Sunday, May 29, 2011

Theological Tap Dancing? (or dancing around the center)

One of the skills I developed after being ordained was theological tap dancing. It happens when you have to preach about something that you yourself may not hold to be true, and rather than share your truth, which might be upsetting to others, you tap dance around it. You don’t exactly tell the truth, but you don’t exactly lie about it either. As I started to question the teachings and practices of my denomination, I found myself tap dancing on Sunday mornings more and more. And let me tell you, it wore me out.

When I came to Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Charlotte, I put away my tap shoes. I put them so far away that I don’t think I could find them now if I tried. The love I have known within this faith community has actually freed me to do that. I trust that they will continue to love me, even when I might say things that disturb them. That’s not only liberating for me as their pastor, but it’s liberating for them as well. For my role is not to make good little Lutherans out of them or to tell them what to believe or how to think. I’m here to mess with their minds so they don’t stay stuck in a place of comfort with easy, pat answers but move forward in their faith journeys. You might say my role within our faith community is to be an irritant.

That being said, I’m going to be honest with you about a part of our traditional Lutheran worship that makes me squirm like a worm on a hot skillet. It's the Nicene Creed. Historically, it's been the definitive word on how we Christians are supposed to understand God. My discomfort with saying the Creed in public worship increases with each passing year. It feels like a different flavor of fundamentalism. Fundamentalists have the definitive answer to every question. Fundamentalists must have certainty and they can’t deal with ambiguity. Fundamentalists tell us that there is only one right way to believe. Reciting a creed feels that way to me. It feels like we’re saying, “Here’s what you gotta believe about God.”

Creeds are not about faith; they are clusters of beliefs. There’s a big difference between belief and faith, although most people seem to use those words interchangeably. In Harvey Cox’s book, The Future of Faith, he does an excellent job of making the distinction. He cites a story by the Spanish writer Miguel Unamuno, that goes like this…
A young man returns from the city to his native village in Spain because his mother is dying. In the presence of the local priest she clutches his hand and asks him to pray for her. The son doesn’t answer, but as they leave the room, he tells the priest that, much as he would like to, he cannot pray for his mother because he does not believe in God. “That’s nonsense,” the priest replies. “You don’t have to believe in God to pray.”

The priest in the story recognizes the difference between faith and belief. Faith is more at the core of our being than belief. Beliefs, you can argue about. But not faith. Faith is putting your trust in something or someone. It’s a way of life. It’s a relationship. It’s of the heart. It’s fluid. It grows. A belief is more like an opinion. It’s of the head. It’s concrete. It’s possible that it may one day be discarded, but it never changes.

In his book, Cox separates Christian history into three eras. First, there was the Age of Faith which stretched from Jesus to the time of Constantine in the fourth century. Then, from the time of Constantine until now, we’ve been in an Age of Belief. The history of how that happened is too complicated to get into here, but it’s fascinating and I would recommend that you pick up a copy of Cox’s book to read about it. In a nutshell, there was a shady collusion between Constantine and the bishops that was all about power. Each wanted to use Christianity for their own purposes and it culminated at the Council of Nicea, which gave us the Nicene Creed.

The original purpose of the Creed was to unify the empire by weeding out anyone who didn’t agree. It became the law that led thousands of heretics to be tortured and burned at the stake. Over the next 1500 years, although most Christians quit executing those who disagreed with them, Christianity became all about believing in the right way.

Most of us lifelong Lutherans were educated in the faith by memorizing the right answers handed down to us from Luther himself in the Catechism. We weren’t nurtured into the life of faith so much as told what to believe. Our Lutheran way of indoctrinating children hasn’t served the church well. Is it any wonder that so many people ran from the Lutheran church as soon as they were confirmed? Should it surprise us to see the mess our denomination is in today when we continue to come at the life of faith as if it’s all about rooting out who’s right and who’s wrong?

But now, Cox says, we’re entering a new age, the Age of the Spirit. Much like the early church, it’s an age of faith. We’re returning to a time when doctrinal questions aren’t all that important. There were lots of different beliefs about God floating around in the first centuries of Christianity, and no need to agree on every point. The important thing was not belief, it was faith. Not identifying correct doctrines, but experiencing a relationship with God. In the early church there was never a single Christianity. There were many. It wasn’t until the time of Constantine that we got so hung up on rooting out heretics.

The fact is, despite the church’s attempts to root out heretics, they have always been with us. Thank God! For without them, where would we be? Heresy is healthy for the church. It’s always been the heretics, the ones traveling on the fringes, who have moved the Christian church to a new place. Those are the ones who have been God’s agents of transformation.

It seems to me that if there is any purpose for the Nicene Creed, it is that it gives us a center. We don’t have to agree about everything. But the Creed reminds us where the center has been for the Christian church over the past 1600 years or so. That center remains significant for us as we find our way on the journey of faith. We may be far from the center, but there’s value in knowing where the center is because, in some way, I suspect it’s that center that holds us in community even as it holds us in God’s presence.

