Saturday, May 26, 2012

Where Have You Been?

Did you miss me?  Did you even notice I was gone?  Maybe I don’t really want the answers to those questions.  But two weeks ago I was in Tennessee spending time with my mom while my dad took the opportunity to go off into the woods for a short camping trip.  Then last week, I had driven the ten plus hours home from my conference in Atlanta on Friday, and then Saturday we all went to South Bend for Maddie’s Dance Showcase and then came back to get her ready for Prom.  So a busy day to say the least.

But the truth is, I could have written this bible study on both of those Saturdays.  We have the technology! And at different times on each Saturday I had the thought of sitting down to write, a sense of obligation perhaps.  I really should, I thought.  I ought to, I debated.  But in the end, as you know, I didn’t do it.

The main reason is that I was not preaching either Sunday, and since this writing is the final preparation for the sermon on Sunday morning it just didn’t seem like I should or could or would do that.  In fact it is a new decision I have made this month.  Whenever I’m not preaching, I probably won’t write this bible study either.  So, in the weeks to come, if nothing appears on a Saturday, then you know that Chris or someone else is preaching.  I mean, what’s the point of having a Sunday off and still spending half the weekend preparing for a sermon I’m not preaching?

But if I’m honest, that isn’t the whole story.  I just didn’t feel like it.  No wait, that’s too glib.  Too subjective.  Yes, there were feelings involved.  That is something about us, we want to feel our faith.  We want it to come from someplace inside, some visceral part of ourselves.  We want it to be wrapped in flesh and blood, heart and soul.  So, no, I didn’t feel like it.

But it was deeper than that.  Not just a laziness, but truth be told, I was afraid.  Afraid that I no longer had anything to say.  Or anything worth listening to.  My leadership is being questioned.  Not just that, my faith, the essence of who I am as a follower of Christ.  I am questioning too, that’s what happens when you face opposition.  What right have I to lead, to speak within the body, to attempt to share the Word of God with the people of God?  Maybe silence would be better for me.

Pentecost was a Jewish agricultural festival celebrating the first fruits of the first planting.  The name came from a simple count.  It was 50 days after Passover.  It was a relatively minor festival, yet important in the Jewish observance of worship mingling with daily life. 

But this Pentecost was a quiet one for those who had called themselves disciples of Jesus of Nazareth.  More than a month had passed between the tragic and wonderful events they had not yet named Holy Week and Easter.  Their minds had to have been a jumble of confused thoughts and hopes and fears.  Significantly, they were hiding.  Waiting, yes, but hiding as well.  Uncertain of what they had seen with their eyes, doubting their own abilities to interpret this impossibility, let alone lead a movement that would change the world.  They were afraid and wondered if silence would be better for them.

Thankfully, God had other plans.

Acts 2:1-21   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." 
    14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.  15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning.  16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:  17 'In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.  18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.  19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist.  20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day.  21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'

Everything changed that day.  Instead of a cowering group of uncertain disciples there was a fellowship of apostles confident in the power and presence of God.  Instead of hiding in fear for their lives, they went to the ends of the earth to pour their lives out for the sake of the one they followed and proclaimed. 

Where had they been, you can’t help but wonder.  The gospel accounts don’t really speak well of the disciples.  You have to admit that.  They were constantly missing the point.  They were looking in the wrong direction.  They were slow to get the message.  They were often wondering what was in it for them.  In short, they were so much like us it is almost embarrassing to read.  And then this happened.  This whatever it was.  This wind that wasn’t really wind, but was like wind.  This fire that wasn’t really fire but was like fire.  This Spirit ...

This Spirit.  They felt it then, right?  We just have to be in the mood.  We just have to work ourselves up to the right emotional state in order to accomplish great things, just like they did.  Don’t we?  Even secular leadership seminars tell you to follow your passion.  Where there is passion there is great effect.  Lead with your passion.

Except this isn’t just about how we feel. This is about what we choose.  Or maybe better what chooses us.  I don’t see them asking for this wind and this fire.  It just comes.  And claims us.  As we claim it.  There has to be a willingness, God never overpowers us.  But sometimes overwhelms us.  Takes our breath away.  And sends us out to love like God loves.  Even when it is hard.  No, not hard, impossible.  God sends us out to love, even when it is impossible. 

Even when you’ve run out of words.  Even when you doubt your own abilities.  Even when you wonder if silence might be better for you.  And then you can pray for those moments when you can lean back into a power not your own, a confidence that doesn’t come from within but from some place beyond your own abilities and know the joy of being claimed and empowered and sent.  A part of you will whisper to that presence “where have you been?”  And the silence will answer, “I have never left you.”


Saturday, May 5, 2012

Laugh Til I Cried

She sat in my office weeping.  Not crying, a tear or two rolling down the cheek, and not sobbing, ragged breaths attempting to gasp out pain and gulp down healing or hope.  No, those are nothing next to this.  This can only be described as weeping.  A veritable flood of tears, threatening to wash us both away.  Shoulders were hunched as if against a gale force wind threatening to tear out of her grasp whatever shred of equilibrium she managed to cling to, twisting it into shreds like the tissues I kept handing her.  Which I did because I didn’t know what else to do, to be honest.  It was painful to watch, to grossly understate the emotion. 

