Saturday, December 22, 2012

Gift Exchange

Are you ready for Christmas?  I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked that question.  Most often by retail sales folk who are trying to make conversation, to come across as friendly.  Well, and the woman cutting my hair.  An occasional member of the church passing me in the hallways or out in the world somewhere will sometimes ask me that too.  A few of the askers are, I believe, interested in a deeper, more spiritual readiness.  Am I ready to celebrate incarnation, do I have a sense of the presence of the holy, am I in touch with the joy of more than a season - that’s what the few are asking, I believe.  Most however, want to know if I have spent enough money yet.

OK, cynical, I realize.  Yet, when I engage these folks in conversation the next level often goes to a discussion of whether the presents have been purchased and wrapped and hidden, or whether we are still stumped by schedules or crowds or the loved one who is incredibly hard to buy for. 

Everyone has at least one of those, I am sure.  You know what I mean.  It’s not that they have everything and there is nothing left to get them.  Rather it is more like they don’t want anything.  Drives me crazy.  “Do you have a list?”  “Well, no.  I don’t know what to put on it?”  “Everyone else has a list.”  “I know.”  “We want to get you something.”  “I know.”  “Well?”  “I’ll think about it.” Argghh.

OK, the not wanting thing is probably good.  Who am I to tell her she needs to want more stuff.  Sometimes I wish I had a similar attitude.  And actually, I think I do pretty well with the wanting, or the not wanting.  What I struggle with is the giving thing.  Or rather the wanting to give thing.  And I don’t mean I don’t want to give.  The exact opposite in fact.  I want to give a lot, everything and anything.  I’m not usually given permission to go shopping for the kids, because I’d get everything on the list and few things that weren’t there but should have been.  I almost can’t help myself.  I love giving stuff, losing myself in the exquisite agony of selecting something that says just what you want to say to someone who means more to you than you are able to put into words.  I feel as though I carry them with me as I am out and about, looking for that something special, that will make their eyes light up, that will let them know that someone was thinking of them.  But not just them in the generic, but in the specific.  The someone who likes this, who thinks this way, who hopes this hope, who rejoices in that joy.  I want them to feel known and loved by the whatever it is that gets wrapped and slipped under the tree in the front room. 

I know, a lot of weight to a gift that you pick up off a shelf somewhere.  Or point and click on.  Or make a phone call to get.  Which is why there is often a vague sense of disappointment when the gift is opened and the life transforming moment doesn’t occur.  Gratitude, yes, even joy at times.  But not ... well ... not a life changing moment, or life affirming moment.  A confirmation moment.  That’s what we want at Christmas time.  That’s why we give the gifts we give.  That’s why the gift was given.  THE gift.  You know, the “reason for the season” and all of that.

Our gift giving is a reflection of God’s giving.  And though we know we can’t out give God, we want to give with as much investment as we can muster, with as much commitment as we can generate.  We want our gifts to redeem lives, or relationships, or at least make those we care about feel good about themselves. 

But maybe that is too much for a gift to carry, any gift, no matter how carefully chosen or constructed.  Maybe we are wasting our energies, hoping in the wrong vehicles to communicate love and joy and hope to those we love around us.  Maybe we ought to rethink Christmas.

This season we’ve been asked to think differently about Christmas.  To remember that “Christmas is not your birthday!”  Which, by the way, I believe is true even for those few who are born on December 25th.  Their birthday is December 25th, not Christmas.  Christmas, or the Mass of Christ, is about someone else.  And it is that someone who should shape our celebration of this day.  But not just in the background, not just the reason for the season, but the motivator, the shaper of the celebration itself.  Not just the pale outline, but the focus, the object of our devotion and gift giving.

What does Jesus want for Christmas?  That’s the question of this fourth week of Advent.  And since the snow shower of catalogs we receive in the mail each day isn’t really going to be much help, maybe we ought to look elsewhere.  Like to Matthew.  Maybe he can give us some insight into finding the right gift for the guy who has everything.

Matthew 25:31-46   "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,  33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.  34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;  35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.'  37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?'  40 And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'  41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;  42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,  43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'  44 Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?'  45 Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.'  46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

Of course, you sigh, we knew that.  Jesus wants us to get out there help people.  OK, right, get to it.  Another responsibility, another task, another chore to get done before we can get to the business of enjoying our holiday.  Work it into our busy schedules to make Jesus happy.  It is his birthday after all. 

Except that just saying it that way makes us realize we are still missing something.  What is really asking for in this story?  What are we supposed to get?  The goats missed it, but then you would expect them to, they’re goats after all.  But, is it surprising that the sheep seem to have missed it too?  “When was it that we saw you hungry...?” 

Maybe their surprise is the whole point of the story.  Jesus is saying that the goal is not to complete some task, like competing in a reality show of some sort, but rather to be the kind of person who loves like Christ loved.  Not because we’re supposed to, but just because we do.  What Christ wants for Christmas is for us to give the gift of who we are, the loving, caring, giving person that he has enabled us to become - or that we are becoming, since we are all in process.  Which, I guess, is all anyone wants, the gift of ourselves.  Our better selves, our true selves, our Christ-like selves. 

So, are you ready for Christmas?


Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Other Side of the Manger

How do you receive bad news?  I’m sorry.  That wasn’t the question I meant to ask at all.  That wasn’t the entry into this moment that I was looking for.  That question was a throw away, an unintentionally benign time-filler to while away a long drive or a late night dorm room bull session.  That question was more along the lines of what would buy first if you won the lottery? Or if you were stranded on a desert island what three things would  you want with you?  An ice breaker game in a small group meeting, or a baseline psychological assessment before getting into anything serious.

Let me try again.  When your world shatters from words delivered like a sledgehammer to your gut, how do you stand?  When you are plunged underwater by news you can scarcely comprehend let alone respond to, how do you take your next breath?  When all your visions of a joyous tomorrow are spoken out of existence by whispered words of tragedy or denial how do you put one foot in front of another on your way into the void?

We watched in horror as yet another well armed individual destroyed the comfort and joy of a quiet community, tipped the scales from hopes to fears of all the years in a few moments of terror, a modern day slaughter of the innocents.  The echoes from the weeping prophet all too evident – Thus says the LORD: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more. (Jeremiah 31:15) 

One of the threads online last night was a story headed “How the father of the shooter got the news.”  His wife was dead, shot by his son who was also now dead.  Do we need to know how this father heard this story?  How does it help us comprehend a world gone awry?  Besides, I hesitate to even mention, but we’ve been there.

No, not such news.  At least I pray that you have never been told such a thing as this poor father and husband was told.  Though, in my years of ministry I have sat alongside those who have been told some devastating news.  I’ve watched them stagger under the weight, like a lifter who has taken on more than the body can bear.  I have whispered “breathe” into the ear of one gasping for meaning in the vacuum of a terrible moment.  I have felt my soul vibrate in sympathetic pain to the keening a mother needing to give voice to her pain. 

Though we shrink from comparing, from measuring suffering, but it is a rare soul who has known none.  And it frequently reorders one’s existence in unforeseen ways.  So, the question remains, how do you live into this new reality?  How do you go on when you stand in the rubble of your hopes and a step in any direction is a step into the unknown?  What do you choose when there aren’t any choices to be made?

It had to be a long night for Joseph as he wrestled with a terrible decision.  As usual, the Gospel account leaves so much unsaid that we can’t help to try to fill in the gaps.

Matthew 1:18-25  Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."  22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:  23 "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."  24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife,  25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

You’ve heard the word “betrothed” defined before.  Even our newer translations turn it into “engaged.”  But it was a fully legal designation.  They belonged to each other, even though the formalities had not yet been performed.  It was a binding covenant.  But now it was broken.  Joseph’s hopes spilling out into the night like a clutch of eggs dropped on a concrete floor.  He planned, Matthew tells us, to take the high road, the quiet, unassuming, sweep it under the carpet route and just step away.  It was within his rights to do so much more, to take revenge, exact a punishment for embarrassment, for shame, to present himself as the injured party, unsullied by this sordid affair.  But in the dark of the night he chose distance.  Just get out, get away, try - as impossible as that would be - to forget, to move on.  Having made up his mind, he slept.

As disturbed as his waking moments had been, so too was his sleep made uneasy, as choices were given to him.  Here’s a question I have never heard discussed: did he already consider and dismiss this option?  Did it even come to his mind that he could have simply accepted her wild narrative that stretched any normal mode of thinking to the breaking point?  Or did he simply refuse to even let that thought enter his conscious mind, so that it could only be considered when he was asleep?  Was the angel - from a word that translates as both message and messenger - his own beating heart that wanted to hope what was impossible to hope?

