Wednesday, September 05, 2012
Alright friends, BIG ANNOUNCEMENT HERE...if you're following contemplative chaplain (and who does anymore, right? I've been sort of a slacker...), perk up your ears. I am changing this here blog and moving over to wordpress. So, please reset your followings, and look for me after the jump over at: contemplativepastor.wordpress.com I hated to make a change, a hate change so, but I can no longer tolerate blogger's inability to paragraph things and space sermons (see how this entry is just one big run on sentence?! Yeah, I didn't type it that way, but Blogger seems unable to notice this). Besides, I'm technically not a chaplain anymore, and well, who wants to be deceptive in their presentation (I'm talking to you, Paul Ryan)? The archives will stay up at ContemplativeChaplain, but we're moving up in the world. Anyway...find me there...
Tuesday, September 04, 2012
Living What We Know “Do as I say, not as I do.” Those were the words I muttered to my sixteen-year-old stepdaughter, Brynn, as I asked her to dial a number for me on my cell phone so that I might confirm some arrangements for dinner with Robert while I was driving on I-469 a few weeks ago. “Do as I say, not as I do.” Those were the words I used to explain my point to my five-year-old son, Grayson, when I overheard him use an expletive when he saw that the dachshund had, once again, chosen to use the kitchen floor as her own personal toilet. “Mommy may have used that word, but do as I say [don’t use it], rather than what I do.” “Do as I say, not as I do.” I think as I drive with my children down a city street, past the woman holding the sign asking for food without stopping. “Do as I say (it is our job to help others), not as I do (keep driving).” “Do as I say, not as I do.” Can there be any more hypocritical, any more human statements that can be made? I don’t think so. And parenting seems to shine the magnifying glass onto my life in some profound ways, as I become aware of all those things that I preach, but am not so good at practicing. I’m wondering, perhaps, if any of you have had those experiences as well? Times when we realize that what we are doing is not exactly what we believe. Times when in spite of our best efforts what we project to the world is not what we hold true in our deepest souls. Times when our words are incongruent with our actions. “Do as I say, not as I do.” The scripture this morning is written to those of us who have lived in that tension. The epistle of James is a book of instruction for those of us who need to occasionally be reminded on discipleship, and how we can let our lives speak. This letter was historically understood to be written by James, the brother of Jesus. Modern biblical scholars have begun to doubt that claim, but the fact that the letter had the name “James” on it, indicates that whoever wrote it wanted it to be viewed as spoken from the same voice that the brother of Jesus may have spoken from. It is one of the few epistles that reads like Jewish wisdom writings—like the proverbs, and like ecclesiastes. Eugene Peterson describes James in this way: “Deep and living wisdom is on display here, wisdom both rare and essential. Wisdom is not primarily knowing the truth, although it certainly includes that; it is a skill for living. For, what good is a truth if we don’t know how to live it?” And isn’t this sort of the crux of the issue if we’re Christians? The way in which we live? I mean, of course, what we promise and what we speak in our creedal statements is nice. It provides us with a sense of orthodoxy, a way to believe, but when the rubber meets the road, when it comes down to it, isn’t our faith mostly about the way in which we act? And the way in which we respond to our neighbor? Isn’t it most important that we be more than hearers of the word, but that we be doers as well? The UCC pastor and theologian Robin Meyers, in his book The Underground Church has worked hard at addressing why younger generations are not as enthused about organized religion as their parents and grandparents have been. He writes, “Our kids want deeds, not creeds. They want mission, not musings. They think we talk too much…But they are not dumb. They are wonderful, and they are watching us…Perhaps the time has come to practice a little of the faith we are so fond of talking about?” The words that Rev. Meyers uses are strong, he speaks with a prophetic voice that can be hard to hear, but his words are a warning and truth we need to hear. Our actions matter. And our children are watching. “Do as I say, and not as I do,” will not cut it anymore. It is time, as Christians, for us to act. I read a haunting poem this week which reminded me of some of the temptations we have in the universal church, a poem which drew me in simply because of its honest portrayal of so much of where Christianity can go wrong. The words are these: Listen Christian/ I was hungry/ and You formed a humanities club/ and discussed my hunger./ Thank you. I was imprisoned/ and you crept off quietly/ to your chapel in the cellar/ and prayed for my release./ I was naked/ and in your mind/ you debated the morality of/ my appearance. I was sick/ and you knelt and thanked God/ for your health. I was homeless/ and you preached to me/ of the spiritual shelter of the love of God. I was lonely/ and you left me/ to pray for me./ You seem so holy:/ so close to God./ But I’m still very hungry/ and lonely/ and cold./ Thank you. And so, friends, this morning I ask you, just as I ask myself…What are we going to do? As people who take the Gospel seriously? As people who believe in the truth of the gospel and know our own very real human capacities? What are we going to do? How do we allow our faith to be made real, to put our hands and feet into this world that we hold in our prayers? How can we be doers of the word, and not merely hearers? I know that some pastors might be tempted to give you answers now. Maybe a little three step system. But, you probably know me well enough by now to know that I’m not like most pastors (perhaps to your detriment!). I don’t believe that I can dictate to you the truth of your own hearts. And give you each handy custom made points to follow easily. I don’t think it’s that easy. I can’t name for you the passion and light that calls you as a disciple. It’s not my task to discern for you the mission that God invites you to journey. Instead, I offer you this, I hope to plant this seed, the words of the author Frederick Buechner, to beckon you on: “The place God calls you is to the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” And so, friends, let us each seek out the world’s deep hungers, and find that place where our joy intersects there. Listen to the place where your heart is pulling you to be doers of the word, and then go there. This morning as you receive communion again. I invite you to consider what it means to act as disciples in this world. And this morning recommit yourselves to the ministries to which you are being called. For the world lies before us, and Christ has no body now on earth but our own, we must go forth in love. Amen.
