Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Scriptural GPS

A friend of mine, while trying to navigate her way to a job interview in rural Vermont plugged in her trusty GPS, Global Positioning System, to help her find her way. It did its job, or so she thought, finding the quickest, most efficient route from her home in Massachusetts. However, as she though she was nearing her final destination at a little church in a village nestled in the mountains, she encountered this road sign on a snow and ice covered road. Apparently she wasn’t the first out-of-towner who naively trusted her GPS to help her find the way.I guess they haven’t programmed those magical little devices for the magic of winter wonderland.

The lawyer Jesus encounters in Luke’s gospel is also looking for an efficient path. Not wanting to waste any time or energy on unnecessary tasks, he asks Jesus for the correct route information. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is the quickest way from here to there?” he wonders. “What is the bare minimum I have to do to get where I want to go? Exactly how many people are my neighbors?”

The priest and the Levite in the parable, however, seem to know exactly where to go. They are trusting whole-heartedly in the GPS they have been given – the accepted rules and traditions of the culture and religions. Seeing the mangled man in the road ahead, their navigational devices immediately recalculate their routes for them, draw for them detours that take them to the other side of the road.

Strict laws against touching the dead, which is what the traveler looked like, would have reasonably prevented them from intervening. A priest presumably on his way to intercede for others in the complex world of ritual and sacrifice would have defiled himself and made himself completely useless to the faithful who depended on his actions if he had touched a corpse along the way. Likewise a Levite, whose job came to him by his bloodline, meaning there are a limited number of men in the world who could do what he did, could not make a similar risk to his ritual status, to his level of purification. The GPS they had been given for living their lives told them to do exactly what they did, avoid this man, dead or close to it, in the road. The expectations of their roles came with certain understandings about what they should and shouldn’t do, and touching an unclean man, even if it could save his life? That just didn’t seem acceptable at the time.

The church gets sucked into the mindset sometimes, too. We get caught up in the trap of trying to act acceptably in our community. At the very least we are tempted by the cultural GPS in the same way. Voices out there speak and try to tell us that our realm of activity and circle of care shouldn’t stretch beyond our walls. They shout that working for social justice and the fair treatment of other is outside the acceptable scope of our ministry. There are those who argue that that church should keep to the church and just care for its own.

There are even those who make that argument within the church. Why should our congregation or our denomination speak up about conflicts in other lands? Why should be engage in the debates about health care or civil rights or human trafficking? Why does the church speak about responsible investments or legislative advocacy? What does the church need to say about fair wages or fair trade? The church, cry voices inside and out, is perfectly suited to care for its own, for our own, so why should the church, why should Christians meddle in affairs beyond our walls? Why should we care beyond our family, beyond ourselves, beyond our local neighbors?

“How much is enough?” these questions are asking, just like the lawyer who tests Jesus. “Is it enough to pray for the people who are hurting in our congregation? Is it enough to pool our resources to try to help each other out of tough financial situations? Is it enough to feed our friends with physical and spiritual food when they are suffering and mourning? Is it enough, Jesus, to care for the people we know, we love, with whom we worship?

Or do we need to go further? How much is enough? Is it enough to serve dinner to our youth and the youth of our neighboring churches? Is it enough to collect food for the struggling families at the school down the road? Is it enough to venture a little further and serve a meal at the homeless shelter? Is that enough, Jesus, to care for the anonymous people we hear about, we pity, with whom we share a community?

Or do we need to go further? How much is enough?

The Samaritan certainly went further. His GPS, both geographical and cultural seems to be completely broken because no Samaritan would EVER have accepted a route that took him through this Jewish territory. It just wasn’t done. Samaritans didn’t like Jews; Jews didn’t like Samaritans. The bad blood between them dated back hundreds of years. There was no reason this Samaritan should have been walking this road against all cultural, all political, all social expectations. These people don’t mix, and any useful Samaritan GPS would have kept this man OFF this road.

It was dangerous for him to be there. He was looking for trouble in a foreign land, traveling through a territory that was culturally, ethnically, and religiously different from everything familiar in his life. The people back home would certainly tell him if they could that this was not wise, not safe, not acceptable by any of their usual standards. He deliberately put himself right in the middle of a setting where he was bound to meet someone very different from himself, and it was likely to be a risky and life-changing encounter. As he travelled that road and approached the half-dead man in his path, what he then chose to do can only be described as an act of compassion.

That much is enough, Jesus says. That much is real compassion. Compassion isn’t about just loving and caring for the people everyone expects you to love and care for. Although that is CERTAINLY a starting point. Caring for our family, caring for our church community, the poor of our city and country, the families that are struggling in our immediate neighborhoods (because they are there and here whether we choose to see them in the road or not) is certainly the beginning of compassion. It just isn’t the end.

