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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Because the Good Old Days Wouldn’t Have Been So Good for Me

I just got home from a meeting of the 100th Anniversary Committee at Holy Trinity. We’re making plans for our centennial coming up in 2016. One of the ideas that keeps surfacing is having worship one Sunday the way people would have worshiped back in 1916, using the old black service book. Every time the idea comes up, I’m like a wet blanket, so now they all know that I’m against it. But, that doesn’t mean we won’t do it. Holy Trinity is not a dictatorship and I don’t always get my way. I’m starting to realize that this would be meaningful to a number of people and maybe it’s time for me to get out of the way so the train can leave the station.

Tonight, as I was driving home from the meeting, I was trying to figure out why this is something I have consistently discouraged despite the fact that folks continue to raise the idea. They obviously want to do it. What would it hurt to worship this way just once? A few would relish the archaic language with the thees and the thous. There also might be those who gain a greater appreciation for the way we worship now after experiencing the old style that Lutherans once practiced. Most people, I suspect, would find it interesting to learn what it was like to worship at Holy Trinity a hundred years ago.

But as I was thinking this through and imagined how it would feel for me to be present for this service, I suddenly realized the depth of my feelings. I literally felt nauseous. It had little to do with the style and content of the worship itself. For the first time, I understood how it probably would feel for an African-American to be asked to take part in a re-enactment of the good old days on the plantation before the Civil War.

The fact is, I would not have been leading a worship service in a Lutheran church 100 years ago. I would not have been allowed to vote, or serve on the Council, or give communion, or read aloud from the Bible in worship, or teach adult men, or usher, or even light the freakin' candles on the altar. If we decide to re-enact a worship service from 100 years ago, I should be sitting in the congregation.

There are those who will think I’m being overly sensitive about this, I’m sure. But it's honestly how I feel. And I don’t know what I’m going to do about it, when and if the time comes. Perhaps I will have resolved it for myself by then.  If it happens, I may take a vacation week and miss the whole thing. The very thought of it hurts me.

So, it’s a conundrum for me. I don’t want to impose my personal agenda on my congregation. But I also don’t want to be disingenuous with the people I serve beside. I don’t want to insist on my own way, but I also don’t want to remain silent when something is important to me. 

I wonder if Lutheran pastors worried about stuff like this 100 years ago. My impression is that they didn’t. They just told their congregations how it was going to be and that’s the way it was. While that may have some appeal to me at times, it’s not the way pastors are any more. Most of the time, that’s a relief to me. And I suspect it is to the people in my congregation, as well. 

The irony of the situation isn’t lost on me. 100 years ago, as pastor, I would have told my congregation exactly how we would be worshiping on a Sunday morning and that would be the end of the discussion. Well, not exactly. 100 years ago I would have been listening to a man tell me exactly how we would be worshiping on a Sunday morning and I would have kept my pretty little mouth shut. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

It's Messy

I HATE to pay taxes. Pastors are considered self-employed, so I don’t have taxes withheld from my paychecks. And four times a year, I have to send my estimated taxes to the IRS as well as the state of North Carolina. If you’ve ever wondered why I seem to be depressed four times and year, there’s your answer. It seems like every time I’m getting ahead and I have a nice sum of money in my bank account, it’s time to pay my quarterly estimated taxes and just like that, I’m wiped out and I have to start over. You better believe it’s depressing!

And yet, as much as I might detest paying taxes, for the people living in Jesus’ world, it was so much worse. Because it wasn’t just a matter of giving up their hard-earned money to the government. For Jews living in first century Palestine, there were several different taxes, such as temple taxes, land taxes, and customs taxes.
The tax the Herodians and the Pharisees were questioning in their confrontation with Jesus was a particularly controversial one.  It was the Imperial tax paid as a tribute to Rome.  The money it generated was used to support the Roman occupation of Israel.  So, people were required to pay their oppressors to support their own oppression. And that’s a pretty good reason to hate being taxed.

The good religious people in this story, the Pharisees, had good religious reasons for hating the Imperial tax. It was an annual flat tax. Everyone had to pay one denarius, which was a Roman coin engraved with a picture of Caesar Tiberius and a proclamation of his divinity. So, every time they paid it, they were forced to break the first two commandments.  But not everyone saw it that way. The ones who had been given power by the Romans, the Herodians, were all for it, of course.  So, this made the Imperial Tax a divisive issue in Jesus’ day. As soon as you shared your opinion about it, people knew exactly where you stood. That made it the perfect issue to trap Jesus.

