Sunday, January 29, 2012

Enough foolishness

When you’re young and idealistic, you believe anything is possible. But the longer you stick around on this planet, the more disappointments you experience. Your parents disappoint you. The church disappoints you. The government disappoints you. And your childish idealism seems rather foolish.

As I was coming of age, one of our presidents was shot and killed. The next one dropped bombs on North Viet Nam so he could prove to his opponents that he was tough and win an election. And then there was Nixon. Uff da!

I learned not to expect much of politicians. In fact, I became very cynical about life in general. It’s safer to live that way; the cynic is never disappointed. But the thing is, deep down inside me there remained this starry-eyed young woman who still wanted to believe things could change. Like many of my generation, I was a closeted idealist.

Have you noticed how every once in a while something happens in our world that seems to shift everything we thought to be true? Just when we think things will never change, they do. Remember when President Reagan demanded that the Berlin Wall come down and we all said, “Yeah right. Like that’s going to happen”? And then, it seems like overnight, the wall did fall, along with communism in Western Europe. There have been other seismic shifts like that in the world that I’ve seen in my lifetime, too. Like the Arab Spring going on right now. I watch the events unfolding in the Middle East in disbelief; I never imagined any of it was within the realm of possibility.

For a long time, the people in my congregation struggled with the fact that our denomination refused to accept gay and lesbian people as full participants in the life of the church. There were times when we were so discouraged that we wanted to give up the fight. I was one who believed change was a long time coming and it probably wouldn’t happen until I was an old biddy using a walker to get around. And yet, after years of struggle, the ELCA actually changed its mind. Three years later, I’m still amazed. And I’m so glad that I was wrong in my cynical assessment of the situation. Things can change.

Of course, as God’s people, that’s something we already know. The Book tells us: “With God all things are possible.” Our God is not a status-quo God, but a God of transformation.

Sometimes it takes a radical event in the world around us to remind us that it’s possible for things to change. When that happens, our hope is renewed. We’re freed of the cynicism that enslaves us. And we’re reminded that we can dare to be the people God calls us to be.

There is a Franciscan benediction that expresses this call to us so well:

God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Harmless old ladies?

As a newcomer to my neighborhood, I’m gradually becoming acquainted with my neighbors. They are a diverse group: all colors, languages, and ages. I’ve noticed a lot more senior citizens around me than anyplace else I’ve lived in Charlotte*, but this is also the oldest neighborhood I’ve lived in, ever. My house was the first on the street and it was built before the Big War.

On this beautiful North Carolina day, that feels more like May than the end of January, the dog took me for a short stroll up and down the street. I saw an older woman heading our way up the sidewalk. She appeared to be in her late 70s, with classic old-lady perm and orange-colored hair. Oh good, I thought, an opportunity to meet another one of my neighbors. She sweetly smiled at me and we started up a conversation.

“I see you have your traveling companion with you,” she said, referring to my little pug, Pooky.

“Yeah, she’s my protection in case anyone attacks me,” I told her. This was meant as a joke, and just to be sure she got it, I grinned at her.

She grinned back and held up a little box in her hand. “That’s why I carry mace!”

Yikes! I didn’t know what to say. Mace? Is somebody going to attack her at 3:00 on a Saturday afternoon? I suppose if it makes her feel safer, it serves a purpose. But I can’t get her out of my mind. What kind of a neighborhood have I moved into? Perhaps it's more dangerous than I first thought. You’d better believe that from now on I’m sure as hell going to be very careful around old ladies who smile at me. Oh, yeah.

* This is my fourth Charlotte home.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Imagine that

I can only imagine
What it will be like
When I walk
By your side

I can only imagine
What my eyes will see
When your face
Is before me
I can only imagine

I can only imagine

Surrounded by Your glory, what will my heart feel
Will I dance for you Jesus or in honour of you be still
Will I stand in your presence or to my knees will I fall
Will I sing hallelujah, will I be able to speak at all
I can only imagine

I can only imagine

I can only imagine
When that day comes
When I find myself
Standing in the Son

I can only imagine
When all I will do
Is forever
Forever worship You
I can only imagine
I can only imagine

Jesus dares us to imagine. Yet his message couldn’t be further from the one of this popular song by MercyMe. Jesus doesn’t challenge us to imagine what it’s going to be like when we finally get to heaven. He challenges us to imagine what it’s going to be like when we live in a different world.

It makes me think of the lyrics to another song. But this isn't one they play on Christian radio stations.

Imagine there's no Heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one.

