…Joy (The Neglected Gift)

A sermon delivered at Second Church in Newton UCC on Sunday, December 20, 2015

“In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.  When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.  And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.  And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is how name.  His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.  He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.'” –Luke 1: 39-55

Is it the most wonderful time of the year?  I’m not here to bah-humbug you to death, but I think it’s important to ask: Can we really say that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year?  Sure there’s lots of goodies and presents, we have holiday parties, a little time off, it’s all well and good.  But from where I’m sitting there’s also a lot of…bah-humbug that goes along with the season.  Waiting in long lines, our already busy calendars filled with EVEN MORE stuff to do, longer nights and shorter days…there’s a fair amount of stress and hassle in this holiday season.  For those of us who have lost loved ones and experienced tragedy…there may be very little joy to be found in this holiday season.  So maybe it’s not the most wonderful time of the year.  Or…perhaps, even amid all those hurtles and hardships, God somehow breaks into our lives anyway, amazing us all, against all odds…and that’s why it’s most wonderful, most holy.  Or maybe, like most important things in the human experience, it’s both.  Maybe it’s about Joy AND Sadness, Light AND Dark, Wonderful AND Mournful.  Maybe that’s why we have so many powerful, moving and, frankly, heavy and sad Christmas Stories that we tell year after year. 

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George Bailey faces a crisis that leads him to wonder if the world wouldn’t be better off if he’d never been born, but in the end he’s surrounded by his loving family and supportive neighbors joyfully singing songs around the tree.  Scrooge spent his entire adult life shutting people out, only to have 3 spirits melt his heart, causing him to run into the streets on Christmas day and take a feast to the house of his employee Bob Cratchett.  Rudolph and Hermey the Elf come back from the island of misfit toys to declare that they belong in their community and they have joyous gifts to share by being their own, diverse, weird selves.  Charlie Brown and his sad little tree are visited by the kids from the christmas pageant, and they sing into the night, celebrating joy and togetherness in the long, dark night.  The Grinch’s heart grows 3 sizes larger, and he’s no longer stealing Christmas, but sharing in it. We see this story over and over again.  Going all the way back to the beginning…

When we remove Mary’s story from the safety of Christmas Pageants and nostalgic celebrations we are forced to recognize that this is a young woman who has been dealt a dirty hand.  She has just begun waking up to her own body, and she is already promised to be the bride of a local man.  To be sure, this is not her decision.  It is a decision that was made for her by her father and her “fiancee,” Joseph.  Mary is not entirely disappointed about this, it’s all she knows. It’s what she has seen happen to every woman she has ever known or heard of.  The good news for her is that Joseph seems like a nice man.  She has seen many of her family and her peers wedded to brutes…harsh men who no one would choose as their own mate…but the law and the culture force them to go anyway.  Young Mary probably was lying awake thinking, “Thank you God for promising me to this good man.”  And then Gabriel appears before her.  “God has chosen you, Mary, above all other women.  God has placed the savior of the world in your womb.  You will give birth to this son and name him Jesus.”  And just as quickly as he appeared, The Voice is gone.  Mary is left with only one thought….”My life is over.”  When Joseph finds out she is pregnant with a baby that is not his…he might kill her…and no one in her town would blame him.  If Joseph is the good man she believes he is…maybe he’ll spare her life…but she will then be stuck at home, an unwed pregnant woman…and maybe her own father will feel the need to take her life.  Her life was ruined forever. 

When we think of the miracle of the Virgin Birth…we always hear it as a miracle against nature…a young woman who has never known a man is pregnant.  We use this image to attest to our God’s ability to create life where life cannot otherwise exist.  It is good news for a people on the brink of extinction.  This, however, may not be nearly as great a miracle as these two facts:  Mary is not killed, and Joseph still marries her, protecting her and the child.  The word “miracle” dates back to the mid-twelfth century, meaning “wondrous work of God.”  Every year, we talk about the Christmas miracle. Given what we know about the world, you have to wonder: What is the real miracle at play here?  That a young woman living in the middle east in the first century became pregnant by mysterious means….or that she AND her baby survived to tell the tale? 

And Mary goes to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who is far too old to have conceived a child…and yet, she has.  Elizabeth doesn’t even have to hear Mary’s news, she sees it in her face, she greets Mary as “mother of my LORD.”  These two women, both blessed and burdened by the new livesimages (3) growing inside them, rejoice together—baby John kicking away inside his mother’s belly—and Mary sets aside her grief and her anxiety about her situation and discovers this song of great joy…the Magnificat.  Suddenly, there is nothing that Mary cannot do, because she remembers that she is with God and God is with her.  “He has brought the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.”  In community—when Mary’s desperation meets Elizabeth’s celebration—Mary encounters the truth about the Divine:  God overturns God’s own rules all the time.  God causes disorder so that NEW order can emerge.  It’s the blessing of a pregnancy late in life, and it’s the burden of pregnancy that might end a young life.  The result of both of these miraculous births is the declaration of a God who will bring justice for the poor, humility to the privileged, and that somehow JOY will be found for all. 

This is the complex truth of our faith, it’s why Christmas specials brought to you by General Electric can sometimes preach the Gospel message, it’s why a green monster can become a guest at Christmas dinner, it’s why we continue to celebrate Christmas regardless of the stress and anxiety and pain:  When God broke into our world in the form of a human, there was a reversal in the order of things.  Hope, Peace, Love, and Joy became things of flesh, things that humans were capable of being for and giving to one another.  This is important for us to hear, us people of privilege.  For most, if not all, of us in this room, we are living in an age when it has never been easier to be isolated.  Our entire economy is fueled by our deep preference for doing things on our own and for ourselves.  The problem is, that God has not changed.  God is still most powerfully found in community.  For those of us—including myself—who sometimes neglect the joy of Christmas, or, for that matter, the joy of any normal Friday, because we are too consumed with the overwhelming busy nature of our lives…this may be the most important spiritual lesson for us to learn.  The very gifts we are so grateful for that make our lives as wonderful and luxurious as they are, our privilege, may be keeping real Joy at a distance.

Christena Cleveland, a professor at Duke University’s Divinity School, wrote just this last week, “Privilege distances us from systemic pain and tragedy…Privilege distances us from the God of Hope.”  She relays a conversation she shared with a Rwandan friend who said to her, “We pray for you all.  When you have so many material things, you can’t really know what it means to truly turn to God for all that you need:  the power to forgive, food to feed your children, healing from the trauma of genocide, stability in the midst of an unstable society, or hope to keep fighting HIV.”  When I began studying Privilege, the first lesson I learned was actually about physics:  every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  Those of us who are blessed with the privileges downloadof meaningful work and high paying jobs, we know that there are costs that accompany those privileges, and most of those costs are paid with our most finite resource: time.  This is a fact of our lives:  We are blessed with certain privileges—plenty to eat, living in beautiful homes, providing our children and loved ones with all they could want and more, we have distance from tragedies that are daily realities for billions of people—and these blessings are forever joined with the burden of losing time with loved ones, losing time to do healthy and good things for ourselves, losing time to spend in community. We are the first people in the history of the world who have the ability to choose whether or not we want to spend our time with other people; and our time is so precious to us that we will often opt out of participating in our community if it looks like it’s going to be too much of a hassle.  So we stop showing up, and when we stop showing up we distance ourselves from all the gifts community has to offer:  The joy of sharing one another’s burdens.  The ability to govern ourselves in responsible ways.  When we lose community we lose trust, we lose forgiveness, we lose health, and pretty soon we lose our identity as a community.  We are blessed with the most wealth and comfort and luxury that any human beings have ever known.  That puts the burden on us to make the time to show up to our lives, to decrease the distance between our desires and our needs, or future generations will not see the convenience and privilege that we have enjoyed. 

It begins like this….no matter what your life looks like…whether you are a successful professional with a jam-packed schedule…or you are a pregnant teenager with no expectations for any kind of future…ours is a God of reconciliation…able to create joy when—and maybe only when—the desperation of one person encounters the deep celebration of another.  The stories we tell at Christmas aren’t just meant to be heartwarming, they are not simply to put us in a nostalgic mood, they are BOLD DECLARATIONS about how the universe really works.  We experience the most joy and the highest quality of living when we live together.  We experience more despair, isolation, anxiety, and fear when we are distanced from one another.  When we attempt to have total control over our lives, we end up becoming slaves to our own isolation.  When we make room in our lives, in our schedules, in our routines for messy, hectic, contrary people and voices…that’s where we discover God and the Joy that only God can bring.  Our images (4)challenge as people of privilege is to choose what is best for us, even when it is not most convenient.  And on some level we know this already: We all treasure the joy that babies bring to our lives, and that joy brings with it the burden of sleepless nights and frustrating afternoons.  We all boast about living in a free society in which we have the power to govern ourselves, and if we don’t take the time to educate ourselves and hold our representatives accountable, then we lose that freedom.  We are most healthy when we are selective about what we eat and intentional about exercising.  When we choose what is best for us, even when it is not most convenient, then we are actively engaging our lives and enjoying the blessings of all we have.  When we choose—whether knowingly or not—what is convenient over what is best…then we are neglecting the blessings we are given and we only experience our burdens. We can only experience the joy of God in community…and we access that joy by choosing to show up…by being able to look one another in the eye and see that they carry God with them.  In choosing to decrease the distance between ourselves and our neighbors, by sacrificing our convenience and our control, by embracing our humility and vulnerability.  As long as we cling to worry and independence, we are neglecting the joy that can only be found in our shared life together.  Christmas is bigger than our nostalgia…it is messier and more terrifying than our stories about it would confess.  Because it is not just a story…it is REALITY…it is the way our God works…here, in this life, among us….every day.  Thanks Be to God and please, have a very Joy-filled Christmas!

