Saturday, February 22, 2014

Say Yes to the Dress

One of the ways that my kids have expanded my experiences is by introducing me to television programs that there is no way in the world I would have ever watched on my own.  There were a couple of years that Maddie and I faithfully watched American Idol, for example, rooting for our choices and switching allegiances as America voted off the ones we wanted to win.  Then there’s Rhys and his devotion to Community through all its cancellations and resurrections.  It seemed like an Easter parable there for a while.  But when I could, I watched with him, and enjoyed it.

There were some, however, that I wasn’t interested in at all.  Which didn’t bother them in the least.  As long as I kept it down during their shows.  Or didn’t want to watch something else, which would force them to watch on the little tv in the basement, which by the way was still bigger and clearer and had many more channels than what I grew up watching.  Yet, whenever I tried to tell them about this they rolled their eyes and asked if I had any other stories about living in the stone age.  

One genre of television that Maddie loved to watch that I avoided like the plague, despite her invitation, were the fashion reality shows.  America’s Next Top Model, Project Runway, I don’t even know them all.  Nor am I sure which ones she liked to watch.  She might have to correct my recollections here, and I might be blending what she actually watched with the myriad of commercials that you can’t avoid, no matter how much you try.  And come to think of it, what happened to channels like TLC (the Learning Channel) and History and Discovery, which used to be about teaching us something about the world and now seem determined to show us the weird and wonderful of American backwoods culture.  But I digress.  Fashion shows, fashion reality ... “reality!” shows.  That was what I was talking about.  I don’t watch them.  I’m not interested in who is going to be the next top model, or the next star designer, I don’t care what the new hot colors are, what everyone is going to be wearing.  I’m not interested in what fabrics are all the rage or what patterns will fill the retail stores.  I’m not in the least interested in all of that stuff.  Until I read Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians for this week.  And darn it if he doesn’t sound like those designers I kept overhearing when Maddie would watch her fashion shows.  Flitting around with pins in his mouth, he brings us swatches and fabrics, checks our skin tone and body type, tells us to do a twirl to see how it drapes, how we carry this latest of his creations.  Oh, he tells us with a sparkle in his creative eye, say yes to this dress.  It’s you.  It is so you.

Colossians 3:12-14  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. 

Is it?  Is it you?  Is it me?  Does designer Paul have the outfit to die for?  Or maybe to live for?  Clothe yourself, he writes to this little church.  Clothe yourself.  Colossae is a small town that got bypassed by a Roman road and was hitting hard times.  Once a busy center for the manufacture of a bright red wool, Colossae now struggles to keep up with the bright lights of Laodicea, a new city founded to compete with the industry Colossae made famous. And on top of that, there was an earthquake that nearly destroyed everything.  One while Jesus was at work in Israel and the surrounding area and then another some years later.  Paul’s letter may be in between the quakes.  The city was rebuilt both times, but it never really got going again.  It was almost as though they were afraid it could happen again, so they lived their lives afraid of things out of their control. 

We don’t know how the church got started there.  Paul says he planned to go, but never made it.  That’s what he tells his friend Philemon, who was from Colossae.  So, it was probably planted by one of Paul’s converts, or co-workers.  Which is why Paul wants to keep in contact.  He feels responsible for them, even though he has never met them face to face.  He heard, somehow, that they were struggling.  He heard that what was once a strong faith, what was an active church was now floundering.  How serious was the decline?  We don’t know.  They seemed distracted, when you read between the lines of Paul’s letter.  In the second chapter he warns them not to be thrown off track by a variety of arguments, to not let others challenge their faith and their practice.  To stay true, to stay faithful, to stay trusting.  

It was like they lost their grip on the why and the what.  What did they believe and why do they do what they do?  So, Paul addresses that.  He blesses them and then sets out to teach them the theology they thought they knew but lost somewhere along the line.  He talks about who Jesus was and is, about the fullness of God and the source of strength and hope and joy.  He talks to them like he is their father and they are his children.  He tells them what is on his heart, how he longs for them, for their well-being and their growth in the faith.  Oh, did I mention he is writing this from prison?  Yeah, this note of encouragement, of uplift, of instruction comes while Paul is under arrest and awaiting his execution.  Even there, even then his first thought is not of his own circumstance, but of a church struggling to find its way in a complex world.

