Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Unsolicited advice: why bother?

Never have I met a person who appreciates unsolicited advice. So, why do we continue to offer it? Is this just one more pointless human activity, like when someone yells at you and you yell back at them, or when you carry on philosophical conversations with your dog? There is no explanation for why we do such things. We know they don’t serve any purpose whatsoever, yet we continue to do them anyway. Does unsolicited advice fall into that same category? Or could there possibly be a good reason for this compulsion we have to tell other people what’s best for them, despite the fact that they aren’t interested in hearing it?

I don’t know about you, but when I go to a friend with a problem and pour my heart out, that doesn’t mean I’m asking for advice. I don’t want her to solve my problem; I just want her to listen to me. When I want advice, I’ll ask for it. If I don’t ask for it, it doesn’t matter if it’s the best advice in the world, I’m not receptive to it. Aren’t most people like that? The only time we respond well to unsolicited advice is when someone advises us to do something we wanted to do all along. Otherwise, put a sock in it!

Knowing this, advice-givers will often find well-disguised ways to get their message across. There’s the stealth advisor, who sneaks his directives under the radar by asking innocent questions like, “Were there any instructions in the box?” Or the disclaim-er who thinks she can clear the way for receptivity by preceding her prescription with, “I don’t mean to be telling you what to do, but…” The one I find most endearing is the yarn spinner, who opens with, “Did I ever tell you about the time…?” Is this going to be a stroll down memory lane, or is it a story with an agenda?

Now, there are clearly some people who simply enjoy telling others what they ought to do. I suspect it gives them a feeling of superiority. And there are also those who are insufferable control freaks who will jump at every opportunity to push other people around. But what about all the people who truly mean well when they freely offer up their pearls of advice without being asked?

My children are the recipients of unsolicited advice on a regular basis. I know this because I’m their unsolicited adviser. They roll their eyes and sigh while I say my piece. Then they proceed to do what they want to. I realize that’s the way it works, but I can’t help myself. I have to dish it out like great big heaps of mashed potatoes. Why?

Well, here’s the thing. When they were little they needed me to guide them. If I hadn’t, they probably wouldn’t be here today. They needed me to tell them things like, “Don't play with rattlesnakes 30 minutes after you've eaten.” Then, as they grew in independence, my guidance wasn’t needed like it once was, and I tried to keep my mouth shut as much as possible. Yet, I still find myself saying things like, “It’s never smart to make the minimum payment on your credit card.” Or, “Please promise me you wear a condom when you have sex.” Through the years, the content of my advice has changed. But my need to offer it hasn’t. And, that may be the key to understanding why I do it. I do it because I need to be needed. It’s not that I think Gretchen and Ben are incompetent to figure these things out on their own. They’re both smart people, and I know they don’t need me to give them advice. Yes, they’ll end up doing whatever they choose, despite anything I might say to them. But when I offer them advice, it’s not for them, it’s for me.

When you love someone, your happiness is intricately connected to theirs. You want to protect them because, if they’re not safe, you’re not safe. You don’t want them to mess their lives up because when they do, it messes up your life, too. When they pay the price for their mistakes, you pay the price as well. Their heartbreak breaks your heart. Their failures leave you feeling defeated. Their wounds make you bleed. That’s why we have no choice but to offer advice to those we love, whether they ask for it or not. Yes, it may be annoying as hell for them, but hopefully they’ll understand that offering unsolicited advice is just another variation on “I love you.”

Monday, June 27, 2011

Why I’m alone on a Friday night

Every once in a while I think it might be nice to have a man in my life. But when I get real, I know all too well that the odds are against me. Seriously against me. Not too long ago I met a good man. We seemed to hit it off and I enjoyed his company. Then it all went south quickly. We were having dinner and the topic of football came up. He has season tickets to the Panthers games and this is a big part of his life. When he asked me if I liked football I talked about all the old men I’ve met who are crippled because they played football in high school. “It’s hard for me to watch a football game without thinking about how they’re abusing their bodies. I mean, people weren’t meant to run at top speed and crash into each other like that.” Then I made what I will admit was an unfair comparison. I compared watching football to watching a cockfight.

Last Friday night, I was telling this story to a girlfriend and she shrieked. “Oh my God, you didn’t really say that to him! Are you nuts?” The implication was that I shot myself in the foot at that moment. I blew it with him because I couldn’t keep my opinion to myself. Is that what happened? Would I still be seeing him if I pretended to be someone I wasn’t? “That’s why you’re alone on a Friday night!” my girlfriend told me.

I don’t know if I’m getting pickier about men as I get older, or if I’ve finally come to terms with how narrow the field of potential mates is for me. I do know what I can and can’t live with, and I will admit that by the time you line all those things up, the field of potential men for me becomes miniscule to non-existent in no time.

First of all, the man would have to be available. That means someone who is straight, single and healthy enough to consider being in a relationship with a living, breathing woman without flipping out. There aren’t as many of those men around as you might think. Then, of course, he would have to be in my age group, give or take a decade. And so the field narrows a bit more. He would have to be bright and have the ability to write in complete sentences or I could never get past it. (I’m not saying this is fair, but I know how I am.)

And, here's a real sorter down here in the Bible Belt… He would have to be somewhat accepting of religion in general, because, after all, that’s my life, but… and this is the kicker… not a Bible thumper. (These two things seem to be mutually exclusive in these parts. Men are either hostile to religion, or they’re so religious that it creeps me out.)

In order to be comfortable around my friends, he would need to accept people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. (And now we’re whittling the field down further.) Politically, if he ever voted for W, I couldn’t deal with it. (Are you starting to see my problem here?)

Then there are the little things that would be deal breakers for me. He has to love dogs and tolerate cats or he couldn’t come to my home. If he doesn’t contra-dance, he’d have to be willing to learn. He would have to make me laugh on a regular basis, and here’s a biggie… he also would have to laugh at my jokes. (I’m just sayin’.) Then there’s the whole thing about football (see above). And now we’re talking about a very select few men in the entire world. (But, of course, I’m not interested in dating men in the entire world. For example, if such a man existed in Nome, Alaska, I would regretfully have to pass.)

All that’s to say that the field of men I could seriously be in a relationship with is mini-micro-microscopic. And then, on top of all that, should I ever find someone who meets all the above criteria, he would have to be into me. So, now what are the chances of all those planets ever aligning?

I know that for the sake of a relationship, sometimes compromises are necessary. I’m willing to do that. I can eat in a Thai restaurant once in a while. I can go to the beach in August. I can even watch a football game on T.V. if that makes him happy. But what I won’t compromise is who I am. And that’s why I’m alone on a Friday night.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

So much to celebrate!

Baby showers don’t usually do a whole lot for me. But I went to one today that left me feeling so full and happy that I still haven’t stopped smiling. Stephanie and Chrissy are expecting their first child, Amelia Rae, in a few weeks. The people in our Holy Trinity family are so thrilled that they’re already calling dibs on who gets to hold her during worship.

At today's baby shower, Stephanie and Chrissy received gifts from the whole congregation. I was so touched to see the three little sleepers that an elderly widower from the congregation gave them. And there were gifts from people who have only worshipped with us a few times. The guests at the shower included folks who were male and female; married, partnered and single; toddlers through senior citizens; straight, gay and transgender; parents, grandparents and doggy parents. All showered the new moms, not only with their gifts, but with their love.

Chrissy and Stephanie first started attending Holy Trinity when their relationship was budding. Then, they decided to get married and went to another state to make it legal. Next, they told us they were going to have a baby. Every step of the way they have been loved and supported by their church family.

I’m so thankful to be a part of a congregation where this is possible. In fact, it’s so commonplace at Holy Trinity for same-gender couples to marry and have families that I forget how unusual this would be for most other churches in Charlotte, North Carolina. I feel like I’m living in a bubble in that regard. While all around me pastoral colleagues have been battling for years with their congregations over sexual orientation, when I came to Holy Trinity, that war was over. They were already completely open to all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

It’s been over six years now since I first met with the search committee at Holy Trinity. Back then, their biggest problem was a membership so small that they were struggling to survive. As I sat with leadership to talk about my potential pay package, they insisted that they wanted a full time pastor and they were prepared to pay me for full time work. But when I asked them how long they would be able to compensate me at that level, if nothing changed, they told me we had about eight months. They knew that I could very well become the last pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. And yet, the faithful remnant at Holy Trinity believed so strongly in their mission that they couldn’t imagine how God would ever allow that to happen.

