Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter Sanctuary

This sermon builds on the idea that the design of the sanctuary is to help us realize that we are safe there- baptized and safe in God's family, fed and safe with God meeting our needs, alive in Christ off the cross and safe because God is bigger. 

          It is one thing to tell children that sanctuary means safety and that everything in a church is designed to help us feel safe. It is quite another thing to try to convey that same idea to adults, particularly adults who are very aware of how church has not always represented safety or sanctuary for all kinds of people. Additionally, the words of the gospels have not always been used for comfort, consolation, or assurance of safety in God to people from a wide variety of backgrounds and circumstances.

           The church has been unsafe at times for women, for divorced people, for children, for people who sought the gospel in their own language, for people who were anything other than heterosexual and cis-gendered, for people with disabilities, for depressed people, for sick people, for grieving people, for people of no faith, for newcomers, for minority races in majority communities, for those who struggle with addiction, for those who do not have work or much disposable income, for conservative people, for liberal people. If I keep going, it would mean acknowledging that for almost everyone in here, at some point, has felt or does feel unsafe or uncertain about their safety in church. Which means that the very thing we call sanctuary hasn’t always been that.

            When that is the case, the church is nearly indistinguishable from the outside world. If this is not a fundamentally safe place, not a sanctuary, then people will look at the church and expect it to be violent in word and deed, untruthful, closed, oppressive, and dying. It is only when we remember, trust, and accept that the God of resurrection is all about the unexpected that we can be truly church- learning to live and die in Jesus and teaching others how to do the same.

            We are called to remember, trust, and accept that:

- God does not repay violence with violence, but meets violence with forgiveness.

- God does not repay questions or doubts with shaming, but meets them with experiences and teaching.

- God does not repay a lack of mercy with a lack of mercy, but with grace and disciplining.

- God does not repay an attitude of oppression with oppression, but with freedom in heart and mind.

            When the church imitates God, instead of the news or the powers and principalities of the world or even an insistence on tradition, when we imitate God- we enter into God’s tradition of life out of death, hope out of despair, truth from lies, and healing out of pain. The reality of the various resurrection accounts speaks to this.

            The gospel writers are counteracting despair. Mark is writing for those who need to perceive how God’s kingdom was at hand, even after the ascension of Christ. When Matthew and Luke are writing, nearly forty years after the events of the day in question, the Temple has been destroyed by Rome. The followers of the Way of Christ are beginning to experience serious struggles. The Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, was only peaceful in that you could be left alone as long as you appeared to be cooperative in every way possible with the political leaders at all levels- keeping your head down, your taxes paid, and your mouth shut. There were wars or rumors of wars or quickly silenced insurrections with rebel factions disappearing into the deserts to try to live quiet lives of worship and devotion, which is an ironic way to rebel. The Fourth Gospel is specifically written for one of those communities, drawn together and attempting to live the Way of Christ according to the teaching of John the disciple.

            These were desperate times, during which people began to despair-  the expectation of every day being exactly the same as the day before and the complete lack of expectation that anything can or will change. Doubt is not the same as despair because doubt is logic combined with hope. Doubt looks at the facts, but believes in a larger truth. Despair believes hope is lost.

            For first century Christian, the resurrection accounts were written to remind them that their core story is an earth-shaking, ground-splitting, stone-moving, Rome-silencing event. The resurrection truth, their source of their life in community, is one that is designed to crush despair and feed the flame of hope.

            Across the accounts, Jesus is not where you think he will be, does not appear first to whom you think he will appear, and does not go to the place you expect him to go. (Galilee of the Gentiles isn’t exactly the expected appearance location for a risen Messiah.) In the face of all of that, despair cannot flourish. It is shaken off its foundations. Despair needs suffering, oppression, and routine (the unholy trinity).
           
            This brings the story to us.  We also live in a time of some leaders who act without thinking, think without studying, and study only those who agree with their worldview. We also know a world of competing military powers and oppression of the poor and marginalized communities. We know the exhaustion of attempting to alleviate pain and the feeling of frustration when we cannot gather the momentum to create real change. We need a place to feel safe and a place to draw strength for the work that our God leads us to and expects of us.

            Nevertheless, we are a community who needs to hear resurrection words. We are also people who need to remember that resurrection is an event that affects the whole creation. It shakes up everything. We are embraced by a love and truth that will not let death have the final word. That reality changes everything. Resurrection is an event of forgiveness, an event of God’s on-going revelation of divine mercy, the power of the Spirit continuing to create and transform. The earth cannot keep still under the power of that kind of love. It might not be geologically correct to say that God’s response of love to human violence shakes the earth to its core, but it is theologically true.

