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.