Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Real Princess

1 John 3:1 "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God."

I remember being told I was a child of God for the first time. It happened way too late, and for that reason I spend a great deal of my children's ministry time (which isn't nearly as much as it was before I was a solo pastor) telling kid's just that. "You are a child of God."

My first hearing of the good news came in one of my marathon cry sessions with my pastor as a teenager. I had "issues," you could say. This particular one came when we were on a retreat of sorts, and I was struggling with all sorts of things - family things, friend things, who knows what other things. At some point in the whole discussion I was just genuinely upset that I mattered to no one. I was useless, worthless, and unimportant. My pastor looked into my eyes, or as close as I would let him, eye-contact was not my thing in those days, and said, "SheRev, you are God's child. You are a princess in the kingdom of God."

He said it over and over to my hardened face and hardened heart. Over and over and over. Over and over while I cried (again). Over and over until I could say it for myself.

I am a child of God. If I have no worth to any other person on earth (he was smart enough not to try to unconvince me of my worthlessness becaus I never would have believed him anyway), that's fine, because I have worth to God. It was an empowering and grace-filled feeling and knowledge that came out of that day. It wasn't just a touchy-feely, God's loves me, sort of thing. It gave me strength. It gave me value. It gave me worth in the eyes of the one who mattered most. With all that, I could overcome anything.

Seating Arrangements

Luke 14:1, 7-14
Hebrews 13:1-3, 15-16

My pastor in college used to say that the gospel according to Luke was “just one dinner party after another.” It seems true when you read through it. Jesus is ALWAYS eating with people in Luke. He is always at table with someone, and USUALLY that someone is the wrong person. It isn’t but a few verses past the portion that we read today that the Pharisees and scribes are grumbling and complaining that this Jesus is always sitting and eating with sinners. Apparently they have already forgotten that not too long before he was sitting at table with THEM.

When Jesus tells these parables we have heard he is sitting with all the “right” people, at least, in their own minds and in the social and religious pecking order. For once, he is sitting down with some “respectable” folks for a Sabbath meal. He is, however, anything but a picture perfect guest. Looking around at the people who have gathered, watching their behavior and their attitudes, instead of just sitting down or, more likely, reclining to share a meal among this cultured and learned gathering, Jesus decides to tell a couple of stories, some parables that comment on what he is observing. He holds nothing back – critiquing both about his host and the other guests.

The guests are enacting every dinner party host’s nightmare. Have you ever been to a wedding with a well-thought-out seating arrangement? Maybe you have even been behind that seating arrangement process. It’s not easy, deciding who should sit next to whom. Will it be a table of people who have known each other for years or a table of people who share the same interests? Will husbands sit next to wives or will couples be scattered around the table? It’s never an easy process setting up the seating arrangement for a party, and it seems that there’s always at least one person at every party who thinks he or she has a better idea, and the place cards start shuffling. The seating arrangement is knocked out of order.

Jesus sees these people already at work at the Sabbath meal. He notices that the guests are beginning to jockey for position at the table, rearranging the seats trying to make sure they are next to the right person, and, even more, importantly in the right position. Seating arrangements were very particular in Jesus’ time. The host or the honored guest had a particular place of honor, and everyone present knew the status of everyone else present based on their location at the table in relationship to the guest of honor. The closer you were seated to this guest, the more respect you deserved. As soon as they arrived at the party the Sabbath guests begin to try to rearrange the placecards to get themselves seated in the right place, a place of high honor, may be higher than they deserve Jesus warns.

Humility, Jesus’ story tells these guests, is far more important than honor in the sight of others. It’s better to put yourself at the bottom of the pile than to make assumptions about your worth over others. It’s better to show honor, show love really, to all others than to try to take that honor for yourself. The best seating arrangement is the one where you place yourself in service to others, thinking of their needs before your own, holding them in highest honor.

Jesus’ next comments are for the hosts of the party. The guest list, he says, is a bit off. “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” Extending kindness to our friends is all well and good and enjoying the fellowship of those we know and love is wonderful in its right time, but true HOSPITALITY comes when it is extended well beyond our usual range of comfort, well beyond those whom we can expect to extend it back.

An introduction to the Canadian people by Tom Brokaw that aired during the Olympic coverage this week recounts a story of just this kind of hospitality. It caught my eye in particular because a close friend of mine was the recipient of the amazing hospitality and grace that was the subject of the story. On September 11, 2001, my friend, a seminary classmate, and his family were in the air somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean on their way back to the US when the Twin Towers in New York City were attacked. Like hundreds of other flights, theirs was forced to land in Canada when US airspace was closed.

This family found themselves, along with passengers and crews from 39 other flights, temporarily grounded in Gander, Newfoundland, a rural town of about 10,000 people. The story of welcome and hospitality my friend told was just as Brokaw reported it. This small town opened itself whole-heartedly to their unexpected guests, 6,600 unexpected guests. Passengers were housed in the school, and when that didn’t seem to be enough local residents showed up to take individuals and families home with them, not just for warm showers and hot meals, but even to stay in their own beds instead of on mats on the gymnasium floor.

Back in September of last year, when Tom Brokaw was in Gander gathering information for the story that just aired the mayor of Gander, Claude Elliott, commented on why this story was so interesting in his country and ours. He said, accurately I think, “American people are not used to people helping them and not want to get paid for it. They find this unusual.” I also believe the flip side is true. We aren’t used to offering help to others without wondering or asking “What’s in it for me?”

There was nothing in it for the people of Gander. They didn’t open their town and their homes because they expected financial reimbursement or even a chance for the same hospitality to be offered back to them. Their guests were from all over the country, all over the world, even, so they certainly weren’t expecting an invitation back to dinner from those whom they served. They offered their hospitality warmly, selflessly, and sacrificially with no regard for when or how they might be repaid, when or how the invitation might be returned.

This is the way Jesus calls for hospitality to be extended. In fact, Jesus and even as far back as the Torah, the Old Testament law, calls for hospitality that is even MORE radical than this. Not only are the people of God called to welcome travelers who are stranded at their doorsteps, but they are to go out and seek those who are outside of any usual positions of power, those who are purposely EXcluded from usual society, those who are injured, broken, shunned, and disconnected. These are the people God’s people are called to welcome. These are the people we are told to invite into our homes, our church, and our lives.

Hospitality, Jesus teaches, is not the Martha Stewart cooking, organizing, bed sheet ironing industry we often imagine. Hospitality is not about a mint on a pillow or a “free” pair of slippers when you walk into the room for which you have paid. Hospitality is about being open to the friendless, welcoming the stranger, making room for those who are different from us, and not trying to turn them into us, but letting them find out who they are in our midst, giving them space to be who God called them to be without threat of judgment or pressure for repayment.

Not only does Jesus teach this, but it is part of the ancient laws even as far back as Leviticus. “You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God,” it is written (Lev. 19:34). It’s just that Jesus took this hospitality to a whole different level in his ministry. Besides the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, Jesus associated with all sorts of unsuitable people. In Luke he sits with tax collectors who cheat the public. In John he spends an inappropriate amount of time with a Samaritan woman with more than her share of male companions. Jesus lets another questionable woman anoint his feet. He makes himself ritually impure by touching lepers and the dead.

And apparently, he expects the same from us. He says as much in these parables. When we are the hosts, when we the church are opening our doors to the community and the world, our list of invitees isn’t supposed to look just like our membership roster. When we, his disciples are trying to serve others, our scheduled visits shouldn’t come from our Christmas card address list. Those we seek to serve in the name of Christ, should be those who are on no other lists, those who are forgotten, ignored, or even purposely shunned. That is the unique and challenging call of Christ.

