Saturday, March 30, 2013

Dancing in the Darkness

Well, you missed it.  If you weren’t at Aldersgate UMC last night for our Good Friday service you missed what was probably one of the most theologically profound acts of worship in which I have ever participated. And it was an accident.  Or was it?  Certainly not of my design or intention.  It was what I had planned when I put the service together some weeks ago.  Yet it happened.  For those who had eyes to see.

Let me explain.  A few years ago I found a Good Friday service based on the Stations of the Cross.  It was part dramatic reading, written from the perspective of the Centurion who oversaw Jesus journey to the cross and death on that cross and burial in the garden tomb.  With a certain amount of dramatic licence, the Centurion help us reflect on the impact of this death on all of us.  He struggled with this job, because it was different this time, he discovers, though he isn’t quite sure why.

The reflections from the Centurion are wrapped up with a statement on each particular Station of the Cross, and with a concluding prayer, and the Stations are interspersed with the congregation singing various verses from the passion hymns,  It is very well written, taking us deep into the emotion and the meaning of the Good Friday event.

I used it about three years ago with a more traditional, male voice reading the Centurion role consistently.  But this time I thought I would do something different.  I wanted different voices reading that part, as though the Centurion was an Everyman, or even Every-person as I had female voices reading those lines at times.  And then I was struck with a novel idea for casting.  I asked my associate pastor Chris if he thought his wife Joy would join La Donna and I as the four readers of this script. Joy not only agreed, but also wanted to play the flute for the hymns and as a solo anthem piece in the middle.  It all seemed to be set and ready for a powerful experience for all involved.

What I didn’t count on was Charlotte.  Charlotte is Chris and Joy’s youngest daughter, a preschooler who decided that Good Friday evening that only mom would do.  Though there were church members aplenty assigned to the task of watching Charlotte while the service was going on and her mom was so fully participating, she would have none of it.  Even her dad was no consolation for the poor girl, who cried her eyes out (not to mention exercised her lungs) in Chris’ office when Joy went to practice before the service.  Though those assigned child minders tried valiantly, we could all see it just wasn’t going to work. So at the last minute, as the prelude was playing, a change was made to the program and Charlotte joined us in the chancel.

When Joy played her flute, Charlotte would sit on the floor around her feet, or on a seat her mother had just vacated, partially hidden by the grand piano, and all was well.  But when Joy would step up to the lectern to take her turn at reading from the wonderful script dramatically presenting to us the impressions of the Stations of the Cross, Charlotte would wander.  And by wander I don’t mean to imply that she would walk demurely with her mother from her seat behind to the piano to the lectern in the front of the chancel where she would wait patiently until Joy was done reading before walking calmly back to her seat.  No.  If you think that is what she did throughout the service, then you don’t know Charlotte.  Charlotte took full opportunity of the freedom of that space to explore each corner, keeping her mother in sight she would stroll to the center of the open chancel and then back toward Joy.  She discovered that she could wander outside of the chancel, walking on the kneeling step and holding onto the communion rails like an office worker getting some air on a high ledge downtown.  Once she discovered the unique acoustics of the space and stomped her foot on the stone tile just to hear the echo.  Only once.  She wove around the chancel furniture, tracing a labyrinthine path that only she knew, circling the Christ candle on its tall brass pole and back to the lectern where her mother stood.  It was a sight to behold.

The dramatist in me was squirming, I must confess. The carefully constructed experience was at risk here, the heaviness of the passion of the Christ, the depth of the Stations were being swallowed up by this cherub with a cloud of blond curls dancing around the chancel without a care in the world, except that mom was in sight.  For the first time I had a little sympathy for the disciples that day when they told the parents to keep their kids away from Jesus because we were doing serious stuff.  Only to be made to be the bad guys when Jesus said “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them.”

“For to such as these belongs the Kingdom.”  It was the theologian in me that came to the rescue.  As I watched the little sprite dancing in the face of the darkness of Good Friday, I suddenly recognized her.  It was hope.  It was that little ribbon of sustenance that was how they made it through to Easter morning, fluttering here and there, outside and inside, tracing circles around the flame of Presence, even - and pay attention here - even when it was put out. 