Thursday, August 23, 2012
At the End of the Day I have a confession to make. A few truths to tell. In this past week alone I have let the sun go down on my anger, after snipping at Robert about some trivial detail over housework, the details of which I can no longer even remember, I went upstairs and fell asleep. And, while I’m at it, I must tell you that I have allowed evil talk to come out of my mouth, especially given that the dog emptied a container of red kool-aid on my white rug. I have harbored resentment, especially when that black pick-up truck with the mean bumpersticker cut me off on Aboite Center Road. And as much as I’ve tried to put away bitterness, I find myself, well “bitter” everytime I turn on the news and see politicians on both sides of the aisle slamming and smearing one another. And I am positive that there are times this week when I could have worked harder at imitating God. At the end of the day, when all is said and done, it is a bit humbling to have to preach on Paul’s words to the church at Ephesus after a week like this one. And I suspect, that I may not be alone. For at the end of the day, I suspect that some of us examine our hearts and say, “Holey Moley, there might be a little work to be done this coming week…” Thank Goodness for grace, and for forgiveness, right? But this morning, now that we’ve considered our personal brokenness, now that we’ve recommitted ourselves to doing better next week, now that we’ve named the ways in which we may not have lived up to the image of Christ personally, I’d like us to consider a bigger picture. I’d like us to consider what Paul’s words mean for the church, and for our life together in community. For that is the audience to whom Paul preached, a faith community. Churches are really fascinating communities, aren’t they? Each one with a different flavor, a different take on theology, a different spin on liturgy. And to consider the number of years we have sustained a life of faith? I find myself wondering often what churches “make it” and which ones end up having to close their doors, to sell their property and disband. What is it that creates faith communities that flourish? Scores of books are written on the topic, at every conference I go to I can, for $19.95 pick up the latest theories on how to grow the church, and how to “think big.” But I tend to think that the answers come less in books by ministers with trendy glasses [seriously, in the photos on the back of these books every guy has trendy glasses and casual golf shirts]. I tend to think the reasons that churches thrive are for the reasons that Paul names right here: in short, they imitate God, they seek to live in love. And so what must we do for our community, for Peace United Church of Christ, to thrive as a community rooted in the love of God and surrounded by the Holy Spirit. Let’s consider our brother, Paul’s advice. First, we must put away all falsehood and speak the truth in love. Holy cow, Paul certainly doesn’t start small does he? I have come to believe that speaking the truth in love is perhaps one of the most frightening and powerful things to do in the church. Hard for us to do because we don’t want to rock the boat, we don’t want to offend our neighbors, we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. We are ever so careful, and this is perhaps one of the things which makes me feel tender and protective of the church for, and yet, and yet…if we live in a community of love, in a community where feel safe, wouldn’t there be ways in which there were times that we had to speak up? Wouldn’t there be times when the Holy Spirit called us to nurture prophetic vision? Speaking the truth in love is not something we need fear, for even if we disagree, a safe community will listen and recognize that we do not have to have uniformity of belief. Robin Meyers in his book The Underground Church writes: I have [friends of different political persuasions than my own] who lead lives of sacrifice and service yet believe things about Jesus that I do not believe. But their lives count for more to me than their beliefs. Besides, they may be right and I may be wrong. I can only hope that they feel the same way about me. Otherwise we are all in trouble. Whether in families or in churches, uniformity of belief has never and will never be achieved. Uniformity of spirit, however, is not only a possibility but the hallmark of the most successful and authentic Christian communities in the land. [p. 60] And so at the end of the day, to create and live out this life together in Christ, perhaps we begin with speaking the truth in love, knowing that we will not all be on the same page, that we may be reading from separate books entirely, but that we will pledge to listen to one another with radical openness, and with a spirit of love. Paul continues, though, and warns the church at Ephesus that while it is okay to be angry, that they must not sin in their anger. The sun must not go down on their anger. I am fascinated by Paul’s words here. I love that he gives permission for anger. There can be a time and place for it to be spoken and expressed, think of the abolitionists who spoke up against slavery in our country, think of those who marched on Washington in the summer of 1965 lobbying for civil rights? Righteous indignation has a place in the church, and must be fueled into fights for equal rights and fair wages and eradication of hunger and peaceful solutions to eradicate world conflict. But, in the beloved community we cannot use our anger as a weapon. Period. Frederick Buechner, in his book Wishful Thinking writes: Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you. And finally, for Peace Church to root ourselves in the abundance of God and live out the community that we are called to be we must “be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us.” It was several years ago now that the WWJD movement started, in some places it is still going strong. You remember, the rubber bracelets and the necklaces that were worn as a reminder to consider what Jesus would do before making a decision. In some ways, I confess that I was a little cynical about the marketing strategy, especially when I saw the bracelets warn by the same people I heard condemning my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, but I confess that I’ve sort of evolved in my thinking, and I appreciate the sentiment. How many times might we change the way we respond were we aware of how our actions reflect the teachings of Christ? Perhaps a visual, a daily reminder, a token or talisman is the perfect way to draw us back into that call to love. How powerful would it be if those who claim that America is a Christian nation, could operate out of that notion at all times? Could it decrease our staggering poverty statistics? Could it eliminate the kind of reckless gun violence we have seen in the last month in Aurora, and just last week at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin? Brothers and sisters, Paul’s words are not fixed in time, not words for us to write off as simply a historical account written for a church two thousand years and an ocean away from us. They are words which have the power to continue to shape us even today. And at the end of the day, what matter most it that we are called to continue to create this vulnerable and brave community which speaks truth in love and imitates God. May it be so. Amen.