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…Love (or What I Wouldn’t Do)

But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!  Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die–there will I be buried.  May the Lord to thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!” –Ruth 1: 15-17

All the great Love songs are all about “What I’d do for Love.”  “I would do anything for love,” sang Meatloaf.  Pop music has, on countless occasions, defined Love as a thing that exists primarily when people make HUGE, bold, dramatic displays of affection to one another.  All well and good.  But this Advent Season I can’t help but think about the other part of Love…the oft overlooked, or unheard part of any vow…the mysterious antithetical remark Meatloaf ends his famous chorus with, “but I won’t do that.”  I’ve always wondered…what is it?  What will Meatloaf not do?  How does Love inform…not just what I choose to do…but what I won’t do?

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There are, certainly, plenty examples of Love to be offered in our Advent texts and in our holy Christmas stories.  But for my money, there may not be a greater, more powerful example of “Love in Action,” than the hero from the book of Ruth.  Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi are utterly alone in the world.  Their husbands have died, their only other relative, Ruth’s sister-in-law, has left for home.  They now face a world that doesn’t think of women as anything other than property, uncertain of how–if at all–they will make their way.  Naomi begs Ruth to return to her home, to try to meet another man who will give her children, so she will be cared for.  Ruth tells Naomi, “Where you go, I will go…your God will be my God…where you die, I will die.”  It is a selfless commitment, born out of nothing but the Love Ruth has for her mother-in-law…and it begins with a plea from Ruth to Naomi, “Do not press me to leave you.”

As much as Love inspires us to great acts of kindness, compassion, and justice…that inspiration requires a moment of inaction in order to take root. Love is shown not just through what we choose to do, or how we choose to act…it is also demonstrated…perhaps powerfully so…in what we refuse to do.

My love for my partner begins with….refusing to demean or attempt to control her.

My love for my community begins with…refusing to put my personal wants before our communal needs.meditate

My love for my body begins with…refusing to engage in (in)activity that causes undo harm and suffering for myself as I age.

My love for my neighbor begins with…refusing to think of him/her as anything other than Another Child of God.

My love for my environment, my planet, God’s Creation begins with…refusing to ignore the resources I use, and the effects those uses have on the environment.  Refusing to deny that my behavior has ripple effects far beyond myself.  Refusing to become apathetic or inactive when I think about how daunting the task of living in healthy, productive relationship with the environment can be.

We’re told in scripture that there is no greater act of Love than to “give your life for your friends” (John 15:13).  This may be true.  But this is a season of anticipation…expectation…preparation…of not doing, and naming that as powerful.

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Mary refused to give up her mysteriously conceived baby.  Joseph refused to give up on Mary.  They were both refused a place to sleep at an inn on the night of Jesus’ birth…surely this should demonstrate the power that we have in choosing what and who we refuse.  Who was not refused a room that night?

“Who do you love?”

 

Love forces us to refuse, to forsake, to deny just as much as it requires us to act.  In the moments when you don’t know how Love is calling you to act, try to begin with what you won’t do.  Refuse to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others.  Refuse to deny welcome and hospitality to those most in need.  Refuse to turn away Children of God who look, act, or believe differently than you.  Even Jesus tried to turn away someone who didn’t belong…but that woman’s love of her daughter refused to allow him to do it.  Even Jesus needed to be corrected…even he was challenged to look at what he was doing and what he was refusing to do.

Ruth refused to leave Naomi…she walked away from everything she had ever known…into an uncertain future…changed the face of Israel and Judaism forever.

What she did for Love.

What I do for Love.

Refuse to give up. 

Refuse to not care. Refuse to let anger win the day.

Let us refuse, to the best of our abilities,  all actions that are not born of God’s radical Love.when-the-power-of-love-overcomes-the-love-of-power-the-world-will-know-peace-27

 

 

…Peace (…or…Harmony for the Holy)

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When we think of Peace we think of quiet, stillness, perfection.  I can’t count the number of men I’ve met in the last six years who have said to me some version of, “If heaven is all about eternal peace…I don’t think I’m interested.  I’ll screw it up, or it’ll be boring.”  Inevitably, strangely, these have also been men who promote the theological notion that God wants nothing more than “our surrender to God’s will.”  So for these people, God requires them to deny themselves and everything about who they are, so that they can hope to achieve something that….they aren’t interested in?  It’s an interesting conflict.  From my standpoint, it’s the kind of theological conflict we come to when we fail to reflect on the totality of our human experience.  If God just wants our surrender, why do have free will?  If heaven is undesirable and boring–or can be ruined by someone’s manly impulses–then what could possibly be the point?  If Peace requires total tranquility and perfect conditions…then why do we refer to a 1st Century Jewish teacher who was violently put to death at the hands of the government as “The Prince of Peace?”

At what point did we start using “Peace” and “Total absence of conflict” interchangeably?  Certainly it began–like so many aspects of our faith tradition–after Jesus.  Because Jesus somehow found a way of saying, “Peace be with you,” (John 20:18), and “I come not to bring Peace, but the sword” (Matthew 10: 34).  Whatever this gift of God is, it somehow exists within and despite the tumultuous world which we inhabit.  The Pax Romana is how we refer to the 200 years of “peace time” in the Roman Empire, when there were virtually no large military campaigns.  If this “peace time” across the globe were somehow the same as God’s Peace, then the world would have returned to a Paradise about 50 years before Jesus was even born.  We need to rethink our 670px-Play-a-C-Chord-on-the-Piano-Step-2assumptions about Peace…what it means…what it promises.  Fortunately, we have another divinely-inspired gift to help us do just that.  It’s called Discernment.

The name of this blog changed for the 15th or 16th time a few months ago.  It changed to “Discernment On…”; the idea was that each blog post would be me discerning (meaning to elicit the meaning of) a particular concept or issue.  The reason for this is that I have discovered a new sense of awe and wonder from the practice of Christian Discernment.  It has to do with what I found in a particular story from the Bible:

Acts 1: 12-26…Jesus had 12 Disciples, but now they were only eleven.  Jesus had been crucified, and a few days later, these remaining followers–having lost their brother Judas, the one who betrayed Christ, and then took his own life–had experienced Jesus’ Rescurrection.  After Judas’ passing, they desired a twelfth witness…not just a witness to the resurection, but a witness to all of what Jesus had done–from his Baptism through his Resurrection–so they drew lots to decide between two candidates: Joseph, AKA Barsabbas…AKA”Justus” (why all the aliases, “Joseph”??) and Matthias.  They ended up choosing Matthias.  I honestly don’t know if we end up hearing more about him later (there’s a non-canonical writing called the Acts of Andrew and Matthias?).  So why is there an entire story in the Bible about choosing this replacement of Judas who we never hear about again?  Is EVERYONE bored by this entire last paragraph?????

I think it’s about to get interesting. Hang in there.

What I believe this story teaches us, what I have taken away from it, and why I think it is so important….is that the act of discernment should be rooted in reconciliation…or the desire to be made whole.  There were 12 Disciples in order to represent the 12 Tribes of Israel.  There had to be 12.  Losing Judas wasn’t just the loss of a friend…it was the loss of an identity.  In order to understand themselves and what would be required of them next, the Disciples–who were now known as Apostles–required a twelfth member…to be made whole.

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How we discern should lead toward being restoredreconciled, reconnected to our God.  

I believe, this is where Peace lies.  The very Peace we celebrate and wait for during this time of expectation…I believe it is only found in reconciliation with our Creator.  Where we get into trouble, I think, is believing that being restored–whether in this life or the one beyond–is a state of being that doesn’t require conflict.  Is our longing for Peace a longing for being One with the Creator, or is our culture just so conflict-averse that our only way of imagining God’s Peace is to desire a space that is entirely devoid of conflict?  I bring you Good News and…less great news.  The Good News is that restoration, or oneness with the Creator of All Things, is a gift that is readily available to you.  Right now.  The not so great news is…it won’t save you from conflict…it gracefully guides you in how to manage conflict.

