Saturday, July 19, 2014

Those That Listen

What did you say?  How’s that?  Come again?  How many different ways can we say we don’t understand?  That we didn’t catch what was said to us; that we couldn’t figure out the meaning or that we have to confess we were distracted by something and completely missed the fact that someone was talking to us.  How many ways can we express that?  Millions, no doubt.  Millions of ways, for millions of times.  The truth is we don’t listen all that often.  We assume, we fill in the blanks, we wait for our turn to insert the really brilliant and cutting remark formed with our rapier-like wit when the other was droning on about something.

Our passage for this week begins with Jesus saying “But I say to you that listen...”  You that listen?  You’d think everyone would listen.  It’s Jesus for heaven’s sake.  Someone that important surely wouldn’t have to fight to be heard, right?

Are you listening?  You’re not hearing me!  Those statements were made by people very important to me recently.  It isn’t the importance of the communicator that determines our willingness to listen.  It has more to do with removing our fears.  More to do with setting ourselves aside long enough to pay attention.  Long enough to stay invested in the conversation.  What if our goal was not winning the point?  What if our desire was not to figure out how to get our views across, our opinions expressed, our position defended, our safety ensured, and instead we poured our whole self out in listening to the other?  How might that make communication different?  How might that help diminish the misunderstandings and the hurt feelings go away?

I used to hear those statements from Jesus - let those who have ears to hear - as being somewhat judgmental.  Sort of along the lines of the “you snooze, you lose” kind of approach.  Take it or leave it.  No skin off my nose.  But now I wonder.  I wonder if there was more of a plea, or at least an invitation in these words.  It now sounds to me as though he is begging us to pay attention, to lean in and hear the words he has to offer us, because he knows these are the words of life and more than anything else he wants us to have life, to live life, to let life fill us and transform us and give us a peace and joy that passes all understanding.  “But I say to you that listen ...”  And please let that someone be you, please come and sit, stop the noise in your own head for a little while, stop trying to justify your own existence and let me do it for you!  “How often I would have gathered you like a hen gathers her brood.”  Let those who listen be you, my beloved son, my beloved daughter, please.

Yeah, that’s what it sounds like to me these days.  At least until I read the words he wants us to listen to.  One commentator wrote “congregations fill stadiums to hear sermons on “Three Easy Steps to Love” and “Five Paths to a Better Life.” If Jesus has preached either of those sermons” we would all find this a whole lot easier, but Jesus insists on preaching the word we need rather than the word we want.  He gives us the hard stuff.

Luke 6:27-36  "But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,  28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.  30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.  32 "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.  33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.  34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.  35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.  36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Is it any wonder he had to beg us to listen?  Are these words we really want to hear, to really listen to and perhaps change our lives around?  Well, no, let’s be honest.  We live in a world that nurses grudges, that licks wounds, that lives to get even.  Talk about your swimming against the tide.  These words of Jesus here in the Gospel of Luke sound like a note out of tune in the symphony of our lives.  Love your enemies?  Come on!

Take a look though, take a listen.  Listen to this rethinking of how we live in community.  “Love your enemies” he says.  But how do we do that? We whine and complain and run off with a million excuses, a million justifications as to why that not only won’t work but it isn’t even humanly possible.  Listen Jesus, what you are asking is not going to work in the world in which we live.  Whether we are talking about international enemies, where an expression of love for those enemies will get us labeled a traitor to our nation or soft on  terrorism, or bleeding hearts or who knows what else; or talking about personal enemies who just make our lives the living hell that it can be from time to time until we develop enough backbone to get rid of them.  Surely you aren’t asking us to just put up with bad treatment because Christians are supposed to be the welcome mat for the world, allowing anyone and everyone to wipe their feet on us!

Slow down, he would stop, just listen for a moment, please?  Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.  But how in the world... Shh, listen.  Bless those who curse you.  Are you kidding me, those no good .... Quiet!  Listen.  Pray for those who abuse you.  OK, now you've gone too far, Jesus.  That just isn’t right, to put up with abuse is simply wrong, just wrong.

Listen, please just listen.  Watch what he does here.  On one level he is repeating the same charge four times. Love your enemies.  Love those who hate you.  Love those who curse you. Love those who abuse you.  Repetition to make the point.  But on another level he is shifting the call.  Love, do good, bless, pray for.  Do you see, do you hear?  Jesus doesn’t tell us to just take it.  He doesn’t tell us to just be the door mat of anyone and everyone.  What he tells us is don’t become them.  Don’t harbor the kind of hate that allows abuse and cursing to happen.  Turn it around.  Turn it over.  But notice the distance, “do good” means encounter, get close enough to impact a life somehow.  “Bless” is at arms length.  When curses are being hurled, you might need to step back.  Step back and gather yourself so that you can hurl blessings in return.  But step back, blessings aren’t in your face, they are laid at your feet.  They are handed out at a bit of distance.  And then “pray,” when the abuser is at work, then get away, get far away, run to safety.  But don’t carry the hate with you, run from it too.  Instead from your safe place you pray, pray for God’s healing and God’s love to transform the abuser.  Leave behind the inclination to hurt back, as you have been hurt.  It doesn’t help in the healing.  It doesn’t make right what has been a horrible wrong.  Let it go, and love.  Love from a distance.  Or better yet, pray, pray that God’s love can do what your love is incapable of at the moment.  Pray that God step in and love your enemies.

