Saturday, October 26, 2013

First to the Lord

My son is magic.  Well, not really magic, to be honest.  But there is an odd little quirk that seems to happen around his birthday.  He gets to be home for his birthday.  His birthday is October 25th and so you would think that he would have to be in school, unless it fell on a weekend.  But sometimes it is fall break on his birthday, one year it snowed and school was closed, another year there was a fog delay that became a cancellation.  It is weird.  I’m sure that there were some years when he had to go to school on the actual date, but I don’t remember any at the moment.  And there have been a lot of them.  Twenty to be exact.

It startled me just writing that.  Twenty years!  I still remember meeting him at Chicago O’Hare Airport, looking like he just woke up - a look with which we are still familiar - but wide-eyed in wonder at the world which must have been incomprehensibly different from the one he left behind.  

In the wash of emotions that gripped me in that moment – from joy to fear, wonder and anxiety, hope and helplessness – the one that overpowered them all was gratitude.  I was just so thankful for this life, even though I knew I didn’t have a clue how to care for him.  I was giddy with gratefulness, I thanked everyone I passed.  The couple who brought him over on that long flight from South Korea, they too looked like they had been up all night, thank you.  The members of the crew, of any crew, I didn’t know who flew his plane and who didn’t, so I thanked them all.  Workers in the airport, travelers looking for their connections, drivers of taxis and busses, pedestrians and parking attendants, I thanked them all.  Above all, I thanked God, the author of this happy ending that is still in process, who deemed us worthy of claiming this gift, one of God’s precious ones given up by a mother who couldn’t keep him and put on a list that made its way around the world so that we could be blessed by his presence in our lives.  I am forever grateful to that mother, who we don’t know and never will know, but who also didn’t know how she blessed us and how we took her gift and made it a part of us.

Because in that moment I knew I was in debt, deeper than I could ever repay, even though repaying was something that I had dedicated my life to in those busy corridors of one of the world’s busiest airports.  You don’t need a sanctuary colored by the streams of soft light through stained glass to recognize your indebtedness, airports work quite well for me.  And I know it sounds odd, but every time I have flown in the past twenty years I walk through those terminals as though in a sanctuary, a holy place of connections and destinations, of tearful farewells and joyous homecomings.  

And I’m grateful.  In the deepest corners of my being, I am grateful.  I know I forget sometimes, or fail to recall.  And yet it is there, when I gaze across the table or read the text message that comes or the phone call because he is bored at college, and usually at the most inconvenient of times.  But underneath the irritation or the distraction or the repetition of the same banal questions, there swells up in me a thankfulness that longs to burst forth in acts of generosity and sacrifice.  I want to give him, give them joy, to give them love, to give them me no matter the cost.  I want to give God glory for what I have been blessed to receive, I want to shout from the rooftops until the whole world knows that life is a gift and that we are privileged to not only receive but to give, not only to be blessed but to bless others.  

Underneath all the rhetoric of our passage for this week, Paul is wanting the same thing.  Wanting his readers to give with that kind of passion, that kind of understanding.  

2 Corinthians 8:1-15   We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia;  2 for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.  3 For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means,  4 begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints--  5 and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us,  6 so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you.  
7 Now as you excel in everything-- in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you-- so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.  8 I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others.  9 For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.  10 And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something--  11 now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.  12 For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has-- not according to what one does not have.  13 I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between  14 your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.  15 As it is written, "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little." 

“For if the eagerness is there ...”  What a phrase to use to talk about stewardship.  Instead of duty, instead of responsibility, Paul uses eagerness.  Eagerness to give.  He primes the pump by talking about Macedonia, and how they begged him to let them be a part of the collection.  But he doesn’t present it as a competition.  Rather it is an opportunity for them to let some of the joy that has been poured into them leak out and bless others.  

In Philippians, Paul writes what has come to be called the Christ hymn.  (Phil 2:6-11) Here he condenses that great poetic theology into one verse: “ For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”  But in that verse carries the church’s theology of grace and response.  And after that he gives some advice.  Advice?  Paul, giving advice?  Yes, what an amazing thing.  He makes a suggestion, doesn’t lay a command on us.  And what is that advice?  Let it out.  Let out the joy that is within you, let out the gratitude that is in you.  Let it out in generosity.  Let it out in giving.