I played the alto sax in the school band from 5th-12th grade.  I was never a good band member.  I practiced regularly (for awhile), and I learned the practical lessons required to match the notes on the page with the ones I played through my instrument (for the most part).  But I was never very good at appreciating my place in the band.  I wanted images (1)solos, I wanted to take the lead…there were many pieces we would play that involved 32 or 64 measures of REST for the alto saxes…it drove me insane.  I could never pull back far enough to appreciate that the piece we were creating was so much more grand and important than my part.  I took no joy in resting, in waiting, in listening and appreciating the gifts of all the other parts around me.  I would get agitated…impatient…and it occurs to me that I’ve lived a lot of my adult life in this same fashion.  Not that I always want to solo…but I have been rather impatient and agitated and frustrated and increasingly distraught over life’s imperfections–which are so much bigger than simple, little me–and I have failed to pull back…failed to see the entirety of what is being created…which means I have not been playing my part as well as I could.  My favorite band teacher said to us often, “If you don’t know how to play your part, I’d rather you play nothing at all.”

If you receive all your information about the world through the Internet–or other forms of mass media culture–then you are (probably rightfully) convinced that the world is a disaster…a constant source of stress and heartache.   But if you consider yourself a Christian…then the next time something internet-worthy outrageous happens (as I type this, law enforcement is searching for the murderers who shot 20 people in San Bernardino)…it is your call to remember that our faith tradition truly began with 12 of Jesus’ closest friends declaring, “Jesus’ violent death is NOT THE END of the story!”  The First Christians were living in direct opposition to a violent and hopeless world by embodying the Peace and Hope they had learned from Jesus himself.  They took care of one another, they prayed and studied scripture, they ate meals together.  And somehow this way of being in the world was so offensive to the powers of the world that the Apostles were regularly hauled into court and threatened with murder.  But despite the threats, they didn’t cave.  Because their chosen way of life…which was known as “The Way of Life”…was better than what they perceived as “The Way of Death.”  In Christ’s resurrection, they discovered a “Peace which surpasses all understanding,” (Philippians 4:7), which caused them to live in greater conflict with the world around them….not less.  A world without conflict is a world without movement or progress…and if there’s one thing we collectively believe about our Creator God, it is that every day is an example of our God on the move.  Conflict is required for a physical universe to exist.  How we respond to that conflict, however…that is a decision completely up to us…a decision probably rooted in our concept of Peace.  If the Peace you are waiting for requires a static, violence-free world in which to exist…keep waiting.  If you are preparing for God’s Peace, which allows us to creatively manage and transform conflict into movement…then heaven is at your fingertips.

Process Theologian Marjorie Suchoki has said, “Heaven is a harmony of diversity.”  This is a beautiful and enchanting phrase–especially if you are a passionate lover of God’s diverse creation, like myself–but what does it actually mean?  What would this kind of heaven look/sound like?  I asked my friend Travis that question a few years ago, and he sent me back a video of him at the piano, demonstrating how each of the 88 keys of a piano create a unique sound…and the closer the keys on the piano, the more dissonant or “blech” the combined sounds become.  As the keys get farther away from one another, they are more likely to sound nice…and by adding other sounds to them (thirds and fifths) the dissonance is resolved into chords…which builds harmony, melody, movement.  To say that Heaven is a “harmony of diversity” is to find a way for unique sounds to strike one another, and allow room for more notes to strike in concert with them.  The difference between harsh noise and beautiful music is simply coordinationinclusion, and managing the unique entities in a way that the rising conflict creates music rather than violence.  This, I believe is where God’s Peace resides…in a space that is beyond our understanding…where conflict is turned into movement.

Music is nothing more than coordinated vibrations through the air.  When terrible things happen in the world, the dissonant vibrations strike inside ourselves…they cause pain, anxiety…the vibrations of the world’s imperfections can strike fear in us which causes anger, violence, more fear.   More often than not, when we talk about Peace, we are looking for ways of avoiding these disruptions to our lives.  Friends, that is not the Peace offered from God.  God does not avoid…God transforms. I do not believe God created a world of cause and effect, trial and error, conflict and movement, just so that we could all sit around and wait to be removed from it.  What if, when we encounter dissonant noises in our world, we did not seek to avoid them…but we took action to learn how to resolve such noise into God’s “harmony of diversity?”

 

If your concept of peace encourages you to ignore the suffering of musicslideothers…it is not Peace.  If your concept of peace eases your own anxiety about climate change while allowing you to contribute to it…then it is not Peace.  If your concept of peace depends on your ability to possess firearms, if your sense of serenity requires you to feel confident in your ability to have dominance and control over others, if your way of coping with life’s troubles leads to apathetic “what can you do,” shoulder shrugs…then it is not Peace.  We need to learn that God’s Peace does not culminate in surrender and apathy, but in Resolution and Love.

God’s Peace surpasses all understanding…which is why it can–and does–exist in a physical universe that is driven by conflict, change, evolution, expansion.  God doesn’t promise us a break from the onslaught of dissonant vibrations we feel in this broken world.  God does, however, offer a “harmony of diversity,” to those who are willing to be struck…for those who are able to play their part…for those who know when to rest and when to sing out.  Thanks be to God.

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…Hope (My Confession/My Conviction)

Now Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. —Hebrews 11: 1-2

hope candle Something interesting happened to me this year.  I became too exhausted to despair.  I became too overwhelmed to panic.  I became too busy to obsess over my never ending to-do list.

This last week, a very specific memory has cropped up in my mind:

Summer camp, July of 1998, gathered around a fire with 80-ish other teens and adults.  We sang a song:

I’ve got my hopes set high, 

That’s why I came tonight,

So I could see the Truth, so I could see The Light, 

So I could do my best, and pray to The Father,

cause if there’s one thing I oughta know by now…

When it all comes down

(When it all comes down) 

When it all comes down

(When it all comes down)

If there’s anything good that happens in my life it’s from Jesus.

I’ve got some issues with the lyrics, but I can’t deny the feeling I have when I think about that night.  It was a rare moment of calm, when everyone seemed to be singing the song…none of the usual teenager jokes and giggles…just a bunch of earnest kids singing this song in the dark. I have no idea what was happening in most of the lives gathered around that fire, but this song seemed to strike a chord with everyone in that moment.  To my knowledge, not many of those people are members of a faith community today, and I don’t think many of them would have professed any kind of “personal relationship” with Jesus even then.  And yet…that moment happened…it’s been flashing through my mind all week, just as sure as any other memory I possess.  And I think the reason for this is 2 fold:

  1. Teens love emoting…and there is no greater emoting opportunity than singing an Amy Grant song around a campfire in the late 1990’s.
  2. The song is not rooted in Christian triumphalism, offering answers and clear-cut rules; all things that turn young people off of religious talk…probably because it sounds inherently questionable.  It’s not a song that declares everything hunky-dory as long as Jesus is somehow the center of your universe.  It doesn’t try to convince that there is a “grand scheme” behind whatever suffering one is currently experiencing…but rather names reality as every teenager sees it: It’s all coming down…it’s not a matter of if but when.  When it all comes down.  The song then assures that even when it all comes down…there’s the possibility of something good.  As Franciscan Monk Richard Rohr has said, “The soul does not need answers, it needs meaning.”  This song offers Hope as a meaningful response to suffering…not somewhere down the line…like a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel…but Hope that reside with us, here and now in the midst of suffering.  We do not show up to learn about Hope…we show up because we have HIGH HOPES already…and we are seeking reasons to think Hope won’t disappoint us.   

Or…maybe there’s a joke about setting your hope “high,” that I just never got.  Who knows?

But now I’ve done that too.  I’m old enough and faced enough of life’s uncertainty and challenges pixabay-small-candlethat I’ve found temporary solace in imbibing some of God’s good fruits and retiring at the end of the day.  I’ve done this perhaps more often than is good for me…only to find when I come back down that nothing is different.  There’s violence, brokenness, danger, crisis, catastrophe, hatred, and–as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us, the true enemy of love–apathy.  So…since those things aren’t going anywhere…and since I can’t constantly be as high as my hopes…I thought I’d try bringing some discernment to bear…to discover something I’ve yet to see.

2015 has been one of the best years of my life, and also among the toughest.  My doctor is pretty sure I’ve been dealing with some level of depression.  “Situational depression” he called it.  I don’t think I share the burden that so many others do, of having my own brain functions and body chemistry trapping me in a web of depressive moods, thoughts, and actions.  It’s more likely that my life has just been unmanageable…work responsibilities, life changes, family crises, financial struggles, and, yes, impending doom and gloom in all areas of world affairs…all combined to make it difficult to access the creative and joyous parts of myself, amounting to hurdles of despair and sadness seemingly too great to overcome.  My thoughts and feelings led me to isolate myself from family and friends due to lack of energy.  The rhythms of my life began centering around eating and sleeping, with little time to devote to anything else.  I’ve lost entire days to the struggle of knowing I can’t leave the house without a shower…and knowing I couldn’t handle getting in the shower.  Emails and phone calls would pile up, unchecked, unanswered…because they didn’t seem like forms of communication…to me, they felt like attacks…tiny cuts in my emotional skin.

