all. How would she be able to eat, drink and be merry? Her obsessions increasingly distanced her from family and friends, and gave her no rest at night. Her only conversations were with herself. Terrified his children would take her to court and make her divide the assets, she spent large sums of money to protect large sums of money, spending what she was trying to preserve.

Finally, someone intervened and asked a judge to determine his needs. Her life which had already begun eroding was further taken away when they placed him in a nursing home. She couldn’t agree to a private facility, so he was placed on medical assistance. She soon discovered herself rattling around in that enormous house alone-with no one to help her and no one to talk to. Unable to drive, she had noone to take her places, so she rarely got to the nursing home- she rarely saw the love of her life. She is not alone- I spent two days in continuing education as a lawyer where the overriding concern was the cost of health care and the non-institutionalized spouse. But days ago, about a month after all the courthouse wrangling, she was tragically struck by an oncoming car and killed. The sad truth is that long before the accident, she had given up her life when she lost perspective.

Today's gospel is not an indictment of wealth and possessions, or our enjoyment of them. It’s OK to rest, eat, drink and be merry. We hear this in Ecclesiastes - Life is hard. Enjoy yourself when you can. God calls the landowner a "fool" not because he's enjoying himself, but because of his lack of perspective about wealth and possessions- the ways and times we stop looking at anything other than our abilities, refusing to trust God. The ways we allow stuff to be our God and master and the consequences. The landowner finally perfects his storage solution but finds out he’s going to die in just a few hours--"this night.” All that toiling forgetting all else, for naught. He’s forgotten his relationships with God and others. Starting with where the good fortune came from. It is the land that brought forth the abundance. The amazing harvest wasn’t the result of the landowner being a spectacular farmer, but because it was a good crop year. Weather being seen as a way referring to God’s activity not ours. Like the rich landowner, the woman lost perspective too. She had long since forgotten the source of her abundance-the result of God bringing her into a surprising gift of marriage and the blessings of wealth the man had been able to earn. The first warning is to be wary of the ways we disregard God’s activity in our lives. One way we fail to be rich toward God.

The second warning is about how disregarding others is also a way of failing to be rich toward God. The rich landowner forgot that not only did he not create the abundant harvest he didn’t reap it alone either. He needed and benefitted from the labor of others. Now, though, he’s become self-absorbed, forgetting about anyone else in the equation, thinking only of how he is set. He holds onto the harvest rather than selling now, to maximize profit, worried he might not have what he needs for his future. But here again he fails to see anyone else in the picture. Not only does he not share any of the abundance now with others, he robs them of their future as well. Ninety percent of the people around him lived at the level of bare subsistence, working for the landowner with a little plot to raise food for themselves. By tearing down the barn and building a bigger one, the man is taking land out of farming- fewer jobs for those workers. And he could have built a couple small barns, taking less space, but created one monstrous barn instead, surrounded by nothing. Taking away not only jobs, but guaranteeing that the land the barn sits on will never produce future crops. So out of touch, the owner fails to see this will ultimately affect him as well! He used his power to take away and driving others into poverty and homelessness, causing crisis all around, everyone is talking. Yet, the rich man talks only to himself, and thinks only of himself. So too the woman deaf to all others, finds herself disregarding her life partner to preserve the value of the house while her husband becomes ward of the state.
All that stockpiling shows a lack of trust that the abundant God will continue to be abundant. We all have times we find ourselves forgetting both the giver of the abundance and the limitation of their powers. Because for all the self-centered strategizing, we don't run our own lives after all. Our lives are finite and the stuff we think we own we can’t take with us, but we can allow our focus on stuff to take away our life. Think of all of the ways those I have mentioned could have been merry with others, including those they loved, enjoying the gift of the days they had together if it hadn’t taken so much time and energy and worry. And how merry can anyone be partying alone? It's not much of a life. If only they could have trusted God, been rich toward God, how abundant their lives could have really been. So too for us.

So, how do we avoid this fate? If I had the magic answer I would write a book, and of course share the profits with all of you. But seriously, both the landowner and the woman started out acting in ways that were prudent, planning for the future, being fiscally conservative. Somewhere along the way they got off track. Kingdom living is just as challenging for each of us- and rather than give answers Jesus leaves us with lots of questions. How can we be satisfied with the beauty of the abundance and relationships God gives? How can we trust God to provide “enough” when our needs and the needs of others clash- when we hear “you can’t always get what you want?” We too need to stop only talking to ourselves about numbers and stuff and worries, and to talk to God. God wants to provide abundance for us, but also for others. To sort out how to balance legitimate focus on ourselves and the concerns of our neighbors, our best guidance comes from our being rich toward our relationship with God- tending our relationship, in prayer, in study of Scripture and in dialogue with others. God gives us the treasure of these things.

Then we can hear the words of Jesus, as loving teacher who takes the time to remind us as children of an important life lesson, loves us enough to remind us to step outside our barns and back into the treasure of our world, reminding us of how God gives us abundance in relationships and how we are meant to be that abundance for each other. But when we get off track, to see we’re also given the grace of a God who knows our challenges and loves us even when we fail to keep perspective. Who promises each of us that long after the stuff is gone, we are claimed forever by a loving God who in Christ has given us the greatest treasure of all. In this we have life and we are truly rich.