Do we lose something in the process.  Well, yeah, according to the world we lose something.  According to a revenge culture we lose something.  That’s why Jesus goes on to talk about losing.  If you always want to be even, what good is that?  If you always want pay back what good is that?  If you always get love in return for your love, it is really love?  The love that surrenders.  The love that pours out regardless of the return.  The love that is like God.

Why be kind?  For the good it does?  No.  Though it does to good, powerful good.  For the feeling it gives us?  No.  Though those feelings are wonderful by products of doing kindness.  Why do acts of kindness?  Because that’s what God does.  And the reward we get is that we can participate in that love.  We can love like God loves.  That’s why we do it.  Because God does.  And it starts with listening.  Deeply enough to hear.  Jesus speaks to those who listen.

I’m ready to listen.  At long last, speak to me.  Love, he whispers, just love.


Friday, July 11, 2014

Ten Thousand Rivers of Oil

Forgive this out of time issue of the Late Night Bible Study.  It is always an out of time issue, I guess, since it isn't late night anymore.  But it is pretty regularly a Saturday thing.  But this Saturday I will be driving back from Tennessee and won’t get back in time to write this.  So I brought my laptop (upsetting La Donna who is doing final prep for Mission U - ask her about it, and then back up a bit.  No, just kidding she is calm.  Sort of) and decided that I would see if I could get it done while away.

Yes, I said Tennessee.  Which means that this bible study is not just out of time, it is out of place.  I’m not in my home office, with the crazy dogs announcing every passerby and leaf out of place.  I’m not there getting ready for worship the following day, filled up with the Presence longing to be shared with the congregation to whom I am privileged to preach about that Presence week after week.  I am out of place.

News was not good from Tennessee, at least as far as I was able to understand it.  There were too many questions that I couldn't answer.  Too many concerns that weren't being resolved.  I was troubled but feeling helpless.  Too far away to feel connected, too busy to make the trip.  Just troubled.  But unable to effect any change or soothe troubled waters.

Pouring oil on troubled waters.  What an odd kind of phrase.  It wasn't too long ago that we watched with growing concern oil spewing forth into the waters of the Gulf and it didn't soothe anything.  We recoil from such an idea, despite the colloquial nature of the phrase.  Pouring oil on troubled waters.  But a long time ago and for a long time in history, there was the commonly held belief that indeed a small vial of oil could bring smoother waters for sailing.  Most ancient ship’s captains carried such vials, hoping never to have to use them.  But they clung to the belief that if needed, the vials would indeed calm the seas.

Like any proverbial truth, there were skeptics over the years.  Even Ben Franklin, apparently, conducted a series of tests and was convinced there was nothing to it.  But others claimed to have seen the effect of a small amount of oil on a large expanse of water.  There is even a YouTube video of an experiment with a spoonful of cooking oil and small pond rippled by the wind.  The oil does indeed smooth out the ripples for a time.  Maybe the experiments of Franklin and others had too much trouble, or not enough oil.  The millions of gallons spewed into the Gulf didn't do the trick, it wasn't smooth sailing for a long time afterward.  How much oil is enough?

Micah 6:6-8  "With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?  7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?"  8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

How much does it take to buy off God?  To soothe the troubled waters of our lives or the lives of those we love?  Thousands of rams, then thousand rivers of oil?  Of course, put that baldly we know better.  We know that God isn’t bought off by our promises, by overwhelming devotion, by hours of prayer and pew sitting.  We know that, and yet with the waters of our lives are troubled we often turn to bargaining.  If I promise to do this, then God will you do that?  If I offer this offering, and then up the ante every chance that I get, will God be so impressed that my desire, my hope, my desperate plea will be granted by the awed God?

Micah says don’t be ridiculous.  You can’t impress God.  You can’t out-give God.  You can’t even come up with an amount that will pay off the debt you owe.  Ten thousand rivers of oil?  A drop in the bucket.  Thousands of rams?  Who already owns the sheep on a thousand hills?  My child?  My flesh?  Already God’s from before you were formed in the womb.  Already ransomed.  Already forgiven.

Done and done.  You can’t buy off God, because God has already given you your heart’s desire.  You can’t get in God’s good graces because you never left.  You can’t have God bend the laws of time and space because they've already been bent in your favor.  Done and done.