And likewise, when we are invited to be the guests, we should never find ourselves to be like those guests at a wedding who presume to have a better idea than the host. We shouldn’t show up and try to change the seating arrangements to make ourselves look better. We should never be so mistaken about who we are or what honor we bring that we try to place ourselves in a higher position than another. The call to humility is the call to place others above ourselves.

Granted neither of these has ever been easy. Christians have been struggling with them from the origins of our faith. The believers in Rome, even just fifty years after Jesus death, were struggling with this as they waited for what they thought would be Jesus’ imminent return. In the letter to the Hebrews, the community is reminded to be strong and faithful in following Jesus’ example. Even they are already having trouble as they tried to figure out what it means to be the true community of Christ. Yet, the wise elder sends them this advice, “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

Let mutual love continue. Remember you are in this community, this church, together. No one person is any higher or better or more exalted than another. No one deserves more honor or respect. No one is more right or more holy or more important than any other, but instead each should humble himself or herself to the other. Don’t mess with the seating arrangement by trying to put yourself above others. Accept your seat. Even choose one below another and serve someone else for a while. Each should regard the others with such dignity and respect and love and honor that your love for all will grow and be sustained.

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers. Send your invitations far and wide. Welcome those you don’t know, those who need the company and the meal more than any others you may usually choose. Invite the people who will never invite you back, so that when you serve it is out of love for God and for others, not because you hope or know you will be served in return. Let some new guests in to the table. Guests who have never tasted a feast like this before. Let them eat and be filled and know the goodness of God through your welcome and invitation without judgment.

St. Benedict lived in the 6th century and founded a monastic order whose monasteries and abbeys are still thriving today. Guests are ALWAYS welcome at Benedictine communities, with or without a reservation, with or without an explanation. Benedict, in his rule says, “A monastery is never without guests” and goes on to pose this challenged: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” Presbyterian writer Kathleen Norris, who has made several stays with the Benedictines, writes that “if it regularly exercises enough hospitality so as to attract guests, it is a monastery. If it doesn’t, it is not.” (Amazing Grace, p. 263-264)

Could this not also be a description of a REAL church? “If it regularly exercises enough hospitality so as to attract guests, it is a church. If it doesn’t, it isn’t.” In the vision it discerned for this congregation, the session described our church at its best, as God is calling us to be, as a welcoming garden. In coming up with this description they reflected on the gifts we have been given, the things we do well and with a Spirit-inspired passion.

Hospitality is a call from God to each and every Christian, and it is one of our calls from God as a congregation - - to open our doors, our hearts, our minds, our lives to any and all who walk through them. It is a call to go out and seek those who are welcome in no other place to make sure they have a place at the table. Once they are here, once they are at the table, then we must remember that all of us are actually the guests. All of us are hosted by someone far more important, far more honorable, far more loving. Taking our seats as servants of one another, then and only then, can we worship and serve the living Christ among us.

May God’s gift and challenge of humility and hospitality be ever visible and obvious in our life together. Amen.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Changing My Mind

1 Corinthians 14:20 "Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults."

It's not the most ground-shaking example, and I'm sure there are times my thinking has been changed in much more momentous ways, but the thought that comes to mind in ways that my opinion has been changed is about jazz music. I know it's pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of life, but I think the process for how my mind was changed is interesting in retrospect.

I had no interest in jazz really. I definitely had no knowledge of it. I was a teen pretty set in my likes and dislikes and jazz, as something I had no exposure to, was settled in the dislike category. It didn't help that I had a little bit of that "orchestra snob" thing going on, either.

That was all well and good until Mr. Winter issued me an invitation, an invitation to join the high school jazz band. The bassist was graduating, and there was no one else. Without a real high stress class in the period when they rehearsed, I went to visit the class the last few months before school let out that year. I didn't get the music AT ALL, but, well, an invitation is hard to refuse and admitting I didn't think I could catch on DEFINITELY wasn't an option. I accepted, and the next fall my education began.

In the first few months my mind was changed. Totally and completely, and I believe my mind was able to change because I gave something new a chance, a BIG chance. I didn't just turn a music station on once or twice and consider that an effort. I immersed myself in something new and learned it inside out. I found out there was a complexity, an intelligenc, and a humor to jazz that I never knew existed from the outside. Maybe some people can appreciate it without knowing it, but for me, in this instance, knowledge and understanding were everything.

That's not to say that studying and learning and living something always will or always should change a mind. I had that mini-discussion with the whole evolution thing that came up earlier in the week. I wouldn't expect someone to completely change his or her beliefs just because of certain knowledge. However, even an opinion AGAINST something is a better opinion when it is informed about the subject. I could have come out of the jazz band hating jazz as much or more than before even having studied it. There are still some sub-genres with which I want nothing to do. But I've given it a chance. I have learned about it. I have knowledge on which to base my opinion, and that feels like it has a lot more integrity to it than that alternative.

Prayer: Open my mind to your ongoing revelation, O God.

Friday, February 26, 2010

A Little "Me" Time

Romans 12:2 "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect."

You want to know one of my pet peeves? It's the marketing strategy that tries to convince people or give them permission that "you deserve this over-indulgence." Really marketing world? We deserve this? We who overeat, underexercise, spend gobs of hours in front of a TV, at the movies, shopping to fill our overfull closets, etc etc.... We "deserve" whatever it is you are trying to sell that will make us more beautiful, more rested, more special, more popular, more wealthy, more pampered? I do not claim to be immune to this kind of advertising whatsoever. I enjoy a fit of overindulgence as much if not more than the next person. It just bothers me when I think about it, maybe because I do find myself attracted by the temptation of that thinking. What in the world or my life would make me deserve any of the grace or blessings I receive more than anyone else? I know the answer is nothing, but the pitch they sell sounds so good. Why would I deserve any of those things any more than someone who works harder (and there are plenty in my field and others who do), whose body is challenged more than mine, whose life has been run over with more tragedy? I don't, and it drives me crazy that I am tempted by the suggestion that I do.

Prayer: God in Community, Three in One, While solitude can certainly be a good thing, help me to see that I am not an island. I am not one person more deserving than any other of the blessings I receive or the opportunities that are presented. Help me, O God, to discern what is good and acceptable and perfect for both the renewing of my mind and spirit and your call to be a disciples of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

God of Large and Small

Psalm 111:10 "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; those who act accordingly have a good understanding."

Probably because it's still on my mind from yesterday, the vastness of God for me is found not so much in the infinite feelings of looking out into the universe, but in the unimaginable complexity found in the very tiny. The gazillions of different processes and reactions that take place for just one cell of the human body to function or even smaller the exchange of electrons across a transport system that provides energy for all we do within just one structure of that cell inspires more awe and humility for me than anything else. I can't even begin to imagine large distances enough to be captivated by them, but what happens on that teeny, tiny scale, that shows me God's omnipotence more than anything. There is so much room for mistake, so much room for error or for the whole process to be thrown off, and we get angry and mad and frustrated when it happens. We ask God, "WHY?????" Rarely do we stop to realize that actually the rate of failure is pretty darn divinely accurate. For every mistake there are billions of times things DON'T mess up. Those also, and maybe even more so, deserve a "Why, God?" too.

Prayer: Your complexity and the depth of your reach never cease to amaze me, O God. Keep me in awe and wonder at your magnitude, God of all creation. Amen.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

High Thoughts

Isaiah 55:9 "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."

As a pastor, when people (churched or not) find out that I majored in biology in college they often look at me a little funny. "Well, what happened?" is often the follow-up question. It's sort of funny that in college, in the biology department, when they found out I was going to seminary instead of a microbiology PhD program, I got a similar question from that "side" of the issues.

