Monday, December 20, 2010

Remembering Christmas

We go trudging in the cold searching for the perfect tree. We labor over decorations and straighten every bow a dozen times. We rack our brains trying to come up with the perfect present to give someone special. We spend days slaving in the kitchen hoping to put together the feast that nobody will ever forget. Why is it that we work so hard to get everything perfect for Christmas?

Back in 1954, E.B. White was feeling that Christmas perfection pressure when he sat down at his typewriter to write his annual Christmas column for The New Yorker magazine. He wanted to say something new and fresh that would inspire his readers at Christmastime. But nothing he wrote seemed to do it. And while he was struggling to find the perfect words to say, he thought about a conversation he had with his 92 Aunt Caroline, who lived with White and his wife. He described his Aunt Caroline as a woman from another century, who always seemed to know what to say.

The White family lived in New England, which was known for its beautiful fall color and Aunt Caroline loved to go for drives in the country and take in the changing colors. But this particular year they hadn’t had the opportunity to go, and when he realized this, E.B. White felt terrible about it. He went to his aunt and said, “I’m so sorry we didn’t get out for a ride to see the leaves. I know that’s your favorite thing.”

Aunt Caroline looked at him and she said, “Why my dear --- remembrance is sufficient of the beauty we have seen.” It was such an unexpected answer that he said it felt like a bird had just flown into the room. She didn’t need a new experience – she just needed to remember what she had already seen. That was enough for her. Remembrance is sufficient of the beauty we have seen.

How do you remember Christmas? Re-membering is the opposite of dis-membering. To dis-member is to take something apart. It’s to divide it up into pieces. But to re-member is to bring all the pieces back together again into a whole picture. Another word for remember is recollect, and that gives us an even better visual. It’s re-collecting the parts of the story. That process of bringing the story together again is what we’re called to do at Christmastime.

That seems to be the way Mary celebrated the first Christmas. We read in Luke’s gospel that Mary “treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” It’s a great description of what it means to remember. Mary treasured “all these things.” She gathered up all the different pieces of the story and put them together, not just in her mind, but also in her heart. She pondered in her heart. What an oxymoron that is. How do you ponder with your heart? Well, that’s what remembering is. You take the details you have filed away in your brain and filter them through your heart. Then your experience becomes more than just a collection of facts. It takes on significance and meaning. That’s what happens when you ponder with your heart.

I remember Christmas in a way that is unique to me. At this time of year I’m pondering with my heart all the many pieces to my Christmas story. Pieces like the last Christmas I had with my father and he gave me a Shirley Temple doll. When my shiny blue Schwinn bicycle was standing by the tree on Christmas morning. Christmas Eve parties at my aunt and uncle’s. Homemade shortbread from Grandma Johannsen. As a teenager, playing my flute for the Episcopal church and discovering that some people actually go to worship on Christmas Eve. Rocking my three week old baby to sleep singing “Silent Night” to the light of a Christmas tree. Going into my mom’s house after she died in November 29 years ago and finding the Christmas gifts she had already wrapped for us. Looking out into a sea of candles on Christmas Eve and seeing my children’s faces glowing back at me. Waking up on Christmas morning completely alone for the first time after my divorce. My first Christmas at Holy Trinity when we had over a 100 people at worship for the first time in recent history. When the usher went to the balcony to count the people she got so excited that on her way back down she fell down the stairs. Those are among the pieces of my Christmas story.

But then, there is another story that gets thrown into that mix. It’s a story that has also become a part of my life. So much so that it overshadows all the other pieces of Christmas that I ponder in my heart. This is a story that is not unique to me. I share it with all of you. It’s the story of how our God came to live as one of us. Beginning his life the way we all do, as an infant. Small, vulnerable, hungry for the milk and the love of his mama. And as his life unfolded, he showed us the very essence of God: grace, mercy and truth. Into the darkness of this world, he shone with the light of God.

Although none of us were actually there when it happened, we can still re-member that story as we ponder it in our hearts and connect it with our own personal Christmas stories.

We spend so much time, energy and money at Christmastime trying to create a perfect moment, when all we really need to do is remember. We don’t need a brand new experience; we need to remember what we already know. There’s such beauty and truth in the story of Christmas that it doesn’t require a lot of embellishment or special effects. All we have to do is remember it well. Because when we do, it speaks to that deepest part of us. When we do, it’s still as surprising as if a bird just flew into the room. Remembrance is sufficient of the beauty we have seen.

Friday, December 3, 2010

I'm Not the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Really.

It’s Advent once again and time for our annual reminder that we are a countercultural community in the world around us. We may know that all year round, but at no other time do the values of the dominant culture so obviously clash with our own. The secular world has stolen our sacred observance of the Word made flesh and turned it into a time that is the antithesis of Christ… a time filled with busy-ness, consumerism and superficial sentiment.
I think of the Easter story where a bewildered Mary Magdalene is sobbing in the garden outside the tomb, telling a man she supposed to be the gardener, “Sir, they’ve taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they put him!” We know that the gardener was none other than Jesus himself, so there is great irony in Mary’s lament. But, imagine Mary Magdalene transported in time to Concord Mills during the month of December. In this context, her words would ring oh so true, “Sir, they’ve taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they put him!”
Often we hear people grumbling over the fact that we don’t sing Christmas hymns during the season of Advent. As a Lutheran pastor I sometimes feel as if parishioners consider me the enforcer of an arbitrary rule that makes no sense to them, and I have become like the “Grinch who stole Christmas.” They ask, “Why can’t we sing Christmas songs when they’re being sung all around us?” But this is precisely why we don’t sing them in the church… because we follow a different calendar than the world around us. And we decide how we will celebrate the incarnation, not those who run retail stores.
I suggest that we sing our Advent hymns with gusto, voicing them to the very world that would convince us of their futility. We don’t sing these hymns because the pastors insist we must; we sing them because we are a community of faith that is bound together by the gospel and we will not be intimidated into following the world’s agenda. Every time we sing an Advent hymn it defines us; we are declaring who we are and who we are not. Singing Advent hymns is in fact an extreme act of Christian defiance! We are not like the rest of the world. We will prepare for the birth of Christ in our own way. We will proclaim a message that stands in direct opposition to the perversion of Christ’s life and teachings that the popular culture would have us believe. So there!
Thank God for this time of the year when we are called upon to take a stand by singing songs that the dominant culture doesn’t appreciate. Our own discomfort with Advent songs reminds us of our calling to embody an alternative community of faith in a world that doesn’t get it. Ironically, the world that we would resist with our songs is the very world that needs to hear those songs the most. And so it’s not just in stubborn defiance that we sing our Advent songs, but it is in bold witness to the love of God for the world. The same world that would obliterate the message of the gospel with this holiday that bears Christ’s name is, after all, the world that Christ came to save. It’s with Christ’s love in our hearts that we sing our Advent hymns as if the whole world depended on them. Perhaps it does.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Will the real Jesus please stand up?

The Three Christs of Ypsilanti is a book written by a psychiatrist at the state hospital in Ypsilanti, Michigan. He had three schizophrenic patients all claiming to be Jesus Christ and, in a somewhat sadistic move, he decided to put them together and force them to interact with one another. In this experiment the patients were confronted with each other’s conflicting claims. I think it was the psychiatrist’s intention to break through their delusions, but all that really happened was that each one became even more convinced that he was Jesus Christ and the other two were mental patients in a hospital.

It reminds me of the conflicting ideas about Jesus that are present in the world today, especially among Christians. I certainly have my ideas about Jesus and they don’t coincide with the ideas a peddler of the prosperity gospel has about Jesus as a good luck charm who will make all your dreams come true. Nor do I share the ideas of Jesus that you might hear from a preacher who is all about the blood of Jesus washing away your sins so you can get into heaven someday. How can we follow such different Jesuses? Sometimes I wonder if maybe I’m the one who’s being delusional.

This Sunday we liturgical-types will be celebrating the festival of Christ the King. At Holy Trinity, for our gospel procession we’ll be singing the hymn that proclaims, “Crown him Lord of all.” In between verses of that glorious hymn we’ll hear a passage about a guy who was nailed to a wooden cross. My hope is that the juxtaposition of the two will strike our worshippers as bizarre. After all, what kind of a king is this? He’s a king who showed us that the life abundant we so long for is a life given in love. He’s a king who offers us an alternative reality to the one that so obviously dominates our world of fear, hatred and violence. When he taught us about that alternative reality he called it the kingdom of God.

It seems to me that worshipping Christ the King may not have a whole lot to do with what we believe about Jesus. We may not all see Jesus in the same way. We may not agree with the preachers we see on T.V. or even our family members we’ll be sharing Thanksgiving dinner with this week. But Christ is King whenever and wherever we are about the business of living into the kingdom of God that he inaugurated. That kingdom is not some future utopia, but it’s here and now for all who recognize it as a radically different way of being in relationship with God and with one another. Do you see it? Are you a part of it? Is it a part of you?

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Best Eclair I Ever Tasted

It’s called the golden rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” A principle offered in every major religion in one form or another, it calls forth a certain amount of empathy for other people.