            Therefore, we do not despair. We keep the faith. It is not a faith that comes from seeing or even hearing. It is a faith that comes from God- God’s welcome, God’s inclusion, God’s hope, and God’s refusal to let the creation remain unshaken. God’s love is the same, day after day, year after year, eon after eon. That love is vast, however, that it contains truths that are beyond our comprehension- that death is not an end, that forgiveness happens, that all means all, that eternal love is exactly what it sounds like. The love of God gives us the sanctuary we seek and that we are called to offer to the world, most of all from this place. The vastness of the Divine Self encompasses all for which we dare to hope, in the light of which- despair shrivels.

            And then we crush it completely- with voices that quake with joy and trust, “He is risen. Alleluia.”

            He is risen, indeed.

Amen.


Whole Lotta Shakin'

In Matthew’s Easter account opens with two women approaching the tomb and an earthquake. (The two events are only related because of Jesus, not the former causing the latter.) The women are there to witness if Jesus walks out of the tomb, but he doesn’t. The stone is moved and he is simply gone. There is an angel sitting there, matter-of-factly, to tell them that he has been raised and gone to Galilee, just like he said he would.

We do not get a reaction of the women to the earthquake or to the rolling away of the stone. Unlike in the other gospel accounts, we don’t even know why the women are going to the tomb this morning. They simply are. Of course, it is possible women were no longer able to be surprised, given the events of the past three days and the fact that Matthew inserts several earthquakes into his version of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Both seio (the Greek word for shaking and quivering) and seismos (the Greek word for earthquake or commotion) are used liberally in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ last days.

All of this quivering and quaking indicates that something deep is happening. This crucifixion, the betrayals, the death, and the attempt to prevent anything unusual from happening to the body cannot seem to occur without provoking a seismic reaction in heaven and earth. Everything is shaken and stirred.

What should we make of all this movement? Is this an attempt to give geologic proof to the story of the resurrection? It is not. Matthew wants to counteract despair*. When Matthew is writing, nearly forty years after the events of the day in question, the Temple has been destroyed by Rome. The followers of the Way of Christ are beginning to experience serious struggles. The Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, was only peaceful in that you could be left alone as long as you appeared to be cooperative in every way possible with the political leaders at all levels- keeping your head down, your taxes paid, and your mouth shut. There were wars or rumors of wars or quickly silenced insurrections with rebel factions disappearing into the deserts to try to live quiet lives of worship and devotion, which is an ironic way to rebel.

This kind of living leads to despair- the expectation of every day being exactly the same as the day before and the complete lack of expectation that anything can or will change. Doubt is not the same as despair because doubt is logic combined with hope. Doubt looks at the facts, but believes in a larger truth. Despair believes hope is lost.

The Christians in the time of Matthew had begun to despair. Thus, his resurrection account is written to remind them that their core story is an earth-shaking, ground-splitting, stone-moving, Rome-silencing event. The resurrection truth, their source of their life in community, is one that is designed to crush despair and feed the flame of hope.

This is a resurrection account in which Jesus is not where you think he will be, does not appear first to whom you think he will appear, and does not go to the place you expect him to go. (Galilee of the Gentiles isn’t exactly the expected appearance location for a risen Messiah.) In the face of all of that, despair cannot flourish. It is shaken off its foundations. Despair needs suffering, oppression, and routine (the unholy trinity).
Which brings the story to us.  We also live in a time of some leaders who act without thinking, think without studying, and study only those who agree with their worldview. We also know a world of competing military powers and oppression of the poor and marginalized communities. We know the exhaustion of attempting to alleviate pain, which feeling frustrated in the momentum to create real change.

Nevertheless, we are the same community who needed to hear Matthew’s words. We are also people who need to remember that resurrection is a seismic event. It shakes up everything. We are embraced by a love and truth that will not let death have the final word. That reality changes everything. Resurrection is an event of forgiveness, an event of God’s on-going revelation of divine mercy, the power of the Spirit continuing to create and transform. The earth cannot keep still under the power of that kind of love. It might not be geologically correct to say that God’s response of love to human violence shakes the earth to its core, but it is theologically true.

Therefore, we do not despair. We keep the faith. It is not a faith that comes from seeing or even hearing. It is a faith that comes from God- God’s welcome, God’s inclusion, God’s hope, and God’s refusal to let the creation remain unshaken. God’s love is the same, day after day, year after year, eon after eon. That love is vast, however, that it contains truths that are beyond our comprehension- that death is not an end, that forgiveness happens, that all means all, that eternal love is exactly what it sounds like. The vastness of the Divine Self encompasses all for which we dare to hope, in the light of which- despair shrivels.

And then we crush it completely- with voices that quake with joy and trust, “He is risen. Alleluia.”

He is risen, indeed.


Amen.


