Thursday, December 3, 2009

Ready or Not

In the season of Advent, during these four weeks leading up to Christmas, we talk a lot about preparing for the arrival of Jesus. You may sometimes feel scolded a bit by preachers like me who love to harp on all the stuff we become pre-occupied with during the month of December, stuff that so fills our lives that Jesus is squeezed out of our celebration by shopping and baking and decorating and sending cards and all the other stuff that fills our days leading up to Christmas. Despite your best intentions, you know it’s true. You’ve been caught once again in the web of consumerism and all the stuff you gotta do that accompanies this season.

There was no room in the inn, we read in the Christmas story. In one of Luther’s Christmas sermons he pokes fun at his congregation for when they heard no one in Bethlehem welcomed the holy family into their home they said, “We would have taken them in. If Mary and Joseph had knocked on our door, we would have taken them in. We gladly would have given the baby Jesus our own bed.” Luther comes back with, “Yeah, sure, of course you would have taken them in. That’s because you know who they were!” I’m not sure if Luther had it right there. For, today, we’re people who know who Jesus was, and yet we still fail to make room for him in our lives.

Are you feeling guilty yet? Well, here’s the thing. And it’s amazing. It’s not just good news. It’s the best possible news of all. In Jesus, God came to live with us. Yeah, there was no room in the inn. But he came to live with us anyway. He didn’t wait until the world was ready for him, because the world would never be ready for him. He doesn’t wait until we’re ready for him, because we’ll never be ready.

God doesn’t wait while we sequester ourselves in a monastery somewhere where we can only think holy thoughts about him, with no distractions, and then come to us. The whole point is that God came to the world. With all its messiness. With all its imperfections. With all its distractions. God comes to us.

As a pastor, I’ll often call our homebound members and invite myself over for a visit. And sometimes I’ll get a reply that goes like this: “Oh, pastor, I’d love to have you come, but my house is a mess right now.” And I’ll always come back with, “That’s okay. I don’t care how your house looks. I’m not coming to see your house, I’m coming to see you.” Sometimes they’ll be convinced by that, but usually they will insist that I come some other time, and I respect their wishes.

Well, guess what! God has invited himself to your place. And it doesn’t matter if your house is in order or not, he’s coming. He’s not going to wait for just the right circumstances. He doesn’t care if you’re ready to receive him. He doesn’t care if he has your full attention. He doesn’t care if you’ve invited him. He doesn’t care if you have room for him. He’s moving in with you and there’s nothing you can do to stop him.

You see, God knows that we need his presence in our lives. Not despite the messiness and the distractions in our lives, but precisely because of the messiness and the distractions in our lives. We need God to come and make his home with us. Not when we’re ready, but without delay.

Barbara Brown Taylor sums the Christmas story up this way: “It was God-with-us. Not the God-up-there somewhere who answers our prayers by lifting us out of our lives, but the God who comes to us in the midst of our lives – however far from home we are, however less than ideal our circumstances, however much or little our lives reflect the Christmas cards we send. That is where God is born, just there in any cradle we will offer him, on any pile of straw we will pat together with our hands… God comes to us. Right here, right into our own Bethlehem, bringing us the God who has decided to make his home in our arms.”

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Why Can't Churches Be More Like Contra-dances?

I’m always struggling to have a life for myself outside the church. When I had a family, it happened naturally. I would go home every day to people who didn’t call me “Pastor Nancy.” But since I’ve been living solo, it’s a struggle. A few months ago I decided to do something about it and I took up contra-dancing. On Monday nights I go to a place not far from my church and dance for a couple of hours with complete strangers. It works for me. It fits into my schedule; it’s great exercise, and a ton of fun. But I’m not sure if it’s given me a life outside the church. For the more I do it, the more I find myself thinking about church. Is this just a matter of, “You can take the pastor out of the church but you can’t take the church out of the pastor”, or is there something about contra-dancing itself that lends itself to church comparisons?

Some of the parallels between a contra-dance and a worship service are obvious. Both involve lots of live music, although in one venue the primary instrument is an organ and in the other it is a fiddle. There is even a person at a contra-dance who fills the role I fill on Sunday mornings as the presiding minister. In contra that person is the “caller”; she or he guides us through the dances. And then there is the matter of the community gathered, which is the whole point of both Sunday morning worship and Monday evening contra-dances.

When I went to my first contra-dance, it took every bit of courage I could muster to get myself there. Stepping into a room of people I don’t know, to do an activity I don’t know how to do, is way outside my comfort zone. As I was struggling through that experience, I couldn’t stop thinking about the people who seem to show up each week at Holy Trinity to worship with us for the first time. I wondered if our church community is as welcoming to outsiders as the contra community, which seems to bend over backwards to make newbees feel welcome.

Learning something new is hard. I don’t do that enough at my age so I forget just how hard it is. And putting myself in a situation where I know I’m in over my head is humbling. For my first few weeks of dancing I was concentrating so much on not making a mistake that I couldn’t get beyond it. I found myself apologizing a lot. But I’ve discovered that one of the big differences between a contra-dance and a worship service is that there isn’t time to stop a dance for confession and forgiveness. In fact, nobody really cares when you mess up. They have better things to do than critique how other people are dancing. The dance moves on, and the steps repeat themselves, so you always get another chance. Everyone wants you to get it right so they’ll do all they can to help you. And if you’re hopelessly confused and continue to fumble through an entire dance, the dance still goes on and people around you just seem to carry you through it.

At a contra-dance, there are people of all sizes,ages,ethnicities,etc. Just the way churches should be, of course. But I don't see this kind of diversity in most churches. More than that, though, it's the level of acceptance that amazes me. You don't choose who you will associate with and who you will avoid at a contra-dance. Everybody dances with everybody. When you're dancing and someone lands in front of you and it's time to put your arm around him and dance, you don't stop to think about how stinky his body odor might be at the moment, you dance with him. That's just the way it works.

Lately, I’ve been paying more attention to what’s happening in the community during a contra-dance. At the beginning of each liturgy, er…that is…dance, we’re given a walk-through, so we can all learn the steps. Then the dance begins and we repeat those steps over and over as we progress, dancing with different people each time through. There are some who are creative with their interpretation of those steps and others who keep it basic. But the important thing is that you land in the right place at the right time. Because the dance is all about the community and everyone in the community is counting on everyone else in the community to be where they need to be when they need to be there. Unlike some kinds of dancing where you can just walk off the floor during the middle of a dance, in contra, once the dance begins, you’re committed to stay in it until the end. If one person decided to drop out, it would be a train wreck. The goal of contra-dancing seems to be experiencing joy in community. And, sometimes along the way, there are these transcendent moments when the music is humming and all the feet are stomping at the same time and the bodies are flowing. Together we have created a thing of beauty. I like to believe it’s pleasing to God. And that makes it worship.

I’m beginning to realize that what started out as recreation for me has also become an opportunity for continuing education. I would highly recommend it for other pastors. If you’re paying attention, you could learn a lot about the church by contra-dancing. It might also leave you pondering the question I frequently ask myself as I’m driving home from a dance. Why can’t churches be more like contra-dances?

Monday, November 2, 2009

I Hate My Life (today)

It's one of those days when I hate my life. I really do hate it.

It seems that from day to day I either love my life or I hate my life. I never feel so-so about it. I like to believe that this is what makes me an extraordinary, wild-woman of passion. There is no joy on earth quite as joyous as mine and there is no angst quite as angstious as mine. I am like a bigger than life leading lady in a Shakespearean play with a story so compelling that it demands center stage.

I so pity flatliners, with their calm little lives, never high nor low, always steady in the middle. Yes, they have stability going for them, but, let's be honest. They're so damn dull. The only time I've ever been a flatliner was when I was on anti-depressants. It turned me into a zombie and it wasn't worth it.

As I think about it, most of the flatliners I know happen to be men. Now I'm wondering if my perceived passion is nothing more than hormones. Can everything about me that I think is unique and wonderful be reduced to chemicals?

Like I said... I hate my life.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Swearing on the Bible?

I had the privilege of serving on jury duty for Mecklenburg County in the state of North Carolina last week. Of course, I’ve always known that no prosecutor in his or her right mind would ever want a person who peddles in compassion like me on a jury; that suspicion was confirmed when I was rejected on the basis of the answers I gave the prosecutor on Thursday. But I would have to say that, overall, my time at the courthouse was a comfortable experience with movies and popcorn and wireless internet access for my laptop in the suite for jurors. The only uncomfortable moment for me came right after our morning orientation. That’s when we were sworn in.

Our suite, which was equipped with all the amenities, had little racks with Gideon Bibles under each chair. When we swore our oath we were instructed to take the Bible in our left hand and raise our right hand. How archaic, I thought. But this is the 21st century after all, so we were also offered another option. We could either swear an oath on the Bible, or we could affirm something or another. (I don’t remember the wording of it, but it was basically saying the same thing only without the Bible as a prop and for some reason the word “swear” wasn’t used.) I opted for the latter.

The whole notion of swearing on a Bible offended me. First of all, there was the fact that no other holy books were available for people to swear on, should they have wanted to swear on a holy book. No Koran, for example. And then, even for those who read the Bible, the one we used was specifically a Protestant Bible. Other Christians, such as Catholics, include other books in their Bible. Jews don’t include what Christians call the New Testament. But, since this was MY Bible, why was I so uncomfortable using it to take an oath?

My discomfort has a lot to do with my understanding of what the Bible is. For me, it is more than a book to be used symbolically to take a public oath. Within the words on the pages of the Bible, God speaks to me. That makes the Bible a sacred, holy, book. To use the Bible in this way in which it was never intended is something of a sacrilege to me.