The thing is, to me, they have never been sides on opposite ends of any debate. For me they have always been two fields asking different questions about the topic - creation. Granted, each of them has interest in questions that go beyond that basic topic, but ultimately they are both endeavors to understand the world and condition we live in a little bit better. Why do they always have to be placed at odds with one another?

Monday I wrote about some, uh, differences of opinion over the issue of evolution. It never occured to me as a person of faith that evolution couldn't be a part of my understanding of creation. Never. Granted, I have never felt tied to literal readings of Scripture, so I don't have that struggle with which to contend. But when I hear people say that the idea is too complex and the "simple word of Scripture" tells us all that happened I just don't get it. "My ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts are higher than your thoughts." The deeper I went into science and the complexities of nature the MORE I saw the work of an intelligent and incredibly creative God. A process that started at next to nothing and developed over billions of years to what it is now is WAY more awe-inspiring and divine looking to me than a quick "ZAP" there it is.

Science may work to try to figure it all out, but science never will. There will always be another question, another unknown because the hand and work of God is beyond our comprehension, but not because the two are incompatible. Science asks "How?" Religion and faith ask "Why?" The two have no need to compete.

Prayer: Keep me from haughtiness and pride, O Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Fresh Visions

Isaiah 40:18-23
Luke 13:18-19

At each meeting of our session this year, we have spent time studying at least one of the confessions, or creedal statements, of the Presbyterian Church. Last week the Westminster Confession and Catechisms were up. Westminster was written in the mid-17th century in England. It has all the hallmarks of a document written by a culture on the cusp of the Enlightenment – the age of reason. Listen to this question and answer from the Westminster Larger Catechism (question 7, from the section called “What Man Ought to Believe Concerning God”):

Q. 7. What is God?
A. God is a Spirit, in and of himself infinite in being, glory, blessedness, and perfection; all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, everywhere present, almighty; knowing all things, mos twise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.

Well, that just clears it all up for you, doesn’t it? After that bit of inspiration why don’t I just take my seat and we’ll call it a sermon? (Don’t get excited, I actually have a little more here to share.) The Westminster authors, God bless them for the work they did for the church, did more than write one of the most defining documents of American Presbyterian history. It could also be said that they left us with a beautiful example of why words aren’t everything. Or at least, some uses of words aren’t everything for inspiring faith and action.

The endless galleries and churches, and even volumes upon volumes of books, filled with sacred art, the innumerable compositions of music that have flourished through the ages tell us that theological tomes and philosophical descriptions haven’t cut it alone in sharing the faith within or outside of the body of Christ. Sometimes a picture is needed, or a musical experience, to get a different kind of idea about what God is like, or how the Spirit is guiding God’s people. Sometimes an image is needed to catch the visions of Christ’s ministry in a way that an academic dissertation would NEVER be able to do. And sometimes even just a different kind of writing or telling, sort of painting a picture with words, can even do the trick.

Jesus told MANY parables. The gospels are dripping with them, and for some that is exciting because the descriptive and sometimes even cryptic language excites them with endless possibilities. Others hear another parable coming and groan like the disciples occasionally did, “Why, Jesus, do you teach in parables?” Deciphering the message isn’t always easy. Yet somehow it seems like you get more in the long run because of this. In fact, I think you can get a new and fresh meaning just about every time you come to a parable where a little (or a lot) more is left to the imagination.

Jesus’ parables are quite often about the kingdom of God, instead of simply God, the divine being. In talking about the world under God’s reign, instead of just describing divinity, he gives us plenty of opportunity to find ourselves in the vision. Jesus’ kingdom parables are a snapshot of the divine reality, or better yet an active movie clip, a short depiction of how the world would operate if everything was moving along according to God’s divine will and purpose. The WHOLE PICTURE gives us our fresh vision, how people or animals or plants interact, not just what individual parts of the story are doing, and usually this comes with a twist or something unexpected to help make the point. Also, as parables about God’s kingdom, Jesus’ parables can often set up a mission statement for God’s kingdom bearer on earth – the church.

The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like a mustard seed. The twist comes right up front. The kingdom of God, the realm of the almighty, the same God about whom Isaiah spoke as so big that people look like grasshoppers from the heavenly throne, is like a mustard seed. Not only that, but the kingdom of God is something that is buried in the ground, sowed in a garden. It isn’t set on a pedestal overlaid with gold and dripping with silver jewelry. The seed is sowed in a garden, in the ground.

It is placed deliberately in a designated place. It was planted for a purpose. It was planted to grow, and it was planted to grow in that very place. There is great intentionality in this particular vision of God’s kingdom. It isn’t haphazard. It isn’t an accident. The tree does not grow by chance. The seed was taken by someone and sowed in a garden, a place where things are expected to change and nurtured and cared for while they grow.

And grow it did – not a small plant from a small seed, but a huge plant, a tree even came from that tiny little brown ball pushed down into the earth’s soil. The tree’s branches spread invitingly into the air, attracting birds who made their nests among them. The tree is more than something beautiful to look at. The tree does more than just produce the seeds it needs to perpetuate itself. The tree exists so that others will come to it, find rest and shelter, build their homes among it, and become a part of the picture and activity of the garden. The diversity and life in the garden expanded to include others because of the transformation of the seed.

This is the kingdom of God, Jesus says. This fresh vision, this picture of activity and growth and nurture and attention and intentionality -- This scenario of taking care of one another, of growing beyond what seems possible in order to serve in ways that seem natural -- This description of purpose and surprise and service -- Even this understanding that development and movement forward, transformation from the tiny seed to the welcoming tree, takes time (that tree didn’t grow in day) -- This is the kingdom of God, Jesus says, and this is the kingdom of which we are a part.

Last fall the leadership of this congregation took a retreat to begin to define what our next set of congregational goals will be. It has been a longer process than I first anticipated, but at the same time I think it has been a more challenging process, too. There are stages in life when goal setting seems easy either because the goals are more obvious or because the pressure is higher to make a decision. When this congregation was housed in an older building, where bats joined choir practice and stairs made accessibility an issue, the decision, while certainly not a quick one, was probably a little clearer. The options, at least, were probably a little more obvious, even if the final decision was not.

When a young person graduates from high school, again the choice may not be easy, but at least the opportunities are somewhat well-defined: education can continue formally through some sort of additional schooling, entering the workforce can be the next step. When our backs are against a wall, decision-making time and the definition of choices often becomes clearer, and the need to act seems more crucial.
However, when in life, there is no immediate crisis, when there is no major discernable fork in the road, clarification of new goals becomes a bit trickier, it seems even more challenging because the sense of urgency just isn’t as high. Why rock the boat, we may ask. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

But the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in a garden. The garden existed. I assume that means something was growing. It doesn’t sound like it was an empty plot of land just begging to be filled. There was something there, growing, going along just fine without one more seed to be sowed. But someone took that seed anyway, and planted it in the garden. Someone decided that something new needed to be done to add to the garden, enhance it, develop it, give it a new and continuing purpose no matter how “just fine” things seemed to be going. The kingdom needs transformation to continue being the kingdom of God.

As the body of leaders in this church, in the fall, the session took on the task of writing a sort of “kingdom parable” for our congregation. Pulling from the image of a garden, based somewhat on the biblical bend toward things of nature and based a LOT on the beauty of a number of gardens on this property, the guiding vision and setting for the parable is a garden. Hear the parable, try even to close your eyes and see the fresh vision, the purpose and call from God that our leaders discerned for this congregation:

“In the kingdom of God, our community of faith is called to be a welcoming garden planted and sustained by the Spirit of God. Many hands work as one to plan, sow, nurture, and harvest. Inviting diversity, we bloom in all season of life. With compassion for those who are weary, we provide continuous shelter, healing, support, and growth. From the abundance of blessings we receive, we celebrate and share with those close and far the nourishing and life-giving love of our Lord.”

