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.