I did a little digging to find out where the practice of swearing on a Bible comes from. It goes back to English Common Law. First passed in 1777, the North Carolina oath statute says that oaths are “most solemn appeals to Almighty God, and the affiant is declared to invoke divine vengeance on himself if he lies.” Since the Bible talks about the divine judgment that will fall upon evil doers, the value of swearing on a Bible is that if you don’t tell the truth, you know God is going to punish you for it. For a long time, only Christians were allowed to testify in court because of this. If you didn’t fear the divine judgment of God, you couldn’t be trusted. Interesting theology that says the only reason why a person could be trusted to do the right thing is if they live in fear of eternal damnation if they don’t. Are there still people around who believe this?

I can’t imagine how anyone who comes to know the God Jesus has revealed to us in the pages of the Christian Bible would not be offended by such a distorted view of God. God is not an angry tyrant in the sky who is waiting for an opportunity to zap us when we mess up. God’s justice is not about vengeance, and giving people what they deserve, but it's about love, mercy, forgiveness and compassion. Actually, if Christians got to know the God of the scriptures and lived according to the standards of God’s Realm, the entire legal system as we know it might come to a grinding halt. If there is a book that we would do well to keep out of courtrooms, it is the Christian Bible.

The real irony of good Christian people swearing on a Bible is this. If they ever actually read a Bible and got to know the Jesus they claim to follow, they would read what he has to say about oaths in the Sermon on the Mount. And they would see the absurdity of making an oath by swearing on a book in which Jesus tells them not to swear an oath. (See Matthew 5:33-37)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Ben's Gift

When I was younger and was just oozing with creative energy, I used to write songs for kids to sing. It was a great way to teach Bible stories. There’s something about singing a story that goes beyond learning it. The story isn't just in your head that way. It flows through your veins and becomes a part of who you are. I wrote a number of children’s musicals. Often we used them for VBS and I’d also write the curriculum to go with it. I did this for a number of years while my kids were in elementary school, so they were a part of it. But that was back in the 80s and I haven’t done a whole lot of it since.

Now, some of you know that the relationship I have with my son Ben, who is now 28, has been challenging at times. I dearly love him, but he has a way of pushing my buttons and making me crazy and ripping my heart out all at once. My daughter Gretchen tells me it’s because we’re so much alike. But I refuse to believe that. Well, back when Ben was 20, it was one of those years when I saw him at Thanksgiving, but we weren’t together at Christmastime. Gretchen came to be with me at Christmas and she brought gifts from Ben with her. He gave me a really nice sweater that I just love. And then he also gave me an audio tape. It was one he had done himself. Ben, who is now a gifted musician, was just learning to write music back then. He had a keyboard and guitars and a mixer and did some recording. This was a tape of some of his songs. I decided I’d get around to listening to it some other time.

Later, when I was in the kitchen doing dishes, Gretchen said, “Why don’t you put on that tape Ben made for you, Mom?” So I did.

I was half listening to the tape when I suddenly realized what I was hearing. Ben had taped his own arrangements of my songs, the ones I taught him when he was a little boy. He didn’t have any of the music, but he still remembered the tunes. By adding his own creative touch to them, some were much better than I ever remembered them sounding. I stopped what I was doing, sat down and listened to the whole tape and cried my eyes out. It was beyond a doubt the best gift I ever received from anybody in my life.

First of all, it was a true gift of love. I couldn’t imagine how much time Ben spent on it. Hours upon hours. And then, it was also such an affirmation of what I meant to him. Some silly songs he learned from me when he was a little boy would be with him for the rest of his life. The faith stories they told were a part of him, as well. (Since the church has no place in Ben's life as an adult, this brought me some comfort.) And then there was also the realization that something that had brought me such joy and fulfillment in my life was also something that brought him joy and fulfillment in his life -- engaging in the creative process through music.

All the frustration I felt over my relationship with Ben just melted away. I knew that despite it all, there is a deep love between us. Of course, when I tried to express to him what that gift meant to me, he just said, “It was no big deal.” But we both knew, it was a very big deal.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Confession of a Shoplifter

Last week I ordered a full sheet cake from the bakery of our neighborhood Harris Teeter for a reception after worship on Sunday. I went to the store to pick it up the day before, and it was the usual Saturday madhouse at the supermarket. People jamming the aisles, long check out lines. And here I was with this big ol’ honkin’ cake precariously balanced sideways over the top of my shopping cart, maneuvering my way to the front door. All went well. I made it to the car, placed the cake in the trunk and took it to the church for the next day.

On Sunday afternoon, as I was heading home after a day of church activities, I suddenly realized that I had walked out of the store with the cake on Saturday without paying for it. I was so concerned about getting the cake out of the store in one piece that I neglected to stop at the cash register to pay the $72. I happened to be in my collar at the time, so I suppose no one was going to stop me. But even without the collar, I think it would have been pretty easy to slip by without paying.

There have been times when I’ve imagined what would happen if I accidently walked out of a store with something I hadn’t paid for. And now, I had actually done it. Ironically, it was no small thing that I slipped into my pocket without thinking about it, but I walked out of the store with a very large item, undetected. I was a bona fide shoplifter!

For about a half a second I thought about how I had gotten away with it and no one would ever know if I just let it go. But I would know, and I suspected that I’d probably never be able to sleep again. So, first thing Monday morning, I went to the customer service counter at Harris Teeter and reported what I had done on Saturday. I told them I had come to pay for the cake. “You came back!?” The manager was shocked. Then the cashier had to go to the bakery to get an invoice and they were even more incredulous. “I can’t believe she came back!”

I have to wonder why this was so surprising to them. Would most people in this situation have kept the money and gone on as if it had never happened? Maybe. But I’m not sure that makes me any more noble than most people. I just happen to be one of those people who suffers from OGC (overactive guilty conscience). I simply can’t live with myself if I do what is clearly the wrong thing. I have to make it right.

In our culture, guilt tends to get a bum rap. “Don’t make me feel guilty,” we’ll say, as if this is a violation of our personhood. But guilt isn’t such a bad thing. Not when it pushes us to make something right.

The problem seems to come for us, though, when we carry guilt about something that we can’t ever make right. Then, what do we do with it? We can’t be burdened like that for the rest of our lives or it will slowly eat away at us. So we confess. We hear God’s word of forgiveness. And we extend that forgiveness to ourselves and others. It's not always easy, but we really have no other recourse if we want to experience any kind of life that's worth living. And, oh, what peace is ours when the guilt is removed.

The cake incident has made me wonder about people who don’t feel guilty when they walk out of a store with something they haven’t paid for. I’m thankful that I have the capacity for guilt. And I’m even more thankful that my capacity for guilt is no match for God’s capacity to forgive.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Growing in Grace

As Christians, we believe that Jesus embodies all that God wants for us, so our life’s work is to become more and more like Jesus in the ways we live and love. The process works something like this. We all make sense of the world around us based on our own experience. And when we make sense of things, we put them neatly in a frame that we call our frame of reference. For example, we may have an understanding about how forgiveness works: when someone wrongs us, they come to us and they tell us they’re sorry for what they’ve done, and we forgive them. That’s the way forgiveness works for us. So, that’s our frame of reference and whenever someone wrongs us, that’s the way we expect it to go. That’s what fits into our frame.

But then, what happens when someone wrongs us and we’re deeply hurt, but they don’t come to us and say they’re sorry for what they did? They just go on about their business. This doesn’t fit into the frame we’ve constructed. And we can do one of two things with that new experience. We can stick with our frame of reference and decide that, since the other person didn’t apologize, we don’t forgive them. Our definition of forgiveness remains intact, and we stay where we were. Or, we receive this new experience that can’t be contained in the old frame and the old frame is shattered. The old frame isn’t big enough to contain this new experience. We need to build a new frame of reference that’s big enough.

Within our new frame of reference we realize that forgiveness is something we offer to those who don’t deserve it, just as God forgives us when we don’t deserve it. And that means that they might not even say they’re sorry. We go from one frame to a larger frame.

We have countless opportunities to grow more like Jesus in our dealings with other people. We may have a frame of reference we have established for certain kinds of people: church people are like this, black people are like this, homosexuals are like this, pretty blondes are like this, homeless people are like this. Then we meet someone who doesn’t fit into our frame: “I thought pretty blondes were all air-heads, but this is a smart woman.” Our frame is too small to contain that new experience. We need a frame that’s much bigger than the little judgmental frame we once used to figure people out. We search for a frame that’s big enough to contain the love of God.

Of course, a frame big enough to contain the love of God is a frame so big that we can never see its edges; it’s more than our finite brains can begin to comprehend. But when we have the courage to let go of the narrow little frames we carry around in our brains, we can grow in our understanding of God’s love by exploring its breadth and width, finding ourselves repeatedly going from one frame to a larger one and a larger one after that. That's how we grow in grace.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Move Your Freaking Feet!

I remember when I was in the first grade and we learned that the world was always turning on its axis. That day, as I was walking home from school, it occurred to me that maybe if I just stood still and waited, my house would come to me. I decided to try it and stopped right where I was. My house was straight ahead, just a few blocks away, and I figured that it wouldn’t take long for the earth to turn enough that I would be able step right up on the front porch, open the door, and I would be home. So I stood there, with my feet glued to the sidewalk, and I waited. After a short while, I saw that nothing around me had changed; I was still standing in the same place. It didn’t take me long to figure out that if I wanted to get home that day, I was going to have to put one foot in front of the other and move.

Some people think God works much like I thought about the rotating earth when I was a kid. They think that if they just stand still, eventually God will bring them to the place they need to be in their lives. Let me tell you, that’s a sure-fire way to get nowhere quick! We need to be willing participants and not just passive recipients on our spiritual journey. We can trust that God will lead us to opportunities where we can grow along the way, but there is no spiritual journey unless we move our freaking feet!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Big Time Wrestling

For the first 25 years that I served as a pastor, there was a battle going on between my will and God's. Even though I clearly felt called to ordained ministry, I resented it. It wasn't the life I wanted for myself and I was a very reluctant pastor. My resentment toward God was exacerbated when my long marriage to another pastor ended because of his sexual misconduct in the parish we had served together.