Sunday, June 10, 2012
Blessing our Children Rachel Naomi Remen in her book My Grandfather’s Blessings tells this story about the poignant relationship between a Grandfather and his beloved seven-year-old granddaughter. She writes: On Friday afternoons when I would arrive at my grandfather’s house after school, the tea would already be set on the kitchen table…After we had finished our tea my grandfather would set two candles on the table and light them. Then he would have a word with God in Hebrew. Sometimes he would speak out loud, but often he would close his eyes and be quiet. I knew then that he was talking to God in his heart. I would sit and wait patiently because the best part of the week was coming. When Grandpa finished talking to God, he would turn to me and say, “Come, Neshume-le.” Then I would stand in front of him and he would rest his hands lightly on the top of my head. He would begin by thanking God for making him my grandpa. He would specifically mention my struggles during that week and tell God something about me that was true. Each week I would wait to find out what that was. If I had made mistakes during the week, he would mention my honesty in telling the truth. If I had failed, he would appreciate how hard I had tried. If I had taken even a short nap without my nightlight, he would celebrate my bravery in sleeping in the dark. Then he would give me his blessing and ask the long-ago women I knew from his many stories—Sarah, Rachel, Rebekah, and Leah to watch over me…” And then the author finishes her story with these tender words, “My grandfather died when I was seven years old. I had never lived in a world without him in it before, and it was hard for me. He had looked at me as no one else had and called me by a special name, “Neshume-le,” which means “beloved little soul.” There was no one left to call me this anymore. At first I was afraid that without him to see me and tell God who I was, I might disappear. But slowly over time I came to understand that in some mysterious way, I had learned to see myself through his eyes. And that once blessed, we are blessed forever.” And so the question is asked this morning: What does it means to be blessed, and what does it means to bless. For I have come to believe that blessing is a powerful thing. The Torah, the five books which are the foundation of our Judeo-Christian heritage, gives us an idea of this rich tradition of this idea. And in it we learn what it means to bless, and also the opposite, what it means to curse. But while there are several different variations on the word curse, several different Hebrew translations of the word, (people can be cursed, countries can be cursed, cursing can happen by God or curses can be offered to one another), there is only one single Hebrew word for bless. The word is barak, with the noun form being berakah. And the word derives its meaning from the word “to kneel.” When one received a blessing they knelt in respect, when and in turn, when one offered a gift they also knelt. The profound and inherent sacredness is acknowledged in the Hebrew word choice, and the posture of the body is important here and worth considering. For with each uttering of the word, one was reminded of the holiness of yielding, of being brought to one’s knees in sacred awe. Even the word would remind the listener that this blessing stuff was serious business. Bill very patiently read to you the long and involved passage of blessing which Jacob offered his sons as he lay dying, yesterday he joked with me wondering if my sermon would be shorter or longer than the scripture (I suppose the jury is still out on that, and I should have had you all time us and see). In the patriarchal and tribal world out of which the book of Genesis grew, there had to be a way for the tribe to understand who the next leader would be when someone died. And so the blessing, or curse, of the birthright was serious business. And these patriarchal blessings (and they were usually patriarchal, for the matriarchal ones didn’t quite pack the punch in this world that valued men), these blessings for peace, or health, or virility, or prosperity, or victory in battle, once offered, could not be revoked. And it is ironic that, Jacob, the one who deviously stole the birthright from his twin brother, Esau should be the one doing the blessing in this morning’s scripture (we can only assume he learned his lesson well and realized that he better shape up as he passed his blessing on and try to be even and fair). I can imagine the scene, can’t you? The twelve sons gathered in the dimly lit sick room where their father lay dying. The twelve sons who represented the twelve tribes of Israel. Their father, Jacob’s ragged breaths catching with each word as he motioned each of them to him and then pressed a blessing, or in some cases, a warning into each of his sons’ heads. One will be praised by his brothers, two will be used as weapons of violence in this war-hungry culture, one will be a haven for ships, one will be rich in food, another a fruitful bough, the blessings go on and