Saturday, March 29, 2014

Navigating the Darkness

OK, you know me.  I like a laugh as much as the next guy.  Maybe more, depending on who the next guy is.  I enjoy a joke, a funny story, a blatant irony.  I do, I really do.  But this snowing on Saturday thing is starting to get to me.  I know, it will probably be gone before nightfall, but still.  It’s just the idea of it, the sheer repetitive annoyance that is wearing me down.

Comparatively speaking, no big deal.  Especially now that we are into spring.  The snow won’t last, the danger will be fleeting.  Sunshine is on the way, sixty degrees come Monday, they tell us.  And even if they are wrong this time, it won’t be long.  You can count on it.  Sure as sunrise.

Sure as sunrise.  There aren’t many things more certain than that.  Even when you can’t see it, you know it is there.  And sometimes the knowing is all you need.

Psalm 30:1-12   
I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up, 
and did not let my foes rejoice over me.  
2 O LORD my God, I cried to you for help, 
and you have healed me.  
3 O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol, 
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.  

4 Sing praises to the LORD, O you his faithful ones, 
and give thanks to his holy name.  
5 For his anger is but for a moment; 
his favor is for a lifetime. 
Weeping may linger for the night, 
but joy comes with the morning.  

6 As for me, I said in my prosperity, 
"I shall never be moved."  
7 By your favor, O LORD, 
you had established me as a strong mountain; 
you hid your face; 
I was dismayed.  

8 To you, O LORD, I cried, 
and to the LORD I made supplication:  
9 "What profit is there in my death, 
if I go down to the Pit? 
Will the dust praise you? 
Will it tell of your faithfulness?  
10 Hear, O LORD, and be gracious to me! 
O LORD, be my helper!"  

11 You have turned my mourning into dancing; 
you have taken off my sackcloth 
and clothed me with joy,  
12 so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. 
O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever.  

OK, I put it in there that way to remind us that the Psalm is a poem.  Or a song.  It is a work of art expressing a multitude of emotions that range from the highest of highs to disturbingly low lows.  Which seems to be the human condition, and least this human anyway.

First of all there is that joy that caused me to select this Psalm for our Lenten reflections.  We are walking through the Fruit of the Spirit that Paul describes in Galatians for all of 2014.  And this Lent we are considering the incongruity of Joy in the midst of our penitence.  Or, as Evelyn Underhill names it, Joy on the Night Shift.  

Psalm 30 gives us two takes on joy, it seems to me.  There is the joy that is equated with dancing in verse eleven.  The antithesis of mourning and repentance.  Once the sackcloth comes off, once the mourning is done, then there is joy.  Transformation, redemption.  

The other joy reference sounds different to my ears.  “Weeping my linger for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”  Similar to verse eleven, but different, perhaps.  In the later verse it seems a done deal, the joy has come and we only look back on the sackcloth, we are dancing and we look back on the mourning.  But the earlier reference seems like we are still waiting.  Joy comes, not joy is here in this morning light.  It may be night time word, a darkness hope - confident, but still a hope.  A sustaining hope to be sure.  A light in that dark night by which to navigate.  The promise of joy sustains.

But how do we hold onto that hope?  How do we have confidence in joy, even in the midst of struggle?  Well, the psalmist tells us, not by our own strength.  Certainly we have those moments, we are on the top of the world, when all is going our way, when prosperity is the order of the day.  But despite our claim that this is they way it will always be, that we shall not be moved from this lofty position, movement is always in our future.  When we push God away, God is gracious enough to go.  And then we fall from the perch of security we have erected for ourselves.

How do we hold on to hope?  Not by bargaining, not by telling God how much God needs us.  “Will the dust praise you?”  Well, Jesus told those who thought his supporters were making too much noise on that first Palm Sunday that even if these were silent, the stones would cry out.  So, I guess the answer is yes, the dust can praise.  As difficult as it is for us to comprehend, God doesn’t need us.  Creation can praise, the heavenly host can serve.  God doesn’t need us.  Which makes the fact that God wants us - to praise, to serve, to love - all that much more incredible.  

