Friday, September 20, 2019

Anne Frank, Paul and Hope

“It's difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It's a wonder I haven't abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”

The irony of these words from Anne Frank hits me like a punch to the gut. Despite everything she experiences as a Jew hiding from the Nazis, fearing that her life could be taken from her at any moment, she believes that people are “truly good at heart.” And yet, her life soon comes to an end at the hands of those anyone would have trouble describing as “truly good at heart.” Even Anne herself acknowledges that the evidence doesn’t seem to support her thesis.

To be honest, I have trouble agreeing with her. When I was younger, I was embarrassed by our Lutheran theology that seemed so negative, emphasizing how “we are by nature sinful and unclean.” I didn’t want to believe it. Now that I’m older, there’s no denying it. Anyone who doesn’t see it isn’t paying attention. It’s been hard to face that reality with much enthusiasm for the future.

Depression keeps leaving messages on my phone these days. Although I haven't replied to any of them, I do resonate with what they're saying to me. In my most despairing moments, I wonder if hope is just something for us to cling to when things are desperate. It becomes our only alternative to throwing in the towel. That’s to say that we hope because we can’t bear to face the alternative. It’s a convenient illusion to keep us going, despite all evidence that people are basically f***ed up, they are incapable of changing, and life is pointless.

Yes, I know that’s a cynical outlook on life. And yet, is it untrue? I can only visit these thoughts from time-to-time. I don’t dare live there. But during these visitations, I wonder where the truth lies. When am I more out of touch with reality—when I feel like I’m drowning in despair, or when I’m wrapping myself in a protective blanket of hope?

In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, he tells them they can boast in their sufferings, knowing that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…” Is this just crazy talk, or is Paul onto something?

If you cut to the chase with this line of reasoning, suffering leads to hope. That makes hope one of those defiant actions that’s born out of a negative place. Like courage, which is born out of fear. If you weren’t afraid of something, it would take no courage to face it. Or forgiveness, which is born out of resentment. If you didn’t truly resent another person, you would have no need to forgive. In the same way, hope is born out of suffering. Without suffering, there can be no reason to hope.

Not one of us escapes this life without suffering, so the struggle is real. We might just as easily give in to despair. We have every reason to. And yet, we still hope. It’s a defiant action – the way we fight back in the presence of suffering. Hope eats despair for breakfast.

Hope is not like wishful thinking. We don’t all live happily ever after. It may never be possible for you to have the life you’ve always longed for. The loved one who has left you grieving may never be coming back. The disease you’ve been diagnosed with may never be cured. The politician you detest may get elected. Injustice may rule the day. Cruelty may overshadow any evidence of kindness in the world around you. Humanity may seem hell-bent on destroying itself. Things don’t always go the way you want them to, and no amount of wishing can change that.

But here’s the truth I keep before me. No matter how bad things may get for me personally, or no matter how bad they may get for my community, my country, my world, I’m connected to something much bigger than the circumstances of my life—something much bigger than me. And in faith, I trust that that something bigger is a God who brings order out of chaos, a God who pulls all creation toward healing and wholeness, a God who loves us so much that nothing can ever separate us from that love, not even death itself. That’s the source of my hope. I can see no other.

So, here’s the thing about hope. I’ve noticed again and again that when things feel most desperate, that’s when hope appears. And so, I await its appearance, knowing that the more convinced I become that it will pass me by this time like a pizza delivered to someone else’s house, the more I begin to taste the mozzarella cheese in my mouth.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Pleading the Eighth

The Eighth Commandment

You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray them, slander them, or hurt their reputation, but defend them, speak well of them, and explain everything in the kindest way.

This week a friend reminded me of Martin Luther’s explanation of the eighth commandment. If ever there were a time when I need this reminder, it’s now. And of course, I’m not only speaking for myself. I wish this could be a guiding principle for our society right now.

All around me I see examples of every single infraction that Luther speaks of. Lies and propaganda are so common in the media that many of us don’t believe anything we hear or read. As a pastor, I regularly learn of betrayal as people share stories with me about harm done to them by friends/family/clergy/institutions they thought they could trust. I see how we all tend to get caught up in juicy gossip, even if it's at the expense of another. Whether the story is true or false, it’s especially satisfying if it’s about the fall of a person in a high position or a place of authority. The thud they make when they hit the ground brings us at least a glimmer of glee.

The part that speaks to me most clearly in Luther’s explanation to the eighth commandment is the last part. This is where he isn’t saying “no”; he’s saying “yes.” There are a lot of ways the eighth can be violated. But there are also ways it can be kept. I might be able to say that I keep the eighth commandment because I don’t lie, betray or slander. But there’s more to it than that. Refraining from hurting my neighbors is a far cry from doing what I can to help them.  