on. Even in this most dysfunctional of families, where the favorite son was cast out and sold to slavery and where the oldest son slept with one of his father’s concubines, the tradition of blessing was maintained. And surely this is a relief to us all of these years later, for their family relationships could endure what would make for an awfully intriguing reality TV show in the twenty-first century, surely ours can survive. But, I digress… With the blessing, Jacob offered instructions of how he wanted to be buried, and how tradition should be maintained. And then Jacob, the father of this mighty clan that tradition maintains would lead the twelve tribes of Israel into the future “drew his feet into the bed, breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.” The writer Annie Dillard once wrote of inviting blessing in this way, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke?” The power of blessing can be life-changing, and it is time that we take it seriously. As seriously as our ancestors did. The novel The Help by Kathryn Stockett tells the story of an African American housekeeper in Mississippi during the tumultuous days immediately before the civil right’s movement. All too often, African American women raised the children who might one day grow to be their oppressors. All too often, children were not influenced in ways that considered all people equal. And we realize some of what can happen if children are not shaped in their early years in the power of offering love instead of hate, grace instead of judgment. These loving domestic workers often adored their young charges, but realized that the culture of racism would not allow for that easy nurturing relationship to continue in the same way once the strict delineations of race and class which were evident in the deep south at that time had the power to assert themselves. In one poignant scene, Abilienne Clark, the domestic servant in the house of the Leefolt family, decides that she has to make a difference in the life of young 3-year-old Mae Mobeley, a child who Abilienne has raised since birth. A child who has often been criticized and ignored by her mother. Abilenne loves Mae as her own, but realizes that if she wants to make a difference in Mae’s future she needs to offer her an alternative to the angry words that she has heard, an alternative to the ugly culture which is asserting itself, an alternative to the criticism she has learned and witnessed in her home. And so Abilenne chooses the most simple and profound lesson she can impart. Each day she kneels at the feet of Mae and looks with love into her blue eyes and says to her with truth and honesty, “You are smart. You are kind. You are important.” Abilenne offers hope in the face of oppression. She offers faith in the face of doubt. As she kneels, she offers a blessing. And with her blessing, she creates the reality for which she prays for Mae. As a pastor, I am privileged to be ushered into those moments when blessings are sought. I am the one who is invited to stand at the front of the church when a couple is married. I get to be the one who holds the baby or child who is baptized and walk them through the church for you all to see. I am the one who looks into each person’s eyes as they receive communion, and who makes the sign of the cross in oil as I anoint in the name of Christ. It is a sacred and holy calling and I am mindful of the gift each time I do it. And I believe fervently that the moment a pastor forgets this privilege, or takes it for granted is the moment they should take off their stole and step out of this pulpit. But when I am at home, when I am not standing in front of this church, when I am just being a mommy, or a partner to Robert, or a step-mom, I realize that I all too often forget the power of blessing I could offer to my own family. I forget what it means to grasp the hands of my step-daughters and pray for their safety as they drive off into the night. I forget to cradle my son’s sweet head in my hands and beckon angels to watch over him as he sleeps. I forget to press my hands into the hands of my beloved husband before we have dinner at night and remember that the holy is in our midst. All too often I forget. Or perhaps, it is that in blessing there is an intimacy and a power that I don’t always know how to hold. Perhaps I am afraid that I am not worthy of invoking that kind of power. But here’s the secret, friends, we all can. And we all should. For in offering a blessing, we are ushered onto that holy ground which beckons us to kneel in awe. And I believe this world needs every blessing we can offer. May it be so. Amen. May the sending one sing in you, May the seeking one walk with you, May the greeting one stand by you, In your gladness and your grieving. May the gifted one relieve you, May the given one retrieve you, May the giving one receive you, In your falling and your restoring. May the binding one unite you, May the one belo’vd invite you, May the loving one delight you, Three-in-one, joy in life unending. Go in peace, my friends, go in love. Amen.