My favorite definition of God is: God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. Our Trinitarian understanding of God isn’t the only way God is experienced in the world. For us Christians, it is our center, but there are other centers for other peoples. And while our centers may be different, often our circles overlap so that those of us who have moved far from the center may find ourselves in more than one circle at the same time.

Way back before the Nicene Creed told us what we have to believe about God, the metaphor of the dance was used to describe the Triune God. It’s a dynamic faith image. It’s relational, it moves, it grows, it includes. Father, Son, and Spirit are inviting us to dance with them. And maybe, that’s the key to saying the Creed together on a Sunday morning. It’s not to trap us so we’re forced to tap dance around the truth. But it invites us into a circle dance. Perhaps it’s something like dancing around a maypole. None of us is required to stand in the center and make a statement of belief that is a litmus test for God’s people. But we can dance around that center, some close to it, some way out on the fringes, some weaving in and out. The important thing is that we’re all in the circle; we’re all in the dance.

I so prefer a circle dance to tap dancing.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A respecter of fences

When I was a kid, fences always seemed to be a problem.

The Stitsinger’s had a lovely white fence in their front yard with a top just about as wide as a balance beam. (Not that I would have known what a balance beam was back when I was a little kid.) I don’t remember how I ever got up there, because it was taller than I was; I suspect somebody gave me a boost. What I do remember is thinking I could walk along the top of that fence like a cat. Well, I was no cat. It was my collar bone that I broke. Then I had to walk around all wrapped up with padding around my shoulders, looking like a linebacker. Yeah, a very small linebacker, but still…

Hawkeye’s backyard butted up against ours. She hated kids coming into her yard so much that she had a very tall chain link fence installed around the perimeter to keep us out. It was upside down with the pointy part that’s usually near the ground on top. We called her Hawkeye because all she ever did was stand at her window and watch what we were doing. When we played baseball she waited for one or our balls to go over the fence into her yard. And if one of us dared to climb the fence to retrieve it, she would call the police. I know this because my brother did it once. I thought he was the bravest person in the world. Even if I had been big enough to climb that fence, I would have been too terrified to try. When I threw a ball and it ended up in her yard, I just kissed it good-bye.

There was a monkey living down the street from me. His name was Cocoa. He wore a little collar that was attached to a chain which was looped around the trunk of a tree. I used to stand behind the fence that encircled his yard and watch his antics for hours. As time passed and I got to know him better, it felt like we had become dear friends and the fence that separated us seemed completely unnecessary. He was so sweet and his eyes were so kind. So, one day I decided it was time to take our relationship to the next level and I climbed over the fence with a banana in my hand. I spoke in a gentle voice as I inched my way toward him. He watched me intently. Then, when I was within his reach, I held out the banana. Cocoa snatched it from hand. This was just as I had imagined it. Cocoa and I were going to become famous friends. But before I got too far into my dream for our future together, he let out a high pitched scream that sounded just the way Cheetah did when she got all excited in the Tarzan movies. And then Cocoa-zilla bit me in the arm!

Sometimes it seems that fences are constructed to keep us away from what would surely bring us happiness. It might feel like a good sturdy fence only serves to separate us from our heart’s desire and rob us of our freedom. But then there are the times when fences protect us.

Part of becoming a grown up is learning to be a respecter of fences.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Before I kick the bucket...

Do you have a bucket list? The point of a bucket list is to identify the stuff you would like to do before you die. Of course, it should be stuff that’s actually possible for you. For example, having a fling with Johnny Depp doesn’t belong on my bucket list because, as much I might like to do that, I know it just ain’t gonna happen. On the other hand, items on a bucket list shouldn’t be so doable that they aren’t a challenge, either. They should stretch us to accomplish those things in our lives that bring us a feeling of completion. As I see it, the point of making a bucket list is so that we will live life to its fullest, with no regrets.

I’m on my third bucket list now. I keep doing most of the things on my list, or my desires change, and then I have to throw the old one out and start a new one. I remember that my first bucket list, which I wrote when I was in my 40s, had thirty items on it. Now I’m down to ten.

1. Retire in good health.
2. See the Grand Canyon.
3. Travel to Italy.
4. Find an extraordinary man to share my life with me as I grow old.
5. Enjoy a close relationship with my (as yet unborn) grandchildren.
6. Learn to paint with watercolors.
7. Sleep in every Sunday morning for at least a year.
8. Can my own home-grown vegetables.
9. Spend a week at a spa.
10. Have a home in the mountains.

That’s all very doable. And yet, I’m starting to realize that the best reason to stick around on this planet as long as possible isn’t so I have time to scratch items off a bucket list. It’s so much more than that. It’s being able to look back on the glorious triumphs as well as the miserable failures of my life with thanksgiving for the ways those experiences have shaped me. It’s cherishing the ordinary days and the contentment they bring. It’s an awareness of the times when I have spent myself in love for others without holding back, and because of those times, knowing that my life has been worthwhile. And it’s trusting that in big and small ways I’m always in the process of becoming the person God created me to be.