So, how do we hold onto hope?  How do we reach for joy even in the darkest night when our eyes are full of tears?  Well, our over emotional psalmist gives us a hint.  When the writer moves from looking inward to looking outward, then we find a clue about how to navigate through the darkness.  When the text moves from me and I to us we are on to something.  “Sing praises to God’s name, O you faithful ones, and give thanks to His name.”  Gratitude.  That is the key to holding on to hope.  Because gratitude takes vision, takes the ability to see beyond your self and your own circumstance.  It takes the ability to recognize the interconnectedness of the world in which we live.  How we are woven together in a glorious whole, dependent upon one another and upon the one who gives us life.  

Let it snow.  That’s my interpretation of Psalm 30.  Let it snow.  Because spring is coming.  The sun will shine.  Even though I can’t see it or feel it right now.  I know it.  Even though I walk in darkness, I can find my way because I know the light.


Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Better Resurrection

I’m back.  Did you miss me?  No, you don’t have answer that.  I did get a comment or two from folks who wondered why they didn’t get a Late Night Bible Study last week, but for most of you I assume it was a momentary blip.  Let me explain.  I was not preaching last weekend, and I was leading a retreat on Friday and Saturday.  So, I just didn’t fit it in.  And I almost had to say the same this week.

I’m late, I’m late.  Feeling like the White Rabbit from the classic Alice in Wonderland is a common occurrence for me. OK, I had a mentor gathering this morning early.  Mentee gathering, I was the mentor.  These are folks entering into the process into ministry with the United Methodist Church and I am working with them.  Yes, please, pray for them.  Luckily it’s not just me, there is someone else alongside to keep me from wandering off the beaten path and sending them running for the hills.  So, that is how my day started. 

Then I had to go work with a group who is thinking about visual art in the new worship service (which is going to launch in six Sundays!).  We thought about worship, we wandered the building, and then I left them to get to it, while I came home to work on this.

I got home to a hungry college kid home for spring break and unable to find a thing to eat in the house.  And the crazy dogs who were needing some attention. And a voicemail telling me that one of our dear saints is in the ICU with a stroke.  

I made a passing comment during our Ash Wednesday service a couple of weeks ago that I was considering giving up preaching for Lent.  It was a joke at the time.  Now I’m not so sure.  Maybe there is a message in this.  Maybe life is just too busy, or too complicated, or too distracted to spend time on stuff like this.  Maybe it would be a better use of everyone’s time to just sit in silence and collect yourself, so that you can get back out there into the fray with a little bit of equilibrium.  That would be gift enough, wouldn’t it?  Just a pat on the back and a “there, there” would keep us going, don’t you think?

No.  I don’t think.  And I’m not saying that just because I’m the preacher.  We need more than that to keep running this race.  I need more than that.  And, frankly, my life ain’t all that bad.  At least I haven’t been sawn in half lately.

Hebrews 11:32 - 12:2  And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets--  33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions,  34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.  35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection.  36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented--  38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.  
      39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised,  40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.  
     12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,  2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.  

Makes you wonder what we’re complaining about, doesn’t it?  Yeah, I’m busy.  Yeah, there are a lot of demands on my time.  So, why is it that we struggle more with our stuff than these heros of the faith did with theirs?  How did they conquer kingdoms and administer justice when I can’t get people to agree on a paint color for the sanctuary?  How do they obtain promises and shut the mouths of lions, how did they quench raging fires when I struggle with family with different points of view on proper care for aging parents?  And what in the world is a better resurrection?  I mean, resurrection is resurrection, wouldn’t you think?  The reference is to Elijah and the widow of Zarephath or Elisha and the Shunammite woman, both of whom lost only sons and then had the prophet raise them from the dead.  What else could you ask for?

Reminds me of the story of the woman yelling on the beach that her son was drowning in the ocean, only to have the lifeguard dive in and swim out to rescue him.  When the boy was brought back the mother glares at the lifeguard and says, “when he went in he had a hat.”

What is this better resurrection?  What is it that these giants of the Old Testament didn’t get?  This incompleteness, this promise unfulfilled, and how in the world is that fair, given all that they lived through?  And do we, who may or may not be wandering about in the skin of goats, also miss this better resurrection?  Is this one of those falling through the cracks between the Testaments things?  Too bad for those guys and gals, they had the misfortune to be born before Jesus and therefore, well, tough luck! 

