Sunday, June 23, 2013

TWTATIN Syndrome?

Have you ever suffered from TWTATIN syndrome? T.W.T.A.T.I.N. as in: that-was-then-and-this-is-now. It’s when you meet the reality that your life has changed with denial, negativity, or outright resistance.

About 20 years ago, I shared my home with a husband and two children. Then I became divorced at the same time my nest was emptying, and suddenly, I was flying solo. It was a shock to my system; I did everything I could to make it not so. I just couldn’t accept that that was then, and this is now. Eventually, I got over it, but it took a long time for me to embrace my new life. You may have experienced the same thing in your life. It can be hard to accept that that was then, and this is now.

The irony is that it can be difficult to let the old life go, even when it wasn’t all that great. Like when God’s people were freed from slavery in Egypt and, what did they do? They couldn’t stop whining about how much they missed their old life. As bad as it had been for them in Egypt, they couldn’t let it go.

Well, Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written to people who suffered from that-was-then-and-this-is now syndrome. To understand this a little clearer, it helps to know something about how Paul divided history. By his way of thinking, there had been three eras for God’s people. It all begins with the time when God establishes a relationship with his people through Abraham. And then, there’s the second era, which came through Moses. And now, Paul says, God’s people are living in a new era that was ushered in by Jesus. And, the way that people relate to God in each of these eras is different.

 ·         Abraham did nothing in particular to deserve the favor of God. God simply chose him. And God promised to love him. Abraham said, “That sounds like a good deal to me”, so he trusted in God’s promise. And that’s what faith is, trusting in God’s loving promise. Faith was the name of the game for Abraham.
 ·         Moses had some challenges that Abraham didn’t have. He had to form a nation out of a rag-tag mob of people who only had one thing in common, and that was the slavery of their past. Just telling people to trust in the God of Abraham wasn’t going to cut it. They needed guidelines for this new life. And so, with Moses came the Law. The way to live in relationship with God was by following theLaw. This is the era that Paul and his contemporaries had been born into.
 ·         But all that changed with Jesus, Paul says. Now, our relationship with God isn’t defined by keeping the law, it’s about trusting in the love of God we’ve come to know through his Son Jesus. Once again, God’s people have returned to an era that is much like the era of Abraham. It’s no longer following the law that distinguishes God’s people; once again, it’s faith.

So, Paul writes to the Galatians telling them to get with the program. Stop living like you’re still in Moses time. That was then, this is now. Now you’re living in Jesus time.

There are many ways of naming the era that Jesus ushered in. Jesus himself calls it the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven. Some today call it the Reign of God or the Realm of God. It’s all the same thing. It’s the time when the way of being in the world that Jesus taught about and modeled with his own life is lived out. When we’re living in this new era, the Jesus Way is our way. Paul calls it living “in Christ.”

As Paul describes it, the Galatians don’t need the law to keep them in line because now they’re “in Christ.” In Christ, they’re all God’s children through faith. Now, that is an entirely different way of living and being in the world than the Jews had known. And it changes everything. You’re in Christ now, Paul says. You need to live into that new reality. And here’s what it looks like in your life together as God’s people. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for in Christ Jesus, you are all one.

Now, the Jewish Law did a good job of judging and separating people. Paul says, while we were still living in Moses’ time, all those distinctions were important to us. But that was then and this is now. And now we’re living in Christ. In Christ, there are no such distinctions. In Christ, we are all loved equally as God’s children.

I would suppose that this doesn’t come as a surprise to us because we’ve heard it so many times before. But just imagine what an earth-shattering idea it must have been for God’s people back in the first century!

So, you may be wondering -- what happened? Even within the New Testament letters we find examples of injustice against women, slaves, gentiles, and others. And it certainly continues today. Although the names of who’s in and who’s out may change from time to time, those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus seem to have a lot of difficulty living in a way that embodies what Paul means by being “in Christ.”

You don’t have to look any further than last Thursday to see examples of this. There was Paula Deen using the “n” word and planning a wedding reception with slaves waiting on tables in the way she pictures it from “Gone with the Wind.” The only good thing about that was the outrage others voiced over it. But, really?

And then there was our dear governor, Pat McCrory, repealing the Racial Justice Act. This was the law that came about because it had been proven beyond a doubt that race is a factor in capital murder trials, and since injustice is unacceptable anytime, but particularly when it comes to executing people, that injustice needs to stop. But then our governor noticed that everybody on death row was appealing their case and nobody was getting executed anymore, like they did in the good old days. And we can’t have that.

Racism is alive and well. Slavery was a blight on our country from the beginning, and we’re still paying the price for it. Racism has become so much a part of who we are that we don’t even recognize it. And lest you think you’re okay because you would never say what Paula Deen said and you would never do what Governor McCrory did, lest you think you’re beyond all that… if you’re a white person and you ever find yourself even just a little bit scared in the “wrong” part of town. Or, if you’re a white person and you aren’t aware of privileges that you enjoy on a daily basis because of the color of your skin. If you think racism has nothing to do with you, you need to think again.