Compassion is risky, vulnerable behavior. Compassion is opening ourselves up to the idea that there are people who are very different who we are called to serve, and there are people who are very different who are called to serve us. Compassion is not limiting ourselves to the acceptable, predictable, efficient path of life and faith, but opening ourselves to detours and longer routes. Compassion is about searching for the more difficult journey with hidden opportunities to love others with our actions in Jesus’ name. Compassion isn’t a thought we have or a belief we apply to some theory about who Jesus is and what he wants us to do. Compassion is real life action.

After decades of studying the three monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and especially their struggles to exist with each other, author Karen Armstrong began to see something that seemed off the mark in our contemporary practices of our faith traditions. Armstrong noticed that people of faith spend a lot of time worrying about what we believe with our heads, what the Qu’ran calls zanna, by her definition “the self-indulgent guess work about matter that nobody can be certain of one way or the other, but which makes people quarrelsome and stupidly sectarian.” She argues that while we spend all this time and energy on thinking about our belief in our head religion is really about behaving differently. “Instead of deciding whether or not you believe in God, first you do something. You behave in a committed way, and then you begin to understand the truths of religion. And religious doctrines are meant to be summons to action; you only understand them when you put them into practice.”

This disconnect, she proposes, is part of the reason so many people in the world, particularly so many who claim to be a part of the three Abrahamic faiths, find themselves as odds, even very VIOLENT odds, with one another. At the core of all of our faiths is a call to compassion, a call to loving care for all people on earth. Unfortunately for all of us in all of our faiths, we have gotten really good at saying what we believe about compassion, but really pretty bad at acting that way.

That’s why when Karen Armstrong won the 2008 TEDPrize, an award given annually to an individual or organization with “One Wish to Change the World,” she used her $100,000prize money, corporate support, and a public forum to draft and promote the Charter for Compassion. In the words of the charter project:
“The Charter of Compassion is a cooperative effort to restore not only compassionate thinking but, more importantly, compassionate action to the center of religious, moral and political life. Compassion is the principled determination to put ourselves in the shoes of the other, and lies at the heart of all religious and ethical systems. One of the most urgent tasks of our generation is to build a global community where men and women of all races, nations and ideologies can live together in peace. In our globalized world, everybody has become our neighbor, and the Golden Rule has become an urgent necessity.
“The Charter, crafted by people all over the world and drafted by a multi-faith, multi-national council of thinkers and leaders, seeks to change the conversation so that compassion becomes a key word in public and private discourse, making it clear that any ideology that breeds hatred or contempt ~ be it religious or secular ~ has failed the test of our time. It is not simply a statement of principle; it is above all a summons to creative, practical and sustained action to meet the political, moral, religious, social and cultural problems of our time."

The drafters of this Charter invite the world, individuals and organizations, cities and nations, churches, temples, and mosques, religions and denomination, to adopt it, making a lifelong commitment to live with compassion.

Listen now to the words of this charter.

The website for the Charter for Compassion includes an interactive section where individuals around the world share stories of compassion they have received or offered– ranging from an individual in Vermont who started a low profit company to give away technology to classrooms around the world to a woman in West Virginia who paid for the groceries of a single mother in line in front of her at the grocery store when she overheard that the woman’s food stamps weren’t valid for four more days. These stories and testimonies challenge us to recognize the places we have experienced the compassion of others, and, as Christians, the places we are called to share Christ’s compassion through our lives.

The culture in which we live is constantly trying to guide our steps toward an efficient and comfortable present and future. The GPS of societal norms will never cease attempting to send us on fast-moving highways that avoid all deviations and detours from the acceptable path, roads that keep us segregated into communities, friendships, churches, and families with people just like us. However, if we program ourselves along the GPS of scripture, if we are guided by the route of a Samaritan walking on the completely wrong road, we will find ourselves traveling in the way and footsteps of Christ. Then maybe we can begin to answer through our actions the question Jesus begs us to understand - - “Who ISN’T my neighbor?”

(Karen Armstrong quotes are from her acceptance speech from the 2008 TEDPrize.)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Lenten Discipline: Fail

OK, so that's a little strong, but so far it is going not so good. I keep losing my little book! Now a more disciplined person would find something else to use in the meantime just to keep with it, but we have established that I'm doing this because I am already NOT a disciplined person. I also have a hard time just cutting myself some slack and picking up with today. So, even though I am easily a week behind, I'm still going to try to catch up. I actually like my book (although the "God be in my head, and in my understanding" week was a little rough for me), so I don't want to miss any of the devotions. I'm thinking of attempting two a day for a while to get caught up. They will probably be shorter reflections, but I don't want to get out of order or skip anything good. In fact they may simply be my prayers after the reading. I've done that once or twice already. Either way, I'm going to get back on track (and maybe make a photocopy of the rest of the book so one copy is always at church and one copy is always at home). I am back-dating those posts, so the recent ones may get hidden in the other posts here. I'm re-starting today with The Second Sunday in Lent, February 28th.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

RSVP

Isaiah 55:1-9
Luke 14:16-24
It was going to be a GREAT party. It was going to be better than GREAT. It was going to be fantastic! Many had been invited. Not a whole lot of responses were received, but really, people don’t RSVP any more anyway. It was going to be a GREAT party.