I suspect that Jesus would have loved John Lennon’s song, “Imagine”, because it stirs us to imagine a whole new way of being in the world. Jesus’ understanding of his mission, and his followers’ mission, is to imagine a new world order. The Christian gospel and the community it creates are utterly different from the business as usual that we encounter in the world around us.

Think about the way that power is experienced in the world and the way it works in Jesus’ life and teachings. Whereas, in the world we usually define power as lording it over someone, Jesus says that true power comes in serving others. This sounds simple enough. But it is a radically different way of being in the world...
• A world where we compete in sporting events to prove that we’re number one
• A world where people make it their life’s work to step over other people while they climb the corporate ladder
• A world where we hoard all the goods we can for ourselves
• A world where we use others to get what we want from them
• A world where the nation with the most weapons and the strongest army assumes what they have to say has more clout

“It shall not be so among you,” Jesus says. “But whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Imagine a world like that? That’s what Jesus wants us to do. He wants us to imagine a new way of being, with a new perception of what power is.

Daring to imagine this is ultimately what gets Jesus killed. His resurrection shows us that things can be different.

The story the world lives by, the story of lording power over another, doesn’t have to be our story. There’s another story for us, and Jesus calls us to be a part of that story.

Jesus invites us first to imagine that story for ourselves. Maybe that doesn’t sound all the impressive, just getting people to imagine a new way of being. But, what could be more powerful than to actually change another person’s way of seeing the world? That’s what Jesus did. He taught his followers to imagine what had been unimaginable. And then, he called them to live into it. Yes, still in this world, but without living by the script of the world’s story. Living by the Jesus story.

That’s what it means to be a part of the Kingdom of God. It’s not just someplace where we go someday after we die. But it’s a place where we live right here, right now, because it’s a way of life.

As Jesus' followers, kingdom living means something else for us, as well. It means working toward a realization of God’s kingdom on this earth: a kingdom where we bend our knees, not to bow to the powers of this world, but to serve one another in love. We ask for the courage to do that every time we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Imagine that.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Hanging on by a thread

Are you stressed out? A lot of us are these days. You may have a schedule so jam-packed that you don’t know how you’re going to accomplish everything you need to do. Perhaps your job requires so much of you that you don’t know if you can keep going. You may be among those who have lost their job and you have applied for a new one every place you you can think of, yet with no luck. You may be scrambling to keep your house or feed your family. Maybe you're in school and totally stressed out by all that’s expected of you by your teachers and your parents. Or you may be retired and worried sick about meeting rising costs on a fixed income.

There is no shortage of stuff to be stressed about. And we may think that in the entire history of the world, there has never been a more stressful time to be alive than right now. But the truth is, there has never been a time when people have not been stressed out. Life is hard. As the ancient Greek philosopher Seneca once said, “Sometimes, even to live is an act of courage.”

In his gospel, Mark portrays Jesus as a man who had every reason to be stressed out. He’s doing this and then he’s doing that, rushing from one thing to another. He shows up in Galilee and calls the first disciples, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” It didn’t take any convincing. Immediately, they follow him, and they’re off. They go to Capernaum where Jesus enters the synagogue and teaches. In the midst of his teaching, a guy with an unclean spirit calls out to him. Jesus casts the unclean spirit out of him. And that’s where his anonymity ends. Word of this miracle spreads quickly and Jesus becomes a rock star. He leaves the synagogue, then goes to Simon and Andrew’s home. As soon as he gets there, he heals Simon’s mother-in-law. The next thing you know, Jesus goes to the door of the house and sees the entire city waiting for him. Everyone wants a piece of him. He heals the sick and casts out demons. And, mind you, all this occurs during his first day on the job as a traveling rabbi. It all happens in a single day.

After he races through this very hectic, jam-packed day of ministry, Jesus has another day ahead of him that is equally demanding. How does he keep up with the frenetic pace of his life?

Mark includes a remarkable detail in the first chapter of his gospel account. It’s a scene that is repeated throughout Jesus’ ministry. In the midst of all the teaching and healing and casting out demons, we get a simple verse that tells us how Jesus dealt with all this stress in his life. Mark, who gives us an energizer bunny approach to Jesus’ ministry, going from one activity to another in rapid succession, tells us that “in the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”

For most of us, if we have a lot to do in a day, the expendable part of our schedule becomes prayer, doesn’t it? In fact, we often use that as an excuse. "I’ve got too much to do. I don’t have time to pray."

I remember being so inspired when I heard that Martin Luther once said, “I have twice as much to do today and therefore I need to pray twice as long.” It inspired me… until I started feeling guilty about it.