We can’t pretend we’re anything other than who we are. Although we’re called to live in Christ, we are all too influenced by the world around us.

Just this past week, something else happened that was truly amazing. For 37 years Exodus International, which calls itself a Christian organization, had been dedicated to curing people of same-sex attraction by coaching them to do things like “pray away the gay.” Well, this week the president of Exodus announced that they are closing their doors and he offered an apology to the many people they have hurt through the years. It’s still too early to know where this is going, but it’s encouraging. The first step toward living in Christ is confession.

To truly live “in Christ” will always be a radical way of being in the world. The fact is, the Christian life is a paradox. Yes, we’re a part of the world, and we’re influenced by the ways of the world around us. We can’t escape this world and go off living in Jesus La-la-land 24/7.  But what makes us different, as those who have been baptized into a Jesus Way of being in the world, is that we’re aware of the alternative reality we’re also living in. Yes, we’re mere earthlings, just like everyone around us. But we’re also “in Christ.” And the relationship we have with Christ matters in the way we do relationships with others.

It seems like the world’s way has a tendency to stay in the foreground of our lives while the Jesus Way is in the background. When we’re truly in Christ, it happens the other way around for us. As we’re open to the transforming work of the Spirit in our lives, the Jesus Way comes to the foreground and the world’s way is in the background. Then we’re living into the new era, we’re living in Christ.

God gives us the gift of the church so we can practice living in Christ. I like to think of it as God’s little love laboratory. This is where we spractice living in Christ with one another so that it might become so much a part of we are that we also live in Christ when we’re out in the world.

There is a challenge for us, in our little love laboratory, from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, black or white or brown, straight or gay, child or adult, liberal or conservative. All that divides us is gone. Not just because the world has taught us that it’s a good thing to be tolerant of others. But all that divides us is gone because when you’re in Christ, that’s just the way it is. Christ has made us all one. And so, that’s the way we live.

It’s hard to be a part of God’s new reality, we can’t deny that. There is so much in the world that pushes us to separate ourselves from one another, and make judgments about those who aren’t like us. There are so many ways our twisted little need to feel superior to others is reinforced. The world seems to prey upon our fears so we label those who don’t do things our way our enemies and we become obsessed with protecting ourselves from those we don’t understand. We’re severely challenged by the that-was-then-and-this-is-now syndrome. We cling to the world we’ve known, even when it hasn’t been all that great. We’re invited to be a part of the kingdom of God, and we’re hesitant.

The world is very much with us. Jesus knew that, too. I suspect that’s why he included these words in the prayer he taught his followers to pray: May your kingdom come. May your will be done here on earth just as it is in heaven.

May it be so among us here. May it be so among us now.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Tears at the Altar

About a mile or so from Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, where I serve as pastor, there is an Episcopal Church called St. Andrews. A little over a week ago, St. Andrews was turned over to the diocese. Most of the members didn't know this was coming. They didn’t know that the last time they worshiped together might very well turn out to be their last Sunday. From the perspective of members of St. Andrews, they have been “evicted” from their church. They worshiped together on a Sunday, and then three days later the locks were changed and a notice was posted on the church doors.

Some members of St. Andrews gathered on the front lawn of their church building the first Sunday after this happened. They brought their prayer books and their lawn chairs and met together outside the building that had been their spiritual home for so many years. And the media was there to take it all in, making their pain a very public news story.

That same day, after I had worshiped with the good people of Holy Trinity, I went to a neighborhood restaurant and happened upon a large number of St. Andrews’ members who were having brunch together after their service on the lawn. I listened to their stories and expressed my sorrow. And then, I invited them to worship with us at Holy Trinity. They were concerned about worshiping in a church where they could receive Holy Communion, and I was happy to tell them that Holy Trinity was just the place.

Well, they took me up on my offer and invited their friends, so this morning we had about 25-30 people from St. Andrews worshiping with us. They all sat together in the back pews and they were a joy to have with us. They sang out on the hymns, they passed the peace just as liberally as we do at Holy Trinity, and they even laughed at my jokes (extra points for that). Then it came time for communion.

As folks knelt before the altar and reached out their hands to receive the bread, I looked each one of them in the face and saw eyes brimming with tears. Just seeing this, I could hardly keep from crying myself. Their grief flooded the chancel.

Then I noticed something else that took me aback. As I served the bread to people who looked up at me with damp canals marking their cheeks, I realized that many of those teary people were members of Holy Trinity. They weren’t crying out of their own pain, but for the pain of people they had never met before today. They couldn’t be in the presence of such grief at the Lord’s Table without sharing it. Their tears came from a place of deep compassion. And I thought of the words in 1 Corinthians: "If one part of the body suffers, all the other parts share in its suffering." Yes.