I understand how that may sound.  If you can’t relate to it, then we can all be grateful you have not yet faced this particular struggle.  And to be clear, I don’t believe my personal experience is the same as those who suffer chronic depression.  There are folks who go through what I’ve described here–and much worse–on a daily basis, throughout their entire lives…with, possibly, brief moments of relief through medication and therapy.  My experience has truly been contextual.  And, all due respect to my doctor, since I’m not a medical professional myself, I have found it more meaningful to name my recent experience something that is more within my realm of expertise.  Perhaps it wasn’t depression at all…but rather, despair.  I think that gets closer to describing what I’ve been going through.  The worries and stresses and concerns and legitimate suffering in the world around me became my primary focus, blocking my view of any brighter future or better promise.  The despair became so great that it rose higher than any hope I held…it rose so high there were times I worried I might drown in it.

I confess to despairing.  I confess that I allowed it to become greater than my hope.  And I’m able to write these words because in recent days…despite of everything that’s happened…hope has been gaining the upper hand.  Today’s concerns have outweighed the tragedies of yesterday…the not yet has been diverting my attention from Breaking News.  I am reminded that it is my call to not be a slave to this broken and weary world…but a prisoner of the Hope that gave birth to it.

hope-candle

Over the course of the last several weeks, I’ve been able to make tiny–and some not so tiny–changes to my life that are slowly revealing a greater horizon for me to look toward.  This is not something I could have done for myself or by myself.  I am blessed with the support of a loving partner, a caring family, great friends, trusted colleagues, education, health care, and a schedule that allows me the flexibility to exercise more, eat better, cook for myself and my partner.  All of these precious gifts are not new in my life…they were here the whole time…but I allowed the shadow of despair to obscure my vision.  And while I remain grateful for all these precious gifts in my life, there is only one thing that was able to cut through that soupy fog of despair so I could begin to see clearly again.  Hope.

 

 

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It’s possible that there will be more times in my life when I’ll have to wage this particular struggle again.  But in this moment of clarity, I want to take the opportunity to speak out about the Hope that led me out of despair.  We often think of Hope as the thing that will save us from sorrow, the vehicle that will keep us sailing high above stormy seas, the protective armor that shields our soul from attacks of sadness.  That is the kind of Hope that failed me.  The Hope that promises to skirt around the world’s troubles is not trustworthy.  The Hope that functions as a sedative during times of distress is not worthy of praise and worship.  The gift I found in the midst of darkness–a gift that was only revealed to me when I was so exhausted, overwhelmed, and busy that I could no longer resist the darkness–is a Christian Hope   It is not a gift that I found evidence for…it is a hope that lies in God’s Promise of the Not Yet.  It is not a vision that was found by ignoring or denying the sufferings of the world…but found within suffering.  Its strength is not independent of life’s imperfections…its strength is entirely dependent upon the imperfections of the world…that’s what makes it real.  There was no way around despair to find true Hope…it was only going through the despair that Hope was revealed.

I do confess, I have despaired.  I confess that I will again.  But at this moment, I am convinced of something just as important:  Contained within every tragedy of the world is a seed that can grow Hope.  For those of us with the ability to perceive it, it is our responsibility to carry, preserve, plant, and nurture that seed…until it grows high into a sign to give Hope to others.  It’s the promise that Love is never gone, never out of reach, always available to us.  It’s the vision of covenant relationships sustaining God’s Beloved Creation, even through destruction, war, pollution, and death.  It’s the Final Word, what’s left at the end of all things, rooted in the First Word God ever uttered…Light.

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Sometimes it takes everything coming down in order to see what remains eternally. I’ve got my hopes set high.  So I can do my best.  And pray.  Because when it all comes down…if there’s anything good…God has it waiting for us.

 

 

 

…Being a Pastor (or The Once and Future Flock)

Good Will Hunting–Simple Vs. Easy–“Who Am I?” In your best Zoolander voice–An Ancient Calling in the 2015 Professionalized and Institutionalized World

Mark 6: 34 And when he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.

Sean: What do you really want to do?

Will: I want to be a shepherd.

Sean:  Really.

Will: I want to move up to Nashua, get a nice little spread, get a flock of sheep and tend to them.

Sean: Maybe you should go do that.

a scene from Good Will Hunting

The Wikipedia page on “belts” as in “a flexible band or strap…worn around the waist,” describes the accessory as almost entirely that…a nonessential piece of clothing that comes in and out of fashion at various times for various reasons.  It lists some specific belts that have specific purposes (for soldiers and policemen, for example), and it does say that a belt can “support the trousers,” but–again, according to Wikipedia–belts are primarily meant to be decorative.  But there was a Sunday morning when I was preparing to lead worship, and a parishioner came darting through the front door, pulled me aside so we were out of view, and whispered furiously, “You are a man of the cloth, so I am hoping you have a belt or a sash that you could loan me for the morning?”  His eyes were desperate, and I noticed he was holding numerous items in one hand–a notebook, pen, cell phone, wallet, keys–while tightly holding his pants up with the other. 

I had many questions…as one might in this situation…but none of those questions mattered as much as the look of embarrassment in his eyes.  I told him to wait there while I go to my office and see what I had available.  I do sometimes keep extra sets of clothes in my office–for quick changes between worship leading and youth group meetings–but even as I walked into the office I was fairly positive I did not own more than one belt.  And I was currently wearing it.  And for a split second I checked my Boundary Awareness Training–what are the rules about sharing clothes with your parishioners?  Would this establish some kind of precedent, will this man expect me to loan him clothes every week?  Should I be engaging in the larger conversation about the problematic realities of this guy’s life that lead to him showing up at church with pants that won’t stay up? Am I enabling this behavior?–and after that odd second of my life had passed, I removed the belt from my waistband…knowing that I was wearing it for entirely decorative purposes…and I walked out of my office and presented it to him, “You’re in luck. I had an extra.”

***

The first time I met the Love of My Life, she asked me, “What do you do?”

I replied, “Well, you know from our emails on the dating site…I’m a minister…”

“Yes,” she shot back, in a tone that I now know means Stop Playing Dumb, “but what does that mean?  What do you do?  I mean…you preach on Sunday mornings?”

“Sometimes.  Not every week.”

“Ok, but then what?  What do you do the rest of the week?  I mean…what do you do?” 

It was a perfectly good question…and it drove me into an existential crisis for about two years.  What do I do I’m a Beloved Child of God called to serve God’s Beloved in the world…but what does that look like?  What am I doing with my life?

I think one of the many reasons Good Will Hunting resonated with me the way it did when I saw it as a 15-year-old is because, like the main character, I was constantly told that I had gifts, abilities, I was special in some way…and I literally had no idea what I wanted to do with any of it.  I could think my way through the terrible, or at least undesirable, baggage that would accompany any job I was familiar with.  Something involving a cubicle and little human interaction?  Boring.  Something fun and adventurous, like being an actor or some kind of performer?  Sounds impossible…and nonprofitable.  Working for a nonprofit?  Maybe…but which one, and why, and what if I didn’t believe in it?  Teaching?  I think I hate school too much, doesn’t matter what side of the desk I’m on.  A lawyer, doctor, physicist?  Too much school required.  When Will Hunting’s therapist pushed him to say what he wants to do with his life. and he responded with, “I want to be a shepherd…get a flock and tend to them,” I could relate to the desire to just do something simple….a simple life with few complications…you’d never be rich but you’d never go hungry…you’d live off the land and work in nature…it sounded so good.  It’s only now as an adult that, when I watch that scene….I get that he’s kidding.

On paper, being a pastor is a simple gig…not easy…but simple Preach and teach the gospel; help people reflect on their lives; visit people when they are sick or otherwise in need; baptize, marry and bury; and, if there’s time, pick some kind of holy cause to fight for (civil rights, the environment, what have you).  Again, not easy…but simple Of course…this is a model for pastoral care that grew out of a privileged, middle-class, mid-20th Century world.  A world in which people only needed God—truly needed God—during the major turning points of their lives.  They had Institutions for the other stuff. 

Does this model still hold true in the 21st Century?  When young pastors show up on the job today…are they embarking on a simple—not easy, but simple—adventure that they follow until they save up enough for retirement, and then spend their remaining years with family, comfort, and travel, until God ultimately calls them home?

****

My first week on the job I received a call from an older parishioner, to come to her house for lunch.  Simple.  Simple AND easy.  We ate, we talked, we laughed….and at the end of the conversation she said, “I actually invited you here because I’m planning on ending my life and I was wondering if you could help me.”   

It’s not simple.  And the farther I go down this road, the more I realize that all the vast complexity of it is amounting to epic needs: our old people are feeling meaningless and without place; our young people are increasingly without hope and living in poverty; people of color are being killed by our own police with nigh impunity; and then the news out this week that, more than likely, glaciers will melt and sea levels will rise to the point of wiping out every coastline in the world…probably within my lifetime.  The universe is literally expanding at an accelerating rate, and we are on a small planet that revolves around a star as it sails increasingly farther away from every other created thing in space.  I’m told we should be investing a lot more in protecting ourselves from asteroids.  Which makes a good amount of sense.  