Now, please know that I’m not bringing this up to make us all feel guilty if we don’t pray as often as we should. This is not about being good little boys and girls and saying our prayers every day. It’s not about putting in our time with God like we’re fulfilling an obligation. It’s about something much deeper than that.

St. Augustine identified our very human longing when he said that our hearts are restless until we find our rest in God. Could it be that our stressed-out lives are a symptom of a deeper condition that afflicts us: restless heart syndrome? Our hearts are restless until we find our rest in God.

There’s a passage from Isaiah that seems to speak to this. The prophet is talking to Israel when they have hit bottom and can see no reason to hope for a better future. And here’s what he tells them:

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
They shall rise up with wings like eagles,
They shall run and not be weary,
They shall walk and not faint.
(Isaiah 40:28-31)

All this will happen for those who wait on the Lord. So what does that mean, to wait on the Lord?

In the Hebrew language in which this passage was originally written, there are dozens of words for wait. For example, there’s waiting like you’re expecting something to happen, but that’s not the word that’s used here. There’s waiting silently, but that’s not the word that’s used here. There’s waiting as standing still, but that's not the word that’s used here. This is a very special kind of waiting that Isaiah’s talking about. It’s the word Qavah and it means to be gathered into God like strands of thread woven together to become a fabric. It’s being woven together into God. Those who are woven into the fabric of God shall new their strength.

And isn’t that why Jesus got up early in the morning, before the sun had risen, and he went to a place all by himself and prayed? In the midst of all his doing, doing, doing, he knew that he needed to be. He needed to be with God. To be woven into God. That’s what happens when, in the midst of our doing, doing, doing, we take time to be with God. We are woven into the fabric of God.

Most of us go through life hanging on by a thread. But as God’s people we don’t have to go through life frantically grasping at something that all too easily slips through our fingers. We can be woven into God instead. Why would we want to go through life hanging on by a thread when we can be woven into the fabric of God?

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Torn apart places

Jesus came to the Jordan River to be baptized. Mark’s gospel tells us that as he was coming up out of the water “he saw the heavens torn apart and the spirit descended on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”

The heavens are torn apart when Jesus comes up out of the water. Mark was very intentional about using this word. It’s the word that Isaiah used when he was living in exile and cried out, asking God to “tear open the heavens and come down.” Mark chooses this same powerful word to describe the tearing open of the heavens at Jesus’ baptism. And he uses it only one other time in his gospel. We read it again at the very end of Jesus’ life when the curtain to the temple is torn apart, from top to bottom.

It’s a word that packs a wallop. The torn apart place is the place with the jagged edges that can never be closed again. And it’s the place where God comes through.

I don’t know about you, but when I experience a torn place in my life, my natural inclination is to do everything I can to repair the tear. I want to fix it so that everything goes back to the way it was before. But there are some problems with that. For starters, it doesn’t work. Once the place has been torn, it will never be the same again no matter how hard I try to make it not so. And then, while I’m working so hard to fix the tear, I miss the voice of God speaking to me through the torn place.

Many of you know that over the past year I’ve been struggling with some kind of illness that seems to defy diagnosis. It’s one of those things that isn’t going to kill me, but it’s really changed the way I live my life. Mostly I have heaviness and burning pain in my arms and legs. Some days are better than others, but it’s greatly affected my energy and stamina. One of the things I love to do is contradance, which is a high energy activity. And I can’t dance every dance for two or three hours the way I did a year and a half ago. But then, I can’t really do a whole lot the way I did a year and a half ago.

Now when this happened, I spent a lot of time going from specialist to specialist trying to find a cause. I figured that if I could find out what was causing this, then I could fix it and return to my normal life as if it had never happened. That's the way illness has always worked in my life in the past. But I’ve come to terms with the fact that that isn’t going to happen this time. I can do some things to make this condition more manageable, but it’s not going to go away. My life has been torn apart and it isn’t going to go back to the way it was.

Our lives can be torn apart in so many ways. Through the death of someone you thought would always be there. Through the loss of a job that you were counting on to see you through until retirement. Through a broken relationship that you thought would last the rest of your life. All of a sudden, your life is torn apart. It will never be the same again. It’s a shock to the system and not something we welcome. But it seems to happen to all of us sooner or later, in big or small ways. There are torn places in our lives.

And here’s the thing. Those torn places in our lives give God access to us. When our lives are torn apart, God speaks to us, reminding us of who and whose we are. I suspect that God is reminding us of that all along, but when we’re in a torn place, we’re ready to hear it: “You are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.”