This offering that he is collecting here is for the saints in Jerusalem.  The mother church has fallen on difficult times and now it is the privilege of the new, upstart churches in the Gentile world to give back.  There is more than just a church mission operation here.  Paul is helping the church be one.  There is not, for Paul anyway, a Jewish Christian church and a Gentile Christian church and each can take care of itself.  No, there is one church and like the beginnings of the church in the book of Acts, his vision is that there are none who have need among them because they each give what they can.  

In addition to telling them to be prudent about their giving, but to trust in the providence of God (that was why he tossed in the verses about manna - about trusting that there will be enough, whether a little or a lot), Paul also tells them to finish what they started, or to follow through on their intentions, depending on how you read verses ten and eleven.  But even there, it isn’t as an obligation, but an outlet for the joy of responding to the blessings of God that drives the giving.  “So that your eagerness may be matched by completion.”  Just do it, but do it with joy, do it with gratitude, do it as a way of making real the gratitude that lives within you.

Sunday after worship we will take Rhys back to university.  It is a long drive and he’ll probably fall asleep.  I’m sure it will be somewhat low key as these things tend to be.  But for me it is always a reminder of how some gifts that  we are given are not ours to keep, but to give away.  The grace remains, however, the grace of receiving and the grace of giving.  And maybe that is the magic, such as it is.  That we are made complete even in the giving away.  Happy Birthday Rhys. I am blessed to be your dad.


Saturday, October 19, 2013

Bring My Sons

The nest is full again.  We were just getting used to the emptiness, to be honest –  La Donna, the menagerie and I.  But now it is fall break and after many miles over the past couple of days, we have them safely gathered in.  And it is good.  Nice.  A little odd, frankly.  Seemingly crowded.  But just right.  You know?  

How could you?  I don’t even understand what I just wrote.  Or this interesting experience going on around here this weekend.  They are the same as the ones we delivered to their respective institutions of learning, and yet they aren’t.  It is exciting to watch, to see them grow and change and develop into something faintly recognizable.  Exciting and troubling, wonderful and unsettling, making me long for the future and for the past all at the same time.

Yeah, weird, I know.  But there it is.  Or there I am.  Treading water, which seems to be my usual state these days.  Not always sure which way to turn, afraid that whichever way chosen only leads to deeper water.  Hmm.  

Hang on a moment.  That isn’t really the tone I intended for this piece.  I’m excited about the kids return from college.  It was fun to sit around the table and listen to them relate the experiences of their lives and to know that we had prepared them well, or as well as we could.  And now we get to enjoy them as the adults they are becoming.  What could be more satisfying than that?  Can’t think of a thing.  I am proud.  More than proud, I am blessed.  

So, why is there an ache in some random corner of my soul that wishes we could go back?  Why is there a longing to be who we were rather than who we are going to be?  I wouldn’t begrudge them their adventures and their explorations, I anticipate good things for both.  Watching their eyes light up as they talk about favorite subjects, and connections made, opportunities seized is exciting and heartwarming and just as it should be.  It is almost as though I can hear the Spirit drawing them off onto their own paths to who knows where, as thrilling and terrifying as that is.  

Isaiah 43:1-7  But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  3 For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.  4 Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.  5 Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you;  6 I will say to the north, "Give them up," and to the south, "Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth--  7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made." 

Isaiah speaks a word to people who are longing.  And underwater.  Or walking through the rapids of loss and exile, of war and death.  And the word he speaks is one of hope.  It is a word of redemption.  It is a word of comfort.  Just what they need.  But maybe not what they want.

What they want is a rescue.  Take us out of here!  Fix it, fix them, fix us.  Make it right.  That’s what we want in desperate situations.  But what we get instead is Presence.  I will be with you, thus says the Lord.  OK, a good thing.  No, a wonderful thing, but ... why don’t we get what we really want?  Why don’t we get a wave of the divine hand and circumstances change?  Why don’t enemies get sent packing, and good guys get sent home?  Why doesn’t God  just get up and do something about everything that is wrong is our world right now?

