Thursday, June 26, 2014

Remembering the Pig Man

For nearly a year, the church I served before Holy Trinity, Advent Lutheran, was the target of someone I called the Pig Man. Every morning when I arrived at the church, I was greeted with his calling card: disgusting garbage strewn about, smeared into the pavement, piled in creative formations. It wasn’t just someone driving through the parking lot at night tossing trash out the window. This person went to the dumpsters at the supermarket in the wee hours of the morning and rooted for rotten produce, expired sauces, moldy pastries. Then he brought his find to the church and deliberately spread it about where we would have to clean it up in the morning, usually right outside the front doors. It was mean and vindictive. And it was a pain in the ass.

For a while I picked it up and went on with my day. But after a few months it started to bug me. When ketchup was smeared all over the windows and eggs splattered the steps, it was starting to feel personal. Then he left some dead roses beside the door and a rock with a note on it. On the note he wrote some obscure Old Testament Bible verse about religious people being destroyed for their wickedness. This had to stop!

I decided to do an overnight stake-out and wait to catch him in the act. A few men from the church caught wind of it and they stayed with me. We parked our cars elsewhere, entered the building and sat in the dark, looking out the windows all night. He didn’t come. Not until the next night when we were all home in our beds.

After 9/11, suddenly the visits from Pig Man stopped. So maybe he was in the World Trade Center when the towers collapsed. Or perhaps he was one of the terrorists who took them down. We had been suspecting an older student at the university across the street who was slightly off-balance. He happened to be Middle-Eastern. I figured what actually happened was he went home and couldn’t get back into the country. But who knows? All I really ever knew about Pig Man is that he was a sick-o and he clearly had issues with Christians in general and Christian churches in particular.

I’ve encountered a lot of people like that through the years. They hate me and everything I stand for. The fact that they don’t know anything about me doesn’t seem to matter; they clearly detest me. When they speak of the Church, it’s with disgust. They enjoy mocking and deriding Christian beliefs and practices. They lump us all together and whenever any Christian anywhere says something stupid or is caught doing something hateful, they have a field-day, once again vindicated in their contempt.

It’s hard to take it personally when someone hates me and they don’t even know me. Their animosity has nothing to do with me. It’s what I represent to them – the Church. And so, a part of me always grieves when I encounter a person like the Pig Man. What did the Church ever do to you to make you hate us so? How much have Christians hurt you that you would consider us all the enemy?

The congregation I serve now, Holy Trinity, is filled with people who have been hurt by the Church.  They had every reason to leave their garbage on our doorstep and move on. And yet, their relationship with God is so important to them that they couldn’t give up. They gave Christian community another chance.

This is truly miraculous to me. For many of them, it must take every ounce of bravery to land in one of our pews on a Sunday morning. Their longing for God is stronger than the damage they have endured. The deeper the damage, the stronger the longing seems to be.

Often, when someone who has been damaged by the Church first returns to a worship service, the tears flow. They may not think I notice, but I do. Sometimes I want to stop everything and honor their pain; I want to envelop them with my arms, dry their tears, and invite the congregation to join me. But instead, I do something better than that. I preach the good news of a God who has always loved them and always will, from the moment they took their first breath until the moment they have breathed their last. And I offer them a meal of forgiveness, knowing that as much as they need to be forgiven, they themselves need to forgive as well. I trust that they will find wholeness in these expressions of God’s grace and the community that bears them.

Through it all, I thank God they are with us. They had every reason to leave their garbage in front of the doors and move on. But they walked through those doors instead. And they’ve come to the right place.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

What a Scientologist taught me about Romans 6

I’m thinking about Romans 6 and the movie I saw yesterday. In the movie, Bill Cage, the character played by Tom Cruise, keeps living the same day over and over until he is able to get it right. Yeah, I know it sounds a lot like Groundhog Day, but this movie, Edge of Tomorrow, isn’t tedious like Groundhog Day because they don’t go back and relive the entire day on film from beginning to end each time. Through masterful editing, it all fits together in a compelling way that keeps the story moving at a rapid pace. There is an urgency to Cage’s mission because he must continue reliving the same day until he is finally able to defeat the slimy aliens who are out to destroy the entire planet.

