Sunday, May 13, 2012

More Than a Feeling

1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

Mildred and Richard were in love. They had known each other since childhood, but as they grew up they fell in love. In 1958, when Mildred was 18, the left their small, nurturing hometown in Caroline County, Virginia to be married in Washington, DC. Having returned home, five weeks later, in the middle of the night, the newlyweds were abruptly awoken, handcuffed, and taken in jail. Their crime? Being in love.

Richard and Mildred Loving (really, that was their last name) were in love with each other in a time when their love was prohibited because Richard was white and Mildred was black. They lived in Virginia under the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 which not only prohibited interracial marriage in Virginia, but it prohibited Virginia interracial couples from circumventing the law by legally marrying elsewhere and returning to Virginia to live. They were charged, pled guilty, and sentenced to a year in prison that was suspended for 25 years on the condition that they leave the state. The Lovings left Virginia again and moved to the District of Columbia.

In 1964, frustrated by the fact that they couldn’t visit their family in Virginia they were referred to the ACLU for legal help by then Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Three long years later, after their case made its way to the United States Supreme Court, the Lovings won the right to be in love and be married. Their sentence was overruled and the Virginia law was struck down as a violation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Richard, Mildred, and their three children returned home to Virginia.

Love can’t really be legislated. Can it? We can’t tell people who NOT to love. Can we? And, for me at least, knowing that we can’t tell people who not to love, it’s hard to heard Jesus’ commandment TO love. Commandments about love are counter-intuitive to how I usually think about love.

Love as our culture commonly talks about it is something we possess. Love is a thing we try to get or a feeling we fall into. It’s butterflies in the stomach. It’s an aching, a longing, a desire. It’s a cure for an ailing heart, the key to happiness, an elusive prize waiting to be found, won, or given away.

But here in John’s gospel love seems to be something different - -something that can be commanded. Love seems to be more than a feeling for which we hope, or an impulse that flows from desire. Love is something we MUST do.

Last week we heard in the first letter of John the simple, yet profound statement at the core of the gospel, “God is love.” If we cut to the chase about all of this, about faith, about life, about our call as the church, we get to this message, “God is love.” I even said it was simple. Ha! It’s simple as in singular. It’s simple as in an argument with few points or counter-points, but let’s not be so na├»ve as to think it’s simple in living

The love we talked about last week was certainly more than a dizzying or warming feeling at the sound of a voice or the sight of a face. It is, in the words of John, abiding love, and abiding love is the love of Jesus. It is intruding, disruptive, difficult to offer, and maybe just as difficult to receive. Abiding is the act of dwelling with another, even a stranger wherever she is found. It is a willingness to go the distance, descend to the depths of pain and suffering, and stay there with him in darkness until the glimmer of light appears on the horizon. Abiding love is the love of hospitality, the love for the stranger that is just as strong as the love for family, friends, for self. It is love that is open to a change of plans, love that that is given without judgment, without convenience, without checking the calendar or plans for the day, or for the life. It’s the love of Jesus’ command.

It isn’t easy, is it? It isn’t easy to open our lives, ourselves to the deepest needs of others. It’s not like the things on our “to do” lists are optional. It’s not that we are TRYING to ignore the people in front of us who are aching for friendship, companionship, a good word, a hot meal. It’s just that there are all these other things we need to do first. It’s just that abiding with someone takes time, it takes an energy of the spirit that we just don’t think we have right now. Maybe once my finances are in order, I can help someone else with theirs. Maybe once I feel calm and refreshed, I can offer refreshment to another. Maybe once I have experienced the abiding love of another, I can abide with a stranger. Maybe once I have felt loved, I’ll know how to love others.

But then there comes this commandment again. “Love one another as I have loved you.” It’s not even “love one another when you feel my love for you.” Jesus doesn’t give us time to get it, to feel it, or to understand it. He doesn’t give us the excuse to wait until we have found love before we share it. He commands us to do right here, right now, because he knows love is more than a feeling. He also knows we may never get up and do it if it’s dependent on our experience or knowledge or feelings of preparedness. So, having loved us from the beginning, Jesus tells us to go out and love others. Actually, he doesn’t just tell us to do it, he tells us what it looks like and even shows us.

