Tuesday, May 20, 2008

When silence is golden (because it's not always)

Recently, I've been around a lot of grieving people. Last week, I was in North Carolina to be with my family after an uncle committed suicide. I have another friend whose best friend was killed in a motorcycle accident last weekend. Then there is the couple I know who are separating after several years together.

In each of these situations, I've listened to or sat with those who were grieving. In some cases, we sit and talk about mundane things. At some points, we talk about the sadness of the situation. And, for some time, there is just nothing to say- so we sit in silence.

I've had many people tell me that they don't know what to say to someone who is grieving, angry or distraught. Often they would like to show that they care or demonstrate some support, but they remain distant or silent for fear of making a mistake.

The thing is, most people just want someone to be there for them. They aren't going to ask hard questions, they won't expect you to have answers, they just want and need someone to be with them- to keep them company, to remind them that they are not alone.

When Rob was in Iraq, I was most appreciative of the people who got in touch with me, asked how I was and told me about their lives. I didn't need anything special. I didn't need to be told anything- I just appreciated the support and knowing these people were thinking of me.

That's what most people need in a time of grief and especially beyond the immediate incident. Don't be afraid to call in a month, when you get up your nerve or when you just have more time. You might say something silly, but everyone does at some time or another. It's far more likely that the person you've contacted will just be grateful for the call or the card or the visit. They'll remember the presence far more than any words.

Silence is golden when it comes with the gift of presence, support and grace. It can be the greatest gift you can give someone at those times when you don't know what to do.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Wait...There's more! (Trinity Sunday sermon)

How many of you have seen an infomercial before? You know, one of those long commercials on television selling something like a rotisserie oven, a set of knives, a 14-piece vacation-wear set or a juicer that does everything but change your bed sheets. In an infomercial, there is always the studio audience as well. They applaud at the miracle of a moist roast or the Ronco worm trimmer that makes a sound like a real worm. The audience also always knows the punchlines for the presenter, the best of which is “But wait… there’s more.”

That line is what I kept thinking about this week while trying to write a sermon about the Trinity. In trying to describe how our one God is three separate and significant persons and yet one holy unity, I kept writing and thinking, “But wait… there’s more!”

In the first reading today, that lengthy section of Genesis, we get a glimpse of the creative power of the Trinity. As some of you have heard me explain before, the Hebrew word for that void, the blackness before creation, is tohu wabohu. Tohu wabohu is a phrase used nowhere else in the Bible except in this passage. It speaks to the chaos and absolute absence of anything significant until God spoke it into movement.

But where we would see nothing, God sees potential. We perceive a void, an absence… but where God is, there is presence- the presence of potential- potential for creation, potential for new life, potential for grace. John tells us that in the beginning the Word was with God and we hear in Genesis how the Spirit moved over the waters- inspiring the movement of creation, from tohu wabohu, awakening the potential of the world. The Waker, the Word and Wind, the Trinity, moved beyond their relationship with one another into a relationship with a universe teeming with potential. The work of the Trinity is creative. But wait… there’s more!

When we create something, plant a garden, hang a picture, build a swing set or fight for an idea or cause, we often step back and think to ourselves about how good it looks, how good it feels to have done the project, how good it might have been to work with other people. We are able to recognize goodness because of the relationships in our lives, past or present, that have defined what goodness is for us.

It is this relational aspect that gives us some insight into the God in whose image we are made, the God who declared each step of creation good. God saw the potential of the wasted space and then recognized the goodness of each step of creation because of the mutual love and goodness that is between the members of the Trinity.

However, when we read this part of Genesis, there is a note of sadness that cannot help but creep into our hearts. That old Satanic foe snakes his way in and reminds us that the pristine goodness of creation did not remain that way for long. Before we could comprehend the heights of love unknown, the relationship had broken down- between the Creator and the created, between the Beloved and loved, between the Holy Breath and us, the breathing. Suddenly it seems there was unrecoverable distance between God and creation and between the created beings themselves. But even when it seemed like it had all been a waste, the Trinity, because of their relationship, their ability to recognize goodness, in one another and in us, the three-in-one God still saw potential for redemption.