Why doesn’t it say in the forty third chapter of Isaiah that when you sign up for God’s team there won’t be any waters?  Why doesn’t is tell us that following God means you won’t have to walk through fire?  But it doesn’t say that, does it?  No, it says, when you walk through fire!  It says when you pass through the waters!  When?!  It is like it is inevitable.  Like a safe bet.  Like you’d better just count on it.  Well, thanks.  Thanks a lot.  If God followers aren’t any safer from disaster or catastrophe, then what’s the point?  If we don’t have some divine protection from harm, why bother?

That “what’s in it for me?” question really gets under my skin.  It sounds like a consumer approach to faith.  I’m only interested in what I can get out of it.  But once in a while, it is a question that needs asking.  What do we get, Isaiah?  When the chips are down, when all seems lost, when the questions outnumber the answers, what do we get?

Presence.  John Wesley’s last words, it is reported, were “best of all God is with us.”  Best of all, he said.  Presence is the greatest gift.  Presence is grace at work within us.  Presence is what enables us to endure whatever the waters bring, whatever the fire burns around us.  We are not alone.  And not only that, but this Presence is a loving Presence.  We are precious to that Presence.  We are known by name.  And the promise is that wherever we go, wherever this life drives us, for good or for ill, we will be called home to the one who loves us.

It is only in this light that we can make sense of the second passage for this week.  Yes, there are two this time, a rare thing.  But I wanted to dwell on this first one before turning to Peter and his very first sermon in the book of Acts.  It happened on Pentecost day, and we have read it many times.  But since we are usually distracted by the sound of the mighty wind and tongues as of flame, we forget that Peter stood up to speak that day.  Here is what he said:

Acts 2:14-21   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.' 

Here again we can get lost in the blood and fire and smoky mist if we aren’t careful.  We can get caught up in the interpretation, in looking for the signs, in proclaiming the end times.  But Peter says this isn’t a future event that we need to look for, it is happening right now, right then.  What was interpreted as drunken revelry was in fact fulfillment of prophecy.  This is the Spirit reminding us that we are not alone.  We who have walked through the valley of the shadow of death, we who were certain that all our hopes and all our plans were nailed to a cross and cast to the winds of tyranny, we are not alone.

That is what salvation is, says Peter, Presence.  The Spirit is present as they walk through that valley.  The Christ is present as they take up his mantle of proclaiming good news to the poor and release to the captives.  The Father is present as they hear their names called and rise up to follow – and teach and preach and live the gospel with their last breath.  Not because they are promised safety, but because of the Presence.  

Best of all... I’m glad they are home.  Despite the disruption to our new schedules, despite the fact that they insist on continuing to become different people than the ones we sent away, despite that I am lost at times when I try to comprehend where they are going and who they will be ... still I’m glad they are here for a time.  Best of all ... God is with us.


Saturday, October 12, 2013

And There Was Morning

I’m all out of sorts this morning.  OK, it isn’t morning anymore.  It was when I started this process.  Not much of morning to be sure, but a little bit of morning was left.  But that has now been frittered away.  Frittered?  Does anyone use that word anymore?  Frittered, means to break or tear into small pieces, to waste away piece by piece.

Well, the morning began with the crazy dogs.  La Donna is gone at a Conference UMW meeting of some sort, left last night.  I had to pill the cat before going to bed.  Fun.  Especially since both cats are grumping around, wrecking all kinds of havoc, ever since Maddie left.  They seem to think we have done away with her in some nefarious manner and now they are making us pay.  We have to cover the bed with a shower curtain.  Yeah, that kind of havoc.

Anyway, I had to get up early (after 13 innings of the first game of the National League Championship Series - go Dodgers) to walk the dogs.  Which I apparently have forgotten how to do.  They kept stopping to look at me as if they were saying, “Now what are you doing?”  Then I either went too slow or too fast.  Didn’t perform the right rituals when we got back to the house.  Didn’t say the right words when I saw them in the morning.  Fed them the wrong food, or put it in the bowl wrong.  Or something.  When crazy dogs give you a look of disdain, it can be hard to take early in the morning.

Then I had to go get my tire fixed.  Somewhere I picked up a nail in my tire that caused a slow leak, not a blow out, thankfully, but a slow leak.  Added air a couple of times (paying for it, nothing is free anymore - I bought air), and it would be ok for a while, but then went out and saw it was completely flat.  So, a tire plug and rotation and oil change (since I was there anyway), then I was back ready to start.