But I want!  I want so much.  I want more than I deserve, more than I can imagine. I want for my mom to be healed, for example.  Already done.  Wait, what?  No, she is here beside me.  Broken and lost and confused and unable to function as she used to function, unable to respond as she used to respond, unable ... unable to be the mom I remember and suddenly need again.  Don’t give me your mumbo jumbo about pie in the sky and sweet by and by.  I want you to fix this, God.

Already done.  He has told you, O mortal, what is good.  What is good.  What I want is good.  It is right, it is fair, this isn't fair.  This isn't right.  This isn't good.  Not by a long shot.

Listen again, my child.  God has told you what is good.  Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.  A trilogy of living in this world.  Three actions, three poles around which life revolves.  The divergent behaviors that send us scattering around the world, around the community, around the room in the nursing home trying to do justice.
I came down to do justice.  To get things right. Things weren't right and someone had to pay.  Someone had to fix them.  We weren't getting the information we needed, we weren't being assured that the right care was being given.  I came, with the fire of God in my bones, to do some justice work down here.  Except that I found care was being given.  Provision was being made.  They genuinely were trying to do what mom needed done.  Yeah, it wasn't what I wanted, but it seems now to fit best. Here we are in right places with right relationships.  Justice.

I came down because I loved kindness.  I wanted to do something.  Something to relieve the pain, something to relieve the hurt.  I wanted an act of kindness that would fix what had gone wrong.  But there was nothing to do.  But to sit and to smile and to be present.  Just walking in the door made all the difference for a time.  Love kindness, not always to do but sometimes to be (Pastor Chris texted me that as I drove down on Wednesday. Thank you, Chris and all those who urged me to come down, even though I wasn't sure I could.)

I came down and learned, again, to walk humbly with God.  There is nothing wrong with mom.  She is different, she struggles, she isn’t who I remember.  But she is who God remembers.  And God is so present in this room it brings tears to my eyes every time I walk in.  I can’t explain it, I just know it.  I just feel it.  I just see it.  In her, from her, in the care that is provided.  She is held in those loving arms and every now and then when her mind lets her, she relaxes a little bit and leans back.  Oh for grace to lean back.

Turns out oil, even a little bit, spreads out so thinly over the surface of the water, and yet surface tension remains strong enough to counteract the ripples that would rise up and become troubled waters.  It becomes like skin holding back the disturbance.  It works, to a degree, oil on troubled waters.  Skin holding back the pain, the hurt, the disruption.  When mom is most agitated what works best is a hand on her shoulder.  Skin holding back the disturbance.  Incarnation.  That’s why I came, though I didn't know it at the time.  I came to do, but was needed to be.  I came, as Christ came, to hold back the disturbance with my skin, for a time, a moment at best.  So that we could all be reminded that healing has already happened.

The other thing I learned is that Micah doesn't give us three things to do, but one.  It is all one.  Jesus said to Martha, one thing is needed.  Justice is kindness and humility before God is justice and kindness is to see the God in each one and to walk alongside.  I came to walk alongside my mom who walked alongside me for all those years.  Her skin wrapped about me, made me, her skin is in my skin and together we hold back the disturbance.

If it would have helped I would have packed ten thousand rivers of oil to come and smooth these waters.  But all that was needed was my own skin.  Here it is.  Here I am.  Send me.


Saturday, July 5, 2014

Because I Said So

Both kids are home now.  We picked up Rhys for the holiday weekend on Thursday.  Maddie is here because, well, because she lost her job for the summer.  Long story and not mine to tell but it means that she is here with us until August when she heads back to college (and if anyone needs babysitting done - she’s looking for something to do!)  OK, it was not what we were expecting for this summer, but I have to say that I’m not sorry to spend some more time with her these weeks.  Plus it means she gets to go to Choir School with me after all, something we both have loved doing.  Now if only Rhys could find a job a little closer to home, we could spend our summers pretending that time isn’t passing and that soon they will be gone for good.

Before I get all maudlin about that, I’ll quickly point out that we are also being reminded this weekend that they are, we are all different people and sometimes bump up against one another.  And that whole “who’s in charge” thing can be a bit of a pain at times.  Yeah, they’ve been on their own, yeah we trust them to make good decisions, yeah, yeah, but here things are different.  Here you participate in the family, here you do your share.  Here you don’t hibernate in your room until mid-afternoon and then want to be up until the wee hours of the morning.  “Why?” they ask as innocently as their current states of mind will allow.  Why?  Because I said so!

Not the most articulate of arguments, I’ll grant you that.  But the buck’s gotta stop somewhere, doesn’t it?  The authority has to rest on some set of shoulders and there shouldn’t be a need to question it.  Right?  I know that isn’t how we live anymore.  We question everything, and everyone.  We grew up in a nation fixated on independence (Happy 4th of July, by the way), on the supreme power of the individual.  And while that makes great action movies, it doesn’t always work when we try to live in community.  When we try to live as a family.  When we try to be the church.