Love is what we do. Love is an action. Love is more than a feeling; it’s a sacrifice. Love is laying aside our schedules, our priorities, our preferences. Loving is putting down our comfort and our security to love other people. Love is active. Love is setting aside, but in setting aside it is also taking up, taking up the causes, the burdens, the pains, the injustices of others. Love is what we do with who we are.

The gospels don’t tell us very much about what Jesus was feeling. Here and there we get a few snippets of his emotions – anger, frustration, tears and sorrow occasionally – but for the most part time isn’t spent reporting or speculating about what Jesus felt about what he encountered and experienced. The bulk of the time in the gospels is spent telling us what he said and what he did. The bulk of the time in the gospels is spent showing how Jesus shared the good news with the people he met, how he healed them of their injuries and ailments, how he included the people who were left out, how he fed the people who were hungry, how he gave living water to the people who were thirsty. We don’t know how Jesus felt while he was doing what he was doing, but we know by what he did that he loved.

Today in the United States is the day that has been set aside for honoring mothers. It’s a day of flowers and gifts and brunches and pampering for many, but it can also be a day of longing, confusion, and sorrow for others. Historically speaking, the latter is more appropriate to the founding of the holiday than the former.

Mother’s Day has varied roots throughout the world. Many different cultures and religions have a day set aside to honor and give thanks for those who bring forth life. In earlier Christian understandings Mother’s Day wasn’t even about human mothers, but about the Mother Church. In US religious history this understanding was dismissed by the Puritans who barely even celebrated with obvious joy Christmas and Easter, much less a holiday that celebrated the institution of the Church.

No, our modern US Mother’s Day has its roots in the Mother’s Day Proclamation written by Julia Ward Howe, better known for penning the words to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In 1870, deeply saddened by the carnage of the Civil and Franco-Prussian Wars, disturbed that the sons of one family could be responsible for the death of the sons of another family, Howe called on mothers and all women actually to shape their societies, to work for peace on all levels, not just in their homes, but in their nations, and in the world. 

"Arise, then, women of this day! 

Arise, all women who have hearts, Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly: "We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs." (1870 Mother's Day Proclamation)

Howe’s call to women was a call to love. All the “feelings” in the world won’t do anything unless they are applied. All the compassion, all the heartache for the loss of life that we hear about, all the sadness over what we see on the streets of the city, in shacks of forgotten villages, in the slums of the world, all the concern we can muster when we hear about the young who are abused, the elderly neglected, men, women, and children who hunger for a bite to eat - - all of it won’t do a THING if we don’t love with our actions.

Jesus hasn't just commanded us to love each other, he has shown us how to love each other, and he has given us what we need in order to do it, and he promised us joy and victory over despair when we love with actions like his.

The good news in Jesus is that he did not sit by the wayside and watch a world in pain waiting for the perfect status, the perfect checkbook, the perfect platform from which to love. He loved from where he was. He loved the people he was with. He loved with everything he was and everything he did. And now he has sent us to love in the same way – by acting on it, by healing and helping and wiping away tears, by calling injustices unjust, by working for peace not discord, by forgiving and welcoming and listening, by judging a whole lot less and serving a whole lot more. And, thankfully, he has promised to be with us, the source and shape and strength of love in the world.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Cut to the Chase

Psalm 133
1 John 4:7-21

Do you remember when billboards like these began to pop up?  Pithy little notes, apparently written by God. 
Life is short.  Eternity isn’t.  (One of the newer ones.)
Well, you did ask for a sign.
I miss how you used to talk to me when you were a kid.
What part o “Thou shalt…” didn’t you understand?
Keep using my name in vain, I’ll make rush hour longer.
Have you read my #1 bestseller?  (There will be a test.)
We need to talk.

I understand that the billboards began in south Florida in 1998 when an anonymous donor decided to create andad campaign, not for a business, not for a particular church, not for anything else, but to try to create a spiritual climate and get people thinking about a daily relationship with a loving and relevant God. (

My favorite is this next one from the original campaign in 1998 - - 
“That ‘Love thy neighbor’ thing… I meant that.”

It just cuts to the chase, doesn’t it? It gets right on down to the heart of the gospel, the core of Jesus’ preaching, teaching, healing, disturbing, dying, rising, and living. “Beloved, let us love one another.”