Years later, still wrestling with God over my call to ministry and nearly at my breaking point, I went on an individual retreat to sort through it all. While I was there, my spiritual director said something to me that changed my life. She heard about my lifelong battle with God and said, "Nancy, when are you going to learn that God isn't the enemy? He doesn't want to make your life miserable. God loves you and all he wants is for you to love him back." I know it sounds simple, but it had been anything but simple for me to see this.

Many people will say that the key to following God's will for your life is surrendering your own will to God's. It may work that way for some people, but it certainly didn't work that way for me. Surrender is the language of war. When you surrender, you resign yourself to the fact that you've been beaten, or at least you aren't going to win, so you throw in the towel. In surrender, you come to God defeated. It's difficult not to resent someone you have surrendered yourself to. You may continue to want the same things for yourself that you always wanted, but now you're forced to deny them. How can you love someone to whom you have surrendered yourself like that?

When you seek to follow God's will in your life, the real point is, "Do you love God?" If you love God, then you want what God wants. It's not a matter of doing battle with God and surrendering your will to God's will. It's about making God's will your will, too.

Have you ever watched two people who professed to love one another for the rest of their lives grow to become adversaries? Every issue between them becomes a battle of the wills and there is an ongoing struggle to see who will ultimately win the war. But when you love someone, you want what they want, don't you? If the one you love wants to watch a football game on Sunday afternoon, you don't dig in your heels and refuse to allow it. You want them to have what they want. You want them to be happy and their happiness makes you happy, too. Your will becomes the same.

That's how our relationship with God works as well. God isn't the enemy. God doesn't want to do battle with us. God doesn't force us into submitting to him and seeing things his way. God loves us. And God wants us to love him so much that we want what he wants for us.

This truth has changed my life and it's changed the way I do ministry. Although I've been ordained for 30 years, I feel like I've only really been a pastor for the past 5years. I've barely begun to serve as the pastor God wants me to be because it's taken me so long to want that, too. The resentment I once carried in my heart has been replaced with joy. It's been a tough road for me, but the journey was worth it. Now I wait expectantly to see what other adventures God has in store for me as a pastor.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Scattered Deck of Playing Cards

When I was six years old, my father died and I was terrified. I wasn’t afraid of my father, but I was afraid of the pasty corpse with the ghoulish face and the rubbery fingers that I saw sleeping in a box at the funeral home. I had never seen a dead body before and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I was afraid to look out a window at night, because, in the darkness, I saw my dead father’s face staring at me. I was afraid of the basement and the attic, because I sensed the body lurking in the shadows. All of the closets were off limits because I thought that if I opened a door, the corpse would fall out on top of me. In my own bedroom, I imagined the dead body stretched out on the top bunk bed. My home, which should have been the safest place I knew, became a house of horror.

I didn’t know what to do about this fear that filled my life. I was not raised in a family that ever talked about God, nor had I ever been inside a church building. And there I was, with no faith background, deeply troubled about death, thinking about it a lot more than any young child should.

From the culture around me, I was aware of the concept of God and heaven and wanted desperately to believe in both of those things. But when I heard that if I was good, someday I would get to go to heaven and see my father again, it reminded me too much of Santa Claus. I had already figured out that Santa Claus was a make-believe person adults had created to keep children in line. Was God like Santa Claus?

This was the first faith crisis that I can recall in my life, although I didn’t realize it at the time. Within this crisis, I had an awareness of the connection between faith and fear, because I remember thinking that if I could really believe in God and heaven, then I wouldn’t have to be afraid of death any more. What I didn’t quite understand was the nature of faith. I thought it meant knowing something for sure, so that you could prove it beyond a doubt. So I decided to run a little experiment in order to find out once and for all if there really was a God or not.

It was a solid plan. I had an upstairs bedroom that was left undisturbed all through the day while I was at school, and I decided it would be the perfect place for God to leave me a sign. I took a deck of playing cards and laid them out on top of my bedspread, face down, in neat rows. And then I gave my instructions to God: “OK, God. If you’re really there, I want you to show me.”

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting. Maybe God would spell out “Hi!” with the cards, or he would turn some of them over. I didn’t have a specific sign that I was anticipating, but I was hoping for something that would tell me God was more than a variation on Santa Claus. I needed a sign that God was real. So, I carefully placed the cards on the bed, I gave my instructions to God, and I went to school.

That afternoon, as I was walking home from school, I was anxious to see what was waiting for me on my bed. And I was a little afraid because I was finally going to know for sure if there really was a God and I sensed that what I found on my bed could change my whole life.

As I opened the front door to the house, I was greeted by my black cocker spaniel, Inky. He was so glad to see me that he jumped up to lick my face. But I wasn’t interested in Inky at the moment; I wanted to get to my bedroom. Inky saw me walking in that direction and he bounded up the stairs ahead of me, then jumped up on my bed before I had the chance to get there. The cards flew all over the room and I was furious. “Inky, look what you’ve done!”

I cried that day when I realized that I would never know if God had given me a sign with the cards I left on my bed. I felt this had been my one chance and I wouldn’t try again. If God had answered my prayer, I couldn’t very well go back to him and ask him to do it all over again. And if God had not answered my prayer, I would never have a way of knowing.

This may seem like a silly little childish activity that I should have forgotten by now, but it continues to be one of the most significant events of my life. It took me a long time to realize that God had answered my prayer after all. It wasn’t the answer that I had expected, so I missed it. But it was an answer that has been repeated many times in my life. When I’m seeking God’s guidance, the answer often appears to be no answer at all.

Whenever I struggle so much with important faith issues in my life that the process becomes painful, there is great appeal in relinquishing my struggle to a higher power. If I can’t find a solution to the spiritual conundrum that keeps me awake nights, I can let God do it for me! When I’m groping in the dark, trying to figure out where God wants me to go, I often find myself praying for some kind of a directional sign from God, even though I’ve learned not to expect a detailed roadmap. But when I pray for signs, it seems that those prayers are more about me telling God what to do than they are about God telling me what to do. God doesn’t jump when I say jump. God doesn’t give me an answer just because I tell him to. That’s just not the way God works, and I honestly wouldn’t want a God I could control like that.

At another significant time of my life, as an adult, I found myself praying much the same prayer that I had prayed to God as a child running an experiment with a deck of playing cards. I was deeply troubled by a life-changing decision I was facing, and desperate for a sign from God. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

Which way, Lord?
I want you to ease and enslave me
Lead me blindfolded
with ears muffled
by the nose
down a
to a
into a tiny cell
I can only inhabit in
fetal crampedness.
Slam me shut,
deadbolted from the outside
with a keyless lock.

Which way, Lord?
You choose to torture me with freedom.
I dance with limbs outstretched
in an open field
yielding only to the bright sky
with no landmarks in sight.
Your subtle whisper is the soft breeze
in my face
and to my back
and on either side.

Cruel grace! For once limit me
With THE answer…
Which way, Lord?

It can be maddening to pray to God so fervently about something that is critical to your life and hear what only seems to be silence coming back at you. Yet, it’s often in silence that God speaks to us. A God of grace does not take us by the nose and lead us to where he wants us to be. God sets us loose in an open field and gives us the freedom to make our own decisions.

Thankfully, God doesn’t leave us stranded without any resources to help us find our way. God gives us all the gifts we need to live by faith: the scriptures, our faith communities, experience, the brains we were born with and the divine Spirit within us. When we pray for God’s guidance and open ourselves up to use all the resources he’s given us, it is a prayer that never goes unanswered.

The life of faith is not about removing our doubts so that we can know God with certainty. And it is not about removing our fears so that we can effortlessly follow where God leads us without struggle. The life of faith wouldn’t be possible without our doubts and our fears. God began teaching me that truth many years ago through a black cocker spaniel named Inky. Whenever I seek answers from God, I am reminded of the lesson I learned from a scattered deck of playing cards.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I Love Me

Back when I first joined Facebook, we were all posting "25 Random Things About Me" as a way to become better acquainted with one another. I found my list today. I don't recall putting a whole lot of thought into what I was writing when I did it. Really just completing the exercise to get people off my case. But now, as I look back on what I wrote, I can say it pretty accurately describes me. I confess that I haven't always loved who I am. But as I've grown older, I've cut myself some slack and, on my better days, I actually do love myself. I wasted so much of my life longing to be someone else. Now I'm in a place where I can honestly say that I wouldn't want to be anybody but who I am. It's taken me a long time to get there. I'm glad I stuck around long enough to love myself.

1. My favorite thing to do on a cold night is get under the electric blanket with Pooky and Romeo. Mmmmmmmmm.

2. I am very self-conscious around other people and hate being the center of attention. There is a part of me that feels like I'm making a fool of myself every time I open my mouth. Sunday mornings take a lot of courage for me.

3. One thing that makes my blood boil is when I'm behind someone making a left-hand turn and they won't claim the intersection. Grrrr!

4. I'm not real keen on chocolate as a rule, but I adore peanut butter. I can eat a pack of Nutter Butter cookies (the wafer kind) in one sitting. (It's what I do when my life falls apart.)

5. I love movies and have already seen all of this year's Oscar contenders.

6. I have a love/hate relationship with writing. When I'm in the groove, it's exhilarating. When I'm not, it's torture.

7. I am very proud of the way my children have turned out, the adults they have become. Both are bright, creative, compassionate people. And neither is a Republican. Thank you, Jesus!

8. When I was growing up I thought I was going to become a band director. Then I started spending all my time with musicians.