*This concept of despair is something I have adapted from a definition by Pastor Rob Bell. 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Follower or Admirer (Sermon)

John 12 

           Jerusalem is full of people who are gathered for the Passover celebration. There are people everywhere. Think of the sounds of children, family reunions, animals being bought, sold, and traded. There is the smell of bodies, dust, excrement, cooking, and perfumed oils that some use to disguise the odors. There is a rush to purchase food, oil, wine, and charcoal.
Of course, there are also Romans- soldiers and their families. They look on at the sudden rush of people in from the countryside with alarm. Where did all these people come from? Will they bring trouble? Will an influx of people make it difficult to get some of the food and goods they prefer? Better also head out to the market.

            There are non-Judean Jews coming in for Passover as well. If valid worship or sacrifice can only occur at the temple, they also make the pilgrimage. It seems that some of them have heard of this itinerant rabbi, Jesus, of whom it is said that he raised a man who had been dead four days. When the Greek Jews come into town, they go seeking out Jesus. They say to Philip, “Sir, we want to see Jesus.” (Philip is a Greek name, so he may be or appear to be Greek.)

            We want to see Jesus. Why might they want to see him? To find out if all they have heard is true? Perhaps they need a miracle. They may be interested in learning from him or simply very curious looky-loos. When they see Jesus, though, they will be confronted with the deepest question that comes to all who meet him. Will they follow him or will they just be in his fan club? Will they be admirers or disciples? Will they want the connection at the foot of the cross or only as the palm parade is going by?

            In an article called “Followers, Not Admirers”, the theologian Søren Kierkegaard writes, 

It is well known that Christ consistently used the expression “follower.” He never asks for admirers, worshippers, or adherents. No, he calls disciples. It is not adherents of a teaching but followers of a life Christ is looking for…. What then, is the difference between an admirer and a follower? A follower is or strives to be what he admires. An admirer, however, keeps himself personally detached. He fails to see that what is admired involves a claim upon him, and thus he fails to be or strive to be what he admires.

A true follower of Jesus is an imitator of Jesus. It is important to remember that God had spokespeople prior to the Incarnation. That’s what a prophet is, a mouthpiece for the Divine. Therefore, it was not necessary for a person of the Trinity to pour the power and strength of being eternal into a fragile human body simply to impart lessons through teaching. Jesus’ teaching matters because it explains his deeds.

The words of Jesus- in conversations, in teaching, in prayer- make connections between what the Divine character always was and how God expects those who are led by the Spirit to respond. But the words were never the thing, because anyone might have taught in the name of the Lord. Within the Apostle’s Creed, we have very limited verbs about Jesus- born, suffered, crucified, died, buried, and rose. These verbs are concrete because they require a body.

            A body is unit of action. Jesus, with a body, is God prepared for action in the flesh. The body is not merely a receptacle of information. We are not merely encased spirits, biding our time. We are bodies in motion. We have been brought into a body, the Body of Christ. How we will respond to that inclusion, though… how we will respond to the gift of grace… how we will respond to always being Easter people, even on this side of Holy Week… that response is up to us.

            And, so, will we be followers or admirers? Being an admirer is nice. You still get the identity: “Oh, I love Jesus. I like to sing about him. Love to talk about him. Read his book sometimes, even.” So, if someone came up to you and said, “Sir, madam, we wish to see Jesus.” What will you show them: a hymn, a Bible, a catchy bumper sticker? Is it enough to be in Jesus’ fan club?

            In Fourth Gospel, it is said that those who have seen the Son have seen the Father. In today’s passage, Jesus asserts that anyone who is truly his follower will serve him. Logically, then, if Jesus is being served, he is present. Where true followers of Jesus are acting in service in imitation of him, he is there. And if he is there, then God is also being revealed. All of this happens through the power of the Holy Spirit.

            To reiterate: if you are imitating Jesus' actions in service, he will be present to be served (in the situation in which you are acting). If he is present, the whole Trinity is there because they are fellow travelers always. Thus, when one is a follower, an imitator, a disciple, and is asked, “We wish to see Jesus”… the answer will be clear because his presence will be felt in the act of service.

           Crucially, imitating Jesus will quickly separate the followers from the admirers. Eventually, admirers feel the pinch of knowing that Jesus does some things, says some things, and likes some people who are sometimes outside the edges of propriety. Jesus will be seen, unashamed, with the dying, the dead, the diseased, the depressed, the deserted, the demon-possessed, the downtrodden, the drug- addicted, the dastardly, and the desperate. He will see them for who they are and where they are and acknowledge them of as children of God, dealing with their needs before he makes any expectations of them.

            Following in those footsteps, truly committing to that level of kindness, gentleness, peacefulness, and honesty in our daily lives can be tough and frustrating. Furthermore, it does not really win a lot of friends and influence enemies. It mostly gains disdain from some, confusion from others, and a lot of God work that you carry in your heart because you worry that people will think you are crazy if you share it.