Lately, it feels like we’re all crouching tigers, poised to pounce at a moment’s notice. We’re ever vigilant to attack those who don’t do things our way or don’t agree with our way of seeing things. Every person we encounter is a potential enemy. It’s a fearful way of experiencing the world and not at all what it means to live as the people God created us to be. It not only separates us from other people, but it separates us from God as well. In my faith tradition, we call this sin. And it is destroying us.

“Defend, speak well, explain everything in the kindest way.” This is what it means to love our neighbor. We try our best to understand their perspective, even if we don’t agree with it. We assume that, like us, they want to do the right thing, even when we believe it’s the wrong thing. And when our neighbor messes up, we remember that sometimes we have been known to mess up, too.

Is there a way we can lift up Luther’s explanation to the eighth commandment right now? For all my Lutheran friends, I’m issuing that as a challenge. But I hope my non-Lutheran friends can see the value in Luther’s words, too. Do whatever you can to be mindful of Luther’s explanation to the eighth commandment. Post it widely on social media. Print it on bumper stickers and t-shirts. Cross stitch it and hang it on your wall. Recite it every morning as you rise and every evening as you retire. Tattoo it on your forearm. And do your best to live it, by God!

Monday, July 8, 2019

What is to Prevent Me?

Preached at Ascension Lutheran Church on July 7, 2019. The text was the story of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. 

Pamela was the most remarkable woman I’ve ever known. She died in 2011 and I still miss her. She was a dear friend and member of a former congregation that I served, although she was only with us a couple years before she died.

We celebrated her for the gifts she brought to our community. Not despite the fact that she looked so different than the rest of us. And not because it was fine with us that she used to be a man and now she was a woman. But we celebrated her because she was Pam, and a part of her being Pam was the fact that she was a transgender person.

We had other transgender people who worshiped with us, but they always sat in the back, as if they were afraid to engage with the community gathered. Pam worshiped from the center of the nave. She expected to be a part of the community. And she was, fully.

That was evident the day she received more votes to serve on our Congregation Council than anyone else on the ballot, including the incumbents. We had a lay preaching group in that congregation, much as we do here at Ascension. And it was a transcendent moment for all of us the Sunday Pamela stood in our pulpit and preached.

Pamela grew up in a conservative Christian church. She had a dream of bridging the gap between the LGBT community and faith community and she called a group of faith leaders together to work on it. That’s how I first met her, and we became friends. She was the kind of friend I’d go out for a drink with after a meeting. One night, she asked me, “Would it be all right if I worship with you?” Before she ever stepped foot in our worship space, Pamela asked if it would be all right if she worshiped with us. Have you ever asked a pastor for permission to worship in their church?

I can only imagine what it must be like to be in a position where you feel like you have to ask for permission to do something that other people take for granted. Would it be all right if I worship with you? I think of Pamela when I read this story from Acts.

If you were with us last week, you may remember the story of Stephen, and how he was one of seven guys appointed to take care of the widows. Well, another one of those guys was Phillip. This is the story of Phillip’s encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch.

This eunuch was returning from Jerusalem, where he had gone to worship. And he was reading from Isaiah. He was a student of the scriptures. No doubt, then, he was also familiar with the book of Deuteronomy, where he had read in chapter 23: “No one whose testicles are cut off or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” That’s the first time I’ve ever said those words in worship because that’s a verse we don’t ever read in worship. But it’s right there in the book of Deuteronomy and you’d better believe the Ethiopian eunuch was aware of it because it was talking about him.

This law strictly forbids him from entering the assembly of the Lord. He’s clearly not a woman and a clearly not man. There was no place for a person like that among God’s people.

Well, despite the fact that he knew he would be turned away by the religious establishment, the eunuch went to Jerusalem to worship. He sought God anyway.

I’m always amazed when I meet someone like Pamela and I hear stories about how they have been excluded from the church in painful and often cruel ways. And yet they continue to seek God anyway.

When Phillip joined this person who was excluded from God’s people and yet, despite that, sought to worship God, it was a transformative moment for both of them. The Holy Spirit was in charge, sending Phillip to this place, with the directive: “Go and join the other.”

The text doesn’t say why the eunuch invited Phillip to sit with him. But it doesn’t have to. The Spirit told him to invite this nice Jewish boy – one who represents all those who cling to the law and reject him from God’s house… “Invite him to sit with you,” the Spirit says. “Invite, ask questions.” And in the process, Phillip learns from the Ethiopian eunuch what it really looks like to seek the Lord with all your heart, mind and soul.

This story has led the author Nadia Bolz-Weber to ask, “How can I know what it means to follow Christ unless I learn it from someone who has done so despite every obstacle possible?” We have so much to learn from those who have heard again and again “there is no love for you here unless you let us change you into who we feel comfortable with you being.” This isn’t only true for LGBTQ folks, but also those who have the wrong personality or the wrong socio-economic status or the wrong gender or the wrong immigration status or the wrong politics or the wrong way of believing in God.  