9. I was always the skinniest kid in the class and now I'm always trying to lose weight. Come to think of it, no matter how much I weigh I always want to be 10 pounds lighter than I am. Is that a woman thing or just another reason to lament the dominant culture?

10. My dissertation topic was "Nurturing a Social Consciousness through Church Education." It's a lot easier on paper than in real life, believe me.

11. My favorite game is Scrabble. I don't have anyone to play with these days, so I play against the computer. Sometimes I win.

12. I have watched the soap "Guiding Light" for about 40 years. And some of the same people are still on it!

13. I was married to another pastor for 20 years. We've been divorced for 13 years now and it seems like it happened in a previous life. I guess in a way it did. Overall, I remember it as a good life, right up until it wasn't.

14. I have been ordained for 30 years. I can't believe I've made it that long. When I preached my first Easter sermon I couldn't imagine how I'd ever find something else to say about Easter a second time. Now I don't know if I'll ever have enough time to say everything I want to say about it.

15. Of those 30 years, most of them I've spent battling with God, rebelling, resisting and resenting what I thought God wanted me to do. Only recently have I learned to love God enough to want what he wants for me.

16. I'm a grammatical snob. I hate it when people make grammatical errors, especially ME.

17. I have become content with my single life, but I long to find someone to grow old with.

18. The NC mountains are a very spiritual place for me and whenever I am there and then return to Charlotte I feel a sense of loss.

19. When I get riled up about something, you better get out of my way! I'm especially intolerant of intolerance.

20. I always think that it's better to speak up and maybe later be kicking myself for it, than to remain silent and maybe later be kicking myself for it.

21. Most of my life is lived on the interior and I am often unaware of what's going on around me. Hence, always lose my keys, never know where I've parked the car, can't remember if I ate lunch, etc.

22. I love going to live theatre. (Especially if Gretchen's in the play.)

23. Two places I haven't been that I really want to experience before I die: the Grand Canyon and Italy.

24. I've been an orphan since I was 28. That's when my mom died. My dad died when I was 6. I also had a step-dad and he died when I was in my early 20s. Death sucks.

25. I always thought I would have life figured out by the time I was the age I am now. Instead, I've learned that I'll never have it figured out and that it's okay. In fact, the unknown, the mystery, may be the best part of all. I suspect that may be where God lives.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Misrepresenting Jesus

I used to live in an area where there were lots of Amish people. They haven’t changed their dress for a couple hundred years. They don’t use any of the newfangled technology. And I’m not talking about ipods and computers here. I’m talking about things like cars, and electricity, and zippers. They are people to be admired for their resolve to live in their own way. But they’re also so far removed from the rest of us that they have absolutely no impact on the world. As we watch them riding by in their horse and buggy we see them as a quaint curiosity.

I have a pastor friend, Joan, who recently posed the question: Are Christians going to become the 21st century Amish? Will they become a quaint curiosity to younger generations but totally irrelevant to the lives of real people and the culture they’re living in? Some would say that we’re practically there.

A couple of guys named Kinnaman and Lyons wrote a book called: unChristian: What a new generation really thinks about Christianity and why it matters. They conducted research with young adults, people under 30. For the most part, these aren’t people unfamiliar with church. They have been to Christian Sunday schools, and Vacation Bible Schools and camps. And what do they say about us?
+ 91% say the best word to describe Christians is “antihomosexual.” They say that Christians are known more for what they stand against than what they stand for. 91%!
+ 87% choose the word “judgmental” to describe Christians. They don’t see evidence of the love of Christ that Christians claim to have.
+ 85% say Christians are hypocritical.
They also say that Christians are all out to proselytize, to get converts. And that they are sheltered. The church is irrelevant – out of touch with reality.

This research is startling. It’s an indictment against the Christian church. We have clearly been misrepresenting Jesus to the world.

When the ELCA voted this summer to become a church that fully includes gays and lesbians in our life together, we were given an opportunity -- an opportunity to introduce people to the real Jesus. This is no time for us to be shy about it. People need to know who he really is. For too long we have allowed other Christians to speak for us in a way that has grossly misrepresented Jesus. It’s time for our voices to be heard. Let's show them who Jesus is.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Hope, a Dream, and a Fantasy

I read President Obama’s speech tonight. The one he’s going to give to school kids tomorrow. What a wonderful role model he is for them! And how great that he cares enough about our kids to speak with them. Of course, he’s not the first president to do this. But, interestingly, he’s the first one to be challenged about it. It is beyond me why parents would refuse to let their children hear the President of the United States speak. In a conversation with a friend today, I noted that I didn’t think this would be happening if Obama were white. She didn’t think that’s the whole story. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying things; maybe this is more complicated than that. But what the hell is going on in our country? How did there come to be so much fear and mistrust that people feel they must protect their children from listening to our nation’s president?

Sometimes I feel like I’m living in the Twilight Zone. I remember when Obama was elected. There had never been a time in my life when I ever felt so hopeful. I cried for days. It was like my people had been living in a time of darkness that I thought would never end, and finally the sun came out; I was filled with hope. Where did it go? Recently, I had that same feeling for my denomination, the ELCA. After living in a time of exile for a very long time, we were finally returning home. At first it felt to me like a joyful homecoming. But the joy was short-lived. What happened? Is there always a backlash to change? Should I have expected this?

Back in his presidential campaign, Obama said: “Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it and to work for it and to fight for it.” After living so much of my adult life as a died-in-the-wool cynic, I have dared to hope again. Now, I’m trying my best not to lose that.

I know that I need to look at all this in perspective and hang in there for the long haul, but I’m getting so bogged down in the ugly details of each passing day that I’m losing sight of it. I have to remind myself of a dream that keeps me going...

I’m a very old woman. I just stopped driving a few months ago, so I can’t get myself to church anymore. My new young pastor, fresh out of seminary, comes to the house to bring me Holy Communion to-go and we meet for the first time.
“Pastor Martinez, it’s so good to meet you.”
“It’s good to meet you too, Pastor Kraft. But please call me Bill; that’s what my friends all call me.”
“And I hope you’ll call me Nancy. So, tell me how you’re adjusting to life as a pastor.”
“So far, so good. My husband Dan and our daughter Samantha and I have been given such a warm welcome by the congregation. It’s a happy honeymoon.”
“Well, I’m glad. I remember back to a day when that wouldn’t have been the case.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean because you’re a gay couple. There was a time when that would have been a problem for people in the church.”
“Yes, really! It was a great big deal when we changed that. Some people wondered if the church would survive it. It was touch and go for a while. But we did just fine.”
“Wow! I’ve heard about those times. But it sounds so bizarre to me. It’s just hard for me to imagine it was ever like that.”
“Oh, it was. People didn’t used to be as open to diversity as we are today. It scared them. It wasn’t seen as a positive thing like it is now. I remember back when we pretty much had white churches and black churches and we didn’t mix.”
“Seriously? In Christian churches?”
“Well sure. And all our clergy were heterosexual men. When I first started out there was actually a big fuss over women being pastors. And then there was a problem with gay people.”
“I know it must seem really weird to you. Kind of like back in the dark ages when all our presidents were old white men.”
“It’s been a while since we had one of them. But my great-grandparents have told me about those days.”
“Yeah. A lot has changed. All that was way back before you were even born.”
“It’s so hard for me to get my head around what it must have been like to have lived back then.”
“Well, it happened. And, you know, after all this time and with all the changes that have come about, sometimes it’s hard for me to believe it, too”.
“What I really can’t believe is that you’re old enough to have been around back in those days.”
“Believe it. I’m 101 years old, so I’ve seen a lot in my day.”
(This is where the dream turns into a fantasy.)
“101? You gotta be kidding me. You don’t look a day over 75!”
“I’ve always looked much younger than my age.” :-)

Saturday, August 29, 2009

I'm very human, I swear

Sometimes I hate being the professional holy person in my faith community. I’m probably the least holy person I know. I wonder how the people in my church would feel about me if they ever really got to know me as the person I am. So much is projected onto me that isn’t me at all.

Pastors scare me when they start to believe they really are the people their parishioners think they are. The healthy pastors are the ones who know better. I notice that they’ll often do little things to rebel against their role, to remind themselves that they’re human. For example, I have one male pastoral colleague who wears these very un-pastorly, funky snake-skin boots with ridiculously long, pointy toes. I have another female friend who is not only a priest, but a flamenco dancer as well. How cool is that?

My rebellion usually comes by saying things to shock people. Like swearing. I don’t know if I particularly enjoy swearing, but sometimes I’ll swear just to prove that I can. Yes, damn it, I swear. So take that, Pastor Nancy! Does swearing prove I’m human? Hell no. But my overwhelming desire to do it certainly does.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Letter to a brother with a differing "bound conscience"

Dear Travis –

I love God. I am a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. And I believe that God speaks his word of truth to us through the Holy Scriptures. I know that you could say the same. But we disagree over some of the recent decisions of our church. I want you to understand why I have landed where I have on all of this, and I invite you to do the same for me if you’d like. I am interested in hearing what you have to say.