Or is there something bigger going on here?  Look to Jesus, that’s what the writer of the letter tells us to do.  Look to Jesus, the pioneer (the one who did it first, this better resurrection thing) and perfecter (the one who did it right) of our faith.  Looking at Jesus we see what sustained him on this journey, through the darkness of the night shift.  “Who for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross.”  For joy.  Not that the cross was joy, but that joy was within reach, even on the cross.  That joy was visible even in the darkness of that suffering. 

That’s what we are contemplating this Lenten season, you remember, joy on the night shift.  Not the loud exuberance of celebration, but the quieter sustaining confidence that you are not alone, even in the darkest night.  It is the trust that says even if you can’t see beyond the end of your hurt, God is with you and will make you stronger because of that hurt, will hold you closer, will carry you through.  It is the joy of knowing you are loved, even if the evidence seems to contradict that truth.  It is the joy that comes from Jesus.  Not from us, not from the situations we find ourselves in, not from circumstances.  It comes from Him.

That’s why it is a better resurrection.  Two things: first of all, this resurrection is into eternity.  Those boys raised by the Old Testament prophets died again.  Maybe the timing was better, maybe the moms were gone by then, maybe they were able to live out the potential of their lives, but they still died again.  

Secondly, that resurrection was a singular experience.  The better one is corporate.  Communal.  “God provided something better, so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”  That’s what they didn’t get, us.  The community of faith, the body of Christ.  Hebrews tells us that none of us know joy completely until we all know joy.  That as long as you are wandering lost in the darkness of your own brokenness, I too am broken.  And as long as I stumble in despair you cannot be perfected in your faith.  This joy that comes from Christ, binds us together, makes us seek out the lost not to pass judgement but to love them into relationship.  Into the family.  Into the kingdom.  The same one we are trying to live into.  To run into, listening to the cheers of those who have gone before, even as we cheer on those who will follow us.  

So, now I’m wondering, are there brackets in this tournament?  Go team.  


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Buzz Kill

Every Party has a pooper and that’s what we invited you for.  Party pooper!  Party pooper!!

Ever had that sung at you?  Yeah, been there.  Taunted by those you thought were friends because you wouldn’t go along.  Or maybe you just raised a question about the appropriate of the actions in which the group was engaged.  Or maybe you just didn’t feel like it, maybe it wasn’t a judgement call against anyone, but simply you just weren’t in the mood.  And the wrath of the gang came crashing down on you.  “Party pooper!”  Or in a little more modern parlance we say “you’re a buzz kill!”

The buzz, that’s what we’re after these days.  Whether the buzz is the center of attention, being talked about; or that is the excitement of doing something dangerous, or difficult; or that euphoric feeling that comes from life or a variety of substances, legal or otherwise; it is all about the buzz.  And the worst thing we can do to anyone is kill that buzz.

We Christians have a reputation of being a buzz kill.  The rather sobering read from a few years ago titled “UnChristian” reminded us all just how the world views us.  This was a research project done by a couple of students from Wheaton College in Illinois, asking young adults who did not consider them a part of the faith what their view of Christians was.  A buzz kill is the nicest interpretation we can receive from this work.

OK, there are some buzzes that probably need killing, I admit that.  But after working our way through the fruit of the spirit that is love, it pains me that we aren’t first and foremost known as those who love.  That we don’t put forward the face to the world that says we love first.  We stand in the place of the One who loved first, the One who came because of love, who lived because of love, who died out of love for us and the whole world.  Why isn’t that our lead?  Why isn’t that our distinctive mark, our reputation? This is what  Paul urged the church to do and be.  Again and again, he called us, as John does in the letters, as Jesus, for heaven’s sake, calls us to do and to be.

It was this call from Christ himself that draws us here now.  But, for those who may be keeping track, aren’t we moving on from love?  Isn’t this a change of season?  Aren’t we ready for joy?  Well, I certainly hope so!  But what I read, both in the scriptures themselves and in a variety of commentaries and reflections on these fruit of Spirit ideas, is that if we don’t grasp the love thing, the rest won’t fall into place.  In other words we first need to have some understanding of love, some experience of love, some recognition that we are loved and that we can love in return.  Without that we aren’t open enough for joy - or for peace and patience and kindness and generosity and faithfulness and gentleness and self control, for that matter.

But, praise God, once we have an inkling - not a full comprehension, but an inkling (the size of a mustard seed, let’s say) then joy comes rushing in, and takes up residence.  And cannot be removed.  Believe it or not.  Take a look.