Nadia writes: “… we can’t actually know what this Jesus following thing is about unless we too have the stranger show us… The truth is that we need the equivalent of the Ethiopian eunuch to show us the faith.” We need to hear the stranger, the other ask us, “Here is water in the desert, so what is to prevent me from being baptized?”

I wonder what Phillip really thought when he was asked that question. Did a part of him want to say, “Are you kidding me? You can’t be baptized! What is to prevent you? Everything, that’s what!” I suspect that before his conversation with the Ethiopian eunuch that would have been exactly what he said.

But he wasn’t in change. The Holy Spirit did a number on him and there was conversion in that conversation. “Here is water, what is to prevent me from being baptized?” Phillip realized the answer to that question was, nothing. Absolutely nothing is to prevent you from being baptized.

“Would it be all right if I worship with you?” Pamela asked me. It turned out that it was more than all right. The saints gathered in that place were blessed beyond measure by her presence.

Our open communion table is a visible reminder to us of all that God calls us to be. When we come to the table, Jesus is the one who invites us. We are his guests. And we don’t get to make the guest list. We come to the table with those who accept us and those who don’t. We come with those we trust and those we don’t. We come with those who are lovable and those who aren’t. And that’s where we find our hope.

In the waters of baptism, and when we worship together, and when we drink the wine and eat the bread at Christ’s table, the Spirit is forming and transforming us through one another, for sure, but especially through the “other.”

Through those the Spirit places in our lives to teach us what it means to truly seek God when God’s people haven’t made it easy. The Spirit calls us, not just to be willing to let those we consider the other into our midst because it’s the nice thing to do, but because we are diminished without them. They may challenge us and we may wish they were like us so we could be more comfortable with them. But we need them to be who God created them to be so we can grow into the people God created us to be.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Those %&@#! Numbers

I’m struggling as a pastor these days. I know I’m not the only one. While I expend a lot of energy convincing myself and everyone around me that I’m doing well, ministry is great and everything’s coming up roses, sometimes it takes more energy than I can muster to maintain the fa├žade. If I’m completely honest, I have to admit that I’m fumbling to find my way.

It’s odd that in this, my sixth and most likely last parish, I am less confident than I have ever been about my ability as a pastor. I was not prepared for ministry in the 21st century. I can’t think of a single thing I learned in seminary that applies to today. I’m sure there must be something, but I’m hard-pressed to tell you what. Even with 40 years of parish ministry under my belt, the ministry skills I’ve picked up through experience don’t seem to apply.

It reminds me a lot of the time I spent immersed in Costa Rica while I was in a school to learn Spanish. One day I got lost as I was walking to school, and I couldn’t find my way back. My Spanish was so limited that no one I stopped on the street could help me. Yes, this is a lot like that.

Last Sunday the number of people we had at worship was abysmal—the worst I've seen since I’ve been at Ascension (apart from traditionally low Sundays, like the week between Christmas and New Year’s). When I saw the number, it threw me into a tizzy, and I’m questioning whether I’m the right pastor to be serving this congregation. In my head, I know that the number of butts in the pews has only a little bit to do with me and a long list of other variables are at play, but in my heart, I feel like it’s basically my fault.

How can a simple number throw me into such a funk? The whole time I’ve been a pastor, I’ve pushed back against those who look at numbers as a way of determining worthiness among clergy and the congregations they serve. (Even back in seminary I wrote a paper about success vs. faithfulness in determining clergy self-worth.) Upon meeting someone new, when they find out I’m a pastor, one of the first things they’ll ask me is, “How large is your congregation?” as if that’s the most important thing to know about my value as a pastor. I’ve hated that question, even when I’ve served very large congregations. There is no correlation between the size of a congregation and its faithfulness to the mission God has called it to be about in the world. So, when I find myself being sucked into the numbers game and allowing Sunday attendance figures to throw me into a funk, my anger becomes directed toward myself and then I begin sliding into a full-blown depression. (I’m hoping to avoid that by blogging about it.)

It’s painful for me to recognize that of the six congregations I’ve served, this is the first one that is declining numerically on my watch. I’m not sure what to do about it. I can console myself by noting the individuals I’ve seen transformed during my time at Ascension, and the way the congregation has grown in its understanding of mission to those outside the walls of the congregation, while continuing to care for its aging members. I can see God at work in so many ways. And that should be enough to sustain me, but there is always the very human part of me that looks at those %&@#! numbers.

I know that churches need to change to meet the demands of a culture that is rapidly changing around us. But that’s a whole lot easier in theory than reality. It’s far easier to start a new mission church than to turn an established church around in its mission. People who have been a part of Ascension for decades are with us for a reason. Change threatens to displace them, and while I sometimes get frustrated with resistance to change, I understand it and sympathize with their fears. Aren’t people who like things just the way they are, thank you very much, also included in God’s loving embrace? There is no easy solution to this dilemma.