We teach it to our children so they can learn to be decent human beings who are considerate toward others. If Tommy punches Julie in the nose, we say, “Now Tommy, you wouldn’t like it if Julie punched you like that, would you?” Well, of course not. So we learn to give others the same consideration we would like them to give us.

But I’m not so sure that’s quite what Jesus intended when he said, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Not when you look at that verse in its biblical context. It seems to be not so much a guideline for how to get along with other people as a description of what it means to live a way of life that manifests the love of God.

The way we love is usually such a poor imitation of the way God loves. We may love out of guilt, because we feel crummy if we don’t. Or we may love out of obligation, because we know it’s the right thing to do. Or perhaps we love as the result of an intellectual exercise. Like the Christian who looks on someone who is hungry and thinks about the passage where Jesus says, “I was hungry and you fed me.... As you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.” And they'll say, "I need to think of this person as I would think of Jesus, and how would I treat Jesus?” That’s love as an intellectual exercise.

Mother Teresa was known to say on many occasions that she saw Jesus in every human being, no matter how unlovable that person might have been. She didn’t have to go through the intellectual exercise and decide to love every time she encountered a person who was difficult to love. She didn’t have to convince herself that somehow the way she treated that person was like the way she would treat Jesus. That person wasn’t like Jesus to her. That person was Jesus. When she saw the person, she saw Jesus.

Understanding the difference is a key to understanding what Jesus meant when he said, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” If we have to filter this through an intellectual exercise that takes us to the point of considering how we might like to be treated by others and then offering that same treatment to them, we’re not quite there yet. The intent of doing unto others as you would have them do to you is not to treat others the way you would like them to treat you. The intent is to love others because in doing so you are loving yourself. That is to say that when you love others, you are actually loving yourself because you are connected. They are not like you. They are you. The same love of God that fills you to overflowing fills them to overflowing and it all spills together into one big sea of love. We’re a part of that. So that whatever we do for another, we do for ourselves.

Back when my kids were living with me, we all had a great love for chocolate éclairs. Sometimes I would go to the bakery and pick one up for each of us and we’d all indulge in ecstasy. And sometimes I’d just want to have an éclair for myself. Especially if I was going through a stressful day and I had to do something I hated, I’d pick myself up an éclair and have it waiting for me in the fridge when I got home, as a reward. Of course, when I did that I had to be sure to hide the éclair so neither of the kids saw it or it wouldn’t be there by the time I got home. And when it came time to eat it, I’d have to sneak off someplace by myself so I wouldn’t have to share it.

Well, it was one of those times. I was on my way home after a grueling day and I knew there was an éclair in the fridge waiting for me with my name on it.

I arrived home to find my daughter frazzled. She clearly had been crying. We sat at the kitchen table and she told me about a terrible disappointment that day in school that broke her heart. After we talked I asked, “Gretchen, would a chocolate éclair help?”

She smiled broadly. “A chocolate éclair always helps.”

I went to the fridge and got the éclair I had hidden away and presented it to her. “Well, I just happen to have one right here. Enjoy!”

I handed her a fork and watched while she ate my éclair. And the weirdest thing happened. I could actually taste that éclair in my mouth while Gretchen ate it. And it tasted soooo good.

Had that been a sacrifice? Perhaps it appeared that way to someone on the outside. But from the inside, it was no sacrifice at all. In fact, I couldn’t ever remember that any éclair I had ever eaten in my life tasted as good as that one.

We have this idea of loving the way Jesus loved as being connected to sacrifice. And, from the outside, that’s what it looks like. It’s a sacrifice to give yourself in love. But from the inside, that’s not how it looks at all. Because when you truly love another, you are truly loving yourself. That’s why Jesus can say that we’re blessed when we become poor for the sake of the poor, when we hunger for the sake of the hungry, when we weep with those who weep. It may seem like a sacrifice for those who don’t get it, but for those who are in tune with the love of God and the way it works, there is no sacrifice. “Rejoice on that day and leap for joy,” Jesus says. When you offer yourself in love, there is no sacrifice. Only joy. It’s the sort of thing Jesus was talking about when he revealed that the secret to life that eludes so many people is quite simply this: If you give your life away, you’ll receive more than you could ever imagine. And if you hoard your life and keep it all to yourself, that’s a sure fire way to lose everything.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Who Could Have Known?

“Funeral! Funeral!” my friend Fritzie shouted, as he rode his bike through the neighborhood. We all came running. There was going to be a funeral. Yippee! This was one of my favorite times as a kid.

My neighborhood friends and I were in the funeral business. Whenever one of us found a dead animal (usually a bird), we reverently wrapped it in a rag and had a procession to the Little Woods at the end of the street. We took it to a small clearing among the trees where there was an animal cemetery with tiny crosses made from tree branches marking the graves.

After digging a hole, we carefully placed the dead critter inside and covered it with dirt. Then it was time for my part. I was the one who said what needed to be said. It was always the same. I would fold my hands and bow my head and declare, “May he rest in peace.” I believe it was something I had picked up from old cowboy movies, the words spoken after they covered a dead guy, still wearing his boots and spurrs, with a mound of rocks in the desert. I always figured that they wanted him to rest in peace because they were hoping and praying that he stayed dead and didn’t start moving those rocks or he was going to be pretty upset with his buddies who had buried him without his consent. (Maybe this was why they never buried them with their guns.)And although waking up with a bad hangover only to discover you have been buried alive didn’t seem to be a big issue with the dead animals we buried*, still, “Rest in peace” was all I knew to say.

I think about those animal funerals often when I conduct human funerals now that I am a bona fide pastor. As a kid doing animal funerals, never once did I entertain the thought that I would one day grow up to be doing this as a professional holy person. But there I was in the Little Woods, playing the role of the pastor without realizing the significance of my actions.

It’s funny how childhood moments often foreshadow greater themes in our lives. I’ve been noticing a lot more of them lately. I suppose it takes having some years behind you to be able to look back and see the great ironies of your life. It’s all rather amazing and delightful and scary at the same time. A clever novelist couldn’t make this stuff up. It’s hard for me to imagine that it’s all random, so can I say that it’s been God’s doing? That seems to be as good of an explanation as any, although I have trouble believing God is involved in the details of my life like that. And yet, somehow I know God is in the mix in some way. It doesn’t really matter if I understand it. The unfolding adventure continues to amaze, delight and scare me. I can’t wait to see how the story continues to unfold.

*This was back before I read Stephen King’s Pet Sematary.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Bizarre Airport Behavior Never Reported to the Authorities

Why do people pop up out of their seats and crowd the aisles as soon as an airplane lands, waiting for the door to open so they can escape as quickly as possible? Is there someone handing out prizes to the first ten people who emerge from the plane? (I’m never at the front of the line, so I wouldn’t know.) Are they all burdened with ever-expanding bladders, and an aversion to the closets with the gasping toilets on the airplane? Are they afraid that the plane is going to explode at any moment? I don’t get it.

Come to think of it, people board airplanes the same way. As soon as they announce that it's time to start taking tickets, all the passengers crowd around and they push their way in front of you like the fate of the universe depends upon them getting on that plane. I used to think that maybe they were worried that there wouldn’t be enough seats for everyone, so they had to grab one before they lost out, kind of like the game of musical chairs where the slow ones end up on the floor. Really. What’s the rush? It’s not like the plane is going to take off while half the people are still at the gate, standing in line.

The fact is, you can hurry to be the first one on the plane, but we all end up leaving at the same time. You can push your way into the aisle to get off the plane, but nobody goes anywhere until they open the door.

Is this bizarre airplane behavior a variation on the scarcity principle, perhaps? Are we afraid that if we’re not first, or somewhere near the front of the line, we’re going to miss out and somebody else is going to end up with something that should be ours? But what would that be? Maybe if they gave free peanuts to the first to be seated, I’d be motivated to push my way to the front. I do miss those free peanuts.

I think that they should sell raffle tickets to passengers when they arrive at the gate to board the plane. Then they can draw tickets to determine who goes first, second, and so on. They could use the money they make on the raffle tickets to pay for our peanuts.

Friday, September 17, 2010

I Hear Music, Therefore I Am

Am I the only one who listens to the music being played in the supermarket? I find myself singing along, throwing cereal boxes in time with a thumping bass, doing a little Fred Astaire move behind my cart, preferably when no one is looking, which is one of the reasons I tend to shop at times when other people are sleeping or working.

Wherever I am, when I hear music in the background, I feel compelled to “Name That Tune.” I usually can, but when I can’t, it will just about make me bonkers. Such things have kept me awake at night. Do you realize that you can’t google a tune? Lyrics, yes. But never a tune. If someone should invent such a device, I would definitely be willing to pay for it. And I suspect there may be other musical OCDs in the world who would pay big bucks for one, too. Just imagine. You could hum a tune, and it would tell you what the heck you’re humming. Oh, I know it’s a brave new world I’m envisioning, but I believe it can happen. I only hope it’s within my lifetime.