I believed in their mission, too. Although I wasn’t as convinced as they were that they were going to make it, with all my heart, I wanted to them to make it. At the time they were the only Reconciling in Christ congregation in our North Carolina Synod; they had carried the banner for the full inclusion of LGBT folks for a long time, and at great cost. I knew that other congregations were already pointing to Holy Trinity in their struggle for survival, saying, “See, that’s what happens when you welcome gay people into your church; we don’t want to become like Holy Trinity.” But I had another vision for Holy Trinity. I wanted other congregations to point to them and say, “Why can’t we become more like Holy Trinity?” I felt so passionately about it that when I was called to become their next pastor, I had to come.

When I first arrived at Holy Trinity, we only had one family with young children and no babies. Our new nursery, which I insisted would be in place before my first Sunday, stood empty, never used once in over two years. If a family should come to worship with us, they would take one look around, see no other small children, and that would be the end of them. I was beginning to think that I would never baptize an infant.

All of that changed when Kevin and Aaron, who were foster parents, started attending our church. I can’t remember exactly how it all unfolded, but suddenly we were crawling with kids. And that brings us to where we are today. We have families with a mom and a dad, some with a single parent, others have two dads or two moms. When they all come to the altar for communion on Sunday mornings, I can hardly take it in; there is so much to celebrate!

I have witnessed so many God-moments at Holy Trinity that I lose track of them. But next Sunday, I know another one is coming. After 32 years of ordained ministry, I’ll be baptizing my first triplets when three little boys will be brought to the font by their two moms. We’ll welcome them into God’s family through the power of the water and the word and this extraordinary community of love that surrounds them.

What did I ever do to deserve a congregation like this? Not a blessed thing, that’s what. They’re a gift from God. I’ve always insisted that the most important thing I can do as a pastor is love my congregation and if I can no longer do that, I need to leave. Well, it takes no effort whatsoever to love the people of Holy Trinity. I’d be crazy to think about leaving.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

This is a test.

The story of Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac at God’s command is a biggie for three faith groups: Jews, Muslims and Christians. Interestingly, each tradition has focused on a different overall meaning. For Jews, it is that the Lord will provide. For Muslims, the obedience of Abraham is the central thrust. And for Christians, the parallel between this story and the sacrifice of Jesus has been significant.

Despite the meaningful interpretations from those faith traditions, on a personal level, the story of God asking Abraham to kill Isaac has caused individual thinkers a lot of angst through the years. Typically, people react to it in one of two ways. Either they flat-out reject a God who could do such a thing, or they try to rationalize God’s actions in an attempt to defend God’s honor.

This is a tricky story. Before we launch into it, perhaps it would be a good idea to review a few of the basics on how to approach the Bible in general. The Bible does not give us a definitive picture of God. Instead, it tells us about the way people in different contexts have understood God. Those understandings are always limited by the lives of the ones who are telling us the story. It’s told through their eyes. So, what we get in the Bible is a collection of stories told by a variety of people who have a variety of perspectives based on a variety of experiences. That’s why we can say that the Bible is not a history book or a science book. It’s a book of faith.

Unfortunately, calling the Bible a book of faith is often misunderstood as well. That’s because, for many people, faith means accepting things at face value that nobody in their right mind would ever believe are true. But that’s not at all what faith is. Faith is a distinctive framework for living in this world. To live by faith is to walk in a relationship with God, open to the truths God reveals along the way. To say that the Bible is a book of faith is to say that it bears witness to the way people of faith have experienced their relationship with God through the ages.

When we read and study the Bible, its authors become a part of our faith community. Their witness informs our discussion as people of faith who are open to the truths God is revealing to us. I hope you hear what I’m saying here. The Bible is not a book we come to for answers. It’s a book we come to for questions. It’s not the final word that ends the discussion. It’s the living word that continues to be a part of the discussion.

Many of the Old Testament stories come to us by way of oral tradition. They were handed down from one generation to the next until finally, in a time when the religion of Israel was being threatened, someone thought, “This is a good time to start writing some of these down so we don’t lose them.” The story of Abraham and Isaac was once a part of that oral tradition.

Can you imagine a wise sage telling these stories to children as they sit around a campfire? Many of them were told to explain why the world is as it is. “Children, do you want to know why there is so much evil in the world? Well, once there was a man named Adam and a woman named Eve.” “Would you like to know why people are so violent? Let me tell you about two brothers named Cain and Abel.” “Have you noticed how people speak so many different languages? It all began when they were trying to build this really tall tower.” Explaining why things are the way they are comes through in the story of Abraham and Isaac as well.

The most primitive form of religion is the one that makes a case for an angry god who can only be appeased with some sort of sacrifice. In the ancient world, this primitive belief system was common, and along with it, the practice of child sacrifice. The story of Isaac and Abraham seems to have been told as a polemic against that. Yes, other gods may demand infanticide, but not this god, not our God. We worship another kind of God. Our God provides another way. This story differentiated the God of Abraham from the gods other people were worshipping. It was part of the process of figuring out just who our God is and what makes him different from other gods. I like that way of considering this text. It makes sense. But it still leaves a lot of questions unanswered about the narrative itself. And that’s why this is such a rich faith story.

Why would God ask Abraham to do this to begin with? And why does Abraham go along with it? It makes no sense that Abraham would do this when you consider his background.

Abraham was an old man and, in ancient times, any future hope a person had was intricately tied to having children, particularly sons. Abraham and Sarah had waited forever to have the child God had promised. They even decided God needed a little help and took matters into their own hands by using a surrogate mother, one of their servants, Hagar, to produce a son for Abraham, Ishmael. Then, in the midst of human impossibility for Sarah, she conceived and bore Isaac, even though she was in her eighties. With a true son to be the heir of Abraham, Sarah wanted Ishmael out of the picture, so she told Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Abraham questioned God on this matter, and found reassurance that God would be good to Ishmael and make a nation from him. So Abraham sent his first born son away, confident that his nation and his name would rise through Isaac.

Now, after going through all of that -- God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? This is crazy. Not simply because Abraham is asked to kill his son, which is horrific enough. But because it seems to contradict what God has already done through his faithfulness in providing Isaac. This is the son God promised to Abraham and Sarah. Now would God ask Abraham to kill that son? Seriously?

Well, it helps somewhat to know, from the first sentence of this story, that God is testing Abraham here. But what kind of a test is this? Was he testing Abraham to see if he would be obedient? Certainly, Abraham doesn’t have a very good track record when it comes to following God's lead.

When God told Abraham that he was going to destroy those dens of iniquity, Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham couldn’t accept it and tried to talk God out of it. When Sarah told Abraham that Hagar and Ishmael needed to be sent away, Abraham questioned God. And I don’t even want to get into that messy incident where Abraham passed Sarah off as his sister to save his own skin despite the fact that he knew how God felt about it.

So, considering the way Abraham behaves elsewhere in the biblical narrative, the Abraham in Genesis 22 seems completely out of character. After God tells Abraham to make a burnt offering of his son, we read, “So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac.” All the other things God asks Abraham to do and he digs in his heels, fighting God every inch of way. And NOW he chooses to acquiesce? No questioning, no pleading on Isaac’s behalf, Abraham just gets up in the morning and sets out to do what God tells him to do. What’s the deal? Could it be that, given the history he had with God, Abraham knew better than to believe that God would actually let him sacrifice his only son? Perhaps Abraham trusted that God would provide another way all along, just as it turned out he did.

Yes, knowing that this was some kind of a test for Abraham seems to help a bit. But, did Abraham pass or fail the test? Did God expect Abraham to obey whole-heartedly without putting up a fight? Or was he testing him to see if he would speak up and refuse to do something so absurd? Is it possible that God was disappointed in Abraham's unquestioning obedience? God's last-minute rescue suggests that Abraham's response was off the mark. Abraham may have deserved credit for his devotion, but his behavior called for swift intervention in order to spare Isaac.

This is a great example of one of those Bible stories that was never intended to give us THE answer. Instead, it invites us into a discussion. It’s also one of those stories that just won’t let us go because it entertains the kinds of questions that people of faith struggle with in every time and place. Does God ever test us? Even when we think we hear God speaking to us, can we really be sure the voice we’re hearing is God’s and not our own? How much are we willing to sacrifice in order to follow God? Would God ever require something of us that we know in our hearts is wrong? Can we ever know what God is really asking of us without stepping out in faith and putting one foot in front of the other, trusting that God will lead us to where we need to go?

It’s been thousands of years since this story was first told around a campfire and, for people of faith, the discussion continues.