Wrestling with authority is a common problem.  Though I have often wondered why.  Is it because we are afraid of what that authority will demand of us?  We like our authorities to tell us to do what we wanted to do anyway.  Maddie is always trying to get the crazy dogs to obey.  She’ll look at Max and say “sit, Max, sit!”  Over and over, while Max looks at her like she is speaking in tongues - which I guess to Max she is.  And then finally Maddie will say, “Just keep standing there, Max.  Good boy!”

That’s the kind of authority we want.  The kind of leader we would follow.  The one who says, “whatever you guys want to do is fine with me!”  Many years ago I tried an experiment in leadership in this model.  I was directing a play and told the actors that I wasn’t going to give them direction, to just say the lines and go where they wanted to go and do whatever kind of stage business they wanted to do.  As an actor I was of the opinion that I knew more than the director anyway, so I thought, give them a chance.  They loved it, at first.  Wow, freedom to shape my own character, my own direction.  Cool!  After a couple of weeks of rehearsal I had a delegation of the whole cast coming to me to say, this isn’t working.  We don’t know where to go and what to do, and even when we knew for ourselves, we didn’t know for the others, we don’t know where they will be or how they’ll receive the lines we are giving them.  Can you please give us some direction?  I said sure and we proceeded from there.  And never had a complaint from a one of them the rest of the run.  

We don’t like authority and yet we find we need it more than we would like to admit.  We need direction, we need to be told which way to go, we need a word from on high.  So, let us have it, Zechariah.  Tell us the great pronouncement from on high, trot out your “thus saith the Lord” and we’ll grit our teeth and get on with it.  Let us have it.  What is it that we are supposed to do?  Direct us!

Zechariah 7:8-10   The word of the LORD came to Zechariah, saying:  9 Thus says the LORD of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another;  10 do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another. 

Um, that’s it?  Where’s the fire and brimstone?  Where’s the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth?  Where’s the proper positions for worship, the amount of water needed for a real baptism, where’s the definitive take on what time the service should be and whether 3 out of 4 Sundays is good enough?  Where is the divine edict on colors for sanctuaries and the settling of the pew verses chair debate?  Isn’t that the kind of stuff that God really cares about?  

Or maybe it is the big picture stuff, like world peace and human trafficking, the solutions to hunger and climate change, the corporate greed destroying the planet and the basic human rights being denied those who are different, who stand outside whatever societal norms we have settled on for the time being.  Only God cares about that stuff, right?  God and Miss America contestants, anyway.  Where is the big picture stuff in this list from Zechariah?

Render true judgments.  Well, ok, that could be big picture.  That could be justice issues galore.  And I’m sure it is.  But it also sounds small scale.  One on one.  You, watch your judging!  Watch who you point fingers toward, watch who you exclude, turn away from, shuffle to the side.  Yeah, we could go to town with that one. Call judgmental everyone who doesn’t agree with our opinions.  Shun as shallow or humanistic those who don’t want to make any judgments.  After all the Word says render true judgments, not don’t make any judgments.  So, there.

But it is followed up by Words that make our enthusiasm about the judgment thing a little less giddy.  Show kindness and mercy to one another.  Kindness and mercy?  Not inquisitions and excommunications?  Kindness and mercy.  Really?  That’s the core of the message?  That’s the “thus saith the Lord” word from the ragged prophet standing on a windswept desert rock?  Show kindness??

I mean, politeness is good and all.  But come on, don’t we have more important things to be about than being nice?  We want to change the world!  We want to save souls!!  We want to overthrow Satan and the forces of evil, whether we see those as supernatural and demonic floating around just out of our sight, or very natural and way too prevalent in our human community, not to mention the human heart.  And the fiery eyed prophet comes with a word from the Lord and it is “be nice to one another”?

This weekend we launch our series on the fifth Fruit of the Spirit identified by Paul in the Letter to the Galatians.  Kindness.  The fifth dimension (up, up and away, in my beautiful balloon ... sorry, old fogey reference) of Love.  The second branch, says Evelyn Underhill, that reaches out to the world from the center core of love, joy and peace.  Patience, our last series, was about dealing with what the world throws at us as we seek to be at work in God’s world.  Kindness, then, becomes the modus operandi of engaging with people - the beloved of God - in the world.  It is the means by which we engage, the power by which we transform the world.  By kindness.  How can this be?

Well, hang with us this series and we’ll go a little deeper.  We’ll try to find methodologies, and maybe even some explanations, some arguments for being kind.  We’ll get there.  In the meantime, why be kind?

Because I said so!  Or better, because the Lord said so.