Tuesday, June 05, 2012
First Fruits It was a hot night in the month of July in the year 2003. I sat on the floor of my new kitchen in the home I had just moved into as a newlywed surrounded by Caphalon and Revere-ware pots and pans on my right, and ten or twelve glasses of crystal stemware on my left. But as I sat on the floor that summer night on Strathdon Drive I was not glowing and feeling that honeymooner’s bliss. Instead I was crying frustrated tears, and Robert was sitting on a chair nearby with his head in his hands shaking his head. Robert and I had been married for only three short weeks. Here we were, just beginning our new life together in wedded bliss, thrilled that after a year’s engagement we were finally moving into a home together something we’d been longing to do, and here we were blessed with an overabundance of kitchen paraphernalia as we combined our pots and pans. And all I could do that night was cry, for I was overwhelmed with how to handle it all. It was a delightful problem to have, really—and a little embarrassing to admit when so many are hungry and needy in this world. And I was enjoyed to be beginning our new life together and thankful for the abundance we had. But, with this joyful change came a responsibility of sorts, and a need to acknowledge one another’s feelings (even if Robert did have an unhealthy attachment to a set of particularly ugly potholders, and I had way too many salt and pepper shakers) We were thrilled about our good fortune, but we were also creatures of habit who had to learn how to live into this new reality. With joy and anticipation, came anxiety. With hope and prosperity, came the need to be open to change. And change, even good change, can make us nervous. This is some of what Paul spoke of in his letter to the church of Galatia. There had been rapid growth in the church. There was much to celebrate. But, there were tensions too, namely over whether Gentiles had to become Jewish before they could follow Jesus. As much hope as there in the promise of the new church, as powerful as the movement was, there was still anxiety about how tradition could be maintained, while allowing new ways to be adopted. As much joy as there was about the future of kingdom of God, there was still wonder about how to determine how decisions would be made. For even in the midst of excitement and hope, there was still change. And remember, even positive change can make movements nervous. And out of this anxiety, Paul rose to the occasion and responded as a true leader could. He reminded this fledgling flock to bring forth their finest fruits. The fruits of love, and joy, and peace. The harvest of patience, kindness, generosity, and faithfulness. The crop of gentleness and self-control. For Paul knew that for the church to continue, they had to bring the best parts of themselves into their lives as followers of Christ. For the fulfillment of Christ’s mission to be complete, the church had to discern the mind of Christ. This morning we celebrate the First Fruits of our Renewing Peace campaign harvest. Peace United Church of Christ has now pledged just over $300,000. Can you believe that? $300,000. Money which will be used for much needed repairs on our building. Money which will be used to make our building more energy efficient. Money which will be used to fix things which have been breaking down around us. Money which will be given, happily and joyfully, to mission projects that we desperately feel called to support. Money which will ensure that Peace United Church of Christ carries on. But I don’t have to remind you, you who take your faith seriously, and who take seriously your commitments, that with this abundance comes tremendous responsibility. Stewardship, the stewarding of money and resources, is no easy task. And we cannot be too gentle and tender with one another as we enter into this season of celebrating the first fruits of our harvest. Our task now is to listen to one another well, to love one another abundantly, to seek the mind of Christ as we discern where and how to grow, to trust that God will work through the community as we walk together in this time of celebration and deliberation. For our efforts will be in vain if we do not grow in our faith through this time. Will we be anxious sometimes as a community if we disagree on exactly what color carpet we want in the sanctuary? Maybe. Will we all be of one mind on what the sliding door in the fellowship hall should look like? Probably not. Will we understand the intriciacies of heating and cooling systems and all want the exact same thing? It’s doubtful. But, more important than any of these questions are these: will we walk together with love and tenderness and patience and kindness and joy? And will we pray for the mind of Christ as we live in community? I believe we will. I believe we will because we are a people that value community, and we realize that the Spirit moves throughout our community. I believe we will because we are passionate about our mission, and we realize that to be true followers of Christ we must listen to his words about love. I believe we will because Peace United Church of Christ has a bright future ahead, and we are brothers and sisters committed to a future of hope, ready to listen for where God calls us next. May we walk together, arms clasped in unity. Amen.