Over the past few Sundays, we’ve been working our way through the days between Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem and his death on the cross in Matthew’s gospel. Things are getting tense. The Jewish leaders are watching him and they’re not happy. They question his authority. And Jesus counters by telling them three parables in a row, all with the same theme: there are some people who think they are in, and others who appear to be out. But the truth is, it’s the ones who appear to be out who are in and the ones who think they’re in who are out. It was clear to those who prided themselves on their righteousness before God that Jesus was slamming them. So, beginning with today’s passage, they’re on the attack. They set out to trap Jesus so he’ll say something damning and they can be done with him.

But first, before they start hitting Jesus with their gotcha questions, they butter him up telling him what a great guy he is. So wise, and impartial. They’re being all nicey-nice, luring Jesus just far enough into their trap so he’ll bite, the trap will snap shut and they’ll have him.

Well, Jesus sees right through their malarkey. He calmly plays along, confident he can beat them at their own game. Then they drop the bait, “Tell us, Jesus, what do you think? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Oh, yeah. This’ll get him, for sure. He can’t possibly win. Either he’ll disappoint the people by defending the tax or he’ll jeopardize himself with the Roman officials if he argues against it. He’s between the veritable rock and a hard place. And then things get really interesting.

Before answering their question, Jesus reframes it by asking to see the coin used to pay the tax. Apparently, his pockets are empty, or he might have been able to produce a denarius himself. But the pockets of his accusers are not empty. And, as it turns out, they have no problem producing a denarius. Voila! Right there in the Temple, where it would be blasphemous to carry the divine image of Caesar. Interesting, indeed!

Seeing the Roman coin, Jesus asks for some clarity. “‘Whose image is on this?”

“The emperor’s,” they say. And at that, he answers their question. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s…” Aha! We knew it! He’s a supporter of Rome! But just when they think they have him, he goes on to say, “…and to God the things that are God’s.”

Now, the passage tells us “When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.” But what I want to know is, exactly what was it that amazed them? Were they amazed at how he had escaped their trap? Were they amazed at how clever he was? Or was it his answer that amazed them?

I would be amazed if it was his answer that amazed them. Because really, what was he talking about? “Give the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” What’s that supposed to mean? People have been speculating about it for couple thousand years.

Some will say that Jesus was talking about the separation of church and state, which is a very American concept that would have been totally foreign to people living in first century Palestine.

Pastors often like to use this passage to make a case for why people need to give their money to the church. I’ve done it myself. But really, is that what Jesus was talking about here?

Maybe it’s about who has the greatest power and authority, since that seems to be what has them all in a tizzy. Obviously, God rules over all, even the Caesars of this world. So, our greatest allegiance belongs to God. I would say that it probably has something to do with that. But I honestly don’t know. It could be taken a lot of different ways. And that’s the richness of the text for us as people of faith.

It serves to remind us of how messy the Jesus Way of life can be. We all have ideas about what it looks like ideally. “I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back, no turning back.” We forsake the ways of the world and take up our cross and follow him. We give ourselves to him completely. We live into the Reign of God as our new reality…. And then when that’s not the way it seems to be working for us, we feel like miserable failures.  

In this passage, Jesus is getting real. He acknowledges that it’s not easy to live in the real world as God’s people. Yes, the image of God has been imprinted on each of us, but the image of Caesar still has power over us. For as long as we our earthly lives last, we never have the option of living for God alone without regard for the ways of the dominant culture around us. We can’t opt out of it. We have to deal with it.

Luther teaches that God is God of all of it in his doctrine of two kingdoms. God rules the world in two ways: in the earthly realm, through temporal means such as civil government, and in the spiritual realm, through the gospel of trust in Christ alone. That’s how it looks ideally. But in reality, how do we negotiate it?

Take the whole issue of taxes for us as Christians. It takes on an entirely different meaning than it did for people in Jesus’ day. We can see that our taxes provide us with all kinds of benefits: care for the elderly, highways, public safety, national defense, education, assistance for the poor. These are all things that most of us would gladly support. But our taxes also go toward frivolous government spending, corrupt politicians, and wars. Unfortunately, when we pay our taxes, there are no boxes on the form we can check off to indicate how we would like our money to be allocated. So, what do we do? We can refuse to pay, but then we would go to jail. And, I don’t know about you, but I’d rather just pay the darn tax. It’s messy.

As Christians, we’re called to act on behalf of the poor and the marginalized and to speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves. So, as someone with a passion for justice, I’ve tried hard to watch where I spend my money. I avoid shopping at Walmart because I believe they’re unjust in the way they treat their employees, and the way they put so many small companies out of business, and the way they exploit workers in other countries, all in the interest of offering the cheapest product possible to consumers and making a ton of money. So, even though it might save me a few dollars, I try not to shop at Walmart. I spend a little more and proudly shop at Target. Then after I get home and look at the label on the shirt I just bought there, I have to wonder when I notice that it was made in Bangladesh.