John 16:17-22   Then some of his disciples said to one another, "What does he mean by saying to us, 'A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me'; and 'Because I am going to the Father'?"  18 They said, "What does he mean by this 'a little while'? We do not know what he is talking about."  19 Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, "Are you discussing among yourselves what I meant when I said, 'A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me'?  20 Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.  21 When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world.  22 So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.

Uh, wait.  Up there it seemed like you were talking about us being a buzz kill.  But here it seems to talking about someone buzz killing us.  What’s the deal?  How about, I messed up?  I genuinely intended to write about us losing our buzz, about all the things that happen to us to cause us to lose our grip on what is good about our faith, about all the things that squeeze the joy out of our lives.  At least that is what I intended to write.  And then I read the passage again.  “No one will take your joy from you.”

I mean, if that is the promise, then we can’t really spend the time whining about those who steal our joy, can we?  Unless we want to say that Jesus got it wrong.  Which isn’t a position I want to hold very often.  Like, at all, come to think about it.  Except that I know the experience of having my joy stolen.  I’ve been there.  So, was He wrong, or is there something I’m not yet getting?

Maybe it is like the disciples in this passage.  They weren’t getting it, they didn’t have a clue what he was telling them, and they were flopping around like fish out of water trying to figure it out.  Doing everything except asking Him apparently.  Luckily He is perceptive that way, or has really good hearing, or reads blank faces and furrowed brows.  Whatever.  He tells them that there will be pain now, there will be grief now, but when we see him again, then we will have joy.  So, we’re still waiting.  The joy hasn’t come yet.  This is Kingdom joy, this is Someday joy.  It isn’t here and to expect us to have it now is unrealistic.  Isn’t it?

“When I see you again.”  Did that mean at the end?  When the trumpet sounds and the dead rise from the grave?  Or when One dead rose from the grave?  He saw them again after he went away, didn’t He?  And when He saw them, they became different people.  Still carrying the wounds of their experience, they launched a movement that changed the world.  Because it was no longer about them.  It was about the One they wanted to share with the world.

That is where joy comes from, the kind of joy that can’t be taken away, from surrender.  It comes from recognizing that the true center of all that there is and all that there will be is not us, but is something that leans in our direction.  And all we want to do is grab hold of that glory.  All we want to do is worship.  All we want to do is love.  Because all we know is that we are loved.  And we know that with a confidence that no one can take away.

Not pain, not grief, not suffering of any kind, nothing that happens to us in this world can take away that confidence, that contentment, that driving knowledge that love is all we need, indeed love is all there is - love that drives us out of ourselves into the lives of those around us, love that gives the world a color that can only be seen through the eyes of the beloved, love that sees beyond the surface into something deeper, something more real.

That’s where joy is found, in loving like that, not holding back, not saving some for later, but encountering the world the way God did when God sent the only Son, God so loved the world.  And if that is how we are to engage the world, we ought to repent when we are experienced by way too many as buzz killers.  If anything we should be buzz enhancers.  Or maybe, more safely, we can say we are joy givers.  At least I hope we can be.  Not worrying that we might lose it, since no one can take your joy.  Thus saith ...


Saturday, March 1, 2014

Shining in the Dark Places

Last Sunday afternoon, I was due to be in Indianapolis in preparation for a clergy conference that I was helping to lead.  I went a little early so that I could stop in the hospital to visit Ron and his family as they sat and waited for his beloved wife Millie to breathe her last breaths.  The ventilator had been turned off earlier that day and while she was breathing on her own, everyone knew it wouldn’t be long.  

It was one of those terribly tragic stories, a relatively minor treatment, a nerve block, an injection, and something went horribly wrong.  Almost immediately she was gone, no brain function, massive heart attack, she lingered on the machinery for a few days with the wild hope that something would change.  But it didn’t.  We celebrated her life this morning, even as our hearts were breaking and our minds were reeling from the suddenness of it all.  

When I walked into that room last Sunday it was filled with family and friends who were stunned into an uneasy silence.  The love and support in the room was tangible in the touches and the whispers.  When we prayed together I could feel them all leaning into the Spirit, with sighs too deep for words and they clung to each other, and reached out to touch Millie, wanting to call her back, wanting to gather her up, but knowing that she was already in other hands.  