            Today is the martyrdom date of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor and theologian. He was committed to what he believed were basic Christian principles of the church in the early days of the Third Reich, which included welcoming, evangelizing, and baptizing non-Aryan Christians. As Adolph Hitler’s regime grew in power, Bonhoeffer was part of a splinter church within Germany that focused on resisting the church being an arm of the power of the state, particularly of state violence. Bonhoeffer sought to teach and preach in both Britain and in America at different times, but ultimately returned to Germany because he believed that he had to be a part of resisting evil there in order to be able to live in the Germany that he perceived would be rebuilt after the war.

            He was arrested for being a double agent and then his significant role in a plot to kill Hitler was discovered. He was hanged on this date in 1945 in Flossenburg concentration camp, one month before Germany surrendered. During his time in prison, he continued to write to friends and to his family, as well as some theological thoughts. These letters and papers from prison were smuggled out and published as a book by the same name. Within one letter, Bonhoeffer reflects, 

We have learned a bit too late in the day that action springs not from thought but from a readiness for responsibility.

            The admirer of Jesus is always ready to think about him. The admirers on that in Jerusalem waved palms and smiled. They could have pointed Jesus out to the Greek passersby and said, “There he is. Ain’t he great.” As the week went on, the admirers of Jesus would have been among those who frowned at the woman who wept over his feet and dried them with her hair. He shouldn’t have let her touch him, they’d have said. The admirers would have been aghast at Jesus washing the disciples’ feet or proud to be included, but having no intention of repeating the incident. They may have tried to blend into the crowd or disappear at the crucifixion. Ultimately, admirers will end up disappointed with the true Jesus. He’s too much or not quite enough or right time, wrong place or wrong time, right place. They sure do admire him, but…

            The followers of Jesus, the disciples, those on the Way of Christ have come to accept that faith is not the absence of doubt. It is action in spite of doubt. The followers have already assumed the readiness for responsibility that Bonhoeffer mentions. They waved their palm branches, but only with one hand because with the other they had escorted a leper, a bleeding woman, a child, sex worker, a blind man, a refugee, a centurion, or a hesitant Pharisee to be within reach of Jesus. For the followers, commentary on the goodness of Jesus is strange because sometimes the many ways in which they encounter him through service are not always good, by the usual definition of that word. They are, however, always holy.

            In the week ahead, whether you attend services or pray through the daily readings or simply try to make it through your regular to-do list, ponder in your heart whether you are a follower or an admirer. Are you all in or are you watching from a distance? Does this week get to you because you realize that imitation of Christ demands a solidarity in these events that is truly spiritually and emotionally overwhelming? Or is this a week to be with other fans of God’s work?


            When someone says to you, “We wish to see Jesus,” how do you respond? In word or in deed? Will you be an admirer or a follower? 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Dare I Ask (Dare! Dare!)

Maybe you have a question about one of these topics? 
I would like to emphasize how much I appreciate questions. As a pastor, questions help me to know how people are thinking around me. They point me to information that I might have that I could share. They provide a path for me to encourage discernment by and wisdom gathering in others.

I have previously answered questions here and here. These aren't two "good" questions. They were genuine questions that people asked of me and gave me time to ponder my answer.

Recently I did "Ask a Pastor Anything" or "Pastor in the Hot Seat" with a confirmation class. The group of 11-14 year (and a couple adults) asked the following questions:

- Were there any conflicts between people who believe in religion and people who believe in science? If so, what happened?

- What is theodicy?

- Could God have said things much differently and we misunderstood his teaching or mistranslated his ideas and, therefore, some things seen negatively could've been positive? (sic)

- What happens to people when they die?

- In Revelation, God speaks through John to tell us about the "overcomers" who rule/reign with Christ for a thousand years. Who are the "overcomers"?

- Is there resurrection for everyone?

- Have Lutherans ever tried to force their religion on other people, when they're missionaries or anything? (sic)

- Where did Jesus die?

- When was the Holy Bible made?

- Why should I care about being a Christian at all? What's in it for me? Why is this important?

- When were you baptized?

- The Bible says women should remain silent in church- why, then, do we ordain women?


These are good questions. Most of them reflect the internal struggles of the asker, but almost everyone present was curious about the answer. Perhaps you, too, are curious about some of the answers.

There's another "Ask a Pastor Anything" event coming up at Lutheran Church of Hope on Wednesday evening, 4 April (6:15 pm). In the meantime, you can always put a question in the comments or email one to me (lcohpastor@alaska.net). People at the event will have the benefit of being able to ask anonymously, but I never publish names with questions if you send one via email.

Jesus never punished anyone for asking questions. God encourages our desire for knowledge and understanding. The Spirit draws us together that we might learn from each other.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

A Good Yarn about Believing

At this time four years ago, I did not know how to crochet. I was in the middle of a very dark
depression that came on about two months after V--, my youngest, was born. Each day was a effort toward my goal of "everyone alive at the end of the day". I wanted a craft to do, something that didn't involve intense focus. The only handicraft I knew at the time was cross-stitching, which is not mindless.