For a long time, I refused to shop at Hobby Lobby because they withheld birth control from their employees for religious reasons. But then, I learned that Hobby Lobby takes corporate social responsibility seriously and they start their new employees at 90% above the minimum wage. Something not many companies can say.

We like to divide the world up into the good guys and the bad guys. Things that are pure and things that are dirty. The godly and the ungodly. But that’s not reality. Often, even when you think you’re doing what’s good and pure and godly, you learn that it’s anything but. Real life is messy.

Every day, in big and small ways, I am participating in the exploitation of other people. I am part of a system of injustice and violence and power just by virtue of being an American. And yet, I claim to be a follower of one who was all about justice and non-violence and serving others.

Every once in a while, I’ll hear a story about a Christian somewhere in the world who is given a choice, either renounce your faith or be killed. The way the story always goes, the Christian stands firm, and they die for their faith. Of course, we never hear the stories about the ones who say, “Jesus who?” and go on with their lives. But these stories leave me wondering… if I were in a situation like that, what would I do? And I think, surely Christ would understand my predicament and would not want me to be killed, so what would it hurt to say the words with my lips, “I renounce Christ”, knowing full well I hadn’t done that in my heart and surely Christ would know that, too. And I would be forgiven by the God of love for saying what I needed to say to save my life.
After all, isn’t that what Jesus did with Peter who once said, “Jesus who?” to save his own skin?
I take some comfort in the fact I will never be forced to face such a moment. But I also know that real life isn’t about saying a simple yes or no to Jesus. It’s messier than that.

I don’t know what to do about this. I try the best I can to be faithful, knowing that, despite my best intentions, I often fail. I know it all sounds rather hopeless, but actually, I am ever hopeful, partly because of passages like this one where Jesus keeps life real. He knows what it means to be a person of faith living in a world that makes it difficult. He knows that good, religious people carry the image of Caesar in their pockets and into the Temple.

But, more importantly, the God of all has created us in his image. So we carry the image of God into our real lives in all their messiness. Following Jesus isn’t about doing all the right things, making all the right choices, or living pure holy lives. It’s about trusting in the relationship we have with the one whose image is imprinted on our hearts. He is the God of grace who has planted us in the messy reality of our lives, promising to love us through it.


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Remembering This Moment

I can never remember a time like this in my life. The closest I can come was with our Churchwide Assembly in 2009. As a congregation, Holy Trinity had worked tirelessly for decades toward the full inclusion of gays and lesbians within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I honestly didn’t think it would ever happen until someday after I retired, if we were lucky. And then, all of sudden, we were hearing that maybe the time had come. I couldn’t believe it, because here in the buckle of the Bible belt it didn’t look promising. But there’s a whole big ELCA out there beyond the North Carolina Synod. So, we held our breath, which wasn’t that hard to do because the tension was so high at our Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis that you couldn’t breathe anyway.

I was there at the moment it happened and it was like nothing I had ever experienced. I remember going outside to call Tim Funk from the Charlotte Observer to give him the news and church bells started ringing from Central Lutheran across the street. It felt like the end of the war to me and in my head I was hearing the words to a good old Lutheran Advent hymn, of all things:
Comfort, comfort, now my people; tell of peace! So says our God.
Comfort those who sit in darkness mourning under sorrow’s load.
To God’s people now proclaim that God’s pardon waits for them!
Tell them that their war is over; God will reign in peace forever.

For as long as I live I will remember that moment.  At the time, I thought no other moment would ever compare in my lifetime. On Friday I learned I had been wrong about that. And that line, “tell them that their war is over” rang in my head again.  

After Amendment One passed in North Carolina in May of 2012, with the approval of less than 20% of North Carolina voters, many of us were feeling disheartened and defeated. It seemed like every day we were hearing of states where same gender couples could marry and, here in North Carolina, we were living in the Dark Ages.

Three years ago, on the night our North Carolina General Assembly voted to take this very unconstitutional constitutional amendment to the voters, the interfaith community gathered here at Holy Trinity for a prayer vigil. We were devastated. And Pastor Jay Leach took to the pulpit and reminded us of the words of Theodore Parker who was quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr. a hundred years later in the civil rights movement. “The moral arc of the universe may be long, but it bends toward justice.” And for three years, we have clung to those words of hope, not knowing how long it would take, but with absolute certainly that justice would come.

Last Sunday when we gathered in this place to worship, we had no idea what was about to transpire. A seismic shift was headed our way. Nothing would ever be the same for us. Now, as we catch our breath with a day of worship before the first legal same-gender marriages take place in Charlotte tomorrow, my message to you is – Remember.

Remember the announcement Monday telling us that within days or hours, marriage equality would be realized in North Carolina. It was an absolutely nerve-wracking week for those of us who were watching it closely. Social media made it possible to follow minute by minute. We were tweeting, texting, messaging, emailing, and even using the telephone. We followed each development, hanging onto every glimmer of hope. It was a lot to keep up with!