The parable came after we worshiped and studied together, after we celebrated the ministries of our present and past and dreamed of ministries for our future. It is a vision of our congregation as one that has been purposely put in this place and is fed and nurtured and tended to by the Spirit of God. It is a place where many are called to the variety of tasks that it takes to maintain a garden, each with a job in any season or stage of life. The vision of our ministry takes note of God’s particular call to reach out with compassionate care for others, offer welcoming hospitality to all who come our way, and worship God with thanksgiving and celebration for the abundance we are blessed to share.

It is a rich and faithful vision of what this part of God’s kingdom is called specifically to do in this time and place. There is room for the diversity of our members and friends, but also a unifying purpose to provide a place of rest, a place of growth, and a place of engagement with God and with the world in which we live. This is our fresh vision for our church. Where within it do you see yourself?

Yesterday there was a gathering here in the church to begin answering that very question. Members of the congregation who attended and even those who sent their ideas, but couldn’t attend in person, shared ministries about which they are passionate, items they couldn’t imagine NOT being in our garden. They also shared new ministries toward which they feel a tug or call from God, new ways to engage our congregation in faithful ministries that will help us follow God’s call as it has been captured in our fresh garden vision.

Many of us thought this would be one of the final steps in the process of understanding the new goals God is setting before us, but I think, in the end, while it moved us forward, the specifics of those new goals are still a couple of months away. We did begin to identify specific gardens or ministries that will help us follow God’s call, that will give our family of faith the opportunity to get involved in the vision in specific areas of passion and energy. We determined there are multiple areas of ministry that will help us answer God’s call to be a compassionate, hospitable, and worshipful congregation, and now the next step is in the hands of the session.

In the coming weeks the session will be working diligently to reorganize our structure to fit the needs of our new vision, prioritize some of the on-going and developing ministries of the church, and plan how they will best communicate the specifics of our goals with the rest of the congregation. Please hold the session of this church in your prayers. Please lift them up into the light of God that they may seek God’s direction for this church and no one else’s. Please encourage them with your words and your support as they take the task before them seriously and spiritually.

Please also be prayerfully preparing yourselves for the exciting future that is coming. There are some amazing faithful ideas on the table that will tap into expressed interests to serve our community and our world in new ways. There are ideas that will help us grow closer to God and one another. The difficult part will come, however, as we decide which seeds we will plant in our garden and which seeds will have to wait or which existing plants will have to be thinned. Our garden cannot be sustained by just throwing seeds on top of seeds on top of seeds. We will have to be careful to use those plants that can live alongside each other, not competing for important resources of time, energy, and talent, but complementing each other with the right balance from among our members and friends. Be prayerful in the coming weeks and months as we are all engaged in discerning God’s leading for our church.

In worship for most of Lent, we will dig around a bit in the dirt of this garden. Using more parables from Luke’s gospel we will explore the three aspects of God’s call that the session discerned in September – compassion, hospitality, and worship. Again, those who were here yesterday discovered that it takes a variety of ministries in different areas for us to follow that call, but when they listened to the places where our congregation’s greatest passions seemed to meet our world’s deep hunger this is the call that they heard. Each week we will look at one of these portions of our call that as a united congregation we can see and follow the fresh vision before us.

May God’s grace surround us, Christ’s passion inspire, and the Spirit’s presence lead us as we tend to God’s garden in our midst.

The Law of Blessing

"Open my eyes, that I may see the wonders fo your law." Psalm 119:18
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." Matthew 5:9

Jesus, I want to be a peacemaker. I want to have your wisdom of when to speak and when to keep silent. I want to know when to move forward against obstacles and when to let obstacles topple themselves with their rigidity. I want to know how to ask the right question, lead the discussion in the right direction, and teach the right lesson at the right time to move people forward together instead of at odds with one another. I want to know how to speak the truth in love.

Jesus, I want to be a peacemaker, not to smooth things over, but to help us move closer to you and your will as a united body. I know it's not easy work, and I don't expect it to be, but I want to know how to do it. I want to know, though, what I can do, what I need to learn to be a peacemaker in your name, in your church.

Speak, Lord, for your child is listening. Amen.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Family Feud

James 3:17 "But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy."

Oh how providential that contention within the religious community might be the topic today. God, you are so funny.

The quick version of a long story that happened this morning is this: I was at a meeting of the ecumenical ministerial association today, a group that includes only 3 or 4 mainline churches (are American Baptists mainline?) among a group of about 12-15 ministries. I know that only one other pastor in the group shares a very similar left-of-center, but not activist, liberal theology. The rest sit on the extremely conservative-to-fundamentalist end of the spectrum. I wondered how they would tolerate me (as the only female among them) when I first came, but have experienced a warm, shall I say "peaceable and gentle" welcome. Whatever they may think about my leadership of a church, they have never spoken a negative word. (Somehow I did get skipped over in the line-up of preachers for the ecumenical Thanksgiving service, but until now when I'm starting to have doubts I never thought twice about that since I wasn't at the meeting and hoped to never do that anyway.)

So, anyway, my short story is turning long. Yesterday in a conversation about a speaker this gentleman and I had heard at the hospital, this other ministry leader said about the man, "I know he wasn't a believer since he talked several times about evolution." It was one statement in a larger summary of the man's talk, and one that frankly had NOTHING to do with the rest of the talk and added nothing to the summary at all. Besides that it was extremely hurtful to me.

I know it struck the other mainline pastor in attendance, the one with whom I share a similar theology because we both did sort of a double-take and had minor grumbling going on about the comment for the rest of the meeting. We were clearly being placed outside the realm of believers and the Christian community by this man, even without his knowledge. He was sure that TRUE Christians are of a single-mind on this issue, and you couldn't possibly be a faithful Christian or minister if you believed anything else.

I'm not one to engage in confrontations on these kinds of things, but this time I did. I would not have had he not come to me after the meeting to let me know of some anti-Christ literature he saw displayed in my church that needed to be removed (an educational pamphlet about Islam that was placed in our literature rack after an adult education event that we had to separate the myths from the facts about the faith). Apparently when he was in our building for an ecumenical meeting it saw it, was appalled, and thought I must not have known this dangerous material was in our church. I did; I put it there.

I let him know that I had not found it offensive, but isn't it interesting how people of faith can disagree about some topic? "On that note, actually," I said....

I went on to explain how his comment about someone who spoke about evolution not being a believer built a huge wall in this ecumenical group that put myself and others on the outside. I explained that it offended me to have my faith dismissed completely because of where I stand on this one issue. I told him that I felt his words disregarded me (and others) as Christians, pointing out that this is not an issue about which people of faith are of a single mind.

He looked at me with utter shock, saying he didn't realize that this was not the accepted belief of all Christians.

A few hours later he did e-mail me an apology not for his beliefs, which I would never even hope for him to do, but for his assumptions in his comment. It made it feel a little better, and I accepted his apology, offering the forgiveness he requested. At the same time it feels a bit like the toothpaste has been squeezed out of the tube and can't go back in. I know his thought is that evolution and the Christian faith are incompatible. He knows where I stand on this issues. We were peaceable, gentle, willing to yield to some extent. We guarded against hypocrisy for both of our viewpoints. I wonder where we are on the mercy piece, though. I wonder if I will ever feel comfortable in that group. I wonder if he does or ever will accept my faith as different on this point, but valid and strong just the same.