Friday, June 24, 2011

I shall never surrender!

“We shall never surrender!” So said Winston Churchill in his famous We Will Fight on the Beaches speech. The implication is that if you don’t surrender, you have only one choice, and that is to keep on fighting. But I have a problem with that. Is surrender the only alternative to fighting? What about love? Both surrender and love stand against fighting. But when we surrender, it’s because we have no choice. Love is always a choice.

Many people will say that the key to following God's will for your life is surrendering your own will to God's. As someone who has spent most of my adult life battling with God, I can tell you that approach may work for some people, but it doesn’t cut it for me.

Surrender is the language of war. When you surrender, you resign yourself to the fact that you've been beaten, or at least you aren't going to win, so you throw in the towel. In surrender, you come to the other defeated. And it’s pretty hard not to resent someone you have surrendered yourself to. You may continue to want the same things for yourself that you always wanted, but now you're forced to deny them and the resentment grows deeper.

Doesn’t God want to be in a loving relationship with us? How can you love someone to whom you have surrendered yourself like that? When I strive to follow God's will for my life, the real point for me has become, do I love God? If I love God, then I want what God wants. It's not a matter of doing battle with God and surrendering my will to God's will. It's about making God's will my will, too.

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

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

There is a huge difference between surrendering myself to God and giving myself to him in love. One approach feels like a requirement and I come to resent it. But when I respond in love, I’m offering myself as an expression of thankfulness for a gift beyond compare. And there isn’t a speck of resentment in me. Only joy.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

God only knows

I was thinking about how many questions I carry around in the course of a day. My brain has become a repository for whys, whats, and hows.

Why do I always end up wearing a white shirt when I’m eating spaghetti?
Why is my trash basket always full and my gas tank always empty?
What magical place do stray socks go to when they disappear in the dryer?
What makes forbidden things so irresistible?
What does my dog find so appealing about the taste of her own poop?
Why is it that when I was a little girl the doctor would come to the house to see me when I was sick, and now I can’t get one to talk to me on the telephone?
Why would anyone object to two people getting married who love one another and are committed to spending the rest of their lives together?
Why aren’t more people outraged by the fact that in the wealthiest nation on earth so many people can’t afford to be healthy?
How is it possible that people can use God as an excuse for hatred?

When I was a kid I had a lot of questions, too. But back then, I was working on the answers and thought that surely I would have them all worked out by the time I got to be the age I am now. Instead, what has happened is that I’ve become comfortable co-existing with the questions. It’s been a process. I’ve gone from -- I gotta know the answers, to -- I’m going to have to accept the fact that there aren’t always answers, to -- I treasure those questions the most for which there are no answers. Really, I do. I’ve learned that life isn’t about finding answers. It’s about savoring the mystery.

This is particularly true for the life of faith. Seekers eventually figure this out, if they hang in there long enough. We can never find God, no matter how hard we try. We may delude ourselves into believing we have, from time to time. But in the end, it’s God who finds us. And it usually happens when we we’ve finally realized the futility of the search, when we’ve learned to appreciate our limitations in the face of unanswerable questions, acknowledging that we are not God after all. I’m reminded of that whenever I entertain a question I find myself answering with the words, God only knows.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Never mistake your critics for your judge

I could never be a politician, for many reasons. But one of the biggest reasons is that my fragile ego couldn’t take the abuse. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live with the constant criticism that they receive. Everyone is listening to every single word they say, ready to pounce on those words or twist them or take them out of context. Everything the person ever did is scrutinized. Every term paper they ever wrote, every person they ever talked to at a cocktail party, every stupid thing they ever did as a kid. And people will go after them on the basis of their race or their gender or their age. Nothing is off limits because the goal is to tear someone else down so you can win. How can these people stand it? How can they tolerate being criticized so mercilessly without taking it personally, without being crushed? It’s brutal. Thank God it’s not the way people usually treat one another.

Now, that’s not to say that we don’t all know what it’s like to be criticized. We’ve all prboably had people in our lives who tell us how to dress, how to talk, how to think, how to live. How do you respond to criticism?

When dealing with our critics, we can make one of two mistakes. We can ignore them, which can work sometimes, but if they’re telling us something we really need to hear, blowing their criticism off isn't helpful. On the other hand, it can be an even bigger mistake for us to take our critics too seriously and assume they're always right. When we do that, we're promoting a critic to the status of judge.

Dr. Lewis Smedes talks about the difference between a critic and a judge. He says that critics give us their opinion and it’s up to us to decide if we’ll take it or leave it. But when we receive a judgment, we have no choice, we simply have to take it. So, he says, we should listen to our critics, but never let them become our judges.

Now, this whole idea caught my attention because it calls me to dig a little deeper into our core value at Holy Trinity, Loving Not Judging. Being judgmental is not the same thing as being critical. There's an important distinction to make between the two.

Often I think we don’t want to be viewed as judgmental, so we give the impression that no matter what a person does, it’s OK. It’s like anything goes. But anything doesn’t go. There are some things that are unacceptable. We'll say, "It's not for me to judge" as a way to let us off the hook, to exempt us from any kind of criticism, whether giving it or receiving it. Is it possible to offer criticism without being judgmental? And is it possible for us to receive criticism without feeling like we’re being judged?

The Apostle Paul had his share of critics and he had a word for them that’s helpful. He said, “With me it is a small thing that I should be judged by you—or anybody else for that matter. I do not even judge myself…. It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Corinthians 4). He identifies three kinds of critics in his life: 1)other people, 2)himself, and 3)God. These are the same three critics we all have.

Paul’s critics were all over his case for the way he did his missionary work. And he responded to them by saying that he was listening to their words but he knew that their words were never the last word for him. They were not his judges.

Our human critics are our friends, our mothers, our children, people who go to our church, people we work with. They can be a blessing for us. We can learn from them and often, if their criticism is constructive and offered in love, it can lead us to make some changes in our lives that are for the better. But if we allow our critics to become our judges, we let them decide whether we’re good enough or beautiful enough to be loved and accepted, and any blessing that might have come to us from their criticism becomes a curse. Can we receive their criticism without allowing them to become our judges?

Our second critic, and for many of us our most brutal critic, is our own self. God created us with an ability that no other creature has – the ability to examine our own lives, to take stock of ourselves and become our own critics. The only way we will ever grow in our lives is by being somewhat critical of ourselves, being dissatisfied with ourselves as we have been and pushing ourselves to become something more. Being critical of ourselves can be healthy, but it crosses the line when we become our own judges. Remember, when a critic gives you their opinion, you can accept it or reject it. But when someone pronounces judgment, you’re stuck with it.

The fact is, we’re not competent to judge ourselves. We tend to see what we want to see. When we’re feeling up, we want to see only the good stuff about ourselves. When we're down, we actually look for bad things about ourselves to hone in on. How we see ourselves is always confused by how we’re feeling at any given moment. Besides that, we’re way too complicated for us to understand ourselves. You could see a therapist your whole life and still only scratch the surface of what you’re all about because there are so many sides to you. There’s light and darkness, evil and good, ugliness and beauty, hate and love. It’s all in there and you can never sort it all out because it’s always changing.

It’s troubling when people look inside themselves and like everything they see. They never do anything wrong. In any confrontation, they’re always the innocent ones. They’ve convinced themselves that they’re above reproach. But it’s also troubling when people look inside themselves and conclude that no matter what they do, they never measure up and they’re always lacking. Again, the mistake is not in criticizing. It’s in judging. And it’s something a lot of us do to ourselves.

And that leaves just one more critic. The apostle Paul refused to let his human critics be his judge. And he refused to be his own judge. But it wasn’t that he refused to be judged by anyone. He did have a judge. “God is my judge,” he said. God is the only one qualified to be our judge, because God knows us right down to the core. He knows everything there is to know about us. Good and bad.

And here’s the thing, the really BIG thing. The only critic who is really able to judge us also loves us and forgives us. So, despite anything you have ever done or ever will do, God will never reject you. The only critic qualified to be our judge is the Lord himself. And the good news about our divine judge is that he refuses to condemn us. As Paul puts it: there is therefore no condemnation. Only forgiveness. Only love.

As long as I know I have a judge like that, I suppose I can handle my critics. But that doesn't mean I'll be running for public office anytime soon.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Adjusting to the Land of Cotton Kindness

Warning! If you can’t deal with gross generalization bordering on stereo-typing, you will want to click away from this blog right now. Sure there are lots of exceptions to what I’m about to say, but I’m not talking about those here. I also have no empirical evidence whatsoever to support what I’m saying, but then, that never stops me from saying it anyway. After all, this blog is about what’s going on inside my noodle, so deal with it.