Every day I woke up and thought, this is the day. By Thursday I didn’t know how much more of it I could take it. On Friday, when the campaign for Southern Equality told everyone in Asheville to get to the courthouse, my head was about to explode. My UU colleague, Robin Tanner called me on the phone, “What is happening?” she asked. Dunno. But after our conversation, I immediately texted her, “Can’t stand it. I’m going uptown.” She texted me back, “Me too.” My gut was telling me, “This is it!” and I rushed to the Mecklenburg County courthouse.

Cathy and Joanne, and Kevin and Aaron met me there. They applied for their marriage licenses. Then we waited around until the Register of Deeds’ office closed. And that was it. No decision yet. So no one was getting married in Charlotte on Friday.

When I got to my car, shortly after 5:00, I opened my email and there was something new from one of our lawyers. They had been keeping us updated throughout the week. And while everyone was focused on the political drama in Greensboro, our case was rapidly approaching the finish line in Asheville. These words from his email jumped out at me: “We had a conference call with Judge Cogburn at 3:45…. He took comments from every register of deeds counsel that nothing more needed to be filed, and then commented that any more filings would only delay the outcome – then scoffed at the Tillis/Berger motion to intervene.” Finally, a voice of reason!

And then, within the hour, it was over. Amendment One was ruled unconstitutional. Remember that moment. Remember the exact moment the moral arc of the universe touched justice in North Carolina.

Remember. There have been other such times in history. And remembering this time, in a sense, puts us in solidarity with people of other times who have worked, and waited, and hoped for justice. Imagine what it must have felt like to live in slavery your whole life and learn that you finally were free. Or how people felt when World War II ended. Or when women were at long last able to vote in this country. October 10, 2014 gives us a memory like that.

Remember. In remembering, we know that we stand in a long line of people of faith who have worked toward justice throughout history, the kind of justice the prophet Amos spoke of when he said, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an every-flowing stream.” On Friday, I understood how justice rolls down like waters in a way I never had before. When the day was over and I finally had a moment to absorb the events of the past few hours, justice was rolling down like waters from my eyes. I will always remember those tears. Many of them were shed in thanksgiving that there are so many people who will never remember what we remember. All the children born in North Carolina that day and every day that follows will never live in the kind of world we were living in just two days ago.

But, the fight isn’t over. There are still people in South Carolina and Tennessee and about 20 other states where the struggle continues. And for many of you who gay, lesbian or transgender, the struggle may continue in your place of employment or within your own families.

During the Civil Rights movement, Dr. King was asked about the futility of changing the law when you can’t change people’s hearts. And he replied, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that’s pretty important.” Changing North Carolina’s marriage laws is pretty important. But it doesn’t make people love us and it doesn’t end the fight for justice. We still have work to do. Remember.

Most of all, my hope is that we will continue to remember after the celebrations have passed. Remember and be transformed by this extraordinary time in our lives. We fought injustice. And we learned what it’s like to press on, never knowing if we will live to see the victory, but hoping and trusting that God is at work, even in the darkest of times. We have been given a blessed memory. We’ve learned first-hand that it really is true --The moral arc of the universe may be long, but it bends toward justice. And we’re learned that it doesn’t just bend on its own. We can’t sit back and wait for it to bend. It takes effort. We are a part of the bending.

Remember. For in the larger context, this isn’t simply about justice for gay people. It’s about justice for all people. As people of God, we are called to stand on the side of justice. Yes, justice for men and women who want the freedom to have a life with the one they love. But justice also for the chronically poor, people without sufficient medical care, young adults with life-crippling student loans, people who come to this country seeking a better life for themselves and their children, people of color who continue to be denied the privileges white people take for granted, the list could go on and on.

As God’s people, we stand on the side of justice by walking alongside those who suffer injustice. Remembering that moments like Friday really do happen makes it just a little easier to press on. So remember, be transformed, and participate in God’s promise of justice.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Get out of the way, Mr. Tillis, cuz this baby is coming!

I’m not a big fan of uncertainty. I don’t like surprises, even when they’re good ones. I like to know what I can expect and then I appreciate it when my expectations are met, thank you very much. Of course, life seldom goes that way, which is why I’m often stressed out. I’ve tried to deal with it by practicing contemplative prayer, taking brisk walks, or soaking in the tub. And for the most part, I’ve been coping. But this week has put me OVER THE TOP!

On Monday, my friends and I were whooping it up when we learned that it would be hours or days before marriage equality became a reality in North Carolina. Clergy in Charlotte who have been fighting the good fight planned a celebration. The day it all comes down, we’re going to meet for an interfaith service of celebration followed by a champagne reception. We lined up a worship service with musicians and speakers. We found people to provide cake, champagne, sparkling grape juice, paper products, tablecloths, floral arrangements, etc. Because Holy Trinity is in a great location in the center of town, we agreed to host the event. I picked up decorations for the outside of the church. One of our parishioners made new wedding wreaths just for the occasion. We scrambled and were ready if it happened on Tuesday...but it didn’t.