Holy Saturday has always puzzled me.  How did those women have the wherewithal to prepare the spices?  How did the broken and despairing disciples manage to not run screaming into the hillside, afraid for their own souls as well as their bodies now that the hammer had begun to fall?  How did they follow him to the cross, even at a distance, and hover outside a tomb no matter how lovely the garden surrounding it?  How did they endure the darkness of that day?

Because of Charlotte.  Well, maybe not Charlotte in the flesh, but the hope and the joy that she wove in and through the sadness and the pain.  Maybe they couldn’t dance in their own darkness, but hope was there, hidden, almost smothered, but tenacious, determined, clinging, unwilling to leave us to wallow in our despair.

What I heard that Good Friday night in the wanderings of little Charlotte is that no matter how much we think it is, the story - God’s story and our story - never ends in darkness.  The sun does rise again.

Luke 24:1-12  But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.  2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb,  3 but when they went in, they did not find the body.  4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.  5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.  6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee,  7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again."  8 Then they remembered his words,  9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.  10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.  11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.  12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

Without a word, our angel Charlotte proclaimed that death was not the final word, and that if we persisted to live in the darkness, then we were simply in the wrong place.  He is not here, he is Risen.  Alleluia.


Saturday, March 16, 2013

Pruning and Grafting

I’m out on a limb here.  Heh, made a pun already and didn’t even mean to.  I was referring to the risk I’m about to undertake.  Referring to the danger of speaking, or writing in this case, beyond my knowledge and experience.  Not the first time I’ve done that, I freely admit.  I have always subscribed to the idea that if you share your ignorance with confidence and conviction, then most folks will believe you know what you are talking about.  Even when you don’t.  I always tell folks asked to read a difficult scripture passage, for example, full of unpronounceable names to just pick a pronunciation and go with it.  No one really knows how it is supposed to sound, so just go with it.

Works most of the time.  My problem here is that I’m not dealing with obscure dead languages or convoluted theological points that even the originators would be hard pressed to put them into an English that normal people understand.  No, I’m going to talk about gardening. 

I hate gardening, let’s just get that out of the way.  That’s a bit harsh, I realize, and not completely true.  There are some things of a gardening nature that I will do without protest.  Too much protest anyway.  Grumbling, maybe, pouting, but not protest.  I appreciate gardens and gardeners.  I loved touring the big houses in Britain and walking through the gardens, formal and informal both.  I just didn’t want to have to do the work.

I know, I know. And that will probably be the subject of another bible study sometime.  But for all I’m admitting is that I’m out on this limb about to talk about something I know little to nothing about.  Yet, here goes.

Well, after a word from our sponsor, so to speak.  The reason why I’m about to launch into a lecture about gardening.  Because He did.

John 15:1-12   "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.  2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.  3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.  4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.  5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.  6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.  7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.  8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.  9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.  10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love.  11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.  12 "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

I like a good metaphor as much as the next guy.  He could have just mentioned the whole vine thing and left it at that.  “I Am the true vine” was a powerful statement to those first hearers.  Because the image of the vine wove all through the Scriptures of the day.  The prophets loved to talk about the vine.  But for them it was Israel.  A vine uprooted from Egypt and planted in the promised land.  A vine that bears fruit to feed many.  But also a vine that withers when it neglects the source of strength, when it becomes unconnected.  Which sounds surprisingly like what Jesus says here in this farewell discourse.  Stay connected.  Remember the source of strength, bear fruit.  What changes is that instead of a nation, the vine is now a person.  “I Am the true vine” says Jesus.  Startling, no doubt.  And maybe offensive, to a degree?  How could one man replace a nation? 

But look again, Jesus differentiates between vine and branches.  I Am the vine, but you are the branches.  He is simply bringing the source closer to us.  Instead of the people being uprooted and planted by God and sometimes withering when they forget that, now that source of strength is right there with us.  We are connected to it. It is right there, right here.  We abide in it. 

The people of God still produce the fruit, that is how God decided that it would work, God just moved a little closer because we could use the help.  Apart from God, apart from the source of strength, the vine we can do nothing.  And we have to stay close.