Growing up in Ohio, I always thought that people are pretty much the same everywhere. Then, thirteen years ago, I moved south of the Mason-Dixon Line and I learned that there is a fundamental difference between those of us who were raised in the North and those raised in the South.

Many visitors to the southern states are charmed by the southern hospitality. It’s that warm, cozy feeling you get when you walk into the Waffle House and the waitress behind the counter yells out, “Mornin’, sweetie! Just plant yourself anyplace that looks good and I’ll be right with ya.” (Nobody in the North calls me sweetie or honey or darlin’ and gets away with it. But in the South, it would seem silly to take offense.)

I’ve discovered that what we consider southern hospitality is really just an outward manifestation of something much deeper, something that is so much a part of the southern psyche that it would take a lobotomy to remove it from a Southerner’s behavior. I’m talking about their congenital kindness. It’s clearly a cultural thing, passed on from generation to generation. I can tell you that this isn’t the way people are raised in the North. Southerners put kindness above everything else. And I mean everything.

There are many things Northerners value above kindness. One is time. They never seem to have enough of their precious time and resent it when someone else wastes it. I was reminded of that last night when I drove through a McDonald’s to pick up an ice cream cone on my way home. In Akron, Ohio, this would have taken three minutes, tops. I waited in line for fourteen minutes and twenty four seconds. And there was only one car ahead of me! Nobody had to remind me that I wasn’t in Akron anymore. In the North, you go to a drive-thru because it's quick. In the South, the difference between a drive-thru restaurant and a sit-down restaurant has nothing to do with the amount of time you wait. The only difference is that, at a drive-thru restaurant, you wait in your car. Despite that, I suppose some people might still consider the drive-thru a convenience, if you happen to be sitting in a really nice car, or if you want to run out and grab a bite to eat in your pajamas. But the point I’m making is, time is valued more highly in the North. For Southerners, time, or the lack thereof, isn’t very high on their hierarchy of needs.

As a pastor, I had to learn this the hard way. Let me give you two examples. First, where I come from, talking on the telephone is a utilitarian activity. You call someone up, you say what you need to say to take care of business, and then you hang up. That’s it. When I moved to North Carolina and did that with my parishioners, they started mumbling amongst themselves about the pastor. Was she mad at me? Did I do something to offend her? Doesn’t she like me? (Of course, it was a church member who had moved here from the North who had to tell me they were saying these things.) I realized that, in southern culture, a telephone call is, first and foremost, an opportunity to express to another person that you care about them. So, you have to begin with a friendly exchange of information. How is your mother doing? Isn’t Zac graduating from college this year? Where will you be taking your vacation this summer? It seemed rather tedious to me at first, but I've actually grown to enjoy it.

I encountered something similar when greeting people at the door after worship services. Where I come from, the whole point of standing at the door after worship is to shake hands and get people on their way as quickly as possible. To stand at the door chit-chatting with the pastor while other people are waiting in line is considered rude. But, here in the South, the exact opposite is the case. If I don’t have at least a mini-conversation with each individual as he or she leaves the church, they feel slighted. It took me a while to get this, but I think I understand it now. Yes, Southerners value kindness above time.

Another thing highly valued in the North, that kindness always seems to trump in the South, is honesty. Adjusting to this hasn’t been easy for me and I’m often confused about where I stand with people. Now, I’m not saying Southerners are dishonest. I just never know if they’re telling me the truth. I’m not sure if they know either, and I suspect it’s not something they think a whole lot about because they are congenitally kind. It probably doesn’t even occur to them that they might be telling a bald face lie if they think it makes someone else feel good. I mean, is everything really cool between us after I so obviously said something that hurt you? Could you really sit and listen to me preach for hours? Do I really look ten years younger than my age? Am I really as wonderful as you say I am? Funny how nobody ever told me any of this when I was in Ohio all those years. That’s because people in Ohio are brutally honest. They feel compelled to tell you the truth, especially when it has the potential to ruin your day. Southerners just don’t think that way.

I’m not saying this is good or bad, just different. And it’s taken some adjustment for this kid from the Buckeye State to learn to play nice. People who were raised in the South probably can’t understand how much effort it takes for us non-Southerners to adapt here in the land of cotton kindness. We weren’t raised to put kindness above things like time and honesty. Kindness is something we have to think about. Since moving to the South, I've been thinking about it a lot more.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

He does a (Nazi) mother proud

My son Ben’s brain works in an unconventional way. Keeping up with him exhausts me. I often feel like Alice trying to pin down that elusive white rabbit who had her hopelessly lost in Wonderland. While I don’t always follow Ben's logic, I do admire his creativity. And I know beyond a doubt that he can think for himself.

When I hear people these days lamenting the lack of critical thinking skills being taught in our schools, I think of Ben. No one had to teach him to be a critical thinker; he questioned everything from the moment he emerged from my womb. Challenging me at every turn, he accepted nothing at face value. Not even the rigidity of the American educational system could break him, and believe me, they tried.

Of course, there is a fine line between critical thinking and stubborn defiance and sometimes it’s hard for me to be around Ben. My daughter Gretchen would be quick to point out how Ben and I are alike in that way. Sometimes when the two of us get into an argument I feel like I’m driving my car down a one way street and he’s coming at me going the wrong direction. Despite all my warnings, he refuses to turn around and go the way he’s supposed to. Instead, he insists that I’m the one in the wrong. What’s a mother to do?

Given all that I’ve written above, it will probably come as no surprise to you that Ben has no time whatsoever for organized religion. Once when he was visiting me at Christmastime we were taking a morning walk in the park on December 24 and I asked him if he would come to the Christmas Eve service that night at my church. (For several years he had shared this time of year with Gretchen and me and he never attended church with us. Never.)

“Mom, you know I don’t believe in that stuff,” he told me.

I came back with, “I’m not asking you to believe in it. I’m just asking you to come because I’m the pastor and I'm your mother and it would mean a lot to me to have you there with me.”

I’ll never forget his reply. “Mom, if you were a leader in the Nazi party and they were having a rally tonight and you were making a speech, I wouldn’t go to that either.”

Now, how can you argue with logic like that?

So, we returned home and I stewed over his comment for about an hour before I decided that this year I couldn't let it go. I went to him and said, “Ben, do you think of yourself as an open-minded person?”


So I asked, “Do you have any friends who are Muslim?” I knew that he did, and he affirmed that. “Well,” I said, “if one of your Muslim friends invited you to go to worship at their mosque with them, would you go?”


“Okay,” I said, “So how open minded is this… You’re here to be with your mother and your sister at Christmas. And tonight, there will come a time when Gretchen and I are going to get in the car and go to the Christmas Eve service. And you’re going to sit home by yourself… because you’re so open minded.” I actually managed to say this quite calmly and left it hanging there as I walked out of the room.

I didn’t hear anything from him for a good long while and decided that I said what I needed to say and that would be the end of it. But that’s not what happened.

Ben came to me and said that he would be going to church with us that night.

I’m not big on miracles, but if I were into that sort of thing, I’d have to say that this felt like one to me. Ben was growing up. He was able to do something that I have rarely witnessed in this world; he changed his mind. And in the process, he demonstrated to me that his mind truly was open after all. No, he didn’t agree with my beliefs, but that wasn’t really the point. My son, the critical thinker par excellence, was able to bend for the sake of love. I have never been prouder of him.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Squeezing God into our pea-sized brains

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."

Was Shakespeare right? Doesn't the name we give to something matter? Well, that may depend on what we’re naming. When it’s God that we’re naming, it does seem to make a difference.

In ancient times names carried a special significance. We tend to lose this in our culture where we give our kids names like Jennifer and Richard, names chosen more for the way they roll off the tongue and into the ear than for whatever their meaning might be. But back in the days of the Old Testament, to give someone or something a name was a sign that you had power over it. Consider the second story of creation in Genesis 2. After God creates Adam, then he creates all the other creatures and he trots them out one by one and gives Adam naming rights. Yes, God did the creating, but Adam did the naming. That was significant. It elevated human beings in the pecking order of creation.

It’s also significant that when it came time for God to be named, it was God who revealed his name to his people, rather than the other way around. When God tells Moses to go to the children of Israel and tell them that he has been sent to them by God, Moses says, “Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but when they want to know what your name is, what can I tell them?” Considering the task God has put before Moses, I’d say that was a legitimate request. But God’s response doesn’t seem all that helpful.
“I AM WHO I AM,” God says. “Tell them that I AM sent you.” Was God giving a smart-ass answer here or was he making a point?