Matthew doesn’t relate and further struggle.  He woke from sleep, did Joseph, and did just what the angel commanded.  Just did it. Against what had to be opposition from family and friends, he did it.  He took Mary in.  That’s how these things were sealed.  After a betrothal, she legally belonged to him, but it wasn’t sealed until he took her into his own home.  The old translation “he took his wife” sounds almost embarrassingly intimate.  So we changed it to “he took her as his wife.” 

But the truth is, it is embarrassing, it is intimate.  He took her into his house.  He declared in a public way that he didn’t care what was being said behind his back, he took her in.  He announced that while he might not understand the story, he chose to believe it, and he took her home.  He took a step that he couldn’t even comprehend before.  And chose to love with an unexplainable love.

Pastor Mike Slaughter, in his book Christmas is Not Your Birthday, titles this third week of Advent “Scandalous Love.”  He tells of other moments in the story of God’s people where God asks for a love that seems beyond belief.  He writes about Hosea who loved a woman who was unfaithful, and then to love her again when she wandered away.  That seems to be God’s M.O.  To love the unfaithful, to love the undeserving.  To love when nothing else makes sense. 

Joseph took Mary home and loved her.  More than that he claimed a son not his own.  When the child was born Matthew says “he named hm Jesus.”  That’s not just a sweet moment in the delivery room with proud dad and exhausted mom.  No, this is a statement, a proclamation.  This is scandalous love lived out.

In any life event we have a choice.  We can rage, we can crumble, we can become bitter and withdrawn.  Or we can love.  We can love the wounded and grieving into wholeness, we can love the broken and the damaged, we can even, if we are bold enough, scandalous enough, love ourselves when it seemed no one else will.

 We can, like Joseph choose to look at life from the other side of the manger, and see love be born.


Friday, December 7, 2012

When a Plan Comes Together

I’m kinda grumpy, just be warned.  But only kinda.  Out of sorts.  Off track a little bit.  Forced into patterns different from my norm.  It is Friday and I’m working on my Bible Study.  That’s not right.  This is supposed to be a Saturday morning thing, that helps get me in the mood for preaching on Sunday morning.  It is a journey that begins a long time ahead (September of 2011 to be precise) and then gets specific a few weeks out as we finish up one series and look ahead to the next.  Then the process really heats up each week as one sermon is completed and immediately I begin to work on the next one, gathering information and images, reading, reading, reading, listening, writing, thinking, until Saturday when it all gels in my head (or is supposed to anyway) in preparation for Sunday morning.  That’s the way it is supposed to work.  That is the image of the perfect preparation for preaching that I carry around with me week by week.

And now we are off track, and it is unsettling.  Here’s the deal, one of the legacies we inherited from La Donna’s dad, who died this past January, is a couple of season tickets for Notre Dame Women’s Basketball.  Don and Beverly wanted to support Notre Dame, but were more interested in the sports that didn’t get all the attention, so they chose women’s basketball.  They were attending ND games before they were good.  Even before Muffet - that’s the coach, Muffet McGraw, who has taken them to the tournament and won it at least once recently.  I watched them lose to Baylor on Wednesday night (again, Baylor beat them in the tournament finals last year - darn those Texas Bears anyway).  So, I’m all in favor of the team, would love to attend the game.  But it is Saturday.  And because we don’t live in South Bend, it means losing most of the day.  Traveling, parking, watching, lunching (because I’m going with Maddie, so you know we are going to eat most of the day too).  No promises for a sermon that makes any kind of sense on Sunday morning, just sayin’.

It is unsettling.  There are just certain ways that my life is supposed to go, and when they don’t ... well, it isn’t pretty.  But you know that, don’t you.  I don’t mean you know my life, I mean you know yours.  Besides, this is Christmas time, we’ve all got plans.  We’ve got order.  We are going to make this one work out the way we envision.  We are going to have just the right presents and just the right decorations, we are going to serve just the right meals at just the right time and everyone is going to have the Christmas of their lives!  Right!?!  This is going to be the Christmas that they talk about forever, the one they measure every other Christmas by.  And, frankly, all those others are going to pale into insignificance compared to the one that we are going to put on this year!  As God is my witness, I’ll never mess up Christmas again!!!

Sorry, not sure where the Gone With the Wind misquote came from there.  But you get my drift, don’t you?  We don’t always deal well with things that come along and upset our plans.  We want things to go a certain way, we want to take charge of our lives, our plans, our events.  And then stuff happens.

That would be a good title for our text for this week.  Stuff happens.  Remember this incident?

Luke 1:30-34  And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.  32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David,  33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end."  34 And Mary said to the angel, "How shall this be, since I have no husband?"

Just a snippet of a story this time.  Just some key verses, the core of the dialogue for us to dwell on for a moment.  Don’t go skipping ahead to fill in the rest of the story.  Don’t be too quick to turn to the resolution, to the all’s well that ends well part of the tale.  No, just sit here with Mary, in the rubble of her wedding plans whatever they might have been and wonder “what now?” with her. 

What now?  A question you’ve asked before, maybe recently.  What now?  A very human question, to be sure.  One that we get thrust at us from time to time.  One that comes unbidden to our lips or that echoes in the silence of our minds as we face again the news that has turned our lives upside down.

It may be something simple, a disruption in your carefully planned out patterns of behavior.  It may even be something good and pleasant, something hoped for that you never thought would come, and therefore causes disruption.  Or it may be an unimaginable tragedy that shakes you to the core.  That angel in your living room might have news you can barely comprehend, let alone consider “good news.” 

“How can this be?” seems the most benign of questions in this situation.  And yet it speaks of being turned upside down, or inside out.  This isn’t they way these things are supposed to work.  This Christmas was supposed to be the way it looks on the cards we send.  Our family was supposed to be healthy and happy.  This job was supposed to be a career for my whole life.  This relationship was supposed to last into our twilight years.  “How can this be?”  How can this be that I’m left alone?  How can this be that it didn’t work out?  How can this be .. this disappointment, this hurt, this humiliation, how can this be?

You have to wonder if there were moments in the weeks and months and years to come where Mary remembered the words “you have found favor with God” and had to suppress an inclination to snort with derision.  If this is God’s favor - when she gazed into the confused and disappointed face of her betrothed, when she heard her beloved son say “Who is my mother?” when she came to retrieve him from his madness, when she felt the nails drive into his hands and feet and then knelt underneath him as he handed her over to another even as he died - if this is God’s favor maybe she should have said thanks but no thanks to the angel standing in her living room.

Thanks be to God, she didn’t.  Though the passage ends with the question, we know how the story goes.  The angel gives a less than satisfactory answer - little detail except that God is in charge - and she says yes.  God knows why, but she says yes.  God knows how she had enough information, enough wisdom, enough moral courage to say yes to a life of uncertainty, but she did.  She does.  And so do we.

Don’t we?  Only every day, when we set out, plans in our mind and hope in our heart.  We say yes to the presence of the Spirit who sometimes blesses our plans and sometimes doesn’t, sometimes lets us determine our paths and sometimes takes control of events.  Because God knows we can’t.  Control events, that is, even the events of our own lives.  As much as we would like to, as much as we want to shape our lives and the lives of those around us into pleasant patterns and comfortable networks of safety and contentment, it is beyond us to do so.

When we realize that, then saying yes to God makes the most sense of all.  Why not lean back into the arms of the One who loves you more than you can imagine?  Why not trust that these convoluted series of unimaginable happenstance we call our lives just might have a meaning bigger than we can see in any one given moment?  Why not follow the One who invites us into the greatest adventure that there is? 

In the end plans do come together, they just might not be our plans.  I’m willing to trust that they are plans worth keeping, however, plans to prosper you and not to harm you.  So, we let go of our need to control. 

And go with God. 


Saturday, December 1, 2012

Walking on Sunshine

The fog has finally lifted and it looks like a glorious start to December in Indiana, sunshine, warm, just beautiful.  Take that California!  Just what you’ve come to expect for Advent!  Right?

Well, no, frankly, not in the least.  Advent comes in with cold and grey and even the lights and tinsel can’t really break through the dreary progression of days on their inevitable and much to speedy march to a Christmas we aren’t really ready for or in the mood to celebrate.  Oh, we give it a try.  And there is usually some joy to be found.  But it is at best a thinning of the clouds for a momentary glimpse of a light that seems thin and pale and not at all warming.