Maybe the real gift of getting older is the realization that life is about more than scrambling to get it all done before we die. It’s about being grateful for all we’ve been able to experience along the way. Within the past few years I’ve taken up residence in a grateful place. It’s more than enough for me. I know that, whether I accomplish all the items on my bucket list or not, when I finally kick that bucket, it will be full. Yes, I'm grateful.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

For a lifetime or for life?

Why do we tend to measure the success of a relationship by its longevity? If a relationship lasted only a year, we assume it was a failure, and if it went on for 50 years, we deem it a success. But I’ve been to more than one 50th anniversary event when I felt the only thing we were celebrating was sheer stubbornness and the tragedy of two ruined lives. There is a difference between a relationship for life and a relationship for a lifetime. The best relationships bring us life. If we’re among the lucky ones, we get to enjoy a life-giving relationship for a lifetime. But a lot of us aren’t that lucky and we come to a time when we are forced to choose between a lifetime with another person and a life.

If you’re married, it’s not easy to walk away from a relationship. If you’re a member of a Christian church, it’s even more difficult because it probably means going against the teachings of your faith community. I don’t know any Christian churches that condone divorce. They all teach that divorce is not what God wants for his people. That’s hard to deal with if you’re a Christian contemplating ending your marriage.

I’ve heard some preachers who have blamed all the ills of society on the increase in divorces. Our prisons are full, young people are on drugs, and adults can’t read, all because of divorce. These are preachers who like to believe they have the answers to all of life’s problems, and those answers are always simple ones, although the problems they address are complex. Their simplistic answers are drawn from connections that don’t exist, based on preconceived ideas that often prove false.

One of the statistics that I’ve often heard preachers cite is that one out of every two marriages in the United States ends in divorce. You’ve probably heard it too. It’s so often repeated, and so widely accepted, that it’s hard to convince people that it’s simply NOT TRUE! The statistic came about by comparing the number of people in a given year who were married and the number of people in that same year who were divorced. The problem is that the people who were divorced that year came from the pool of all married people, and not just from those who happened to get married in that particular year. So, it’s not true that half of all marriages will end in divorce. If you examine the trends in statistics, the divorce rate is actually declining. Of course, that’s not useful information if you want to convince people that the reason why the world is going to hell in a hand-basket is because of the high divorce rate.

The point I’m making is that there is a prevailing bias in the Christian church against divorced people. In some of the more legalistic churches, the judgment placed upon them is blatant. Divorced persons are removed from membership or given secondary status. In more liberal churches, the judgment is more subtle. Although no one comes out and openly labels divorced men and women sinners, the attitude is clearly felt. When you divorce, you have failed to be the kind of person the church expects you to be.

Christians who insist that marriage is for a lifetime will continue to judge the success of a relationship by its longevity. I suspect that they teach this because they fear what might happen if they didn’t. If they began to emphasize relationships for life over relationships for a lifetime, would the divorce rate be even greater than it is? The fact is, preaching against divorce doesn’t seem to deter people from divorcing. In research conducted by the Barna Research Group, divorce rates among conservative Christians were higher than those for mainline Christians and significantly higher than the divorce rates for agnostics and atheists. I wonder how the divorce rate for Christians would be affected if we stopped taking away people’s choices once they marry and instead focused on helping them make responsible choices for life-giving relationships.

I once heard a sermon that typified everything destructive that the church teaches us about a Christian marriage. It had a lot to say about a relationship for a lifetime, but nothing about a relationship for life. The preacher said, “Marriage is a room in which there is no exit except the door that is marked Death.” I groaned when I heard him say those words.

It reminded me of another quote, this one from the writer Steve Tesich. He also uses the image of a room to describe what happens to us when we’re in relationship with someone we love. But for him, the relationship isn’t about being trapped in a room with only one exit. His relationship has many rooms: “It’s like having a tiny apartment and somebody moves in with you. But instead of becoming cramped and crowded, the space expands, and you discover rooms you never knew you had until your friend moved in with you.” Isn’t this a beautiful way to imagine what a life-giving relationship looks like? It certainly isn’t a room with one exit door marked Death.

It can’t be God’s desire that two people remain joined for the rest of their lives, no matter what the cost may be to them as persons. In Jesus, we learned that the law of compassion trumps all other laws. Jesus didn’t come so that we may be miserable and pay dearly for the rest of our days for a bad choice we made when we were doing the best we could with what we were given at the time. Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly. Our God is a God of second chances. He is merciful and forgiving. He is a God who meets us in death and gives us life.

Before I became divorced myself, I was a little judgmental of those who were. I knew that marriage was tough and it required a lot of hard work. When I saw people who were divorced, I often wondered if they really had done all they could to save their marriages. I thought that if they had worked at their marriages like I did, they would still be married. I figured they had taken the easy way out. Now that I’m on the other side of divorce, I realize that divorce is never the easy way out.