Any possible direction we might take in the future is impeded when we get hung up on numbers. A bold new mission may very well alienate the people who are with us, and we’ll lose them. But if we proceed the way we always have, we will continue to bleed numerically while the world around us leaves us in the dust. Not a good look for God's people--stuck in one place, dusty and bleeding. I don't know how to deal with this.

I’m just starting to see that serving in a congregation that is declining numerically may be just what I need right now. It’s a clear reminder to me that I am not in control and Ascension Lutheran Church isn’t all about me. I can’t make everybody happy. I can’t make them want to worship with us on Sunday mornings. I can’t make them give their hearts to a life of service through our community. I can’t change the culture that competes with us for attention. None of that is up to me. And maybe it’s going to take serving a congregation with declining numbers for me to trust in God.

Isn’t that the way God always works? We pastors act as if it all depends on us and we work as hard as we can to do what we think God wants. In truth, it’s what we want, and it may or may not be what God wants. There is always an opportunity when I throw my hands in the air and cry, “Nothing I try is working! I don’t know what I’m doing! God help me!” There’s an opportunity for God to step into the void and do what God has been wanting to do all along, if I’d just get out of the way.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Doctor, My Eyes

I’m a bit freaked out about my eyes these days. Not too long ago I went back to progressive lenses in my glasses. I had tried them years ago and finding the sweet spot where I could see left me circling my head around so much that it made me dizzy. I returned to good old-fashioned bifocals. Then this spring, when I was ordering new glasses, I was encouraged to give progressives another shot as they have improved over the last 20 years. With the promise of a money-back guarantee, I had nothing to lose, and much to my delight, they were great.

I enjoyed my new glasses for a couple of weeks and then, quite abruptly, I was having difficulty seeing. It felt like I was wearing someone else’s prescription. The clarity was gone and everything was slightly distorted. Of course, this was affecting my balance and I was getting horrific headaches. Reading a book, one of my great pleasures in life, suddenly became maddening for me.

After a few weeks of this, I finally went to the optometrist. The evening before my appointment I covered one eye and then the other and realized that I have a large spot on my right eye that was messing with me. Of course, that sent me to the internet and I had to read all the reasons why I had this crazy spot. None of them were good, but the good thing is that it turned out to be none of them.

My optometrist is a smart guy. He knew immediately what it was. By the time I saw him, it was into the evening hours, but he had the cell phone number for a retina doc and called him immediately. Suddenly, this puzzling vision problem I had been walking around with for weeks had become an emergency. The diagnosis: ocular histoplasmosis.

I first heard of histoplasmosis after I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, and had an eye exam. As the optometrist looked into my dilated eyes, he asked, “Did you grow up in the Cincinnati area?” What?! Why would he ask that? Well, he went to optometry school at the University of Dayton and saw a lot of people who had these weird little scars in their eyeballs that were caused by a childhood disease called histoplasmosis. I had never heard of it, but apparently, it’s a disease I had when I was a kid. And virtually every kid who grew up in the region of the country where I did, had it, too.

It’s an illness that presents itself a lot like the flu, so when you have it, people don’t realize it’s anything other than the flu. It’s caused by airborne fungal spores that come from bat and bird droppings. Yeah, you read that right. Weird, huh? Some people call it “Spelunkers Disease” because if you spend time in caves, you get it from the bats. Basically, though, it’s in the dirt and air, so you can’t do much to protect yourself. 

I can’t tell you why the place where I grew up is the epicenter, but it is. If I hadn’t had these little scars in my eyeballs that were discovered after I moved to Charlotte, I never would have known about it. Not once had I heard the word histoplasmosis while I lived in Ohio. Denial? Ignorance? Conspiracy? Dunno. But strange.

It’s primarily a lung disease, and I learned from x-rays that I have scars there, too. Other people who had the disease as a child have spots on their lungs as well, but not everybody. And the disease can also move to your eyes, although not with everyone, and we all don’t have the scars to prove it. I have scars in both places. Lucky me.  

When I first learned of these scars on my eyeballs, I was relieved to know that I was, in fact, quite lucky, because they weren’t located where they would affect my vision. Whew! There was a large scar on my right eye that just cleared my retina, so I had narrowly escaped partial blindness.

As it turns out, I had 60+ years of luck with that eye. For some reason, that histo scar has been activated or some vessels around it have burst, or something like that. Anyway, there is a bunch of mushy stuff around it and under it and that’s what’s causing the spot.

The day I learned about all this, complete with photos and more information than I could absorb, is the same day I had the first shot in my eyeball. It’s the same sort of treatment that people with macular degeneration receive, and it’s not nearly as awful as it sounds. But I do have to say that, when I signed a consent form giving someone permission to stick a needle in my eye, it was surreal. Never in my life had I ever imagined such a moment. Now it will become a regular part of my life, at least for years, maybe for the rest of my life.