Especially here on the threshold of Advent.  The season comes roaring in like a lion, scattering our pretensions and startling us out of our complacency.  “People will faint from fear and foreboding” Jesus reminds us, standing in a long tradition of prophets declaring fire and brimstone from on high.  “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?  He is like the refiner’s fire, he is like fullers’ soap.”  Advent will burn you up and then scrub you raw.  Yikes.

No wonder we are hesitant about entering into this season.  No wonder we’d rather run headlong into Christmas, hoping for a softer landing, a more jolly reception.  No wonder we’d rather get to the buying and giving, than the preparing and the being; the celebrating and not the waiting, the receiving and not the anticipating.

Advent doesn’t have a lot going for it, really.  Not in our instant gratification kind of culture anyway.  It is an important spiritual discipline, Advent.  It can reconnect us to the longings of our hearts, the unspoken unsettledness we have from living in a world that isn’t quite like what God had in mind at the beginnings of creation.  It can help us lift our heads above the clamor of a world full of shiny baubles vying for our attention as the solution to our hungers. 

But, frankly, it also makes us a little out of step with the world around us.  As pastor and preacher Lillian Daniels reminds us in a blog post (linked on Aldersgate’s Facebook page), the decorator colors around us have been red and green for weeks now.  But in the church it is the deep contemplative blue or the royal and penitent purple, inviting introspection and reflection.  Out there is a celebration of excess and in here it is   ... what?  Quiet?  Sheltered?  Grey and dreary and lost in a fog?

What is Advent anyway?  Maybe we’ve been off base a bit.  Maybe we need to turn things around.  Maybe we should be the ones who know what celebration really is, maybe we have something to teach the world.  Maybe the real party ought to be in here after all.

Isaiah 7:14   Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

Isaiah 9:2-7  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined.  3 You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.  4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.  5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.  6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

I read Isaiah 9 and heard Katrina and The Waves.  No, not the hurricane, the pop group.  You remember “Walking in Sunshine” don’t you?  OK, yes it was a few years ago, but it got remade fairly recently.  It’s one of those unforgettable pop songs that just gets in your head and you can’t get it out.  Yeah, sorry, I just put it back there, didn’t I?  “I’m walking on sunshine, wooah.”  Gripping chorus, I know.  “I’m walking on sunshine, wo-o-oah.”  Wait, it gets better.  “I’m walking on sunshine, wo-o-o-ah, and don’t it feel good!”

OK, it doesn’t get better.  But it is catchy, it is upbeat.  The opposite of Advent mood it seems to most of us.  I don’t know why the song came to mind, exactly, but I had to look up the lyrics to the verse.  “I used to think maybe you loved me, / now I know its true, / and I don’t want to spend all my life / just in waiting for you / now I don’t want you back for the weekend / not back for a day / no, no / I said baby I want you back / and I want you to stay.”

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.  We used to wonder if God loved us.  And now - because of Christ - we know it is true.  We know.  We don’t wonder, we don’t wander in the darkness.  We know.  What better reason for celebration can there be than that.

And we don’t want to spend our days in just waiting.  Katrina had in mind something else, I know, but I couldn’t help but think of Advent.  If the waiting of Advent is just empty, just wondering, just who knows lets see what might happen, just ... I don’t know ... just just.  If that’s all it is, a distraction, then we don’t want to wait anymore.  But if our waiting is full of the knowledge of God’s love for us, and we move forward living in that love not just on the weekends, not just for a day, but for now and for the rest of our existence.  We can live surrounded by that love, secure that the fulfillment we wait for is tasted in the joys of living in this moment.  What we wait for is what we already have, but even more confident in the knowledge and Presence and joy.

The light that the people of God have seen, is a light we can live in each day, whether the light is still visible to our eyes or not.  We can walk on that sunshine even on the cloudiest of days, we can bask in that glow even in our dreariest moments.  Advent can be, and is a reminder of what we already have, as well as a reminder of what once came and is promised again.  Isaiah reminds us that though the light has shined, the establishment is still in the future, the authority has to grow so that we can make our way to endless peace.  We don’t have to look hard to be reminded that we aren’t there yet.  And yet, there is peace within us, there is peace among us.  We just have to choose to make it last, to make it our priority, our vision and our goal.  We just have to walk on the sunshine of peace right here and right now.

It is a beautiful December day here in Indiana.  A perfect start to an Advent season of hope and of joy.  On them, on you, on me, on us has the light shined.

And don’t it feel good?


Friday, November 23, 2012

Black Friday

Just a little quickie this week, I promise.  It is Black Friday, and I’m trying to get ahead so that tomorrow we can put up Christmas decorations around here (and watch Notre Dame go undefeated for the season - I hope), since Pastor Chris is preaching this Sunday.  But I thought I’d toss in my two cents into the conversation just for fun anyway.  And those pennies may or may not have anything to do with the scripture for the week!

Like “Black Friday” – what’s up with that anyway?  Of course it is now Thursday too (Brown Thursday someone called it .. For the gravy?  Or Great Thursday ... for ... I dunno).  I saw anger and online petitions complaining about the corporate greed that cause retailers to force their employees to work on Thanksgiving and contribute to the spiral downward as a society.  Frankly, I think there is a simple solution to that kind of corporate greed - just don’t go.  The stores wouldn’t open if no one went, we could stop it almost immediately.

But we are ruled by our desire for stuff, for good deals.  We are governed by our materialistic approach to Christmas.  Even when we think we are keeping it in check by not succumbing to the excess of the season, we still want to have the right gifts, we don’t want to disappoint those we love.  As if the success or the failure of the holiday season was in our hands.

Maybe that is the thought with which we need to enter this holiday season.  We aren’t in charge.  And the holiday has already been a success.  Our job is to enjoy it, to live into it, to embrace it.  And we start, as we do with every gift we receive, by saying thank you to the giver of the gift. 

We say thank you to the King.

Revelation 1:4-8  Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne,  5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood,  6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.  7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.  8 "I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

Amen and thanks be to God.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Heads Up Worship

La Donna is in St. Louis for a UMW event, Maddie is at University of Indianapolis for a Conference Youth Retreat, so it was just me and the crazy dogs and the grumpy upstairs cats this weekend.  And then God spoke to me.

OK, that sounds more ... scriptural ... more ... supernatural ... more ... insane than I intended it to sound.  Truth be told, I was looking forward to a somewhat uneventful Sunday worship experience, tucked away here in the midst of a couple of hectic but exciting weeks.  It is an opportunity to celebrate Thanksgiving not caught up in the throes of another theme or series.  A quiet, catch our breath sort of worship experience that lets us head into the holiday with a little more equilibrium, a little more peace of mind.  Nothing wrong with that.  A sleepy little thanksgiving celebration that feels like a pat on the head from a favorite aunt, perfect, gentle, quiet.  Sounds nice, doesn’t it.  Then God spoke to me.

Let’s define terms here.  Before you call the Bishop to report my delusions, let me give a little context.  Yes, ok, I’ve been on my own for a while, La Donna left after we attended a workshop on Wesley and the theology of mission on Tuesday.  That ought to raise a few eyebrows, from those who know me well enough to know that without my wife’s reality-grounding presence, I’m likely to head for the ledge.  But that’s not it, honest.

Secondly, this retreat that Maddie is attending is one I suggested to her. It is called “Exploration: Youth.”  It is about listening for the call of God.  Maybe I’m biased, but I think God has great things in store for Maddie.  Oh, I know, God has great things in store for everyone, I’m not disputing that.  If all the youth of the church were available for a weekend’s exploration of vocation, I would have been excited about sending them all.  Maddie, the try anything once kid, was only a little skeptical but readily agreed to go and we signed her up.

I drove her down last night and the parents/mentors (and I guess I was there as both) were invited to stay for a meeting and opening worship.  The meeting was an explanation and a promise that they would take care of our precious ones.  Then we moved into worship.  The bishop preached.  The chaplain led worship and played guitar, some young folks were the praise band (even a praise cello - that was kinda cool) and there were familiar songs in a setting I knew well.  And it was awful.  Simply awful.

Forgive me, you aren’t supposed to say that about an act of worship.  Are you?  There was sincerity, I am sure, and earnestness.  The bishop brought an appropriate and well-crafted Word, we took communion (dinner rolls stuck together ready for baking - ?) which is perfect worship in and of itself.  So, why the whining?  Because God spoke to me.