Prayer: May your peace, O Christ, be with your believers. May we trust in your alone and not our divisive theologies. May we honor you through our mutual forebearance and our willingness to work together for your purpose. Amen.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Truth about God

Psalm 51:6 "For behold, you look for truth deep within me, and will make me understand wisdom secretly."

What I know about God:
God cares.
God loves.
God accompanies - now, back then, and tomorrow.
God listens.
God speaks.
God challenges.
God doesn't take the easy road and rarely leads me that way either.
God purifies.
God forgives.
God takes what I can't handle when I bother to give it away.
God calls.
God changes.
God responds.
God cries.
God is in it for the long haul - all in.
God believes.
God holds herself back, but loves without restraint.
God knows.
God leads.
God redeems.
God transforms.

It's interesting. This morning in my sermon I poked a little fun at the seemingly ridiculous nature of the lists of adjectives in the Westminster Catechism, as if a list can do anything to paint a helpful picture. When challenged to write what I "know in my bones" a simple list is what comes. Anything more complex would be a major work of mental theology. One difference between what Westminster does and what came naturally to me is that Westminster uses adjectives, and mine is based in verbs. What I know for sure, what I know is real is not "about" God; it's what I have experienced God doing.

Thank you, God, for being a doing God. Thank you for your activity, your living, your relationship with me. May I live in your truth, O God. Amen.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Counting My Blessings

Psalm 39:4

I have had a bit of a grumpy afternoon, so the suggestion of counting my blessings for today is probably a bit of divine intervention.

I woke up healthy and sort of rested.

The baby is kicking.

A few more participants showed up a church for the planning session than I was expecting.

Everyone participated.

There is energy and passion in the area of spiritual growth.

The session agreed to meet again soon, outside of a regular meeting.

Lots of folks pitched to help with set up and clean up.

My kids are happy and healthy.

We had good family time tonight.

I am able to (can afford to) let them ride rides at Mall of America.

They are sweet and polite enough to be happy with just 2 rides each.

Sweet baby boy kisses, even though he's not a baby anymore.

A big girl who asks good questions, tries to tell jokes, and still wants to give a hug at the end of the night.

My electric blanket.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for asking me to pause and see what's going on in my life and in my day. Thank you, God, for blessing me in diverse ways. Thank you, God, for all of my days and the people I love with whom I share them. Thank you, God. Amen

Friday, February 19, 2010

Friday Five: Happy Lent!

I've got one of my own kids home today and two of the neighbors' so I have don't my writing from the Lent devotional guide yet. I'm itching to do it, but I haven't had a moment to myself since I woke up at 6:00 a.m.. The neighbors head home in about 45 minutes and then my kiddo will have a rest time. I'll do it then. HOWEVER, I can do a Friday Five!

1. Did you celebrate Mardi Gras/Shrove Tuesday this year? Any memories of memorable celebrations past?
Our church did have a Pancake Supper on Tuesday. Last year was the first one in any recent memory. It was a fun time for the whole church family (and mine). We had pancakes and sausage, then went into the sanctuary where the worship band led a bunch of gospely/bluegrassy songs. It's particularly fun because they also throw in some good kid-friendly songs, and the kids spend the whole time dancing around at the front of the sanctuary without any parents having to worry about "reigning them in." No real memorable celebrations. I haven't done much with Mardi Gras/Shrove Tuesday in the past.

2. How about Ash Wednesday, past and/or present?
We did worship together on Ash Wednesday, and it was a blessing to many, I think. We did a stations based worship service so one of the benefits (for me) was the need for little preparation. I wrote about my Ash Wednesday qualms below. After those reflections and really in the actual moment of "ashing" folks, I gave myself permission to change up what I say as I do that. I really liked it. I did the usual "From dust you have come..." for some of the time. I did "You will always be with God" for the children. I also used "In life and in death you belong to God" for some based on the situation. We have an elderly man who has decided to live with his cancer as long as possible instead of treat it. I don't think the dust message was the one I was called to deliver to him. "In life and in death" though, that's a promise I could share when I looked into his eyes.

3. Does your denomination or congregation celebrate "this joyful season"? Any special emphases or practices to share?
More and more Presbyterian churches are "celebrating" Lent, but it's definitely church by church. I have emphasized it the 2 years I have been in solo ministry. As an associate pastor for 5 years before that, I mostly went with the flow of whatever the other pastor was emphasizing (I worked with 3 different ones in that time). The church did all the "holy days" of the season, but disciplines among individuals or as a congregation were pretty spotty.

This year I'm not feeling the major solemn atmosphere of the season. That and the lectionary was just heavy for me this time around. I was hearing the Spirit. Tomorrow as a congregation we have a planning session to begin to discern new direction and ministries to which God is calling us. The session already did a visioning session in the fall at which they wrote a parable for our church (an understanding of what our church would look like if all was going exactly as God intends for us) and identified three areas of ministry for which we are uniquely gifted. I'm only here for 4 Sundays in Lent (on vacation the week before Palm Sunday), so I'm going to preach about the visiong process itself on Sunday, the day after it took place, and then each of the next 3 Sundays I'll work with the 3 ministry themes. Since the session did it's visioning with an activity about parables, I chose 4 Lukan parables to be my texts for preaching during all of this.

So, it's not a "usual" Lent, but definitely still in the spirit of growth and introspection (albeit as a community) and moving foward as disciples of Christ. It will probably just be a little more positive and celebratory than many Lents can be. I'm OK with that.

4. Do you have a personal plan of give-ups, take-ons, special ministries, and/or a special focus for your own spiritual growth between now and Easter?
Well, I didn't really come up with a good give-up this time around. I am committing myself to devotional time each day. I am NOT good at keeping up with a dedicated routine or scheduled time for prayer and study, so with a resource I enjoy and the blog (and hopefully readers for encouragement) I hope this will help me grow into a more regular discipline that lasts beyond Lent.

5. What is your dream for the image of Christ coming to perfection in you, the church, the world? How can we support you in prayer?
I'll take this one as a multiple choice instead of answering all three! The church is on my mind because of our planning and discernment session tomorrow. I dream that we will join together to be of one mind about our ministry and united in purpose and calling. We aren't in a divisive place right now, but in a goal-less place. The active folks are activie in a gazillion different ways and the less active people don't know where to jump in or start their own things. Everyone feels pulled in too many directions by our commitments in LOTS of places in the community. Unity of spirit and purpose would be a LOVELY way to display the image of Christ! Feel free to pray for us tomorrow morning as we meet 9:30-12:30 central time (or any other time - I'm sure God can work all that out). The staff and leaders will stay on until 2:00 p.m.

Bonus: Song, prayer, picture, etc. that sums up your feelings about this liturgical springtime.
Well, this one doesn't really sum up my feelings about the season, but it's one of the Lent/Holy Week hymns that I love to hear the most. It's sort of out of character for me in one way (crucifixion hymn with lots of focus on the violence), but totally IN character for me as a spiritual. I'm pretty sure if I believed in reincarnation I was African-American in another life. The music just speaks to me like no other.

A Piece of Infinity

Psalm 102:11

If may days are so short and so fleeting in the grand scheme of things, why are thy here at all? Why bother, God? Why bother with my personality, my individual quirks, my gifts, my annoying habits, my short-comings, my successes, the things at which I excell? Why bother with any of us if we are just a blip in a nanosecond of eternity? If we just wither like grass or fade like a shadow? Why bother?

What shape do I make in your kingdom? What shade do I provide? What interest do I add? What purpose do I serve for the limited time I have on this side of creation?