My prognosis is good, the doctor says. There is a 90% chance they will be able to keep the spot from getting any worse. So, hopefully I won’t lose the vision in my right eye completely. But seeing is such a struggle for me that I can’t imagine going through the rest of my life like this. The spot will never go away and there is a good chance it won’t get better. I’m trying to accept that and consider it progress that I have finally stopped shouting “Out, damn spot! Out I say!” like Lady Macbeth every time I wake up in the morning and open my eyes. In time, I will adjust to my new normal.

It’s been exactly a week since I had my first needle in the eye. I know there are far worse things, and I’m thankful that I was able to see as well as I did for as long as I did, almost 67 years. But the one thing I keep thinking about is how I wish I could have one more day without this freakin’ spot. I didn’t know my last day to see clearly was my last day. If I had, I would have paid more attention to the sunset, the flowers in my garden, the faces of the people I love...

Friday, June 21, 2019

The Fine Line Between Prophet and Asshole

“There’s a fine line between being a prophet and being… an asshole,” said one of my friends at a recent gathering of pastors. Although we all laughed, we could identify with the struggle. A very fine line. Yes.

I can’t imagine how a person could serve as a pastor without taking on the prophetic role. Within the Church, the gap between the kind of people God calls us to be and the kind of people we really are is so clear that I am compelled to speak to it. To ignore it is to ignore my calling.

I often have trouble with the delivery of such a message. It burns within me until I can’t stand it anymore, and out it comes. It’s difficult for me to navigate that and sometimes my prophetic passion gets the best of me. What I’m saying may be the prophetic truth of God’s Kingdom, but in the way I’m saying it I cross the line into Asshole-dom.

On the same day that I heard my colleague say these words in the morning, I was at a Congregation Council meeting that night. For devotions we read a chapter that mentioned the topic of core values, so I gave each of them a blank piece of paper and asked them to jot down what they saw as their personal core values and then the core values of Ascension. Although it was just a quick exercise for them, it had been a long exercise for me as I prepared for the evening.

I spent time reading up on core values as those hidden beliefs we carry around that we may not even realize we have, and yet they influence everything we do. Often in the church, the hardest core values to see are the ones that prevent us from being the people God would have us be. So, that’s the way I approached the exercise, with that in mind.

The people sitting around the table with me weren’t thinking about any of that. They were thinking about core values as the things Ascension most values. So, when it came time for them to share, they were all positive values. Ascension values outreach, caring for others, education… Yes, all of that was true. They listed beautiful, affirming values we can all be proud of.

Then it was my turn. And what I had to share was not positive. So, I had a decision to make in a split second. I could have made something up to complete the exercise on a feel-good note. Or, I could share what I really wrote and throw cold, wet, negative noodles in their faces. In context, it wasn’t a choice between being prophet or asshole. I could only choose to be an asshole or not. And, guess what I chose?

I need you to know that I love these people. And, despite the way I may appear to others, I greatly prefer to be liked over being disliked. So, I tend to feel like an asshole whenever I’m being prophetic. But that doesn’t stop me from going there. Because as much as I prefer to be liked, some of my core values are honesty, which I’ve picked up from my relationship with my mother, and faithfulness, which I’ve picked up from my relationship with God. So, my inner drive to be honest and faithful overrides my desire to be liked.

Perhaps the fine line between prophet and asshole is in the eyes of the beholder; maybe it all depends on where we’re coming from. Maybe. But I don’t think so, because I have seen other pastors who thought they were being prophetic clearly acting like assholes. It’s not an entirely subjective label. The problem is that many assholes have no idea they’re acting like assholes. I’m cursed with enough self-awareness that I realize when I’m coming across like an asshole, occasionally in the moment, but pert near always afterwards.

So, where does that leave me? Doing the best I can, sometimes hitting the mark and sometimes missing it. Recognizing that I am simul prophet et asshole. In fact, to my congregation on any given Sunday, there are some who appreciate the challenge of my words and others who resent being told that they aren’t the people God wants them to be. For some I’m Pastor Prophet, and for others I’m Pastor Asshole... during the same sermon.

The fine line between prophet and asshole is a difficult one, but it’s a line I choose to walk. Because there are far worse things than being Pastor Prophet/Asshole. Like being Pastor Please-like-me or Pastor Who-Gives-a-Crap.  

Monday, June 3, 2019

Everybody Loves Nick

My grandson Nick enters kindergarten next year. Not too long ago he went to see his school. My daughter explained to him that he will be starting all over at a new school and his friends from Pre-K won’t be with him. His reaction? “That’s okay. I’ll make new friends. Everybody loves me.” 

I haven’t stopped thinking about this since my daughter shared it with me because I don’t know if I ever, in my entire life, saw the world as Nick sees it. I can’t remember a time when I ever believed that everybody loves me. It’s not something I have experienced or expected in my life. When I enter a new situation with new people, I never assume they will love me. I don’t even assume that they will like me.