In restaurants, music that most other people probably don’t even notice can make or break the dining experience for me. Certain music goes with certain food. When I go to a the House of Wong and have to listen to Hip-Hop, it becomes the House of Wrong for me. Or there’s a nice family restaurant I go to that plays Jimmy Buffett; it works on “Cheeseburger in Paradise” but when he starts crooning, “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw?”… well, it just ain’t right. Especially when the kids start singing along. And then there are those times when the musical style fits the venue, but they pair it with a song that just doesn’t work. I was in an Italian restaurant where a delightful little man strolls around playing the accordion. Now, anybody who has ever seen Lady and the Tramp knows that accordion music is truly the best for eating spaghetti. It just makes you want to slurp up long noodles and stare into the eyes of your… dog. However, the last time I was at this restaurant, I heard a rendition of “By The Time I Get to Phoenix” and I couldn’t control my laughter. That’s a song that shouldn’t be played on an accordion. Especially when people are trying to eat. It was almost as bad as the time I was in a Mexican restaurant and heard a mariachi band playing “Strawberry Fields Forever.” It became quite a challenge to stuff my face with chips and salsa between giggles.

Of course, there are also those times when I find music personally troublesome. Particularly when it seems to be mocking my life. I’m driving along the highway and suddenly my engine dies, while on the radio Willie is singing, “I can’t wait to get on the road again.” Or I’m having a tiff with a parishioner who is being totally unreasonable and I am driving home from the church, fantasizing about slapping her silly, when suddenly I’m snapped back to reality with the strains of “All we need is love.” That’s when flipping the radio dial is futile because the song continues bouncing around in my brain. I’m aware of the fact that this doesn’t sound all that different from saying “Make the voices stop”, does it? Am I just a little bit crazy, perhaps? Nah! Not in the Patsy Cline sort of “Crazy” way. (FYI – Now I’m humming that song as I write this.)

I don’t like feeling as if I’m at the mercy of the music in my environment. It’s always best for me when I can control what I’m listening to. When I’m home, I make it work for me. I have learned that there is certain music that goes with certain tasks. House cleaning: classic rock. Sermon writing: baroque. Soaking in the tub: Gregorian chant. Wallowing in self-pity: country.

What would my life be like without a soundtrack? It would be like perpetually living in the library, which, quite frankly, I can only take in small doses before I want to start screaming, “I can’t stand it anymore!” and run for the door. There really ought to be music in libraries. That’s the nice thing about iPods. You can take music with you everywhere you go, including the library, if you so choose. But even without an iPod, no matter where I am, there is always music. When I’m not hearing it externally, I always seem to be creating it internally, so there’s never a time when a melody isn’t massaging my gray matter.

I suspect that when I stop hearing music I will be dead. Or maybe that’s just when it starts getting really good.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Year of Contra-dancing: Ten Things I've Learned

It’s been a year since I started contra dancing. Back in November I wrote a blog about it: “Why Can’t Churches Be More Like Contra-dances?” and most of what I said at that time I would still say. But, after a year of lining up for “hands four”, I’m reflecting on how my life has changed because I contra-dance.

1. I’ve discovered all kinds of dancing metaphors for deep, profound truths in life. Like, if your shoes fit, dance. If they don’t fit, find some that do or stop dancing. (Translation: If what you’re doing is making you miserable, continuing to do it will only make you more miserable.)

2. Timing is pert near everything. Experience has taught me that the direction my life journey takes is ultimately dependent on timing. This past year, contra taught me the importance of timing over technique. Knowing what to do is pointless if you don’t know when to do it.

3. I’ve changed my perspective on some absolute truths that I have held hard and fast for 50+ years about highly critical issues, like… men in skirts. They have gone from silly to sexy in my book. (And, yes, I’m talking about straight people whose gender identity is male.)

4. I am not a multi-tasker. Okay, I already knew that, but contra-dancing has convinced me of it, once and for all. There are definitely different rooms in my brain for different tasks and I can only be in one room at a time. For example, it is impossible for me to dance while I’m carrying on a conversation with any meaningful content, or even unmeaningful content, for that matter. (Yeah, I know. So, shut up and dance, Nancy. How many times have I heard that in the past year?)

5. I’ve developed some new routines. Spinning around in the dressing room to see how my clothes swish and swirl has become a regular part of my shopping experience. (Last week I caught myself doing it when I tried on a pair of jeans. I learned they don’t twirl.)

6. I have had a growing awareness that people who don’t identify exclusively with one particular gender have a lot more fun in life. Really. In contra this means that if you can partner with either a man or a woman, you have twice as many opportunities to dance.

7. The folly of first impressions has been reinforced for me. Sometimes the people I find myself avoiding, for one reason or another, in the beginning, end up becoming the ones I most enjoy dancing time with.

8. I’ve realized that there’s more to life than avoiding mistakes. Everybody screws up. Get over it and move on.

9. My understanding of community has deepened. From contra I’ve learned that being part of a community means that other people can count on you to be where you need to be when you need to be there. (I can’t think of a better definition of community than that.)

10. I smile a whole lot more.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Vacations: Is it just me?

Vacations seem to be a lot like Christmas for me. So much preparation goes into them and they are anticipated with excitement bordering on giddiness. They are surrounded with high expectations. Then, when they finally arrive, I am so exhausted from getting ready for them that I want to sleep and sleep and sleep. And then there’s the melancholy that accompanies both Christmases and vacations. What’s that about?

When I vacation it feels like my life comes to a grinding halt and I’m suddenly uprooted and plopped down into a strange place doing things that I don’t normally do with people I don’t normally do them with. It’s more than just a change of scenery. In some ways I feel stripped of my day-to-day identity. No one calls me “pastor.” I’m away from my own bed and my pets and the people I usually share my days with. And I start asking myself questions like, “Who the heck am I?” “What am I doing with my life?” “Am I really happy with my life?” “Where am I going to live when I retire?”-- the really big questions that I’m too preoccupied to ponder for long when I’m busy mowing the lawn and walking the dog and writing sermons. It seems that when I’ve divested myself of the outside distractions of my life, I’ve no place left to go but inside. My frantic doing is replaced with a time of introspective being. Scary!

Even when I'm still quite busy on my vacation, I’m busy with different stuff and that takes my spirit to a different place. I always find myself in some way transformed by a vacation, and transformation is hard work. I wonder if that’s one of the reasons why I’ve spent the better part of a year avoiding my vacation time.

And then there’s something unsettling about returning to my old life once again after my vacation is over. How can I feel renewed and transformed and then slip back into my old life? The transition is always difficult for me. It’s like realizing that the shoes I’ve been wearing no longer fit me and I have to break them in all over again.

Am I the only one who feels this way about vacations?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

More Important Than Being Right

A woman was walking across a bridge one day, and she saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So she ran over and said, "Stop! Don't do it!"
"Why shouldn't I?" he asked.
"Well, there's so much to live for," she said.
"Like what?"
"Well, are you religious?"
He said yes.
She said, "Me, too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?"
"Me, too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?"
"Me, too! Are you Baptist or Lutheran?" she asked.
"Wow, me, too! Are you Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod or Evangelical Lutheran Church in America?"
“Evangelical Lutheran Church in America!"
“Me too! Was your predecessor church body the American Lutheran Church or the Lutheran Church in America?”
“The American Lutheran Church.”
“Me too! Do you believe in ordaining women?”
“Me too! Do you believe in ordaining gay people?”
“Me too! Do you use the old green worship book or the new red worship book?”
"The old green book."
"Die, heretic!" she said as she pushed him off the bridge.

We have ways of separating the people who have the truth from the people who don’t. If you think at all critically, there’s this little monitor you carry around inside where you’re always evaluating the things people say. Is this person lying to me? Is this person a little crazy? Most importantly, is this person right?

I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s really important to be right. And if I think someone is wrong, it’s hard for me to keep my mouth shut. I suspect I may not be alone on that. A little phrase from 1 Corinthians 8 that has come to mean a lot to me is, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” For me that translates: “It’s more important to be loving than it is to be right.”

Now, this isn’t an excuse for all us conflict-avoiders to escape confrontation in our lives. We still have to stand up for what’s right. Especially when other people are being harmed. Silence is never an option when other people are being treated unjustly. That’s not okay, and we have to confront it. But on so much of the other stuff, being right isn’t nearly as important as we’d like to think it is. And, in fact, a know-it-all approach with other people only serves to block any love that we might show them.

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.
• Knowledge may tell a landlord that he or she technically should evict someone, but love says that if they do, that person will be out on the streets.
• Knowledge may tell us that we have no legal responsibility for the poor in our community, but love says they need our help.
• Knowledge may tell us that we are justified in raising our voice in an argument with a family member, but love says, stop talking and listen.
• Knowledge may tell us that international law justifies a declaration of war, but love declares something very different.

Can you think of things in your own life that your head says you have a right to do, but your heart says wouldn’t be loving? Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. It’s the difference between puffing ourselves up for the sake of asserting our superiority to others and swallowing our pride for the sake of love. Yes, there are more important things in life than being right.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Wheres and the Whos

I moved to North Carolina because I wanted to live someplace where they had Waffle Houses and because of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I got over my infatuation with the Waffle House after about a year. But I’ve hardly spent enough time in the mountains to get over them.