And this is like Romans 6, how? Well, in the movie, every time Bill Cage is killed, he resets the day. His partner in saving the world once experienced this same power and she lost it, so she understands what Cage has and she teaches him how to use it. The only way to keep it is by dying. When he messes up, she often puts a bullet in his head so they can reset the day. Boom! He opens his eyes and he has the opportunity to begin the exact same day all over again.

As I watched the movie, I got more and more excited about how it fit so well with this Sunday's text from Romans 6. I know, only a preacher would be thinking such stuff during a movie like this, but really, I couldn't help myself. It's such a Biblical concept. No, not the part about shooting someone in the head, but the part about dying and rising again to a new life. New life comes only after the old life dies. It’s the message of the cross and resurrection of Christ, and it has significance for us, not just after our hearts stop beating, but on this side of the grave as well. 

In Romans 6, Paul writes about how this way of life is established for us on the day of our baptisms: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” In baptism we enter into a way of life that is all about dying and rising. Not just once, or twice, but throughout our lives.

We’ve all probably heard that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. But how often in our lives do we do just that? We know that certain actions don’t bring us the results we would like, and yet we keep repeating them. That’s when Dr. Phil will ask, “How’s that been working for you?” It can feel like we’re trapped. I suspect we’ve all experienced that. And, if we’re lucky, we’ll come to see what we’re doing. We’ll detect a pattern in our lives that is getting us nowhere.

Wouldn’t it be great to have what Bill Cage had in the movie? I know there are things in my life that I would love the opportunity to do over so I could go back and get them right. But that’s not the way it works for us. We can’t change our past. What we can change is our future. We aren’t doomed to live the same day over and over again making the same mistakes. We can die to the person we were and be raised to a new life learning from the mistakes of our past.

That was the real beauty of the movie Edge of Tomorrow for me. For while the main character died hundreds of times, and he was given new life each time, he never actually started over from the beginning. He always brought with him what he had learned from his previous failures. And that’s what we always bring with us, as well. As painful as the past may be, the past is a part of who we are. We need to remember our failures from yesterday as we begin our new lives again today. Otherwise, there’s nothing new about our lives at all. We’re just reliving the same day over and over again. To truly live the new life God offers us, we remember, and learn, and grow. It’s the pattern of dying and rising that begins for us at baptism. It’s the gift of transformation God offers each of us so that we can die and rise again to new life. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

An irreplaceable gift for my daughter

I’m going to a baby shower this weekend. It’s in New Jersey. Normally, I wouldn’t travel all that way for a baby shower, but I would travel to the moon for this one. Because this is the baby shower for my grandson! (Oh, how I love the sound of those words: my grandson.) We expect Nicholas Ferris Ferrara to make his grand entrance in the early part of August, so it’s time to get ready.

I remember how I prepared for the birth of my first-born. We put up a bed and some shelves in the room that would be the nursery. Then we gathered baby things, folded them and put them away. Since this was back in the day when you didn’t know the gender of your baby before it was born, all of the clothing was gender neutral, a lot of yellows and greens. Every day I would take each article of clothing out and look at it for a while, imagine the tiny person who would soon wear it, then re-fold it and put it away again. Among those items were some sweaters my mom had crocheted, along with matching hats, booties, and a beautiful blanket. That was how she prepared for the birth of my first-born. She crocheted lovely baby clothes.

A couple years after my daughter Gretchen was born, I was also blessed with a son, Ben. The year he was born, my mother died unexpectedly. She had the opportunity to meet him once, but he doesn’t remember it. I don’t know if Gretchen can remember her or not. And that has been a continual source of grief in my life, that my children never got to know my mother and she never got to know them. I hope and pray that I am around long enough that Nicholas will consider me a part of his life.

After my mother died, I took the baby clothes she had crocheted and put them in a sealed plastic bag along with the prom dresses she sewed for me. Over the past 35 years, that bag of treasures has moved with me from place to place. I kept these things my mother made by her own hands because I couldn’t bear the thought of parting with them. And I always dreamt of the day when I would be able to give the baby items to my daughter and she could use them for her own child.