We can all probably think of people who take divorce lightly, people who are married and divorced repeatedly, like Elizabeth Taylor. It probably won’t surprise you to know that Elizabeth Taylor never came to me to discuss her relationship problems. The people I talk to have not chosen the easy way out by divorcing. For them, divorce was a last resort that was only chosen after all other avenues to save their marriage had been exhausted. No one has to tell them that divorce is not God’s intention for his people. When their lives are torn apart, when they are grieving the death of their dreams for the future, when they are struggling to keep their jobs in the midst of their pain, they know very well that divorce is not what God wants for his people. But, there are far worse things for God’s people than divorce, such as, denying the gift of life that God offers them.

Not only is it permissible for a Christian to divorce when a marriage is not the kind of life-giving relationship that God wants for them, but in many cases, ending a marriage is actually the most faithful decision that a follower of Jesus can make. No, divorce isn’t God’s intention for his people in general, but divorce may very well be the kind of life-giving choice that God wants for you in particular. If you have already experienced a very real kind of death in your relationship that you could never have foreseen when you promised “until death do us part”, divorce is not a choice that is going to send you straight to hell. It’s the only faithful choice you can make; it’s a choice for life.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Why I wear blank t-shirts

When I mount the pulpit at Holy Trinity, it often feels like I’m ensconcing myself in an armored tank, preparing to fire down a round of doctrine upon the people in pews below. These days, I’m much more comfortable preaching from the center aisle, in the midst of the community gathered. I know it may sound like a small thing, but it reflects my ever-evolving understanding of what it means to be a person of faith who is called to lead a community of faith.

The sermon is a time-honored tradition in Christian churches, and a unique form of communication. That communication tends to be one-way, with the “expert” imparting truth to a captive audience that can only sit and passively take it all in. When I first began preaching, I bought into that model and felt a responsibility to work really hard at studying a Biblical text until I arrived at the absolute truth it revealed so I could share that with my listeners. I wonder now how I ever could have been so presumptuous.

Back when I began preaching and I wrote all my sermons out by hand, I used to save them in a file cabinet with one drawer for each year of the three-year lectionary and a separate file folder for each Sunday. I thought I would be saving myself some work, in the long run, because when I moved onto the next parish I could just pull out an old sermon, dust it off a bit, and preach it again. But that’s not how it worked. Instead, each time I pulled out a sermon I once had preached and I read it, I would think, “How could I have said that? I would never say that now.” When I moved from Ohio to North Carolina, I trashed the filing cabinet and everything in it. That experience helped me to see how the truth is always changing for us. It’s not etched in bronze for all time. It’s fluid, ever expanding, never neat and tidy, often taking us in a direction we hadn’t expected.

That same fluidity of truth is evident in the Scriptures themselves. If you really take the Bible seriously, you know that it was never intended to be read as the absolute-truth-and-nothing-but-the-truth-so-help-me-God-forever-and-ever-amen. It was written by a variety of people in a variety of contexts who understood truth in a variety of ways. Its authors had one thing in common: they were all living in relationship with God and all were trying their best to make sense of it. When we study the Scriptures, we’re allowing the way its authors experienced God to inform our own experience of God. It’s like one person of faith sharing with another person of faith. That’s the value of the Scriptures for me. They become a part of my faith community as we walk together on the journey God has for us. We’re all figuring it out as we go, trusting the Spirit to guide us. And we’re helped along the way by the witnesses who have left us their legacy of faith in the Scriptures, as well as the other witnesses we meet, including the people who worship with us weekly. Yes, even the preacher. (And, lest you failed to notice the obvious -- an occasional blogger.)

Last week I saw a young man wearing a t-shirt that said, “When all else fails, read the instructions” and it showed a picture of an open Bible. I recall that I once could have worn such a t-shirt. I don’t think they make t-shirts for the spiritual place I’m in now. Faith development theory says that we all pass through different stages of faith in our lives. We begin with a need to have clearly defined instructions, right and wrong answers, and we move toward a faith that is less rigid, more open to mystery, ambiguity, and universal truth. I don’t know if it happens like this for everybody, but, in my life, this has certainly been the case.

I often hear young adults who have left the church tell me that “religion is just a crutch people use to get through life.” I guess for some people it never becomes more than that. The most primitive religion is fear-based, motivated by a desire to appease the wrath of an angry God. Young people who are bright and perceptive naturally come to a time when they can see the folly of this, and they reject it. What grieves me is when they also reject the spiritual path. I believe what they need most is to be a part of faith community that will pull them toward a broader understanding of truth. It can be disillusioning to discover that the faith you held onto as the truth isn’t so true for you anymore. But if that’s where you find yourself, let me assure you, your discomfort is only God’s way of leading you to a new place. Don't abandon the path!