Ever since I was a senior in high school and spent my spring vacation camping in the mountains of North Carolina with my best friend, I have had this connection to those hazy ridges that I can’t quite explain. That trip was an adventure-and-a-half for two eighteen-year-old girls. I remember my mom was hesitant to let me go and, after the fact, I never had the ovaries to tell her that she was right to be concerned. Years later, as a mother of teenagers myself, I learned that you shouldn’t tell your mother everything you do. Mainly out of consideration for your mother. But I digress. I believe I was talking about the mountains, not my mother. And yet, maybe that’s a good way to describe the connection I feel with the mountains. My mother has been gone since I was 28; I still miss her like hell. And when I’m away from the mountains I always miss them. After I’ve been there and I have to leave, I usually shed a few tears. Spending time in the mountains feels like coming home to me, although I’ve been a flatlander all my life. Don’t know exactly what that’s about. Maybe it’s just one of those grass-is-always-greener things. (Although, in this case, blue would be the coveted color.)

I always thought that someday I’d retire to the North Carolina mountains. Now that retirement is within sight, I don’t know that that will happen. So little of my life has turned out the way I would have planned. I never expected to be living in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s a fine place to be, as big cities go. But the older I get, the more I hate cities.

I’ve changed my mind on so many things in my life. Sometimes by choice, and sometimes as a result of circumstances beyond my control. And the way I feel about where I live has changed radically. I don’t think that much about the where these days. My concern is with the who.

I need to be with the people I love. The problem with that is, the people I love are scattered all across the United States. (Yeah, I know, that’s what Facebook is for. Right.) For now, I’ve chosen to live in Charlotte because of the people at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on The Plaza. God knows, I dearly love them. But, as a pastor, I know that love has its limits. For starters, it doesn’t keep me warm at night. And I always come home to an empty house after Christmas Eve worship while my family is hundreds of miles away from me. I also know that, when the time comes to leave the people of Holy Trinity, my relationship with them will end. So, they are not a part of my retirement plan. I’m hoping that when I’m ready to hang up my clerical collar I’ll be able to put the where and the who together. (A grandchild or two in the mix might help. If either of my kids are reading this, that’s for you.)

Oh, enough of this early morning ruminating. I have a big day ahead of me. I’ll be spending it in the mountains. And with some people I love. Thank you, God, for wheels.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Getting a Handle on God's Will

“I wish God would just tell me what to do.” If you’ve ever found yourself between a rock and a hard place, you’ve probably said those words. Sometimes, it would be nice to get a little extra help from above. Especially when there are no easy answers and we know the choice we make will have far-reaching consequences. When we’re carrying the burden of making a heavy decision, we may wish that God would just make the decision for us.

Although an arrangement like that sounds like it would bring some relief to our inner turmoil, we all know darn good and well that we wouldn’t like it one bit if God moved us around like pieces on a chessboard. And, anyway, that’s not how God operates. God gives us free will and that means that we have choices to make for ourselves; he’s not going to dictate them to us. And yet we struggle because, even when we make our own choices, we’d still like to know what God’s will for us is so it can, at the very least, inform our choices.

Many people seem to have a default setting that says whatever happens must be God’s will. You hear this at funerals or when a natural disaster strikes. They’ll say, “It was God’s will.” The assumption is that God’s will is always done. But God’s will is not always done. There are other forces at work in the world. There are bad choices people make that have nothing to do with God, choices that are careless or unjust or harmful to others. Was it God’s will that a jet crash into a tall building and kill everybody inside? There are also natural laws in this world that cannot be changed, and so we have earthquakes, and diseases. And some of what happens in our world is just random luck, like being born in the United States instead of Haiti.

Often, when we’re the beneficiaries of what we conclude must be God’s will, we’re quick to point it out, as if it’s a sign that we’ve found favor with God. “God is good” I hear people say, as if God’s goodness is evident when things go the way we’d like them to go. When I hear this, I want to snap back, “Yeah, well tell me God is good when your world is falling apart and then I'll believe you, because that’s when God’s goodness matters the most.”

This God-is-good-because-he-gives-me-what-I-want theology bugs me almost as much as hearing people comfort themselves, as they look at someone who’s going through a lot of difficulties in life, by saying something like, “there but by the grace of God go I.” Have you ever thought about what words like that really mean? What about the grace of God for the other person? Why would God be selective with his grace, showering certain people with it but not others? How can we say that it’s God’s will that we enjoy a relatively easy way of life without also noticing that other people are living in misery? Are we ready to say that their misery also is God’s will? I suspect that a lot of what we consider God’s will may have nothing at all to do with what God wants for our lives and everything to do with what we want for our lives. We like to believe God sees eye-to-eye with us on things. But we’re standing on shaky ground when we notice that God tends to answer our prayers much in the way we had hoped they would be answered all along. The first step to understanding God’s will may be an acknowledgment that we’re not the center of the universe and it’s not all about us.

Well, despite our feeble attempts to understand God’s will for our lives, I know we’d all like to get a better handle on it. It seems that we can often see it in hindsight. After the fact, we can look back and see how God’s will was done. But what would be more helpful is a little foresight. How can we discern what God’s will is for us before we make important decisions in life? Let me offer three truths about discerning God’s will that I’ve found helpful in my life; you might find them helpful as well. (They all start with the letter “f”, which I hope will help you remember them.)

1. Know the framework. God doesn’t leave us floating in the air without anything to grab onto. He gives us a framework for discerning his will. We may not know what God’s will is for us on the particulars, but we do know what God’s will is for us in the big scheme of things. We know the framework. It’s God’s will that we love one another. So, it’s love that guides our decisions. As long as a decision is based on love, no matter what that decision is, God can use it to accomplish his will.

2. Know the forgiveness. Sometimes we can be so afraid of making the wrong decision that it paralyzes us and we do nothing. But we don’t have to be held captive to our potential mistakes, because we have a God whose essence is grace. God doesn’t love us despite our mistakes. He loves us even with our mistakes. No matter how badly we mess up, we can be assured of forgiveness. So we can take risks, we can move forward, unsure of whether we’re doing the right thing or not sometimes, but trusting that even if we’ve made the wrong decision, it’s not the end of the world. It’s the sort of thing Luther was talking about when he said, “If you must sin, sin boldly.” The assurance we have of God’s forgiveness gives us the freedom to go for it!

3. Know the future. Now I’m not talking about the kind of stuff you get from your daily horoscope here. And I’m not talking about whether or not you should quit your job and go back to school, or buy that time-share in Hawaii. I’m talking about something much larger than that. I’m talking about the future God has promised us. The future we can count on, no matter what choices we might make in this life. God has promised us that nothing can separate us from his love. Even if the choices we make aren’t God’s will. Nothing can separate us from God’s love. God will accomplish his purposes for the sake of his love for us, for the sake of his love for all creation. The future is certain. Come hell or high water, God will always be who God is. And God is love.

God’s will being done doesn’t depend upon us. God’s purposes don’t collapse when we do the wrong thing. We can be assured that God accomplishes his purpose, even when we mess things up. God’s gonna do what God’s gonna do. We may not always get the details right, but God has the bigger picture in mind and let there be no doubt that God’s will will be done. Sometimes it may be done despite us. It’s our prayer that it might be done through us.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

How Did I Get Here?

Before worship on Sunday morning, I met our director of music, Elaine, for breakfast at Nova’s Bakery. When we went to leave, my car wouldn’t start, so Elaine gave me a lift to the church. The problem on this particular Sunday was that I was presiding at an afternoon wedding in nearby Concord and I didn’t have any time to dilly-dally. Immediately following worship, Elaine took me to her place so I could borrow her partner’s car. I hopped in the car and hightailed it to Concord with little time to spare. Whew!

After the wedding, it came time to go home, and I realized that I had no idea what the car looked like that I had driven to get there. I remembered it was some kind of SUV because I sat higher than I do in my VW Beetle. But I didn’t know the make or the color. I looked around and noticed that the church had at least three parking lots and they all seemed to be filled with SUVs. Thank God for remote key pads! I was able to wander around for a while, randomly pressing the button to unlock the door, and eventually one of the cars acknowledged me.

It set my mind to thinking on how oblivious I am sometimes about how I got to be where it is I happen to be. My life journey really has been quite incredible as I often recognize that I am planted in a place which was never my destination. And I wonder, what happened? How did I get here?

Now, some people would say that it is God who brings us to where we are. And I will admit that there have been times in my life when I clearly felt that was the case. Occasionally, it even feels like everything that has ever happened in my life has led me to be in a particular place, as if my life is a part of a grander plan than I ever imagined. (Actually, I could probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve ever felt this way.)

Most of the time, I suspect that I got to be where I am as a result of a series of single steps I’ve taken along the way. I run into a dead end and am forced to take an alternate route. I get side-tracked for a child. A relationship ends and the future I thought I had mapped out evaporates into thin air. I cross bridges that quickly burn behind me. I make a choice that leads me to an unexpected opportunity. Incrementally, step by step, I move from one place to another.

So, does God have anything to do with how I got to be where I happen to be? I’m not sure. I do know that I certainly can’t tell God where I want to go and expect to be led there. In fact, I often suspect that, if God is paying attention to such instructions, they only encourage him to mess with me and send me in the opposite direction. God certainly isn’t like a GPS system that tells me which way to turn and chides me when I’ve gotten off track.

