Saturday, December 20, 2014

Dreaming of Christmas

Forty degrees?  On Christmas week in northern Indiana?  Forty plus degrees?  Something ain’t right, folks.  Wait, did I say forty?  Well, according to my weather app it will be almost fifty on Christmas Eve eve.  I know that isn’t an official designation, but still, I’m bummed.  That’s just too high!

Mom and I watched White Christmas when I was in Tennessee a week ago.  Well, dad was there too, but mostly sleeping.  And there was Bing starting and ending the whole movie singing that song we all know.  “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know, where the tree tops glisten (sing with me) and children listen to hear sleigh bells in the snow.   Sorry kids, Santa can’t make it.  No snow!!  Grumble, grumble.  And I know that snow is a hassle and that our snow removal budget at church was gone by mid February last year and how much better and safer it would be if there weren’t big piles of the frozen white stuff to move around.  But still.  Me and Bing, we’re dreaming.

Seems to me there are two kinds of dreams.  Yeah, OK, Dr. Freud, maybe there are more kinds than just two and if we were spend time unpacking them all we would be ripe for intensive therapy for years to come.  But for our purposes in this space, just go with me here.  There are two kinds of dreams.  The dreaming of white Christmases dream is a dream of what once was.  A dream of what we remember, what we long to return to.  Just like the ones I used to know.  It was better then, safer, friendlier, happier, better then.  If only we could go back.  This was the dominant dream of many of the Hebrew refugees in the time of the Exodus.  Oh, it used to be so much better.  Why did you bring us out here to die, they complained to Moses.  We had everything back there.  It was nice, we weren’t so hungry, so lost, so afraid.  Here isn’t so hot, let’s go back.  There is always a back to Egypt committee in every organization, in every church.  There are those who are convinced that if we only went back and did things like we used to do them, then everything would be just fine.  That was a much better way to go, a better way to be.  We’re dreaming of the Christmas we used to know.

Then there are the dreams of what is not yet.  What might be, what could be.  There are dreams of moving forward into an uncertain future.  Dreams that break the rules, dreams that change the status quo, dreams that just might get us into trouble.  Right Joseph?

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

I’ll admit it, I’ve always thought that the Christmas story was unfair to Joseph.  Mary gets a visitation from an archangel.  Joseph gets a dream.  A dream that came because of a restless night of worry and frustration, added to anger and despair, I have no doubt.  A dream that came with an outlandish request.  A dream that said maybe he could set himself aside long enough, maybe he could risk the ridicule and the shame, maybe he could claim what everyone else would see as a horrible mistake and call it his own.  Maybe he could.  No, he should.  He needed to, he was part of the plan.

See, the dream didn’t say just go along with this Joseph.  It didn’t say let it play out and see how it goes.  Hedge your bets.  Wait and see.  No, that wasn’t the dream, that wasn’t the angel from God.  No, Joseph woke up with a certainty.  Whether the certainty was his or was from beyond him we may never know.  But it was there.  And Joseph did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.  

The dream called for action, it called for commitment.  And not just a go team, jump aboard the bandwagon kind of commitment.  No, this was a swim against the tide, a drive right into the flow of traffic invitation.  Everyone is going this way, even the law says go this way, society says go this way, common sense says go this way, but darn it all if God doesn’t say go that way!  

This doesn’t mean that everything that goes against the mainstream must be of God.  But there does seem to be this disturbing trend of the followers of God being asked to launch off into the unknown, whether anyone comes along or not.  And a surprising number of these forays into the undiscovered country are set off by a dream.  

Jacob woke from a dream and went off to build a nation, confident that God was with him.  The OT Joseph woke from a dream and rescued a nation about to starve to death, confident that God was with him.  Daniel woke from a dream and danced with man-eating lions, confident that God was with him.  The magi woke from a dream and saved their own necks by going home by another way, confident that something was now different in their understanding of how this world was ordered. 

Joseph woke from sleep and claimed a savior who would not just rescue him from the life that was about come crashing down on his own head, but would bring hope to a world where all the lights seem to have gone out all at once, confident that God was with him.  Confident?  Must have been, because he did what the angel, what the dream told him to do.

So, why don’t we dream such dreams?  Why doesn’t God send an angel to us so that when we wake up we can do what the angel of the Lord commanded us?  Well, I don’t know.  It would be easy to say the there are angels all around we just aren’t listening.  But maybe it is more complicated than that.  Maybe there is something else we need to hear before we dismiss this story as a once upon a time fairy tale that just doesn’t happen in the “real world” any more.

First the only description we have of Joseph tells us two things, one he is addressed by the angel as “son of David.”  The only other human being to carry that title in the Gospel is Jesus.  Select company.  The second thing we know about Joseph is that he is a righteous man.  Righteous means faithful, but faithful to relationships, with God, with community, with neighbor, with loved ones.  Joseph was faithful to those he loved, to those with whom he was in relationship.  That’s why he was torn the night he had his dream.  He was torn between his faithfulness to Mary and his faithfulness to God through the law.  So, he had decided to take the least painful steps he could take, and dismiss her quietly.  Until he had a dream.  And suddenly a new opportunity arose, a new direction, a new possibility.  God shows a way where there is no way.

That might explain why he was able to do this incredible thing when he awoke.  It was what he wanted to do anyway.  It was what his faith told him even though his experience said there is no way.  It was what his hopes told him though his fears told him no way.  It was what his heart longed for though his social standing would take a blow from which he might never recover.  So, he chose the looking back to what has always been path.  He chose to believe that “we’ve always done it this way” was what was carved on those stone tablets and made his choice.

Until he had a dream.  He dreamed of Christmas.  A Christmas that just might be.  And chose to follow that dream.


Saturday, December 13, 2014

Angels in the Living Room

The season continues apace.  And if you’re anything at all like me, you feel as though it is going to roll right over you.  Like it’s a train and you’ve stalled on the tracks, and you know it’s coming and usually that’s a good thing, at least in the past it has always been a good thing, and you can still find it in you to hope that it is a good thing that’s coming at you like a South Korean bullet train.  But even a good thing hitting you at two hundred miles per hour is going to hurt.

Advent is all about getting ready.  No, check that, Advent is all about being ready.  But we’re not.  Are we?  No, no way.  Ready for what? Umm, now that’s a poser.  What exactly are we supposed to be ready for?  Because most of the things that are rolling my direction this holiday season aren’t things I would have chosen to be ready for.  Frankly, most things that are rolling in most people’s direction aren’t things they would have chosen.  Am I right?  We’ve all had plans, we’ve all had dreams, and suddenly things take a turn.

You’ve been on those curves, haven’t you?  The road bends in unexpected directions.  As if there was a detour, road construction, bridge out.  Right?  What could be worse than an interruption on your journey?  A roadblock to your destination?  Well, how about a disturbance that comes to meet you where you live?  How about an angel in your living room?  Huh?  How about that?  Right Mary?

Luke 1:26-38   In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,  27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary.  28 And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you."  29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.  30 The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."  34 Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"  35 The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.  36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.  37 For nothing will be impossible with God."  38 Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her. 

One biblical commentator wondered just in how many living rooms did Gabriel have to make an appearance before he found one who said yes?  Never thought of it that way before.  I mean we assume God knew who was going to say yes.  That it was all worked out, a no brainer, a slam dunk, God had it in the bag before Gabriel ever set out.  But if that’s true, then Mary’s response is somewhat diminished, isn’t it?  If there wasn’t at least the possibility that she would say no, then her yes doesn’t count for much.  And for centuries the Church has celebrated Mary’s yes.