Show me, God. Lead me to discover and quiet me to listen to your voice. Help me to trust the skills you have given me enough to really use them to serve you and your purpose. Give me confidence to step out in faith and know that I am equipped to serve not because of something I have conjured up, but because of the strength you give me - - and you really do give it to me. Help me believe what I tell others - you have made me good enough to do the job that is set before me, to answer the call I have heard.

Your love, O Lofd, is from everlasting to everlasting. Amen

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Precious in God's sight

"Precious in your sight, O Lord, is the death of your servants." (Psalm 116:15)

I have on my desk here at the church, not in any sort of frame, but just on the top of a stack of photos that have gathered for one reason or another, a picture taken from on the day of my baptism - April something, 1977. It's one of the few pictures of my father that I see on regular basis. My parents divorced just a few years later, right about the time I turned 4. We kept up a relationship with my dad, every other weekends, 2 weeks in the summer, a week after Christmas, and often Spring Break when we lived close, then most of the usual school breaks when we moved a few states away, then a chunk of summer and a week at Christmas when he moved an ocean away. When I went to college relatively close to him, we visited once a semester or so, and I took advantage of his proximity to Washington DC for some weekend getaways with girlfriends or a hockey game with my boyfriend. After that when locations weren't quite as convenient (although only a 6 hour drive from him to where I lived in seminary) we didn't see each other as much. I think it was 3 years between visits from my graduation from college to my ordination in my first call. he came back to see me a year later at my wedding.

The next time I saw him was 2 years later when he was dying in a hospital room, and I was 36 weeks pregnant. I had flown back east on the last possible day the airlines would let me travel to say my goodbyes. He died 4 weeks later, the night before I delivered my first child.

I don't keep a lot of pictures of him around really because I never did before either, and it hasn't occcurred to me too much to do it now. There were a lot of rough years in my late teens and twenties when I just didn't like the way he chose to be a father. I wasn't upset about the geographical distance, but his dislike of phones as a method of communication seemed to be a stupid excuse for not keeping in touch with your own children to me. I spend a lot of time earlier trying to force our relationship to be something I had idealized in my head, and finally in college and seminary I accepted it just would always be something different. I took the pressure off myself to make it perfect and just let it lie wherever it fell.

Since there were such long stretches between our visits and even in our contacts in those last few years, sometimes, even those it's now been almost 5 years since he died, I forget that he died. I forget to think about him at all. It's strange.

Then something will happen to bring the subject up. My daughter will find my baby book and ask who that man is. Or I'll tell a story about something that happened when I was a child with him, and she'll mix up the man she knows as her grandfather (my step-father since I was 7) with my dad. Or she'll ask her dad who his "first dad" was since she seems to sort of get I had a first then a second dad. There is also this blank part (well, one of many, but that's another story altogether) in the kids' baby books in the family tree section because I still haven't decided who to put on the maternal grandfather side. (They really need to update those formats for really goofy families!) Someday I'll need to explain it all a little further to her, but not yet. It doesn't seem worth it to tell her that families don't always stay together if the issue hasn't confronted her yet.

But when I do, I think I know what I'll say. People have relationships in different ways. People show love in different ways. It took me a long time to realize that even though he didn't like to talk on the phone, and even though he didn't accept invitations to come to the biggest orchestra concerts of my life, and even though he wouldn't make the drive to visit me unless there was a really good golf course nearby, he loved me in his own way, the only way he knew how. Unfortunately for me that was a very silent way, and it took me a long time to figure it out, but I know it now, and I believe it.

I also love what I got from him and shared with him. I know I got my love for off the beaten path travel. I don't necessarily mean major adventures, but travel that stays out of the big tourist cities and finds a small village and a gasthaus and shares a few (or more) beers with the locals. I love getting to know people in a new place, not just seeing their sites. I love that my dad was comfortable wherever he went and made friends anywhere. He had no worries about whether he was hanging with the 4 star general or the waitress at his favorite bar. He had was blind to social status in an admirable way. He could walk into a bar (there's a bar in just about every story of my father, but again, that's a story for another day) knowing not one soul and come out with a friend, a golf date, or in his later years a promise for another game of darts on another afternoon. I love that about him. There was no pretension, no concern if this person was the kind with whom he should be seen, or that person looked sort of weird and should be avoided. He was street smart, for sure, but that didn't mean he was closed of and overly-cautious. I love that I can see all of that now, and I hope I can grow into that part of who he was.

God, in life and in death, I belong to you. I don't know what kind of faith my father did or didn't have. I don't know what was in his head or his heart. At the same time, I know it doesn't matter what I know. I trust that you care for all of your children, especially those who struggled and suffered with inner demons of their own. Thank you for the ways my father influenced my life. Thank you for the struggles that made me stronger and showed me how I want to be a parent. Thank you for the positive impressions he left in my life. In the name of your son, I pray. Amen.

(About the picture - - As a young boy my father lived in Austria, just after WWII, in the original Von Trapp family mansion. By that time it had been divided into a few different apartments and was occupied by military families like his. One of my FAVORITE memories from when he lived in Germany during my elementary and junior high years was going on a trip to Austria to see Salzburg and the surrounding areas. As a HUGE The Sound of Music fan even as a child, I was bursting with excitement to see their (and his home) and climb in those mountains with the edelweiss. I was devastated to find it is illegal to pick them, but have never forgotten the sight of them in the grass. The memory is probably better than the dead flower in a book anyway. This picture was just found on a random website with no copyright info anywhere to be found, as with just about all the pictures I use here.)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

I really liked the Lenten devotional guide produced by Presbyterians Today when I flipped through it. It came with the January issue and has been sitting on my desk waiting for today ever since. I haven't been great about keeping up with daily prayer/devotional disciplines since college, so I've been excited to try something new this year. Sure, I could have started it before Lent, but having a specific start date somehow helped me gear up, get excited, and strengthen my resolved to stay committed.

I also think this will be my only Lent discipline. I have done a combination of things in different years, but nothing authentic was coming to me this year. This, however, is something I've been looking forward to for a while, so I think this is the way to go. Also, sacrificing cravings and pregnancy just don't sound like a good mix to me! So here I go with my thoughts and reflections on Praying Through Lent with heart, soul, mind and body.

Ash Wednesday
Genesis 3:19

Ash Wednesday has always been one of my least favorite holy days as a pastor. It's not something I mind as a worshipper. I mean, I'm OK with the discomfort it brings to me as an individual person of faith, but as a pastor it's a hard one for me to lead. I don't really like imposing ashes on others. Some year I would like to move to a tradition of having folks "ash" each other so it doesn't feel like I'm the only one imposing this sentence on others. Last year the day or week before I had had a very uncomfortable, but honest conversation with a congregation member just before Ash Wednesday. It was a couple, actually, and they called me out on missing opportunities to offer them pastoral care. It was completely called for, and they were totally in the "right." When Ash Wednesday came, I was able to ask the husband (the wife did not come to the service) when he came through the line to put my ashes on me. It was wonderfully meaningful for us both and went a long way in healing that relationship.

When I felt those ashes and heard those words, last year, I felt forgiven. I had been beating myself up over my lapse in pastoral care and somehow the pronouncement in that moment was at the same time the last recognition of my failure and the forgiveness for it at the same time. It was like I was let off the hook, but was a mutual recognition among myself, this man, and God that I made a mistake, I had been confronted, and, by the grace of God, there was only one way to go from there. I think it was a sense of relief and letting go.