When God referred to himself as "I AM WHO I AM", he was establishing the fact that he is beyond names and once we start naming God we’re robbing him of his power. Then we’re creating God in our image rather than the other way around. I wonder if the children of Israel got that when Moses told them I AM sent him.

Well, as the story unfolds, the name of God becomes expressed in four letters that are derived from the concept of I AM. We’re not sure how those four letters were pronounced in Hebrew because they’re all consonants (YHWH). Most of the time, we Christians pronounce the word Yahweh. In the majority of English Bibles, whenever this name for God is found in the original text, the word LORD in capital letters is used in the translation. There seems to be some controversy about whether this word for God was ever spoken by the Jews in Old Testament times. It might have been considered so holy that humans didn’t dare utter it. But whether it was spoken or not, this much we do know: God is more than a name. The depth and width and height of God cannot be contained in a name. We human beings can’t even begin to explain the mystery of God and, if we think we can, we’re not only fooling ourselves, but we’re insulting God.

And so, we come to the Trinity. It’s a way of understanding God that evolved through the years and became accepted as the true understanding of God by Christians sometime in the fourth century. It defines God as three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is only referred to a couple of times in the Bible, so it’s not really the dominant understanding of God in the Scriptures, although the three persons of the Trinity are certainly revealed in the Bible.

Naming God as the Three-in-One has its down side and its up side for people of faith. On the down side, it is one more attempt for us human beings to put God in his or her place, to think that we are able to define the One who is impossible for us to define as human beings. I AM was probably the best name for God ever, and we would have done well to stop at that.

Anyone who has ever tried to explain the Trinity gets all tangled up in a circular argument. Although God exists in three persons, there is only one God because all three have exactly the same nature and being. The Father and the Son are one. The Son and the Holy Spirit are one. The Holy Spirit and the Father are one. The Father is not the Son. The Son is not the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not the Father. Say what? If you try to make it clear, you only end up digging the hole deeper and deeper until pretty soon it makes no sense whatsoever. You can only throw your arms in the air in exasperation and announce “It’s a mystery!” And, of course, God tried to tell us that from the beginning. But that hasn’t stopped us from picking God apart through the ages like an investigative team on CSI. We humans tend to be pretty arrogant that way, thinking we can actually understand what is ultimately un-understandable for us. Is it really possible to squeeze the eternal, omnipresent, omnipotent, infinitely wise, infinitely holy, infinitely loving, omniscient one into our pea-sized brains?

But there is another aspect to the Trinity that we often overlook when we get so trapped in our heads trying to comprehend it all. And that is the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is not an intellectual concept to be comprehended; God is a relationship to be experienced. If you’ve ever read the book The Shack, you have seen an imaginary picture of what that might look like. The persons of the Trinity are in relationship with one another, and we’re invited to be a part of that relationship, too. We seem to mistake the life of faith as an intellectual belief we must accept when it’s really a relationship that we can trust to hold our lives.

If you read through the Scriptures, there are many names for God. Those names reflect the experience of God’s people in different times and places as they live in relationship with him. One of the most shocking names for God comes from the lips of Jesus. He is in the Garden of Gethsemane anguishing over his future. And here’s how he prays: “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” In his time of deepest despair, he turns to God, and he addresses him as Abba, Father. No searching for the most accurate name to describe God in that moment. No flowery language. No doctrinal formula. Just Abba, Father. It’s a name of endearment. Abba means Daddy. It’s a long way from I AM and a name no one can pronounce, to Daddy.

There may be times in our lives when God seems so far removed from us, so almighty and powerful, that we dare not speak God’s name. And there are other times when we experience God so intimately that we can crawl up onto his lap and feel him cuddling us in his arms as we whisper “daddy” into his ear. God is all of that and more. The doctrine of the Trinity reminds of us of that because it is both intellectually incomprehensible and always calling us toward intimacy with a God of relationship.

What in a name? Let’s face it, when we do the naming, not so much. But when God does the naming, well that’s a different story. When I AM names you his child and becomes your daddy, YOU ARE!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Opening for a father -- inquire within

My mom and dad were seated at the kitchen table discussing something very serious. Then he went to the chalkboard on the back of the kitchen door and wrote the longest word I ever saw. Years later, I realize it was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. I don’t know if that’s the way it really happened or not, but that’s the way I remember it. That story has become a part of the myth of my father.

When you lose your father at the age of six, memories are fuzzy. My brother Ken recently talked to me about how saddened he was by the fact that the people in our family (cousins, nieces and nephews) who knew our father, for the most part, remember him being sick. I have a lot of those memories, too. They are indelibly etched in my brain. But I don’t really think of them as memories of my father so much as memories of a terrible disease that took him from us. That disease was not my father.

I remember dancing with him in the living room when I was probably no more than three or four. I was wearing a red plaid pleated skirt with shoulder straps. When one of the straps fell down, I pulled it back up and said, “Damn it!” My father couldn't help himself and laughed out loud. This is one of those stories I cling to because it reveals to me something important about who my father was. He was a man who enjoyed having a good time, but even more significantly for me, he was a man who took delight in me. (I wonder if this memory explains why two things that bring me great joy, to this day, are dancing and swearing.)

Most of what I remember about my dad was related to sports. That shouldn’t be all that surprising since he and my Uncle Gordon owned a sporting goods store. Our family life revolved around ball diamonds, bowling alleys, and fishing lakes. I can see him tossing a baseball in the front yard with my brother, inspecting bowling lanes with level in hand, turning off the lights at a softball field after an evening game. He seemed to be surrounded by friends with funky nicknames like Bones and Sparky. There was always a party going on when my dad was around. That’s the way I remember it.

The last time my father saw me I was standing in a hospital parking lot looking up at a hand waving at me from a window four stories up. It seemed to be an appropriate way for him to exit my life. Not only was I waving goodbye to him, but I was waving goodbye to life as I had known it. It felt a bit like being booted out of Camelot and into the wilderness. There was this void in my life that I couldn’t begin to understand as a little girl. My younger sister was just a baby and my older brother was a troubled adolescent who was acting out after losing the most important connection in his life. They required a lot of attention. That left me… nowhere. Every day I came home from school to an empty house and a black cocker spaniel named Inky. I was on my own. From that time on I don’t ever remember anybody laying out my clothes for me in the morning, or telling me to take a bath or go to bed at night. I was living in a void. In some ways I felt like I myself was a void.

A few years after my father died, my mother remarried. I’m not sure why. I suspect she thought we needed a father, or maybe she was afraid that she wouldn’t be able to make it on her own. But it wasn’t a real marriage and in my book it did more harm than good to our family. I never accepted that man as anything that even remotely resembled a father in my life and I never let him forget it. He crossed the line with me on a few occasions and gave me ample material to pick apart with a therapist when I was in my early thirties. Suffice it to say that his presence in my life was not helpful. And I never confused him with a person I would call my father.

Through the years I created a myth for who my father was. Some parts of the story may be factual, but when a person becomes a myth, their story transcends the facts. In recent years, I learned that my father was a racist. I also learned that back in the days before I was born he moved his family repeatedly from place to place because he didn’t have money to pay the rent. So, my father was human after all. I'm not so sure now what's true about him and what isn't. The only thing I know for sure was that my mother adored him until the day she died. It’s not much, but I suppose it’s something.

They say that there’s a strong correlation between the relationship a woman has with her father while she’s growing up and her ability to have healthy relationships with men as an adult. Ugh. I don’t know what that means for me. How can I ever stop hoping deep down inside that some man will come along and fill the void I’ve been carrying my whole life? I know that’s absurd; no man can ever do that. But this six-year-old little girl still lives inside me and she will always long for that. I’ve learned to stop doing battle with that little girl and embrace her as a part of who I am. That helps. Overall, it keeps her from getting the best of me.

From time to time, God has helped me heal some of the damaging effects of the void in my life by bringing an extraordinary man to walk with me for a while. I think of three in particular. They are all pastors I’ve worked with at different times and I felt myself connecting to them as I would a father. They are not perfect by any means, but they are good guys. It was the way that I felt about myself when I was with them that made such a difference in my life. Like the father I remember dancing with in my living room, they took delight in me. I also felt protected by them, although it wasn’t like they were my knights in shining armor who fought my battles for me. It was more like they supported me in my struggles and I always trusted that they had my back. I could count on them for that. I felt safe and secure with them. Isn’t that what the love of a father looks like? A father delights in you. He has your back. You know you're safe and secure with him. I like to believe that God sent these men into my life because he knew how much I needed to experience that.