What a difference it would have made for me if I had been like Nick, and I assumed I could make new friends wherever I went because, of course, everybody loves me. I suspect I would have lived more confidently and courageously. I would have become a woman who isn’t afraid to be who she is. I would have entered into relationships, not from a position of insecurity, needing to be loved by the other, but knowing that I am lovable, and if I’m not loved by the other, it’s not because of a deficiency in me, but a deficiency in the one who doesn’t love me. That would have changed the course of my life, to be sure.

Nothing traumatic happened to make me the way I am. Perhaps it was the circumstances of my childhood, or the way I was parented. Perhaps it’s just the way my brain is wired. But I know I’m not alone. The world is filled with people who don’t assume everybody loves them. Even worse, there are those who have grown up expecting other people to hate them. They live in a world where they’re judged by others for things they can’t control: their ethnicity, their physical appearance, their intellect, their gender identity or sexual orientation… What would their lives be like if they grew up like Nick, believing everybody loves them? What would our world be like? 

I suspect that what Nick believes is, in fact, true. He is a lovable kid. I’m not just saying that because I’m his Nana. Other kids love him. He’s smart and funny and kind to other people. What’s not to love? Anywhere he goes, Nick believes people will love him. It’s the best possible world for a five-year-old to live in. Of course, some day, somewhere, there will be someone who doesn’t love him. It will be a painful learning for Nick; I hope it doesn’t happen for him any time soon. But when it does, I trust that he will have stored up enough love within himself to overcome it.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

For Grovelers and Grumblers

Are you a groveler or a grumbler? Are you painfully aware of how you’ve strayed from what God wants for your life and how much you need to be forgiven? Or are you appalled by the actions of so-called Christians who don’t appear to have a clue of what it really means to follow Jesus? Are you a groveler or a grumbler?

If you’re anything like me, the answer is, “yes.” Both are a part of who I am. I think that’s why I’ve always felt a deep connection with The Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Here’s the deal. Jesus is hanging out with tax collectors and sinners and this isn’t going over well with the fine, upstanding religious people of his day, the scribes and Pharisees. “It just isn’t right!” they insist.

So, he responds to their grumbling with three stories, one after another. The first is about a shepherd who has a hundred sheep. One wanders off and he leaves the 99 to go and find it. As shepherds go, this isn’t a real smart thing to do, but it all seems to work out. He finds that one lost sheep and brings it back home. When he gets there, he tells his friends, “This is something to celebrate. Let’s have a party!”

Then the second story is about a woman who has ten coins. She loses one and turns the house inside out and upside down in order to find it. When she finally does, she calls to her friends and says, “This is something to celebrate. Let’s have a party!”

And, in case his audience doesn’t quite comprehend what he’s trying to tell them about why he spends so much time with the wrong kind of people, Jesus tells them one more story to seal the deal.

We know it as the parable of “The Prodigal Son.” We really like the part about the son who makes a mess of his life and returns groveling to his father, who is waiting with open arms. It assures us that no matter what we may do in this life, no matter how far we may stray, God’s grace never fails. It’s a story that brings tears to our eyes, especially if we’ve ever experienced our own version of it in real life.

But there’s another son in this story. This is the son who REALLY makes a mess of his life.

Jesus’ original hearers understand exactly who he’s talking about when he gets to this part of the story. They’ve heard enough parables in their lives to know that the punch to the gut always comes at the very end. The good religious folks have been listening carefully, and they know that they are not the lost ones in these stories Jesus is telling to defend the dubious crowd he’s eating with. They’re NOT the younger son who goes off and blows all his inheritance on foolishness. They’re the older son, the good one who always does the right thing.

One little detail about this story that’s easy to miss comes way up in verse 12, when the younger son comes to his father and asks for his share of the property. Notice what it says next: “So he divided his property between them.” Between them. The younger son isn’t the only one to receive his share of the property. And the way things worked back then, the older son gets two times what his younger brother gets. Just think about that… That means that he has received twice as much as his younger brother, and yet, he can’t bring himself to rejoice and celebrate when his brother is restored to his family.

The older brother has a way of looking at the world that says people get what they deserve and the most deserving should get the most. It’s similar to what we call the Protestant work ethic, and it’s assumed in our culture. It’s a big part of us. The Protestant work ethic teaches us that, if you want anything in this life, you’re gonna have to work for it. And if you work hard enough, you’ll be rewarded. It’s so ingrained in our culture that many people will fight to the death before they’ll admit that it might not necessarily happen that way. Or, God forbid, that maybe it shouldn’t happen that way.

When the younger son finally returns home, why does the father say, “Let’s celebrate!?” Is it because the son came and groveled at his feet? The father has his arms around his son before the boy even has time to finish the little apology he’s been rehearsing the whole way home.

We don’t know if the son is truly repentant or if he’s just desperate and poor. What we do know is that this son is totally undeserving. And that, of course, is the point. Because that’s the way grace works. And it’s too much for the older son to bear.