She’s the model for what it means to be a follower.  She shows us what surrendering to God is all about.  She is the quintessential disciple of the one she is about to give birth to, if that doesn’t mess with your head a little bit.  But it wasn’t an easy yes.  It wasn’t just a “sure, whatever you say” kind of thing.  It was startling, it was an angel in the living room, for heaven’s sake!

Luke, in his usual understated style, says that she was much perplexed.  Not just perplexed, but much perplexed.  I’m not all that sure that perplexed would cover it if I had such an annunciation.  Perplexed is what happens when you don’t know what your next move in chess ought to be.  Not when an angel is standing in your living room asking to take over your life.  She was much perplexed.  

And wondered at what sort of greeting this might be.  Like she looked over her shoulder in case the angel was talking to her mom or something.  Surely, this word wasn’t for her.  Hail favored one.  She couldn’t be favored.  She was just ... Mary.  A kid.  A young woman giddy at her engagement.  The Lord is with you.  Really?  With me?  The Lord doesn’t have more important things to do?  More important places to go?  More important people to see?  What sort of greeting was it?  Was it for her or someone else?  Well, yes.

It was for her and for someone else.  Or rather it was for the someone else she was being called to be.  See, that’s what sort of greeting this was, a life changing one.  A nothing will ever be the same again kind of greeting.  She was asked to give birth to the Kingdom through her own flesh and blood, through her own sweat and tears.  She was invited to have faith in something beyond her understanding.  She wasn’t given a whole lot of information.  Oh, she asked - How can this be - I’m not qualified, I don’t have the credentials, I don’t have the experience, I don’t know what in the world I am doing.  How can this be?  And you can’t help but feel that Gabriel was embarrassed by the question.  His answer is specific but lacking in detail.  It is a declaration of faith and not a gynecological arrangement.  He basically says, God’s got it covered.  You can trust in that.  Nothing, and when I say nothing I mean to include such outlandish things as this rather messy incarnation business, but nothing is impossible with God.  

Which apparently is enough. Because the next thing that happens is Mary says yes.  Without any more to go on than that, she says yes.  Without a blueprint or signed contract, without an escape clause or planned compensation, she says yes.  To the inconvenience of making God real enough to touch.  To the imposition of surrendering her peace of mind, her quiet, cozy and hard but comfortable life.  To the disruption of her plans and preferences, the way she had imagined her life might go.  She said yes.  And the angel left.

And she wondered, had to wonder, did she imagine it all?  Was it really going to happen?  So she ran to cousin Elizabeth’s house.  That’s what happens next.  She hightails it out of town.  But not to run away from her yes.  At least not completely.  She went to see the other one who got an angel, although Elizabeth’s angel was a second hand angel.  Still it was unsettling enough.  That’s what they do, these angels in the living room.  They’re like a force of nature, beautiful and awesome but they leave a mess behind them.

So, how do you deal with the mess from an angel in the living room?  When we launched the year long fruit of the Spirit study, I thought it was ironic that during Advent and Christmas we end the study with the last on Paul’s list: self-control.  Sorely needed in this over merchandised season of excess, self-control.  And yet, self-control seems an odd summation to a list of attributes that are given like gifts.  The fruit of the Spirit is the result of God’s activity within us, not the efforts of our own wills.  We can’t generate more love and joy and peace, all we have is what comes to us from God.  We can’t create patience and kindness and goodness, it has to be placed within us by a loving Parent.  We can’t even make ourselves more faithful it has to be given as a gift.  We can’t choose to be gentle if the Spirit doesn’t act gently with us.  So, how in the world do we expect to have any hope of self-control?  The name itself seems wrong.  Self -control.

Some argue that Paul put self-control at the end of the list as the ultimate irony of faith.  A life in the Spirit, he seems to be saying, is a life that best fulfills the self.  But it fulfills the self by giving the self away.  The self is controlled because the self is found in the other, in God and in neighbor.  Self is found in service.  Self is found in sacrifice.  Self is found in the surrender of self.

It’s such a complicated idea, running against every natural impulse within us, that it takes something dramatic to make us grasp the concept.  Or maybe not even grasp the concept, not even understand, but to say yes to this life of faith that brings hope to a whole world, through ordinary folks like Mary, like us.  It takes a power beyond us.  It takes a faith given to us like a gift at Christmas.  It takes nothing less than an angel in our living room.


Saturday, December 6, 2014

Answers to Forgotten Prayers

I have to run to Tennessee next week.  No specific crisis, just the general ones.  The on-going ones that come with caring for parents long distance.  Mom’s dementia progresses and now she has some severe arthritis that causes her pain with every movement and we are unable to explain or relieve that pain in a way that makes sense to her.  And dad who loves her in his way thinks he can give better care than the professionals we have chosen to place her with and he threatens to take her home and care for himself.  And we keep trying to talk him down from that cliff edge.  I just need to be there.  And I’m not quite sure why.

Someone asked me when I said I was going “What do you hope to accomplish?”  That stumped me.  So much so that I almost decided not to go.  There is nothing to accomplish.  There is nothing I can do to change the situation, it is what it is.  There is nothing I can do to change minds, mom’s is in some ways lost to us and to her and has become a new thing we are still trying to understand.  And dad’s ... well ... dad’s mind gives mules a bad name.  It is intractable like the proverbial donkey, unassailable like a high wall of certainty without cracks or handholds, impenetrable like ... well like the coffee table leg you stub your toe on in the middle of the night because you didn’t bother to turn on a light in order to properly navigate the room because the dog won’t shut up.  Yeah, like that.  So, nothing is the answer.  

I’m going to accomplish nothing.  Because there is nothing to accomplish.  Just things to manage, or observe.  It is a maintenance visit.  A going through the motions, doing one’s duty, making an appearance and performing the rituals with a crushing lack of expectation but an overwhelming sense of responsibility.  Just do it.

Right Zechariah?  That about sum it up?  Have I got the picture, grasped the mindset?  Am I there with you in the Holy of Holies?  How one can pass through that curtain with a sig of resignation instead of a gasp of wonder not to mention the requisite fear and trembling, I just don’t know.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s remind ourselves of Zechariah’s story, shall we?

Luke 1:5-23  In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.  6 Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.  7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.  8 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty,  9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense.  10 Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside.  11 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.  12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.  13 But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.  14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth,  15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.  16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.  17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."  18 Zechariah said to the angel, "How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years."  19 The angel replied, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.  20 But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur."  21 Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary.  22 When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak.  23 When his time of service was ended, he went to his home. 

Sorry, long story.  And we aren’t done yet.  But that’s enough for now.  Zechariah found what he forgot he was looking for and almost killed him.  That’s the summation of this story.  I know I’m reading into the story, but when Luke tells us Zechariah entered the sanctuary while the people waited outside, there is no emotion until he sees what he didn’t expect to see.  That angelic appearance terrified him, overwhelmed him.  Not being in the Presence of the almighty God.  It was old hat, it was routine, until it wasn’t.  And he almost fell over.  Poor Zechariah, a preacher who saw someone’s life being changed because of a word spoken, a pastor who watched salvation happen in a soul thought lost for sure, a chaplain visiting a patient not long for the world who proceeds to get up and walk out of the hospital on two strong legs.  It just doesn’t happen.  You don’t go into the Holy of Holies expecting to encounter God do you?