On Wednesday, I had conversations with couples who are so thrilled to finally be emerging from the Dark Ages in North Carolina (the past 2+ years since the travesty of Amendment One passed in our state), that they don’t want to wait another day before they are married. So we made arrangements to meet at the courthouse at the first opportunity. The three couples are all members of Holy Trinity. All have been together for a long time, and all have children (eight total), whom they want to have present when they marry on the courthouse steps. As far as I’m concerned, these people have been married in God’s eyes for years. And soon they will have the opportunity to be married in North Carolina’s eyes as well. It’s about damn time!

But no, apparently it isn’t. Because we continue to wait. This morning I was so confident that it would happen today that I wore my clergy shirt (something I never do midweek unless I have a funeral). I recruited people to lug chairs to the sanctuary for more seating for the service. Others set the tables up for the reception. And then this afternoon at about ten till five, BAM!

For a reason I don’t understand, the judge is allowing some politicians to enter the fray at the 11:00 hour and put a kibosh on everything. How is this even possible? Lawyers continue to assure us that they don’t have a leg to stand on, so why is this happening? And how long will we have to wait? The driving force behind this is Thom Tillis, who is running for the US Senate in November. He has done a wonderful job of tearing down North Carolina during his time spent in the General Assembly with his rabidly conservative agenda. And now he wants an opportunity to do the same thing to our country. Of course, he’s whipping up his base to get them to the polls. I wonder if he realizes that he’s also energizing his opposition. But none of that is really the point.

The point is, there are people in North Carolina who have been waiting all their lives to receive the same protections and benefits under the law as their straight counterparts. Men, women and children have been scorned and denigrated long enough because of whom they love. Every day those who oppose marriage equality continue to hang onto this losing battle is one more day that hatred and bigotry continue to hold thousands of North Carolina families hostage. Enough is enough!

So I sit and wait and trust in the promise that love is stronger than hate and love always wins. A friend said today that it’s a lot like waiting for a baby to be born. You know it’s coming soon, but you don’t know exactly when. So you wait for the happy day. And I thought, yeah, that’s a good analogy for this week. But tonight I’m imagining that I’m near the end of my pregnancy and I’ve begun to have labor pains when some deluded fool comes along and tries to convince everyone around me that I’m not pregnant after all and there’s no baby coming. Excuse me?! 

Monday, October 6, 2014

To Boldly Go Where You Have Never Gone Before

I stood in the doorway to my dorm room and announced: “It looks like pexadition in here!”

My roommate looked at me with a blank face and then asked, “What on earth are you talking about?”

“It looks like pexadition in here.”

“Pexadition? I have no idea what that means.”

“You don’t know what pexadition is!?” How was it possible that she had lived this long and didn’t know what the word pexadition meant?  

So, I started asking other people in my freshman dorm and NOBODY had any knowledge of the word. And yet, as I was growing up, I had heard it on a regular basis. Most often, it was used by mom as she pronounced judgment on the way I kept my bedroom. “It looks like pexadition in here!” Pexadition, as I understood it, meant that the place was a dump, like the slum area we had back home in Hamilton, Ohio.

I decided to go to the source. So I called my mom up and I asked her about it. Well, as it turns out, pexadition was really Peck’s Addition. It was named for a man named Peck, who owned the land where the dump was located and where the housing projects were built for the poor people who lived in my hometown. The word I was using had no meaning for anyone who didn’t come from Hamilton, Ohio. And that was the first time I can recall realizing how small my world had been growing up. It took going away to college, a whole 3 hours up I-75 from Hamilton, for me to experience that.

Growing up in a city of nearly 80,000 people, I considered myself a woman of the world, but Bowling Green State University was an eye-opener for me. One semester I took a class in Black Literature. I thought it sounded interesting and it was. I was introduced to wonderful authors like James Weldon Johnson, Maya Angelou, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks and Nikki Giovanni.

I also learned how it felt to be “the other.” For some reason I couldn’t understand, the other students in the class hated me. I thought this was unfair because they didn’t know me. All they knew about me was the color of my skin, and that was all it took. I thought they would appreciate the fact that, as a white person, I cared enough to learn about black writers, but that was not the case. They clearly resented me for being in their class and they let me know I didn’t belong there. If I ever dared to speak, they jumped all over me. So, I learned to put a sock in it.

Near the end of the term, there was a lot of buzz about Nikki Giovanni coming to campus for a poetry reading. I decided it was an opportunity not to be missed, so I went. Every black person on campus was there. I had never been in such company and admit that I felt a bit uncomfortable when I took my seat and looked around; I could see no other white faces.