To help him minister to this troubled church, here in the third chapter he turns to matter of fashion. First, before our passage, he talks about cleaning out the closets.  He talks about what you need to take off and throw away.  He talks about the wide ties and the leisure suits that you are still trying to get by with and he says, for heaven’s sake, just chuck it all away.  It doesn’t fit anymore, since you’ve become a new person.  Since you’ve had your makeover, your whole wardrobe is for someone you aren’t anymore.  So, get rid of it!  It makes you shudder when you look at it anyway, what were you thinking when you bought some of that stuff anyway?  

Now that you’re back from Goodwill, let’s go shopping, says Paul the couturier.  Better yet, let’s look at my spring collection.  Try it on!  Put on then compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Oh, yes, that’s what will turn heads.  That is so you.  Or at least the you you long to be, the you you are becoming.  

But wait, there’s more.  You’ve got to accessorize.  Sure compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience is a good look.  But to move through the crowds, to interact with the in crowd and the out crowd, you need a finishing touch - forgiveness.  The ability to put back together what has come apart.  The ability to heal what has been broken.  The skill to stitch a tear in the fabric of relationship and community.  A useful skill, to say the least.

Did I say finishing?  No, wait, there’s more.  Every good ensemble needs a belt, needs something to hold it all together, to bind it up and harmonize the different elements of the outfit.  Above all else, put on love, which binds everything in perfect harmony.  

Now that’s a good look, says Paul as he stands back to gaze at the transformation taking place in front of him.  You are a wonder, a vision, you are the body of Christ.  So, what do you think?  Is it you?  Are you ready to live into the possibility of wearing this ensemble?

Are you ready, to say yes to this dress?


Saturday, February 8, 2014

It Used to Be

“When Israel was a child, I loved him.”  There are parts of the bible that we struggle to comprehend.  They seem to speak of a reality so far removed from our own, of a culture that we have left behind, of a world view that is so alien to our own that we wrestle to find meaning.  We have to rely on historians and scholars, we have to open wide our imagination and stretch ourselves to find meaning for our very different lives today.  And then there are other parts.

Sometimes we wonder if someone was reading our mail, sneaking into the secret journals we keep in our heads if not locked away in a book somewhere.  Sometimes the questions we didn’t know how to ask are shouted out in the pages of this ancient text.  Sometimes our longings of our heart are depicted so plainly in achingly beautiful prose and we feel caught, exposed, wondering.  Like when we hear a song on the radio that seems to sing the song we long to sing.

The prophet Hosea has become that for me.  Not that my life in any way resembles his.  But the love he speaks of sounds like a love I want to know and sometimes struggle to participate in, to give or to receive.  To participate in?  Even that doesn’t sound right.  To participate in.  To be, the love I want to be.  

We are wrestling with love this Epiphany here at Aldersgate.  We’ve launched a year of consideration of the Fruit of the Spirit.  That gives us ample time to reflect and worship in the light of each of the nine dimensions described by Paul as reflecting the life of the Christian filled and transformed by the Spirit.  And it all begins with love.  The fruit of the Spirit is love, writes Paul in Galatians.  Some argue that all the rest, the remaining eight only serve to define this love.  

This love that we want to participate in, the love that we want to represent to the world.  The love that comes through us and yet shows the world what God’s love is really all about.  That love.  That’s what we want to know and to share, what we want to be.

So, we look for those descriptive texts that will help us understand and live into this love.  You can’t talk about love, especially loving like God, and skip over Hosea.  As much as we would like to, we can’t.  The love Hosea lives and proclaims is almost embarrassing in its depth and breadth.  Too vulnerable, too forgiving, too grace-shaped; no one can live that way, we declare.  It is asking too much to love that much.  Isn’t it?

To really answer that you have to read the whole book.  Which we aren’t going to do this weekend.  Instead we have a divine monologue.  God has been through it, the people God chose to love didn’t respond with faithfulness and grace in return.  God issued chance after chance, came back when coming back seemed foolish, loved when loving was painful, unrequited, used up and tossed away.  God has been burned by those God wanted to love.  And here we stand at that “what now?” moment.  Having been burned, how will God respond?  Remember this is Old Testament, this is the law and punishment record book, this is the account of the actions of God, many of which include the verb “smite.”  So, hold on to your hats and let’s read God’s response to the fragile love of God’s people.