Well, you should.  We should.  We should ease our way into the sanctuary as though we were passing through rows of highly volatile explosives, we should bow our heads as though we had a little inkling of the power we were invoking, a little trepidation that the soul we bring tucked away in the confidence of our beings just might get flash fried by the transforming power of the Spirit.  We might walk out of worship limping because the wrestling match with God put our hip, our self-image, our same old same old approach to faith out of joint.  This just might be the time when you are struck blind by the blazing appearing of the Risen Christ and knocked off your horse and sent on a mission to the gentiles in foreign lands, or the next cubicle, or next door.  Or this might be the day your prayer is answered.

Yeah, that prayer.  The one you stopped praying years ago because it hurt so much.  The one you’ve become convinced could never be, will never be.  The one you don’t even know how to pray anymore.  And have pushed so far into the back of your mind that it is like it isn’t there anymore.  That prayer, answered by an angel standing next to the altar of God.

You wouldn’t do any better than Zechariah.  Forget it, he snapped, at an archangel no less.  Ain’t gonna happen.  I’m too old, she’s too broken down, we don’t have the energy or the wherewithal or the equipment to handle a baby.  Forget it, Gabe, can I call you Gabe?  Where were you twenty years ago, forty years ago, for God’s sake - excuse my French.  We needed it then, we needed an end to the disparaging looks - a priest of God who cannot even produce a child, what good is he.  She needed an end to the ache she carried every day of her life.  But now we;ve learned to live with it.  Forget it, it ain’t gonna happen.

Shut up preacher.  Admit it, you’ve wanted to say that a time or two.  Shut up, because you didn’t know how to receive a gift when it came.  Because you didn’t know how to claim the faith when it fell into your lap.  Because you gave up waiting on God because the waiting seemed too long to you, but was just right for the purposes of God.  Then you can just shut up.  Believe me there is no worse punishment for a preacher than to have to shut up, and for nine months no less.  

The angel said, your prayer has been heard.  I wonder when the last time he prayed that prayer was.  He was an old man, surely he stopped the prayer when it no longer made any human sense to keep praying it.  Maybe he forgot the hole in his heart and was trying his best to learn to live with it.  Maybe the brave face he put on became the only face he knew and he forgot his prayer.  A prayer for a son, which in those days was a prayer for eternity.  Eternal life was lived through offspring.  No children, no continuation, no life that goes on.  But Zechariah forgot his prayer.  

But God answers forgotten prayers.  Maybe not when we want them.  Maybe not in the way we would prefer them.  But God answers forgotten prayers.  Just ask Zechariah.  

I don’t know what I’m going to accomplish.  I don’t know what to pray for as I drive the eight hour trip to Paris Tennessee.  I’ve forgotten how to pray in this situation.  But I’m going.  And maybe there’ll be an angel at the end of the journey.


Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Indescribable Gift

The Christmas ads have been running for some time now.  You’ve seen them.  You’ve heard them.  You’re already tired of them.  How does that happen?  How does something as exciting as Christmas - and take that on whatever level you want to take it: cultural, religious, theological, family, ritual and tradition, deep meaning and wondrous beauty, lump in the throat producing, tear in the eye provoking, whatever - but how does something as exciting as Christmas become boring?  Become tedious?  Become “not again!”?

I’ll tell you. Because all that stuff, all those ads aren’t really about Christmas.  They’re about gifts and about giving.  Which is good stuff!  Don’t get me wrong.  I love gifts.  Getting them, certainly (anyone who wants my list, I’ll give it to you!).  But mostly giving them.  I love finding, buying, procuring, making gifts to give to people I love.  I just do. And who could get tired of that?  The giving and receiving of gifts, signs of love and acceptance and being claimed and welcomed.  You don’t have to spend a lot of money to give gifts.  But for them to really do the task intended you have to spend a lot of love.

But, the question for this bible study is this: Have I ever given an indescribable gift?  Or received one?  Now, let’s define terms here.  There have been those occasions when the gift I have given my wife, for example, elicit a raised eyebrow or a puzzled demeanor; a sound of uncertainty or expression of incredulity.  As in “what in the world were you thinking?”  Let’s be clear, it wasn’t indescribable in the strictest sense.  Because this expression was quickly followed by a string of description.  Which, come to think about it, might have been more about the giver than the gift.  But still, hardly indescribable.

What is an indescribable gift?  Why bring it up?  Why set the bar so high that we can’t ever achieve it?  Because that is what it sounds like is going on.  Who in the world trades in indescribable gifts?  Well, Paul says God does.

2 Corinthians 9:6-15  The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.  7 Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.  8 And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.  9 As it is written, "He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever."  10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.  11 You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us;  12 for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.  13 Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others,  14 while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you.  15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! 

The point is this.  Trust Paul to get to the point.  And then trust him to circle around and around it, turn it into a series of metaphors and images, make allusions and then find likes and opposites, and finally throw up his hands and sing a song about it, a song that turns out to be a song of praise to God.  Cause, you know, that how he deals with stuff.  Important stuff.  Faith centering stuff.  Like God and Faith and Law and Grace and Eternity and Obedience and Money.  Wait, what?  Money?  A Faith centering item?  Well, yes, Paul thought so.  And was quite serious about it.  He talks about giving in these verses.  (In case you aren’t from the Aldersgate Camp, we are concluding our brief stewardship drive with a pledge Sunday here on Thanksgiving week.)  He talks about giving abundantly, sacrificially, giving in a way that we notice it.  And he talks about our attitude while giving.  Give with willingness, give with joy, give - he even seems to imply - with laughter.  I know, a bit odd that Paul.  But still, it sounds exciting, it sounds powerful.  It sounds like something we just might want to be a part of.
Especially when he points out the receipts.  Yeah, this is not giving for nothing.  This is about investment and expecting a return.  “You will be enriched in every way.”  Well, we think, really?  In every way?  Surely he meant in good ways.  Surely he meant you will be enriched in every way that matters.  Some sort of proviso, some sort of escape clause.  Otherwise we fall into the hands of those guys who turn God into a divine slot machine, put a little in and bells and lights go off and we get a lot out.  And if the payoff didn’t come this time, put in a little bit more and then do an attitude check.  Payoff is coming.  Surely he didn’t mean that, we think.

And we’d be right.  He didn’t mean that.  But we don’t need to change the words to fit us better.  Instead we change ourselves to fit the words.  Which is always the case, by the way.  We want to shape God’s words to fit us where we are, but our real goal is to shape our lives to fit the Word.  We become givers, we become generous, we learn about sacrifice when God takes over our lives and we walk by the Word, we live by the Spirit, and then we know we are rich.  Because we have received all that our hearts desire.  All.  All that our hearts desire.  We are enriched.  What could be more that all?  All that our hearts desire?  What could that be?  That all, that gift?  That indescribable all?

I’m off to another funeral today.  There seems to have been a run on weekend funerals, and all of them have taken a little bit of me with them.  First was Gaynell Shady, we had her funeral on Friday the 7th.  I remember saying in the service that Gaynell was one of those we never thought would die.  She was just always here, a fixture to the structure of Aldersgate.  Even when she wasn’t able to attend much, she was a presence for so many people.  We were shocked by her death, even given her age and general health.  

Then last week was Claude.  Claude Sparks and we were shocked and surprised by a relatively young and vital man of faith, who managed to turn his life around and be an example of what is meant to walk with Jesus in every aspect - every aspect - of his life.  He was a stalwart supporter of the Genesis service and change and growth at his church, even when it wasn’t something he longed for.  He was behind us and then stepped up to help lead us, by serving, by giving, by loving and supporting.  He was one of my best friends and supporters of my ministry here and I miss him desperately.