So, in Jesus, as part of God, as the eternal Word in human form, came to earth to live among us. Jesus tells us, in John, that because we know him, we also know the Father. The love that Jesus demonstrates to those around him, the forgiveness of sins that he preaches, the healing that he brings about… this was the work of God on Earth, for the earth. Because God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so loved the world, their creation, that they fashioned a new level of relationship between themselves and us, a new connection between heaven and earth. In the tohu wabohu of a sinful world, the Trinity saw potential for redemption, potential for grace, potential for new life. The work of the Trinity is redeems. But wait…there’s more!

In today’s passage from Matthew, known as the Great Commission, it says the disciples went to Galilee as Jesus had directed them. They saw him there and they worshipped him, their risen Savior, but some doubted. Did they doubt that this was Jesus? Or could it be that they doubted themselves?

They knew their miserable track record, hiding out, scared after the crucifixion. They knew their own confusion at Jesus’ teachings and their struggles to heal as he did, forgive as he did, and pray as he did. Jesus does not even speak to their doubt, but tells them, “I am in charge. Through me, you have seen God and you know in your hearts the love God has for you. It is the love I have for you and the love you have for one another. Tell other people about it! Tell them what you have heard and seen! I have the power in this world and the next and I am always with you! Let my words wash over you and you carry them to others. Tell them of the good news of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit- one God with you and with them- forever!”

For both the disciples in front of Jesus and for us, disciples today, we know well our own track records and we struggle with how God might use us or whether we are simply frauds in our beliefs and our actions. Hear the gracious words of Jesus: he has the power! We are called to witness to that power in our daily lives with whatever gifts we have. God will make our actions right and holy. That’s what we call sanctification.

We know that we don’t have the power to do anything, but with God- all things are possible. God sees the potential of our lives- potential for holiness, potential for new life, potential for grace. Even in the tohu wabohu of our lives, the Trinity uses us in ways we know and do not know to create new goodness in the world, making our deeds useful and holy! The work of the Trinity sanctifies! But wait…there’s more!

Creating, redeeming, sanctifying… so much from one God, so much even from three persons. And how much would you pay for all this? $100? $200? $19.95? It is yours for free. This isn’t a limited time offer. You don’t have to call now. Because of the relationship of love the members of the Trinity have with one another and with the world, this offer remains on the table forever! For you, for me, for everyone! Do you see the potential? For healing, for grace, for new life?

Thanks be to God, the Wellspring, the Living Water and the River of Life… Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier… Father, Son and Holy Spirit…

There is always more. Always more. For you and for me. With the everlasting Trinity, one God, now and forever, there is always more.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Healing Service Sermon

There are two lessons about healing in the gospel story today. The obvious one is the actual healing of the paralytic man. This part of the story shows that all things are possible with God.

The second aspect of the story, the more important part, reveals more about the regular work of God through Jesus, then and now. After the man’s friends lower him to the floor, Jesus looks at him and says, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Many people in the room were shocked and offended at this statement, but Jesus points out that it is much, much easier for him or for anyone to acknowledge the forgiveness of sins than to heal a paralyzed person. So that they might believe in God’s power in Jesus, he heals the man of his physical infirmity and then people were amazed. Even before Thomas, people needed to see and believe.

And we’re a lot like that today. It’s easier to believe when we hear miracle stories, when we see our friends healed, when children are born with no problems, when someone walks away from the deadly crash.

Yet isn’t it a greater miracle to know that God forgives our anger at our will not being done, forgives our despondency when we ignore our blessings, forgives our complacency when we decide there is nothing we can do, and forgives our unwillingness to tear off the roof and bring everything before Jesus.

Today, in the life of the church, we celebrate Pentecost- the day when the Holy Spirit descended as tongues of fire and the disciples were able to preach in many, many languages. The miracle of Pentecost is that, by being able to hear the good news, many people were healed, from their lives of sin, from their fear of God, from their misunderstanding of who Jesus was. Do we still look for that kind of miracle today? Do we expect that kind of healing?