It wasn’t a voice, I didn’t see bright lights and get knocked off my horse like St. Paul on his way to Damascus.  If anything it was Maddie’s raised eyebrows from across the room.  But it sounded like a shout in my soul.  “This is how you worship me?”  “This is bringing your best before the Lord?”  We were there with young people who were exploring whether God was calling them to lead the church in some form or another and this was what we started with!!?  Now that I write that, I wonder if it wasn’t intentional.  If they weren’t trying to say we are so desperate for someone to lead, we need you, fix us.  Dear God, I hope not.  If that was the plan, I suspect it had the opposite effect.  The smart thing to do is to run from a sinking ship, not to climb aboard and take the helm.

The voice said my people don’t know how to worship me any more.  The voice said worship is an expression of our deepest selves, our offering to God - the God we love with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.  All, for heaven’s sake.  All, for Christ’s sake.  And this limp, tired, mind wandering, wishing it were over kind of thing is so far from a true worship experience that is no wonder that people are dribbling away from the church today. 

So far, this isn’t a new experience for me.  I hear that voice often.  Even, I’m ashamed to admit, sometimes when I am leading worship.  I frequently hear that voice of assessment, of dissatisfaction, of disapproval in the midst of worship.  Some people say I’m too critical, too cynical.  Go with the flow, take it easy, quit worrying so much about it.  Good enough is good enough.  Grumble, grumble.

What was new this time, however, was that the voice didn’t stop with assessment, with critique.  The voice - I say the voice, but it was not a voice, it was a silence that shouted in my soul.  The silence said “teach them.”  Yes, well, I argued, because we always argue with the silence that calls us to action, I’ve got a job to do.  I’m keeping the doors open and the roof on.  I’m making sure something happens.  I am teaching, in my own way, about worship.  I am.  Week after week, I teach, I show, I try to engage folks in an experience of true worship.  I am.  Really. I am.

No, the silence said, you are settling.  You are going through the motions.  You are worrying about the wrong things.  The order, the schedule, the starting and ending time, the technology, the attendance, the offerings – this is what you worry about.  You worry about keeping everyone happy.  You worry about not being too outrageous, about not choosing hymns no one knows.  You worry about making it easy, about making it accessible.  You worry about good enough.  And it isn’t, not by a long shot.  My people are hungry for true worship, because you worry too much.  And not enough.

Matthew 6:25-34  "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,  29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you-- you of little faith?  31 Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?'  32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  34 "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today.

This passage is not and has never been a self help treatise about reducing anxiety in our hectic lives.  It is instead a call to worship.  It is an invitation to set aside anything that keeps you from being present for God.  It is an opportunity to reorder our lives, to be reminded what we were created for and to live gratefully for the opportunity to fulfill that calling.  It’s about moving whatever it is that keeps us from engaging in worship, living in gratitude to God, moving it out of the way so that we can find our selves again.

I took my daughter to a retreat to maybe help her find a hint toward vocation.  And just may have found mine.  I want to teach people how to worship.  I want to go where God sends me to work with clergy and laity to seek first the Kingdom.  And I want to start right here.  Right now.

Buckle your seat belts.


Saturday, November 10, 2012

In All Circumstances

On Wednesday night I was teaching my Bible Study on the Gospel of John.  It is an energizing, fun and deep exploration into that most philosophical of Gospels.  We take our time and we wander off the path into all sorts of things faith and life related.  When I teach I like to stay focused, distractions put away, be in the moment, cell phones silenced.  I even took my keys and my phone out of my pocket and put it on the bookshelf in the back of the room, so I could be free to go with the flow of the class.  The shelves that have spare bibles in case you came to class without one.  The wooden shelves that were mostly empty, thereby becoming an echo chamber of sorts when the silenced cell phone began to vibrate somewhat insistently.

I pretended not to hear, that there couldn’t by anything more important than what we were doing together in class in that moment.  Even though I watched each member of the class slide their eyes over to the angry insect of a cell phone buzzing away on the bookshelf amplifier, I carried on.  Relieved when it stopped, I continued to carry on, with only a slight narrowing of the eyes when it started up again a few moments later.

When class finally ended, I grabbed the phone as everyone was packing up, muttering under my breath about how in the old days such interruptions weren’t imagined, let alone tolerated and cursed be the inventor of such an intrusion into our daily lives.  I woke up the screen and saw the angry red slash indicating multiple missed calls, but curiously no little tape recorder symbol telling me a voicemail was awaiting me.  Any why is the voicemail symbol a cassette tape (or maybe even a reel to reel tape) symbol anyway?  That’s a bit retro, isn’t it?

So, no voicemail, but text messages abounding.  From my daughter Maddie.  The first one began, “I’m not hurt.”  No message that begins with “I’m not hurt” is good news.  Trust me on this.  Well, OK, there is good news in it.  In fact the only good news is those first three words.  After that, it is no longer good news.  The good news is used up and now you are on to the bad news.  She had an accident and was shaken up pretty badly, the car was totaled we found out later, but mercifully she was OK.

When she couldn’t get her parents, she called the dance studio where she was headed for her lesson, just to tell them she wasn’t going to make it.  Her dance instructor Ben came and found her and stayed with her and in the end drove her across town to Aldersgate where both her parents were.  And we have been dealing with the implications - insurance, car rental/dealers, doctors and x-rays just to be sure - ever since.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18  Rejoice always,  17 pray without ceasing,  18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

Yeah, ok, thanks Paul.  Three little verses at the tail end of a letter that some scholars think is perhaps one of the oldest documents in the New Testament, It was written to a church that was concerned about stuff.  All kinds of stuff, but mostly the stuff about how are we going to live in this world as it is and where is Jesus anyway, he said he would be right back and we’ve been waiting.  It was easy at first, but stuff keeps happening and we aren’t sure what to do, or how to be in a messy and confusing and sometimes heartbreaking world.

As usual, Paul is full of advice and suggestions.  But here at the end of the letter he decides to place all his emphasis on worship.  He says, in his inimitable style, that the Christian’s response to the world - messy as it is - is to worship.  To live in worship.  To let our lives be an act of worship.  Our work be true liturgy - which in the Greek means “the work of the people.”

Right, I hear you saying.  Right.  My response to car crashes and traumatized daughters is worship.  Uh huh. My first act when my candidate doesn’t win a sure thing election is to give praise to God.  Sure.  When I’m facing an uncertain tomorrow with an inadequate safety net my inclination is to sing hymns and read responses.  Yeah. 

What I want is presence.  Someone there to remind me that I am not alone.  What I want is someone with answers, with solutions, that will help me find a way through the mess in which I find myself.  What I want is peace at the unsettled core of myself, a reminder that the broken circumstances of my life this moment are not the whole story, not the whole picture.  I want to be taken out of myself long enough to see that there is hope.

What I want is worship.  Even when I don’t know it, that is what I want.  What I need.  I want joy, always.  But not a giddy, always laughing kind of happiness that isn’t aware of sorrow at work in the world.  I want joy, that tells me that no matter what I am loved, no matter what I am held in the palm of a hand I can’t see but can lean into all the same.  I want that deep seated confidence that Someone is in control even when it doesn’t appear to be so.  I want the vision that will let me see the sun that is shining in the cloudiest of days.  Rejoice always.

What I want is an open line of communication.  To have the sense that my pleas are heard and are not just buzzing away on some wooden shelf somewhere.  What I want is to feel like I can have access to the Presence, to the peace that passes all understanding.  That I can state my case and cast my cares and unburden my soul and not have the sense that I am shouting down a well.  And I want the strength to keep trying even when it seems like the line has gone dead, to keep trying when the signal seems lost.  That a response will come, a hand will reach out toward mine even when it is a hand I wasn’t expecting.  Pray without ceasing.

Because then, with that heart of joy and devotion to prayer and presence, I will give thanks.  In all circumstances.  What a phrase, he could have left that one out.  In all circumstances.  Those three words seem innocuous enough.  Until you are in a circumstance that threatens to unhinge you.  Until you feel helpless in the face of the hurricane.  Until you wish for that time turner thing so you could go back and make a different choice in a difficult moment.  In all circumstances.  It covers too much, don’t you think.  Yeah, in most circumstances I can hold onto my equilibrium.  In most circumstances I can do the right thing, hold the right spirit, give the right responses.  But in all circumstances?  All?