It used to be that pastors were called up, mainly, when their parishioners were in crisis.  That’s still true, but now…nearly every day is a crisis of one kind or another.  I don’t think I’m alone in feeling the need for God in my life–for ultimate meaning, for ultimate love and light, for guidance and comfort–not just a couple times throughout my life, but basically every day.

This would be the ultimate difference between pastoring 50 years ago and pastoring today.  As the Institutions that people relied on for so long fail them, and disappear, and give up…our call remains the same since the days of Jesus Christ himself.

To show compassion to those who have no shepherd, and stand in place of one…to the best of our ability…for as long as necessary.

There is no simple.  There is no safe.  There is, certainly, no easy There is no certainty.  There’s not even, really, a job description….save this:  Do what you can, when you can, using all you have available…lest you merely add to the world’s misery.  

A Pastor’s job in this time—amidst decaying systems, shrinking institutions, massive cultural shifts and a dying planet—becomes increasingly clear to me:  Use what you can to support the world….to repair the world, God willing, but otherwise support…be present, be responsive, always remembering that it is not humans who call you, but God who calls you to them.  We are God’s mouthpiece, articulating ancient wisdom for a 21st Century world.  We are God’s representatives on the earth, showing through our own lives who we understand God to be.  We are (yes, Jewel) God’s Hands, healing and holding and loving with all we are able.  We do not quit.  We do not walk away.  Sometimes God calls us to new locations and assigns new missions…but we remain steadfastly called to support a broken and needy world.  Not for our own sake, and not for a paycheck…but for the sake of others…ALL others

Sometimes I preach.  I spend a lot of time listening Sometimes I walk the streets handing out food to homeless people.  Sometimes I have meetings.  Sometimes I skip meetings.  Sometimes I talk to teenagers about their feelings.  Frequently–as in EVERY DAY–I read the Bible and do the work of differentiating my own whims and desires from my faith tradition that spans the entire globe and thousands (if not billions) of years.  One time I tried to convince an older woman that life was worth living, and, when I failed to convince her, I said goodbye and I sat with those she left behind…and we cried.  For weeks.  And another time I gave a man my belt so he could worship in peace.  

“What do I do, my Love?  I use everything at my disposal to tend to my flock—to offer Life, Love, and Light to all who are in need of them—until our true Shepherd comes to lead us all home.” 

The Sunday after Charleston: Why We Preached Without a Sermon

Mark 4: 39-40: Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace!  Be still!”  Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.  He said to them, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”

It took me most of 3 days to pull together a sermon that I thought was even half OK for everything that faced our congregation at Second Church in Newton yesterday.  There is an avalanche of change and transition at work at the church.  We are an affluent, predominantly white, community and genuinely in pain and outrage in the aftermath of the death of 9 innocent people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last week.  It was Father’s Day…and though it is a day I am quick to ignore theologically…even though my own father was joining me at church for the first time in my ministry…I couldn’t help but think of Tamir Rice’s father in Cleveland, and the children of the 9 dead brothers and sisters in Charleston…even the parents of Dyllan Roof, the man who killed them….if ever there were a Father’s Day to address in church, this was it.  So there was a lot to accomplish in this 60 minutes of worship.  I was determined to make the most of it.

So I poured through the lectionary texts, and at 12:30 AM Saturday night, just a few hours before I would get up in front of a church full of expectant, confused, uncertain seekers, I finally came up with something passable.  It wasn’t going to move anyone to tears, but it seemed to honestly address reality while being theologically sound:  There are some injustices we will never understand…we can only accept, mourn, and give praise to God for what we do have (see the Job text from this week’s lectionary).  There are, however, other ways in which we are called to serve our neighbors in their suffering, even if it is not something of our doing.  Jesus was asleep, he could have cared less about the storm.  But he responded to his disciples’ call and, for their sake, calmed the wind and stilled the waters.  It could be said that God was showing up in that storm, and Jesus, being one with God, was able to calm the storm, for the sake of his friends in the boat.  At what point will white America wake up to the systemic sin of race that helped to create our identity in the world and say to that disruptive, violent storm, “Be still?”

That was the crux of the sermon, which I liked, I believed in, and even though I knew it wasn’t done at 1:30 AM, I was confident I could wake up 4 hours later, finish it, and go do a good job at my job that day.  I slept until shortly before my alarm went off at 5:30 AM, saw myself in the mirror as I climbed out of the shower…I still looked and sounded like someone who had been shaken and stirred throughout the week and then slept for only a few short hours. I didn’t look like a preacher.  I didn’t sound like anyone’s spiritual guide.  I boarded a train to travel to church and continue working to get my thoughts strait.  I fell asleep in seconds and almost missed my stop.  I walked into a Starbucks for coffee and internet, ready to finish what I was certain was an effective sermon–maybe not a great one, but one that would get the job done that day, on a day when many things needed to be done in worship–and within one click on the Wi-Fi network access panel…I saw a headline that robbed me of my sermon.

Dyllan Roof, the self-proclaimed “race war” initiator, had written a manifesto.

I read it.

Most things there were not news to me.  Racial slurs, blaming others for perceived societal problems…familiar territory.

But I saw something new here.  He recounted his “education” about “black on white crime,” which lead him to his “awareness” and understanding of the “problems” people of other races pose to white people…and then he gave the reason…he actually put in writing…the link between his thinking, his education, his beliefs and the murder of 9 Black folks from Charleston:

“I have no choice. I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”

 

That was the sentence that took the sermon away from me.  My theology remains the same: Jesus gives us tools and lives as an example of how empowered people can serve those who are being persecuted, and God calls us to tell the truth about what is within our power and what is outside of it…but there would be no sermon preached at Second Church in Newton that day.  Clearly thoughts and beliefs and education alone is not enough to usher in the Kingdom.  If it were…Dyllan Roof would never have been able to “educate” himself into such violent hate.

As I stared into the words of this man, and challenged myself to stare into an image of his face…I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between us.  My education lead me one way…his another.  You know what was the hardest part about reading that manifesto? Some of his phrasing…some of the words he used…it reminded me of things I have written.  I feel nauseous even now.

In seconds, I knew there was no sermon to preach in West Newton on this day.  Because I’m a 33 year old white man…and I probably have more in common with Dyllan Roof than I would like to admit.  It’s why I had such a hard time writing a sermon in the first place…my experience in this world is too limited…my viewpoint–though expanded through my love of God’s people and the varied relationships I keep in my life–too narrow.  To hear God’s full word for us…we had to share in it together.  And, if Dyllan Roof was going to take it upon himself to turn his hate speech into hate crime, then we, as the Body of Christ, were going to have to respond in kind.

If we are going to actually oppose people who hate…if we are actually going to transform this world so that things like the murder of 9 precious black women and men become more impossible…if we are actually going to BE the BODY OF CHRIST in the world, then it is not enough to study theology, it is not enough to write phrases of profound rhetoric and pithy turns of phrase to teach others how to think through their lives in more Christ-like ways.  If there are people who are going to put their hate into action–and, clearly, painfully obviously…there ARE–then we have no business doing anything but the same with our Love: We have all these people talking about a God of ultimate love and justice for all people, we write endless blog posts and sermons and Facebook updates about our God’s great love of humanity and the infinite possibilities available to us through that God, we sing and we pray and we wait…but we have no choice…a lot of people need to have the bravery to take all that talk about Love and Justice to the REAL WORLD.  I guess it has to be us.

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Everyone in church was invited forward to come to our Communion Table.  Upon the table, we were asked to place items–symbols, words, tools, images, etc.–that represent “sanctuary” or “holy space” to us.  And we then dedicated ourselves to concrete actions we would take to provide such sanctuary for those who do not have it.  Everyone was invited to share in as much detail as they wished what their object represented, and what actions it inspired them to take.  We heard from a retired social worker who attended an event on Saturday and bore witness to our African American neighbors in Newton–“even in affluential Newton”–teaching their young men about how to avoid danger and violence with local police.  We heard a Deacon commit to providing shelter to others as his umbrella sheltered him from the rain that morning.  We heard a man confess, “my sunglasses protect my eyes…but they also obscure my vision.  I leave them on this table now so I can see more clearly, even if it means being unprotected.”  A leader of our congregation stood up and rededicated herself to efforts of honoring the identity of others, “I can be here for you.  Let me see you.  I want to see you.”  A longtime member who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. himself offered up a #2 pencil…not yet unconvinced that good education is the key to justice.

The hope is that we will begin acting in the world in a way that creates safe space for those who have none, so when precious people become the object of hate and violence, we are equipped to respond in ways that heal, repair, restore, and attempt to prevent it from happening again.  As a church, we affirmed yesterday that we are all imperfect, we all fail at times…but there are some things we can commit to doing better.  God is calling us to serve…and we may be learning how to do that…maybe even learning slowly…but we are willing to act.  Today.  Now.

