Friday, March 25, 2011

Why this preacher needs to do more yard work

I’m as faithless as they come. Really I am. Case in point…

After living in my house for five years and never doing diddly to the yard, I decided that this year I needed to take action. So, a few weeks ago I went to Lowe’s to pick up some fertilizer and grass seed. I had a chat with the young woman at the store and told her that I wasn’t messing around, I was serious about growing grass. She pointed me toward the most expensive grass seed on their shelves -- the kind that is 99.9% pure and has some fancy-schmancy thing done to the shell so that it retains water longer than any other seed. I had to have it.

I worked on my yard for a couple of days and threw grass seed all over the place. I watered it. On the bag it said that I could expect grass to appear in 6 to 14 days. So, I started examining my yard every morning, beginning at day 2. By day 13 I had come to believe that I had been had by the woman at Lowe’s. These things weren’t going to grow. They just sat there decorating the dirt like the dust on my bedside table. When I bent down close, I could swear I heard them laughing at me.

I was mad, mad, mad! And I was preparing to march myself into Lowe’s with receipt in hand to demand my money back. I was absolutely convinced those god-awful-expensive seeds were duds.

Then, lo and behold! This morning I was completely surprised to see needle-thin blades of grass popping up out of the soil like whiskers on the face of a 13-year-old boy three days after his first shave. What a glorious sight! Now, you may be thinking, “Well, duh, Nancy, you should have expected grass where you planted grass seed.” But somewhere in the midst of waiting for those seeds to grow, I became convinced that this time it wasn’t going to happen. I know it sounds crazy, but I really did.

Well, guess what? Those seeds didn’t need me to believe in them before they would grow. In spite of the fact that I was convinced all my efforts had been futile, they grew.

Now the “Parable of the Sower” has grabbed hold of me and won’t let go. You know, it's the one about the sower who scattered seed in the rocky soil and along the path and in the thorns and, of course, some actually made it into the fertile soil. It was only the seed planted in the fertile soil that stood a chance and, in the end, it produced 100 times what you would expect. This meant that, despite the fact that the seed didn’t do squat in most of the places it landed, the bumper crop in the fertile soil more than made up for it.

The story should really be called the “Parable of the Seeds” because it doesn’t tell us very much about the sower. We don’t know anything about what he believed or how well-versed he was in the scriptures. We do know that he wasn’t very well-versed in the finer points of agricultural engineering because he wasted most of the seed by throwing it where it stood absolutely no chance of growing. But neither his lack of faith nor his lack of skill mattered. All the sower needed to do was throw the seed around. God did the growing.

I take great comfort in this truth. As someone who preaches God’s Word on a regular basis, I am just about as faithless as they come. I scatter the seeds on a Sunday morning and can’t imagine that they’ll produce anything more than a bunch of dead seeds laughing at me in the pews after everyone has gone home. But my lack of faith is irrelevant. God is gonna do what God is gonnna do. And I continue to be surprised by what God does. It’s happened so often that I’ve come to trust in it, despite my faithlessness.

The words of Isaiah 55 continue to ring true:
10For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

God grows them; I just sow them. I need to be reminded of that. That's why it's a good idea for a faithless preacher like me to plant grass seed every once in a while.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Holy Ground Indeed

It was one of those times in my ministry when I felt like I needed to take off my shoes because I was standing on holy ground, and it happened today while I was visiting with Perry in the hospital.

Perry: Well, Pastor, I’m ready to go.
Me: Do you think it’s time?
Perry: Oh, yes. It’s time. And I’m not afraid.
Me: Well, just because you think it’s time doesn’t mean that God thinks it’s time. We’ll have to wait and see.
Perry: Yes, but there’s nothing more for me to do. I’ve lived a good life. I’ve been blessed.
Me: That’s good to hear. We should all be ready to go like that.
Perry: Please just don’t tell Ev I said that.
Me: You haven’t said this to her?
Perry: She takes such good care of me. I don’t want to upset her. Every morning I wake up and I get out of bed and I get washed up and that’s all I have to do all day. She takes care of me all day long. She’s the best wife any man could ever have. I’ve been so blessed.
Me: And tell me again how long the two of you have been married.
Perry: I can’t remember. I think it’s something like 80 years.
Me: 80 years? Well, how old are you?
Perry: I’m 84. Is that right?
Me: If you’re 84, I’d say you haven’t been married for 80 years.
Perry: Well, no, that doesn’t sound quite right, does it?
Me: Not unless you got married when you were four.
Perry: (looking up at me with a broad grin, eyes glistening with tears) Well, thattud been fine with me as long as I coulda married the same woman.

