Friday, April 13, 2018

For God's sake, be quiet!

I am a restaurant voyeur. It’s one of those things I get from my mother. Although she died when I was in my 20s, I well remember our dining adventures. Whenever we ate out, we enjoyed creating our own little scenarios about the people we saw eating at nearby tables. I still find myself doing that.

When I was younger and saw couples having dinner together, I always thought I could tell if they were married or not just by observing their conversation or lack thereof. If they were chatting non-stop and laughing at one another’s jokes, I figured it must be early in the relationship, perhaps even a first date. But if they ate without exchanging more than a few words, I assumed they had been married a long time and had either: a) run out of things to say, b) grown bored with one another, or c) things had gotten so bad that they were no longer on speaking terms. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to realize that there is another possible explanation for their lack of conversation. Perhaps they are so comfortable with one another that they don’t need to talk.
Being comfortable with silence in one another’s presence is a sign of depth in a relationship. That’s true, not only for our relationships with other people, but also for our relationship with ourselves, and it’s certainly true for our relationship with God.
I always wonder what’s going on with people who can’t tolerate silence. Like the ones who have the TV or music going 24/7 in their homes. Noise becomes an addiction that they can’t live without. I suspect it’s not so much because they crave noise as it is because they're so uncomfortable with silence.
Inside each of us a God-shaped hole that we try to fill with all kinds of stuff that will never satisfy us, like drugs, sex, food, work, exercise, shopping… noise. The more we have, the more we want, as we convince ourselves that this is how we’re going to fill the hole. But it never works. Because only God  can fill our God-shaped hole.
The fact is, inside that God-shaped hole, within the void, is where we actually meet God-- in times of silence.
Sometimes this happens during public worship, although I am painfully aware of how uncomfortable many people are with moments of silence in worship. They rustle and fidget and resist it so much that I would assume there is no God for them in that silence. (As a Lutheran, I envy the Quakers in those moments.)
We can all enter into times of silence intentionally, in our private or shared lives, by practicing contemplative prayer (also called centering prayer). It’s not like the prayers we say that are confined to words--prayers where we chatter away at God, perhaps telling God what we’d like God to do, all bound up in our brains, filling the God-shaped hole with our projections and assumptions about God so that the true God has no place to enter in.
Contemplative prayer is opening ourselves to God, letting go of our agendas and thoughts, so that we can remove the empty space-fillers from our God-shaped holes and allow God to enter in. It’s a time to synchronize our hearts with God’s. This is a practice that I am growing to appreciate more and more, as silence has become for me, not something to be avoided, but a welcome friend.
If you're longing for a deeper connection with God and this is a practice that you'd like to explore, please give yourself permission to try. It may mean working through your discomfort with silence. You probably won't get there in one sitting, but if you stick with it, it will change your life. (I know it may sound presumptuous of me to make such a claim, but I truly believe this.)
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Friday, April 6, 2018

Do we have an immigration problem?

About a year ago, at Ascension we began exploring the possibility of offering our parsonage as housing for a refugee family. Not long after that, a Syrian family of eleven moved in. From my friendship with them, I have learned how culturally bound my expectations of others tend to be. I have made a lot of assumptions about what the Ismaels need only to learn that I'm usually wrong, and what I thought they need is not at all what they need. I have learned to listen, and pay attention to what I'm hearing, so that rather than expecting them to become like me, I can appreciate who they are as human beings just as surely created in the image of God as I am. Welcoming them into our midst has been a holy undertaking, to be sure. 

There is a lot of disagreement in our country about how welcoming we should be to immigrants and refugees these days. The inhospitable (and often downright hateful) attitude some Americans have toward immigrants puzzles me. Especially when so many of those same people claim to follow Jesus. I don't get it. 

With the exception of Native Americans, we all came here from someplace else, so how can we have such animosity toward immigrants? I'm told that the problem is with illegal immigrants. Okay. Maybe. But I’m not convinced.

I suspect that what bothers us, if we're honest, is the otherness of people who just aren’t like us. An us-and-them way of looking at the world is hard-wired into us. Way back in our cave-dweller days, it was a matter of survival to be wary of the other. So, maybe that explains why we always have to have someone who is the other, someone we perceive as a threat to our way of life. Whether it’s the Irish, the communists, the blacks, the Jews, the Muslims, the gays... Our need to protect ourselves from the other may be inevitable.

Years ago, I attended a meeting of the Homeowners’ Association in my neighborhood, and I was both amused and dismayed to hear the people around me blaming all of the negative occurrences in our neighborhood on the people who lived in the condominiums. A huge development, it was well integrated in almost every way. However, we still managed to identify someone to be the other. While the majority of us lived in houses, there was a section of the development that consisted of condos. And, apparently, those who lived in the condos were the ones who weren’t cleaning up their dog poop, went speeding down the streets, and threw wild parties that lasted all night. Really?

A big part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus is going against the attitudes and behaviors of the dominant culture. And while it may appear that the world of Jesus’ day and the world of our day are as different as clay tablets and iPads, our tendency to protect ourselves from the other is common to both cultures.

In Jesus' day, the good religious people worked hard to live holy lives by separating themselves from people who were impure. But Jesus flipped the whole idea of holiness upside down. For him, holiness was expressed through compassion for those considered impure and the inclusion of all people in God’s kingdom. Matthew Fox wrote about this in his book, Original Blessing, suggesting that the true meaning of holiness is hospitality, which is essentially, the offer of safety, comfort, and nourishment to both friend and stranger.

If holiness is hospitality, we are seeing some very unholy behavior in our country. Perhaps, if we could learn to follow the One who put the law of compassion above all other laws, we would see that those we fearfully label as the other are really not that different from us. They risk their lives to come to this country, not because of some evil they have conspired against us, but because they long for a better life for their families. Who among us wouldn’t do all we could to provide food and shelter for our young children or our aging parents? Those who risk so much to care for the ones they love certainly deserve our respect, if not our admiration.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not denying that there is a problem. What I am saying is that it is not an immigrant problem. It's not even an us-and-them problem, or a good-guys and bad-guys problem. As much as anything, for those who claim to follow Jesus, it seems to be another one of those are-you-just-gonna-mouth-the-words-or-are-you-really-gonna-follow-him problems.