Hosea 11:1-11  When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.  2 The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.  3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them.  4 I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.  5 They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.  6 The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes.  7 My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.  8 How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.  9 I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.  10 They shall go after the LORD, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west.  11 They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the LORD. 

It used to be easier.  Is that what it sounds like God is saying here?  It used to be easier.  There was a time when love was what defined us, when you ran into my arms when you were hurt, when I held your hand as you took your first wobbling steps, when you hungered I was the source of your satisfaction.  There was a time when love was just the way we were, it bounded us, bordered us.  

But now that love feels like a straight-jacked to you, and all you want to do is run away, to go after other dreams, other dangers.  Now you want to put yourself at risk rather than be wrapped up in this defining love.  Now you want to go your own way, find your own love.

If you love something, set it free.  I don’t know who said that, but I’d like to punch them right now.  That was me, by the way, not God.  I should do the red letter version of the Late Night Bible Study so you wouldn’t have to wonder.  The previous paragraphs were red, this one is black.  Or blue.  Or gray.  This one is wrapped up in the struggle of knowing how to love like God wants us to love.

A year ago a series of circumstances brought my mom and dad up to Indiana, and after hospitalization and rehab, we got them settled into a community that would provide all the care they needed both for mom’s dementia and dad’s desire to minister to her and also care for his own health issues.  We thought it was a perfect solution, they were now close and cared for.  But dad didn’t like it.  It cramped his style, he didn’t like giving up control or freedom, and he worried incessantly about the money.  He complained, he grumbled, he harassed the staff, he refused to abide by his doctor’s guidelines as to how to handle his own issues let alone the instructions on how to care for mom. My brothers and sister wanted what was best for them both and began to ask if perhaps there was another solution.  And to make a long painful story short, I caved.  I couldn’t fight them all.  So, sometime over the next couple of days they are packing up mom and dad and going back to Paris Tennessee, to another facility, or maybe even their home given how frequently he changes his mind as to what he is capable of doing or not doing.  

It used to be easier.  This loving thing, this family thing.  It used to be easier to care and support.  But when you get push back and rejection, when the one you are trying to love and protect insists on running away to greener pastures, brighter horizons, just what are you supposed to do?  God seems to wrestle with that very thing.  God has to hold in check the anger that rages inside at the treatment, at the rejection of divine love.  Which says, getting angry is not a bad thing, a word of comfort for which I am eternally grateful.  I don’t think I have ever been as angry as I have been over the past few weeks and days.

But it is also clear that God will not act on that anger.  Wait, it says much more than that.  It says that God’s love will not end.  Not only end, but will grow.  God will love more the very ones who run away, the turn away.  God will love more.  And will wait.

Hosea tells us that God hopes.  At least that is how I read the final verse.  They shall come back from Egypt.  From their longings and their fears.  From their empty nostalgia and false visions of freedom.  They shall come back.  They shall come back.  Trembling?  With fear?  With shame?  Or maybe with love requited.  It used to be easier.  But now it is real.  We pray and we hope.


Saturday, February 1, 2014

Perfect Love from Broken Hearts

Who’s going to win?  That’s the question of the weekend.  This Super weekend.  I know there are some who don’t care all that much.  I know because one lives in this house with me.  But still, you can’t really avoid hearing the question, wondering, You can’t avoid the mindset that grips the nation if not the world this weekend each year.  Someone will win.  Someone will lose.  And that just the way the world is.

It is a world of winners and losers.  Not just on Super Bowl Sunday.  Always.  And most of the time we seem to be losers.  Most of the time things go against us.  The world conspires against us.  Or our enemies do.  Not that we have enemies.  Just annoyances.  Just adversaries.  Competitors.  Those who see the world differently.  Those who disagree.  Those who ... well, never mind.  You know what I mean.  And if you don’t, then more words won’t inform you.  The point is that in a world of winners and losers it is a royal pain in the  heart.

No, that wasn’t the first thing I thought of.  But it works.  A pain in the heart.  It seems part of the human condition.  To be wounded, thwarted, rebuffed.  To fail at love, at loving and being loved, both.  It seems beyond us.  No matter how much we might want to love, to be loving, to do the loving thing, it escapes us.  It is misinterpreted, not appreciated.  It is lost in the emotion of the moment.  Swallowed up in the competition of messages too confusing, too distracting, too busy to speak clearly.  