I had started using a knitting loom in the fall. This is a round loom with pegs around which you loop the yarn. Using a hook, you pull stitches over one another. I made a scarf for my sister and some hats. Carrying around even the small loom, though, seemed awkward. I wanted to be one of the people with a small ball of yarn and needles in my bag that I could unobtrusively pull out during a meeting.

When my mother-in-law came in June 2013 to help out while Rob went to Ft. Rucker for 13 weeks, I asked her to teach me to crochet. I knew that she knew how and that she could show me. With a hook and a ball of yarn, she showed me the stitches she knew, how to practice a chain to get tension right, adding at the end of a row to make sure the increases are correct, and how it is okay to pull out a couple rows to fix a mistake.

And, thus, a crocheter was born. I was hooked- which is a crochet pun, since that is what the crochet tool is called. In fact, I was so into crochet that I promptly went to the yarn store and crocheted a lap blanket for her before she left to go back home. In the first two months of knowing how to crochet, I made a pillow cover, a neck pillow, 10 crowns for birthday party favors, a tiny blanket for a stuffed otter, and a queen-sized blanket for my brother who moved in with us.

In the middle of my darkness, the loops and strips of yarn made me feel as though I was accomplishing something. They drew out of myself and out of my head and into a space of quieter focus and peace. I learned that crocheting during a meeting helped me to listen to others better, because it slowed down how quickly I wanted to respond.

It became easier for me to meet people because people will help a fellow crafter learn a new pattern or find a specific tool. I had a new language- hooks, gauges, swatches, stitch markers, in the round, join, increase two together, and magic circles. I had a new identity. I was a crocheter. Now, four years into that identity, my son offers my services on the playground. I've made hats for three second-graders who are not my child and I have requests for more.

This reminds me think of a book I read in 2012, so before I became a crocheter. In Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, Diana Butler Bass writes about how the church has a framework of believe, behave, belong.

She talks about how the model outside of church for learning a skill follows a different pattern. In the book, Bass uses the example of a person who wants to learn to knit. This person might ask someone to teach them or join a knitting group, thus seeking to belong in order to acquire the skill. Through belonging, the person learns to behave like a knitter- buying yarn, patterns, starting projects and leaving them around, and knitting. Through belonging and behaving, the person eventually becomes to believe things about knitting and knitters- about focus, skill, planning, generosity, or artistic ability. Belong, behave, believe...

Bass says, "Relationships lead to craft, which leads to experiential belief. That is the path to becoming and being someone different. The path of transformation."(201)

For a long time, people have approached being a follower of Jesus, the Way of discipleship, in the other order... with believing first, then behaving, and, after those were correct, then one could "belong". That order makes people wary of church, wary of Christians, and wary of the God who is supposedly represented by these two groups.

When we flip the order, as a community of faith and as individuals, we offer the welcome that reveals the truths that saves, the truth that welcomes, the truth that Nicodemus sought, under the cover of night. Belonging gives a sense of safety that leads to behaviors that reflect Christ's love- the love that defined his life, death, and resurrection. The ability to be part of sharing and receiving that love and welcome builds to believing, trusting in things that are beyond our full comprehension and yet we perceive that they are true.

There is a program called "Everyone Teach Two", which involves people who know how to knit or crochet teaching two other people in their life how to do it. Teaching involves inviting the person over, having a meal, talking, having a small project started, showing stitches, and praise. What if our sense of evangelism was directed in the same way? The invitation, the welcome, the hospitality, the tolerance for questions, for mistakes, for laughter and conversation- and through belonging and behaving would come belief.

In June, I'll have been crocheting for four years. In August, it will be 30 years since my baptism. I am neither the best crocheter or the best follower of Jesus, but I feel secure in belonging in both categories. I can teach two. I belong, I behave, I believe. I believe there is enough yarn to go around and that there is even more of God's love.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Childlike Vs. Childish

Last night, I was asked an excellent question. We read and meditated on this passage from Paul’s writing:

For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 1 Corinthians 13:9-12

Someone asked, “Why does that passage talk about children like that if Jesus said we have faith like a child?”

People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it.  But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Luke 18:15-17 

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. Matthew 18:1-5

Great question! Why do we have a passage from the apostle Paul that seems to specifically contradict a teaching that we have from Jesus?

The first thing to remember is that Paul did not have written gospels to read, as far as we know. He taught from his memorization of what was handed down to him and from the leading of the Holy Spirit. The gospels are written accounts that are crafted, by inspiration, with literary skills like foreshadowing, plot, and theme.

Paul has his own rhetorical flourishes and themes. Where these things seem to contradict one another, we must always follow the guiding of Jesus. However, it is worth a closer look to see if a contradiction is truly present.