Monday, May 28, 2012
Labor of Love The Christian church is notorious for taking the holy days of other faith traditions and adapting them to make them their own. And Pentecost, which we celebrate on this day, is no different. While as a Christian church we celebrate the tongues of fire that symbolize the Holy Spirit which danced over the heads of the disciples and which marked the birth of the church, we dare not forget that Pentecost was originally a Jewish holy day. The word “Pentecost” comes from the Greek for “fiftieth” and it is a day of celebration. Our Jewish ancestors used that day to bless the feast of harvest, the time when the people celebrated the first fruits of their arduous labors. And given the fact that we as a church will celebrate our own “First Fruits” Sunday next week, when we receive our first offerings for the Renewing Peace campaign, there’s something poignant about recognizing this history of Pentecost from a Jewish perspective. There is something powerful about recognizing that our Christian roots run deep, and encompass earlier faith traditions as well. There is something miraculous that our rituals and celebrations mirror those of our earliest faith ancestors even after all these years and all this time. But, hold on a minute, is that all we celebrate today? Isn’t there more mystery afoot? Isn’t there more we can explore? [You know when I ask you these rhetorical questions that I am prepared to spend a few minutes answering them, right?] In the Christian church, Pentecost is the time when we remember that mystical third part of the trinity, the holy spirit. Known as pneuma or “breath,” the Spirit is symbolized as the flame, as the dove, as the wind. The spiritual writer Flora Slosson Wuellner calls the Holy Spirit, “The one who stands by us and calls us forth.” The mystic Hildegard of Bingen names it as, “the greening power of God.” The contemporary writer, Anne Lamott, calls it “like cool compresses for your soul, or soft warm hands.” And Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as our “helper, or our advocate.” The Holy Spirit is that which not only rouses us into action, dangles tongues of flame over us to enflame us, but sidles up to us in the dark night and wraps arms around us. That which enlivens, and that which sustains. As near as our breath. As steady as the rain. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans about this gentleness of the Holy Spirit. This Spirit which “helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” I love this image. Sighs too deep for words. This hovering Spirit, the very inhalation and exhalation of my breath, surrounding me and praying for me when I have forgotten how. Eugene Peterson, in his modern translation of the bible, “The Message” speaks of Paul’s words in this way: “Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside, helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. [The Holy Spirit] does our praying in us and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs and aching groans.” My hunch is that each of us can probably name those times when we could not pray. Times when we did not know how. Times when all we had were jagged sighs and hollow groans. Times when the words or the connection did not come. Perhaps it was when we came face to face with the loss of a beloved one. Perhaps it was when we were faced with horror or cruelty in our world—those 9/11 and Pearl Harbor moments. Perhaps it was upon encountering the ravages of an earthquake in Haiti or the tornados that ripped through Southern Indiana last year. Perhaps it was when we faced personal desolation and depression. Perhaps it was when we simply reached a dry spell of faith when for whatever reason even in the routine courses of our lives we found ourselves in a rut and God felt distant and elusive, far away and unreachable. Perhaps it was when we encountered something that was so remarkable we couldn’t put words to our feelings. The Pentecost promise is that in those painful, dark, random, inexplicable encounters we are not alone. For the Holy Spirit intervenes and breathes through us. Calmly and simply, gently and tenderly. We may not understand it, and we may not even feel it. But we are sustained. The Baptist minister and writer Gordon Atkinson tells the story in his book Real Live Preacher about the experience of being a witness to that Pentecost sustenance. He tells of hearing the phone ring in the middle of the night, that call that always makes one’s heart sink, for no good calls come at 2:30 in the morning. And on the other end of the line was John, calling from the hospital to report that his wife had delivered a child. A child born too soon at twenty-two weeks. And that the child had lived for awhile, but that he was now gone. Pastor Atkinson gathered his keys and his wallet and his small New Testament and he wrote this, “When you are the pastor of a church, you are many things. You are an agent of grace and hope, a repository of spiritual and scriptural wisdom, and a gatekeeper at big events like weddings and funerals…And sometimes you are the Black Rider of Death.” And then Atkinson goes on, “I am a keeper of a most sacred truth. It is the incarnation truth that enables minister to walk into the grief storm unafraid. If you come in the name of Christ and stand with people in their grief, you have done the most important thing you can do and the only thing they will remember. You might bring words with you, and they might even be good and helpful ones, but your presence is what matters. If you know this truth, whatever you have will be sufficient. If you do not know this, all that you have will not be enough.” And then that saint of a man, a man who has dealt with his own fair share of darkness and depression in his life approached the mother who sat in that maternity room, cradling her too young son in her arms with her husband seated at her side. And he said, “I went straight to Denise’s bed. She began to tremble a little in anticipation of grief as I approached. I put my arms around her and let my cheek touch the side of her head. I spoke to her in a soft voice, “I come in the name of the Lord who has not forsaken you.” And so it began. A dam burst open with this mother as she howled out her rage and pain, as she cursed at God, as she cursed at her womb. And Atkinson wrote, “It was hard labor, this grief, and it came in howling waves. At times we hung onto the bed like people holding onto a lamppost in a tornado, and our feet would be lifted from the ground. In these moments we lived only in the present. We had no thought for the morrow, but only wondered how we might hang on a little longer.” I believe this is how the Spirit intercedes for us. In those moments when we are storm-tossed and whipped, when we are lost and grief-stricken, there is an abiding Spirit that lingers in the present moment, ushered in as we sigh our deepest sigh and groan our most labored groan. But I think there is more to Paul’s words that we dare not forget. More to this reality of the deep sighs. I think that there are other sighs too, those sighs of relief and