The devotional offers alternative words for use with children in the ash liturgy, "You will always be with God." I like that, I think. In my first call we only ever had one family that came to Ash Wednesday services. I will never forget the time they offered their then 3 year old daughter to me to receive ashes. THAT was hard. I will be the first to admit I'm not ready to think about a 3 year old "returning to dust." My own children came to Ash Wednesday services for the first time last year, too, and that was another hard one - a 3 1/2 year old and 18 month old. It was hard not only to do, but hard to explain later. In fact the explanation flopped. I can't tell if this year will be easier or harder since they have now experienced in their recent memory the death of a great-grandparent. "You will always be with God" is a message I can talk about with them and even in the context of death.

Shoot, it might not be a bad way to impose ashes with adults, too! I might add to it or adjust it a little to go with "In life and in death, you belong to God." I've got a few hours to think on that.

My prayer:
God of life and God of death, in today's ritual I find release and comfort. It feels good to confront my mortality and claim my imperfections. It releases me from striving for something I will never reach, but challenges me to grow closer to you and your holiness. Give me strength today as I live out my calling. Make my attitude in ministering one of servanthood and humility. Help me to speak the truth of your love, forgiveness, and mercy to others as well as myself. Amen.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

In the Middle of All This

Luke 9:28-43

Anytime a passage begins with a reference to some other event, it clues me in that these two might be connected in some way. Maybe the first informs how I will read the second or the second explains the first further. Either way, when a passage starts “Now about eight days after these sayings,” as today’s does, I think we just have to go back and see what “these sayings” are before we can go forward to see what was so important that took place eight days later.

In this case, it turns out, they weren’t easy sayings. Eight days before Jesus was asking his disciples who the crowds say that he is. Eight days before Jesus posed the question to them, “Who do you say that I am?” Eight days before Peter declared “The Messiah of God” and Jesus explained “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Eight days ago the conversations were difficult and confusing and sounding very un-divine, if there even were such a word. Eight days ago violence was the topic of the day.

Another thing that helps when reading a passage like this one, with a story that comes up again and again, year after year, in the life cycle of the church, is to read a little farther than you usually do to see what comes next. The story of the Transfiguration is always the story on the Sunday right before Lent starts, if we choose to follow the ecumencial lectionary. It works sort of as a transition story – one last epiphany revelation of this Jesus who is also the Christ before we move toward the season of Lent, Jesus’ journey to the cross. On this Sunday, we usually read the story of how that happened on a mountain top.

However, this morning we read a little further. We heard about what happened when Jesus, Peter, John, and James came down from the mountain. Immediately when they get down from this mountaintop experience, they are thrown back into the middle of real life. The crowds are all over them as usual. And, as they have probably come to expect, in the crowd is at least one very needy person. A man, a father, yells out for Jesus to come take a look at his tragically sick, demon-possessed son.

Hard times never wait, do they? The sick, the cursed, the poor, the aching, those gripped by demons and spirits, they are always there and always pressing for healing, freedom, release from captivity. On the mountain top the disciples and Jesus may have experienced a moment of divine other-worldliness and revelation, but as they came down the mountain they ran face-to-face right back into the real world and the life they had left behind, if only for the night.

It’s a world we know well. A world where, like before the experience on the mountain, violence is always a topic of concern. A world where an elementary school teacher shoots a principal and vice-principal, a biology professor opens fire in the middle of a faculty meeting. A world where bombs blast in bakeries. A world where military operations against difficult to define opponents are a part of our everyday news and concern.

We know other kinds of tragedy, too. A young athlete killed chasing his dreams. A artist in his prime takes his own life. The citizens of one of the poorest nations in the world are paralyzed under the weight of rubble from their destroyed cities and villages. Diagnoses are received and cancer has returned with little hope for successful treatment. The world we face, the life we live, at the bottom of the mountain might leave many of us wishing we could turn and run back to the top to remember and relish in the glory that was revealed. The world we face living at the bottom of the mountain is messy, tragic, and earthy. It can feel un-divine and as if it is spiraling out of control.

It’s everything the Transfiguration isn’t. Up on that mountain, it’s as if they have left the world behind. Up on that mountain, as Jesus is praying, the divine mingles with creation. It becomes what Celtic Christians call a “thin place,” a place where heaven and earth touch, where God seems more readily present, more easily accessed than in the day-to-day. Up on that mountain, the heroes of years gone by come to offer support and testimony to God's faithfulness; they provide a link to the promises and miracles of the past and speak of the future that is still yet to come. Up on that mountain, even if only for a little while, the veil is lifted and the glory of God shines brighter than the sun. The incarnation, God in human flesh, Emmanuel, God with us, is revealed and the divine voice is heard loud and clear, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

There is no doubt who is in control. There is no doubt that the Holy One is present and in charge. There seems in that moment so little need to worry about anything that Peter rushes to find a way to make it last forever. There is something eternal about the experience, ethereal, mystical, revealing, and comforting. The veil has been lifted and, as terrifying as it is at the same time, everything seems right with the world.

Who wouldn’t want to stay? Who wouldn’t want to pitch a tent, build a booth, and just camp out up there forever where God is obvious, Jesus is within arms’ reach, and the beacon of the Spirit’s radiance is blinding? Who wouldn’t want to stay when the only talk of what will happen down there is talk of departure, a second exodus, what Jesus has already said would be a violent end? Who wouldn’t be like Peter wanting to stay in this thin place forever?

Going back down the mountain means going back to the reality of what waits, masses of suffering people without reliable healthcare, endless political arguments that seem to only divide the public more instead of bring them closer to understanding and mutual purpose, the starving and the near starving waiting at the fringe for someone to notice them and help them fill their bowls, the threat of violence that might break out at an unexpected turn in the road. Going back down the mountain means going back down into the middle of all this where the signs of God’s presence aren’t as obvious as the sudden appearance of dazzling white clothes, a face that shines like the sun, and heavenly conferences with Moses and Elijah. It means re-entering a messy, needy, tragic, and broken world where it seems, at least, there are few obvious signs of the presence and glory of God…

…which is exactly why Jesus does it. Reality hits as soon as they descend. A crowd hits them first, and rising above the din of the crowd comes the shout of an anxious and desperate father. His son is suffering at the hands of a spirit that squeezes him and shakes him and causes him to shriek uncontrollably. The father, like any father would, tried everything and even brought his boy to the disciples of the one about whom he had heard so much. Yet, when the Teacher wasn’t around the students seemed incompetent, and it’s to them that I believe Jesus addresses his frustration.

He isn’t going to be around forever. He made that clear in the week before. His physical presence in the middle of this hurting world is limited and seems to be drawing closer and closer to an end. He isn’t always going to be the one who is here in the middle of the suffering and the pain, and his worry seems to be that after this departure he discussed with Moses and Elijah no one will be there to carry out his ministry of compassion, his mission to release those held captive by evil spirits and systems.

The disciples don’t seem to get it yet that this is their job. They don’t seem to get that by the power of their relationship with Jesus, by their proximity to him, they have the ability to do his work in the world. They have MORE than the ability, they have the responsibility, the mandate to act as he would act, to heal as he would heal, to serve as he would serve, to love as he would love. They have the call and apparently, whether they know it or not, whether they have trust and faith in it or not, they have the power to make changes in the lives of those who are suffering and struggling.

At that moment they don’t seem to have that trust and faith. They don’t have the whole picture yet. The predictions of Jesus’ death are still just predications, not the foretelling we know them to be. The foreshadowing of the glorious radiance of the resurrected Jesus glowing in dazzling white clothes is just an image in their minds, not a connection to what we know will come again in the future. They don’t have the luxury of knowing what we do – that this one who stands before them and trusts them with his work and his word truly is the one who can free the world from endless cycles of despair – so it’s understandable that they are slow to act in his absence.