This weekend is Linda Terrel, who most of you reading this won’t know.  Linda was a long time participant of the Choir School community that I have been a part of for almost twenty years.  But she was there long before me.  Linda was the one for whom the word irascible was invented.  She could fly off the handle at what seemed to many a slight provocation.  She was sometimes hard to be around, a bit bristly, some might even say grumpy.  But if you stuck it out, what you’d find was an immense talent and a passion for her art that is unrivaled these days. A passion that drove her to rub people the wrong way, but it was always because she cared so doggone much.  She was diagnosed with cancer of various kinds only a couple of months ago.  She was a member of the Choir School Board and made it to the retreat I helped lead last month.  She was frail and shaky and weary, but was still irrepressibly Linda.  And what she was was a gift, an indescribable gift to the communities in which she was a part.  

We are all so blessed by people in our lives who are gifts beyond description.  When Paul concludes his message on giving, he says that no matter what is in our hearts to give, we’ve already been given more.  We can’t out give God.  Because God has given us so much, so many, resources, yes, but more than that love.  People who love us whether we are worthy of it or not.  People who challenge us, who stretch us, and who shape us sometimes against our will, into what are yet becoming.  

This week at Aldersgate we will bring our pledges to the table, being proud to be able to give, I hope, but also humble enough to know whatever we intend to give in 2015, it does not repay what has been given to us.  And to even describe what we’ve been given escapes us.  Our lives are full of indescribable gifts.  Thanks be to God.


Saturday, November 15, 2014

Complete Joy

An unusual thing is happening this weekend.  I’m not preaching.  I know that that is not that unusual.  Is that too many thats?  And it’s not Pastor Chris, my associate pastor who is the one preaching tomorrow.  That would different, but not unusual.

No, we began some time ago by looking at some Stewardship Campaign materials.  While we didn’t use the materials we read, we stole one idea.  It was suggested that maybe folks need to hear a different voice call them to be good stewards.  So, I asked some of the leadership whether they thought a guest preacher would be a good idea.  They jumped at it.  A little too eagerly, to be brutally honest.  But I’m not wounded by it, honest.  Much.  

Anyway the next question was did they have any suggestions as to who we might ask to be that guest speaker?  They didn’t hesitate a second before someone said “Let’s ask Brian.” There was general agreement and enthusiasm for that idea. So I asked and he said yes.  So a guest speaker tomorrow and who knows what he will say?

Brian, for those who might not know, is the Rev. Dr. Brian J. Witwer, the previous Lead Pastor here at Aldersgate.  So, you could wonder whether he qualifies as a “guest” speaker, but I’m not splitting hairs.  I know the congregation that he led for 23 years will enjoy hearing him again.  

So, I asked him to speak on stewardship, in anticipation of our pledge Sunday next week.  And I let him choose his text.  And this is what he chose.

John 15:1-11  "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. 

Not your usual “widow’s mite” or “Sell all you have and give to the poor.”  Not the prophetic “bring the full tithe into the storehouse ... and see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down an overflowing blessing.”  

Instead we get a vine and branches, we get pruning and withering, we get abiding and fruit producing.  And we get joy.  Keep my commands, Jesus tells us, that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.  Now that we could use, eh?  Who couldn’t embrace a little more joy?  Who would pass up an attempt to be complete?  And what is complete joy anyway?  

I don’t know.  Not for sure.  Oh, there are moments when I think that maybe I’m close to it.  When you feel so filled up, when laughter bubbles up from who knows where, when contentment just comes and sits in your soul and you know that all is right, for the moment if not longer.  But a moment is pretty good.  Something to celebrate.  Complete joy, maybe it is sitting in the presence of someone with whom words don’t matter all that much.  Sitting in silence isn’t awkward, but instead is full of life and love and hope.  Complete joy.

You can’t buy it.  Despite advertisers tell you that you can.  Despite the empty promise that this item or that practice or the other vacation spot will give you complete joy.  Because they don’t.  We’ve tried, haven’t we?  Over and over we’ve tried.  Maybe this time, we fool ourselves into thinking.  But it doesn’t, and we aren’t surprised really.  But we just don’t know what will give us that sense of complete joy.  

Jesus does.  He knows, and he tells us.  Stay connected. You can’t bear fruit, he says, unless you stay connected.  Just like a branch can’t produce anything if it is lying on the ground, so you can’t produce fruit all on your own.  You need the resourcing, you need the empowering, you need the support and vision and compassion and the love of the one who helps you produce fruit.  So, that’s how it’s done.  Stay connected.

“Wait a minute, you pulled a fast one on us there,” you are thinking.  “You were talking about complete joy and then did a little sleight of hand and started talking about producing fruit.  Now those aren’t the same thing.  Everyone knows that!”  Are they?  Well of course not.  No, producing fruit is about effort, about service, about touching lives and making a difference, producing fruit is about living a life that matters and not just for you but for those around you, producing fruit is about making the world a better place, more light, more salt, more hope.  Whereas complete joy is ... about ... all those things too.  Don’t you think?

A phrase like that, like complete joy, sometimes sounds internal, like a state of mind or condition of heart.  It sounds like it doesn’t have anything to do with doing, its all about being.  Except our being is defined by doing.  Our sense of self and our inner contentment can rarely be defined in isolation from the community that shapes us and the interactions that occur between us.  

So yeah, producing fruit and complete joy are of the same essence, partners, dance partners let’s say.  When we are connected to the vine that is our Lord, then we dance, with service and with hope, with action and with joy.  We dance with one another and with the One who brought us and bought us, the one who loves us and rejoices in us and with us.  Dance partners, producing fruit and complete joy.

But what about stewardship?  What does all this have to do with stewardship?  Well, I don’t know for sure.  I’m anxious to hear what Brian does with it.  But I do know this when we live in right relationship with our Lord, then we are in right relationship with everything in our lives.  The people, certainly, but also the stuff, the resources and the goods.  None of it is about keeping, but about sharing.  None of it is about me, it is about us.  It is about investing not just in our future, but the future of those who aren’t even born yet and will stand where we now stand and worship as we now worship.  It is about legacy and loving. 

Stewardship is about tending to what we’ve been given.  About giving back.  About building up the body, the body of Christ, the community of faith.  It is about saying thanks for what we’ve been blessed to receive by giving to the church that helps us grow.  Which means that it is about joy.  Always about joy.  We give to our joys because of our joy and we give joyfully.  Complete joy.

He tells us these things in order that his joy - His joy - might help make our joy complete.  May the joy of Christ dwell in you.  Completely.


Saturday, November 8, 2014

If We Live

 Charge Conference.  Two words that send chills down the spine of clergy and laity alike within the tribe called United Methodist.  This Annual General Meeting.  Think end of year reports.  Think justify your existence to an institution who only remembers you exist when it comes to whether you are paying your fair share or not.  Charge Conference.

I know, I’m being a bit melodramatic.  (A bit?, some say with a soupcon of incredulity.)   It is that uniquely United Methodist institutional dance that defines us as ... weird?  No.  I’m sure other denominations engage in the same sort of fol-de-rol.  But this is ours.  And actually what happens during the official Charge Conference is, for me at least, less important than the concept behind it.  Like so many things, we have taken Charge Conference and turned it into something that services the institution rather than the Kingdom of God.  We continue to hope that the churches behind the Charge Conference hoop jumping exercise are focused on the Kingdom, but we won’t know that - usually - from Charge Conference.