And I lost it. Right there on the 10th floor of Carolinas Medical Center. Perry wasn’t the only one in that room whose life has been truly blessed by God. Who else has a “job” where they regularly get to hear people say such things?

So often, members of my congregation think of me as the one who speaks for God. What they don’t realize is how often I hear God speaking to me through them. Holy ground indeed.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Nudist Churches?

How do you feel about standing naked before another person? Little kids don’t seem to have a problem with it. In fact, I can remember when my kids were little, in the summertime in particular, I had trouble getting them to keep their clothes on. But, most of us, as we get older, aren’t really into being naked in front of each other. Yeah, there are nudists, and there are exhibitionists, and strippers, but those people are considered somewhat on the fringe of society. It’s not normal to parade around naked. That’s why, when we go to church on Sundays and sit in the pews, we’re wearing clothing. (Can you even get your head around a nudist church? You might think such a concept would really pack the pews, but, in truth, I suspect it would be very difficult to get people to attend such a church. As observers, perhaps, but not as participants!)

Most of us reserve our nakedness for a select few people in our lives. They would be the people we can trust to love and accept us even though we might not look like the airbrushed centerfolds of a Playboy magazine.

In the story of Creation, Adam and Eve experienced an intimate relationship with God. They stood before God naked and didn’t think a thing of it. But then, when they made the decision to separate themselves from God, immediately, what was the first thing they did? They made some clothes so they could hide their nakedness.

To return to the people God created us to be, people who are in an intimate relationship with God, it’s important to stand naked before God. That is, to be who really are: without pretenses, without fear, without shame. And the only way we can do that is by trusting that God loves us with all our imperfections.

Psalm 32 is the perfect way to begin the Lenten season because it’s about a journey from fear to trust. It tells the story of one who had separated himself from God. He was afraid and hid himself from God. He stubbornly held his feelings in and shut himself off until it felt like there was going to be nothing left of him and he couldn’t stand it anymore.

Then, he finally broke down and came to God in honesty. He quit pretending to be someone he wasn’t. He confessed to God who he really was -- someone who had made a royal mess of his life and someone who desperately needed God.

The Psalmist opened himself up to be in an honest relationship with God. And that’s all it took. Because God was there all along. It was only his stubborn refusal to come to God that had caused the separation. God wasn’t looking for reasons to punish him. God was waiting patiently for him to open himself up to receive forgiveness. That’s who God is. Knowing that makes it a lot easier to stand naked before God.

Nudist churches? Probably not a very good idea. But it definitely would be a good thing for more of God’s people to be seen naked.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Is Your Church a Holy Holding Tank?

Most faith communities are all about belonging. Their goal is to increase membership, to get people to belong. The church serves as a holy holding tank. When belonging becomes the emphasis of a congregation it’s easy to become judgmental because it is all about who’s in and who’s out. That’s what happens in a holy holding tank. And when a community’s emphasis is on judging, the community sets the standard for who you need to be and you can strive really hard to become that person.

The problem with that kind of striving is that it means becoming someone you’re not and your life becomes a lie. You’re always trying to please other people, to meet the standards someone else has set for you. Talk about living in bondage to sin. But it’s not God who binds us, it’s the judgment of other people as well as the judgment we might impose upon ourselves.

Churches aren’t meant to be holy holding tanks that people can belong to. They are meant to be places of transformation that are always growing into a Jesus Way of being in this world. Never static, the community is always moving. We’re engaged in a journey together. The kind of transformational life we’re called to as God’s people is not about being converted into people we’re not. It’s about truly becoming the people we are. The people God created us to be. And there’s a huge difference between becoming the person God created you to be, the person you truly are, and the person other people tell you you have to be in order to become acceptable.

For those of us who are on a journey toward becoming the people God created us to be, the challenge lies in discovering who that is. We often mistake our past behavior as an indication of who we are. But our past behavior doesn’t define who we are. In fact, it may only serve to mask our true selves. Especially if we have a history of allowing others to judge us or perhaps judging ourselves. Judging never leads us to an understanding of who we really are as children of God. The only way we can grow to understand who we really are is through love. Because we’re not defined by what we’ve done, whether good, bad, or ugly. Who we are is defined by whose we are. We’re defined by our relationship with the God who loves us.