I remember once taking a group of college students to Washington, DC on a mission trip. We served lunch to the homeless in a soup kitchen. It was a real learning for the students because of some of the assumptions they had about homeless people. The students assumed that those coming to the soup kitchen would be humble. And grateful for the food. They would realize that these were college students who had chosen to come here over their spring break when they could have been in Fort Lauderdale, so they would appreciate these kind young people who were serving them.

Well, some did. But some did not. They complained about the menu and the portion sizes. They didn’t say “thank you” when they were served. A few of the students told them what they thought of their behavior and I had to intervene. We had a lot to talk about during our group meeting that night. It was a good learning.

They were reacting as the older son who expected a little more in return for his exemplary behavior. These ungrateful homeless people weren’t groveling enough! They didn’t deserve kindness. Yeah, that’s about right, isn’t it?

Despite the worldview of the culture around us, we need to be reminded of how things work in the Kingdom of God. And we need to figure out which kingdom we’ll pitch our tent in. God’s kingdom is not about deciding who deserves food, and clothing, and health care, and an adequate education for today’s world, and who does not. God’s kingdom is a place of mercy and compassion for all. Especially those many of us would deem undeserving.

God’s kingdom is not about excluding the undesirables who don’t meet our standards. It’s a place where all are welcome as children of God, without reservation.

And so, rather than schmooze with the good religious leaders, Jesus chooses to hang out with outcasts and untouchables, tax collectors and sinners. And he says, “This is something to celebrate! Let’s have a party!”

Certainly, it’s an invitation extended to those who don’t deserve it. But I can assure you that it’s also an invitation extended to those who are absolutely convinced that they do. Grovelers and Grumblers alike, God’s Grace is extended to all.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Like a Net

Preached for the 50th Anniversary Celebration with Advent, Charlotte - February 10, 2019.

They were in the fish business and Jesus called them to the people business. Apparently, fishing was a transferrable skill. If you could catch fish, you could catch people. It was all about the catching. 

Now, through the centuries, this has been a classic text for evangelism. Christians point to Luke 5 and say, “Just like Peter, James and John, we’re all called to fish for people.”

But that’s meant different things in different contexts. We live in a very different culture today than the twelve who followed Jesus or the first Christians who heard these words. In the United States we Christians are not in the minority, and we’re not being persecuted for our faith. We also have a global awareness that tells us there are other paths to God that make as much sense to their adherents as Christianity does to us. We have an awareness that, for the most part, religion is a product of our birth. So, within our context, what does it mean for us to catch people? 

For a long time, the whole idea of fishing for people got my hackles up. I thought of those who evangelized and kept track of the souls they saved like people who were competing for first prize in a fishing derby. I found this so offensive that I couldn’t bring myself to participate. If that’s what it means to catch people, count me out. But, as I’ve gone back to this text, I’ve been energized by one word in particular: net

Fishermen like Peter, James and John didn’t fish with a pole. They didn’t lure fish with bait, one at a time, until each fish got caught on a hook and they reeled it in. It would have been hard to make a living like that. They fished with a net. They put the net down into the water and waited for the fish. They didn’t really catch the fish with the net so much as the fish got caught in the net. 

That kind of catching people makes sense to me because that’s the way it worked for me. Some of you may recall that I didn’t grow up in a church family. It just wasn’t a part of my life. But there was always this net in my life. It was made up of the neighbors who took me to Sunday school with them when I was little, the girlfriends who invited me to tag along to confirmation classes at the Lutheran Church, the high school friend who talked about Jesus all the time as if he were her best friend, the roommate in college who said her prayers every night, went to church on Sundays, and was gentle and loving with everyone she encountered. The group gathered at the pond, baptizing a young woman, just outside my room at the dorm. The Christians singing hymns under a shelter at the park while I was taking a walk. The students engaged in a discussion about the Bible at the table next to mine while I was trying to study at the student union. (They had no idea I was eavesdropping.) The young man I came to care for deeply, before I learned that he was a Pentecostal Christian. The net was wide and I got caught in it. 

That’s the way it worked for me, and I suspect that that’s the way it works for most people. There’s a net in our lives. It may include our parents or grandparents, our Sunday school teachers, our friends, the stranger who offers a random act of kindness, an author who speaks to your soul, the person who stands on the corner asking for help with a cardboard sign in his hand that reads, “God bless.” 

The net may be invisible to you, but when you open your eyes to it, you see it everywhere, telling you that God is here, that God loves you, and that life in the net is life in all its fullness. And the net calls you to become a part of the net yourself, so that you too are a part of telling others that God is here, that God loves you, and that life in the net is life in all its fullness. 

That means that it matters how we live in the world. In our day, it seems that those of us who call ourselves Christians often do more to repel people than catch them. 