But behind it is something significant, I believe.  First of all “Charge” is the official designation of the basic unit of United Methodism.  Usually “Charge” equals “Church.”  But sometimes more than one church comes to make up a charge.  Thus we have things like a “two-point charge” - meaning two churches come together to make one charge.  So, for all intents and purposes, the most important and official meeting of the year is when the local church comes together to declare that they exist and are keeping faith with the larger body and are staying true to the charter, the discipline of the United Methodist Church.  It ought to be a celebration.  It ought to be a party, but we’ve turned it into a business meeting.  Sigh.  OK, I understand a need to get business done.  I understand dotting i’s and crossing t’s - though a more than casual reader of these weekly shouts into the darkness would have cause to wonder about my attention to grammatical detail.  Still, the point is, I know that we are an institution that there are certain things we have to do to maintain that institution.  But the focus should be elsewhere.  Institutional maintenance should be done behind closed doors, not to hide it, but to minimize it.  What is significant is the body, the community, the family that we are to become. And are becoming.  Let’s celebrate that.  How?  Well, by conferencing.

A Charge Conference is when the Charge (church) come together to Conference.  Conference has become synonymous with meeting.  With power point boredom and vision casting into our five year plan for strategizing our mission and purpose statement. With droning reports on the minutia of daily responsibilities.  But that isn’t what Wesley had in mind when he drew up the structures of the Methodist movement within the church of England.  The movement was to revitalize the church, to bring life back into what had become in many places a shell of outward observance with no heart or soul or purpose for individuals or the community.  He wouldn’t have done that by layering more institutional rigamarole on top of an already top heavy church that was drifting farther and farther from the people in the parish, living often literally at the door step of the church building.

So, Wesley came up with the idea of conferencing.  Conferencing is more about the people than it is about the system.  It is more about the state of souls than it is about the state of the church.  If there are numbers reported it is numbers of contacts, numbers of souls won, numbers of sermons preached and numbers of times communion was served and received.  It was about the life blood of the community.  And the conference structure was written around a series of questions designed to get people to engage.  To participate.  To feel a part of the body.  To know that this is a group of people who have your back.  And care about your journey.  And want you to deepen your faith.  And  be led by the Spirit.  That’s not the kind of thing that normally comes out of Charge Conference these days, but I believe it was what was intended.  
Kind of like what Paul described in these few verses from Galatians.

Galatians 5:25 - 6:2  If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.  26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another. NRS Galatians 6:1 My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted.  2 Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 

The first thing to remember is that Paul didn’t put numbers in the text of his letters.  Those were added much later by guys who weren’t always paying attention, or so it seems to me.  These verses are in two different chapters as you can see.  And every other bible scholar puts them in different texts.  But I see a flow here that connects them.  And it is the flow of the community as it lives the life of the Spirit.  

These are the verses that immediately follow the listing of the fruit of the Spirit.  The text with which we at Aldersgate have become almost too familiar.  But even though we notice that the different aspect of the fruit of the Spirit are relational, we still tend to think of them as individual.  In other words we view the call to display these dimensions of love - as in love that is joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled - as something for each of us.  And I don’t want to dispute that.  But I would suggest that perhaps Paul was suggesting that we display this multi-dimensional love as a community as well.  That gives us scope to focus on areas of strength and giftedness.  

To say, for example, that I can demonstrate the gentle love of the Spirit more effectively than I can the joyful love, is to talk about spiritual gifts and not just personality traits.  The ability to work in the life of the church in certain dimensions and with certain emphases is a part of giftedness.  And we want to follow those gifts, we want to live out that presence.  So, Paul claims, if we want to live by the Spirit, let us be guided by the Spirit.  Let the Spirit choose how we will function as a community and as individuals.  Let’s not assume, for example, that we all have to do the same thing, have the same demeanor as we go about fulfilling the same task which is making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  

We are in this together, says Paul.  We are on the same side.  All this fighting about who has it right, about which method of baptism or communion is more biblically correct, about what style of worship we engage in, is all about conceit, about envy, about competition.  But, aren’t we in competition with the church down the road?  Well, no, not really.  There are more than enough folks who haven’t yet been convinced of the value of belonging to a community of faith that we don’t need to do a better show than the church on the other corner.  

OK, so how do we do that?  How do we impact the lives of those who don’t think they should bother?  There are two important ideas in the first two verses of chapter six that seem to answer that question.  They say in essence that we ought to stand for something, and that we ought to be a place of acceptance and support.  

But, aren’t those mutually exclusive?  If we take a hard line then we can’t accept those who disagree, right?  Or if we want to be accepting of everyone then we can’t take positions, can we?  It’s a false divide, I believe.  Paul talks about restoration in a spirit of gentleness.  That should be our mode as a community of faith.  Restoration means investment in the other.  It means that we don’t wash our hands of those who fall.  It also means that we don’t turn up our noses at the sin that caused them to fall.  We bear those burdens as though we were Christ Himself.  When Jesus said he came to fulfill the law, he meant that he was willing to give his life, he was willing to sacrifice himself for the world he came to save out of love.  So we give of ourselves to any and to all who need us.

If we live by the Spirit, we will love like Jesus.  We conference, we the church, the charge engage the world and love like Jesus.


Saturday, November 1, 2014

Rejoice and Be Glad

I’m back.  I know most of you didn’t realize I was gone.  And I’m not just referring to those of you who aren’t a part of the Aldersgate Community, because I know that there are those who are active at my church who didn’t realize I had left.  I was there last Sunday and will be there this Sunday, so therefore, I wasn’t gone.  You know, I only work one day a week anyway.  At least for many folks in the life of the church.

But, my wife knows I was gone, she had to walk the dogs every day.  My office staff knows I was gone, there were questions others had to answer.  The participants in the bible studies I teach knew I was gone, one didn’t meet and the other did without me.   Others knew, many didn’t.  But I was gone for almost a whole week.  Working.

Yeah, I know.  But I was.  Relaxing and working.  Praying and listening.  Planning and dreaming.  This was my annual planning retreat to set the themes and texts for worship in the next year.  So I read and thought, and I walked and I asked God what was the Word for God’s people in 2015.  Which means it was my priest retreat.

Don’t panic, I’m not converting.  I’m just claiming one of the roles that is given to anyone in the position that I have.  We talk a lot about the pastoral role of my job.  It is often the most obvious, the caring for people, the meeting them in their moment of need - both crisis and joy.  I preside over weddings and funerals, I spend time in hospitals and darkened rooms with machinery counting down final seconds or rooms of welcoming new life and new hope.  I walk with people through decisions and choices, successes and failures, healing and brokenness.  The pastoral role is a humbling one to say the least.

It is, however, a human sized humility.  Whereas the priestly function is another order all together.  Another level.  The priest is the go-between, the intermediary.  The priest stands between God and the people and attempts to get them to communicate, to know each other more deeply.  There is an element of the coach in the priestly function, the encourager, you can do it, you can embrace God, you can know God, let me show you just how real God is, just how present.  The tour guide, the docent, I want to point out where God has impacted God’s people throughout history, but also where God is still at work among us.  Let me show you the light that surrounds you.  Let me show you the Spirit that embraces you, the love that enfolds you.  What drives me, haunts me, compels me is the desire to bring God to the people in my care.  No, that’s not right.  I don’t, can’t bring God.  God is already there.  Already at work, already present.  My job is to point out God to people too busy to stop and look, too distracted to pay attention, too full to recognize any sense of emptiness, too wounded to raise their vision, too afraid to encounter God who has been misrepresented to them for years, too skeptical to let belief take root within them and change everything they think about themselves and the world around them.