Friday, January 6, 2012

Water, water, everywhere...

One of the cool things about baptism is that we can be reminded of it every time we see water. Early last week I was walking outside after one of those good rains we had, and I saw big, plump drops of water hanging down from the naked branches on the trees. They glistened in the sun and looked like jewels hanging there. So I stopped to examine one of those drops up close. Have you ever done that? After a rain, have you ever gotten really close to a drop of water hanging from a tree branch? Do you know what you see when you do that? You see the world reflected in the water. But everything is upside down. And if that’s not an image for baptism, I don’t know what is.

In the waters of baptism, God invites us to live into an alternative reality where nothing is as it seems. The ways of the world around us are turned upside down.
• A reality that’s not about competition but compassion.
• A reality where people don’t get what they deserve, but grace is given freely
• A reality where we don’t get even with our enemies, but we love and forgive them
• A reality where power isn’t shown in brute strength, but in servanthood
• A reality that’s not about acquiring a bunch of stuff, but where we gain everything by giving ourselves away
• A reality where seeking a relationship with God is of more value than anything else

We call that alternative reality the Kingdom of God. It’s not just the place Jesus inhabited while he was walking around on this earth. It’s also the place his followers inhabit. From the day of our baptisms on, we’re living with one foot on planet Earth and one foot in the Kingdom of God. But the reality of the earth is transient; it will pass one day. The reality where God rules will never end; we’ll be living there forever.

The challenge for us as God’s children is to live in both of those realities at the same time. It’s easier in many respects to live in one kingdom or the other. And since, as finite beings, we aren’t yet able to live completely in God’s kingdom, it’s tempting to live with both feet in the world around us and to forget about God’s reality. And yet, we’re called to live as if God’s kingdom has already come even while we wait for it to be fulfilled. In fact, God’s kingdom is present whenever and wherever we live according the words we so often pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on, on earth as it is in heaven.” God’s kingdom is present whenever God’s will is done.

I like Luther’s explanation to the Lord’s Prayer where he says that God’s will is going to be done with or without our prayers. But we pray that it might be done through us. That’s when we’re living into our baptisms. And it’s when God’s kingdom becomes a reality for us.

This week at worship we will be celebrating the baptism of Jesus. It’s a good time to reflect on your own baptism and what difference it’s made in your life. Whenever you see, hear, taste, smell, or feel water, may it remind you that you are among the walking wet. And, as you walk, pay attention to where your feet are.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Good at funerals

When I was a kid and went to funerals, I always hung back from the center of activity and did all I could to restrain myself from bolting for the door. But I remember that my mom was good at funerals. She charged right in and she always knew just what to do. One of my most vivid memories of Mom was watching her literally carry my aunt through my uncle’s funeral. Without my mom holding her up, I think my Aunt Margaret would have collapsed onto the ground.

She was always like that. When no one else knew quite what to do to help a woman who had lost her husband, my mom knew. I always assumed that she knew because she had been there. Now that I’m older, I think there was more to it than that. Walking through the illness and death of her husband, my father, taught her something about resurrection living.

If you’ve ever lost someone close to you, you can probably remember people like my mom, the ones God sent into your life to carry you through it: the person who brought you a meal or watched your children; the person who gave you permission to talk about the one who had died; the person who accepted you as you were, never once telling you what you should be feeling or glossing over your pain with a cliché or a Bible verse; the person who held you while you cried.

We appreciate people like that because we know that not everyone can do it. Some people are so freaked out by death that they can’t deal with it. They run away and hide until it’s all over and then later they re-appear.

Although we Christians talk a lot about resurrection, I suspect that what we really want is a God who will rescue us from our mortality. We want death to be deleted from the human experience. Yet that’s not the kind of God we have. Instead, we have a God who resurrects us from our big and little deaths, not by putting an end to them, but by transforming us as we walk through them: creating life in the midst of grief, creating love in the midst of loss, creating faith in the midst of despair. Every time death finds us, we are reminded that the only road to Easter morning runs smack dab through Good Friday.

I’d like to believe that on some level, my mom understood what resurrection is about in much the same way that I do. I understand it because I’ve experienced it. I’m not the same person who wanted to run away from death as a child. Like my mom, I’ve walked through death in my life and found new life on the other side. And like my mom, I’m good at funerals.

She died when I was 28 and we never had the opportunity to discuss stuff like this. She wasn’t a “religious” person, so I’m not sure if we ever could have. But someday we will.