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because of the lectionary text we have before us this week. It’s from the 14th chapter of John. In Jesus’ last night with his disciples, he tells them that he’s going to prepare a place for them. When Thomas wants to know how to get there, Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This was the text for the sermon I preached at my home congregation in Hamilton, Ohio while I was a still a seminary student. (A sermon which was no doubt a part of the filing cabinet that never made it to North Carolina.) Thirty five years ago, when I preached on this text from John 14, I said that Jesus is the only way to salvation. And, by that, I meant that Jesus paid the price for our admission to heaven and if we want to go there, we have to believe in him. I probably didn’t use those exact words, but I’m sure my message was along those lines because that’s where my brain was back when I was in my early twenties. That’s not where it is now.

According to John’s witness, Jesus is the way. And that’s my witness, too. Jesus is the way. But it’s not the way to heaven that I’m all that concerned about these days. I’m holding out for something larger than that. My life is a journey toward becoming the person God created me to be. God is pulling me toward authenticity and wholeness in my life so that I can have a relationship with him that is both honest and complete, without anything standing between us. I’m growing toward that. And as I am, the same truth keeps confronting me again and again. It is the truth of death and resurrection. In order to find the person God created me to be, I must first lose the person I have created myself to be. The persona I have created for myself, to protect myself, is not at all the person I truly am before God. If I want an authentic relationship with God, that persona has got to go. And, as much as I might like to believe otherwise, this kind of transformation in my life can only happen through struggle and loss. That’s the way of the cross, the Jesus way. I know that I’ll only experience a relationship with God in all its fullness after I die, when the self-destructive junk I cling to in this life is completely taken from me, but in the meanwhile, I’m on a journey that’s headed in that direction. The way to get there is the Jesus way.

In this passage from John's gospel, Jesus’ disciples want to know the way, and he tells them clearly that he is the way. “If you want to find God, if you want to know what God is all about, all you have to do is look to me,” he says. This takes us back to the very beginning of John’s gospel where he writes, "No one has seen God. But the only begotten Son, who rests in the very bosom of the Father, he has made him known."

Now John is bringing his gospel account to a close. Jesus is about to be betrayed, abandoned, handed over, tried, insulted, beaten and then nailed to a cross. Why? When we look to Jesus as the one who showed us the very essence of God in his life, there can be no doubt that God is all about love. So, why did Jesus die on a cross? Was it to appease an angry God? Or to take the punishment we deserve? Absolutely not! Consistent with his life’s purpose, it was to show us God -- to show us the depth of God's love.

This isn’t just something to benefit those of us who call ourselves Christians. It’s a truth that applies to all people, no matter what name they might use for God. That truth is: when we lose our lives, we gain them. It’s only when our false selves are stripped away that our authentic selves are revealed and we can enjoy the relationship we were created to have with God in all its fullness. It’s a universal truth. And it’s the Jesus way. In fact, it’s also the way Jesus revealed to us who God truly is in all his fullness. By emptying himself on the cross he showed us that God is love.

Is that THE truth? No, I wouldn’t dare suggest that. I can only tell you that it’s MY truth. Today. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s not my truth next year, not if the Spirit is still moving in my life. I hope you know, that’s always the case whether I’m standing before you preaching or you’re reading the words of my blog on a computer screen. I’m not telling you how it is. I’m just a person of faith sharing my truth with you as one of the witnesses God has sent into your life to accompany you for a time in your own faith journey. Don’t think you have to agree with me. If need be, struggle with my witness for a bit along the way, and then keep moving.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Sorry, Oral. Sorry, Joel.

"I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly." (John 10:10b) It’s one of the most quoted verses in the Bible. (Well, technically it’s only half a verse.) But what does it mean? I think most people would say that it means God wants us to be happy. And, along with that, God wants us to have whatever it is we need in order to be happy. But is that what it really means or is it just what we’d like to believe it means?

Preachers of what we call the prosperity gospel use this as their favorite verse. If you haven’t heard of the prosperity gospel it may be because you’ve spent your life in a church like mine, where this isn’t the sort of thing we preach about. But it’s been around for a long time. The basic idea is that God wants us to be rich. Prosperity preachers include well-known names like: Oral Roberts, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Joyce Meyer and Joel Osteen. They’re the ones who bring in the big bucks. That’s because they’re popular, and they’re popular because they tell people what they want to hear.

But, did you know that this verse about God’s promise of abundant life only appears one time in the entire Bible? You can only find it in the tenth chapter of John’s gospel. You won’t find it anyplace else. On the other hand, what Jesus talks about repeatedly, as the way of to a meaningful life for his people, is taking up a cross, denying ourselves, and following him. The way of the cross isn’t something you hear discussed a whole lot with enormously popular preachers. Instead, they tend to hone in on the abundant life God wants for us. But the thing is, without understanding the way of the cross, any attempts at living the abundant life are futile.

We can’t take the second half John 10:10 and adopt it as a way of life without also considering the verses that surround it. In this chapter, Jesus calls himself the good shepherd. Actually, his words are, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” Although he doesn’t use the word cross here explicitly, make no mistake, he is describing the way of the cross. A bit earlier in this same chapter, he also refers to himself as the gate. He’s saying that the way to the abundant life comes by following his lead, by passing through him, the one who gives himself in love.