gratitude and awe when we are rendered speechless by the grace of the Spirit as well. Moments when there is a catch in our throat, and an overwhelming sense of peace that we do not know how to name. Moments when prayers of gratitude even feel too small. On Thursday night Robert and I went to the end of year showcase that Fort Wayne Ballet presented. It is on this night that all the dancers perform for their adoring audience, mostly parents and grandparents, and demonstrate what they have learned throughout the year. I have grown accustomed to watching our daughters dance. Tess and Brynn have been taking ballet lessons from the moment I became their step-mother when they were six and nine years old, and so I consider myself a seasoned stage parent. These performances are old-hat for me. And while I am always proud of our dancers, I have grown accustomed to their talents. I beam, but I expect I will. But on Thursday night there was a routine that I did not anticipate. Fort Wayne Ballet has a tradition of allowing certain student to choreograph a dance, and Brynn’s best friend Olivia had chosen to do so. Upon the stage danced a young girl, maybe eleven or twelve, who wore a white shirt, her hair tucked into a low pony-tail and I did a double-take, for the girl looked so much like our daughters had at that age. The opening words to the song she danced to were these: “I was a little girl alone in my little world/ I played pretend between the trees and fed my house guests bark and leaves/ and laughed in my pretty bed of green/ I had a dream that I could fly from the highest swing.” And I watched this little one, who was not my own, and remembered all of the times I stood watching our girls playing in the yard, canopied by Cottonwood and Pine trees, draped in English ivy. And then the young dancer was joined on stage by an older version of herself, by an older dancer dressed in the same clothes, with the same low pony-tail and I realized it was Brynn. Our Brynn. And in that instant, as she leaped and danced with the representation of her younger self tears came to my eyes and I found myself so entranced, unable to voice the depth of my gratitude for the gift that is our daughter, and marvel at her life, and hope for her future. But those are all words that came afterward, as I analyzed it, for in that moment all I felt were sighs of wonder, and all I did was blubber tears of awe. And I believe this is the power of the Holy Spirit too, to meet us in those unutterable moments of joy and awe, as well as the moments of pain and terror. And we dare not forget that. On this Pentecost Sunday, when we generally concentrate on the power of that Spirit that descended on the twelve gathered in that room, the twelve who spoke in tongues and all understood one another, the wind that blew through and created a whole new reality. On this Sunday when we drape our churches in red and sing “Happy Birthday to the church” let us also remember that there is another aspect of the Spirit which beckons us. Let us cling to that tender power that breathes new life into us when we are fragile, or awed, or amazed, or forlorn. For the Pentecost Spirit comes alongside us and sighs with us in our emotions too deep for words. And God hears these prayers. And this, my friends, is true Pentecost power and hope. Amen.
Sunday, April 22, 2012
Good Stewards Once upon a time there was a little church somewhere in a middle sized town in the Midwest. It was a beautiful little church. It had rustic wood and moveable chairs and while its carpet may have had a few stains from drops of communion wine spilled, the church didn’t mind much. The church had beautiful new banners and a glorious worship table and while the fixture which was used to light the building may have been affectionately called “the spaceship” by some, it created an abundance of light and had won a place in the church’s heart. It was a devoted and dedicated church, a congregation that prided itself on its friendly welcome and family-like feel. The kind of church where children could run freely in the aisles during worship while adults gazed on happily and where a blessing could be sung at the end of worship and one had the sense that folks were really looking into one another’s eyes and offering a word of peace. But lo and behold, as churches do, the little church’s building aged a bit, and roof repairs needed to be made, and heating and air conditioning units were grumbling and needed to be spruced up a bit, and lighting units and sound systems needed to be updated a bit. And the church knew it, but when they first became aware of it, there were a few other things on their agenda. For times had been a little hard financially in recent years, and membership had dwindled some. And so the church waited, as churches are often wont to do. And lo and behold time went by. And a few years later a new candidate was called to pastor the little church. And this candidate was asked about her experience with capital campaigns, and groaning furnances and energy efficient lighting and she told the search committee the truth. Which went something like this: “I confess. I may not be the brightest bulb in the marquee when it comes to financial management. For, lo, I only received a C in high school algebra, and I balance my checkbook only in years that end in the numbers 99, and I often confuse the difference between an ounce and a pint.” And the candidate sighed, and thought sadly to herself that this interview might not be going very well. “But,” this candidate said, “If you want to have a capital campaign, I can promise you two important things. And the first is this: I believe in this church and its mission and I will support it in every way I can. And further, I will preach proudly about stewardship! For lo while my math grades were abysmal, my English grades were not!” And then this candidate prayed that there might be some way that the search committee might find it in their hearts to consider me that addle-brained, Math-challenged minister to serve among them. And thankfully the answer was, ultimately, yes. And so here we are, and here we have come. The little church that could and the little church that can. And the time is right for us to begin to consider what it means for us to be stewards—together, on this our first Sunday of our Renewing Peace Capital Campaign. This Sunday’s launch comes with much careful planning, and with much prayer, and with much hope. And what I want to instill in each of you, is that the way we can grow in this process is through learning what it means to be good stewards, and what it means to use wisely and appropriately the gifts that God has given us, and what it means to take a deep breath and trust that God has a future in mind for Peace Church. This journey is a journey which will need to be rooted in our prayer, and our discernment, and in our listening carefully to both one another and the God who beckons us. As we embark on the path, we remember our past, and we tell the story of that faithfulness. As we deliberately step onto the trail we recognize the many ministries that operate out