I am thankful that the totaled car protected my little girl.  I am thankful that a dance instructor went above and beyond the call of duty to give care and comfort to a frightened teenager who wasn’t at all sure what to do.  I had never met Ben.  I knew Charles, her previous instructor, but had only heard about Ben.  When I saw him that night, tall and black and elegant, moving with that dancer’s grace, he seemed like an angel for a moment.  All of Maddie’s dance instructors have been tall, towering over her, it almost looks funny when they stand together.  How is this going to work, I wonder.  Until the music begins and they dance. 

When they dance, Paul’s instructions don’t seem so hard, rejoice always.  Worship is not a time or a place, it is not defined or ritualistic, it is an attitude, it is a posture.  A dance with one almost too tall to reach.  And yet a dance all the same.  And I’ve learned that dancers get hurt, dancers stumble and fall.  Yet they dance on.  In all circumstances they dance on.  Because not to dance is not to be you.  Not the real you, anyway, not the deep, confident, joyful you.  So, keep dancing, in all circumstances.

Keep worshiping, in joy, in communion, in gratitude.


Saturday, November 3, 2012

Unapproachable Light

All Saints Sunday.  One of those many blips on the radar screen of our busy lives that scarcely raise an eyebrow.  You pull into the pit stop that is worship on Sunday morning, expecting the crew to come rushing out and give you the lift that you need, the new tires, the refuel, checking that rattling noise coming from under the hood somewhere and you hope that it isn’t serious because you’ve got to get back out there before you fall too far back in the race.  We sit in the pew with our engines running because this is at best a momentary lull in the busyness that is our lives these days, a catching of the breath before entering into the never-ending stream of machine and metal, of tasks and responsibilities, of needs and hurts we are too busy to pay attention to.

Our restless eyes settle for a fly’s second on the words “All Saints Sunday” before flitting off on their continual search for something meaningful.  Or at best distracting.  Something that will help us avoid the questions that we don’t really want to answer, or even contemplate for too long.  Questions like are we wasting our time here this morning, is there anything to all of this, or is it all an elaborate hoax, smoke and mirrors with nothing behind the curtain after all?

Wow, where did that come from?  How did a reflection on the minor recognition of All Saints lead to fundamental questions of faith?  I’m not really sure, except that we Protestants (Yes, I know United Methodists aren’t technically Protestants - but that is an issue for another day) have always had an uneasy relationship with those called Saints.  We want to take a more New Testament view than the Roman Catholic one and see saints as any follower of Christ and not just the extra-ordinary ones.  But even so, the very word conjures images of certainty and perfection (yeah, ok, yet another essay for another day - darn that John Wesley anyway).  Something beyond our reach anyway, we are just getting by, we are just plugging along wondering if we are coming close to breaking even in this faith thing anyway, being right at least as often as we are wrong. 

No one is going to look at us and consider us saints.  That’s for darn sure.  Oh, well, maybe when we are dead and gone and folks have forgotten how shaky we were, how sketchy - that’s Maddie’s latest word for everything that just isn’t quite right, a bit dubious, a bit edgy, a bit ... sketchy.

Admit it, it is out of our reach, this status, this goal, this light - this unapproachable light.  We can’t get there, so why bother?  Why remind ourselves by commemorating something called All Saints Sunday?  I mean besides the fact that it is on our calendars.  Maybe it is about hope.  Maybe it is about memory.  Maybe it is about legacy.  And maybe it is about putting one foot in front of the other.

1 Timothy 6:12-19  Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.  13 In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you  14 to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ,  15 which he will bring about at the right time-- he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords.  16 It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.  17 As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.  18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share,  19 thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

I can’t decide if Paul’s instructions to Timothy here are encouraging or frustrating.  On the one hand he holds out this image, this golden ring of an existence that is seemingly within our reach.  “Fight the good fight, take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and for which you made the good confession.”  It seems like we could just reach out and grab it, just work a little harder, just strive a little bit more, set our alarms a little earlier and we would have it in the bag.

But then, he has that middle bit, that doxology of sorts, like he breaks into song in the middle of his dictation.  And he reminds us that we won’t make it.  At least that is what it sounds like.  “It is he alone,” not you, not me, “who has immortality and dwells in the unapproachable light.”  The impossible dream, the unreachable goal, so why bother?  I mean, good for him and all, but not sure what it does for us.  For me.  For you.

Except that as Paul presents it, it seems like an invitation, not a warning, not a boundary.  It is an entrance into something more wonderful than we can even imagine.  This unapproachable light is not inaccessible, just unapproachable.  Huh?  Why would he go on to talk about building a foundation if there was no possibility of standing in that light?  Why would he invite us to take hold of the life that really is life if there was nothing there to take hold of?

It is there.  I believe it.  That light, that life.  It is there.  I know that sometimes it seems unapproachable.  I know that sometimes it seems like it isn’t for us, I know that sometimes it seems so far from where we are and even where we are heading.  And yet, I believe it, with my whole being I believe it.  And sometimes I see it in the hands and hearts of the saints around me.

Maybe we focus on those who have gone on ahead of us on this Sunday because they aren’t distracted by the world we live in any more.  They aren’t wrapped up in a million things, trying to do this and that and the other thing hoping that one of them will make sense before they are done.  Plus the memory of them reminds us that there are things beyond our vision that are worth working toward, there are values you can’t put in a bank that are worth grabbing hold of.  We read those names and are reminded that life is bigger than what is right in front of our eyes.  That legacy really does mean something. And if we can learn from them, if we can retain something that they taught us or showed us or gave to us, then we are even more blessed.

And then we can begin to live to be remembered.  Not by shining so brightly that everyone is dazzled by our brilliance, but by living our lives pointing to something beyond us.  By giving to something bigger than ourselves and our own comfort.  By building a foundation that others can build on.  By giving of ourselves for others so that we are not remembered for ourselves but for our generosity of spirit, of time, of money, of life.  We give ourselves away in order to find ourselves.  Or to be found.

That’s what the unapproachable light means, it seems to me.  If we set out to make our own way there, we won’t find it.  We can’t get there by dint of our own strength or talents or resources.  We can’t get there at all.  But if we give ourselves away, if we live not for ourselves but the community around us, loved ones and strangers all, then we just might find ourselves there.  And will discover we have walked in that unapproachable light all our lives, lives that full of life that really is life.

Praise God for the Saints who stand in the light.  May we join them there.


Friday, October 26, 2012

Heart Trouble

It was a late night this week, we found ourselves eating dinner at 9pm or so.  How European of us, don’t you think?  Well, fine, good, it worked out.  No big deal, in our fast paced world, we all find ourselves time shifting, doing things at odd times, just to get them all in.  So, no problem, dinner after nine, fine.

Until about 3am when I woke up with heartburn.  Yikes, the grinding, boiling, there just ain’t no position that is comfortable kind of heartburn.  I know, now from this distance, that it isn’t really your heart but your stomach churning away, and maybe your esophagus receiving the volcanic eruptions from below.  I also know that compared to real heart trouble, this was minor stuff, easily overcome, soon forgotten.  All those middle of the night promises – “I’ll never eat that or then again, just get me through this, please” – surely aren’t binding, are they? 

We tend to panic a bit when our heart hurts.  Whether that hurt has a physical or an emotional or spiritual cause, it seems like a big deal.  Or it is a big deal, but sometimes we make a wrong diagnosis.  We have all sorts of things that we think will make our heart better.  We make promises, we look for relief, we grasp at straws, whatever it takes, we think.   Because there is no hurt like a hurting heart, no hole so deep as a hole in the heart, no hunger as powerful as a hungry heart. 

But then, as Bruce Springsteen suggested, “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.”   It is a common ailment, or simply part of the human condition.  The desire for more, for satisfaction, for home as Bruce sings, is not a bad or destructive thing.  But when it gets out of control, when it shapes everything, every choice, every plan, or hope or dream, that is when there is a problem.  That is when it becomes what we call greed. That is when we see it eat away at a soul that longs for but can never find satisfaction, can never know contentment.

Jesus warned us about this condition, this heart trouble.  He couldn’t have been plainer.  But we manage, most of the time, to convince ourselves that he is talking to or about someone else.  Not us.

Luke 12:15-34  And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."  16 Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly.  17 And he thought to himself, 'What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?'  18 Then he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  19 And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.'  20 But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?'  21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God." 
    22 He said to his disciples, "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.  23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.  24Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!  25 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  26 If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest?  27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  28 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you-- you of little faith! 
    29 And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying.  30 For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them.  31 Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.  32 "Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.  34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Everybody’s got a hungry heart.  The question is what are you hungry for?  Adam Hamilton talks about Restless Heart Syndrome in the third chapter of the book Enough, which we are reading for our Stewardship emphasis this year.  RHS is that condition of the heart that makes us want more, or something different, or something better.  It is what drives us to be unsatisfied with what we have and always thinking we could do better.