As soon as I learned I would be going to this baby shower, I immediately thought of the lovely baby things my mother made. I couldn’t wait to wrap them up and give them to Gretchen at the shower as a present from Nicholas’s great-grandma. Every time I thought of that moment my eyes welled with tears.

So, after carrying that bag of family treasures with me for 35 years, the time had finally come. I went to retrieve it from the attic. But it wasn't where I thought it was. Maybe I had put it in the back of one of my closets. I dug through every closet, and… not there. I returned to the attic, where mostly Christmas stuff was being stored, and I tore open every box. Nope. I went back to the closets and took everything out. How could it not be here? Then I dug through all my chests of drawers, getting more and more desperate. I was gradually coming to the realization that the bag wasn’t in my house. But it had to be! I spent all day doing this, over and over. I sobbed as I kept going up to the attic again and again. Eventually my tears gave way to exhaustion.

How was it possible that I had kept these precious items with me all this time and now when I was ready to pass them on to Gretchen, they were nowhere to be found? It couldn’t be. But it was. They were gone. I thought back to the move before my last one and remembered that there was one box that didn’t make it. I noticed it when I went to use my power drill to hang some curtain rods and it was missing. I called the moving company and they were unresponsive, to say the least. I replaced the power drill. No big deal. But the things my mom made were irreplaceable. Had I known they were in that box, I would have tracked them down, believe me. That box had gone missing almost three years ago. I would never see the things my mom made again. They were gone. There was nothing I could do to make it not so. In the course of tearing my house apart repeatedly, I finally came to accept that. Although it still pains me.

When I shared this story with my friend, Cherie, she said, “It’s like losing your mother all over again.” I hadn’t consciously made that connection until she articulated it. It was like losing my mother all over again. Yes. My mother, who was the grandmother of my children and never got to know them. There were so many times while they were growing up that I thought of her and how she would have loved to see them opening their presents on Christmas morning, dressed up for Halloween, acting in their plays at school, graduating. The grief is always there in the background of my life. I have learned to go on, to live around it, but the hole in my life never goes away.

After I came to terms with the fact that the baby clothes my mother made are gone, I had to remind myself that they are just stuff. They were never meant to last forever. I need to get over it. But the loss of my mother is another matter altogether. At the baby shower this weekend, no doubt I’ll think of the gift I wasn’t able to give my daughter. And the grandma I will always wish could have been a part of her life. 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

What I've learned from Holly Hunter and Martin Luther

In the movie Network, the character played by Holly Hunter spent a few minutes every morning crying her eyes out and then went about her day. That’s stuck with me through the years because it seemed so bizarre, and yet normal, because I often do the same thing. There are days when I awaken in the morning and I am beside myself with remorse.

I’ve taken great comfort in the way that Luther describes the significance baptism has for our daily lives in The Small Catechism. He suggests that the drowning of the old person and the rebirth of a new person is a process that continues for us each day of our lives. Every day a new person rises. I love that. We can forget about all the stuff that mired us down the previous day and start with a clean slate. Aaaah!

And so, I tried to live as if that were true. But along the way I got tired of pretending and finally came to the conclusion that that’s just not how it works for me. It may be that way for some people, but not for me.

My big problem is that every day when I awaken it’s not just the garbage I’m carrying around from the previous 24 hours that is burdening me. It’s the garbage I’m carrying around from the previous 62 years. And that’s a lot of garbage. It’s the stuff that causes me shame and regret, the stuff I just can’t let go. Particularly disturbing to me are the times when I know I have hurt other people. No doubt there are countless times when I have hurt people unknowingly, but the ones I am consciously aware of are more than enough for me to deal with. It’s mostly stupid or careless things that I have said. I can wake up in the morning beating myself up over some hurtful words I said 50 years ago. Seriously, I can. So, the whole clean slate metaphor doesn’t work for me. But, is that really what Luther was talking about?

One of the things I’ve come to understand about being a Christian is that it’s not about trying to become a really good person. For a long time, I thought that was the case. Life was about striving for perfection, knowing I could never achieve it, but trying to get as close to it as I could. So, what a lovely idea to know that every day I had a fresh start, that I got a free pass and all of my failures were hereby declared null and void. Then I could start all over again... and accumulate a whole new set of failures. (I suspect this is the way many of us look at weekly confession at worship.) But that theology just doesn’t work for me anymore. It’s not how I’ve grown to understand God and it’s not true to my experience as a person of faith.