Is it possible that God cares about every little move I make and choreographs them all so that I always end up where I need to be? That seems kind of silly to me. It also sounds like magical thinking, which might boost my feelings of self-importance in the universe, but it has little truth in it. On the other hand, is it possible that everything that happens in my life is completely random and it has nothing whatsoever to do with God’s agenda for creation, which is so much larger than my tiny little speck of a life on this speck of a planet?

All I can say for sure is that as the story of my life unfolds, there are opportunities along the way for me to grow in my relationship with God. And that makes my story part of a much larger story. It’s woven together with the stories of all God’s people, and it is going somewhere. If that’s the case, then how I get wherever it is I’m going must have something to do with God. I can stop wandering around pressing my key pad and hoping for a response. The way I got to be where I am is also my way home.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Paradox of Freedom

What does it mean for you to be free? With July 4th coming up, my mind is on freedom. I realize that the way I understand freedom has changed through the years, particularly as I've spent time with the story of the Exodus from Egypt. At its heart, it is the ultimate story of freedom. Under the leadership of Moses, a motley group of fugitives who lacked virtue and courage is transformed into a free people. And through their story of bondage and redemption, we can learn a lot about what it means to be free for ourselves.

Moses didn’t merely break the chains of God’s people; he organized them into a nation and he gave them laws. Their freedom was not a freedom from rules. It was a freedom from being forced to follow the rules to entering into a covenant where they promised to serve God. This meant a complete upheaval of their world view, so, of course, it was a painfully difficult transition for them to make.

Moving from slavery to freedom is never easy. As appealing as a life of freedom may be, it means coming to terms with a paradox. The paradox of the Exodus, and of all struggles for freedom, is the way that people, at the same time, are both willing and unwilling to put Egypt behind them. They yearn to be free and then once they are, they yearn to escape their new freedom.

For as long as God’s people wandered in the wilderness, they whined and complained about their new life. An entire generation had to pass away because, in their hearts and minds, they were still living in Egypt. Rather than embrace the new way of life God had given them, they continued to react to the old life they knew in Egypt. In effect, they remained in bondage to their past.

The Hebrews thought that freedom meant being released from the rules of their oppressors, rules they had always resented, so they could now do whatever they darn well pleased. But the freedom God offered them didn’t mean that they were going to live without rules. For that’s not freedom at all, but another kind of bondage -- a life without discipline, without order, without love for God or others or themselves.

There’s something in the Exodus story to be said to us as God’s people about the freedom God offers us. We aren’t forced to follow the rules. God’s not going to zap us if we step out of line. But God gives us the law as a gift. And when we embrace that law, we can live in freedom.

It’s like this… Some people liken the law to a twenty foot high electric chain link fence with barbed wire on top. You have no choice but to live within the limits of the law. Not a whole lot of freedom in that. But that’s not how it is for us as God’s people. God’s gift of the law is like a simple railing that guides our way. We can step over that railing or slip underneath it if we choose. But if we want to live the good life God intends for us, we’ll stay inside the railing, because that’s where the good life is. That’s the kind of freedom God wants for us.

When the Israelites were living in Egypt they wanted to be free. For them, being free meant being relieved of the rules that oppressed them. It took escaping that slavery for them to realize that true freedom comes with rules. But not rules they were forced to follow. Rules they recognized as a gift. And in their freedom they were no longer slaves of the Egyptians; instead, they became servants of God.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Red Light!

I almost ran a red light last night. I was looking for a street that was a little hard to find and when I locked my eyes on it, that’s all I could see. I wasn’t thinking about something as irrelevant to my quest as a traffic light. What stopped me was the person in the passenger seat who yelled out, “Red light!” Whew! Another car was coming through the intersection and we surely would have collided.

Then, something bordering on the absurd occurred. My friend told me that he was sorry for his outburst. I assured him that I was thankful he had spoken up. But I understand why he felt it was necessary to apologize. No one likes a backseat driver, even if they’re sitting beside us in the front seat. And so, he held his tongue for as long as he could. But then the time came when he had to speak and speak he did.

It got me thinking about how hard I work at allowing people to live their own lives without imposing my little judgments on them. It’s not that I don’t have feedback to offer, but most of the time I will keep it to myself because I don’t want to be perceived as judgmental or, even worse, controlling. I know how much I hate receiving unsolicited advice from others. It makes me bristle and sometimes I’ll lash back. However, usually I just shut down and stop offering further information to that person because I don’t want to hear what they’ll have to say about it. It’s a relationship killer. But so is allowing someone you love to destruct before your eyes without speaking up.

The Bible talks about “speaking the truth in love”, which I think is one of the hardest things for me to do, especially if it’s a hard truth. There is always a risk involved. You could offend the other person and potentially ruin a relationship. Sometimes that happens. But what is the alternative?

The key for me is motivation. Is the truth I speak motivated by spite, or a need to control? Then I probably oughta put a sock in it. But if I have examined my motivation and it comes from a place of love for the other person, I have to speak up. One of the mottos I try to live by is, “I’d rather speak up and maybe be kicking myself for it later than remain silent and maybe be kicking myself for it later.” When you love, speaking the hard truth is a risk worth taking.

I can usually tell when someone is sharing a hard truth with me from a place of love. It may not always be graciously received, at least initially. But I know the difference between a person who wants to run my life and one who wants to love and support me while I’m finding my way. The former is resented and the latter is gratefully appreciated.

It seems to me that people in community ought to be able to yell “Red light!” to one another when necessary, whether that community is as small as two people sharing a car, or as large as billions of people sharing a planet. It’s the loving thing to do, isn’t it? We don’t silently sit by and let people we love run red lights.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What's the Matter with Men?

Last night I was with a group of single women my age and we started buzzing about our favorite topic: men. I was noticing that we seldom have much good to say about them and have been wondering why. I’ve known any number of genuinely good men in my life, but these aren’t the guys I generally discuss with my girlfriends.

With this particular group of four women, we were comparing notes about internet dating. Two were relatively new to it and were dealing with the disappointment and deception that often accompanies meeting someone online. Because I spent years dating men on the internet, I could fill volumes with my stories. But I’m not pursuing this anymore. (In fact, I’m not particularly pursuing men, as I’ve learned to live a very full life without them and don’t feel the need I once did.) So, in our little group, I was the one who had been there and done that. Then, the fourth woman recently met her future husband through the internet. I suppose, if that is the goal of internet dating, as many believe it is, then hers is the story of success. However, I wouldn’t say that my time spent with internet dating was for nothing. I met some great people along the way, had some unforgettable adventures, and grew to understand myself in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s a part of my journey, and all is well. But back to the question at hand…

Why do single women enjoy bashing men? Here’s what I’m thinking. I know this is a generalization, but I suspect it may have something to do with the fact that we can’t imagine why we should have to be in the position of seeking a man to begin with, so we’re already a little angry about the whole thing. We take our manlessness quite personally. And rather than feel crappy about ourselves, we’d rather put the crap back on them. “So, what’s the matter with these men? Can’t they recognize what an amazing woman I am? There must be something seriously wrong with them!”

Once, when I was experiencing one failed relationship after another, I heard that our relationships are only as healthy as we are and unhealthy people will attract unhealthy people. I don’t know if this is true but it was enough for me to entertain the possibility that maybe the reason why I kept ending up with men who weren’t quite right was because I wasn’t quite right. I didn’t need a man; I needed a therapist. (Okay, so he happened to be a man.)

Relationships are so darn complicated; I don’t pretend to understand them. But one of the things I’ve concluded through the years is that the biggest obstacle any relationship must overcome is seldom found in the other person. Most often, it’s within us. And until we get our own act together, we’ll never be satisfied with any other person because we’re expecting them to do something for us that we need to do for ourselves. Jerry McGuire’s declaration that “You complete me” is just plain wrong! No one else can complete us.

On the other hand, I know that none of us is ever complete, or whole. It’s our life’s journey to grow toward wholeness. And it really is a gift to have someone who can walk beside us to support us and cheer us on along the way. That’s the gift that relationships bring, and if you’re fortunate enough to have people in your life who do that, you are truly blessed. If that includes someone whom you deeply love, you are doubly blessed.

Can such a person be found on the internet? Why not? But I have observed that such people are seldom planned in our lives and we can’t search them out. They surprise us like an unexpected gift that turns out to be just what we’ve always wanted even though it never occurred to us before that we wanted it.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Living a Lie

It’s hard to live a lie. I learned that in second grade. I hated it that I was the only kid in my class who didn’t have a middle name. It made me feel weird, like I didn’t belong. Well, one day we were reading a story about a girl named Nancy Ann and the teacher said to me, “Nancy Ann! Why that’s almost your name.” “That is my name,” I told her. “My name is Nancy Ann Kraft.”

And there it was – the big fat lie. Now I was going to have to live with it. A couple months later my mom came to an open house night at the school and after she got home she told me that she had seen a lot of my work displayed on the walls. Then she laughed, “You know, you’re the only one in your class who doesn’t have a middle name and you’re the only who had to write a middle name on everything she did.” It was true. In the upper right hand corner of every paper I turned in that year I wrote, Nancy Ann Kraft. I couldn’t wait to be in the third grade with a new teacher so I wouldn’t have to keep writing my middle name all the time. Yes, it’s hard to live with a lie.