“In a vineyard, the best grapes are produced closest to the central vine.”  I read that, didn’t know it, in case you are wondering.  Stay close.  Because we need to be pruned.  I wish it weren’t so.  But we do.

Pruning is an art form, it seems to me, as much as a horticultural technique.  It looks like you are killing it, the plant or bush or whatever that you are pruning.  But if it is done right, then it always comes back stronger.  Always.  It produces more, it flourishes, it grows beyond where it was cut back.  Pruning, I’m told, is necessary for some kinds of plants, or it withers and dies.  Because it is trying to sustain something that isn’t necessary, or isn’t healthy, or is a distraction from its true function of bearing fruit or flower. 

Step away from the metaphor for a moment, and realize that pruning hurts.  Cutting away that which we’ve become attached to, no matter how unhealthy it is for us is hard, is painful.  And it makes us ask that question that we don’t like to admit that we ask: Is it worth it?  Is it worth the struggle, the pain, the self-denial, to live this life that he offers us, to enjoy this abundance that he wants to pour down on us?  Is the fruit that we bear - this commandment to love, God and neighbor with equal amounts of passion and service - worth the effort it takes to bear it?

“These things I have told you that my joy may be in you and your joy may be full.”  I wonder sometimes, to be honest.  But He says it is more than worth it, and I have chosen to trust Him.  And the moments of real joy that I have experienced in my life are always caught up in loving and being loved.  So, I know I want more.  More of Him, more of love, more joy. 

So stay close.  Abide in me, is the way he says it.  I am learning to abide.  To seek those moments when I can be in Christ’s presence, can soak up that word, can sing of praise and healing, loving and reconciling.  I want to stay close.  But how?

To big a question for the space I have left.  But the short answer is we need to be grafted into the vine.  I know there is nothing about grafting in these verses.  Vines and abiding, pruning and being cut off, yes.  But not grafting.  So, let me venture out a little further on this limb.  Grafting is a process whereby one plant, the scion (or offspring) becomes a part of another, the root stock (or the vine).  The process allows the plants to become one.  But the only way for the scion to be grafted into the root stock is if the stock or the vine is cut, is pierced to make room, to allow entry. 

By His wounds we are healed.


Saturday, March 9, 2013

What the Flock

Already I’ve offended someone.  Sorry, truly, I am sorry.  It has never been my goal to shock or to offend, even though I say and do offensive things sometimes.  Mostly because I don’t know how to say what I want to say without offending. 

But I’ve stumbled over this passage for hours - well, days actually - and am still wishing I had assigned it to Chris this weekend.  Just sayin’.  Not because it is hard, necessarily.  I can understand it.  And I’m sure when you read it you will too.  There is just something unsettling about it.  Something, dare I say it, offensive here.

Wait, isn’t this the bible?  What would be offensive?  At least to us, anyway.  We’ve accepted the authority of these words, we’ve allowed this book to guide our lives, to shape our experience, to govern out understanding, how could it be offensive to us?

Well, of course it isn’t.  And it is.  Sort of.  Kind of.  Depends on how you look at it.  Maybe. ... Equivocating much?  Take a look and see for yourself.  If you dare!

John 10:11-18   "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away-- and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.  13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.  14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,  15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.  16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.  17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.  18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father."

I can hear your confusion from here.  What is difficult about this?, you are pondering.  What could possibly be considered offensive here?, let the head scratching commence.  

OK, let’s look at the easy stuff.  This is a continuation of the previous passage.  Last week Jesus said “I Am the gate for the sheep.”  Now he says “I Am the good shepherd.”  So, which is it?  Well, are you an offspring or a parent?  Are you a sibling or a neighbor?  We’ve all got multiple roles to play.  Jesus is searching for images that will make sense to us, that will connect with us.  We need access and acceptance.  Jesus is the door, the entrance, the way in to an experience of love and transformation.  We need guidance.  Jesus is the one who leads us.

And there it is.  I know it seems innocuous to us.  A no brainer to most of us.  But we live in an “I got this” culture.  “We don’t need no stinking leaders” is the mind-set.  I once heard a commentator sneering at the passage in Matthew where it says that Jesus had compassion on the crowd “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Mt 9:36) Paternalistic, was the cry.  That’s the problem with religion, they would cry, it is a crutch, something to keep us down.  We are meant to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  Our heroes are the ones who made it on their own, the self made men and women who take what is a raw deal and turn it into gold.  Those who push themselves, who claw their way up, who ...