Physical healings happen daily. Through increased understanding of God’s creation, our bodies and our minds, we are able to receive treatment for illnesses that were unheard of in Jesus’ time. Even fifty years ago, many of us might have died from physical ailments we’re able to get a prescription for these days. But we still long for miracle healings; we long to know the physical presence of God in our bodies, as well as our hearts. However, what is the healing we need most? And who knows best what we need. The God who loves us, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, never to be parted in life or death knows all our needs. Jesus knew that the paralyzed man needed soul healing more than he needed to feel the soles of his feet on the earth. God knew we needed the kind of healing that could only come through God’s only son- healing of our spirits, so that we too might be able to speak with tongues of fire about what has been done for us.

The theologian, H. Richard Niebuhr said, “The great Christian revolutions come not by the discovery of something that was not known before. They happen when somebody takes radically something that was always there.”

The radical, healing nature of God is one of everlasting, always there, forgiveness- achieved through Jesus on the cross, so that we would no longer be paralyzed by the fear of sin and death. We are called upon to take that healing, that new freedom seriously. That everlasting forgiveness is for you! Be healed by it. Feel the Spirit burning in your heart. Your sins are forgiven. They are forgiven indeed. Take up your mat and walk!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

May Newsletter

Many of you may be familiar with the Seven Deadly Sins: lust, anger, greed, envy, sloth, gluttony, and pride. Of course, I am not implying that your familiarity comes from an experience of one of these categories of human weakness; I am assuming that you’ve just heard about them, in passing, at some point in your life.

In March, the Roman Catholic Church issued a list of seven, more modern “deadly sins”: environmental pollution, genetic manipulation, accumulating excessive wealth, inflicting poverty, drug trafficking and consumption, morally debatable scientific experiments, and violation of the fundamental rights of human nature. This is an extremely inclusive list of flaws and the details of each “sin” will have to be saved for another discussion- one regarding tenets of the Roman Church.

Nevertheless, this new list is interesting because it moves beyond the first list, dating back to the 6th century (but not to the Bible), and points to sins that affect people around you and in the larger world community. A predilection toward gluttony or lust can affect other people, but the original concern was for the relationship between a person and God. Committing sins within the categories of the first seven deadly sins affected one’s own ability to hear the gospel and the character of one’s soul for the receiving of the sacraments.

This new list of seven deadly sins points to the fact that one person’s sin affects everyone. This new list aims at the idea that “inflicting poverty” or “violation of human rights” affects the ability of other people to hear the gospel. Our life as believers forms a trinity (mirroring the connection between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit). This heaven to earth trinity is formed by God, other people and ourselves. A breach of the connectedness between God and us ruins the communion of that Trinitarian relationship.

Knowing those breaches happen all the time brings us to the understanding that all sin is deadly. If we think of those breaches in relationship between God, one another and ourselves that occur daily- we are forced to acknowledge that we do sin in ways known and unknown. Maybe you aren’t a glutton, but are you grateful for the level of wealth you have compared to many people on the planet? Maybe you haven’t committed adultery (even in your heart), but do you dismiss the need for social justice work in communities?

However, just as one person’s sin affects everyone- so one Person’s death for sin affects us all as well. We believe, through faith, that Christ’s life, death and resurrection freed us from the eternal consequences of sin. Though we still may sin, we know that this sin does not and cannot separate us from the love of God. We are called, through the promises of the Word of God, to cling to what is given to us in baptism- a blessed assurance that we are forgiven and daily renewed to life in Christ.

That daily renewal through the Holy Spirit gives us the power to use our gifts in a world mired in sin. We know that God will lift us and our works out of deadly sin and make all things new. In the coming month, may God grant you the grace and confidence to know that all your sins are forgiven and to carry that message of hope to a world longing to hear it.

Irony

Well, dear friend, I'm home sick for the second day in row. I'm not sure what the problem is, but I'm going to a doctor today. I sort of hate going to the doctor...like going to the mechanic, I'm always afraid they'll find something to fix that I wasn't expecting. However, it is clear that I need to see someone.

The irony (see the title) is that, for work this week, I'm supposed to be working on a healing service. I'm writing a new order for confession and forgiveness, a dialogue and a homily (short sermon) all around the theme of healing.