I do have to tell you that there was a time in my life when I also felt that marriage was intended to be between a man and a woman and I thought that homosexual acts were a sin. Although you may have arrived at that conclusion for different reasons than I once did, we’re all a work in process and I’m in a much different place on all of this than I was 30 years ago. I didn’t wake up one day and decide that it’s okay to be gay, but the Spirit has led me through the years to that conclusion. I certainly have wrestled with the scriptures over all of this. Let me share with you some of the things I hold to be true:

1. We always interpret the Bible from the center out. That’s a very Lutheran way of reading scripture. We don’t read the Bible in a linear way, considering each verse, one at a time and determining how that verse guides our lives. That would be impossible because there are so many times that the message of the scripture contradicts itself from one place to the next. But we read scripture through a lens and that lens is Jesus. He is the Word made flesh and through his life and teachings we learn the truth about God.
The Bible for me is primarily about the relationship that God has had with his people and the way people have understood that relationship. Quite naturally, it includes very human perspectives and prejudices and reflects the context in which people were living. (Of course, the cultural biases of those who wrote the scriptures shine through. For example, they reflect a patriarchal society, so we have to take that into account when we read some of the misogynistic passages.) But even those confusing passages that don’t seem to have much relevance to my life today are of value because I also am a person in relationship with God and they can reveal truths to me. Nonetheless, I need a way to interpret scripture, to determine what applies to my life and what might not. A way besides just throwing out all the passages I don’t like. And that way is Jesus. (He’s the way the truth and the life, yes.) Before I can even begin to read scripture and make sense of it, I have to spend a lot of time getting to know Jesus as he’s revealed to us in the gospels. This, of course, is very Luther-an.

2. What I’ve learned from Jesus.
· Of all of God’s laws for his people, the most important one is that we love God with everything we’ve got. Of course, Jesus had to link this to loving others as we love ourselves. He couldn’t separate the two, not because between them they seem to cover everything, but because the WAY to love God with everything we’ve got is by loving others.
Many times, Jesus was accused of having no regard for the law, such as the time he healed on the Sabbath. In our culture, because we have little respect for the Sabbath, the severity of his offense to the good law-abiding citizens is lost on us. But this was a big deal in his day. After all, the law about honoring the Sabbath was one of the top ten. (Still is, by the way.) For Jesus, the law of compassion always trumped all other laws. That is central to understanding who Jesus is and what he asks of us. In the book of Luke when he goes into a tirade against the good religious leaders of his day, saying “Woe to you…”, what infuriated him was the way they spent so much time laying all the nit-picky laws on the people and they completely missed the weightier matters of the law, “justice and the love of God.” It’s interesting that the things that really ticked Jesus off weren’t the kinds of moral stuff that we get so worked up over today. It was the lack of compassion that he saw coming from the good religious folk. (Please don’t read this to be me saying that you don’t understand the value of compassion; I’m just laying out why I have landed where I have on all of this.)
· Jesus had a passion for those who had been marginalized by society. He was all about including those others excluded. That’s where the church is called to bring the good news today, to people on the margins. No one is ever excluded from God’s reign of love and mercy.
· Jesus was accused of ignoring the law in his day. But what he did was redefine it. Okay, this may not be particularly Lutheran here, but it’s what I’ve concluded… In our church we talk so much about understanding law and gospel in scripture. But the more I study scripture and the more I get to know Jesus, the more I have to conclude that there is a false distinction between law and gospel, because Jesus taught us that the law IS the gospel and the gospel is the law. The commandment that he wanted to leave us with is the commandment to love one another as he loved us.
Now, I’m not saying that “all we need is love” and nothing else matters. Nor am I saying that anything goes or that we’re all off the hook so far as the law goes. The Jesus way is not the easy way out. To truly love one another as Jesus loved us is anything but easy. Anyone who thinks it is hasn’t really tried it.
· The whole idea of “binding and loosing” has been meaningful for me. Jesus did a lot of that in his ministry. Some of the laws that had been so binding on people for centuries, he loosened. Other laws that had been a little loose among God’s people he bound more tightly. That’s to say that Jesus didn’t buy into the idea that God’s law was caste in bronze. He passed on the power to bind and loose to us, to his church. And we’ve done that since the very beginning. That brings me to my next Biblical realization.

3. What I’ve learned from the New Testament church.
From the very beginning, Christians have been open to the Spirit calling them to new interpretations of the law. For thousands of years there were laws about the way God’s people entered into a holy relationship with him. And then, out of compassion for the Gentiles who were becoming Christian, the law of circumcision was lifted. This was HUGE. No one would ever have imagined that this law would ever be changed, and yet the Spirit led the early Christians to do just that. And the law was changed for the right reason. For Jesus reasons -- For the sake of compassion and including those who were once excluded.

4. What I’ve learned from Church history.
Christians throughout history have been confronted with challenges that seem to mirror the issues the first Jerusalem Council faced. We have wrestled with the scriptures and been led by the Spirit, which seems to always be pulling us in the direction of including people in God’s reign. And this has not been without considerable pain. For me, personally, the decision of our church to ordain women has been a biggie, for obvious reasons. And yet, there are so many parallels to the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of our church. I know how it feels to have all the gifts for ministry and to feel called by God to serve as a pastor and to know that God has said “yes” to me only to hear others say “no.” I’m thankful that I don’t belong to a church that takes the Bible literally, that interprets the scriptures from the center, and is still open to the Spirit moving in the church in new ways for the sake of the gospel.

I know that a lot of the arguments Christians are engaged in over the issue of homosexuality come down to specific passages of scripture and how they are to be interpreted. I don’t find that very meaningful, mainly because of the way I interpret scripture in general. Specific texts are always read in light of the gospel of Christ. But I do agree with those who make a point of considering how homosexual acts were viewed in the Biblical context. Just as there was no consideration that the world was round, or that women could become pastors and bishops in the church, there was no awareness of same-gender, committed relationships. It’s really not fair to hold such relationships to the standards of a social context in which they were never considered.

Finally, I have to say something about my relationships with people who are gay and lesbian. Through the years, as a pastor, I have counseled with many of them, and I don’t think I’ve ever talked with a gay or lesbian person who hasn’t at some time prayed to God that they would be straight. No one chooses to be gay. Just as no one chooses to be straight. Given the realities of the homophobic world in which we live, however, I think it’s safe to say that if we could choose, for the sake of an easy life, we would all choose to be straight.

I have concluded that God has created a diversity of people. We’re different colors and sizes. We think and act differently, etc. So this is one more way in which we’re not all the same. In that respect, I can in no way say that homosexuality is a sin, anymore than I can say that heterosexuality is a sin. Of course, there are those who get squeamish even talking about any kind of sexuality, and I wish we could get past that. This doesn’t come so much from the Bible as it comes from the Victorian era that many of us still haven’t gotten over. Biblically speaking, sexuality is a gift. Accepting differing sexual orientations does not mean that the church is saying anything goes. What we have said, in our social statement on sexuality, is that all people are responsible for their stewardship of this God-given gift.

It seems to me that the most important way we can honor God in our lives is to live them authentically, as the people God created us to be. So, as a pastor, I encourage the people in my flock to do that. God created some of us straight and others gay. He created us to be in loving relationships with one another that are life-giving. And the God I have come to know through the scriptures would never ask us to deny ourselves that gift he’s given us.

You may disagree with me, Travis, but I wanted you to understand how I’ve arrived at the place where I am. I know that I probably haven't said anything here that you haven't heard before and I probably haven't changed your mind, but I wanted you to hear where I'm coming from. When we say that we agree to disagree, I think that we often mean we agree not to talk to one another and I didn't want to do that with you. As Bishop Hanson reminded us all at Churchwide Assembly, despite our disagreements, we all meet at the foot of the cross.

Peace in Christ,

Thursday, August 27, 2009

And They'll Know We are Lutherans by Our...

What an opportunity we have in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America right now. For a week or two we may have the world's attention. "What will be our witness?" That was the question Bishop Hanson asked us in his sermon at the opening worship of our Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis. What will be our witness? Will we witness to the amazing grace of our God who includes all people in his loving embrace? Or will they know we are Lutherans by our bickering?

Many people may not realize that when we passed the recommendation allowing people in "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationships" to serve as pastors and other rostered leaders in our church, there were other resolutions that led up to this historic step. In fact, voting members considered one of those four steps so crucial, that they they voted to change the order from the original recommendation. Number three became number one: "that in the implementation of any resolutions on ministry policies, the ELCA commit itself to bear one another's burdens, love the neighbor, and respect the bound consciences of all." Our Churchwide Assembly knew that a change in our ministry policies had the potential to become a divisive issue for the church. And an overwhelming majority of those present were committed to hang in there with one another no matter what the decision of the assembly might be. Of all the resolutions that were passed related to ministry policies, that was the most significant for our life together. And yet, it seems to be the one that we're losing sight of.

The media loves stories of conflict and, so far, our church has given them plenty of juicy material. I'm praying that will not be our witness to the world. God help us not to miss this opportunity to proclaim the gospel, not only in the decision to include those who once were excluded in our church, but also in the way we strive to live together in the midst of our disagreements. Jesus said that the world will know we're his disciples by the way we show our love for one another. The world is watching now. This is our chance to show who we are.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Community of Fear

Living by faith is hard. That’s true even for those of us who don’t live in a part of the world where Christians are persecuted for their faith. This is because the difficulty that we Christians struggle with the most isn’t imposed upon us from the outside world. The source of our difficulty, as we struggle to live by faith, comes from within. It’s fear.

The scriptures recognize this very real human predicament when God’s says, “Don’t be afraid” again and again. We hear those words as God makes an outlandish promise to Isaac, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you and will bless you and make your offspring numerous for my servant Abraham’s sake” (Genesis 26:24b). After an angel visits Mary in the middle of night and scares the bajeebers out of her, the angel announces, “Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30). As Jesus visits a leader of the synagogue named Jairus, who pleads with Jesus to heal his daughter, Jesus tells him, “Do not fear. Only believe and she will be saved” (Luke 8:50). These are just a few of the verses we could cite. People of faith have always struggled with fear and God has always addressed their fear.

Although fear may challenge our faith, faith is not the absence of fear. Faith is courageously facing our fears. Thankfully, God has given us the gift of community so that we don’t have to face our fears alone. Despite the fact that we often use the phrase “community of faith” in reference to the church, it is also a “community of fear.” In fact, it may be our very real human experience of fear that unites us more than our faith.