Whoa, slow down there, Sparky.  OK, sure there are those “dog eat dog” types out there, but surely none of them are reading this bible study.  We know better.  We are ready to follow the Shepherd.  So, no controversy here.

I know that.  Just making a point.  Just engaging in some literary banter.  I know that we always turn to the shepherd when it comes to making decisions about how we will live our lives.  I know that we will follow wherever He leads us, and do whatever He tells us to do.  That we are ready and eager to live the life of faith that we are called to live, when we get a moment.  In our spare time, Sunday mornings for sure, most of the time anyway, when we can squeeze it in.  It is a busy life we lead, and we don’t always have room for everything that we would like to be able to do.  Some days we are just getting by with the necessary stuff and are worn out before the extras.  Like faith.  Like life, abundant life.

Hmm.  OK, maybe we all struggle with the idea of a shepherd.  Of needing one, instead of being one, I mean.  Maybe we too are more likely to say we can do it on our own than we need a savior.  Maybe we are part and parcel of our culture more than we really want to admit.

I like the band fun.  That’s how you have to write their name by the way: fun.  Apparently there is a Scandinavian death metal band called Fun, so the pop group fun. had to change its name.  Lover case f with a period at the end.  fun.  Anyway, I got their latest cd and just love it, (yeah, I’m an old guy, I still look for cd’s) but was caught out by one song.  It is titled “One Foot,” and the refrain repeats the phrase “I'll put one foot in front of the other one.”  Catchy, has this “just keep swimming” feel to it (Finding Nemo - keep up here).  But when I listened closer, I was disturbed. 

The second verse goes like this: “Happiness stumbled upon a chapel last night / And I can't help but back up when I think of what happens inside / I've got friends locked in boxes, that's no way to live / What you calling a sin, isn't up to them / Afterall, afterall I thought we were all your children / But I will die for my own sins, thanks a lot / We'll rise up ourselves, thanks for nothing at all / So up off the ground, our forefathers are nothing but dust now.”  Then the refrain: “I'll put one foot in front of the other one / I don't need a new love, or a new life / Just a better place to die.”

Another slam against the church, and maybe we deserve it.  We’ve spent more time calling out sins than we have claiming all as God’s children.  But along with throwing off the authority of the church, comes the decision that we don’t need a savior “I’ll die for my own sins, thanks a lot.”  OK, I get that, again, we probably need to take some of the blame for that kind of attitude.  If we don’t live as though we are following a savior, but instead are relying on our own righteousness, then what else can we expect from our children? 

But what really got me was what we are left with when we stand on our own: “I'll put one foot in front of the other one / I don't need a new love, or a new life / Just a better place to die.”  The One who came that we might have life, weeps when his children only have aspirations for a better place to die.  These are the ones for whom He was willing to lay down his life.  These are the ones He wanted to gather in.  These, and so many others who are wandering around out there harassed and helpless are in need of shepherd. 

Which I guess means that maybe we should worry less about offending and work more on following, and welcoming, and loving, and laying down ... our tendency to be offended by those who don’t act like we do.


Saturday, March 2, 2013

Safely Gathered In

“Pastor!”  I was passing through the Connection (or as every other church in the world calls it - the narthex) on my post worship mission of checking lights and locking doors.  Almost everyone had left, the youth bell choir was practicing in the sanctuary, a few hangers on were clinging to the feeling of fellowship that a Sunday morning brings, and others were waiting for someone to finish whatever servant task they had undertaken that morning.  Almost time to head home.  It had been a good morning, second Sunday of Lent and the One who said “I Am the light of the world” was present among us that morning.

“Pastor!” We used to sneer at those primitive cultures who talk about the power of knowing someone’s name.  We dismissed it as a belief magic, a fundamental misunderstanding of how the world really works.  Yet, when that “Pastor!” rang out through the Connection it was as if I had been lassoed by a passing cowboy and drawn into a conversation I didn’t know I was going to have. 