The abundant life is the new life Jesus offers us in the resurrection. It’s nothing we can achieve, so we don’t have to work for it. In fact, as a rule, we find it when all of our achievements have failed us. When we lose ourselves, that’s when we end up finding ourselves. That’s the way the resurrected life always works.

Jesus promises this abundant life to all his followers, his sheep. Actually, in John 10 he also says that he has sheep who don’t belong to this fold, as well. So, it’s not about who’s in and who’s out. It’s about the abundant life offered for all. It’s an authentic life lived in relationship with the God who loves us like the good shepherd who gives his life for his sheep. And it’s the life that follows in the way of that same shepherd. There is no abundant life apart from the meaning and purpose of life we learn from him; we find it as we give ourselves in love to others.

Sorry, Oral. Sorry, Joel. The abundant life that Jesus modeled for us didn’t end in a McMansion with a Mercedes in the five-car garage and a vacation home in Bermuda. Jesus wants more for us than that.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Will Jesus be making an appearance on May 21?

You gotta give Robert Fitzpatrick credit. He has definitely put everything on the line for what he believes. Because in his heart of hearts he is convinced that judgment day is coming on May 21, he feels he has a sacred obligation to warn the rest of us. So he has spent all of his retirement income on billboards and other advertising to get the word out. On May 22, I suspect he will still be here on earth, and he’ll be penniless. How sad.

He has accomplished one thing. Through his efforts, he certainly has people talking about the end times. In the dominant culture around us, there seems to be one way we hear it explained by Christians. And that’s the whole bit about the rapture taking all the good people up into heaven and the rest of us miserable, rotten people being left behind. I don’t know if this puts me off so much because it offends my understanding of God’s grace or because somebody’s having a party and I’m clearly not invited. But it doesn’t matter because it’s just plain fiction. The whole idea of the rapture has only been around for about a hundred years. It draws on a bit of scripture here and a bit of scripture there, all put together with crazy glue in a way that’s very creative, but not very biblical.

Among Christians, there are other ways to understand the second coming. Most of the Lutherans I know believe it's something that happens for us individually; for each of us our final day will come when we stand face-to-face before our God. In that respect, being ready at all times because nobody knows the day or the hour is good, sound advice.

Theologically, the problem I have with that understanding is that it’s so private. There’s no communal aspect to it, and I think there is something communal intended in the biblical idea of the second coming. In that respect, I kind of like the way the theologian John Dominic Crossan explains it when he says that “The Second Coming of Christ is not an event that we should expect to happen soon, violently, or literally. The Second Coming of Christ is what will happen when we Christians finally accept that the First Coming was the Only Coming and start to cooperate with its divine presence.”

That works for me. But the truth is, all of these theories are just conjecture. Jesus was not at all what the experts of his time had expected. They didn’t have a clue what was really going on. And we don’t have a clue today, either. We don’t know what God is doing in this world, other than loving it. Jesus says that even he doesn’t know the day or the hour. So, the only thing we can expect is to be surprised.

In one of my favorite episodes of the old “Dick Van Dyke Show”, it’s Rob’s birthday and his wife Laura has planned a surprise party for him. Unfortunately, Rob finds out about it and the whole episode is about him looking around every corner expecting to be surprised. When his entire birthday goes by and there’s no surprise, Rob thinks maybe he’s been mistaken. There isn’t going to be a surprise after all. And so, he gets ready for bed and he’s in his pajamas when he walks out into the living room to turn out the light. That’s when his friends jump out and surprise the living daylights out of him. The twist is that even though he knew he was going to be surprised, he ends up being surprised after all. The episode is entitled, “A surprise surprise is a surprise.”

It begs the question, if you’re expecting to be surprised, can you really ever be surprised? I don’t know, but I do know that it changes the way we live. Expecting to be surprised turns life into an adventure to be relished rather than an ordeal to be feared. As God’s people, our calling is not to convince the world that we have special knowledge of God’s purpose that they’d best listen to if they don’t want to get left behind. That’s not our calling. We’re called to open our eyes and see how God’s purpose is already being manifested in the world around us, so that, seeing it, we also might participate in it.

Is Jesus coming on May 21? I can can tell you for a fact that many of us will be seeing him on that day. Because Jesus is already here.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Flowers, schmowers

Before I had the chance to greet anyone at church this morning I already had steam coming out my ears. When I pulled into the parking lot, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The day before, my friend Sandy and I had planted 108 begonias in the church yard and already, less than 24 hours later, at least a dozen were missing. At first I thought the squirrels had been digging in the dirt, but when I investigated the crime scene further it was obvious that someone had come along and stolen the flowers.

Can you believe that?! Now, this is an urban congregation and we have had problems with things being stolen through the years. We’ve already learned not to put flowers out in pots because the entire pot will disappear. And we can’t leave Christmas wreathes hanging on the doors or people will help themselves to the free decorations. But making off with flowers that have been planted in the ground in front of a church? Oh, come on!