I’m convinced that none of us choose to live as part of the church because we are such faith-full people. Instead, we choose to live as part of the church because we want to be faith-full people. We long to release the fears we carry within us and replace those fears with faith. So we hang out with others who also want to be faith-full people and we travel the journey of faith together. At any given time, within the church, some of us are fearful and some of us are faithful. No one is fearful all the time and no one is faithful all the time. But there are always enough of the faithful among us to carry the rest of us along.

To live by faith is not to have a direct pipeline to God. It is not to live with certainty. It is not to blindly accept everything as it is without questioning. And it is most assuredly not to live without fear. Living by faith is trusting that God’s grace never fails, even when we fail to trust in God. Living by faith is finding peace amongst the ambiguities of life. It is daring to face the truth about ourselves, because God who already knows the truth about us loves us completely. Living by faith is courageously facing our fears, knowing that God has given us all that we need to do so.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Assembly - Day 5

Tears * Tears * Tears

It's been one of those times when my emotions are so close to the surface that it doesn't take much to get the tears flowing. I remember feeling the same way during our last presidential election. They are tears of joy, to be sure. And yet, they are more than that. When you hope for something that you believe you may never see in your lifetime, and it comes to pass, it's overwhelming.

And what an opportunity this is for our Church. We are poised to make a powerful witness to the world. A witness to the gospel of inclusion, a witness to God's amazing grace, and, I hope, a witness to the diversity within Christ's church, where we can have such different ways of understanding our faith and yet live together in unity for the sake of the gospel.

I'm writing this blog on Saturday morning. Yesterday, I was exhausted and at a loss for words. I'm not sure I've gotten beyond that today. The mood at the assembly today is anxious. Voting members are concerned for our church. This concerns me too. I feel the pain of our brothers and sisters who strongly disagree with the direction our church has taken. On a deep level, many of them feel that they have lost the church they love. I think we need to give this some time to see what might happen after the dust settles and we've given careful and prayerful consideration to how we will continue to live together. I hope those who are unhappy with the decisions of our church will have the grace to stay with us. Certainly, those who have supported full inclusion in the church have felt alienated for decades, and we stayed. It hasn't been easy, but for the sake of the Body, it's the faithful response.

It is one of those ongoing paradoxes of our life together that, when we decide to include everyone, we are, in effect, excluding those who cannot live with that kind of open inclusiveness. There's no way around it. It was true for Jesus, too. When he included those whom others had excluded, they couldn't tolerate it. Should members of our ELCA choose to leave the church, it will not be because the church has excluded them. It will be because they can't tolerate the church's decision to include all.

What will be our witness to the world? For the sake of the gospel, it has to be that we have welcomed ALL as Christ welcomed all. Because we are a declining denomination, we have focused too much on our numbers and not enough on the gospel. The fear is that this recent decision of our church will result in the loss of even more members. I think we all know that we will, in fact, lose some folks along the way. But it will not be because we have asked them to leave; it will be their choice. I also believe we will gain people along the way as those who have felt estranged from the church in the past will know now that there is room for them at the Table of God's grace. Even more significant than any impact this decision may have on our numbers is the witness it makes to others. As we proclaim the unconditional grace of God, the witness of our actions at this assembly tells the world that not only do we talk the grace talk, but we are doing the hard work of walking the grace walk.

We don't know what walking that grace walk is going to mean for us as a Church, but we have done the right thing and by God's grace, we'll figure it out as we move forward. I'm counting on that. The Spirit who brought us this far by faith will see us through it. Pray that our church doesn't miss this opportunity to offer a powerful witness of God's love to the world. It's time for us to be known for our Christlikeness, not for our bickering. Can we do that? Well, I didn't think we could do what we have already done. God is full of surprises!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Assembly - Day 4

i thank You God for most this amazing day

That's the title of an e.e. cummings poem that's always been a favorite of mine. The words were set to music by a man named Eric Whitacre; this was one of the songs that I heard sung by the National Lutheran Choir in an amazing hymn festival at Central Lutheran Church this evening. I can't begin to tell you how glorious this concert was. Heaven couldn't possibly be any better. My favorite part of such an event is always the congregational singing. I suppose it's a distinctively Lutheran thing because when you fill a church with Lutherans from all over the country who love to sing in four parts... well, I'm at a loss for the words to describe it. Throughout the event I kept wishing that all the dear people from Holy Trinity in Charlotte could have been with me to experience it. This sort of thing just doesn't happen on such a grand scale in North Carolina. It was a wonderful ending to the day.

Everyone is waiting to see what will happen tomorrow. I expect that the vote on the ministry proposals will be taken. The tone of the assembly is positive. I sense that the voting members just want to get on with it.

If there has been a theme of this assembly, it's been unity. In our daily communion services and in lots of other ways we're being reminded again and again of our call to work together as Christ's body and to hang together even when we disagree. That's true for the entire assembly, and particularly for the folks at Goodsoil. They know how it feels to be on the losing side of this battle for the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church and, should they be on the winning side this time, there is a lot of concern for showing compassion for those who might be feeling like this is the end of the world.

Tomorrow, when the vote is announced, those of us in the plenary hall can't react in any way. That's one of the rules of the assembly -- a good rule that respects the feelings of those who are on the losing side of an issue. So, we'll have to calmly hear the vote announced and then wait for a break so we can rush up to the Goodsoil office and, hopefully, do a happy dance together. I'm wondering if I have it in me to do this. I don't know how I'll be able to control myself. I may have to watch on the T.V. monitor in the Goodsoil room. From what I hear, they have given out 1,000 visitor passes and they expect to run out of space for all to be seated in the plenary room tomorrow. I hope to be there, but we'll see.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Assembly - Day 3

The Rush of a Mighty Wind and a Squeaker

I met a friend for lunch today, and as I was making my way through the maze of the Minneapolis Skyway system back toward the Convention center, I noticed that a hard rain was pounding outside. Arriving at the convention center, I learned that there had been a tornado and the warning was still in effect. Everyone in the building had been evacuated to the large plenary meeting hall. As it turns out, friends who witnessed the whole thing told me that they actually could see the tornado touch down, right across the street from the Convention Center, at Central Lutheran Church. The funnel cloud landed on the church for about 30 seconds and then it went back up again. The outdoor cafe that Central set up for assembly visitors was gone. Tables blew up onto the roof of the convention center and they still haven't found the chairs. Trees were uprooted, debris everywhere, and worst of all, the cross on the spire was bent completely over. This was to be the site for the Goodsoil worship service that night. Fortunately, no one was hurt and the church was in good enough shape for our worship to go on as planned.

What an absolutley glorious experience our worship was. I wish that all of my Holy Trinity family could have been with us. When the congregation sang "Give Me Jesus" I was so moved by the voices that I completely lost my own. Barbara Lundblad preached and was magnificent. Ironically, the text chosen for the night was the story of the storm at sea. As she read the gospel and got to the words describing the wind that arose, she paused and the congregation roared, then she looked up and said, "Really. That's what it says here." A perfect text for the occasion, on many levels. It was also the perfect way to end an amazing day.

The discussion of the Human Sexuality Statement seemed to drag on and on today, with one proposed amendment after another, and it seemed like we would never get through it. I was wondering if they would still be nitpicking this up until Sunday. Then something seemed to change among the voting members. It was like they said, we've had enough of this, and they made a motion to limit the time spent debating each proposed amendment. Then, someone moved that all the amendments be rejected and they proceeded to move on to consider the statement itself. Suddenly, they were voting on the proposed social statement.

I was sitting in Goodsoil Central with a large group of volunteers who were watching it all on a monitor. (This is a much more enjoyable way of watching the proceedings as you are free to make comments!) When we realized that the proposal was actually coming to a vote TODAY, we were in shock. You could have heard a pin drop in the room. All eyes were glued to the screen and we were holding our collective breath. They posted the vote total on the screen and at first we couldn't figure out if it had passed or not. (The voting is electronic and it's always reported with a bar graph showing the percentages.) This particular vote required a 2/3 majority and the tally was 66 point some fraction of a percent in favor. We're all looking at each other asking, "Is that 2/3? Is that 2/3?" (Where are all the math majors when you need them?) Then Bishop Hanson announced that it passed. The whole room filled with Goodsoil volunteers erupted. We cried, we jumped up and down, we hugged one another. You would have thought that our team just won the superbowl. It was unbelievable. Just three short years ago, the assembly was in such a completely different place. Is this the same ELCA?

So maybe it was just a tornado that happened to strike the Lutheran church across the street, the church that was hosting our Goodsoil worship that night. Or maybe it was like the rush of a mighty wind on the Day of Pentecost, because after we were all sequestered in the meeting room because of the tornado, the direction of the conversation that seemed so stuck seemed to come together. Not too long after that, when we did our little happy dance, celebrating the passage of a statement of our church that includes and affirms the experience of people in same gender relationships for the first time in our history, we looked outside... and the sun was shining.

It was a good day to be Lutheran!