On Father's Day I can’t help but think about the dad I lost 50+ years ago. But I also think of Bob, Jan and Dick. They truly were God-sent gifts to help me along the way. And through them, I have come to recognize how, when all is said and done, God is the one who fills the void in my life. Had I never experienced the void, I might never know that. Although it has seemed so real to me, I know it is an illusion. God fills the void, and it ceases to exist. And God always fills it.

Monday, June 13, 2011

What keeps me from flying through the windshield

Was she wearing a seatbelt? How often is this question asked when we learn of someone who was injured or killed in a car accident. I’m not sure why we ask it. I suppose it’s to confirm what we already know. Seatbelts save lives.

I remember sitting through those terrifying driver training movies during high school and being indelibly convinced that I would never turn the key in the ignition of a car without first fastening my seatbelt. Since then, buckling up has become second nature to me. I fasten myself in without thinking about it. Even if I’m sitting in a parked car with the engine turned off, I feel naked without my seatbelt.

Do you remember when it became the law that we would all have to wear seatbelts and some people groused about how this was an infringement on their freedom? I never understood that way of thinking. It seems to me that if you have to be forced not to be a fool, then you’re an even bigger fool!

During this wild ride of a life that I’ve been traveling, I'm thankful that I've been wearing a spiritual seatbelt. Being connected to someone greater than myself, someone who sees me exactly as I am, flaws and all, and yet loves me more than I can ever love myself, is what holds me together. Without that, I feel like I could just as easily end up in a bazillion pieces, scattered over a guard rail on the side of some obscure, God forsaken road. Wearing this seatbelt has become second nature to me. It’s always there; I don’t have to think about putting it on. But when I know that I’m in for an especially treacherous ride, I need an extra measure of security.

Last week I decided it was time for me to go public with some physical challenges I’m facing in my life. (see blog post, “Note to body: stop ruining all my fun”) That wasn’t easy for me. I hate whiners! But beyond that, I’m a very private person and have kept this problem to myself for a long time, hoping that it would all resolve itself and no one would ever have to know. (Yes, perhaps I was in denial.) As it became apparent to me that this disease wasn’t going to go away without considerable effort, I realized that the time had come for me to buckle up for a bumpy ride.

God’s love doesn’t come to us in a vacuum. We experience it through community, through the people God places in our lives. We were not created to travel “that long, lonesome highway." We were created to journey together, supporting, encouraging and challenging one another along the way. This is how God’s love comes to us; we’re channels of his love to one another. So, when we need help, it’s okay to ask for it. In fact, to keep things to ourselves, and think we can brave it alone, like strong little soldiers, is to deny God’s love access to us. It’s taken me a long time to realize that, but I think I get it now.

So, I’m telling people who have been accompanying me on my life journey about my struggle. You need to know. Not because I’m hoping someone out there can fix me, but simply because we're in this together and I trust that you care. I covet your prayers and your support and I long to know that you’re walking beside me, even if only for a single step along the way. I turn to you because I need assurance that the love of God is securely fastened, like a seatbelt, around me. (Just as I hope you turn to me, when you need to check to see if your seatbelt is securely fastened, as well.) That’s why God has given us to one another through the gift of community. For me not to share my troubles with you would be to turn my back on God. And turning my back on God would be as foolish as driving in rush-hour traffic without a seatbelt.

Is this going to protect me from anything harmful coming my way? Of course not. No more than wearing a seatbelt prevents traffic accidents. But it will keep me from flying through the windshield.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Why quoting Bible verses doesn't work for me

Sometimes I get into misunderstandings with other Christians that are hard to resolve because we have such differing views on the Bible. From their perspective, I suspect they can’t fathom how someone like me, someone who calls herself a Christian, can say the things I do when they so blatantly contradict what the Bible says. I’m not always sure what to do about this because it seems like we’re speaking a different language when it comes to the Bible. When they quote Bible verses to convince me of the error in my thinking, I’m sure it seldom occurs to them that this is meaningless to me. I just don’t read the Bible like that.

What separates us is the way we allow the Bible to inform our lives. For many Christians, quoting the Bible is an effective way to make a point. This is the way it is, they’ll tell me, because it says so right here in the Bible. You know the bumper sticker approach to Scripture: “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” Sometimes I wish it were that simple. Instead, for me, it’s more like: “One version of the Bible that is commonly accepted today says it. While trying to find my way in this world, it is among the voices that inform me. I’m open to its truth for me as my journey continues to unfold.” I know, it’s not as catchy as “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” And it sure won’t fit onto a bumper sticker.

I could tell you some of the reasons why I’m not a Biblical literalist, but then, I’m not sure there is such a thing as a Biblical literalist. Even those who might be labeled as such are selective about which parts of the Bible they will take literally. What most of us probably would call a Biblical literalist is someone who looks to the Bible for definitive answers. But you don’t have to turn very many pages in your Bible to see that it was never intended to be read that way. If it were, we would have one version of the creation story. We’d be able to point to it and say, “There, that’s how it happened.” But in the first chapters of Genesis we have two contradictory stories of how it all transpired. And if the Bible were written to give us definitive answers, we would have one story about Jesus. Instead, we have four. When Matthew, Mark, Luke and John can’t agree about the way the story unfolded, how can we say that the Bible was ever intended to give us definitive answers? Which answers would those be? (Actually, I’m thankful we don’t have definite answers in the Bible. Definite answers are highly over-rated. Who can grow when there are definite answers?)

I’m also not comfortable using the Bible as a rule book because I don’t think that’s its purpose. Jesus certainly didn’t use the Scriptures as a rule book. He often turned the law upside down and reversed what once had been accepted as truth. In the same way, in the early church, laws that once seemed to be ironclad were suddenly changed or discarded altogether. It seems that one of the things we learn from the witness of the Scriptures is that part of what it means to be God’s people is to be open to changes in the way we understand God working in the world. Maybe God changes, or maybe it’s just our understanding of God that changes, but clearly God is a God of transformation. When the laws of Scripture are changed within Scripture, how can we think that those laws would suddenly become etched in stone once someone decided the Bible had been completed? Isn’t the Spirit still alive and active in the world today? (I really wish they would stop putting back covers on Bibles!)

For me, the Bible is not a set of instructions that tells me how to live. It’s not prescriptive, but descriptive. It is a collection of writings from people through the centuries who have been in relationship with God. They have written about their experiences as people of faith and the meaning they have gleaned from those experiences. Because I am also a person of faith, I treasure their witness. They enrich me, encourage me and often challenge me. But I feel free to disagree with them. I think that’s how we were meant to read the scriptures.

When I sit down with the adult Sunday school class at Holy Trinity we get into deep discussions about what it means to live out our faith in the world today. We share with one another about how it’s working for us, what meaning we're finding along the way, how we struggle. We don’t always agree, but the Spirit speaks to us in those open discussions. I’m thankful to be a part of a community of faith where that happens.

In the same way, the authors of the scriptures are also a faith community for me and they speak to me. I may not always agree with what they have to say, but I trust that the Spirit is at work as they inform me along the way. Their witness has stood the test of time. They have spoken to millions of Christians throughout the centuries, and that gives them a level of credibility that makes them hard to dismiss. They are a treasure to me. I can’t imagine how I would negotiate the life of faith without them. I suspect I would be lost.

Does that make me a heretic? I don’t think so. It just means that when I read the Bible I’m not expecting answers. I’m expecting a conversation.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Kicking and Screaming into the Kingdom of God

Imagine gathering together with people from every nation under the sun and they’re all talking at once. That’s the way the Christian church began, in a demonstration of diversity, like the Tower of Babel after people became divided over language and culture. But the day of Pentecost reversed the division of diversity. The cacophony of voices talking past one another was transcended and suddenly God’s people were communicating and connecting with one another. A bunch of uneducated guys from Galilee spoke so each person could understand what they were saying, each in their own native tongue. No one had gone to language classes and there were no interpreters on hand. How was this possible? It was a God moment for sure. The Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised them had arrived and it spread through their ranks like a wildfire.

We learned something about God that day. The story reveals to us the very nature of how God is active and alive in the world. God isn’t trapped in the musty old pages of a holy book. God is on the move. And from the very beginning we can see the direction God is headed. God is pulling us toward a place that includes all people. That place knows no boundaries just as the love of God knows no boundaries. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God.