My Saturday of preparation was blown out of the water before I even got started.  Plus I was gone for over a week and got back and walked into the buzz saw of the necessary day to day stuff, effectively snuffing out the excitement that had been building over the plans for 2014.  

Chaos.  That what is feels like.  Like there isn’t any order, any sense of rightness about my life today.  I know, get over it, right?  There are folks tons worse off than you.  There are places in the world today that are light years more chaotic than yours.  We’ve got a world holding its collective breath over whether the United States will default on an almost incomprehensible debt, which would trigger an economic collapse that would dwarf 2008, some say.  We’ve got a super storm threatening the Indian peninsula.  We’ve got the remains of a twelve year old war in the mountains of Afghanistan.  Add to that our usual crushing poverty and human exploitation on a global scale, and you’ve got chaos that staggers the already staggered imagination.  

Genesis 1:1-5   In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,  2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  3 Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light.  4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.  5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.  

What’s this?  Order, out of chaos.  Light in the midst of darkness.  And the light was good.  And there was morning.  When you didn’t think there could be another one, there is morning.  Thanks be to God.

Genesis 1:6-8   And God said, "Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters."  7 So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so.  8 God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. 
The waters represent chaos, the unknown and unknowing.  In the ancient world, sending sailors to sea was a traumatic experience.  The ritual for sending was like a funeral, the return like a resurrection.  Who knows what is going to happen out there, who knows whether those who are sent will ever be seen again.  Now we have tamed the sea.  At least we think we have.  Until the storm surge reminds us what power is, until the threat of rising waters troubles our easy confidence.  What will our coastlines look like in fifty years?  In a hundred?  

By separating the waters, God was staking a claim as Lord of chaos and order.  Saying “when you pass through the waters, I will be with you.”  Our God is in control.

Genesis 1:9-13  And God said, "Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear." And it was so.  10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.  11 Then God said, "Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it." And it was so.  12 The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good.  13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day. 

Let the earth put forth.  God enlists the aid of creation in the act of creating.  God invites partnership.  Work with me here, God is saying, get on board.  Though perfectly capable of creating solo, out of nothing, God instead chooses to invite participation.  Let the earth bring forth... it was good.  And there was morning.  It goes on.

Genesis 1:14-19   And God said, "Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years,  15 and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth." And it was so.  16 God made the two great lights-- the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night-- and the stars.  17 God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth,  18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good.  19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day. 

The Genesis story stands in opposition to other creation stories.  Many have pointed to the similarities, and believe that this diminishes the story somehow.  But Genesis makes its claim regardless.  God is the only deity, notice that the sun and moon are not named in this story.  In other tales, these are gods themselves, but not in Genesis.  God is the only power, the lights “rule” only because God put them there.  And it was good.

Genesis 1:20-31  And God said, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky."  21 So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good.  22 God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth."  23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.  24 And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind." And it was so.  25 God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.  26 Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth."  27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  28 God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth."  29 God said, "See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.  30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so.  31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. 

The story goes on, of course.  For sixty-six books and for thousands of years.  It goes on until today, where we find ourselves in the midst of chaos attempting to throw off order.  It goes on until the day where we find ourselves forgetting that there is a purpose to our existence.  It goes on, the story, the mornings go on.

That’s the blessing here.  It was evening and it was morning, a new day.  Another day.  When you were sure that your failures meant the sun would never shine again, it crawls over the horizon even so.  God set it all in motion, and invited us to be a part.  Whatever dominion meant, it now must mean caring for, it must mean stewarding.  We participate in God’s act of creation by making sure that it lasts as long as it can.  Whatever subduing meant, it now must mean partnering with the earth to bring forth enough to feed the teeming billions.  

And why?  Why are we called to participate in this act?  Why are privileged or burdened with an extra responsibility or promise?  Because we are made in the image of God.  And we are given the story, so we know.  We know that everything there is did not come about because of us.  We know that our main mode of existence is one of gratitude.  We know that all we are and all we have belongs to the one who said “let there be light.”  

Did I mention that our Stewardship Campaign begins this week?  It is called “Investing in a Sure Thing.”  And we start, not with us and what we can do, or should do, or will do.  We start with what has been done for us.  We start with the One who invested everything that we might have life.  And then called it good.  

And gave us another morning.  Thanks be to God.