Assembly - Day 2

Highlights of Tuesday -
  • Singing for voting members as they entered the convention center bright and early this morning. We sounded pretty damn good for people who were singing in their sleep.
  • The continuing wise leadership of Bishop Mark Hanson and his delightful wit; he actually makes doing the business of the church fun.
  • Listening to voting members discuss the Human Sexuality Statement being proposed., lined up at the microphones for and against. How can something that seems so innocuous to me inspire such ire among so many? I don't get it.
  • When it came time to discuss the proposal for a new initiative to fight Malaria in Africa, I almost checked out. So glad I stuck around. It was our church at its absolute finest. Among those gathered, I was amazed to learn how many of them had personal stories about the devastation of malaria from the time they have spent serving/living in other parts of the world. That's the blessing of diversity within our church. Such a broad range of experiences strengthening the Body of Christ. What powerful stories. I hope we really back this initiative.
  • Singing "Just a Closer Walk" with a whole lotta soul at worship today.
  • At an educational event this evening ELCA pastors in same gender relationships and their families had the opportunity to share their stories with us. I can't imagine the excitement they must be feeling right now and am praying that soon our church will embrace their gifts for ministry without reservation.
  • Enjoying the city of Minneapolis. Able to walk everywhere. Beautiful weather, dining outside. I only got lost three times today, which is an improvement.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Assembly - Day 1

We’re off and running at our ELCA’s Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis. I had the opportunity to meet friends at Goodsoil Central this afternoon. During our training session on “Graceful Engagement”, I learned that this CWA is different from any in prior years because this time the churchwide office is actually asking Goodsoil to help them accomplish the work of the church. In the past, Goodsoil has been in the role of advocating change in our church by standing against the policies of our ELCA. This time, what’s being proposed by our ELCA Church Council to the Churchwide Assembly is a life-giving step for our church that Goodsoil supports. It puts us in a different position than we have known in the past. Nonetheless, it’s not a slam-dunk. We are doing all we can to support the recommendations of the Church Council regarding Ministry Policies that have excluded gay and lesbian leaders in committed relationships from serving in our church. There are over 150 volunteers working with Goodsoil, who have come from all over the country to serve at this historic assembly. The spirit of the volunteers is positive and prayerful.
During the first plenary session of the Assembly, the rules of procedure were established for the assembly. I know that doesn’t sound all that exciting, but actually there was a movement to require a 2/3 vote on all recommendations for ministry policies. This is contrary to the existing rules and an obvious attempt to block any change. The reasoning for this is that such a radical change in our policy would be so damaging to the church that a supermajority would be less divisive. Of course, for people on the other side (including moi), this would mean that instead of a simple majority deciding how the church will act, our future could be determined by 1/3 of the voting members plus 1. If this 2/3 requirement passed it would mean that the ministry recommendations don’t stand much a chance of passing. The assembly did not approve the change, so we have overcome this first hurdle, but it was not without considerable debate that went on and on and on. Tension is high on the assembly floor and it's only night one.
The highlight of the day was the sermon Bishop Hanson preached at the opening worship for the Assembly this afternoon. Preaching on the story of Jesus’ resurrection appearance to the disciples in the upper room, he talked about the fear that drove them inward, something we could all identify with. Bishop Hanson reminded us that for the first disciples, even in the midst of their fears, Jesus showed up, and he promises us that he will continue to show up for us today. As we gathered around Word and Sacrament this afternoon, Jesus was present. We have the assurance that he’ll be with us this week.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Here We Go Again

I’ve been thinking a lot about the very first churchwide assembly. It happened almost 2,000 years ago. I wonder, as those early Christians prepared for that meeting in Jerusalem, if they had any awareness of the significance of what they were about to do. Or were they so caught up in the moment that they couldn’t see how their decision would change the direction of history? Were they busy preparing their arguments and aligning their allies to do battle with the opposition? From what I’ve read, it’s hard for me to believe that they would have approached the issue that divided them with an openness to listen and be changed by the debate. They held their positions with too much passion for me to believe that. And yet, when they got together, something amazing happened.

The status quo was challenged. The Spirit moved. And they could see that God was doing a new thing in the Church. It was no small, incidental belief and practice that was changed, mind you. It was something big, a core understanding about their relationship with God that they had tightly held onto for thousands of years. No amount of talking could have convinced them to change their minds about something so huge. Only God could bring about a transformation like that.

But was it that simple? Is there more to the story than what we read about it in the book of Acts? Were there some who threatened to leave if Gentiles were accepted in the Church without first doing everything that the law had always demanded of God’s people? When things didn’t go their way, did some of them take their Torahs and go home?

That first Jerusalem Council seemed to set the stage for the unfolding drama of Church history. The Church has always been divided over something, and we’re always meeting to work out our differences. We try hard to rise above the pettiness of our arguments, but usually our passion gets the best of us, and we are overcome with a desire to have our own way. And yet, somehow in the midst of all the very human desires we bring to these assemblies, the Holy Spirit is at work, and eventually, God has it God’s way.

As I prepare to make the pilgrimage to Minneapolis for our ELCA’s Churchwide Assembly, I am hoping to keep the events of the week in perspective. This is not an isolated moment in history, unlike anything the world has ever seen. We are engaged in the latest opportunity for God’s people to gather together to consider an issue that deeply divides us. I am confident that somehow, if our closed minds can allow for the slightest opening, the Spirit will slip in.

Thinking about that first churchwide assembly in Jerusalem, something else has occurred to me. At that time, the Spirit pushed God’s people to change so that the Church could become more inclusive. And isn’t that the direction the Spirit always moves us? I’m hard-pressed to think of a time when God has ever led us to become more exclusive. I can’t imagine that would ever be the case. That’s not to say that every decision that has ever been made at an assembly of the Church is the right decision, one that is in accordance with God’s will. There certainly have been times in history when the Church has gotten it wrong. But history also reveals that eventually God has his way with us and we get it right. My prayer, as our ELCA meets together this week, is that this will be one of those times.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Knots in My Knots

My stomach is in knots over our upcoming ELCA Churchwide Assembly. This morning a friend forwarded me a copy of letters exchanged between the first bishop of our ELCA and one of our most respected theologians. They reminded me of two enemies engaged in trench warfare lobbing grenades at one another, and I had knots in my knots. As the knots tighten, I find myself praying more. It’s not mindful prayer, or heartfelt prayer. It’s prayer from the gut. In fact, it’s gut-wrenching.

Why do I care so much about this? Well, there are many reasons. For starters, there is the injustice of singling a group of people out and telling them that in order to become acceptable they need to pretend they are people other than the ones God created them to be. This is not only unjust, but it is an insult to our Creator. Then there are ecclesiastical reasons, like the fact that Christ’s Church has always been in the process of being transformed by the Spirit to meet the changing needs of the world around us. The Scriptures are filled with this kind of movement among God’s people, and we need to be open to the Spirit leading us to new understandings of old truths today. All of that gets me stirred up inside, but it’s not really what wrenches my gut. What gets me in the gut is that fact that, for me, the level of inclusion that our ELCA offers to the LGBT population is personal. I dearly love a heck of a lot of people who happen to be gay.

I have deep friendships with formerly-rostered persons who have been rejected by their Church. These are gifted people whom God called to serve just as surely as he called me. Their only offense is the people they love. Right now, among the people I pastor, there are those being called to serve in the Church and they are holding their breath, waiting to see what our ELCA does. There is no question about their calling or their gifts. The only thing that remains to be seen is whether the larger church will stand in their way or not. I pray that God will forgive us for the damage we have done to so many lives in the past, and that we will repent of that damage for the sake of those who stand waiting to serve.

Although I’ve never gone through our membership to count, mainly because I don’t care to make that kind of distinction within our faith community, I suspect that, in the congregation where I’m serving as pastor, at least half of our members are gay or lesbian. They have been deeply hurt by the actions of our North Carolina Synod and our ELCA over the years, and yet, they remain faithful. Frankly, I don’t know if I would have done the same if I were in their shoes. God’s grace working in their lives amazes me.

The people at Holy Trinity in Charlotte are so hopeful about our upcoming Churchwide Assembly that they wanted to be there. Since the commute from Charlotte to Minneapolis makes that impossible, they decided to send me to represent them all. Without my knowledge, they took up a collection and gathered enough money to pay my way. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Most of the people at Churchwide Assembly will be there because they were elected to go by their respective synods. I’ll be there because I was elected to go by my congregation. Of course, that doesn’t give Holy Trinity a voice or a vote on the assembly floor. But we will be there. With knots in our stomachs. Praying.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Tootin' & Scootin'

“He’s going to toot; we’re going to skoot.” That’s the message on a church sign, as reported by a friend of mine. She’s always on the look-out for humorous sayings on church signs and shares them with the rest of us by posting them on Facebook. When I read this one I was mystified. What the heck is that supposed to mean? I wondered. Who is the he? Is that God? And what would it mean for him to toot? I know tooting is a euphemism for passing gas, as in the little jingle we used to say about beans when I was a kid: “Beans, beans, the musical fruit, the more you eat, the more you toot.” So is this saying that when God passes gas we’d best be getting out of the way? Somehow I didn’t think that was the sort of message a church would put on their sign. Finally, the friend who posted the message enlightened me. It was referring to the trumpet sounding on judgment day and all the true Christians being taken up into heaven. Well, duh, Nancy!

Now, when I found out what the message meant, although maybe I should have felt stupid because I didn’t understand it, I didn’t. Nor did I feel like I’m in trouble because when God comes tooting his horn (actually I believe it would be the angel Gabriel) on judgment day and all the true believers are caught up in the air, I’ll be standing with my feet firmly planted on the Earth, asking, “Did you just hear something? Was that the sound of someone very large passing gas?” No. What I felt was sadness. How can there be such a huge divide within the Christian Church that we have such divergent ways of thinking? Clearly, we’re not all on the same wavelength. Sometimes I wonder if we’re even speaking the same language. I hate the labels we slap on one another, but if I had to live with a label for my own expression of Christianity, I would call it progressive or liberal. I tend to gravitate toward like-minded people, the kind who don’t think a whole lot about tootin’ and scootin’. Those are the authors I read, the friends I meet for lunch, the believers I share the weekly Eucharist with. I avoid people who don’t see the world the way I see it, for a lot of reasons. Mostly because, to be honest, they exhaust me. It’s a lot of work to carry on a conversation with someone who thinks so differently than I do. It’s easier to live in my insulated little world, within the walls I have constructed to keep like-minded people in and other people out. I know I’m not alone in that. And it makes me sad.