Sometimes short and simple is best. (I know, a dangerous statement to make from the pulpit…while preaching…what is usually a less than short message…but certainly not the longest in town!)

Sometimes short and simple is what is needed to get the message across in a way that jars someone just enough to hear it in a new way, but not so much that they are thrown completely off course.

Sometimes short and simple is what it takes to guide a mission, set a vision, and move a community forward. “Beloved, let us love one another…. God is love….”

This is what it is all about.
This is what our faith is all about.
This is what our church is all about. 
This is what our life is all about. 
This is what our God is all about.
LOVE!  It’s short.  It’s simple.  It’s love.

Yet over and over and over again we make our faith and our life together about so much more.  We make it so much more complex.  We add layers upon layers of rules and expectations and understandings and policies, oh the policies. 
Our fear of the unknown,
our fear of losing control,
our fear of where love might take us,
our fear of what we might be asked to do,
our fear of what we might have to give up takes over
and then before we know it,
without even noticing we have completely clouded what it’s all about,
what following Jesus is supposed to be all about. 
It’s not about fear. 
It’s not about judgment. 
It’s not about setting up rules. 
It’s not about deciding who is in and who is out. 
It’s not about protecting the carpet. 
It’s not about perfecting the music. 
It’s not about coming up the most elaborate craft. 
It’s not about the tastiest snack (no matter how much we love those tasty snacks). 
It’s supposed to be about love,
·         love that looks like a father sending his only son to show the world what life is really about,
·         love that looks like the one who is divine coming to abide with us, dwell with us, live with us,
·         love that looks likes self-giving and self-sacrifice
·         love that looks like the holy one entering the experience of the profane,
·         love that looks like boundaries of gender, ethnicity, religious party, political leanings, class, all being broken down,
·         love that looks like touching the untouchable, speaking to the forgotten, feeding the hungry, praying for the hurtful.

It’s about love because God is Love, and Love chose to live among us. 

Love chose to walk in our experience,
to live in our skin,
to see with our eyes,
to face our temptations,
to hunger our hunger,
to cry our tears,
to laugh with our joy. 
Love chose to dwell with and love chooses to dwell in us, showing us how we can love each other. 

Everything we do as people of God, as people of Love, then should be about doing this same thing.  Everything we do should be about living with our brothers and sisters, those people who have been born into the same human family as we have been born even if they live in this family in very different ways. 
Everything we do as people of Love should be about dwelling in each others’ experiences –
seeing through another’s eyes,
facing another’s temptations,
hungering another’s hungers,
rejoicing in another’s laughter. 
Everything we do as people of Love should be about breaking down boundaries and giving ourselves in love to our brothers and sisters around us, to the world around us.

In just a little bit we are going to ordain and install new officers in our church, ruling elders and deacons who have been called by God through the voice of this congregation to lead us through their service.  On behalf of the whole church I’m going to ask them to affirm a whole lot of different things in ten different questions about their faith, their understanding of their call to leadership, and how they will be guided as they guide this church.  And as much as a I love our tradition and understand, at least a little bit, why we ask all those questions, on a day like today, in light of a Scripture like this one, I wish we could ask just one simple question - - “Do you accept the call to lead with God’s love in this church and the world?”  That’s what it’s all about – for the officers of the church, for the members, for the friends, for the people of God and God’s love everywhere.  When we cut to the chase, it’s all about showing love.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Friday Five: Birthday Edition

Kathryn gives us this Friday Five at RevGals.
There's a birthday for an adult member of my family today. I will admit, I'm not very good at celebrating birthdays. Sadly, the adults in my life have suffered from this affliction. I do manage to rally for my son (now age 7). 

I could bore you with my own personal history of birthday laments which may have led to this attitude... but I won't (you're welcome). Instead I'd love to hear your birthday memories. 
1) What is the first birthday you remember? 
2) Do you recall a favorite gift? 
3) Has anyone ever tried to surprise you for your birthday? Did it work? Was it fun? 
4) Do you have a favorite birthday dessert? 
5) Describe what would be your 'perfect birthday'.

Here's my play!

1) I don't remember how old I was, but maybe 4 or 5 just based on the people in the room. All I remember is taking one bite of Baskin-Robbins rainbow ice cream cake and the icing was GROSS, crunchy, crystally, sugary, bitter, GROSS. 