Have you ever told a lie that came back later to bite you in the butt? They tend to do that. So, why do we lie? Is it because we’re afraid? Or so we can hide? Or to protect ourselves from being rejected? Often it seems that it’s easier to lie than it is to tell the truth, at least in the short run. But lies have a way of catching up with us and we usually learn that, in the long run, we would have been better off telling the truth to begin with.

The greatest challenge we face in the time we spend on Earth may be the challenge to stop lying and live authentically as the people God created us to be. We were created in the image of God. Why is that image so often hidden behind the false self we present to the world?

At an early age we’re taught to pretend we’re someone else, someone who is more acceptable to the people around us. We learn that if we want to be loved, we should be quieter; we shouldn’t whine so much. We should be smarter, more athletic, better looking. We should like the same TV shows our friends like. We should say we’re feeling fine, even when we aren’t. We should control ourselves when we’re excited. The list of shoulds could go on and on. And while we’re learning to follow all the shoulds that make us more acceptable to people we want to love us, somewhere along the way, we lose sight of who we really are. We’re so busy trying to please other people that we obscure the person God created us to be.

To grow in our relationship with God is to become more and more authentic before God. And here’s the part that makes it work. We know that God is all about grace, that God loves us just as we are. So, we don’t have to work to make ourselves more acceptable to God by pretending to be someone we’re not. In fact, just the opposite is true. The way to live in relationship with God is to let go of all pretenses so that we can grow into the people God created us to be.

We don’t have to lie about who we are. We don’t have to pretend we never have doubts. We don’t have to deny our failures and our struggles. We don’t have to hide the truth about our sexual orientation or identity. Nor do we have to hold back from sharing the unique gifts God has given us. We don’t have to show restraint when we’re overflowing with God’s love.

Not only does a life of authenticity feel a whole lot better than living under the burden of lies, but by living as the people God created us to be, we give honor to our Creator. Can there be a better way to live than that?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Can't You Just Work Around My Junk?

When I was at a former church I did campus ministry, and every year we’d take a group of college students on a mission trip somewhere. I’ll never forget the year we went to Washington DC. We worked with a group called “Hearts and Hammers”, which sent work crews out to do house repairs for people who didn’t have the means to do it for themselves. We went to the home of a woman I'll call "Mrs. Black." She wanted us to paint some walls in her house.

Words can’t adequately describe this woman’s house. From the outside it looked like a typical bi-level, suburban home that was about 20 or 30 years old. But as soon as you opened the door, you knew that there was nothing typical about this house. The first thing that caught our attention was the odor. This woman had 17 cats who roamed throughout her house at will and, to my recollection, there was no litter box.

There was trash, everywhere. Her dining room looked like the inside of a dumptster: McDonald’s cups, pizza boxes, milk cartons, you name it. I couldn’t see the table or the chairs, stuff was piled so high. In her living room there was nowhere to sit, with junk mail from years past, newspapers, magazines… piles everywhere. As we walked through the house, it was all like that. A mountain range of garbage, most of it defiled by her herd of cats.

The students had to leave the house and put on surgical masks so they could breathe. And they were upset. When they offered to help clean her house, Mrs. Black refused, insisting that what she wanted us to do was some painting. This was absolutely absurd!

Finally, we convinced her that we wouldn’t be able to paint because we couldn’t get to the walls. Reluctantly, she let us clean, and we went at it for days. We left a much different house than the one we had entered. But after we drove away the last day, we all wondered how long it would take for the place to look again the way we had first found it.

I still think about Mrs. Black from time to time. I’ve come to realize that I have more in common with her than I would like to admit. I come to God, asking him to help me out with some light painting, thinking that’s all I really need. But there’s so much trash cluttering my life that he can’t do much of anything with me because he can’t get to me.

As a Lutheran, I’m big on grace. I know that I can’t save myself from my own self-destructive ways; only God can do that. But I wonder if maybe there’s a big part of me that doesn’t want God to do his work in my life. Because that would mean opening myself up to the very real possibility of having my life transformed. And that’s scary for me. It would mean letting go of the way of life I’ve come to know. Even if it’s not really working for me, it’s familiar, it’s safe. I know what to expect.

So, rather than risk opening myself up to God’s Spirit working in my life, I continue to fill my life with all kinds of unimportant stuff. I pile it up all around me, hoping that it will make it all the more difficult for God to come to me, and maybe in the process, nothing will change. I can be the same person I’ve always been, well-insulated from the one who has promised me abundant life.

Yes, Mrs. Black and I aren’t all that different. But God doesn’t drive away and give up on me the way our mission team gave up on her. And that makes all the difference.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Northern/Southern Living

I moved to Charlotte in 1998 after spending my whole life in the North, living in fun places like Michigan, Ohio and North Dakota. Most of those years were spent in Ohio; I was Buckeye born and Buckeye bred. However, I can assure you that when I die, I will not be Buckeye dead. I love North Carolina and suspect I may be here for the duration now. Of course, no matter where I have lived, it's the people who are a part of my life that I always treasure the most. That’s what I appreciate the most about where I live now, and it’s definitely what I miss the most about where I used to live. But, beyond the people, there are some things that I really miss about living in the North, as well as things I love about the South. Here are some that come to mind, in no particular order.

1. Tea. I mean real tea. The first time I went to the Waffle House I ordered tea with my waffle. They brought me sweet tea. In the North, they know what tea is. It’s hot and unsweetened. If you want it cold, you ask for it "iced" and if you want it sweet, you sweeten it yourself. Enough said.
2. Major league baseball. Yeah, I know they have major league baseball in the South somewhere. I understand there’s a team in Atlanta. But if you live where I do and want to go to a game, you have to make a weekend of it. I want a major league baseball team that I can go to see play in the evening and then return home at a reasonable hour to sleep in my own bed. Is that asking too much? (Sure, I could do that with NASCAR, which is in my backyard, but that’s not a real sport.)
3. Lemon meringue pie. I can rarely find this in restaurants down here and when I do, it’s just not right. There are three main parts to a good lemon meringue pie. There’s the crust, the filling and the meringue. At least one of those parts always seems to be wrong.
4. Fast food. By fast food, I mean food that is served shortly after you order it. That’s how they do it in the North. In the South, the only difference I’ve noticed between fast food and non-fast food is that I wait for fast food while sitting in my car.
5. Apple cider. Real apple cider. You know, the non-translucent kind that tastes like squished apples.
6. The possibility of having a white Christmas. In Cleveland, Ohio, the probability is 40%. In Charlotte it is 0%. The last time they had a white Christmas in Charlotte was in 1947.
7. Snickerdoodles. Actually, I’ve met several people in the South who know how to make wonderful snickerdoodles. And they all come from the North.
8. Root beer stands. Loved going to the root beer stand on a scorchingly hot summer day and getting a frosty mug of root beer with 5” of foam on top. Haven’t seen one since I’ve moved here.
9. Mulligans. Best cheeseburgers anywhere I’ve been are in Canton, Ohio. I’ve been looking for something close since moving to Charlotte and have come to the conclusion that I’d be more successful searching for the Holy Grail.
10. A short grass mowing season. As I recall, in the North, mowing the lawn was a summer activity. In Charlotte, it is not a seasonal activity; it is a way of life.

1. Banana pudding. I didn’t know what banana pudding was until I moved south. In the North it is banana flavored instant pudding. Down here, it involves real live bananas and vanilla wafers. Some people bake it with meringue on top. My friend Dick Little tells me you can tell an authentic Southern restaurant if it lists banana pudding as one of the vegetable sides. (He also converted me to Duke’s as the only legitimate mayonnaise in the world.)
2. Okra. No, I’ve not gotten into livermush or grits. (Livermush is one of a long list of foods I’ve never tried but am certain I don’t like. And grits, well I did try one once, and that was enough.) But okra is a winner with me. I don’t do it fried. To me, once you batter fry anything, it tastes like fried batter. I love the squeaky-spongy way okra feels when you chew it and wouldn’t think of cooking up a pot of vegetable soup without throwing some okra in it.
3. Corn season. Yeah, they have corn in the North, but you can’t go to a vegetable stand and buy fresh, locally grown corn, picked in the morning so there’s still dew on it, until nearly August. It starts in June here.
4. Y’all. English is so much more precise when we can differentiate between second person singular and plural. When I speak to a crowd and say “you”, people can assume that I’m not talking to them, but some other “you.” But when I say “y’all”, there is no question that y’all best listen up.
5. The Waffle House. Some of you know that this was one of the reasons I moved here to begin with. Love their waffles, cooked extra crispy. The first couple years I lived in Charlotte I went to the Waffle House on Independence Blvd. every Friday and sat at the counter watching the cook. How did he ever keep track of all those elaborate orders coming at him at once, without writing anything down? It was very humbling to realize that there was no way in hell I could ever cut it as a cook at The Waffle House.
6. Fraser Firs. They definitely make the prettiest Christmas trees. In the North they are rare and cost an arm and a leg. In the South they are the norm.
7. Spring color. Spring comes early in the South. And it takes your breath away. I know they have flowers and blooming stuff when spring finally arrives in the North, but…
8. Being able to take morning walks all winter long without freezing my fanny off.
9. Fresh peaches. The kind where you bite into them and the juice drips down your arm, past your elbow and would go all the way to your armpit if you didn’t stop it.
10. Putting kindness before honesty. People in the south are basically kind. And they highly value kindness. If you want the brutal truth, they’re not all that reliable. But if you’ve done something really stupid and you want to feel okay about yourself, they’re good to have around. Although, I have learned that sometimes Southerners may disguise their contempt for individuals with kind words. For example, in the North they might say a person is ****ed up. In the South they say, “bless her heart”, which pretty much means the same thing. But it sounds so much kinder.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

No Matter What I've Done

I was a young mother and a young pastor in my first call. My daughter was four and my son Ben was 18 months old. Life was hectic in those days, trying to keep up with a busy parish and a home with two very active little ones.