When Jesus speaks to his disciples regarding children and faith, it is important to remember that he commends a child-like faith, but not a childish faith. In this time period, children were blessings, but also non-entities. Families had many children in hopes that some would live and would be useful to the family business or farm. One hoped for the dowries that might come with daughters-in-law and worried about the dowries to provide for one’s own daughters. Children were not only not heard, but also barely seen.

Yet, outside of the legal realities, children were certainly valued. God describes the Divine nature as being like one who lifts an infant to the cheek (Hosea 11:4). And in Luke 11, Jesus acknowledges that parents want good things for their children. So, we can ascertain that children in a healthy family system were loved. Children in this circumstance have an awareness of their value. They ask questions, play without fear, and freely give and receive affection.

This is the childlike faith that Jesus holds out as an example to the disciples. In the gospels, people and created beings who are in the margins, which included children, perceive who Jesus is as the Christ. They do not fear him in this role, but are drawn to him. As the One who contains the Eternal Word that is Love, Jesus could certainly see and sense the fear, guilt, shame, and worry of adults. He saw them with love and commended them to a faith of healthy security, trust, and openness- like that of the children who sought out their Savior.

Paul, instead, is writing to the Corinthians who have habits that exemplify childish behavior. They do not share. They engage in grouping up and keeping some people out of the group. They make bad choices and defy others to correct them. They tell Paul, “You are not the boss of us.”

Paul’s great argument toward the behavior that comes with love- being loved and showing love- is a direct hit against childishness and a push toward childlike faith. Be adults, he is arguing. Stop with petty jealousies and score keeping. Don’t show off. Don’t be rude. Stop pretending you have a secret club in Jesus’ name- that’s offensive. God is the boss of you and God sees what you’re doing. And God knows you can do better!

Paul is exactly speaking against the kind of childish behavior for which loving parents correct their children, so that they will learn to leave those things behind. Regrettably, as with the Corinthians, many of us do not leave that behavior behind and adopt a more adult way of reasoning and showing love to our neighbors. However, God was not done with the church at Corinth, which is why Paul kept writing them, and God is not done with us. The Spirit still moves.


So, when we compare these two passages, it is a difference between embracing a childlike faith and rejecting childishness in faith (and faith community). This was an excellent question and an excellent thing for us to work toward on our way to Easter resurrection celebration.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Guilt, Shame, and Ashes to Go

One of the struggles with Lent (and with being human) is that, in Western conversation and in spoken and written English, we have conflated guilt and shame. They are not the same. Furthermore, making them interchangeable does real spiritual and psychic harm to individuals and communities.

Regardless of official definition (denotation), the common understanding of shame (connotation) is to be embarrassed or regretful of who you are. This stems from being told or believing that bad choices or personal struggles are rooted in being a bad person. This isn't even a question of being human and, thus, prone to mistakes. In common parlance, shame is rooted, fundamentally, in being a bad person of little to no redeeming value.

When we hear people saying that people aren't "ashamed" anymore, what is usually meant is either 1)  people "like that" used to not be visible in society and I would prefer for that to be the case again OR 2) they should feel guilty for their choices or actions. 

Guilt is different from shame and has a different function. Guilt is feeling bad about actions or choices. Guilt is not rooted in who you are as a person, but in the fact that you have done things that are not in keeping with who you are (or whose you are). Guilt is the feeling that arises out of regret or remorse. Often guilt makes us double-down on a choice, reiterating that we were correct in our actions- even though we doubt that ourselves. Negative choices can stem from fear, longing, grief, and frustration. We have few communal outlets for acknowledging these realities and, thus, they continue to be motivators toward negative actions, which feed guilt.

Guilt that we do not release can become shame.

Adam and Eve felt guilty because of their disobedience. The guilt grew beyond their ability to hold it in their hearts with the truth that God had made them and walked and talked with them. They then doubted who they were in that relationship and their value. In the resulting shame, they covered themselves and hid.

Ashes to Go is a Lenten practice that is embraced enthusiastically by some Christians and less so by others. Critics rightly note that Ash Wednesday seems like a poor day in the church year for evangelism, especially when Christians don't do a great job of talking about death, sin, and guilt on the other 364 days in of faithful living. True, true, true. The Church is the place where we learn to live and die in Jesus Christ. We model ourselves on his faithfulness.

When I go out, in the COLD, on Ash Wednesday to distribute ashes, I'm not thinking about evangelism in the classical, fundamentalist Christian sense. I'm not there in my robe, hoping someone will ask me about Christ, so that I can pray the "Sinner's Prayer" with them.