Yet it’s less understandable when we mimic their pace. Our world, we can see, isn’t all that different. The technology has changed. The worldview is larger, but around us there is still poverty and violence, unnamed fathers and mothers crying out on behalf of children who are being choked and shaken by the circumstances that grip their lives. And still Jesus is expecting his followers to do something about it. Still Jesus is anticipating and mandating that those who bear his name in the world, bear it with his same passion for healing and serving those who need it most. Still Jesus is calling the Church to step up in faith to use the gifts we have been given not to perpetuate an institution, but to share his love, his glory, his presence with those around us who need it the most.

The Transfiguration doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It isn’t an event isolated from the story and the world around it. It is a miraculous glimpse of hope in world that can seem hopeless. It is the lifting of a veil, a revelation that even in the middle of all of this God is still in charge. It is at demonstration of the power that is inside and behind this Jesus we claim to follow, the power that is inside and behind the community of believers who follow in his name and his steps. For just a moment, in this thin place at the top of a mountain the glory of God was revealed, but that doesn’t have to be the end of revelation.

It happened again and again in the gospel accounts. It can and should be happening again and again today. Every time a son or daughter was healed by his word or touch, the glory and will of God was revealed. Every time a starving belly was filled with the bread from his hands, the glory and will of God was revealed. Every time a word of challenge was or IS spoken to authorities who oppress and belittle the people they serve, the glory and will of God is revealed. Every time a person in poverty or on its brink is given the tools she needs to live a fulfilling life, the glory and will of God is revealed.

This is our call as his followers. This is our mission as the ones who trust in his life and his name. We have been changed and empowered by the same Spirit that changed his face before the eyes of Peter, John, and James. May our words and actions reflect that change, and reveal his love and compassion as brightly in middle of all we see.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Cleansing and Calling

Isaiah 6:1-8

I like to imagine this scene the way it might be directed in a film. The opening seems so familiar to me. A young man, looking a little tired, a little lost, mostly just aimless and disinterested walks into a cavernous, empty cathedral. The camera is high and way at the back, so really he enters the picture from the bottom. He kneels before he enters a pew, revealing his history with religion, even if his present status is more ambiguous. The young man slips into a pew, simply looking for anonymous place to pray, a place to be with himself, a place to be with God.

The scene doesn’t stay empty for long, though, at least not in the telling of Isaiah’s encounter with God. A sudden awareness of another presence forces Isaiah to look up where he sees the Lord sitting on a high and lofty throne. Actually, he doesn’t see the Lord, because the Lord is too big and too dangerous to see. Even the seraphs, the six-winged angelic creatures attending to God, had to cover their faces with their wings in the presence of God’s glory.

God is so big, in this vision physically and as a divine presence, that Isaiah can only see the hem of his robe which completely fills the temple. The temple fills with smoke, the accumulation of offerings made to God for centuries, and as the seraphs call to one another “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory,” the thresholds shook violently. Isaiah knows he is in the presence of majesty and power, holiness and perfection, righteousness and purity.

And suddenly, in the presence of that purity, Isaiah is acutely and shamefully aware of his own imperfection, his own impurity. He cries out in confession, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!” He realizes the incongruity of a sinful, imperfect human being dwelling in the presence of the King, the Lord of hosts. Seeing the righteousness of God, Isaiah becomes much more aware of his own unrighteousness. Standing in the presence of perfection, knowing God’s desire for him to serve, he sees even more clearly is own imperfection.

I see two possible responses that human beings often have to this realization of imperfection. The first is the response of making excuses. I trust that I am not alone in the making and hearing of these kinds of excuses.

You know this is really not a perfect time to encounter you God, to worship you. It is certainly not a perfect time to serve you. I am really busy with the kids. My career is just beginning to take off, and in a few more years I’ll have the status and position in which I can be more flexible with my time.

Or, the kids are gone and the nest is empty; once we spend a little time re-connecting with one another we’ll re-connect with you, God.

Or I’m too young, God. There isn’t much for me to do in your service at this point, but I promise that I’ll be ready to serve you someday when I’m old enough to do something that counts. The other side of that coin is this -- I’m old God. I have served my time and done my duty. It’s someone else’s turn to pick up the torch of service and carry it for a while.

If “place in life” excuses don’t feel quite right, what about these: I’m not good enough. I’m disorganized. I don’t know enough. I’m not faithful enough, Christian enough, or sinless enough to serve you God.

We make these excuses in the hopes that it will turn the asker away. We hope that will convince God that we can’t possibly serve, and God will move on to ask someone else, at least for now, and maybe for good. We will point out to God all that is imperfect in God’s choice and the burden of the call will be lifted as someone else is tasked with the call that was first made to us.

Sometimes we even make these excuses in full faithfulness because we intend to fix ourselves; we intend to make ourselves perfect and ready for God’s service. New Year’s resolutions are a perfect place to hide our excuses. They are a sign of our wonderful intentions to make ourselves better people so that we can live better lives. Yet even one month later, how many of us are still so resolved to make these changes in our lives?

The problem is that we can’t make ourselves better. We can’t make ourselves perfect and pure and whole and completely ready to serve God and God’s people. We do not have the ability to make ourselves holy and put ourselves in a state that is worthy of receiving and following God’s call. Not one of us will ever be ready on our own accord to dwell in the holy presence of the divine, to serve God’s purposes, to fulfill the Lord’s requests.

Isaiah realizes this. He realizes his own impurity and inability to make himself ready and perfect, and so his response is the one which God desires. Heartfelt and faithful, it is painful and difficult to do in private and even more so in the presence of God and a community. Isaiah confesses his imperfection to God. A man who is called to serve God with his words and his speech confesses that his lips are unclean. The most important tool he has for answering God’s call is the very source of his momentarily crippling imperfection. He confesses his impurity and lays it before the holy one in faith, for despite this impurity, Isaiah proclaims, I am seeing the King, the Lord of hosts!

Notice, though, how when Isaiah confesses his uncleanliness he is not told to come back later when he is clean. God does not send him away to go fix himself and rid himself of this impurity and imperfection. Isaiah is not off the hook because of his confession. God does not respond with a dismissing, “Oh! Well, nevermind. You’re lips are unclean. I’ll go find someone more perfect and more ready to serve for this task.”

Instead God essentially agrees with Isaiah. Without saying a word God tells Isaiah, “You’re right. You’re not clean. You’re right. You’re not holy, not perfect, not ready to serve me.” But with the actions of the seraph God’s full message is delivered. “I will cleanse you. I will make you more holy. I will get rid of your imperfections. I will make you ready to serve me. Only I can do it, and I will because I long for your service and your worship.”

God’s response comes in the form of a cleansing, purifying fire coal taken straight from the altar of God. Touching the coal to Isaiah’s mouth, the seraph declares that Isaiah’s guilt has departed and his sin is blotted out. That which separated him from God’s holiness has been taken away by God’s holiness. It is then, in this momentary experience of holiness that Isaiah fully hears the voice of God, not just the angels, and he hears God calling for one to be sent. Cleansed from his unworthiness and impurity, Isaiah is ready to follow God.

In Isaiah God did not call a perfect man to deliver a divine word. God did not wait for Isaiah to get his life in order and learn more and believe more and understand more and develop his gift more. God did not expect this servant to be the perfect package from the start, but God knew how to use him anyway. God knew how to take an imperfect human, confessing his faults and his impurities, and clean him up, purge his sin from him, and use him for a greater service in God’s own time, not according to his own calendar and sense of preparedness.

Not one of us lives in the perfect condition, worthy of serving God who calls us. But in calling us, imperfect men and women, young and old, God makes us ready for that service – cleansing us and forgiving us when we confess our imperfections, clearing our ears and preparing our hearts to answer the calling willingly and enthusiastically, “Here am I; send me!”