My husband and I were going out that night to an international potluck. We were running late, as usual, and were trying to get our act together. We needed to give the kids a bath before we left and we needed to prepare something to take to the potluck. My husband took bathroom duty, and I started cooking. The counter was cluttered with dirty dishes and I didn’t have time to deal with them. So I just scooted them aside and made myself a small work space as well as a space for the wok to heat. I poured oil into the wok to heat it up while I began wrapping egg rolls. I was so frazzled that I wasn’t paying close attention. And I did something that I knew I should never do. I left the cord to the wok hanging over the kitchen counter.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw little Ben trotting into the kitchen buck naked. He had escaped from his father. And I stood about two yards away as I watched his chubby little hand tug on the electric cord to the wok. It happened so fast, but I remember watching it like it was in slow motion. There was nothing I could do. Hot oil landed on his head and ran down his back.

Well, this was just the beginning of the nightmare. One thing led to another and we spent years in hospitals dealing with the devastating results of this burn. Of course, while we were going through all of this, there was no disputing one critical fact. It had been my fault. It was my carelessness. There was no rationalizing my way around it. I was Ben's mother, the one who was supposed to protect him from anything bad happening to him, and look what I had done.

I was overwhelmed with feelings of guilt. How could Ben ever forgive me for this? How could my husband forgive me? Most significantly, how could I ever forgive myself? How could I ever get past it?

There was only one way. By the grace of God. By knowing the loving forgiveness of God, I also came to love and forgive myself. And I can tell you that there’s no other way I could have made it. In my struggles, I just couldn’t let go of the guilt. But as I prayed and worked through it, I kept coming back to the grace of God.

Finally, I had to ask myself-- If God can forgive me, why can’t I forgive myself? Do I think I know more than God? I realized that God’s grace was even greater than the difficulty I had receiving it. I could beat myself up all I wanted, but God was gonna keep on loving me anyway. It was one of those life-changing experiences for me as God’s grace became so real.

I know that God loves me, no matter what I’ve done. And that by his grace he makes me a new person. He’s able to transform my life through my struggles and take me to a place I never knew before. It’s happened in my life over and over again. Despite my limitations, God doesn’t give up on me. He comes after me with his grace. Just as he comes after you.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Truth about Footprints in the Sand

You’ve probably heard the story of “Footprints in the Sand.” It’s all about a person who looked back on her life and saw two sets of footprints in the sand as God walked beside her. But then, she noticed that when she went through the toughest times, she only saw one set of footprints. When she questioned God about it she was informed that there is only one set of footprints because in those times God carried her. Well, that is pure, unadulterated hooey! It’s not the way it works at all.

Beyond a doubt, the lowest time of my life came after my marriage ended and I moved to a new city to begin again. On a Tuesday I was in court finalizing my divorce, and then on Saturday of that same week, I loaded a Ryder truck with all my earthly possessions and moved 500 miles away to a city where I knew no one. I soon discovered that although I had moved to a new location, I was not yet ready to move on to a new place in my life.

The losses in my life were considerable. I left my son, who would be entering his senior year of high school, and he understandably opted to move in with his father, so my nest suddenly became empty. I was alone for the first time in over twenty years. I left dear friends who had been my support system in both the best and worst times of my life. I left a church I loved so much that I had hoped to stay there until I retired. And then, of course, there was the matter of my marriage ending. Even though it had been harmful to me on so many levels, I still felt a loss. The future I had dreamed of would never be. I had to let it all go.

Trying to figure out how to navigate this wilderness time of my life, I only seemed to find myself more lost in the thick of it. I engaged in self-destructive behavior that just made matters worse. I hated myself and felt like I had become such a miserable failure that what I wanted most was simply to disappear from the face of the earth.

Although I had always prided myself on standing on my own two feet and solving my problems without help from anyone else, I had reached a time in my life when I realized that I couldn’t do it anymore. As I prayed, “God, help me!”, I trusted that God would empower me to get my act together so that I could put all this messiness behind me and go on with my life.

As is usually the case, God answered my prayer in a way I hadn’t expected. I thought it was all about God and me. But I learned that God doesn’t come to me in a vacuum. He always comes to me through other people. In fact, that’s the way it works for all of us. It’s why God gives us the gift of community, so that we can be conduits of his love for one another.

Looking back over my life, I can see that during the worst times there are so many sets of footprints in the sand that it would be impossible to tell where one starts and another stops. They are the footprints of family members, supportive friends, an insightful therapist, and a loving faith community, all people God placed in my life to help me through the roughest times. They are the answer to my desperate prayer, “God, help me!”

One set of footprints? Never!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

I Love You, Too

I don’t know about you, but I find that my human relationships often can teach me a lot about my relationship with God. Sometimes because my human relationships are so similar to my relationship with God. And sometimes because my human relationships are so different from my relationship with God.

Now, one of the things that I’ve learned from my human relationships is that if I love someone, I need to tell them. Love is not meant to be a secret. If I love someone I can’t keep it to myself. For example, whenever I talk on the telephone with either my daughter or my son, we always end our conversation with one of us saying “I love you” and then the other one will come back with “I love you, too.” It seems very natural for me to do that with my kids.

But as a divorced woman who dates men, I’ve learned that when I’m in a romantic relationship with a man, it’s not so easy because the words “I love you” come with all kinds of baggage. Not too long ago, there was a man in my life whom I dated for a couple of years and I grew to love him. It wasn’t something I could keep to myself, so I told him. “I love you,” I said. And he said to me… “Thank you.” Ouch! Thank you? That’s not what you’re supposed to say when someone says “I love you.” But he couldn’t bring himself to say “I love you, too” so he said “thank you.”

It made me think of my relationship with God. God tells me “I love you” again and again in my life and often the best I can do is say “thank you.” As a recipient of God’s grace, “thank you” works. But I also need to respond to God’s grace. How do I move from a thank-you relationship with God to an I-love-you-too relationship?

Do you remember when Jesus was quizzed by a Jewish expert in the law who wanted Jesus to cut to the chase and tell him what the most important law was? Jesus couldn’t answer the question because he couldn’t identify the one most important law. He had to give two. “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”(Matthew 22:37-39)

For Jesus, these aren’t two separate laws to live by. They are two parts of the same law. The way to love God is by loving our neighbor. It’s not just a matter of saying “I love you, God” over and over again. It’s about showing our love for God in the way we treat other people.

Our God says to us, “I love you.” Through Jesus Christ we know those are more than just words alone. “I love you,” he says. Our lives are given in response to God’s love. Not just with the words alone, but with lives that say “I love you too.”

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

It Don't Come Easy

There certainly is more to forgiveness than saying the magic words, “I’m sorry” and “You’re forgiven.” At no time in our lives are we challenged to be more Christ-like with one another than when we’re called upon to forgive. Forgiveness is where the Christian faith gets practical. We do more than just talk about the way God’s grace has changed our lives. We have the opportunity to put God’s grace into practice, to love other people the way that God loves us.

True forgiveness is never easy. If you find that it comes too easily for you, I wonder if you’ve really forgiven at all. When forgiveness comes easily, it most likely means one of two things: either the person didn’t really hurt you that much to begin with, or you have gone through the motions of forgiveness, but haven’t really forgiven from your heart.

If you bump into someone in the elevator and say, “Excuse me” and they reply, “That’s OK”, is that forgiveness? Hardly. Forgiveness isn’t necessary for the petty things people do to us; it’s reserved for the really big stuff. It isn’t necessary unless someone has really hurt you. The more deeply another has hurt you, the harder it is to forgive them, and the more you need to forgive them. (For your own sake as much as theirs; carrying around anger and hate isn't healthy.)

Jesus taught that true forgiveness comes from the heart (Matthew 18:35). Whenever I hear people express their forgiveness too quickly I assume they are going through the motions of forgiveness without truly forgiving from the heart. They are saying the words, “I forgive you” because as a Christian that’s what they’ve been taught they should say. But when you’ve been deeply hurt in your heart, you have to forgive from your heart, and that is more than words. It doesn’t happen within 60 seconds or less. For some of us, it takes a lifetime.