The house had been scrubbed top to bottom. The courtyard had been swept and swept again. The ground was free of all those little stone that get stuck between your toes and beneath your feet in sandals. Someone had crawled on hands and knees to make sure they were all removed from the site of the party. The animals that had been fattening for months were back from slaughter, and the choice cuts of meat were prepared. They had already begun to be licked by the flames of the cooking fire as they turned slowly on the spit. The host and his family had been scrubbed from top to bottom, too, clean and shining with excitement over the celebration that was just about to beginning.

At the appointed hour, the time when the guest had been invited to arrive, they went to the door to receive the blessing of their guests come to celebrate and enjoy the party with them. With a grand sweep, the door was opened…and no one was there! Just the bustle of a busy street at the end a of a long day. Servants going to collect the evening’s water, merchants trying to sell the last of their fresh wares, closing up shop for the night, worker of different kinds making their ways home to be with their own families for the night.

Not one invited guest stood waiting for the party to begin. Not one was there to celebrate and enjoy. Imagine the disappointment, the discouragement, frustration and even sadness of the host. The invitation had gone out to MANY. The promise of a GREAT, no, a fantastic party had been made. Hours of preparation had gone into the occasion, but when the time came, no one had arrived to celebrate. Come the invitation had said, but all he got were excuses in response. Celebrate with me! Come and enjoy! Come and rejoice for a while.

“Come”, says our God, “Feast at my table.”
“Come,” says our God, “and listen to me.”
“Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”
“Come and follow me.”
“Come let us sing to the Lord.”
“Come and see what God has done”
“Come and hear the message from God.”
“Come to God’s presence with singing.”

Come, our invitation to worship beckons. Come and celebrate with God and one another, but often we, too, respond with excuses. I’m tired. I can do it alone. It’s too early after a long night. It’s too late for everything I have planned for today. There’s too much to do to get ready for the week. I did too much this weekend. I don’t know enough. I haven’t relaxed enough. I don’t believe enough to show up to worship God. I don’t believe enough to go to that party.

We don’t really think of it that way, but really worship is a party. It’s something we do together, not even just something done up front here by others on our behalf. It’s not a lecture surrounded by some good music. It’s not even a spiritual gas station we frequent to simply fill up our tanks for another week. Worship is a party, a celebration, complete with an invitation from God to come and rejoice, give thanks, sing, even dance if we’re ready for that. Worship is the time we gather as a community to do together what we can and we should also do alone – wonder and marvel at the glory of God, pray and meditate on the gift of God’s Word, offer our lives and ourselves in grateful response, celebrate the grace and mercy of our faithful Savior. And like most parties that I have been to, the more we give of ourselves to the energy of the party, the better it gets for us all.

But we’d never know that if we didn’t show up. The guest who didn’t think they were ready never got to taste the scrumptious food of the great banquet. The timing wasn’t right. Things weren’t in order at home. Schedules conflicted with the gracious invitation of their host. They just weren’t ready.

And who is when lives are busy and calendars are full. Who is when there seems to be so much to learn about God it’s really a bit overwhelming? Who is ready when there are so many questions unanswered? Who really is ready when sometimes the music isn’t the kind of music I like? When sometimes questions are asked that I’m not ready to hear? Who is ready when other things in life seem more pressing, more important, or maybe just more fun, more satisfying than coming to the party that God hosts? Who is ever ready anyway?

Well, in the parable someone was. A whole lot of someone’s were, actually. When the host heard that his guests weren’t coming, when he discovered that his carefully planned festivities, his delicious food, his gracious hospitality weren’t going to be accepted, he didn’t start wrapping everything in plastic wrap, resigned to eating leftovers for weeks, he sent out new invitations. He sent his servants out to find the guests who WERE ready to enjoy what he had to offer. He sent them into the streets and alleys, into the worst neighborhood, to the gates of the city where the poor and destitute lay waiting for something, anything, from the people who passed by. He sent his servants out with an open invitation to anyone who wanted to come, taste, and see. And the revelers came pouring in.