Winners and losers.  Oh, sure, sometimes we win.  Sometimes it seems like we are ahead, like the world is turning in our favor.  Sometimes.  It never seems to last though.  Does it?  No, not for long.  We might be winners for a time, but it isn’t long before we slip back into the loser category.

But what if we’ve got that wrong?  What if that filter for how the world works is a distortion of a true and deeper reality?  What if it isn’t winners and losers but something else all together?  And if so, what might that be?

1 John 4:7-19  Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.  9 God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.  10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.  12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.  13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.  14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world.  15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.  16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.  17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.  18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.  19 We love because he first loved us. 

I know, old news, heard it all before.  I know.  But set aside what you thought you knew, what you thought you heard in these verses before and look again.  Start with that most basic of declarations: God is love.  Amazing, really, when you think about it. John could have said God is power.  Or God is justice.  Could have said God is unknowable, the ineffable mystery of the universe.  Could have said almost anything, but didn’t.  Instead John chose this little word that trips us up on a regular basis.  God is love.  

Not, God loves.  Or God is the source of love.  But God is love.  The fundamental essence of God is love.  It boggles the mind, to say the least.  But John isn’t done with this one earth-shattering statement.  Earth stabilizing statement.   Earth defining statement.  Whatever.  He doesn’t stop with one.  “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us.”  What?  Wow.  God lives in us.  Because love lives in us.  Not we love, or we are the source of love, but love lives in us.  

And, and this is one of those ands you’ll need to hold onto your hats for, and John says “If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”  

OK, we were on board there for a while.  It sounded good.  Promising, even possible.  Until that word got tossed in, perfected.  His love is perfected - stop there and we can go along.  God is perfect, it is a part of our fundamental theology, it is what we think about God, God is perfect and God’s love can’t be anything else but perfect.  So, stop there John and we are doing just fine.

But he didn’t stop there.  God’s love is perfected in us.  In us.  See now we know John is a bit messed up here.  God’s love might be perfected in us, in a perfect world, with perfect circumstances and if we stopped being human.  Then maybe, ok.  Superman, Wonder Woman, maybe. But little old me, little old you?  No way.

We know it can’t be true because we’ve hurt too many times.  We’ve been wrong too many times.  We’ve been hurt, been lost, been rejected, tossed aside.  Hardly perfect.  We’ve stumbled through vows and commitments, we’ve run out of hope and energy.  We’ve fallen short.  Perfect?  Not even close.

It’s a process.  That’s what our founder John Wesley wrote.  We are “going on” to perfection in love.  We are on the way.  Maybe.  But if that’s true then we must be taking the scenic route.  We seem a long way off.  We don’t grasp this love thing very well.  We have trouble with the people close to us, the people we’re supposed to love.  Let alone the rest of the world.  The ones unlike us.  The ones that disturb us.  The ones that just seem way too different from us.  How in the world are we supposed to love them?  Because who is to say that they will love us back?  

Isn’t how it is supposed to work?  Don’t we love in order to be loved?  Aren’t there winners and losers in this love game?  Unless it isn’t really a game.  There is no score to keep, no statistics to measure.  No winner, no loser.  There is just love.  Love for the sake of loving.  Love in order to allow God to take up residence in us.  Love in order to be like God.  

What is perfect love anyway?  Love that doesn’t make any mistakes?  No, not as long as we are human, mistakes are a part of the design.  Love that never is rejected?  No, even God’s love has been and continually is rejected.  Love that never suffers, never hurts?  Christ on the cross shows us that perfect love is love willing to suffer for those  who are loved.  

John seems to be saying that perfect love is love that never ends.  “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.”  Love lasts into eternity.  Love never gives up.  Even when it hurts.  Even when it seems futile. 

Perfect love casts out fear.  What does that mean, I wonder?  Maybe what it means is that when we allow God to do the loving in and through us then there won’t be a time when we will need to wonder if we should love, should act out of love. We won’t be afraid if there is enough love to go around.  We won’t be afraid that our love is inadequate in the face of indifference, or brokenness or evil.  Because it isn’t our love in the end.  It is the God who abides in us that enables us to love at all.  We won’t be afraid of running out, because we know an inexhaustible source.  Beloved, let us love.