Instead of striving for perfection, I see the purpose of my life as striving for wholeness. That means not only accepting who I am with all my imperfections, but even embracing my imperfections. They are a part of who I am, a part of the person God loves. God doesn’t just love the bright, shiny things about me. God also loves the dark, crazy things about me. All those things are me. The burden that my failures place on my life comes from my tendency to make them a burden, to see them as negative, and a source of shame.

I still see myself as a sinner, to be sure. But my sin is not what I used to think it was. It’s not a series of acts I commit in the course of a day that I might label wrong or bad. My greatest sin is my failure to embrace the person God created in love by denying a big part of who I am.

And so, when I wake up in the morning kicking myself over those times when I wasn’t the person I thought I should have been, it’s a time to begin again. And once again God drowns my sin. So I rise again, no longer kicking myself, but dancing through the day as God’s beloved daughter.  

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Would I like to run for bishop? Seriously?

I’ve been mildly amused lately by the number of people who have asked me if I would consider becoming the next bishop of our synod. It’s not been a great number of people, mind you. But it’s more than I would have expected. I am a relative outsider, moving to North Carolina back in 1998. And I suspect that if I have any kind of reputation, it’s for pastoring a church that is not exactly mainstream in the NC Synod. In other words, I would never stand a snowball’s chance in hell of being elected Bishop of the North Carolina Synod. What are these people thinking? Would I like to run for bishop? Not particularly. I’m having too much fun with Holy Trinity in Charlotte. But will I run? Now, that’s another question entirely.

Bishop Leonard Bolick will have faithfully served our synod for almost 20 years before he steps down next spring. So, our NC synod hasn’t been through this process for a very long time. It’s exciting to think about what it will mean for us to elect a bishop from a wide-open field of candidates that includes every ordained leader in the ELCA. Yes, I will be a candidate for bishop. I’m assuming we all will be candidates for bishop; that’s the way the process works.

I am a big believer in the ecclesiastical ballot because I have faith in the Holy Spirit. I’ve been surprised too many times by the Spirit working in ways that I could never have imagined not to believe that when we open ourselves to the Spirit’s guidance, it always appears. But I’ve also seen, and even participated in, enough attempts to block the Spirit that I know it’s possible for an entire synod to de-rail God’s will.  

I hope we can be open to the Holy Spirit calling our next bishop through the assembly gathered next spring. In other words, can’t we refrain from campaigning or garnering support before the fact? That seems to defeat the whole purpose of gathering and discerning God’s will for God’s people in assembly. If we’re going to do that, why don’t we all just stay home and vote via phone or computer? There is something powerful about the Spirit moving in an assembly when the people are truly open to following God’s will, as opposed to deciding for God what his or her will is in advance. Is there any way we can stop all of these side conversations before the assembly? This may be the way political processes work, but I, for one, am praying that we will elect a servant of God as our next bishop and not a politician.

How will we discern who has the gifts necessary to be our next bishop? After serving on the bishop’s staff in my former synod, I can’t imagine that I have the necessary gifts to be a bishop.  But I also know that I have entered into every call I’ve received in my life wondering if I had the necessary gifts to accomplish what I suspected needed to be done. Amazingly, God has led me along the way and the gifts seem to appear. I think that’s how God does his best work. That’s when it’s not about us; it’s about God. And so, I don’t think we need to worry too much about a pastor looking the part of a bishop before they actually become a bishop. God can take care of that. The gifts I’m looking for in our next bishop are pretty basic: wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and fear of the Lord, joy in God’s presence.

Rather than seeking out candidates in advance of the synod assembly, or even offering ourselves up as potential candidates, I hope and pray that we can be engaged in some serious prayer over the next year. Let’s pray that God will provide the leadership our synod needs. Let’s pray that the synod in assembly will enter the process with an openness to wherever the Spirit leads us as God’s people gather. Like the disciples who were told to wait on the Spirit before the Day of Pentecost, let’s allow the Spirit to do what she does so well. Let’s wait and be surprised.