2) I remember how excited I was to get a Cabbage Patch preemie doll when I was turning 8 or 9. 

3) I've never had a surprise party for me, but I sort of wish I would. It's funny, because I'm really a pretty low-key birthday person. I'm not annoyed by them nor do I ignore them. I'm just sort of a planning Scrooge. I think it would be pretty cool, though, if someone would go to all that effort to pull my friends together for a fun, carefree party! 

4) Pretty simple. Cake. I like to make it myself, but I have a new favorite PHENOMENAL local bakery from which I'm perfectly happy ordering my own. My birthday gives me an excuse to order one of their cakes because I make cake for all the other birthdays in our house. 

5) I have a January birthday, and I live in the tundra. I think a pretty cool birthday would be a surprise vacation south! (So much for low-key, right? Maybe I'm low-key about birthdays because I live with someone low-key about birthdays. A nice night out for dinner certainly wouldn't make me sad.)

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Synods aren't sexy

Earlier this week, down at a Lutheran camp and retreat center in Farmington, MN, I was installed as the vice moderator of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies.  

Don't worry.  I expect to only hear crickets upon that announcement.

"The What of Who and Where?" you may be asking.  It's OK.  I expect to hear that, too.

The synod is not one of the better known aspects of the Presbyterian Church.  I like to consider our synod, that which includes almost every Presbyterian church in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska and a few churches sprinkled beyond these states, one of the best kept secrets in the PC(USA).  I wish it wasn't so well kept.

The synod is one of two "middle councils" between the local congregation and the larger national organization of our denomination.  More locally our congregation is a member of a presbytery, the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area, which covers the metro area  and stretches all the way down to Albert Lea.  Our presbytery is then a member of the synod, along with sixteen other presbyteries ranging in size from the Des Moines, Iowa metro area to the entires state of South Dakota.  We also have on non-geographic presbytery within our synod, a Dakota language Native American presbytery, the oldest Presbyterian mission west of the Mississippi River (someone PLEASE correct me if honor isn't quite right).  
These two middle councils are a big part of what distinguishes Presbyterians from some of our brothers and sisters in faith.  We are a connectional church.  By that I mean that we don't believe it is good for any one congregation to operate as an island.  We don't believe we are all out here on our own, with no support from or accountability to others.  We believe it is in the very nature of the church Christ formed to be connected to one another, partnered with each other, and in mission together.  Our connections can be local and organic, but they are also institutionalized so that sometimes, many times, we are forced into working and missional relationships with brothers and sisters in faith with whom may disagree.  Personally, I think we are all the better because of this.

We also believe that there are important ministries and missions that are better organized and carried out by levels of organization larger than local congregations not because no one cares locally, but because it is a better stewardship of resources to work together.  Presbyteries, synods, and the General Assembly do for local congregations and the whole church what we can't do on our own and what is better accomplished when we work together.  They aren't some nebulous "them" out there dictating what "we" must do.  Presbyteries, synods, and the General Assembly are "us," members of local congregations with passions and visions for ministries beyond their local community who are called and elected to carry those visions for the whole church. There are things the Presbyterian Church can do to demonstrate God's love and grace in the world that are better done on a national or regional level.  Commissioners to these other parts of our body make sure these ministries and missions happen.
It doesn't make sense for every single congregation to publish Sunday School curriculum.  It would be a poor use of our collective resources for that to happen, so the national church works to provide options for us.  It doesn't makes sense for one congregation to in Madison to provide an entire campus ministry including a magnificent student church, campus pastors, student housing, counseling, and mission outreach to the community and the world, so the synod provides a great deal of resources, networking, and oversight to Pres House, our Presbyterian presence on the UW-Madison campus.  It doesn't make sense for one congregation to work completely on it's own to start a new congregation in an unchurched neighborhood when there are four, five, or more congregations who can see that vital need from different angles, so the presbytery pools resources to do that work together.  

Our Synod of Lakes and Prairies, through an extremely hard-working staff, commissioners like me who spend two days together a few times a year, and other volunteers around our constituent presbyteries, participates in God's work in the world inexhaustibly.  