What I hope is that someone who has been shamed by the church will see me and feel courageous enough to challenge me on that, so that I might offer an apology and regret for the actions that caused shame. I hope that someone will refuse the ashes, but ask for prayer. I hope that someone will say can I talk with you after this and that I will buy them lunch and listen to their story. I hope that someone will bow their head to receive ashes and that I will pray for them and we will both feel the power of the Spirit in that moment. I hope that I will be able to give information about how to get rental assistance, medical help, spiritual care, or assurance of God's love. This is my evangel- the good news of Christ that I carry into the town square and beyond.

The reality of Ashes to Go isn't that we shouldn't be out, attempting to counter shame and relieve guilt, on this day, but that it shouldn't be the only day that we do it. 

The Divine Being overflows with love for creation. We are part of that creation. Becoming rooted in that truth does not allow the weed of shame to take hold and choke out the grace of that knowledge.

Guilt has a performative function of helping us see how we have strayed from loving God, loving our neighbors, and loving ourselves. Releasing guilt sometimes requires hard work of confessing to God or to one another, reparative work, or learning new information toward a change of heart. Lent is a good time to work on releasing guilt so that we have clearer vision to celebrate the joy of resurrection at Easter.






Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Choosing Wisely (Lent 2017)

It's that time of year again! (Whoo-hoo!)

It is time to choose a Lenten discipline. (Oh.)

May I suggest that you don't wait until Ash Wednesday (March 1) and decide in a hurry? Or decide now and binge on an activity to go cold turkey in a week.

Lent, the forty days of fasting, prayer, and penitence before Easter (not counting Sundays), is a season of slowing down, thinking deeply, praying, and spiritual pruning and growth. We are in the imitation of Christ's time in the wilderness, praying, fasting, and resisting temptation between his baptism and the noted beginning of his public ministry in some of the gospel accounts.

When pondering Lenten disciplines, here are some good questions to ask yourself.

1) What does God think about me? How do I know that?

2) What gets in the way of me understanding or perceiving God's love in my life?

3) What gets in the way of me understanding or perceiving God's love in the world?

4) What is a habit that disturbs me spiritually- in that it causes me to feel separated from God's presence?

5) What do I do regularly that breaks the positive fulfillment of one or more of the 10 commandments?

6) What have I done in the past year that still bothers me, even though I have tried to let go of it?

7) What is a spiritual discipline that I want to do, but I cannot seem to make time for or do in a way that gives some consolation or peace?

8) Where is a dead spot in my life that needs prayer and work in anticipation of resurrection?


This season is more than giving up chocolate or caffeine or even trying to pray every day. It is about literally taking time to examine your life and to weigh how  you treat yourself, those around you, and the world in comparison to how God desires you and them to be treated. Where do you see the need for tikkun olam- the repair of the world?

Take some time in the next week. I realize that time is a commodity and no one has as much as they want or need. Nevertheless, put your phone down when you're in the bathroom. Get a grease pencil or a dry erase marker for the shower or bathroom mirror. Put a post-it note on your steering wheel. Change your screen saver or homepage. Make new place mats with your kids- construction paper covered with contact paper. Put a sheet of butcher paper on the fridge. Set a daily alarm or timer.

There is time to think about this and to prayerfully open yourself to new thoughts and habits that God may be trying to introduce in your life in the season ahead. I am praying for you in your time of discovery- prayers for peace, renewal, strength, openness, courage, and trust.


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Eat My Words (Respect #2)

So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! ...  With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.  Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?  - James 3:5, 9-11

It burned... the thing I wanted to say. I could feel the words in my mouth and in my throat. They were explosive. I wanted to say them sharply so they would hurt, wound. I felt hurt and wounded and I wanted to do it back. 
I screwed up my lips, grimacing. 
How could I not say these words? It was actually fairly important in this small, intimate meeting to control what I was saying, to be attentive to my emotions, and to let kindness and honesty reign over my impulsive reptilian brain. 
In a move that I have never done before, I scribbled the words I wanted to say on the corner of the piece of paper. Then I tore off that corner, crumpled it, and put it in my mouth. The other two people in the meeting stared. 
One asked, "How did that taste?"
"Like eating my feelings," I mumbled around the dry paper that I was trying to coat with spit. 
"Why did you do that?" asked the other. 
"Because I needed to get it out," I said. "I wanted it out, but I didn't want it to hurt anyone else. So I got it out and then I put it back in and now it can come out another way." 
I was still rolling the small ball in my mouth, moistening it. Finally, I swallowed it. 
About four minutes later, I realized that I couldn't remember what I had written down unless I forced myself to think of it. 
The thing that I had burned to say, that I was itching to say, that I desperately wanted to use to carve a groove, a scar in the other person... was forgotten when I literally swallowed it. If I force myself to remember the words, I remember why I was hurt and why I wanted to say them. But they weren't as important as trying to keep working with the people in that room. The brief thrill of oneupmanship  that would have been achieved would have created so much more pain in the long run. 
It was a dramatic move, but it actually taught me something that I didn't expect to learn. 
Sometimes we live to eat our words, regretting our haste. 
If we can learn to eat them first (before we say them), we can live.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Jesus Ethics (Sermon)