Once a day I skim through my twitter feed to see what folks are saying, and with each passing day I’m more and more troubled by the things Christians are releasing into the universe that are not at all Christ-like. In our super-charged political atmosphere, it’s a challenge to disagree while still loving one another. Instead, I see Christians attacking one another, cursing, and pronouncing eternal damnation upon anyone who disagrees with them. That’s not how to catch people. It’s not what the Reign of God is about. The Reign of God is like a net. 

And then, once you become a part of God’s people, the church, you learn something deeper about becoming a part of the net. Its purpose is for catching, to be sure. But catching is not about trapping someone or holding them captive. This net operates much like the net you see under a tightrope act at the circus. The net is here to catch us when we fall. 

I’ve experienced that many times in my life, but at no time more clearly than when I came to be your pastor at Advent over 20 years ago. When I arrived, I was a mess. 

I had been married for 20 years to another pastor who, it turned out, slept with other women who happened to be members of the church we pastored together. Although the last thing I wanted to ever be was divorced, I didn’t really have a choice in the matter. 

And then, while I was an emotional disaster, and in no position to make major life decisions, I became involved with an old high school flame, and I married him, only to discover that he was already married to someone else. 

You only knew an inkling of what I was going through when I came to you, but I really was in no condition to be your pastor. I wanted to start my life over, but that didn’t happen automatically when I left Ohio and moved to North Carolina. I left behind a church I loved, my dearest friends in the world, my entire support system, even my son, who had one more year of high school. I left it all behind and moved to a place where I was absolutely alone. 

For the first couple of years that I served you, at the end of every day when I got in the car, I cried the whole way home it continued through the night. You had no way of knowing, and I was too ashamed to tell you.

What I experienced at Advent was a net that was waiting to catch me. Every day and at every turn, I heard God telling me, “I’m here. You’ll be okay, You’ll get past this, You are loved, Nancy.” I heard it through you. In your words, in your actions, in faithful lives that taught me that the Reign of God is like a net. Thank you for being my net at a time when I needed it the most. I can say with all certainty that I would not be here without you. 

I know I’m not the only one. Through the years, Advent has caught many people in their net through your ministries in the community and world, through the people who have passed through your doors, through those who have gone on from this place to be a part of other nets on other shores. 

I’m honored to have been among you for a short time, and I’m deeply honored to be with you as you celebrate 50 years of ministry here at Advent. Your net has been strong. 

May you continue to catch people and show them that the Reign of God is like a net. 

Friday, January 11, 2019

Speaking of Circumcision, or How Garrison Keillor Stole My Joke

This week during confirmation class we got into the topic of circumcision. It’s always fun to break this news to a room filled with unsuspecting 7th and 8th graders. This year’s class did not disappoint me. Their faces revealed shock, disgust, disbelief, and, of course, embarrassment to hear their pastor speaking so matter-of-factly about something so grizzly happening the male penis. Yes, it’s always a special moment.

And it took me back to an episode from my life that I had forgotten about. I may not be getting all the details correct, because it was so long ago, but this is the way I remember it…

In one of my previous lives I was quite involved in Christian Education events for my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. We were having a regional conference of some sort for educators. I was involved in the planning and all the educator-types from Chicago and Minneapolis were on the scene, as well. For some reason, I either offered or was offered up, I had responsibility for our entertainment one evening and ended up moderating a “Hollywood Squares” game with silly questions that only Christian Educators would appreciate.

One of the better questions I asked was, “What is the one question confirmation instructors are asked that they fear the most?” The answer, of course, was, “What is circumcision?”

It was a cute moment and I might have moved on to the next question, but I saw an opening for a big moment and I went for it.

“You know, I've been reading a lot about whales lately, and do you know how long the male appendage of a blue whale is?” This was before smart-phones, so no one knew the answer.

“Ten feet!" I announced with all the amazement in my voice I could muster. "The male appendage on a blue whale is ten feet long!” Reading the faces of my audience, I could tell that they were more puzzled than impressed. Why is this woman talking about whale penises at a big church event? I suspect they were a little worried about what I was going to say next.

“…so do you know how they circumcise a blue whale?” And now no one in the audience seemed to be breathing… “Well, it takes four skin-divers.”

The room expoded in laughter. They went nuts. Yes, it was a BIG moment.

Fast-forward about a year. I’m driving in my car listening to Garrison Keillor’s annual joke show on “A Prairie Home Companion.” It’s nothing but non-stop, rapid-fire jokes.

And then I heard it. Garrison Keillor says, “Do you know how they circumcise a blue whale?” and the punch line follows, “It takes four skin-divers.”

I nearly drove off the road. “He stole my joke! He stole my joke!” I’m yelling and pounding on the steering wheel.

Obviously, someone from that conference retold my joke and it made its way to “The Prairie Home Companion.” Garrison Keillor may not have known it was my joke, but he stole my joke. Without the lead-in, it wasn’t nearly as funny, but he most definitely stole my freaking joke!

I guess when you release a circumcision joke into the universe, it belongs to the universe.