of this building already, and the many more that can grow. As we prepare ourselves for this campaign, we remember that God is calling us into ever widening circles of mission and there are times when we have to get our house in order so we can focus on the work that lies ahead. And then we look beyond ourselves and our very real building needs and ponder where the road of mission will take us next, knowing all the while that it is a path carved out for us by a faithful God who offers us many different directions to consider. But this morning, let’s linger with just the first idea. The idea of stewardship. And what it really means, for I believe it has often been misunderstood. Okay, now, show of hands here. A little Bible trivia. How many of you were aware that there are actually two creation stories in the book of Genesis. Two. And this morning you got a chance to hear snippets of both of them. Genesis one offers the first story of creation. In it, God suggests that humankind be made in God’s image. And voila, male and female are both made. Together. At the same time. And they are invited to have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and the cattle and the wild animals and over all those creeping creepy things like mosquitos and anteaters and armadillos and warthogs. We know this verse, right? We remember this scripture. But sadly, it has been used to justify a lot of unfortunate behavior, specifically ecological destruction and devastation, because humankind has misunderstood that word, “dominion.” All too often, we assume that to hold dominion means that we are in charge, that there are others who we dominate. And yet, when we examine the Hebrew roots of the word, “Radah” we realize there is a little more responsibility implied. The root of the word “Radah” related to governing, or to “hold sway” It was this word which would have been used with heads of households, reminding them of their managerial function. It was a word which had benevolent implications, reminding those who were governing that they needed to respond with restraint, that their power was not absolute. In essence, all that they had was held in trust, and they were merely temporary managers for the one in charge. And so perhaps a translation which might resonate a bit more with our world is this one from Eugene Peterson’s “The Message.” Genesis 1:26 is translated this way: God spoke: “Let us make human beings in our image, make them reflecting our nature So they can be responsible for the fish of the sea, the birds in the air, the cattle, And, yes, Earth itself, and every animal that moves on the face of the Earth.” If we are true stewards, then, God calls us to be responsible. For the land and the animals and the seas, they are not ours to own. They are things offered to us to hold in trust, with responsibility. They are not ours to dominate, or to use as we like. And we can wrap our heads around this, right? It’s not too hard. If we are responsible Christians we’ve already grappled with issues of environmentalism, and sustainability for our world. But, stewardship is bigger than just global resources (although that’s not small task), the idea of stewardship hits home in our own lives when we recognize that we are stewards of so much more. If we are parents than we are merely stewards of our children, for aren’t they God’s? If we are homeowners than we are merely stewards of our homes and our lands, for aren’t they God’s? If we are church members we are merely stewards of this building, for isn’t it God’s? And what about our money? Is it truly ours, or is it a blessing from God that we are merely to manage in the way God would want us to? It’s sort of a radical idea, really. And its elegantly simple. All that we have is God’s, and we are to use it wisely, in accordance with God’s discernment and wisdom. I want to share with you a poem that has been wandering through my head all week as I consider my response to God’s abundance in my life, and how I can respond. The words are from the Irish poet Billy Collins and the poem is called The Lanyard. I find I hear poetry better with my eyes closed (rest assured, I try not to listen to poetry while driving), so if you’re so inclined feel free to close your eyes and allow the words to seep into your soul. The other day I was ricocheting slowly Off the blue walls of this room, Moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano, From bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor, When I found myself in the L section of the dictionary Where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard. No cookie nibbled by a French novelist Could send one into the past more suddenly— A past where I sat at a workbench at a camp By a deep Adirondack lake Learning how to braid long thin plastic strips Into a lanyard, a gift for my mother. I had never seen anyone use a lanyard Or wear one, if that’s what you did with them, But that did not keep me from crossing Strand over strand again and again Until I had made a boxy Red and white lanyard for my mother. She gave me life and milk from her breasts, And I gave her a lanyard. She nursed me in many a sick room, Lifted spoons of medicine to my lips, Laid cold face-cloths on my forehead, And then led me out into the airy light And taught me to walk and swim, And I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard. Here are thousands of meals, she said, And here is clothing and a good education. And here is your lanyard, I replied, Which I made with a little help from a counselor. Here is a breathing body and a beating heart, Strong legs, bones and teeth, And two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered, And here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp. And here, I wish to say to her now, Is a smaller gift—not the worn truth That you can never repay your mother, But the rueful admission that when she took The two-tone lanyard from my hand, I was sure as a boy could be That this useless, worthless thing I wove Out of boredom would be enough to make us even. In many ways, our small sacrifices and tithes to God and God’s church are the lanyards that we offer in obedient and loving faith to the one who gave us all. Small payment for immeasurable gifts of grace. Like the son in the poem, we dutifully offer what we believe is sufficient. And God, acting as the mother in the poem, accepts our offerings with a knowing and delighted smile. For God knows. And the reality is that even our simple two-tone lanyards are welcomed as bountiful gifts. May we walk with deliberate steps on this journey to renew our church as we reflect on all that we have been given. And may we be good and faithful stewards who are responsible with God’s gifts, knowing that we can never completely repay our Creator. For, friends, this church and this world are simply on loan to us, until we can faithfully pass them on to the next generation, with pride. This building is, in a sense, our lanyard. Small token of our thanks to God. And now I imagine God must be sitting with delighted smile, watching to see what our next creations and ministries will be. Amen.