Well, let me tell you, I was in an S.N.I.T. while I prepared the sanctuary for the 8:30 service. The first few people who entered the building got an ear-full. I even took them outside to point out the pitiful little gaps in the ground.

The next person who walked in the door was about to hear the news, too, but, before I could start in, she threw her arms around me and wept. I had been so wrapped up in my own little morning drama that I completely forgot about her husband's appointment to see an oncologist last week. But her tears reminded me. “It’s cancer,” she said. He had been diagnosed with liver cancer.

At that moment, while I enveloped her sobbing body with my arms, I remembered what I had preached about on Easter morning. I had proclaimed that Easter isn’t about a gaping hole in the ground; it’s about our encounter with the risen Christ. And while I was busy whining about the empty little holes in the flower garden, my dear friend was crying her eyes out over a loss that was beyond anything she had ever experienced in her life. She didn’t need to see a hole in the ground; she needed to see Jesus. She needed to know the power of the resurrection that comes to us just when all our hopes have been ripped to shreds.

Flowers, schmowers.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

That woman was my mother

When my children were young, I muddled through motherhood as best as I could. Some things I did well and some things, not so much. While I was finding my way, it dawned on me that my mom had done the same thing. As a child, I had assumed that she was all-wise. As an adult, I grew to realize that had never been the case. As I’ve matured, I have forgiven her for being human. That’s an important task of adulthood. We learn to forgive our parents for being human, just as we hope our children will one day forgive us.

I suspect that, as children, each of us saw ourselves as the central character in our parents’ lives. We couldn’t see that they were people with lives of their own who also happened to be parents. Our moms and dads have their own life stories, just as we do. We’re only a part of those stories. What I didn’t realize until recently is how the circumstances of our parents’ life stories may have more to do with the way they parent us than their intelligence, or their temperament, or their innate ability to nurture.

I’m one of six children. It was a yours-mine-and-ours family. Both of my parents had been married before they married each another. My father had two girls, my mother had a boy, and together they had three more: my brother, and then me, and then my sister. There is a huge age spread from the first child to the last. Even among the three of us “ours” kids, there are five or six years between each of us. My father died when he was in his mid forties and my mother died in her sixties, so we’ve been orphans for over thirty years now. Often, when we get together, we’ll talk about our mother. And, invariably, I will hear my siblings say things about her that leave me asking, “Are we talking about the same woman?” It’s as if each of us had an entirely different mother. But she was the same woman. Or was she?

My brother Bob had a mother who was inexperienced. She probably made more mistakes with him than she did with the rest of us. And while he was very young she had to deal with an unfaithful husband, whom she divorced in a time when divorce wasn’t all that common. That was the mother he had. But that woman was not my mother.

My older sisters, Roberta and Lorena, lost their mother to cancer while my father was away fighting a war. Within months of her death, my father came back home to Ohio and with him he brought a new wife from the far-off land of New Jersey. My sisters met the woman who was to become their “new mother” for the first time. It was not a good beginning, but they got past it. And yet, in many ways, it colored their relationship with our mother for as long as she lived. That was the mother they had. But that woman was not my mother.

My older brother Ken, my younger sister Wendy, and I also had three different mothers. We lived through an event with her that changed everything, but we were in different stages of our lives when that event occurred. My brother was twelve when our father died. But he got to spend the first part of his life with June and Ward Cleaver. My mom was the happy homemaker during that time. She sewed our clothes and pulled every weed out of the yard by hand and had a shiny kitchen floor and trailed along with her husband to his softball games and bowling tournaments and fishing trips. That was the mother my brother Ken had. But that woman was not my mother.

My sister was only a year old when dad died, so she never knew him. My mother went to work outside the home when she was still a baby and my aunt was the childcare provider who filled in the gaps while my mom couldn’t be there. The only mother my sister ever knew was one who worked outside the home. That was the mother she had. But that woman was not my mother.

When my dad got ALS I was five. So, I can remember what he was like before he was sick. But I particularly remember what my mother was like before and after his illness. Not only did the disease take my father’s life from him, it took my mother’s life from her as well. Life as she knew it ended. She had to become someone else. So, when I lost my father, I felt like I lost my mother, too. After he died, she became pre-occupied with survival. Even at the age of six, I was aware of the fact that I was not the main character in my mother’s life story.

When my father was diagnosed with ALS, both he and my mother knew he would not be around to do the things he had been doing for her. So, he had to show her how to write a check and pay the bills. He taught her how to drive a car. He prepared her to provide for herself and her family. This was no small thing for her. On top of knowing that the man she loved would soon be gone from her life, she had the added stress of re-creating who she was in order to prepare for a life she never would have chosen, but had to accept. That was the mother I had. That woman was my mother.

And so, if there is one value that my mom passed along to me, it is to take care of myself. Don’t count on a man to take care of you, Nancy. Have your own career. Be independent. That’s what I learned from my mom. Under the circumstances, what else could she have taught me? Of course, it’s been both a blessing and a curse. Yes, I can take care of myself, but it’s also been hard for me to ever admit I need help. Yet, that’s a big part of who I am. And it’s because of the woman who was my mother.