It’s such a profound truth that you’d think Jesus’ followers would have welcomed it with open arms and embraced it as the only way to be in the world. But, from the get-go, the opposite has been the case. God’s people have always been pulled, kicking and screaming, into the Kingdom of God.

Just a chapter before the Pentecost story in the book of Acts, Jesus is with his disciples for the very last time. They’ve spent years with this man. They’ve heard him teaching about the Kingdom of God. They’ve witnessed what it looks like for a person to live within that reality through his actions. And yet, when the risen Christ tries one last time to explain it to them, they have just one more question for him. “Master, are you going to restore the kingdom of Israel now? Is this the time?” Can you imagine? I would have wanted to pop them one and say, “How is it that you still don’t get it?” But I guess Jesus realized at that point that they were never going to get it. Not without a serious intervention.

So, he tells them, “You don’t get to know the time. Timing is the Father’s business. What you’ll get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes over you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world” (The Message). Jesus makes it clear that the direction of the Spirit was not inward, but outward. And right out of the starting block, on the Day of Pentecost, his words are fulfilled as people of all nations hear about what God is doing in the world.

The disciples are transformed. Even Peter, the one who always had such a knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, suddenly becomes eloquent. When folks who are watching all this want to know what’s going on, he quotes from the prophet Joel. I don’t know if he realized what he was saying, but the Spirit got it right in the selection of a sermon text that day. Through this passage Peter explains the significance of what’s happening by laying out God’s intention of diversity and inclusion for his people.

“In the Last Days,” God says, “I will pour out my Spirit on every kind of people.” Every kind of people. That’s pretty clear, isn’t it? No exceptions. No exclusions. And he gives some examples of that, lest anyone miss the point. Sons and daughters will prophesy. Apparently gender differences aren’t an issue for the Spirit. Young men will see visions, old men will see dreams. So age doesn’t seem to be an issue either. The Spirit is poured out on all. It’s not like an eye dropper that very carefully and selectively chooses a few lucky recipients; it’s a cloudburst that soaks every last one of us to the bone.

The dynamic movement of the Spirit toward inclusion didn’t end on the Day of Pentecost. You’ll notice that even though the people who were gathered in Jerusalem that day were from a multitude of nations, they were all Jews. This became the first big challenge for the church as the Spirit pulled them along into the Kingdom, kicking and screaming. It was a huge controversy. There were angry meetings, and heated letters flying back and forth. But, if those early church leaders knew anything about how the Spirit of God works in the world, they had to know the direction it was all headed. Sooner or later, God’s love was going to break open their hardened hearts and minds and they were going to welcome Gentiles into their family. That’s the way God’s Spirit works. She’s always about the business of challenging our fear-driven need to exclude people and leading us into a community that reflects the grace of God.

You know, we’re all are a part of God’s realm, whether we recognize that or not. But the Spirit pushes, pulls, and prods us to expand our understanding of God’s Kingdom so that we get closer and closer to realizing it as it really is, that is, the way it is from God’s perspective, so we can enjoy being a part of it.

You may have heard me say in the past that I like the definition of God that says, “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” It’s hard for us to get our heads around that. It seems that we’re more comfortable saying that there is a definite center, and that would be where our own personal truth is located, and there is a definite circumference, which would bump right up against the limits of our imagination. Based upon the circles we create for our understanding of God, we like to believe we can determine who’s in and who’s out. But the Spirit won’t let us do that. She constantly challenges us to expand our circle as it moves closer and closer toward that circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.

This is the story of God’s Spirit alive and working in the world through the church. Historically, we’ve struggled to figure out how to include men and women, rich and poor, slaves and free, gay and straight. Personally we may struggle to include folks who didn’t vote the way we did in the last presidential election, people who have a foul odor because they don’t have a place to shower, or people who are just plain annoying. I think we all struggle with how to include people who don’t believe what we do about God. Are Muslims, Scientologists, atheists a part of the Kingdom of God? I can assure you that just when we think we have it all settled about who’s in and who’s out, the Spirit is going to come along and mess everything up for us. You may have noticed that we seem to make believing the litmus test for who’s in and who’s out. After all, the Bible says you have to believe in Jesus, right? Well, if we know anything about the way the Spirit works, I wouldn’t be so sure about that.

On the day of Pentecost we’re reminded of how it all started for us as a Christian church. Within that story of our beginning, our mission was set in motion. Like a pebble dropped into a quiet lake, the Spirit created a ring in the water. If you've ever tossed a pebble into the water, you know what happens after that first tiny ring appears. It grows into a larger ring, and then a larger one after that, again and again. That’s the direction it takes. So, it begins, and so it continues. And that’s the way God is working through his people in the world. We’re being pulled toward living into God’s Kingdom. It’s what Jesus kept talking about when he taught us about the Kingdom of God as a reality, right here, right now. The Holy Spirit is moving us toward realizing it in our midst by the ways we include all in God’s circle of love. We can cooperate with that movement of the Spirit, or we can be pulled into God's Kingdom kicking and screaming. But make no mistake about how the story of God's relationship with his people unfolds. God's Kingdom comes. It's happening.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Note to body: Stop ruining all my fun!

One of my favorite trails is the one on the Blue Ridge Parkway that goes up to Mt. Pisgah. It’s been a few years, but, in my mind, I frequently re-visit the last time I hiked it because of a man and woman I encountered along the way. I would guess that they were in their 80s and the picture of health. While my hiking buddy and I were struggling up the mountain, they sailed past us. And while we were still struggling up the mountain, they met us again as they were headed back down. I have no idea who they were or what their story was, but of all the older people I have known, they are the ones who have inspired me the most. That morning on the trail up the mountain I vowed to myself that someday I was going to be just like them. Lately, I’ve been thinking about them a lot because I can barely walk around the block without becoming exhausted.

What is going on? A year ago the only challenge I faced in the morning was waking up early enough to run before it got too hot. Now the slightest exercise is an effort for me. There’s this crazy weakness in my arms and legs that I first noticed last October while I was contra-dancing at LEAF. It’s really been cramping my style and I want it to stop! But despite what I may want, it’s getting worse. I hate it hate it hate it.

The last thing I want to become is one of those people whose whole life revolves around their illness. And yet, that’s what’s happening. As I’ve come to realize that this affliction isn’t going to disappear just as mysteriously as it first appeared, I’ve been going after it with a vengeance. I’m spending a lot of time searching the internet for answers. My primary care physician has been running every test known to medical science on me, some at her suggestion and others per my request. Altogether, I would guess that 40 some vials of blood have been taken and tested. And just about every square inch of my body has been imaged in one way or another. Now I’m also seeing a rheumatologist and he’s running more tests. In the meanwhile, I haven’t been sitting around twiddling my thumbs. I’ve been trying all kinds of things. I went off all my medications to see if that was causing it. Nothing. I’ve gone without dairy, gluten, wheat. Each time, nothing. Recently I started seeing a woman who practices alternative medicine and I have to say that I feel better than I have in many years. I love this woman and what she’s doing for me. But, so far, the heaviness in my arms and legs continues to get worse.

This makes no sense to me. In my spirit, I’ve got the energy to climb mountains and dance all night, but in my body it just ain’t gonna happen. I’ve been making plans for myself that don’t allow for this crap and thought that surely I would be well by now. This week I had to cancel my registration to a dance weekend in Asheville that I was so looking forward to. It broke my heart to face the reality that I just wouldn’t be able to do it. Now, the next big thing I have planned is my trip to the Grand Canyon at the beginning of August and I’m thinking that I just have to be well by then. We’ll find out what’s causing this, deal with it, and I’ll be good to go. But there is a fine line between optimistic thinking and facing reality and I’m starting to wonder if I’ve been living in denial.

Whenever I am struggling in my life, I try to find meaning in my experience. That way it’s never for nothing. Certainly, through all of this, I’ve become more empathetic toward people who deal with ongoing illnesses. Confronting physical limitations is never something we anticipate when we’re healthy. We have to be smacked in the face with a physical limitation before we’ll even acknowledge it as a possibility for us, and then, once we do, it’s hard not to let our minds go wild. I don’t suspect this is going to be the death of me, and I have every hope that it can be cured, but still, I’ve allowed myself to think the worst from time to time. I know that sometimes the worst happens; that’s part of the deal. And it sucks. These days I have a better understanding of what it feels like to go through that, as many of those who are near and dear to me have.