At least I wasn’t the cause of her tears.  That would have added immeasurably to the weight of the moment.  We know, from painful experience, the difference.  It hasn’t happened often, thank God, but I remember the times I have caused my wife to cry.  Some unthinking word, some indefensible act, some brokenness that plays out in a selfish consequence.  I stand helpless, given evidence of the pain I had caused, the trust now eroded.  And a despair like a lead weight sitting in the center of my soul, dragging me down to depths rarely plumbed.

Or my daughter, again thankfully rare, but there have been times when I made her cry.  Thing is, I was right, she was wrong, disobedient, rebellious, unwilling to participate in family responsibilities.  And reason wasn’t working, her back talk was getting to me and I let her have it, raised voice, impeccable logic, list of offenses, banished to her room, grounded, punished.  The flood ensued.  At last, I thought, she has a sense of the seriousness of this moment.  But underneath that small satisfaction was the agony of causing my little girl pain.  My child, who is light and life to me, who sits dried eyed through sad movies while her friends  sob in empathy with beloved characters, who is making her way in the world with a dazzling smile, now stands broken before me, mascara making streaks down her cheeks, and hurt in her eyes.

We know tears, whether we are the source of them, or the cause of them, we know them.  And what we know is that we rarely know what to say to make them go away.  But almost anybody knows that the absolute worst thing you could say to someone weeping is that they’ll get over it.  Not just get over it, but you’ll laugh again. 

Luke 6:20-23  Then he looked up at his disciples and said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  21 "Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.  22 "Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.  23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

Scholars tell us that both Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain are most like compilations of sayings of Jesus accumulated over a larger part of his teaching ministry rather than one sermon per se.  It is possible that at various times Jesus stood or sat to teach and put together these various thoughts in one larger teaching moment.  It was a technique the rabbis called “stringing pearls.”

The problem is that some of these pearls are hard to hear.  “Blessed are you when people hate you..”  Really?  Is that something we should aspire to?  Something we should work toward?  “Rejoice in that day (that hating day) and leap for joy...”  I don’t know that this is something I really want to claim in my faith.  I know, I’ve been told as a pastor that if people aren’t upset by what I am doing, then I’m not doing enough.  In which case, I’m doing plenty these days.

But I’m not sure that’s what he was getting at here.  It isn’t that we set out to upset people, that do whatever it takes to get us hated.  If that were the case, then those Westboro Baptist folks are on the right track.  And there is no way in God’s heaven that that makes sense.

Blessed are you who are poor, blessed are you who are hungry.  Are we supposed to just let the poor and the hungry live in their blessedness because some day there will be a change in their circumstances?  Or are we called to be a partner in that change?  Are we the promise that Christ gives to those in difficult circumstances?

And what does it mean to promise the Kingdom of God?  Is it, as so many believe, a “someday” kind of promise.  You’ll get your reward one day, when you die, or when Jesus comes back, whichever comes first.  Or is there something else going on here?  If so, what would that be?  Is it something beyond the facile “it will all work out in the end” kind of assurances? 

I hope so.  I remember hoping so that soggy day in my office all those years ago.  Grasping at straws, for something of significance to say, I clearly remember thinking Luke chapter six verse twenty-one: “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”  And I remember dismissing it from my mind because I knew it wouldn’t be heard.  And I knew enough of the situation to know that it wouldn’t be easily made right, there was no simple or easy happy ending on her horizon. 

So what do these verses offer those in desperate situations?  Hope?  Well, yes, there is hope.  There is a promise of reversal.  There is resolution for even the most complex, the most broken of situations.  And we who stand in faith must never lose our hold on that hope.  It is what drives us to keep working, to keep giving, to keep loving, even when we don’t see a solution on the horizon.

But these verses tell us that this hope comes packaged in a relationship.  “Yours is the kingdom of God.”  Even the most desperate of people are still worthy of love, of welcome, of hospitality, There is room at our table, room in our inn, room in our circle even for the hurting, even for the weeping.

That is why when folks hurt and withdraw from community the healing takes so much longer.  That is why seclusion is actually detrimental to hope.  The kingdom that is on offer is a community, a relationship of healing and hope.  That relationship is, of course, first and foremost with Jesus the Christ, the author of hope, the source of healing.  But it is lived in the here and now, in the everyday, with the human community we call the church.  A place of acceptance and inclusion.  At least we hope, at least we strive to be that community, that reflection of the kingdom. 

Did you notice that some verses are future tense: you will be filled, you will laugh.  But some are present: yours is the kingdom.  We can be right now the place of filling and the place of healing, or learning to laugh again.  We can’t fix the problems with a snap of the finger, but we can be a part of the solution.  If we hang in there together.

After what seemed like hours and buckets of tears, the weeping finally ceased.  After gestures of composing herself, she gathered the mound of tissues and dropped them into the wastebasket I offered.  Then she looked up at me with the beginnings of a shy smile and said “thank you for being here with me.”  And she went out into the maelstrom that was her life that week with a different set to her shoulders.  The only change to her circumstance was that she now new she was not alone anymore.  And that was enough.