For thirty years now I’ve been living with the strange paradox of being without the one who will always be with me. I will always remember her courage, her generosity, and her quick wit. But I also can’t forget her brutal honesty and the deep sorrow that weighed her down like a lead apron. Not only do I remember these things about my mother, but I also see them in myself. I would not be the same person if I had the mother any of my siblings had. She is the mother who was unique to me because of the time I entered into her life story. I’m grateful.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Judging Ourselves

I have a little saying framed in my bedroom that greets me every morning when I wake up: “Oh, God, help me to believe the truth about myself no matter how beautiful it is.” I need to be reminded of that because I tend to be too hard on myself. You may be like that, too. Apparently, we humans have what is called a negative cognitive bias, which means that we tend to forget about all the times when things in our lives have gone well but have no problem remembering the royal screw-ups. When your negative cognitive bias kicks in and something goes wrong in your life, you’ll think, “Why do these terrible things always happen to me?” Then, before you know it, the question becomes, "What's wrong with me?" and the judgmental thoughts take on a life of their own.

Of course, not all people have a propensity to judge themselves harshly. Some people are quick to blame others for every stupid thing they’ve done themselves and they never seem to take responsibility for any of their actions.

Most of us are a mixed bag. Sometimes we beat ourselves up, and sometimes we fail to take responsibility for our actions. But we all judge ourselves in some way, and it’s important to examine how and why we do this to ourselves.

Are you one of those people who is unusually hard on yourself? If so, have you ever tried to figure out why? Did you grow up with an overly critical parent? Or were your teachers like that? Your peers? Did you feel like others had high expectations of you that you could never meet? Did you feel like you were never quite smart enough, or good-looking enough, or athletic enough? Were you convinced that you were always lacking in some way?

All too often, the way we see ourselves is a reflection of how significant people in our lives see us. We can allow them to tell us who we are, and believe it in a way that becomes self-fulfilling. I know a guy who once had a music teacher who told him he couldn’t sing and he grew up without ever realizing that he actually had a lovely voice and could sing quite well. It turned out that the music teacher was tone deaf! It’s hard not to let others influence the way we tend to think about ourselves.

And the opposite is true as well. It’s hard not to let the way we think about ourselves influence the way we treat others. People who are especially hard on themselves also tend to be hard on others.

So, how can we keep the way we judge ourselves in perspective? Let me share three ideas for your consideration.

First, we can never really see ourselves as we truly are. Our self-judgment is always distorted. We carry memories around in our brains that we can’t erase, no matter how much we might like to, and they influence how we feel about ourselves. It’s like the juror who hears inadmissible testimony in the courtroom and is then instructed by the judge to disregard it. How can you do that? Our private sense of self is contaminated by all kinds of inadmissible evidence. We need to remember that the thoughts we have about ourselves are not facts. They are thoughts, much like opinions, often distorted by our past experiences. We can never be objective when it comes to judging ourselves. We never have a grasp of the facts; all we have to go on are our thoughts.

Second, it’s important to differentiate ourselves from the messages we may carry around inside us about who we are, whether those have been imposed upon us by others, or they come from someplace deep within us. We like to simplify things by slapping labels on ourselves: I’m a disappointment, I’m fat, I’m smarter than just about anybody I know, I’m a mother, I’m gay. It’s important to recognize that we’re so much more than these one dimensional explanations would indicate.

Finally, know that we all have an inner critic. And our inner critic is not the enemy. It’s healthy to have an inner voice that will let us know when we’ve done something that wasn’t smart, or something that has hurt another person. It’s called a conscience, and to have one is a sign of being human. It allows us the opportunity to feel guilty, something animals have no capacity for. I know guilt has a bad name in our culture. But it’s really a positive thing when it reminds us of our shortcomings that need some attention. It motivates us to grow. Certainly, we all have things about ourselves we don’t like. Our guilt is often be the catalyst we need to do something about it.

That’s guilt. But now, shame is something else. While guilt says “I’ve done something wrong”, shame says, “I AM something wrong.” Shame is about debasing yourself. It’s not about overcoming your weaknesses. It doesn’t lead to growth. It's unhealthy -- self-judgment gone amok.

Self-judgment can be healthy when it includes the ability to accept our weaknesses as a part of who we are, knowing that it’s okay to make mistakes. It's healthy when it transcends the simplistic labels we carry around inside us about who we are. And it's healthy when it acknowledges the fact that the only one who really knows who we are just so happens to be the one who loves us unconditionally as we are.

For when all is said and done, only God’s judgment of us counts. God alone sees us exactly as we are, with all of our strengths and weaknesses, in all of our complexity. And God alone loves us exactly as we are. Unconditionally. Without reservation. Our personal demons may hound us, regrets may haunt us, doubts may hinder us. But those are nothing more than thoughts and they’re unreliable. The never-failing love of God is the truth we can rely on.