I often marvel at the people of Holy Trinity. They’re the real deal. And I don’t know that I ever felt that as deeply as I did today. Truly, Christ was present. Not just in the bread and the wine, but in the Body of Christ gathered, in the love they had for one another. Witnessing this outpouring of love, I felt my own eyes welling up. How could I hold the tears back when I was in the presence of such beauty and grace?

I don’t know all that led up to the problems that St. Andrews is experiencing. But from the pain I have seen on the faces of those who have been hurt, it seems to be an example of Church at its worst. And what I witnessed today at Holy Trinity was Church at its best. I’m glad that the people of St. Andrews haven’t given up on the Church. And I’m glad they chose to worship with us this morning at Holy Trinity because their presence reminded me of why I’m so grateful to be a part of this extraordinary community of faith.

It was the eighth anniversary of my installation as pastor at Holy Trinity. Thank you thank you thank you.  

Sunday, June 2, 2013

When a perfectionist is far from perfect

Since I’ve been ordained, I’ve spent a lot of Sunday afternoons beating myself up over something I should or shouldn’t have done that morning. A big piece of this has been the result of my insecurity, because I am a terribly self-conscious person and I feel absolutely vulnerable when I’m standing behind the altar in front of God and everybody. Whenever I used to mess up, I just knew they were all thinking, “What an idiot!” The worst part was that I couldn’t run and hide; I had to go on. So I would push on to the benediction, and then rush home afterwards where I spent the rest of the day wallowing in self-loathing. But this wasn't all about my insecurity. It was also about the need I had to be perfect. I don't know where that came from, but I suspect it had something to do with a deep feeling of unworthiness, or maybe even just plain worthlessness.

On Friday night I presided at the Eucharist for our North Carolina Synod assembly. The last time I had done that was 34 years ago at my very first district convention after being ordained. I was the first woman pastor in the Eastern North Dakota District of the American Lutheran Church and I was trotted out like a prize pony. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but I went through the motions, and don’t remember that it was a disaster, so it must have been okay. This time around, I did something that I never would have done in those early years. I chanted. I learned to do this over time, and I usually enjoy it. But I was chanting something I wasn’t all that familiar with and I thought I could move from one section to the next without a pitch. Well, I messed up. I lost my pitch and I had to stop and ask the organist to help me. I wasn’t happy with myself, but guess what? It also wasn’t the end of the world. It was significant for me to realize this. There was a time when I would have been mortified and beat myself up over such a blunder to the point of exhaustion. I’m thankful that I’ve grown through the years. Not only as a worship leader, but more importantly, as a person who is more at peace with my own very human limitations.

Life is never easy for a perfectionist who is far from perfect. You can waste untold energy beating yourself up, which is no way to live. Knowing that, I’ve worked hard to forgive myself for being human. I’ve even grown to love my imperfection. One of the things that helped me was learning about Native American bead-work. In the midst of intricate patterns and colors, there is the tradition of an artist intentionally putting one bead out of place. The idea is that no one is perfect but God. So the out-of-place bead is an act of humility to give honor to God. This concept was so liberating for me! Now, whenever I flub in a worship service, I say to myself, “Well, that was my bead out of place.” Sometimes there are several beads out of place. Oh well. They always remind me that I am not God, and that’s as it should be.

Back when I was in my 20s, my mom gave my sister and me lace tablecloths that had been crocheted by our great grandma. When I got mine, I noticed that it had some stains on it and, of course, I wanted it to be perfectly white. So, I soaked it in Clorox water. Do you know what Clorox does to antique cotton? It isn’t pretty. I ended up with a tablecloth with giant holes in it. Dumb! Dumb! Dumb! I was so mad at myself for ruining a family heirloom that I could have one day passed on to my own daughter. I cried and cried. How could I have been so stupid!? I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away, so I tucked the shreds away in a box. Several years later, I pulled it out to see what I had done and kick myself again for being so stupid. That’s when I realized that there was one large section still intact. So, I took that section to a framer and asked her to mat and frame it. She did, and I now have a lovely piece of antique lace hanging on my wall. One day as I was admiring it, I was surprised to see that it had a glaring mistake in it. The lace circles with petals like daisies had been sewn together by joining two petals from one circle to two petals of another. But on one of them, there were three petals that had been joined together, so that on the next circle of lace only one petal could be joined. My ancestor had messed up! She was not perfect, just like me. But instead of tearing everything out and fixing her mistake, she just compensated for it. The result was beautiful lace work with a message to a woman who came after her, someone she would never know. What a gift! It was just like a bead out of place, but it was so much more than that. It reminded me of how stupid and careless I had been with something so valuable, yes. But that seemed to be okay now. Because it revealed to me how I come from a long line of imperfect people. And that even imperfect people can create a thing of beauty. In fact, it may be the imperfection that makes it so beautiful.

And then, there was the fact that of all the pieces of the tablecloth I could have salvaged, this was the piece -- the one that came with a lesson of wisdom to me from my great-great grandmother. I look at it now and know that it is truly a sign of God working in my life. And in that respect it is nothing less than perfect.