1.  We maintain covenant relationships, sharing human and financial resources (when possible), with seven Presbyterian colleges and universities.   
2.  We fund scholarships for racial-ethnic students pursuing higher education.  
3.  We provide training for the committees of presbyteries that oversee their member ministers and congregation and those that prepare women and men for ordained ministry as pastors.  
4.  We offer Self-Development of People grants to community and regional organizations, directly related to Presbyterian churches and not, that low-income people identify a problem within their life experience, organize themselves to do something about their condition, and are the direct beneficiaries of the project.  
5.  We support collegiate ministries on Presbyterian and non-Presbyterian campus through grants for specific projects and conferences for ministry leaders.  
6.  We provide support and a place for collaboration for presbytery executives in our area.  
7.  We respond to the unique mission needs across the presbyteries by connecting people across those boundaries who are best equipped to assist each other.  
8.  We heighten the awareness of our presbyteries to larger justice issues, particularly when it comes to race relations and the condition  of racial and ethnic minorities in our midst.  

Many of these things are not immediately on the ministry radar of our local congregations, but I hope you will agree they are important to the church's call to demonstrate the kingdom of God on earth.  This isn't even ALL of what we do, and it doesn't even include our famous Synod School.  (Please, talk to ANYONE in my family about Synod School.  We'd love to tell you all about it and have you join us there this year, July 22-27, in Storm Lake, IA.  You won't regret it.)

Locally, we don't hear a whole lot about what happens at the synod partly because I have not been a great communicator of these things and partly because synods don't directly relate to congregations  And because, well, synods aren't sexy.  Synods aren't the bodies that elect commissioners to the General Assembly to vote on things that get the headlines - things like sex.  Synods are the bodies that vote on changes to the constitution that get the headlines - changes about things like sex.  Synods aren't the body we LOVE because they helped our church find a new pastor.  They aren't the body we we HATE because they wouldn't help us get rid of that horrible pastor fast enough.  Synods aren't sexy.  

And without the sex to sell them mixed with maybe a bit too much humility unfortunately many of them don't market themselves or their fantastically faithful ministries to the local church. They have some excuse for this minimal marketing.  Their charge isn't necessarily to serve the local church directly.  However, as I've found myself saying over and over recently, it's members of local churches who do the praying and discerning and voting as General Assembly and Presbytery commissioners.  Synods may not directly serve local congregations directly, but they better figure out how to communicate their value to them, and they better do it pretty quickly.  

Unfortunately, my term of service to the synod as vice moderator this year and moderator next year may be the last such term for anyone.  There is an item of business that will come before the 220th General Assembly (the national decision-making body of our church that meets every two years) this year that contains a recommendation to eliminate this level of our denomination's organization.  This isn't the first time this has been before the General Assembly, but this time the recommendation seems to have more momentum than in the past.  There are some who think eliminating synods will save money, and this hope plays into the fear many people have that we don't have enough money.  Synods are funded in part by a portion of the per capita payment that is collected based on the membership of each local congregation.  Other synod funds come from congregations like ours who make a mission pledge to the different levels of the Presbyterian denomination.  Even if synods are eliminated there are a number of their functions that will need to be picked up by General Assembly or presbytery staff, meaning new positions will need to be created and funded carry out these duties.  The cost won't likely change without synods; it will only differ to whom the money is sent.

It is true that many synods around our denomination are not NEARLY as functional as ours is.  There are several regions of the country that already operate as if there is no synod.  I am not saying our current structure is not worth examining.  However, I am deeply concerned about the kinds of ministry that are taking place here in the Synod of Lakes and Prairies that may get lost in the shuffle if there isn't the continuation of the important connection in our church.  They are important and life-giving ministries, but they aren't necessarily the kind of ministries which everyone feels called to support with their own energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.  In fact, they may be ministries that have one supporter in Wisconsin, two in Minnesota, another in Iowa, and then someone way out in the far northwestern corner of North Dakota, but thank GOD for these supporters who feel passionately called to work on behalf of our church in anyone of these unique ways.  The problem is if we eliminate the synod, the infrastructure for their meeting organization, the bookkeeper for their grant monies, the institutional memory for their legacy of ministry, we make it very difficult, if not impossible for them to continue to work for Christ in these unique and vital missions.

I hope it doesn't come to this.