And if that wasn’t enough, I also am audacious enough to want to bring this people before God.  Not because hasn’t been paying attention.  Not because God needs to be woken up to our particular needs or joys or hurts.  Not because God needs to be convinced we are worthy of the divine attention.  No, I desire to bring the people to God because I know God wants them to come.  Because I know that God will receive them with joy and will soothe their hurts and wipe away every tear, God will laugh with them and celebrate with them.  God will bless them if I can bring them.  You.  God will bless you if I can bring you.  

So, week by week that is what I hope to do.  I try tell my stories and weave my words in such a way that you might be enabled to wake up to God’s presence in your life.  To usher you into the loving, transforming presence.  Not that you can’t do it on your own, because you can.  But sometimes we need someone to take our hand and walk with us, even to a familiar place.
To do that, I need to know you.  To know your heart, to know your dreams, to know your wounds and scars, your successes and failures.  Which isn’t easy. Luckily I my knowledge of you isn’t reliant on just my own observations, but it also comes from the one who knows you best.  Knows you and calls you blessed.

Matthew 5:1-12  When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.  2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:  3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  4 "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  5 "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  6 "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  7 "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.  8 "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  9 "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  10 "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  11 "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 

Have you ever heard a song and thought that songwriter knows me too well?  Or watched a movie and thought they were reading from the script of your life? Or read a book and felt that strange sense of deja vu?  Like you were looking in the mirror?

When you look at the mirror called the beatitudes do you see yourself?  Maybe not in all of them, but in some of them?  Maybe in one of them, the one that defines your whole existence right now.  The one that defines you in ways that surprise you.  This is you.  This is us.

There are some of us, or all of us some times, who need the gospel desperately.  We need to hear the good news, that there is comfort in the midst of pain and sorrow, that there is fulfillment for those who are so empty they echo in their souls.  And the promise is yes!  Yes there is hope, yes there is comfort, yes there is home and room for you.  Yes.  That’s the word for those who live in a seemingly endless No.  Yes, says the God who loves you more than life itself.  Loves you into eternity.

Then there are those of us who are already claiming the yes for ourselves and are now looking for ways to share it with others.  Those whose gentleness causes them to pour themselves out for others, those who seek to end injustice, to right the wrongs that we have become accustomed to, who offer forgiveness and grace like cold cups of water on hot days (or steaming cups of chocolate on cold days - when did winter get here?).  There are those whose lives are a beacon of light and without even seeming to lead they are leading us, without even seeming to correct they transform us into more than we thought we could be.  There are those who work to heal what was broken, to mend the fences and build the bridges.  The word for all of these is Yes!  Your efforts are not in vain, your labors are not unnoticed.  Yes, you are working alongside the one who claims you, who knows you, who welcomes you into the divine presence.

I’m back from spending time thinking about this thing we do week after week.  From thinking about the words to say to give us a sense of the Word and the Presence, the love and the life abundant.  I’m back from standing on a high mountain to see if I could into the promised land, or at least a little bit the journey that might take us there.

I’m back and ready to go.  To burst forth in worship and song.  Rejoice and be glad, not because everything is the way we want it, but because we are on the way to wholeness, we are on the way to redemption, we are on the way home.  

Rejoice and be glad.  


Saturday, October 25, 2014

Whatever You Do

What a day.  I’m in between things at the moment.  Waiting for the next thing.  But not waiting, filling the time.  Using the time.  We had men’s group this morning - way, way too early, frankly.  But these guys like it.  A small group of men who gather to share and listen and know each other a little bit more.  To have the sense that they are not alone in the universe.  I guess early morning is a good time for that.  

Then I have a funeral this afternoon.  A special woman, a part of the life of the church, fought cancer for a while, finally won.  Yeah, I said won.  By holding fast to her faith into eternity, I think she has won what most of us long for and pray for.  I have finished the race, I have kept the faith, wrote St. Paul.  So, a celebration this afternoon, sad to be sure, sad for us who remain, who still run, who still fight, but a celebration nonetheless.

Then a few hours later, I turn back a few pages in the United Methodist Ritual book and perform a wedding.  It has always fascinated me that the wedding and the funeral services sit side by side in my little book. Something theological about that.  But I won’t go into it now.  Maybe someday.  Certainly Emily and Marco wouldn’t want a reflection on mortality this afternoon.  They are thinking about eternity.  They are thinking about love as an act of will, of life together, of hope and joy and facing the future hand in hand, which is the only way any of us can face the future.  Holding on.  To someone, to everyone, to the One who made us and the One who saves us and the One who sustains us.  It is always better to go forward holding on, and not only to God.  There are those around us who sustain us, who save us.  There is a community, there are covenants made that make us who we are.  So we go into the unknown confident in love, confident in hope, even when the way is clouded, even when the hands by which we hold on are numb and uncertain.  We go on because of those who sustain us even when we don’t know it, or forget it, or take it for granted, or even try to deny it.  But they are there, sustaining, praying, loving us.  So we go on.

Woven into this busy day is a marker that startles me.  My son, Rhys, who I sometimes still see as the sleepy eyed but curious tiny little bundle I received into my arms at Chicago O”Hare Airport, turns 21 today.  Twenty-one!  How in the world did that happen?  Must be one of those time warp things we read about in the science fiction novels.  That’s the only explanation.  Otherwise it would mean admitting that I’m ... well, old.

In between all these things is my usual preparation for Sunday morning.  Which is always both a physical and a spiritual process.  Reading and writing, planning and organizing.  But also praying and meditating, listening and wanting.  Being present in this moment, in preparation for another moment, a worship moment the next day.  Alive to the Spirit as much as I can be.  Alive to the world in which the Spirit works and the community the Spirit shapes.  
So...what a day!  

Actually, its not a day, it’s a week.  It’s a month.  It’s a life, might as well admit it.  It’s not just today, it’s every day.  It’s not just me it’s you as well.  We are all of us engaged in days like this; overwhelming days, head-spinning days, troubling days, exciting days.  There are days we want to hold on to forever and days we want to see the back of as soon as possible, days we hope we never forget and days we don’t want to remember.  Our lives are made up of days that make us wish for the boring, mundane, make no demand, just kind of drift along days that seem too few and far between.

So, what does our faith say we should do on those days?  What does Jesus require of us on such days?  What actions and what choices?  What demons do we exorcize and what angels do we heed?  
Actually, I’m beginning to suspect that maybe it isn’t so much the what, but the how that really matters.  Don’t shoot me. I don’t mean, as some do, that there is no such thing as sin.  Yes, there are always right things and wrong things to do.  But I think when walking through this life, the wake we leave has less to do with the specific actions and more to do with the attitude we bring to those actions.  The how seems to make more of an impact than the what.  At least that’s what it seems to me Paul is saying in our text for this week.

Colossians 3:12-17   12 As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.  14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.  16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.  17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. 

Clothe yourselves, writes Paul.  Wrap yourselves in these things.  Put on.  He writes a lot about the discipline of making sure you are properly attired as a follower of Christ. You could argue, I suppose, that the list that he provides for us here is about doing, about actions.  But I would argue that it is more about attitude.  Take look at the words - compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.  And then once he states them, lays them out for us, he then describes them again.  Bear with one another, forgive one another, get over stuff, let it go.