I’ve also learned not to take my body for granted as I have in the past. I know that I’ve abused it in many ways over the years and like any victim of abuse, eventually my body couldn’t take it anymore and said, “enough is enough.” I need to be kinder to my body and listen to what it’s telling me. And so, I promise that when I get better I will take my health more seriously. I know that’s the only way I’ll be able to climb Mt. Pisgah on my 80th birthday. But wait a minute. Does this mean that I’ve gone from denial to bargaining?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Holy Erotica!

If you’re looking for a great erotic read, check out Song of Solomon. Have you ever read it? At its core, Song of Solomon is a celebration of erotic love. It’s about the longing two lovers have for one another and the bold celebration of their passion. It’s racy stuff! I wonder, if Christians today were given the task of deciding which books would be included in the Bible, would Song of Solomon make the cut?

Through the years Christians haven’t known quite what to do with this little book in the Old Testament. Many have interpreted it as an allegory about the love between God and his people. Some have suggested that it be thrown out altogether, that it has no place in the Bible, as if its inclusion was some kind of mistake. But Song of Solomon is actually a treasure for us because these few highly erotic pages in the Holy Book celebrate God’s profound gift of sexual intimacy.

The fact that we don't read from Song of Solomon in public worship, and preachers choose not to preach about it, is the result of a larger problem we have in our culture that comes to us from Greek philosophy. It’s the belief that everything that has to do with the physical world will never be anything but impure and only in the spiritual realm can true purity be found. So we get this dualistic viewpoint where the body is bad and the spirit is good. This is a gross distortion of the world God created.

Dr. Phyllis Trible, a Biblical scholar at Wake Forest, sees the garden imagery of Song of Solomon as a recreation of garden imagery in the Garden of Eden, before the fall. In the Garden of Eden, after the fall, we find sexuality entangled with guilt, judgment and shameful nudity. In Song of Solomon, we find love woven with play and imagination and delight; there is no guilt found anywhere. In Genesis we find pain in childbirth and unequal power between lovers. In Song of Solomon childbirth is eagerly anticipated, the Rose of Sharon invites her beloved into her mother’s chamber for the consummation of their love, and their relationship is a rich mutuality of power and passion. Although God is never mentioned in Song of Solomon, there is something very sacred going on.

So, what happened? Why has our understanding of sexuality become so twisted? That’s a complex question that deserves more than a simple explanation in a blog post. But, beyond the way a dualistic view of body and spirit has permeated our western thought, there is also the matter of how sexuality is so often abused in the world that it’s hard for us to see it as a gift.

This was true in New Testament times, too. The new religion of Christianity was being introduced into a world where promiscuity, temple prostitutes, and pedophilia were not only commonplace, but they were also socially acceptable. Paul addressed these issues head-on in his letters.

We can never make sense of the writings of Paul without learning something about the culture in which he lived. When he refers to fornication, he’s talking about temple prostitution, something that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to us today. In the 21st century, our context for sexual ethics is different. 80% of college students have sex together regularly – many of them with the people they will eventually marry. 9 out of 10 heterosexual couples married in most of our churches have been living together before the wedding. (I can't remember the last time I married a couple that wasn't already living together.) When Paul refers to homosexuality, he’s talking about pedophilia, which was an accepted practice in his day. There was no understanding of committed relationships between two adults of the same gender. To say that sexual behaviors practiced today are different than they were in Paul’s day is an understatement to the Nth degree.

As Christians, we have a challenge when it comes to sexuality. We need to do what Paul did by offering guidance to one another about healthy sexual behavior in our time and place. We can’t base our behaviors upon the context of the first century Middle Eastern world. We need to establish a sexual ethic for our contemporary context.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has written what one commentator has called, “the best ten pages written about sexuality in the 20th century.” His view of sexuality has been very helpful for me, and you may find it helpful as well.

Williams affirms the sacred space of erotic love, but he also underscores an ethical imperative. He does this by grounding his ideas in covenant theology – in the faithful and exclusive covenant that God has with us – and the faithful and exclusive covenant that we’re called to have with God. Because we’re created in the image of God, Williams suggests that we are called to embody the creative ethic of God. To use Williams own words: “to desire my joy is to desire the joy of the one I desire… it is to ask the moral question, ‘How much do we want our sexual activity to heal and enlarge the life of others?’” I really like that: a sexual ethic that heals and enlarges the life of the other.

A reciprocal and mutual covenant ethic suggests that asymmetrical – unbalanced – sexual relationships are simply not part of God’s vision: sexual behavior that exhibits power over the other, sexual behavior that focuses on me instead of the beloved, sexual behavior that hides in the shadows of shame. None of that behavior heals and enlarges the life of the other. That means that it’s not “anything goes” when it comes to sexual behavior. Some things are wrong, like prostitution, promiscuity, adultery, pedophilia, clergy sexual misconduct, “hooking up” for casual sex. Those practices are wrong, not just because they break some antiquated rules, but because they don't heal and enlarge the other.

So, why are Christians so afraid to talk about sex? We’re still very much people of the garden after the fall, aren’t we? When it comes to our sexuality we're filled with guilt and judgment and shame. But that’s not what God wants for us.

Song of Solomon reminds us of the amazing gift God has given us through our sexuality. Through our sexual relationships we have the opportunity to reflect the image of God within us by seeking the joy of the one we desire. I’m so glad Song of Solomon survived all the sorting and cutting that resulted in the Bible we have today. Lest there be any doubt about God’s intention for his people, we were created to enjoy sex. In fact, every time we engage in the act, we’re honoring our Creator. Now, if that doesn’t motivate you to go to bed a little early tonight, I don’t know what will.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

With God all things are possible. Yes, even for Lutherans.

Oh, it’s synod assembly time again, and the miracle of Lutherans moving forward continues. It’s not always pretty to watch, but eventually we seem to get to where we need to be.

Since moving to the North Carolina Synod back in 1998, I have been to every annual synod assembly. And at every single one of them we have struggled, in one way or another, with the issue of sexual orientation. Year after year, voting members stood in the aisles waiting for their turn at one of the microphones so they could make an impassioned speech in response to one resolution or another that either supported or refuted homosexuality. Some would make a case for loving the sinner but not the sin. Others would insist that homosexuality is neither a sin nor a choice, but simply the way God created some of us. And then there were those who insisted that the best way to love a gay person is to help them change. Some of the speeches brought me to tears and others made me so angry I wanted to spit. But it was all part of a process we had to go through as we discerned where God was leading us.

This is nothing new for God’s people. If you read the scriptures you can see that we have always stewed over who to include and who to exclude in God’s realm. Folks got really peeved with Jesus for hanging out with people who were undesireable, unclean, un-male, and un-just-about-everything-else. Paul and Peter got into it over whether non-Jews could be part of the church. And the thing is, if you pay attention to the way the story unfolds, there is no question that the way the Spirit moves God’s people is always toward inclusion, never toward exclusion. So, the direction of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was a no-brainer. We were going to fully include gays and lesbians. It was bound to happen. The only question was, when?

It happened for us a couple years ago. At our churchwide assembly we decided that if a gay person had the good fortune to find someone to love, and if that person decided to make a lifelong commitment to the one they love, it was okay. Well, what we said was that it was okay for such a person to serve as an ordained (or rostered) minister in the ELCA, but, essentially, that was how we told all gay folks that they were okay by us. It was the right decision to make. And, apparently, it was the time to make it.

This year, someone has brought a resolution to our synod assembly asking us to rescind that decision. It reminds me of the classic horror film where you think the monster has been killed and all is well and then, just when you let down your guard, all of a sudden the monster comes back to life and makes one last lunge at the screen. It gets me every time. You’d think I’d see it coming, but I’ll scream, and grab onto whoever is next to me. Well, you’d think I would have been ready for this one last ditch effort to return to the homophobic days of yore as well. But I wasn't. It doesn’t leave me screaming, just shaking my head and wondering what the point is. Have these people never read the Bible? Can they not see that God’s people are constantly being transformed by the Spirit and that the direction of that transformation is always toward expanding the circle of God’s grace to include those who have been excluded?

I’m not all that worried about the people who can’t deal with the direction our church is headed. It would be nice if they’d get on board, but whether they do or not, the train has already left the station. If they choose to stay behind, I have won't be standing beside them holding their hands. The only hand I’ll be extending is the one I use to wave to them from the train window.

Every year I hope that this will be the assembly where sexual orientation is a non-issue. Well, it looks like this won't be that year. The monster needs to jump up for one last gasp of breath. So be it. We'll move on. Maybe next year will be the year.