The challenge and adventure of life is in discovering who we really are. It takes faith, courage, and imagination. Because God created us for so much more than we realize. To live well is to grow into the person God created you to be. That’s what our life’s journey is about. I know it’s a worn out cliché, but it really is true that it’s not the destination but the journey that matters in life. The journey of faith is one transformation after another for us. Some big, some small, but we’re always being transformed. That’s why we can say that God’s purpose for the church is not about belonging, it’s about transformation.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Removing Our Masks

Mardi Gras, which literally means Fat Tuesday in French, is one last day of revelry before the solemn season of Lent begins. One of the traditions of Mardi Gras is wearing masks. It’s not just a fun thing to do, but it actually has some religious significance. For the day after Mardi Gras ends, Ash Wednesday, the day when Lent begins, is the day when we remove our masks.

Back in ancient Greece, when they had plays, the actors wore very large masks to portray their characters. That way, even in an enormous Greek amphitheatre, people could see the facial expressions of the actors. The theatrical mask was called a persona. It’s a word that has been adopted in modern psychology to refer to the self that we present to the world around us. Our persona is our psychological clothing. Carl Jung said that “the persona is that which in reality one is not, but which oneself as well as others think one is.” It’s a mask that we can hide behind.

We all wear these masks. In many ways they’re useful. They can define the role we fill in the world around us and help us feel comfortable with one another. Sometimes we also wear masks to protect ourselves from being too vulnerable to others. That’s not such a bad thing either. We learn what we need to do to protect ourselves in life, and that includes knowing the appropriate masks we need to wear in different settings.

But our masks become a problem for us when we use them to hide who we really are from other people so that no one ever really gets to know us. Our masks become an even bigger problem for us when we use them to hide the truth about who we really are from ourselves. And, our masks become the biggest problem of all when we use them in an attempt to hide who we really are before God.

The truth is, despite our best efforts to hide behind the masks we wear, God knows who we really are. The point of Lent is to return to the relationship we have with God. The first step on our Lenten journey involves removing the masks so that we can be honest about who we are. On Ash Wednesday, when we go home after worship and look in the mirror, we will see a reminder that we are mortal, that our time on this earth is limited and that our lives belongs to God. Our masks will be gone and on each of our foreheads we’ll see an ashen cross.

The life of faith is not about the masks we wear that make us look like good, moral people. The life of faith is about the relationship we have with God, and that relationship doesn’t stand a chance unless it’s honest.

So many people miss this. They tend to focus on Lent as a time to clean up their act and they’ll engage in pious activities like fasting and good old fashioned groveling in confession for their sins. Those aren’t bad things to do, but they don’t necessarily lead us to a more authentic relationship with God. In fact, they can actually become yet another mask that we use to hide behind. For as long as we approach Lent with our agendas, we’re presenting a false self to God. We’re filling a role that we have created to God and we’re not the authentic people God has created us to be. We’ve become the religious person praying on the street corner when God longs to meet the person we are in the privacy of our room with the door shut, in secret.

So, how do you do that? How do you remove the mask you hide behind so you can have an authentic relationship with God? You won’t get there by directing how your relationship with God will go. You can’t make it happen by talking to God or searching for God. You can only meet God by getting your persona out of the way. It happens in moments when you’re open, undefended and immediately present.

God isn’t a commodity you can control. You can’t tell God what to do or invite God to be a part of your life because God is already present. The priest Richard Rohr has said: “God’s Spirit is dwelling within you. You cannot search for what you already have. You cannot talk God into ‘coming’ into you by longer and more urgent prayers. All you can do is become quieter, smaller, and less filled with your own self and its flurry of ideas and feelings. Then God will be obvious in the very now of things.”

It can be scary to stand before God, stripped of all pretenses. But it’s the only way to a genuine relationship with him. God doesn’t want our religiosity, God wants our authenticity. As Psalm 51 reminds us, “God takes no delight in burnt offerings. The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart God will not despise.”

So, are you ready to get serious about your relationship with God? Are you ready to stop controlling that relationship by insisting on your own spiritual agenda? Are you ready to remove the mask of the false self you wear to keep your distance from God so you can open yourself up to an honest relationship with the one who knows you better than you know yourself? It’s time to stop trying to prove you’re someone of value by all your doing doing doing, and just be. Be the person you are, God’s beloved child. It’s time to stop pretending. It’s time to get real.