I am praying that all will go well at the doctor's, but right now that means, to me, that I will find out what the problem is and what can be done to solve it. Appreciating the gifts of doctors is part of my understanding of how God works in healing ways in our lives.

But there are many other kinds of healing: we can pray for and expect physical healing, but we also have wounded hearts, tired spirits, languishing anger, longings for forgiveness and the need to forgive. That's the main part of the healing service; it's not only about physical ailments, but also about the intercession of God's wholeness in our brokeness, in our broken world.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

St. Monica of Hippo

Monica was the mother of Augustine, the famous (!) Christian author (Confessions) and apologist who was major influence of on the reformers of the Roman church in the Middle Ages. Monica is well-known for her deep prayers and solid faith that led to the conversion of her husband and her mother-in-law to Christianity. Her prayers and confidence in the work of God were a contributing factor in Augustine's own eventual conversion and embrace of Christianity- turning away from the wild lifestyle he had previously embraced. Monica's deep faith is major building block in the church as it is today because of her prayers for change within her family.

Monica's saint day is observed on 4 May, but I thought it was also interesting to consider her in this week before Mother's Day. Not everyone is a mother, though everyone has one...somewhere. Regardless of how you feel towards your mother or how you, as a mother, might feel toward your children- we have all experienced that level of prayer that Monica must have known- continually beseeching God for real and painful needs to be answered and healed. Monica saw her prayers answered, but many mothers and many children do not seem to receive that same consolation in the same way.

This week, keep those children of God in your prayers- mothers and children full of prayers and mothers and children full of rebellion and distanced from one another.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Awkward Silence

I've been thinking about this post for a while, but it's hard (even for me) to put it out where you will read it. I think my two-month struggle to write this exemplifies the reticence in our culture to discuss the following issue... but that also means that it's crucial that we do discuss it.

Sex.

There I said it. Discuss.



Maybe it's not that easy, but that's a place to start. The youth director at the church where I work recently put out a request for parents to talk to her about sex. She was hoping to begin a conversation with parents, so that we (as a church) could create opportunities to discuss sex with our children and youth. The youth director received no responses, no replies, no rants, no raves, nothing.

The thing is, we almost universally acknowledge the bombardment of sexual imagery that we experience and we know that our children experience. However, sexual imagery is not the same as sexual information. Information is not the same as encouragement. Many people seem to think that by talking with our teens about sex, we're advocating that they have sex. Yet we talk with our kids about all kinds of things we don't want them to do: drugs, dangerous driving, procrastination, racist actions, murder.

Youth are curious about sex. For the most part, we don't want our children learning about faith from their (public) school, why would we want them to learn about sex or sexual values there? Have you talked to a 10th grader about what they think they learned in Civics? Why would we think they would, then, have accurate information about sex?

Conversations about morals and values and sexual behavior are just that... conversations. They are not one-time deposits of information. Appropriate sexual behavior is about reciprocal and respectful, committed relationships. If we aren't demonstrating those in a non-sexual way (as parents, teachers and faith families), how do we expect children to reflect that behavior as they grow in other relationships.

The time has come for open, honest and church-based discussions about relationships, sex and maturation. If a teen experiences positive church support in one of the most awkward conversations and stages of life... how much more likely will that make him or her to turn the church in other times of need?

God's grace is good for our souls and for our bodies. Let's have real, honest conversations about those bodies and celebrate what God has made good and how we can be responsible stewards. The first step is opening our mouths in conversation with one another.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Holocaust Remembrace Day

Today is a particular day set aside to remember the Holocaust perpetuated by the Nazi party of 1930s Germany (and their compatriots) against their fellow human beings. At least six million Jews died in the atrocities of that genocide, along with many, many, many other "undesirables" including disabled people, "gypsies" (Roma), left-handed people, social undesirables (impoverished people), homosexuals and others.

What I would say is important to remember on this day is not just those who died, but how that situation came to be. How governments, social organizations, churches and other groups did not speak up to counter racism, sexism, religious discrimination or the growing eugenics movement and so the atrocities began and very, very few people moved.

We all think we would speak up if we knew something like that was happening now. But...

Do we?


Thanks be to God for forgiveness for things done and left undone, for when we do not love our neighbors as ourselves.