Then comes the outer garment.  Clothe yourself with love.  No wait, “above all, clothe yourself with love.”  Above all.  The crown, the cap, the overcoat, the fur wrap, the orange jumpsuit, the helmet that you lead with, the walker that you ambulate with, the steel toed boots you work with, above all lead with love.  A new commandment I give to you, love one another as I have loved you.  He said that, Jesus.  On his way out the door.  Before climbing the hill and hoisting himself on the cross.  Love one another.  As I have loved.  Above all.

So, whatever you do.  Love is an act, certainly, but more than that it is an approach.  It is an attitude.  It is a way of being in the world.  It is a uniform that we wear.  See how those Christians love one another.  That’s what folks are supposed to say about us.  Not see how judgmental, not see how closed minded, not see how hard-hearted.  But see how they love.

Whatever you do.  Whatever.  Not just the big stuff.  Not just the planned and organized and mission and outreach stuff.  But whatever you do.  Not just the happy or sad ritual stuff, the weddings and funerals, the small group gatherings and the monumental birthday celebrations.  But whatever.

Great word “whatever.”  It can have all sorts of attitude if you want it to.  My daughter Maddie can whatever with the best of them.  Rhys does it with a sigh, La Donna with a raise eyebrow.  Whatever.  But when Paul says it here in Colossians it feels different.  It doesn’t feel like a dismissal or a reprimand.  No, it feels like an invitation.  Like an opportunity.  The door has been flung wide open.  You don’t have to wonder if this little thing would matter all that much in the greater scheme of things.  “Whatever” gives you permission to do it in love.  You don’t have to feel as though your little moment won’t amount to anything in the face of a difficult moment.  “Whatever” says that your love is just as transforming as anyone’s.  It’s an invitation.  To love.  Or, as Paul says, to sing.  Join in the song of loving.  The song of praising.  The song of thanksgiving.  Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God, because of the love in your heart.  

And whatever you do ... do it with love like His.  Whatever.


Saturday, October 18, 2014

You that Are Weary

Bishop Robert H. Spain, retired from his office as Bishop of the Louisville Episcopal Area and now is chaplain with the United Methodist Publishing House in Nashville.  He has been a teacher and speaker for clergy workshops and continuing education events.  He was known to quote the baseball manager Casey Stengel who supposedly said “there are two kinds of baseball managers: those who have been fired and those who will be fired.”  Bishop Spain then went on to address the clergy (and sometimes laity) in his care and say that there are two kinds of Christians: those who have lost their passion for the Lord and those who will.  “We all,” the Bishop would pronounce, “suffer some periods of spiritual dryness.”

Surely not, we think.  We can sustain this, can’t we?  It isn’t that hard.  Just love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.  It can’t be that hard, surely.  Just believe in the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved.  A piece of cake.  I mean even when we understand that to believe is not to hold  intellectual assent to a concept somewhat detached from where we live and breathe, but that the belief that saves us is investing our whole self in living the life that Jesus invites us to live - even then, it can’t be that hard, can it?  Just, as James reminded us just last week, let the Word become implanted in us because it has the power to save us.  A walk in the park, wouldn’t you say?  Except that the ground in which that Word is planted is our souls which have a tendency to be overgrown with busyness, and responsibilities, and plans and strategies, not to mention will swings of mood and intent and then it is all overseen by a will that is shaking in its boots on a regular basis. 

Two kinds of Christians: those who have lost their passion for the Lord, and those who will.  Sometimes the walk of faith is a autumnal stroll through the beauty of the leaves and the crispness of the air, it just makes us glad to be alive.  Sometimes it is a slog through a soaking drizzle that chills to the bone and seems an uphill incline that wears on muscles we hadn’t stretched enough before we began.  Sometimes carrying the gifts and responsibilities is a joy  that fills our heart, sometimes it is a burden we dread with every passing moment.  Sometimes we feel surrounded by a Presence that lifts us with every step of our journey, sometimes it is an aloneness that consumes us until we feel hollow inside, empty, drained.  Sometimes we know our redeemer lives, other times death seems to be final word.  Sometimes ...  Two kinds of Christians.  Have lost, will lose.  Which are you?

Matthew 11:28-30  "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." 

Just three verses that try to combat the two kinds of Christians scenario.  All you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens.  What surprises me is how often we won’t admit our weariness, we won’t confess to our burdens.  Some of it is because we know too much.  We know someone who has it worse.  We know someone who is struggling more than we are struggling, dealing with more life and death issues, facing insurmountable odds, carrying monumental burdens.  So, we feel that there is something wrong with us if we struggle with something that seems relatively simpler, or easier than what we see in others.  We are embarrassed that we feel like the minor thing, the self-doubts, the rejection, the emptiness is worth calling suffering when there are those around us dying, literally dying from disease or war or terrorism or violence of various kinds.  We don’t even think we are able to claim weariness, because we haven’t suffered like others have suffered.  We aren’t ready to claim we carry a burden when others seem weighed down by unimaginable suffering.

And yet, our pain is our pain.  Our burdens are real, our suffering is real.  And we are weary.  It might not be the struggle to survive, like it is for some in this world.  But it is real and it is our hurt, denial won’t make it any better, won’t wash away the tiredness, won’t lighten the burden.  We, like others - whose circumstances might be worse - need to admit we need a savior.

That’s what’s behind this passage. An admission, that the burdens we carry can’t be carried alone.  That the weariness that seeps into our bones won’t go away because we try a little harder or have another cup of coffee.  We can’t do this, we can’t save ourselves, despite what our culture tells us.  We need a savior, one who will save us even from ourselves.

If you go back in the chapter and read what leads Jesus to make this invitation, you’ll see that the burden he refers to is the burden of the law.  The burden of pharisee-ism.  The burden of a religion that has lost its heart and continues to strain under the detail of rules and traditions.  Jesus wants to set us free from that.  From heartless religion.  To bring us into a living, sustain, strengthening faith.

He wants to give us rest.  But not rest as in taking a nap. (Though Maddie home from college would testify that a god nap can be a wonderful thing.)  This is the kind of rest that comes from being where you belong.  It comes from fitting in, being in the right place, doing what you were created to do, fulfilling the dreams you didn’t even know you had.  This rest is an active rest, a moving rest, a rest because you are following the one who knows you better than you know yourself.  Not a lethargic, drowsy, let the world go away kind of rest.  But a building, serving, peacemaking rest.  Because your heart is settled, your identity is known to you and to those around you, you are at rest because you are.  In God you are.  In relationship you are.  Internally, in your own heart and soul you are.

No, that wasn’t Yoda talking backwards.  That was an affirmation of identity. You are.  But wait, you say, this rest how do we get it, what do we do?  Take the yoke.

Slow down there, Sparky.  Take a yoke?  I know we aren’t in the same agricultural environment as the folks in Jesus’ day, but we know what a yoke is.  It is work, back-breaking, sweat-producing, dawn to dusk kind of work.  That doesn’t sound like rest.  It sounds like the opposite of rest.  Yeah, ok, Jesus is nice about it, with that I am gentle and humble of heart.  Which means, I guess, he won’t use the whip on us.  He won’t use the goad.  He’ll be nice and friendly while he straps us in to this instrument of hard labor.

My yoke is easy.  Compared to what?  Easy means, in this context, that it is made for us.  There were two kinds of yokes available in those days.  There was the off the rack yoke that you’d pick up a Wal-mart or the first century middle Eastern equivalent.  It was an uneasy yoke, it would sometimes rub in the wrong places, it wounded the animal even as it enabled them to work.  It chafed, it bruised, it was like walking miles in shoes that don’t fit.  The skin would be rubbed raw by a yoke that was uneasy. 