Before Ms. Giovanni spoke, some music started playing and everyone rose to their feet. I joined them, although I had no idea what was happening. Suddenly, I was surrounded by thousands of people who started singing a song I had never heard in my life. They all knew every single word, which they sang with conviction. (I later learned that it was a hymn now in our Lutheran hymnal, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, written by James Weldon Johnson. It’s known to many as “the black national anthem.”)

Wow! There was a whole other world out there that I never knew existed. I went to class with some of these people and I knew nothing about their world. Being a part of the majority, I figured they probably knew quite a bit about my world, but until that moment, I naively thought that our worlds were basically the same. I had been so wrong about that.

The best thing about going away to college is experiencing worlds different than the one you have always known. It is a transformative experience and clearly what it means when we say that once a person grows, they can never shrink back to their old size. And the thing is, until you’re challenged with new worlds, you live with the illusion that the world you’ve always known is all there is.

I remember years ago hearing the story of an ant, who lived what he thought was a very full life, only to discover that he had been living under a bushel basket all along. When he finally crawled out from under it, he was amazed to see how much larger the world was than he had ever imagined. He began to explore this big new world. Eventually, he discovered that he was inside a greenhouse and the world outside the green house was even bigger than he could ever have imagined. As the story goes on, you learn that the greenhouse was located inside the Astrodome, and the little ant’s world still had some expanding to do.  

When our world expands, we have an opportunity to be transformed by the experience. That’s why I think it’s important for young people to move away from their hometown, at least for a while. Go to college, join the military, get a job in another city… just move out so you can move on!

I’m not talking about travel. Travel may enrich us, but rarely does it truly transform us. Travel makes us  objective observers of other worlds, but we don’t get to know how it feels to actually live in those worlds. It’s much like visiting the zoo where we see exotic animals that stir our imagination, but we have no real connection to them.

I have mixed feelings about mission trips. Financially, they don’t make a lot of sense and in most cases the people served would be better off if we just sent them the money and gave them the tools to do the work themselves. But really, the value of mission trips isn’t found in the work the team accomplishes.

I’ve had the honor of taking several mission trips with college students through the years. It usually involves plucking an affluent young person up from their comfortable middle-class life and dropping them into a culture of poverty. Initially, there is always a period of culture shock. And then there comes a time when I’ll hear team members express their gratitude for their way of life back home with statements like, “It really makes you appreciate what you have.” Some of them never get past that. But those who are able to empathize with the ones they are serving alongside and form relationships with them come to ask questions like, “Why is there so much disparity in the world?” and “How might my way of life back home contribute to it?” That’s when transformation takes place, when lives are changed forever.

The fact is, there are people all around us who live in worlds we can’t begin to imagine. Back when I was in seminary, I was taken to a part of Columbus, Ohio most people who lived there knew nothing about. It was like a third world country in the middle of the city. There were no marked streets. There was no sewer system. People were living in makeshift housing. How was this possible, I wondered? The people of Columbus traveled from work to home, from church and out to eat, to school and to sporting events, over and over again, and yet they never came to this part of the city. An entirely different world existed in the midst of them, and they had no awareness of it.

Through the years, I’ve discovered multiple worlds alongside my world that I had no awareness of. There certainly is a different world that the chronically poor live in that is foreign to anything I have ever experienced. But there also is a world the extremely wealthy inhabit that I know nothing about. There is a world undocumented immigrants experience that I can’t begin to imagine. A world transgender people inhabit, Muslims, military families, Alzheimer’s patients, wheelchair-bound people… The list could go on and on. They are all people I can’t begin to understand from my own limited experience, much less presume to know what they want or need.


The life of transformation that God calls us to be a part of involves entering into worlds we know nothing of.  We could play it safe and stay within our own little world and do just fine, but I believe God wants more for us. This is just one more facet of what Jesus meant when he encouraged his disciples not to cling to their lives, but to let them go. He assures us that it is in losing our safe little lives that we find real life, full of surprise and adventure, and overflowing with love, peace and joy! It is a life that bravely moves out and moves on, facing worlds we never could have imagined. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Does God have a plan?

I was at a gathering of professional church leaders this week and heard a speaker making a strong case for the fact that God doesn’t have a plan for us. He seemed to be reacting to people who like to explain whatever happens by saying that it was all a part of God’s plan. The idea that God has a plan for each of us can be comforting when your cancer goes into remission. But it’s downright disturbing when it has spread into all your vital organs. It’s hard to see how the God of goodness and love could plan such a thing. And if that’s what it means to say that God has a plan, I would agree with him.

