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.