Learning from Jesus’ example…we are willing to be awoken to the storm.  To the best of our ability we will dedicate ourselves to calming the wind and stilling the waters…so others may be safe.  We’re willing to set aside worship as usual for a chance to speak together, bear witness to one another, to organize for the sake of others.  And to their credit…when their minister said he wouldn’t be offering a sermon to them…they responded by becoming the Word for Us, in that time and place.

God be praised.

 

5 Ideas to Save the Church…all of them useless without Discernment

A sermon delivered at Second Church in Newton UCC on May 17, 2015

Acts 1: 15-17, 21-26

The Apostles wanted 12.  They had eleven perfectly dedicated and talented disciples who had journeyed with Jesus from the beginning, who had witnessed his death on the cross and his resurrection.  They  once had twelve, but Judas Iscariot had sold them out, was the reason Jesus had been put to death…and then he himself came to a bitter end.  So they were left with eleven…but they wanted twelve.  And it wasn’t just because they wanted to replace Judas.  Keep in mind that this story happens right at the beginning of the book of Acts, which means the early Christian church…wasn’t yet.  What did it matter if they began with 11 or 12, there was no structure in place, no particular position that needed to be filled.  They didn’t need 12 for functionality, they needed 12 because Jesus has told them to go everywhere in pairs—so an even number was preferred—but, most importantly, they understood themselves to be body of the resurrected Christ and the redemption of the people of Israel.  Israel always has twelve tribes.  They needed 12, not because they needed to replace Judas, and not because they had to fill a position, and not because they needed to do things the way they had always been done.  They needed 12 in order to be made whole. 

So then the question becomes: How do they choose a twelfth?  They did something that was both very normal and very historic. They cast lots, which essentially means they rolled some dice.  This was the way of their people, when you had a big decision to make and you didn’t know how it should go, you rolled some dice.  They weren’t actual dice, but they were any kind of small tokens with numbers and symbols on them, and the tradition was  “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD,” (Prov. 16:33). This was normal because it was how the Jewish leaders had made tough decisions for centuries.  It was historic because this was the last time that particular practice is recorded in our Christian history.  Because as soon as they get their twelfth guy on board—they go with Matthias, according to the lots cast, God has chosen him—as soon as he is with them, the Holy Spirit descends upon them, and upon all the 120 people gathered with them, and from that day on, the act of discernment is seen as a communal activity, with everyone having equal access to the divine will of God.

Flash forward a couple thousand years to…us.  A time in which we are having to rethink and reassess what church is, what we’re doing, how we’re doing it…wonder if we are still being fed.  We all have ideas about how to do church differently, in new ways, and I’m no exception.  I have 5 ideas ready to go right here

5)  Food Church or Church Truck…not sure.  A feeding ministry.  We take a bunch of money from our endowment, we turn big chunks of our green space on our property into gardens that grow fresh ingredients, we use that to make food, and we run a food truck that serves free meals to the homeless.  But, like, quality meals.  Church members eat with the people we are serving.  Anyone can donate to the truck, but only members of the church can serve in it.

4)  ZipMinistries.  Have you ever been broken down on the side of the road, waiting for AAA, knowing you’ll be ok eventually, but feeling very alone and frustrated and insecure while you wait?  Have you ever found yourself in the middle of your day when you receive devastating news that you don’t know how to handle…you can’t imagine continuing on with your day as usual, but you don’t know what to do?  Have you ever been lost and drifting…no one to turn to, just in need of someone who will listen to what you’re thinking and keep confidence?  ZipMinistries, just like ZipCar, would allow you to reach out to a network of Second Church people, find the closest one to you, and call them to come and be present with you.  No matter your emergency, no matter the time or place, someone would take your call and come see you.

3)  Second Ark at Second Church.  Our environmental stewardship group has only met twice at this point, but they already have enough ideas and passion to keep busy for years.  What if we all focused our efforts into educating ourselves and others about sustainable models for living our modern lives, and turning Second Church into a center for environmental justice.  It’s the most immediate need we have, and we know that how we utilize or waste our resources has effects on every other area of our lives.  We know that there is no better practice of our theology than caring for the environment and increasing relationships with other people.  We could make Second Church the home of the movement that will preserve life around the globe, creating The Second Ark at Second Church, weathering the storm together, preparing for God’s new world.

2)  Visible Sabbath Takers.  We are people who never have enough time.  Time is our most precious resource.  We can buy just about anything else that we don’t have enough of, but not time.  So what do we, as a people of faith, do with our desire to grow?  We want more members, we want more people here with us, but even we have a hard time setting aside other demands and responsibilities to be here…what do we do?  We start saying NO to some things, so that we can say YES to being here once a week, to reconnect with one another, re-center around the things God calls us to do and be.  We actively say NO to a world that will keep demanding our time and energy until we are used up, so that we can rest and renew ourselves, with our families, with our young people, with our older folks…we take time to actually sit with one another, to learn to love one another, so we can actually get to work figuring out how to serve in this world together.  What if we became known as the community of Sabbath Takers, willing to stand up and say NO to the things that eat us alive, and to do that in a public way. Maybe we all get matching t-shirts and other kinds of things to wear during our sabbath time, so that everyone who sees us knows that we are dedicating ourselves to something more important than our to-do lists. 

Adopt-a-Pew.  Last year I heard someone on the radio talking about a program they started during some of our snow storms.  One of the bigger issues during snow storms is that the fire hydrants get buried in snow, which keeps firefighters from being able to access them when they need to.  So they started a program called “Adopt a Hydrant.”  You can still do this, you can go online, you can adopt a fire hydrant on your block, and when you adopt that hydrant, you take on the responsibility of shoveling it out of the snow.  And many people have taken so much pride in their hydrants that they have named them, decorated them, dedicated odd amounts of time to posting about them online.  All for a fire hydrant.  We look around this sanctuary on any given Sunday, and we wonder why there aren’t more people here.  We can’t help but remember there was a time when you had to pay the church in order to have a pew to sit in.  There’s a painted sign in the Narthex that boasts “all sit for free.”  And yet, how is the church thought of in our culture?  It’s still thought of as a place of judgment and exclusion, it’s still thought of as a place that is out to get your money…and you’d better be willing to pay if you come inside and sit down.  So what if we changed how we are perceived so completely radically that people come to understand Second Church in Newton as a safe haven that wants NOTHING from ANYBODY, but to offer such refuge.  What if we each adopted a pew, taking responsibility for getting people to sit in it every week?  What would that do for us as a community?  Would it empower us to talk to our friends and neighbors, and strangers, about why they should come join us?  Would it turn into a weird competition that creates more problems than it solves?  Would it challenge us to think about how to make this a more welcoming and comfortable place, so it’s easier for us to feel good about inviting people in?  Would it cause us to confess that we ourselves don’t always like being here…and would it cause us to reflect on that? 

The simple answer to all this is: I don’t know. I don’t know if it would do anything, I don’t know if it would mean anything.

This week i found myself in the midst of several kinds of these questions, “What am I doing?  Why am I doing it?  What is going on?”  You know those moments when you finally take stock of your situation, and you look around, and you wonder aloud…to no one in particular, “Is this for real?  How did I get here?  How did it come to this?”  And it all started with a problem that we have all encountered at some point.  That moment when you have to sit and honestly ask yourself, “Is my sandwich still a sandwich?”  Let me explain: I had the opportunity to go to Sam LaGrasse’s downtown.  If you’ve never been to Sam LaGrasse’s and you are a fan of a good sandwich, you need to get down there.  They make these huge, juicy, delicious sandwiches.  And they pack so much into this sandwich that at some point in the meal, you are covered in sauce and cheese and as soon as you can wonder, “What is going on?  Why is this so messy?”  You suddenly realize…the bread is gone. There’s been so much STUFF in the sandwich that it has forced the bread out, the bread has disintegrated and there are pieces of it all over your plate.  And if you’re eating something like, say, a chicken parmigiana sandwich, with the sauce everywhere, you don’t even see the difference between the chicken and the bread.  At which point you are forced to ask, “Is my sandwich even a sandwich anymore?”  And if you’re a sensible person who wants to put more of your food in your stomach than on your shirt, you have a moment when you admit defeat and think, “Maybe I should get a fork.” 