To be in Christ is to live in a wall-free zone that models the Kingdom of God. A metaphor used in Ephesians to describe this reality is the Body of Christ. All Christians are a part of that Body, with Christ as our head. The image is one of unity, without walls dividing one part of the Body from another. Of course, this is not the same thing as uniformity. Certainly there is diversity in the Body, and that’s by design, so that with our diverse gifts we can build up the Body to do Christ’s work in the world. But within that diversity, there is unity. How do we live together in the unity of Christ’s love while still honoring and celebrating the gift of our diversity?

The disunity we experience as Christians isn’t just between denominations; it happens within denominations, too. I’m very aware of that struggle in my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Like most mainline denominations these days, we are trying to figure out how to resolve the disagreements we have about how supportive we are willing to be toward people who are in same-gender relationships. At our Churchwide Assembly in a couple of weeks, we will be voting on some far-reaching resolutions that could bring us to a new place as God’s people. What’s being proposed is not a win/lose agenda where our church will insist that we all agree, but it’s a plan that allows us to live together in the midst of our disagreements. I think it’s a faithful solution, one that reflects what it means to be the Body of Christ in the world today. But denominational policies don’t really change what’s in our hearts. No matter what our voting members to the assembly decide, we will continue to struggle.

I suspect that what most of us would like to see is a change of heart on the part of those who disagree with us. We’d like it if they could to come around to our way of seeing things. I know I’d sure like that. But I don’t think that’s what it means to be part of the Body of Christ. When we’re part of the Body, we work together for whatever strengthens the Body. It’s not about converting other parts of the Body to our way of thinking. It’s about working together for the unity of the Body. For me, that means that I need to stop worrying about what’s in the hearts of other Christians and spend a little more time thinking about what’s in my own.

I’m sure whoever put “He’s going to toot; we’re going to skoot” on that church sign had no idea how it would mess with me. But it has. I guess that just goes to show that I really do need tootin’ and scootin’ Christians in my life!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Apologetically Christian?

Sometimes it feels like I’ve spent most of my life apologizing for being a Christian. For so many people in our culture, when they think about Christians, all kinds of negative images come to mind and I find myself apologizing for the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, the Crusades and any number of other atrocities that have been committed against humanity in the name of Jesus. Most recently, I’m apologizing to those who have been hurt by the homophobic stance of my denomination.

As a parish pastor, I often encounter people who want nothing to do with the church because they’ve had negative experiences with a particular congregation. They tell me stories of back-biting and petty disagreements, ill-placed priorities and blatant hypocrisy. I’ve been around the church long enough that I don't doubt the truthfulness of their stories. I could tell a few of my own. Churches are filled with messed up folks who fall far short of the vision God has for his people.

Usually, when I get into a conversation with a disillusioned Christian who has left the church, I’ll try to point out how perhaps that person has expected too much. After all, the church is made up of very imperfect people, so it’s not fair to expect perfection. In other words, “Maybe if you lower your expectations you’ll find the church to be more acceptable.” Don’t expect so much.

Now I'm thinking that I’ve been wrong about that. Lowering our expectations isn't the solution. A prayer to the church in Ephesus has challenged me to see this in a new way. “I pray that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (3:16-19)

What we need to do is raise our expectations, not lower them. Yeah, it makes perfect sense not to expect a whole lot because the church is still filled with sinners like you and me. But there’s more to the story of who we are than that. We belong to Christ. And because we're in Christ, we can dare to expect great things to happen through his Church.

It’s always amazed me that Christ chose to have the Church act on his behalf, as his Body in the world. The question, “What were you thinking?” has often been on my mind and on my lips as I’ve watched the ways we’ve all but obliterated the gospel message by our actions. And yet, I know that God has a habit of choosing the least likely candidates to do his work. Stammering Moses, lying snake-in-the-grass Jacob, adulterous/murdering David, a handful of dim-witted fishermen, a self-righteous persecutor of God’s people. Apparently, God enjoys a challenge! And the thing is, when God chooses people who seem all wrong for the job, something powerful has a way of happening, and there can be no doubt where the power comes from. Clearly, it’s God’s doing. Without God in the mix, we have every reason not to expect a whole lot. But as people of faith, we know that God IS in the mix.

We’re all waiting to see what will happen in a few weeks when our ELCA meets in Churchwide Assembly. Will we vote for change or maintain the status quo? Clearly, a change will be a move toward removing walls that the Church has erected over the years, walls that have been used to separate people within the Body of Christ. These walls are not God’s walls; they are human walls. (see Ephesians 2)

People ask me what I think is going to happen at our Churchwide Assembly. Of course, I don’t know. I do know that we’re dealing with a very human institution. By nature, institutions make decisions that are for the sake of preserving the institution and not for the sake of the gospel. So, considering what we’re working with, my expectations should be low. And without God in the mix, I would say, “No way in hell our ELCA is ever going to change.” But, God IS in the mix. God has chosen to work through us, his Church, flawed as we are. In the past, our church has acted boldly in ways that have surprised me. I know that was God’s doing and not our own. And God continues to be a God of surprises. So my expectations of our Churchwide Assembly are anything but low. I have great expectations.

The conclusion of the prayer to the Ephesians says it all: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (3:20-21)

Monday, July 27, 2009

Now, for a Limited Time Only...

Have you ever heard of the scarcity principle? It’s a marketing expression. The scarcity principle tells us that if an item is only available in limited quantities, or for a limited time and you let people know that, its value goes up. If people are afraid that there isn’t going to be enough of something, then they’ll grab whatever they can. It’s why people run to the grocery story and buy all the milk and toilet paper off the shelves if they think there’s going to be bad weather.

It’s funny the way the scarcity principle works because if people think there’s not going to be enough of something they’ll actually do more than just pick up what they need to get by. They’ll actually accumulate more than they need. Whenever you see people who have an over-abundance of something in their lives, more than enough of what they actually need, it’s a sure-fire sign that they’re afraid. The scarcity principle plays on people’s fears. During this time of economic scarcity so many of us are experiencing right now, there's more than enough fear to go around.

Imagine being with thousands of people who have nothing to eat and daring to offer up your little lunch to feed them. Perhaps only a child who hasn’t yet learned to be afraid of not having enough for himself could do such a thing. In John's version of the gospel, that's where Jesus gets the food he uses to feed over 5,000 people. It's the offering of a little boy, who in his innocence doesn't realize that he should be afraid of not having enough for himself if he shares what he has.

The one thing that I notice being sold more than anything else in our culture is happiness. We have been convinced by advertising that we don’t have enough happiness, but that could all change if we’d just get some more of whatever it is they want to sell us. We are sold the desire for happiness. We hear the message all around us: Until and unless you buy what we’re selling, you will never be happy. Don’t the people in the advertisements we see look happy? They’re wearing fabulous clothes and drinking the best coffee in the world, and sitting on the most comfortable furniture. When we look at them we realize that we’re not as happy as they are and want what they have.

A thousand times a day, in a million forms, calling to us from billboards, magazines, television, radio, newspapers, web sites, and telemarketers, every single message without exception is this: you are not enough. You do not have enough. You are not happy. You have not achieved the American Dream. Not “You are the light of the world.” Not “Together we can make the world a better place.” Not “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But rather, the message is “You are not happy.”

The lie is this: While they’re promising happiness, what they’re really selling is dissatisfaction. Our entire economy is based upon dissatisfaction. If we are satisfied, we don’t need more than we already have. Once we have eaten our fill, we don’t ask for another helping. If we’re happy in our marriage, we’re not desperate to have an affair. If we’re satisfied with our home and community, we feel no desire to move. When we’re happy, we aren’t driven to grasp for more than we have.

I was born in the 50s and I’m very much aware of how much more we have of everything than we had when I was a little girl. I grew up in a house where 6 people were living at one time. And we had one small bathroom. I wonder how this was even possible. Now I live alone with three bathrooms all to myself. One of my friends lives alone and he has nine bathrooms all to himself. We expect more of everything now. Our cars are faster, our telephones reach farther, our computers are everywhere, our dishwashers are more efficient, our armies better equipped, our police have more weaponry, our medicines are more powerful, our interstate highways are bigger and take us more places, our buildings are safer, more modern, and temperature controlled. But here’s the thing… Although we purchase twice what we did in the 1950s, can we honestly say we are happier for it?

The miracle of a little boy giving his lunch away reminds us that we’ve got it all wrong. What brings us that elusive happiness is not seeking more of whatever the world convinces us we just have to have. It’s nothing out there. What we seek is the kingdom of God. And we find it, not out there, but inside ourselves. Mother Teresa has said it so well, “Let us remain as empty as possible so that God can fill us up.”

There are many native cultures where wealth isn’t measured by what one possesses, but by what one feels able to give away. In those cultures they celebrate the great giveaway, when gifts are freely given to others in the community. These aren't leftovers or castoffs, like we’ll dump off at the Goodwill. They’re the best of what they own, their very finest. The rationale for giving this stuff away is that “If I can afford to give away my best – if I can give away what I love the most – then I must be very wealthy, indeed.”

Can I challenge you to learn from the miracle of the boy who gave his lunch away? No, I’m not going to challenge you to give away whatever is most precious to you in your life. That may be too much too fast. But I want to challenge you to let go of something that’s become a part of your life and is more than you need. Something that is more than enough for you. Maybe it’s a coat you no longer wear. Or a book that you’ve finished reading. A project you feel responsible for that brings joy to no one, especially you. Pick one thing that has become unnecessary in your life and let it go. Pick one thing this week, and another next week.

When the boy let go of his lunch, Jesus blessed his offering and multiplied it so that all were fed. When we let go of our fear, we learn that our God is the source of true abundance and we have been given more than enough.