The best guests, it turns out, may not be the ones who are best prepared, whose lives are in perfect order, who think they have the time or ability to get everything ready before they show up to celebrate, because these guests will never actually make it to the party. There will always be one more job to do, one more house to check on, one more task to complete, one thing to learn. We’ll never be ready enough. Our lives will never feel in order enough.

The best guests, it turns out, are the ones who know their imperfections, but respond to the host’s invitation with a resounding, “Yes!” Come, you who are thirsty - - Yes! I will drink of your living water. Come, you who hunger - - Yes! I will eat from your banquet table. Come, you who are tired - - Yes! I will rest in your arms. Come, you with heavy burdens - - Yes! I will share them with you and others. Come, all of you, and rejoice and give thanks - - Yes! Even in my weakness, I will come and celebrate with joy and gratitude for the abundant blessings that are spread before me. Yes! Not just in spite of, but because of our imperfections, we will worship God.

The invitation is all over Scripture. It’s all over our worship service. We come and worship, not because it is our brilliant idea, but because God has laid the perfect spread before us. We come and worship because God has invited us, God calls us to gather here imperfectly. We come and confess all that stands in the way of this worship and our relationship with God, not to beg for our admittance into the party, but because the promise is there, the invitation has already been sent, and God wants to forgive everything that divides us from one another.

We come and worship because by the water of baptism, God welcomes us to the party even before we know what the party is all about, even before we can understand, even when we have tried to understand, but that understanding lays beyond our reach. We come and worship because the blessings of hope, the challenges of discipleship, the comfort of grace are abundant in God’s Word. We come and worship to share in the feast that Christ our Lord spreads before us, to come to the table of welcome, the table of life, the table of salvation, as imperfect and broken people, made whole as we celebrate and rejoice in the blessings that are promised in this spiritual food.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Moon light


Psalm 36:9 "For with you is the well of life, and in your light we see light."

I like moonlight much more than daylight. I always have. I can remember being in preschool or kindergarten (I don't remember which since my kindergarten was at my preschool, not the public school) and it must have been spring because the teachers were VERY excited to get us outside for playtime. (I lived in Maryland at this point in my life, NOT Florida where I usually say I'm "from.") Anyway, I was hanging back just sitting under the overhang of the building, sort of shivering because it wasn't THAT warm where I was. A teacher came to encourage me to go out and play in the sunshine, and I remember looking up to declare, "I hate the sun."

I'm not really sure where that came from, but I remember it clearly. And I definitely don't HATE the sun, but when it comes to the time of day I enjoy most and the light that is produced, the atmosphere created I much prefer the night to the day. The light isn't so revealing. It isn't SO illuminating. It doesn't overwhelm every other light in the sky. You can't see the stars during the day. I know they are there; they don't just hang out on one side of the earth's rotation. But when the sun shines you can't see them.

The moon is more diplomatic, gentler. It shares it's glory. Shoot, it isn't even its own glory, it just reflects someone else's. It can light up the night sky enough to read a book sometimes, but it doesn't expose you the same way the sun does. It doesn't tell all your secrets.

I miss the moon when it is in the new moon phase like some people miss the sun in the long dark winter. As it gets smaller day by day I almost mourn its waning. But when it starts to grow again, night by night, I can feel the excitement rising in me.

I know the sun is often the symbol of Jesus, and I can respect that comparison and all. I just like the moon. I feel the love of God in the night. I can look at the moon and see it. It isn't so bright its details are hidden; it's open for interaction for sharing light and love and receiving it. The relationship just seems so much more dynamic to me.

Prayer: Jesus Christ, Light of the World, illumine me. Amen.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Holy Bed

Psalm 96:9 "Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness."

Lately my bed has become the most beautiful place I know, if we're talking about places that are unconventionally beautiful because of the sense of holiness they radiate. My favorite time of day has become about 6:35 a.m. when the kids come running down the stairs to climb in bed with me. Monday-Friday my husband is already gone by this time, yet even though we have a king sized bed, both LadyPrincess and Godzilla climb up on either side of me so that all 3 of us share one pillow. We are packed in so tight, like my mom used to say on a busy day at Disney World, "bellybutton to asshole." (Pardon if any are offended.) As my belly gets bigger and #3 is beginning to make his or her presence more known it gets a even tighter. I lie on my side and cuddle with one kid for a 9 minute snooze cycle, then flip over to the other for the next 9 minute cycle. The number of flips depends on how motivated I am to actually get out of this holy snuggle and take a shower. I tell you, my bed is the most beautiful place I know!

Prayer: Mother and Father God, Thank you for my children. Thank you for their snuggles and wet kisses and even those tight choking hugs that sometimes just won't end. Thank you for the holiness we share each morning and the life we share each day. Thank you for the beauty of our family's life together. Amen.