There are those moments—sometimes silly, sometimes disastrous—that force us to confront the reality of our situation.  We have to look around and wonder, “What is this?  What did it start out as?  What is it now?  What do I need to do?”  Sometimes we have that in our jobs, sometimes in our relationships, sometimes in our church.  This is, indeed, what the Crossroads process is all about, taking time to say, “What is this thing we call Second Church?  Are we who we think we are?  Are we being fed the way we want to be fed?  Do we still have a sandwich, or do we need to get a fork?”  The sandwich analogy—yes, that’s right, I’m dubbing it the “sandwich analogy” and running with it—is actually pretty apt for our situation:  Second Church was started by, believe it or not, 12 pairs of West Newton citizens.  Twelve men and twelve women who were no longer being fed by the First Church in Newton petitioned and schemed and, in some ways, conned their way into permission to start a new church in West Newton.  It couldn’t have been easy.  Churches in those days were reluctant to let go of their power.  The First Church in Newton had only fairly recently been established, and before then everyone had to travel all the way to First Church Cambridge every single Sunday for worship.  Our society was set up in a way that you had to have a church in order to be your own town, and you had to participate in church if you wanted to be a citizen, to have voting rights, to be elected office, or even to run a legitimate business.  So as a way of consolidating political power and organizing the colonial villages, churches did not often grant permission to start new churches.  But once 12 couples in West Newton were given permission to start their own church, the other villages wanted one too.  So we got Central Church, Eliot Church, Newton Highlands, etc.  None of those churches cared about growing, none of them were seeking new members.  The mindset was different in those days.  You had to go to church in order to be a citizen of the town.  So the question was not, “Will I go to church today?”  It was, “Which one?”  And the answer was obvious…you go to whatever church is closest to you.  Because they were all Congregational.  They all had the same theology. And everyone you knew was going to that church too. 

Then came the mid-twentieth century, when a sudden influx of church goers and new residents to the area flooded the local churches.  In the wake of the Great Depression and World War II, people flocked to churches in droves, to give thanks for the hard times they had come through, and to celebrate the relative wealth and prosperity God seemed to have bestowed upon our country overnight.  This huge influx of people, with tons of families and kids, was enough of a shift to change our expectations for what church was and how it was supposed to function.  This is when Sunday Schools began, this was the advent of Youth Group…because it was the first time in history that being a “teenager” was a thing…so we discerned and we adapted and we restructured so that we could accommodate all these new people with all their new needs  And then, just as suddenly, the world changed again, and as women earned their rightful opportunities in the work place and Sundays became days of rest and relaxation rather than days dedicated to worship…the church shrank.  And those of us who remain are left with this thing that used to be a sandwich, got this huge influx of food right in the middle of it, and now we’re looking around at the mess left over unable to even separate the sauce and cheese from the bread.  Is this still a sandwich?  Do we need a fork?

Each of the 5 ideas I lifted up for our church point toward all the things that the first Christian communities did to practice and live out their faith—they rested, retreating from the business-as-usual world; they dedicated themselves to prayer; they went into small spaces together to listen to God; they went everywhere together, serving those in need as they could; they shared meals; they made the reality of a God of new life and resurrection more real than the empire that would seek to destroy them.  And at the heart of all this…the only reason why any of it worked…is because they worked together to do the work of Discernment.  I have started to understand that the work of discernment is, quite possibly, the most important thing the people of our tradition are called to do.  It is the one thing that no other groups or organizations do, and it is the lifeblood of our faith.  Discernment.  The act of deciding well.  We are big idea people, we like exciting ideas, and we get most excited about ideas we can get behind and work on.  The thing is, big ideas are not enough to save us, and they are certainly not enough to help us be who God calls us to be.  For that, we need to practice the ability to Discern—to decide well—which most often is not the work of doing something new, but of restoration…becoming whole.

This has been a key part of our faith ever since the day of Pentecost…and it has lead to no shortage of trouble.  Primarily because we have been quick to emphasize everyone’s equal access to God, and slow to say that an individual’s particular spiritual insights are not the same as knowing the will of God.  So we’ve had charismatic preachers who have had some very particular ideas about the will of God—who God loves the best, how Christians are to practice their Christianity, insisting on taking the Bible literally even though no one ever did before in history, that “dominion over the earth” means we should be aloud to destroy the planet if we want to—they’ve had a lot of ideas, a lot of new crusades, that have not always panned out well.  And other than our Quaker brothers and sisters, we have been slow to insist that discerning the movement of the Holy Spirit is a communal activity.  Each of us may have a piece of the puzzle, but we rely on one another to figure out how they all fit together…and God alone knows the full picture.  We have been quick to allow individuals with passion and certainty to proclaim the movement of the Holy Spirit for all of us…and in doing so we have missed a key point of discernment.  The act of discernment is not necessarily to come up with something new, or to make a big choice for the sake of doing so.  Discernment is rooted in restoration.  We discern so we understand what must be done so we can be made whole.  Discernment is the bread that holds this sandwich together, and without it…we’ve just got a mess on our hands.

Centuries before the Bible, as we know it today, existed, Christians were relying on nothing more than the power of the Holy Spirit to know the will of God.  They practiced discernment in community…relying on one another to bring together various pieces of the larger puzzle…attempting to Restore what God had intended…to make themselves, the Body of Christ, all of Creation…whole.  It is the one thing we do that no one else does.  It is the lifeblood of our faith.  Without the act of discernment, we are just another nonprofit trying to find ways of staying relevant.  More importantly, without discernment, we as individuals and companions on the journey of Christ’s way miss out on the opportunity to be made whole.  Those of us who are older, retired, trying to adjust to new ways of living with bodies that fail us and a world that is changing rapidly around us…we need discernment.  For those of us trying to juggle work and family responsibilities, caring for our aging parents while raising kids, who never have enough time for anything…you’d better believe we need discernment.  For those of us who are still trying to find a place for ourselves in the world, still trying to figure out what our lives will be about, we need discernment.  Our little ones, our young ones….you will spend the first 18 years of your life being students and going through school, most likely you’ll do another 4-8 years after that.  School is something you do, being students is the important role you play in our society…but that is not who you are.  You are beloved children of God every day…and God is not waiting until you are done with school to do amazing things in this world through you.  You need the ability to discern as well.  And if your church community won’t teach you how to do that…well…no one else can. 

As we complete our time at the Cross Roads and we look to where we are going next…as we come to the end of another busy and overwhelming school year…as the world spins around a star that is traveling ever further into an an ever expanding universe…we need discernment.  More than ever, we need the ability to understand how God is calling us to be made whole.  Not to do something new or novel…though, that might be part of it…but to be restored.  And we need one another to do it.  We know for a fact that group discernment can only work if the group can trust one another, if we can rely on our relationships together, if we can trust that your piece of the puzzle is just as important as my piece of the puzzle…if we can be vulnerable enough to admit that none of us know the entire picture.  It is hard work.  And in the words of the immortal Jimmy Dugan from the movie, A League of Their Own, “It’s supposed to be hard.  If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it.  The hard is what makes it great.”  The world needs us to be great, to do the thing that no one else will do.  You, friends, are the bread that holds the sandwich together.  Just as Jesus himself became the broken bread of life for all people…we are called to be the body of Christ in the world…to feed the multitudes.  And no one should need a fork to eat a sandwich. 

Indiana’s New Law Is Actually Not New At All….it’s time we start calling it what it is.

The images in this post have been selected around the theme “Other Times in American History When Laws were in place to protect the Freedom of Some People…at the Expense of the Rights of Others”

In a report from the Indy Star, Indiana Mayor Mike Pence signed into law the “Religious Freedom Act,” and one of the supporters of the act, Eric Miller of Advance America was quoted as saying, “It is vitally important to protect religious freedom in Indiana.”

Why?  Why is it so vitally important to protect religious freedom in Indiana?  The statement implies images (1)that there are dark forces out there trying to crack down on all this religious freedom that has just been running amok in the Hoosier State.

And yet the law itself flies in the face of MY Religion, and the religion of many Hoosiers: Christianity.

Ours is an institution and a faith that rests entirely on the theological belief that our  God loves EVERYONE, no matter what, and our God EXCLUDES NO ONE…no matter what.  This is a religion founded on the testament of Jesus of Nazareth and his followers who witnessed their leader arrested by the state, and put to death by the state, and then resurrected by God three days later.  Interestingly, that’s a story we’ll all be spending a lot of time on next week.

This new law gives Indiana business owners the right to refuse services to anyone on religious grounds, right?  My religion says we are supposed to be free from anyone having the ability to do that.

OUR Religion says–and has said time and time again–that NO ONE has the right to exclude, oppress, or otherwise segregate anyone for ANY reason, especially “Religion.”

gwhints1I’m tired of having to explain to my non-church friends, “No, no, we don’t actually hate people, that’s not what we’re about.”  I’m tired of having to fight so hard against this tide of church-sponsored bigotry and state-sponsored oppression…and for some reason have to pretend like my religion has anything to do with those things.

As long as there are laws preventing anyone from being seen as something other than who they truly are–a Beloved Child of God–we are not free to practice our religion.  In fact, many of my beloved Brothers and Sisters in Christian ministry are actively breaking the law every single day as they perform marriages that the state doesn’t recognize, give safe shelter to those who the government does not recognize as “legitimate” citizens, stand in the way of perfectly legal enterprises that seek to destroy our natural environment and destroy the homes of American citizens.  I could go on.  And on and on.  To live out my faith and celebrate my religion in public, I am constantly having to stand in opposition to public opinion and government-sanctioned mandates.Colored Only

Why does your religion deserve freedoms that ours does not?