Ron asked about the weather, he’d been cooped up in that hospital for days and he wasn’t sure whether winter had passed into spring and he missed it.  The sun was shining, I reported.  The whole trip down it was almost too bright to see.  Really?, he responded, unbelieving.  And he wasn’t the only one struggling to comprehend that light.  There were others in the room who seemed just as dubious.  How can it be, they wanted to say, how can a light be shining when the world seems so dark?  

You’ve been there, so lost in a never-ending darkness that you doubted whether there was such a thing as light any more.  To speak of light, and hope and joy, seemed almost offensive, ringing hollow in the emptiness of your soul.  You’ve looked for straws to grasp, for signs of a Presence speaking of a tomorrow worth living for, and had occasion to doubt whether you would ever know love again.

The things that really matter seem frightfully elusive in this life.  It is no wonder we tend to cling too tightly to material things to find our meaning and purpose.  Things we can hold, things that will last, things we can pull out when the doubts come back. It is hard to hold on to love.  It is hard to snuggle up to hope.  It is almost impossible to stand confidently on grace.  Yet that is our call.  In light or in darkness we are called to hold on to hope.

This is Transfiguration Sunday.  You know event of the Transfiguration, don’t you?  That odd little moment on a mountain before Jesus began his journey into Jerusalem.  The special effects laden encounter with historical figures and a voice from above, that sent the inner circle of disciples straight to their knees with permanently furrowed brows and shoulders that wouldn’t shrug any more.  Shining faces and clothes that glowed, you remember.

Liturgically, Transfiguration serves as a hinge that lets us swing from the revealing of the light of Christ in the season of Epiphany to the journey of self-examination and sacrifice of the season of Lent.  It is a rest stop on the pilgrimage of following Christ from birth to life and ministry, to passion and death, and then, incredibly, resurrection and life eternal.  We pull off that highway and take time to climb a mountain, and see ... well, we see God.  

When planning for this Sunday, I assumed that everyone was confident and perhaps even a little bored with the Transfiguration.  After all I had covered this ground year after year for who knows how long.  So, I thought it would be good to approach it from a little different perspective.  I decided instead of telling the story again, we would take a look at the Epistle reading for this Sunday.  

2 Peter 1:16-21   For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.  17 For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, "This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."  18 We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.  19 So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.  20 First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation,  21 because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. 

There is some debate - because biblical scholars love nothing more than a good debate - as to whether this was actually written by the Apostle Peter.  All the usual objections, the timing isn’t right, the language doesn’t sound like Peter, etc. etc.  But the most interesting argument is that this depiction of the Transfiguration doesn’t sound like the ones in the Gospels.  And if it had been Peter, surely he would have included all those details, the glowing clothes, the magical appearances, his own offer to build tents for Jesus and Moses and Elijah to ... to take a nap in, or whatever.  

I’m not enough of an expert to say whether it was Peter or not, but I don’t find it difficult to believe that Peter wouldn’t be giving a complete account in this passage.  He had a specific purpose in these verses and it wasn’t recounting everything that happened on that mountain.  

He is dealing with doubt.  He is dealing with those who are beginning to question whether Jesus is really coming back, whether this Kingdom of God thing is really real or was just something we imagined while he was here among us.  Maybe this is a good as it gets.  Maybe this is all there is.  Maybe we were just fooling ourselves.  He is dealing with the darkness of unknowing, of being afraid, of experiencing loss and not knowing how to hope any more.

No, he says, Peter or his spokespersons, No, we didn’t make this up.  There was a moment, he says, where the mask of this world slipped a little bit and the light from the next one shone through.  There was a moment, he writes, when the doubts fled before the Presence, when hope rose in our hearts, when joy filled us and we knew - we didn’t wonder, we knew that he was who he said he was, and that we were his, not just for a moment, not just for now, but we were his for eternity.  And in that moment there was nothing I wanted more than that, to belong to him.  And nothing, not time, not fear, not loss or injury or doubt or darkness can take that away.  When you’ve heard the voice, you can live in the silence and still hope.

Memories?  No, much more than that.  We look back on the moments of pure joy, the encounters of profound love, the connection of mind heart, body and soul, and nothing, not even death can take that away from us.  In the dark places that this life seems too full of, a light is shining.  That Transfigured Presence is with us always. That living love, those saints who opened the door to eternity will never leave us.  

God bless you Millie.