When you forgive, you recognize that another person has hurt you. You don’t make excuses for their behavior. No matter what the reason may be, they have caused you pain. You have every reason to be angry with that person. You may even have every reason to hate her or him. But you choose to love instead. That’s forgiveness.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Living One Block Over

There’s a quirky short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne about a man named Wakefield. One day Wakefield wakes up and decides to take a little break from his wife and home in London and rents out a room one block over. He doesn’t tell his wife and intends to stay away only for a day or two. But then the days go on and he watches his wife from a distance for twenty years. Never once does he let her know where he is or even that he is alive. For twenty years. The story ends when one day Wakefield is out walking down the street and he suddenly decides to return home; we see him entering the door to his house as if he had never left.

How many of us have a relationship with God like that? One day we slip away and we think it’s just a short break from the relationship, but the years pass and it’s as if we’re watching God from one street over. Now, by this, I’m not talking necessarily about people who have strayed away from the church. Because the church and God are not the same thing. I’m talking about anyone who has removed themselves from the loving relationship God offers. It can happen for people inside the church as easily as it can for those outside the church. I do hope those of us who are inside the church are there because we want to grow in our relationship with God. I hope we're opening ourselves to the love of God that fills us to overflowing and spills out onto other people who also want to grow in their relationship with the God of love.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m in a loving relationship with someone and that relationship is in balance, I can feel it. When it’s out of whack, I can feel that too. I suspect that we also know when our relationship is in balance with God, or when it’s out of whack. One way to tell is if following Christ’s commandment to love one another as he has loved us is a burden for us or if it just comes naturally. After all, when you’re in a loving relationship with someone, you want what they want. If Christ wants us to love one another as he has loved us, it’s what we want too. It’s not a huge struggle for us; it’s something that we willingly do. We may not be perfect at loving the way Christ does, but there is no question that we’re not resisting it. What Christ wants for us is the same thing we want for ourselves.

It’s tempting to become like Wakefield and say, "You know, maybe someday I’ll go home, maybe someday I’ll be in a relationship with God," and then the days and the years pass. Of course, Wakefield did go home in the end. We don’t know if his wife was like the waiting father in the story of the prodigal son or not, but we do know that that’s how our God is. He’s always waiting for us to come to our senses and find our way back to him. But in the meanwhile, how much are we missing? Wakefield missed out on 20 years of his life because he was a stubborn old fool. God’s love is all around us. May we have enough sense to open our hearts and let it in.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Top Ten Ways Scrabble is Like Life…

My favoritest game is Scrabble and I probably play at least a half dozen games a week. I learned recently that it's a great way to keep the mind working, especially if you want to avoid getting Oldtimer's Disease. But, beyond that, there is much you can learn about life by playing Scrabble. Here are the Top Ten Ways Scrabble Is Like Life.

10. You have to do the best you can with what you’ve been given.

9. You can have all the right stuff, but if your timing is off, it’s worthless.

8. It takes imagination and vision to see the possibilities other people might miss.

7. It’s not smart to put your best stuff in places where you get little return.

6. Just when you think you’re stuck, you can receive an unexpected surprise that changes everything.

5. You may not know what the other person is hiding, but eventually it all comes out.

4. Using more doesn’t necessarily get you further than using less, but you get the biggest reward if you use up everything you’ve been given.

3. You can only receive more if you are willing to part with what you have.

2. Great benefit comes to the one with the wisdom to know exactly where to place his or her “s”.

1. It’s more fun sharing the experience with someone else than it is doing it alone.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Everything Else Is Just Fluff

The psychologist Carl Jung understood the human struggle for health and wholeness as a deeply spiritual matter. He observed that there are two sides to every person: the person we want to be and the person we don’t want to be. The person we don’t want to be Jung called our shadow. Because we don’t want to be this person, we pretend that it doesn’t exist. We may do that by living in denial or we push it deep down inside so that we can’t see it anymore. We work hard to keep the shadow side of ourselves hidden from everyone, including ourselves. You might say, we’re afraid of our own shadow.

Our shadow isn’t always negative. Sometimes it can be positive. For instance, think of the super macho man who spends his whole life denying his feminine shadow. By doing this he cuts himself off from an important part of who he is as a person. If he can acknowledge the positive aspects of this shadow side and incorporate those into his life, he’s taking an important step toward becoming a whole person.

Of course, there are also parts of our shadow side that are negative and a failure to confront them can be a great obstacle toward becoming our true selves, the people God created us to be. When we refuse to see our shadow side, we’re living in darkness. And nothing good can ever come of living in darkness. Think about Roman Catholic priests who, after taking a vow of celibacy, may deny their own sexual needs, repressing their shadow. In recent years we have seen how living in that kind of darkness has caused irreparable damage to individuals and the larger Church.

If you might be wondering what your own shadowy make-up is, here’s one indicator. Think about the people who really get under your skin. What disturbs you most in their behavior? There’s a good chance that what you’re reacting to is your own shadow side that you can see in that other person. In fact, the more irritated you are with another person, the less likely it has to do with something about that person and the more likely it has to do with something about you. It may point to the part of you that you’ve been repressing because it’s not the person you want to be.

Jesus seemed to understand this when he counseled people to remove the log in their own eye before going after the speck in someone else’s eye. Our shadow side sends us railing against the actions of others rather than looking within ourselves. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to look at our interpersonal conflicts in the light. We’d much rather cast judgment and blame and act out in all kinds of other ways that keep us living in the darkness. After all, in the darkness no shadows exist.

Jung makes the important point that evil is not the shadow, but it is our refusal to meet the shadow. It’s not the shadow part of ourselves that causes pain and suffering in our lives, but it’s disregarding and repressing the shadow that does us in.

We can only see our shadow in the light. For Christians, our light source in Christ. He is the light who always encourages us to acknowledge our shadow. He does it with a gentle, nonjudgmental approach that brings us to true repentance. By accepting us completely, including our shadow side, he frees us to see ourselves in the light of his love. When Jesus is a part of our lives, we’re living in the light. We’re no longer afraid of our own shadow. That's when we grow into our authentic selves, the people God created us to be.

This is what salvation means to me. It's not a ticket to heaven. It's an unfolding relationship with God that is leading me toward wholeness. That's why I can say that Christ is my light and my salvation. I believe my mission as a pastor is to encourage and support people who are also on a journey toward authenticity and wholeness. The best way I know of helping them do that is leading them into a deeper relationship with Jesus. Everything else is just fluff.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Spend More Time at Home

There’s something about Christmas that gets people thinking a lot about home. Songs like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” seem to tap into the longing we have to find ourselves in the place we call home at this time of year.

I have struggled for a long time with what home means for me. When I was growing up, it was a place called Hamilton, Ohio. That’s where all my aunts and uncles, and cousins and grandparents lived. When I got older, I started moving around a lot. The location of the city I called home changed from year to year, but I clearly knew where home was. It was where I was living with my husband and my children. Then, about a dozen years ago, my marriage ended and my children set out to make their own lives and, all of a sudden, for the first time, I was living solo. So, where is home for me now?

I just returned from a trip to Ohio where I spent time with my children, my best friends, my brother and sister, nieces and nephews. And I did it in places I once had called home. But they’re not home for me anymore. It’s always weird to be in one of those places. It feels like whatever life I lived in that place was lived by someone else, not me. And, in a way, it was. It was a former life. So, maybe home is where I’m living my current life.

As I was flying back to Charlotte from the Dayton airport, the trip I thought was going to take a couple hours ended up taking all day. I was exhausted. I just wanted to click the heels of my sneakers together three times and find myself home. I was tired of visiting my former lives. I wanted to be back where I’m living my life now. To that degree, I realize that Charlotte is the place I call home. But it’s a transient home. And even as I return to this home that I’ve grown to love, deep within me I feel like a homeless person.

I don’t know yet how many homeless people will be reported in our upcoming census. But I can already tell you that the number of homeless people in our country far exceeds any number those statistics will reveal. There are millions of homeless people like me. We may have roofs over our heads. We may have addresses where UPS can leave packages at the door. We may have ample closet space to store all of our earthly possessions. But we’re still homeless.

I thought a lot about that when I went to see a movie the day after Christmas called, Up in the Air, starring George Clooney. Everything his character needed he slipped into a roller suitcase that was small enough to stow in the overhead bin on an airplane. He had no connection to real people, but lived his whole life flying from place to place. Appropriately, it was his job to come into a large company and inform people that they had been fired. He represented millions of homeless people who will never be counted in a census. They’re not the people who are sleeping on the streets. They’re the spiritually homeless. They lug a longing for home with them everywhere they go. They may not always be able to name that longing, but it’s always there, tucked away in the overhead bin.

Saint Augustine understood this kind of homelessness when he said, “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” We spend a lot of time and energy in our lives trying to find our home, the place where our hearts can rest.

John's Christmas gospel tells us that “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” The word for lived is often translated dwelt. In the original language, it means literally to pitch a tent. God came and pitched a tent in our world. God became a human being, like us, and made his home in our world. And because God has made his home with us, we have a place where the heart can rest. We are always home.

If you're considering New Year’s resolutions, here's a suggestion. It’s really quite simple. But it can change your life on a deeply profound level. This year… spend more time at home.