It is understandable, however, because that is the world that we live in these days.  We are told over and over that the next big thing will be the one that satisfies us, at least until the next big thing comes out.  And it is not just things to buy.  We are unsatisfied on all sorts of levels.  We see the flaws more than we see the advantages, we long for better, fancier, cooler.  Even the people in our lives can sometimes be objects of dissatisfaction, and we look for ways to upgrade.  A better class of friends, a trophy spouse, better behaved kids; it’s all fodder for the heart trouble that plagues us.

Jesus tells us to be on guard against all kinds of greed.  All kinds, warning us that it isn’t just acquisitiveness, but dissatisfactions too many to mention.  He tells us not to worry - actually, he tells us not to keep worrying.  Not to let worry fill us up, to define us.  He knows that worries of all sorts crop up from time to time.  It would be a difficult thing to never let a worrying though enter our brains.  If that were the commandment, then we would all have something to worry about.  No, what he says is don’t live for the stuff, don’t live for the next big thing, for better this or better that. 

But, he says, but striving, seeking, wanting is a good thing.  Wait, what?  Aren’t we just supposed to be content?  Just kinda “whatev’” sort of folk?  Not in the least.  We are to strive, but to strive for the Kingdom.  For justice and peace, for hospitality and kindness.  We are not supposed to be satisfied with the amount of love we generate toward God and neighbor. 

It’s not about putting our hearts to sleep.  The trouble is not that there is a longing in the depths of our hearts.  The trouble is that we sometimes think that what will satisfy the longing is actually what is causing the discontent in the first place.  We aren’t going to find the contentment we seek in the stuff – no matter how fun or useful or exciting that stuff might be – of this world.  Our contentment is found in deepening relationships, with God and with neighbor, which includes those closest to us.

On Sunday come and hear some suggestions for how to overcome Restless Heart Syndrome.  In the meantime, spend some time seeking your true treasure.  If Jesus is right (and I’m willing to trust him) and that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also, then we need to take inventory.  And when we discover, or remind ourselves what really matters, where we want to invest our time and our energy and our resources, we will find our way to contentment. 

And maybe it has something to do with dinner time.


Saturday, October 13, 2012


I learned a new word this week.  Actually it wasn’t a new word, just a new formation, or a new usage.  It was a word I knew that got a make-over, you might say.  I was listening to the radio and there was an expert on Middle Eastern politics and he was being asked about Iran and the situation there.  And he said that “Iran’s influence is tentacular.” 

Tentacular?  OK, I know tentacle, so I guess that is a real word.  It just sounded odd there on the radio.  I was driving so I kept saying it all afternoon.  And now I can’t get it out of my head.  Tentacular.  Kinda worms its way in there, in the crevices of your brain, you know, down the corridors, in the darkened corners, kinda like ... well ...

Maybe it stuck with me because of the passage I’ve been mulling over for this weekend.  I’ve been reading Paul, he kinda gets in your head too, come to think of it.  But he’s talking about stuff that gets in your head, that takes over before you even realize that it does.  Take a look and see if you agree.

1 Timothy 6:6-10   Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment;  7 for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it;  8 but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.  9 But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.  10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

This is the summation part of the letter.  Paul has been writing to Timothy, mentoring him really.  Timothy is a new leader, a new pastor it seems, and Paul is passing on a lot of wisdom about how to do that job.  But in these verses he concentrates on one issue, the tentacular effect of greed.

We launch our Stewardship Campaign this weekend.  We are using as a guide to the process a book by Adam Hamilton. Pastor of the Church of the Resurrection outside of Kansas City, one of the largest United Methodist Church in the denomination.  The book is titled Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity.

This first week Hamilton helps us think about “when dreams become nightmares.”  He refers to the American Dream, which for many if not most, is about getting and having, about owning.   And the problem, Hamilton argues, is that enough is never enough.  Or that we lose sight of enough.  Just when we think we have enough, someone else has more, or there is a new model of something we already have and haven’t yet learned how to use all of the old model’s capabilities.  But something says we need to keep up.  That what was enough yesterday is not enough today. 

What is important to stress is that Paul isn’t against being rich.  The problem is wanting to be rich.  He isn’t against money, the problem is loving money.  I know, it seems like a semantic game.  It seems like a way of avoiding the issue.  It seems like a way of rationalizing our wealth.  We can have as much money and stuff as we can imagine, but we just can’t want it.  That doesn’t even really make sense.  If we didn’t want it, we wouldn’t have it, so just by having it we reveal our wanting.  Don’t we?  It all makes my head hurt to be honest.  Like we are in the grip of something bigger than ourselves.  It all seems so ... tentacular.

I think the truth is in there, in the struggle I mean.  When we get comfortable with our wealth, with being able to have whatever we want, whatever we can imagine without too much struggle, then we have lost something.  Maybe we’ve lost our recognition of a need for a savior, the need for someone to come and give us what we simply can’t get for ourselves, something we would be lost without. 

Or maybe it is something smaller.  Maybe it is we’ve lost the ability to dream big enough to change the world.  Maybe we are too satisfied with feeling better about ourselves.  With filling our space with pretty or useful things. 

Maybe what it does is make us forget that we already have everything we really need.  Maybe what is being stolen is our ability to be satisfied.  To know contentment in a real and lasting sense.  Maybe what we’ve lost is a sense of enough. 

And the curious thing about it all is that we don’t even realize what we’ve lost.  We are so caught up in the culture that tells us getting is good and having is better, and buying is a way to save the country from its economic woes.  It is unpatriotic, it seems these days, to say we’ve got enough.

Now, it seems to me that I’ve raised more questions than I can answer in this space.  Or in a sermon on Sunday morning.  Or ever come to think of it.  And maybe that is just what we need to do as we launch a stewardship series, ask questions.  I suspect that we will get to some answers, or hints anyway, along the way.  But for now, I guess I’ll leave you with a question.  How much is enough for you? 

Enough to have, enough to give, enough to claim, enough to live in joy.  How much is enough?  And how do we get free from the tentacular desires of this acquisitive culture we live in to find our way to enough?

OK, more than one questions.  I’d ask some more, but I suspect you’d say ... enough.


Saturday, October 6, 2012


I just had to see.  I had heard or, more accurately, read texts and Facebook posts and messages.  I knew because we had prepared for this moment, had prepared him to be independent and capable and a problem-solver.  I knew that he was fine, that he was learning and growing and making his way in the world.  I knew that, didn’t doubt it in the least.  Truly. 

Yet, I had to see.  There was that funny corner of my soul that ran rampant with doubts and fears.  There was that suspicion that maybe he wasn’t telling us everything, that the carefully constructed facade was hiding a deeper hurt and a sense of abandonment.  And once your mind starts down those side streets, there’s no telling what cul-de-sacs you will pull into.  So, I had to see.

It was time for my annual fall planning retreat.  A time when I go away to pray and think and listen to what God would have me do as Lead Pastor of Aldersgate, and oddly enough the conference I usually piggy-back upon wasn’t happening this year.  So, I was not tied in to a specific week.  Looking a bit further, I realized that DePauw’s Parent’s weekend was scheduled for a weekend when we had already decided long ago that Chris would be preaching.  So, I made the plans and penciled in a chance to go and see.

We are working our way through the Gospel of John in my Wednesday Night Bible Study class (6pm in room 200 - come and join us, we’ve just begun!)  We were reading the part about where Jesus calls his disciples and noticed that in John’s version there is a variety of techniques that he uses, but that one of those is a simple “Come and See.” 

As if he knew that sometimes words on their own don’t work, you’ve got to see.  You’ve got to touch.  And that is the blessing.

The passage this week is one where one preacher admitted that Jesus becomes almost embarrassingly tactile.  Instead of the reserved, aloof teacher of wisdom and discipline, a very different Jesus emerges in these verses.  Yet, they don’t strike us as odd in the least.  They have become instrumental in our own understanding of who Jesus is and who we are called to be. 

You remember this scene, I am sure.