An easy yoke, by contrast, as custom made.  It was made for a specific animal with specific measurement.  It fit right. It enabled the beast to do the job it was called to do, and even more by enhancing the natural strength.  My yoke is easy, Jesus says, meaning it fits us.  It is the work we were made to do.  It was the job of service that our heart desires.  The burden is light, because it doesn’t feel like a burden.  When we labor out of love it doesn’t feel like labor.  When we serve with joy it doesn’t feel like service, it feels like giving and receiving a gift.  We are doing what we were created to do.  We are fulfilling our heart’s desire, even when we didn’t know anything about it.

We are weary, Jesus says, because we are doing the wrong things.  Or working with wrong assumptions.  Or trying to justify or identify or to prove ourselves.  When our self is already proved by his love.  We can rest, secure in that love.  Secure in our identity as a child of God.  We can find rest, even as we become more active than we have ever been.  More productive than we thought we could be.  Because we are yoked to Christ, and want nothing more than to serve Him in love.  Rest in that.  Rest in Him.  Rest.  A third kind of Christian, one who is at rest in Christ.


Saturday, October 11, 2014

Looking in the Mirror

Came home to a quiet house.  Well, as quiet as it can be with the crazy dogs and the senile cat.  But once the yelling was satisfied with another dish of food and the wagging and barking and jumping was satisfied with a little attention and a quick walk to the mailbox, it got quiet.

Quiet can be good.  I like quiet.  There are days when I long for quiet and days when I go and seek quiet.  Be still and know that I am God is one of my favorite verses.  (Psalm 46:10 for those who have to go look it up!)  La Donna is off at the UMW Annual meeting.  The kids are off in school.  I just came back from a rather intense retreat that I was leading.  You’d think I wanted quiet.  You’d think quiet would be first on the agenda.  But it wasn’t.

I had a quiet drive home.  Quieter than I wanted.  And came home to a quiet house.  And I felt a little lost.  Yeah, there was no one to tell me what to do.  No one to make me perform a task I didn’t want to perform, No one demanding anything from me.  No one.  Just me.  No one to boss me.  No one to greet me.  No one to ask me questions I didn’t want to answer.  No one to hear the stories I wanted to tell.

Like I said, sometimes I love that.  Sometimes the quiet is just perfect for me.  So, don’t feel sorry for me.  That isn’t the point of this reflection.  Besides there are those out there, some reading this letter for whom that is their daily existence.  And I’m sure there are days they are glad of that, but there are also days when the quiet weighs heavy upon them.  

Reflecting is one of those things that happens in the quiet.  Reflecting is also one of those good things, most of the time.  Sometimes all that is reflected is the emptiness.  Sometimes all that is reflected is the lack of answers, the lack of direction, the lack of hope.  Sometimes reflection doesn’t help.  Because it doesn’t stick.

At least that’s what James thinks.  That’s what it seems like he is saying, at least in part.  Reflections only bounce back what is in front of them.  And they don’t stick.  They don’t provide enough just in themselves.  Not enough direction and hope.  Not enough Presence.  

James 1:19-27  You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;  20 for your anger does not produce God's righteousness.  21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.  22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.  23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror;  24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.  25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-- they will be blessed in their doing.  26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.  27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. 

Like those who look in a mirror.  James is an odd duck, don’t you think?  Well, Martin Luther sure did.  He thought James was dangerous stuff.  He thought that James was an “epistle of straw” because of all this hearing and doing stuff.  See, Luther was afraid that we would read the Letter of James and come away with the feeling that it was all about doing.  That our faith consisted of acts like caring for widows and orphans in their distress.  That our calling was to keep ourselves unstained from the world, meaning that we lived purely, that we kept our promises, that we respected one another, that we learned to live in community, that we guarded our emotions and that we turned away from that which would deceive us.  Luther thought that was bad.
Well, no, to be honest Luther didn’t think that was bad.  Forgive me those who might have strains of Lutheran history in their bloodstream.  Of course I know that Luther was all for any and all those acts of faith.  Did them himself on a regular basis.  No, it wasn’t the acts that worried Luther, it was the belief that those acts were what saved you.

Which, frankly, made me wonder if he read the Letter in the first place.  I mean, this is just chapter one and here we have it in black and white: The implanted word that has the power to save your souls.  The implanted Word?  What in the world?  Or beyond the world?  

James, tradition has it, was the brother of Jesus.  There is some considerable doubt as to whether that James ever sat down and wrote this letter, but in the book of Acts we see James stepping up to be a leader - some say The Leader - of the fledgling church.  So, I like to imagine that this letter is the result of being the brother of Jesus.  Of listening to all that he was saying who whole life, not just the three years of ministry the Gospels tell us about.  His whole life, well, James’ whole life anyway, since he was the younger brother.  For James whole life he lived in that shadow.  Maybe there was a time when James idolized his big brother Jesus, as is the habit of younger brothers.  Maybe there was a time when James began to resent Jesus and the special treatment he received from his mother who treated him as though he was a special gift from God, from his father who seemed strangely in awe of his eldest son.  Maybe James grumbled about the things Jesus would say, and how his sisters and all the neighborhood kids would flock to listen to every word he said, as though he was some prophet or teacher, for heaven’s sake!  There was that scene in three of the gospels where it says Jesus mother and his brothers came to “see him.”  You know James was leading the pack.  Telling them that Jesus had gone crazy and they needed to go get him help, take him someplace where he wouldn’t be an embarrassment to the whole family. 

James was a doer.  James was faithful.  In Jesus’ story, James got to be the elder brother, but he didn’t come off very well (see Lk 15).  Now it had all changed.  James took a look in the mirror and didn’t like what he saw.  So when the resurrected Jesus showed up and said “I need you, bud,” James the doer stepped up.  If you asked him he probably couldn’t have told you why.  He just did.  He just did what he always did.  He was the helpful one, the calm one, the good one, the pure one.  But now there was something else inside of him.  Something took root, some word that made sense, some Word that made life.  And he was still a doer.  But now he was a doer because.  He was still a servant, but now he was a servant because.  He was still pure and good and faithful, but now he was pure and good and faithful because.

Because?  Because of the Word that took root in him.  He looked into the mirror and didn’t like what he saw.  Because what he saw was emptiness.  What he saw was the duty of faithfulness, the burden of purity, the task of service.  What he saw was a void where his motivation, where is soul ought to be.  But when he looked into those eyes, the eyes he knew from his own birth, the eyes that managed to love him even when he didn’t want them to, those eyes that seemed to call for more and now seemed to give more.  When he looked into those eyes it was as if something took root in him, something was planted.  A reason, a purpose, a new beginning, a new soul.  And all that he did he did because of that implanted Word, that hope revived, that soul restored.  It has the power to save your soul.  That’s what he wrote.  Not the works, Luther, the Word implanted.  The works grew out of the salvation, they didn’t earn it.  He needed that Word implanted.

He didn’t earn it, but he had to welcome it.  Welcome it with meekness, with gentleness.  The eighth fruit of the Spirit.  The very essence of God.  Slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  Welcome the Word with gentleness, not because of our weakness but because of His strength.  

Sometimes quietness is healing and restoring.  Sometimes it is troubling, reflecting the emptiness of a soul.  Sometimes it is a waiting for a Word, needing a hope and a reminder.  Come, Lord Jesus.