That’s why some of the clichés used by Christians drive me up a wall. One is, “There but by the grace of God go I.” It’s used when we see someone who is struggling in life and we take comfort in the fact that our lives may not be great, but they’re not as bad as the miserable-excuse-for-a-life that poor slob is living. Saying, “There but by the grace of God go I” begs the question, “Why would a God of grace decide to give you a life of ease, while inflicting a life of suffering on someone else?” It doesn’t make sense. How could the grace of God be dispensed to some but withheld from others like that?

Another cliché that drives me up a wall and onto the ceiling is, “God is good… all the time.” This is something I always hear when things have gone well in a person’s life. “We got the offer we wanted on the house. God is good…” And then someone will nod in agreement and finish the thought, “…all the time.” All the time, God is good. I don’t have a problem with the statement. My beef is with the times we use it. I’ve never heard those words spoken by someone whose life has just gone down the toilet. And yet, if God is good all the time, that would include those times when we’re one flush away from losing everything.

So, if that’s the sort of thing we mean when we say that God has a plan for us, I would agree with the speaker. But then he supported his point with the story from Acts 1, where the apostles needed to find a replacement for the vacancy left by Judas. They decided to do this by saying a prayer and casting lots. I think the speaker’s point was that it’s ludicrous to think God has a specific plan for us. It’s all just a crap shoot. 

I've been thinking about this for several days now and have decided that I can't agree with him. If anything, the story from Acts seems to refute his point. As it turned out, God did have a plan for the apostles. It didn’t happen for his followers according to their timeline, nor did it happen in the way they had expected. But God chose an apostle to round out the twelve. His name was Saul. (After God chose him, he became known as Paul.)  

I don’t think it’s true that God doesn’t have a plan for us. But I do believe that we can’t possibly presume to know what that plan is. Such presumption always gets us into trouble because we can’t get around assigning our very human way of thinking to God. We assume things should go a certain way based on the bias we have for whatever works best for us. This puts us in the position of judging God’s performance according to how well God is meeting our expectations. We blame God when tragedy strikes, or we pat God on the back when things go well. But God is so much bigger than that. We can’t presume to see the ways of creation as the Creator does. So how can we possibly presume to understand God’s plan?

Of course, this also means we have to admit that we ourselves have no control over God’s plan. We can’t make it unfold the way we would like it to no matter how hard we try. The fact is, it will unfold, often despite our best efforts.

What I want is to be a willing participant in God’s plan. I want God to use me in accomplishing his will. I learned from Martin Luther that God’s will is going to be done with or without my help. But it’s a lot better for me when it’s done with me than when it’s done despite me.

God’s gonna do what God’s gonna do. I can’t begin to imagine what that is. I liken God’s plan to a swiftly flowing stream. It’s headed somewhere, but I have no idea where that might be. It’s always moving, always changing. I can sit back and watch the stream flow by, or I can jump into it and be a part of it. When I find myself in it, I can resist it and expend untold energy trying to change its direction. Or I can be open to where it takes me. I can give myself to the stream and allow it to pull me with it. That takes openness and a lot of trust. And it’s what I’m trying to do these days. I might bump up against some rocks from time to time, I might be thrown upon the shore, or thrust into the depths so that I’m gasping for air. But all that is a part of what it means to be in relationship with a God who has a plan.  

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Jesus' Ice-Bucket Challenge

I remember the low raspy sound of a man grunting in exasperation because he couldn’t use his tongue. He resorted to communicating with a pad and pencil. I was too young to recall the sound of his voice before he got sick. But I do remember what it was like to watch a once vibrant man who threw a softball and ran around the bases go to needing the assistance of a cane to get around, and then a wheel-chair. I remember how the simplest tasks in life became impossible for him to perform. Most of all, I remember the sadness in my mother, as she watched her husband, just a 45 year-old man, lose the use of his body. Because I was a little girl at the time, I didn’t realize the cruelest part of the disease. While my father’s body was wasting away, his mind was functioning perfectly, so that he was fully aware of what his disease was doing to him. It was more than he could bear and he wanted it to end. When I was in first grade, his prayers were answered, and he died.

The letters A.L.S. have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. But I’ve rarely heard other people talk about it. And now, for the past few weeks, all that has changed. I’ve been hearing people talk about ALS more than I ever have in my life.

If you’re not on social media, you may not know what I’m talking about. It’s called the ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge. And what happens is that a person who is challenged has the option of making a contribution to the ALS Association or they can dump a bucket of ice water on their head. Most people choose to do both. And then they challenge their friends to do the same. Every day, I’ve been watching videos of celebrities and Facebook friends dumping buckets of ice-water on their heads. It may sound like a gimmick, or just something trendy to do, but apparently it’s working because contributions to the ALSA are way up. Over the course of one month, they have topped 100 million dollars. Awareness about ALS among the public is up, too. How can this not be a good thing?