Matthew 5:21-37

The Sermon on the Mount continued-

- We are now into the ethical dimension of what it means to be salt of the earth and a light to the world
- What does the meekness that inherits the earth look like? What shape does hungering and thirsting for righteousness take in one’s own life?
- When Matthew is writing, after the fall of the temple, after Paul’s letters, after there is now a full generation of believers after Christ… what are the ethics of discipleship?
- In particular, Matthew wants to be sure that his readers (then and now) understand that following Christ has a rootedness in the law of Moses.
- The context of that root is not supersession (as in Jesus fulfills and, thereby, transforms the law), but cuts it open so that the heart of the law and God’s desire for its use is exposed.

Framework
What would Jesus do? Matthew will go on to illustrate that, but he’s foreshadowing the kind of behavior that Jesus embody, which will seem transgressive and problematic to those who want the law to be followed strictly without regard to the need for wholeness in community.

Matthew’s interpretation of Jesus’ teaching, therefore, is to give an ethical framework that neither allows for unrestricted freedom in action (antinomianism) or idolizing of the law (legalism).

We want the law to be strict because it is easier to follow rules than to be loving.

It is easier to live for one’s self than for the community.

It is easier to perceive one’s own righteousness when contrasted with others than to pause to tenderly consider the pain we have compelled them to hide.

There is no “I” in common good- all actions are aimed toward the community, not the self (even self-care).
- Violent thoughts beget violent actions.
- Unforgiveness toward others leads toward doubting God’s forgiveness towards one’s self
- The use of others as means to sexual satisfaction (visually, physically, or commercially) leads to a breakdown of the value of sex as a gift from God and the body as a vessel of grace and sacramental action
            - Adultery – mostly married women/unmarried men… violation of property
            - Porneia- illicit sex?
- The common good requires honesty- about the difficulties of marriage, about mental health, about sexual ethics, about abuse of all kinds. Those who are embodying the Jesus ethics must lead the way in these conversations.

The small is as important as the big and the big is as important as the small.
- The truest ethic is a consistent ethic. A consistent ethic does not always mean consistent action. Some children need more structure than others. Sometimes a train of thought must be followed through multiple stops before a conclusion rooted in community good and God’s love can be determined.
- There will always be extreme examples- decisions made in poverty, war, grief, and in the midst of violence or threats of violence that will need to be treated tenderly and with grace and assurance of forgiveness.
- What is done at home must match what is done in public. What is done in the parking lot must match what is done at the communion rail. The Jesus ethic is a consistent ethic…

“God is love” (1 John 4:8) is orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
-The compass of the Jesus ethic is located within the incarnation… the actual body of Jesus… the physical human nature of Christ… It is the extreme nature of God’s love made flesh and dwelling among us in commonplace elemental reality that makes the Jesus ethic applicable all day, every day.
- orthodoxy- right belief
- orthopraxy- right faith
- These two cannot function apart from one another and are the original chicken and egg…
- This is the grounding of discipleship- our following in the Way of Christ- and therefore the true north of a Jesus ethic.
As I read this week about ethics and the Sermon on the Mount and marriage and divorce and oath taking in the first century, I thought of all the ethical dilemmas that are proposed in these sorts of situations. I thought of how likely we are to take this text, remove it from its context, and shame others or ourselves with it.

We must wrestle with making our every thought align with the truth of Jesus—the executed, resurrected Christ who sustains all life and who reconciles all things. ~Drew Hart (The Trouble I’ve Seen)

The truth is that most of us want short, pithy clarity that doesn’t require moral pondering, deep prayer, or hard conversations. All that does, though, is make a new law. It takes time and practice to shape a life according to following Christ. Time is the thing that we are consistently presented as not having enough of, running out of, killing.

For most of us, a life lived in the imitation of Christ, in embracing a Jesus ethic- for most of us, that life is not going to take a quietist, plain sort of shape. The choice is not – be cloistered or be a flagrant sinner. The choice is actually much tougher, it is either to put ourselves, our knowledge, our desires and will above God’s or to embrace what God has done for us and to respond with a Jesus ethic.

There is no “I” in common good- all actions are aimed toward the community, not the self (even self-care)
The small is as important as the big and the big is as important as the small
“God is love” (1 John 4:8) is orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

At work, at the drive thru, in competition, at the doctor’s, when voting, on social media, when playing sports, on-line shopping, in speaking to your family, in speaking to strangers, in writing letters to the editor, in protest, in support, in worship, and at rest…

The grace we have received compels us to be open to the way a Jesus ethic shapes our lives. One decision leads to another to another to another as we are saltier and lighter and more woke and more open and then we find ourselves blessed and among the ones who are receiving mercy, inheriting the earth, and being filled.