“Pastor!”  It was Fred.  Great guy, Fred.  Probably the best dresser in the whole congregation.  Always has opinions and isn’t afraid of sharing them.  And, frankly, they are usually pretty good ones.  So, I wasn’t sure if I was going to get a congratulations on a great service kind of comment, or a suggestion on how we ought to conduct some item of business in a more efficient manner.  “You should have gone to see her dance,” he said.  “Time goes fast, and she’ll be gone before you are ready.”

I concluded my sermon last week by letting everyone know that Maddie wasn’t in church that day because her mother took her to the Dance Showcase in Merrillville.  And how while I didn’t like that the Showcase took place on Sunday morning, that this time I wasn’t going to complain.  Then I compared (rather cleverly, I thought) Maddie’s dancing to the worship and celebration that took place during the Festival of the Booths when the people would dance in front of the four lamps in the courtyard.  Jesus claim to be the light of the world, I suggested, was an invitation to dance in that Presence.

I felt pretty good about it all, or I had been, until Fred.  “You should have gone to see her dance.”  Don’t you think I wanted to?  I have responsibilities, you know, I have a job to do.  I can’t help it they picked a Sunday morning for her to dance.  Can I?  It’s not my fault that I couldn’t be there, was it?  Who can be that present?

Uh, well, ok.  Besides Him, I mean.  That’s an unreal standard, don’t you think?  Well, don’t you?

John 10:1-10   "Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.  2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.  3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.  5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers."  6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.  7 So again Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.  8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them.  9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.  10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

I Am the gate.  Gates speak to us of access, of limited access.  A gate usually is accompanied by a “no trespassing” sign.  Or even a “keep out” notice.  Gates are about keeping people out, about dividing, about separating, about filtering.  And certainly in this passage there is a certain amount of that.  Thieves and bandits abound, we believe, coming to steal and kill and destroy.  So, keep out!  Keep away.  Let’s be careful as to who we let in, about who we admit into the community of faith.  We have to be careful.  We have to decide who is worthy of entrance into our midst.  We have to build big gates to protect ourselves, from a big bad world.

Except, look again.  He doesn’t tell us to build a gate.  He doesn’t tell us to become a gated community.  He says “I Am the gate.”  He is taking from us the responsibility of keeping the undesirables out.  He is claiming the task of determining who is worthy and who isn’t.  We can’t figure that out, we get confused, we are likely to follow any voice that sounds interesting.

Which means our job is very different.  We aren’t to be the one ones passing judgement on those around us.  Our job is to get to know his voice.  We need to spend time in his presence.  We need to listen to him, to study his word, to follow his practice.  We need to spend our lives getting to know him so that when we hear our name called we will know who is calling.  “The sheep follow him because they know his voice.” 

We follow because he knows us.  We follow because he loves us.  We follow because he defines us, we are his, shaped in his image, empowered by his love, transformed by his presence.  Because he wants to be with us.

Traveling across the wilds of Scotland, we noticed these odd little shelters scattered around on the hillsides.  They were sheepfolds, we were told.  It was essentially a circular construction of walls, not very high, but with an opening on one side.  There was no gate or door, just an opening.  The shepherd, we were told, would lie down in the opening and thus provide the protection at night.  He put his body in between the flock and the dangers of the world around them. 

That’s what he offers, a place to belong, a place to be safe, a place of acceptance and grace and joy and love.  A place where we can grow into what is within us to be.  A place where we can test the limits of our abilities, where we can trust that we are valued.  It can even be a place where we fail from time to time, but it isn’t the end of the world because there is always forgiveness and transformation.  That’s what he offers, that is the life abundant that he so much wants to give us, wants to open to us.  And, he promises he will be there.

I should have gone, Fred was right.  I see that now.  I haven’t figured out how to be in two places at the same time.  I wanted to see her dance, but I missed it.  I see the photos that were taken.  I’ve heard tell the story.  But I wasn’t there.  And I regret that now.  Because there will come a time when I will put her in the hands of another, and my presence with her will be rare and fleeting.

Praise be to God that there is One who promises to hold her close, to lie as a gate to guard her when she sleeps.  Praise be to God that there is One who is with her always, and who offers her life, abundant and joyous life.

Offers her life.  And me too.  And you.  Praise be to God.