Because of my personal connection, I’ve been thinking about it a lot. And in many respects it reminds me of the gospel lesson for this Sunday, Matthew 16:21-28. (Yeah, preachers find that pert near EVERYTHING reminds them of Sunday’s text.)

Peter has just experienced his bright, shining moment. When he’s asked who he thinks Jesus is by none other than Jesus himself, he rises to the occasion. “You are the Messiah!” he declares. Jesus is pleased and he praises Peter up and down, calling him a rock. But then Jesus starts talking about what it means for him to be the Messiah and it wasn’t what Peter had in mind at all. He’s going to be arrested and killed? “No way”, Peter says. “That’s not what I meant when I said you were the Messiah.” And just like that, Jesus comes back at him and shoots him down. In a few short verses, Peter goes from rock star to Satan.

First Peter was smokin’ hot, and then he gets cold water thrown on him. No doubt it caused some steam! (Oh, forgive me for that.)

When we talk about throwing cold water on something, the expression usually refers to a downer. We’re flying high and everything’s coming up roses and along comes someone who throws cold water on us and ruins all our fun. That’s what the expression means, and Jesus certainly threw an ice-bucket of water on Peter. But we don’t only use the metaphor of cold water to turn a moment of elation into a sobering confrontation with reality. We also use cold water to awaken people and shock some sense into them. There’s nothing like splashing a little cold water in your face to startle you from your sleep-walking so you’re ready to pay attention. And it seems that what Jesus has to say in this gospel text does that, too. His words are like cold water in both ways. To those who were waiting for him to come into his glory as a powerful hero who will defeat their enemies, the vision he lays out for his Messiah-ship is a real downer. But that’s not why he tells his disciples that he’s headed for a cross. He sees that they’re living in la-la land and he wants then to wake up to reality. He’s inviting them to see the truth that will change their lives.

“There is a cross in my future”, he tells them. “And if you want to follow me, there will be a cross in your future, too.” Of course, this applies to us, as well. If we want to follow Jesus, there is a cross involved.

What does that mean to you? I mean, what does it really mean? Not, what have you been taught it should mean because you’re a Christian? But what does it really mean to you to take up your cross and follow him?

I’ve struggled a lot with this over the years. One thing I can tell you for sure is that I can’t buy into the Jesus paid the price for my sins thing. For starters, that concept wasn’t a part of Christian thinking for the first thousand years of Christianity. What came to be known as the satisfaction theory of atonement was the creation of a man named Anselm.

Beyond knowing the history of the concept that Jesus paid the price for my sins on the cross, the whole idea doesn’t make logical sense to me. I believe in a God of unconditional love. So it makes no sense to me that God would only be able to forgive us on the condition that first he kill his son to pay the price for our sins. Really, does someone have to be killed before God can forgive? I think that’s the very thing Jesus came to refute in the way he lived. This idea that when things don’t go our way, somebody has got to pay, was what he gave his life for. He could have cursed those who crucified him, and he would have been justified in doing so. But instead, he forgave them. His followers seemed to get that, because after Jesus died, they didn’t do what the followers of great leaders normally do under such circumstances. Not one of them sought to avenge his death. They understood that this is what it means to take up the cross and follow Jesus.

A lot of people think that taking up a cross means we all need to suffer, or that we should all try to be good little martyrs. But I’ve come to see the cross in other ways. I see the cross as evidence of the absolute humanity of Jesus. I see it as a symbol for defying the ways of power and violence that so dominate our world. I see the cross as a model for resistance of the status-quo. I see the cross as evidence of our human propensity to eliminate the voices that call for justice, mercy, compassion and love. I see the cross as putting to death the ways of death that keep us from truly living so that we might be resurrected to new life.

How do you see the cross? The key to following Jesus is found in the cross. This is not a sidebar to the life of faith. It’s at the very center. “If you don’t get that,” Jesus says, “then you don’t get me.” Our lives as followers of Jesus are shaped by the cross. It’s where God’s love conquers the world of power and violence with vulnerability, mercy and grace. It’s where death leads to life.

There is a challenge in Jesus’ words: “You say you want to follow me? Well, this is how it is. There is no following me without taking up the cross.”

Every day on Facebook I see people challenging one another to dump a bucket of ice water on their head for a worthy cause. And one by one, the challenge is met with enthusiasm. What would it mean for us to rise to Jesus’ challenge -- to take up our cross and follow him?

It’s more difficult than dumping a bucket of water on your head. It’s not something you can video-tape and post on the internet. When we’re baptized, water is poured on our heads and we receive the sign of the cross on our foreheads. When we die, the sign of the cross is made over our bodies. And in between those crosses that mark us and set us apart as Christ’s people, there is the challenge of the cross that meets us every day of our lives.

Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”




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