Mark 10:13-16  People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them.  14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it."  16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

This is the Jesus we know and love best of all, I believe.  But we have to realize what a radical departure this action was from normal behavior.  No one with any authority or power or standing in society in this period of history would even have time for children.  It just wasn’t done.  And yet here is Jesus, not only allowing children to be in his presence, but taking them up in his arms and blessing them.  Almost embarrassing, at least I am sure that some - like the disciples themselves - were scandalized by this behavior.

Yet, Jesus didn’t care.  What he cared about was blessing.  Was welcoming.  Was making sure that everyone understood the value of those of whom he said “let them come.”  It seems to me, or at least in my current mindset, that Jesus was trying to be concrete.  Trying to help his hearers see something of the glory and the wonder of the Kingdom and so he grabbed the nearest visual aid he could find. 

Come and see, he could have said.  See through these eyes the wonder of God’s creation.  Come and see the needs and the opportunities to serve.  Come and see how we can live out the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves.

And then he gathered them up.  As if giving confirmation.  So that we could see that the best way to rid oneself of doubts and fears and suspicions and animosity is by getting outside of yourself long enough to bless a child.  To talk to them, to listen to them, to experience the world through their eyes.

I just had to see.  My mind was rampant with all sorts of problems and difficulties and emptiness.  But when I laid eyes on him, my son in college, all was well.  When I looked through his eyes the world looked different.  Sure there were struggles to be faced, but there were possibilities as well.  Sure he had left behind the comfortable and familiar, but he was making his way into a future of his own.  I had to see and in that seeing I knew blessing.

To such as these, he said.  To such as these belongs the kingdom.  Oh, to be gathered onto that lap, to feel that blessing.  Maybe that’s what he meant, not being childish or even child-like, but being blessed.  And the only way to be blessed is to get out of yourself for a while.

I had to see and wanted to bless.  And what I found was that I was blessed in return.


Saturday, September 22, 2012


It is raining.  It wasn’t when I sat down here to work.  But now it is.  Plus an hour or so has passed.  And now I’m wondering what is for lunch.  And I like this song that is playing right now.  Wait, did I hear Maddie finally awake and stumbling around in the kitchen?  I wonder if she is going to come in and say hello or not? 

Probably not.  Better get to work.  Our passage for this week... Wait, it wasn’t Maddie after all.  It was La Donna.  No wonder Maddie didn’t come to say hello.  Or at least flop down in my chair and turn on the TV.  Because it wasn’t Maddie.

It’s raining harder.  OK, got to focus.  Where was I?  Passage.  Sermon.  OK, got it now.  Right, well, what does Deuteronomy have to do with Love Languages?  You know, picking themes and worship series a year out sounds like a good idea, but then it was so long ago that I forgot what I was thinking when I chose these words.  I’m not sure how it connects with our theme, or with Gary Chapman’s “5 Love Languages” series that I’ve been using.  Sorry, Dr. Chapman.  Not just any old Chapman.  Wow, rain really coming down now. Was it supposed to rain this hard?

Maybe this week I should just start with the passage and see if I can comment on it later.  Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.  Oh, look, the rain stopped.  Amazing.  What’s that I smell?  Lunch?  Already.  Better finish this up.

No, better get this started.  Take a look at this, would ya?  And I’ll try to figure out where I’m going with this.

Deuteronomy 4:23-31  So be careful not to forget the covenant that the LORD your God made with you, and not to make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything that the LORD your God has forbidden you.  24 For the LORD your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God.  25 When you have had children and children's children, and become complacent in the land, if you act corruptly by making an idol in the form of anything, thus doing what is evil in the sight of the LORD your God, and provoking him to anger,  26 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to occupy; you will not live long on it, but will be utterly destroyed.  27 The LORD will scatter you among the peoples; only a few of you will be left among the nations where the LORD will lead you.  28 There you will serve other gods made by human hands, objects of wood and stone that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell.  29 From there you will seek the LORD your God, and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul.  30 In your distress, when all these things have happened to you in time to come, you will return to the LORD your God and heed him.  31 Because the LORD your God is a merciful God, he will neither abandon you nor destroy you; he will not forget the covenant with your ancestors that he swore to them.

“Be careful not to forget the covenant.”  Be careful.  I know as we read on it seems to get much more serious.  It talks about anger and judgement, about destruction and exile.  So, maybe be careful doesn’t really convey the seriousness of the issue here.  Be careful is something you would say to someone carrying eggs from the fridge to the counter, something you would say to someone walking in a room where you’ve broken something made of glass and you want to warn them not to step on it.  Maybe a louder warning, maybe more of a threat might work. 

On the other hand, the tone of Moses’ speech seems about right.  The people of God are standing on the threshold of a new life, a new land.  They’ve come through forty years of wandering in the wilderness, trying to find their way to being the nation God called them to be.  And now they are about to launch into it.  So, Moses says “be careful.” 

Take care, he says, there are things that are worth caring for.  Things that need to be valued above other things.  It is a matter of priorities, he is arguing.  And when you let this covenant slip down the list, there will be trouble.  He says “when you have had children and children's children, and become complacent in the land...”  Did you notice that?  When you become complacent.  It is as if it is almost inevitable.  When you have children, and they have children.  When you are distracted by life, then you are in danger.  And just what is the danger?  “If you act corruptly by making an idol in the form of anything.”

Wait.  That’s the danger?  That we will make idols?  Not likely.  I mean the carving of totems or the shaping of statues doesn’t fit into my long range or even short range plans.  I’m too busy anyway.  I’ve got responsibilities, I’ve got jobs to do.  A house to maintain and kids to raise, and then there are various hobbies and interests.  You know all work and no play and all of that.  Gotta keep up with the world, gotta take my share of opportunities when they come, gotta ...

In the form of anything.  Kind of startling, isn’t it.  Anything.  Almost as though Moses knows how distracting this world is.  How many things, good things many of them, but they can still be distractions from the important things.  And Moses is pretty clear about what is important - the Covenant.  With God first of all, but also, I would suggest, with those were are in relationship with.  When we married - if we did - we made a covenant to love.  When we joined a church - if we did - we made a covenant to support with our prayers and presence and gifts and service and witness.  When we joined a small group - if we did - we made a covenant of support and caring and mutual accountability.  Sure, we’ve got lots of responsibilities and important things to be doing with our time and our resources, but those covenants need our attention, need our care.  “Be careful not to forget the covenant” says Moses.

The thesis of the Love Languages series is that all of our most important relationships need attention.  That we can improve our loving by paying attention to those with whom we are in relationship and learning to speak the love language that they speak, to meet them where they are instead of always expecting them to speak our language.  Sure, we need to be filled up too, we need those we love to speak to us in a language we can understand.  But if we focus outwardly first we are more likely to find fulfillment within.

The truth is there are distractions aplenty in our world today.  It takes some focus, it takes commitment, it takes a choice to lift our relationships to a higher level of importance in our busy schedules.  “Be careful not to forget the covenant.”

I wonder if the rain has stopped.


Saturday, September 15, 2012

A Pentecost Fix

It wasn’t so much a rush of a violent wind as it was a slight catch as her breath was drawn during an uncomfortable silence.  They weren’t divided tongues as of fire so much as two thin silvery tracks her tears made rolling down her cheeks.  Yet, the spirit in that room sucked the life right out of me.  I know, more of a reverse Pentecost, actually.  Instead of life-giving it was life denying, instead of bridge building it was division creating, instead of understanding it was confusion and hurt and anger and thoughts and responses that startle you that you even think them let alone claim them.  But real, no matter how unpleasant, real and deep and hurtful.  Because I was the cause of her pain. I wanted to gather her up and run away, far away.  Away from those who take out their frustrations on children, away from those who would rather use innuendo and judgmentalism, who would rather hurl stones from the sidelines than try to find a solution.  I wanted to take her away from all of that, to just leave it all behind and ... run away.

Yeah, Ok, I caught that.  So did she.  Even through her tears she said, “Dad, how is that going to help anything?”  Well, I thought, sometimes it isn’t about helping, sometimes it is about safety.  About taking care of yourself and those you love.  Sometimes it is about what you want, sometimes it is about getting your feelings hurt and making them pay for such a thing, shaking the dust off your sandals.  Yeah, that sounds biblical, doesn’t it?  Just move on, because it is too hard to communicate with folks who are just so unreasonable, so stubborn, so ... so ... human.

I thought all of that, but didn’t say it.  Instead I looked into those determined, shiny brown eyes and began to long for hope.  The lyrics to Jason Mraz’s song Frank D. Fixer came sliding shyly through my mind.  Frank D. Fixer was a handyman / He could handle anything; he was my granddad / He grew his own food and could fixed his own car / I watched it all happen in our backyard / He'd reinvent the part to fix the broken home / He restored the heart

Well, I wish I was a fixer / I would fix you up inside / I would build you a town if the world fell down / I wish I was that guy.

Acts 2:1-13  When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.  5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.  6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.  7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?  9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,  10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,  11 Cretans and Arabs-- in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power."  12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?"  13 But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine."

I’m sure they wanted to run.  It wasn’t really safe to stay where they were.  Right in the heart of the lair of the opposition.  Right where the people were who didn’t like the one they had followed for these past few years.  Right where they had won, and he had lost so painfully.  Sure they had those encounters, they saw him or something that seemed to be him, coming through the locked and bolted doors in that room that had become their world in those days.  Sure there were his somewhat cryptic words telling them to wait.  So, they waited, but I’ll bet they wanted to run.  Run for the hills, run for their lives.  You can only face such anger for so long. 

So maybe it was their weariness as much as their obedience that kept them corralled in that room.  Maybe it was their fear as much as their hope.  Who knows.  All we are told is that they were all together in one place.  And maybe because of that, God showed up.  Maybe because despite their desire to run away, to greener pastures, to safer terrain, to more familiar faces, folks like them who wouldn’t challenge them so much, let them be in peace, maybe the fact that they stayed in that one place in spite of all of that, God blows down walls and sets doubts on fire.

The first undeniable truth from Acts chapter two is that God is the fixer.  We can wish we were fixers all we want.  But it is only when the Spirit arrives that we can ever hope to bridge the gaps, to leap across the differences and come to a common understanding.  Otherwise we are too different, too set in our ways, too wounded by our encounters with one another to even come close to healing what is torn between us. 

When the Spirit comes we can speak in languages that we didn’t even know we knew.  Instead of languages of hurt and anger and revenge, we are fluent in forgiveness and reconciliation.  Instead of limitation and doubt and anxiety, we speak hope and joy like natives.  Instead of accusation and blame love rolls off our tongues as though we were born to it, with a perfect accent as though it were a part of us.

Amazing.  Oh, sure, there are those who will wonder when we speak this language, What does it mean they will say, with suspicion perhaps, with hooded eyes afraid to risk responding.  You must be drunk they will hiss, if you think this can be fixed, this can be forgiven.  You are out of your mind!  And maybe we are, we will have to admit.  Out of the minds that kept us from speaking this language before.  Out of the minds that only wanted revenge, that only wanted to lick wounds and pout in the darkness.  We are out of our minds, because the Spirit drove us out.  Drove us out into the wilderness of living in a world that sometimes hurts us, sometimes rejects us. But then gave us words to say, a language to live out, and so we do.  In fits and starts, but we do.

God is the fixer, that’s truth one.  But truth two is that the tools God chooses to use to fix what is broken are us.  Or in us.  Or from us.  Something, it is hard to know exactly except that we are invested in this fixing thing, more than we want to be sometimes.  We put ourselves out there, hair blown out of place by a wind that is sending us and sparks still flying off our ears by a flame that is empowering us, and get to work fixing.  And part of what gets fixed is ourselves.

“Dad, how is that going to help anything?”  That being running away.  That being giving up.  Her words haunt me almost as much as her hurt.  I’m so proud of her, even as I fear for her.  She also asked me, “Do you think we can fix this?”  I had to admit that I didn’t know.

Well, I wish I was a fixer / I would fix you up inside / I would build you a town if the world fell down / I wish I was that guy.

But I knew who could.


Saturday, September 8, 2012

Living in Shinar

Why does that happen?  One moment you feel like maybe you are making some progress.  One moment you have a big vision, a goal and a plan.  One moment everyone is on board and ready for the next steps. One moment you feel like maybe this thing will actually work - whatever this thing is.  You feel as though you are on top of the world.  But then the next moment comes and it is all different.

The plans fall apart, the hopes are crushed, it all seems like dead ends.  The relationships crumble, those who were gung ho and on board are now abandoning ship like you’ve hit an invisible iceberg and are going down fast.

And the worst part?  You have absolutely no idea what happened.  What seemed to be such a wonderful idea, what seemed to be just what everyone wanted, became a source of confusion and misunderstanding.  You thought that you were telling the story well, but the looks of confusion on those who used to be close to you told a different tale.  It was so clear and unifying before, before the clouds of uncertainty rolled back in, before the distractions of a complicated world jumbled the message.  It was as if all of a sudden everyone started speaking a different language.

 It always seemed fanciful, one of those Old Testament stories that border on the mythological.  Too grand for us to comprehend.  And besides it was obviously there as an “explanation” story.  Like many of the ancient myths, this story was there to explain the reasons behind the way the world was.  Why, someone wondered, are there so many different languages and cultures in the world?  Well, let me tell you a story. 

I’m sure that’s true, in part.  But I also think - as with most biblical texts - that there is something else going on here.  Maybe lots of somethings, but dismissing this story as an ancient pre-science myth seems to diminish the power of the story.  So, let’s look more deeply and see what we can see.

Genesis 11:1-9   Now the whole earth had one language and the same words.  2 And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.  3 And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.  4 Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth."  5 The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.  6 And the LORD said, "Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.  7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech."  8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.  9 Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Ah, yes, that story.  The babbling story.  The tower and the languages and the scattering and the sin.  Except, it is sometimes hard to see the sin.  It is as if God picks a fight.  I know, I’ve heard the explanations.  They were thumbing their nose at God.  Well, maybe.  Though there isn’t a real clear taunt against the divine powers in this all too brief story.

One explanation that does make sense is that this story forms the end of the first section of Genesis.  After a bit of genealogy, we launch into the story of Abraham and Sarah.  So, this is a bookend to the first part of the bible, which begins with creation and the command from God to fill the earth.  But here we see people choosing not to fulfill that command.  They want to stay in one place.  They built their city in order to not do what God wanted them to do.  The explanation for the building is “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

It is understandable, really.  Safety is our number one priority it seems.  Fear of the unknown is a great motivator.  Avoiding risk, avoiding change is our prime directive.  Yet, God seems to want something else for us.  God seems to imply that we were created for more than that.  That we would be less than what we could be if we choose to live the way that makes the most sense to us. 

Now in the story, God comes down to inspect the construction project.  Upon inspection, God determines that something must be done.  “Nothing that they propose will be impossible for them,” is the diagnosis.  Which doesn’t seem like a bad thing.  In fact you would think that God would be proud of the offspring who have so much potential.  But instead, God decides it must be stopped.  So, the language trick is done and boom, the construction project is brought to a screeching halt and the migration out into the unknown begins - because the unknown came too close to home.

It all fell apart, and they weren’t sure why, I have no doubt.  Except that the folks they thought they knew, all of a sudden they realized they didn’t know at all.  Couldn’t even understand them anymore. They were speaking a whole other language.

We launch our four week relationship series titled “Love Languages” this Sunday.  It is loosely based on the books by Dr. Gary Chapman various titled but all including “The Five Love Languages.”  The thesis of these books is that we don’t all speak the same language when to comes to love.  Our expectations and our needs are different.  And that one of the reasons that relationships fail - whether between spouses, parents and children, neighbors and co-workers, or whatever - is that we don’t always realize we are not speaking the same language. 

We’ll do more about that theory on Sunday and in later weeks here.  For now, I want to lay that general idea alongside this story and ask a simple question.  Does the story of the Tower of Babel really talk about punishment?  Is God angry at us for going our own way and making our own choices?  Or does God give us diversity to enhance the human experience and invite us to overcome our differences and find a true unity not based on fear or complacency but full of the richness of living in relationship with those who stretch us and challenge us to be more than we thought we could be?

OK, not a simple question after all.  But then nothing in this life is ever simple.  I think this story is witness to the idea that God prefers it that way.  And when we think about it, we do too.  We often think, if only everyone thought like I do life would be so much easier.   Maybe so, maybe it would be easier if everyone spoke the same language, had the same preferences, leaned in the same directions.  Easier, but infinitely more boring.  Don’t you think?

Maybe God wasn’t punishing us to getting to big for our britches in that story.  Maybe God was reining us in before we got so far off track that nothing would stop us from total destruction.  Maybe the community you have to work to preserve, to choose to commit to, stretch to enlarge is worth more than all the towers we could build to the heavens.  Maybe our response to the Babel story ought to be “thank you.”