Our country has this weird and consistent paradox: We are a nation founded on religious freedom for all, but time and time again there seems to be a group of people who assume that THEIR religion is the only one deserving of that freedom.  And that group seems to get smaller and smaller all the time.

We saw this with slavery, we saw this with women’s rights, with the civil rights movement and Jim Crowe Laws, we’re seeing it play out every single day as we attempt to care better for our environment, our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, and all other oppressed and demonized groups of people.  Consistently, there are those who will claim “religious freedom” or “States rights” or “scientific proof that those people are different from us people” but these are all red herrings.  What they mean to say is, “I just want to hate on some people!”

Japanese-Internment-Hero-ABIf it quacks like  duck and walks like a duck, we know what to call it right?  If it sounds like hate, and it looks like segregation, and it acts like an infringement on a person’s birthright to live however they want…then we need to call it those things…even if it’s trying to dress up in respectable, Religious or Government-sponsored clothes.

 

 

What’s happening in Indiana right now has nothing to do with supporting the religious views of anyone I know in Indiana…or outside of it, either, for that matter.  For too long we have allowed the message of hate to be mixed up with the language of religion.

What happens when we simply say, “Sorry, hatred and exclusion are not recognized as expressions of any religion we are aware of?  The great religious traditions of the world are about Love.”

We’ll have a much easier time getting that message out there when we refuse to allow hateful people to hide behind their “Religious Freedoms,” as we continue to practice our core religious principles of Love and Justice…whether we are “free” to, or not.

CBFTQFWUYAAHTS7

gruhnb.wordpress.com Presents (for a limited time) A Spin Off Blog!

“If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.” Angel, Season 2, episode 16 of Angel (spinoff of Buffy The Vampire Slayer).

“We just fall apart.” –Dr. Felix Silverstone, as interviewed by Atul Gawande in his book Being Mortal

I’m terrible at self promotion. But there’s something I’m doing that I think is good, and I’d like you to know about it.

It’s the season of Lent, the time of year when Christ’s followers get real liturgical permission to be really obsessed with ourselves. How else would you describe a 6 week period when you are invited (forced?) to dedicate all your time and energy to introspection, personal spiritual practice, and wrestling with the meaning of a life that is simultaneously wondrous, too short, and painfully imperfect?

Well…if you’re me, I guess you’d just call that “A normal month plus a fortnight.”

But it’s my goal to get better at this stuff.

The absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett once wrote, “try again, fail again, try again, fail again, fail better.” And that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to embrace my limitations, admit my failures, and try to fail better than I did last time.  I wrestle with balancing out my passions, my joys, my responsibilities, and my programming on a regular basis.  A lot of the time, it makes it difficult to gauge where to invest my time and energy.  The older I get, the more I discover new limitations and complexities that only make the whole thing more daunting.

photo (28)

??? This was actually the sign I saw when I started writing this post. How can we not laugh?

 

I also laugh a lot more.  That’s how I know I really am getting better at this stuff.

And I do want to fail better…I want my tomorrow to look different than today.  So I am going on a journey to star mortality in the face, to learn more about my eventual death…so that I can receive the promises of Easter Sunday…

I’ve dedicated myself to hosting a daily Lent blog for my congregation (and anyone else who’s interested).  So far I’m actually keeping up with it. And I’m proud of what we’re creating over there.  #LevelUp #EmbraceYourMortality #Followthrough!

If you would like to journey with us, use the following link and hit “Follow” for daily reflections, stories, and practices from now until Easter:

40dayprep.wordpress.com

Don’t Ruin the Punch Line

A sermon NOT given this morning at Second Church in Newton UCC, at a service that would have been “Holy Humor,” a celebration of God’s gift of laughter before the season of Lent.

“A day without laughter is a day wasted.”  –Charlie Chaplin

“After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” –Mark 9: 2-9

I’ve been a little obsessed with signs lately, and mainly what I’ve noticed is that there are a lot of signs that don’t actually say what they mean.  A lot of passive aggressive signage out there.  For example, down at Boston Common’s parking garage, there are two signs.  One sign says, “Elevators now accessible 24 hours a day.”  And then there’s another sign that says, “No public restrooms.”  But as anyone who has ridden them knows, there is occasionally a certain smell in those elevators…and it makes you realize: If you have an elevator that is open 24 hours a day…then you also have a public restroom.  The sign they really wanted to put up was: Please don’t urinate in our elevator!  Or if you’ve ever been walking your dog and you see a sign by someone’s mail box that See What I mean?says, “Dog urine rusts metal.”  Your first impulse when you see this sign is, “Yeah, so?”  What they really mean to say is, “Please don’t let your dog relieve itself on my mail box.”  And it’s odd that they don’t come right out and say that, because if you should be able to be demanding with your neighbors about anything it’s what happens on your own property, right?  But for some reason, we have a lot of signs that are kind of ambiguous.  We expect polite society to understand what we mean, but we don’t come right out and say it.  Even stop signs, the one sign that gives a very specific, very direct message, “STOP!” We’ve all been at intersections where we see someone blow right through the sign, and it’s really like a little conversation is happening between sign and car, “STOP!” “NOOOOOOOO!” And we very correctly get furious with people who behave like that in traffic, but maybe we should give them the benefit of a doubt sometimes, maybe they aren’t always aware of the gravity of the situation.  Because even a Stop sign is not really saying what it means.  It just has the word “Stop” on it, but what that sign really means is, “Other cars and people might be trying to occupy this space right now, and you need to take a deep breath and look around before you try to cross THIS line or you might kill someone, you idiot.”  But that’s too many words to fit into an octagon, so they just say, “Stop.”

So I’ve been rather obsessed with signs lately.  Because signs don’t always say what they really mean. And also, sometimes there are signs in plain sight, their intentions perfectly clear, it is in our best interest to heed their warning…and we fail to see them entirely.  But the most infuriating thing of all is when we see a sign, we take note of it, we know it’s important….and we completely miss its meaning.  Example:  For a Christmas present this year, i had asked my family for money so I could purchase new snow boots.  And they very generously gave me such a gift, but when I went to order the L.L. Bean boots I really wanted, I found out they were sold out for the season.  So i thought, “It hasn’t snowed yet this year anyway, I’ll wait until next year and get the boots I really want.”  And I thought I’d spend the money on gloves instead.  But when I went down to the store, they said they were all sold out of gloves for the season.  So rather than try another store, I thought, “Well, this winter has been pretty mild, I’ll wait until next year to get some gloves.”  Flash forward just a few weeks, to the day after the Super Bowl, snow falling everywhere, and me waiting 90 minutes for a bus to come pick me up and take me home…wearing nothing but my sneakers on my feet, no gloves on my hands.  Just a really pathetic 32-year-old man standing and shivering, losing feeling in my toes and fingers. I can only image in what well-equipped onlookers must have thought of me that day, “Does he think that just because he has the same skin color as the snow that it isn’t out to get him?” And that was Groundhog Day, by the way.  There was still six weeks of winter ahead, and rather than preparing for the entire winter season…I had decided I would wait until next year.  Sometimes the signs for what we need to do…the signs describing reality…are right in front of us…and they are very clear…and we fail to understand them properly.

Jesus went up a tall mountain with his closest disciples, and at the top of the mountain, he turned shimmering white, and images of the great Jewish prophets Moses and Elijah appeared before them.  And Jesus talked with them.  Peter is so overwhelmed by what he’s seeing, and the text says, “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified,” but even though Peter doesn’t know what to say, e says it anyway, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us build you three dwellings, one for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for you.”   And God’s own voice could be heard saying, “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.  Listen to him.”  And at the end of all this, Jesus orders them to tell no one about this until after the Son of Man is risen from the dead.

Now as far as I can tell, there are at least 3 things here that require some investigating.  The first being…how did they know this was Moses and Elijah?  This was Israel 2,000 years ago…and the long-dead heroes that are appearing before them were far older than that.  There were no pictures of these guys…they did not have Pinterest or Instagram…no one had even attempted eye-witness sketches of the guys.  Are we meant to think that they were acting out their most notable achievements?  Maybe they knew it was Moses because he’s standing there with 2 stone tablets in his arms?  Maybe Elijah is…I don’t know…slaying a bunch of enemy prophets or something? 

But ok, somehow they know this is Moses and Elijah, but then the next part is interesting…they’re talking to one another. Jesus is talking to the other two…but there’s no mention of what they were talking about.  Wouldn’t that be of some interest?  If you were Peter telling this story later on, no one would let you get away with, “And the three of them were talking to one another. I didn’t pay attention to what they were saying, it didn’t seem important.  Probably just a lot of industry talk, if you know what I mean?  I mean, these prophets..Oy.”  No one is letting him get away with that!  What’s the point of mentioning that they talked to one another without mentioning what they were talking about? 

And then Peter…man, when you add it all up, Peter really has quite a lot of things happen in his life…Peter is so terrified and so in awe of what he’s seeing.  Does he just have the common sense to shut up, to PAY ATTENTION to what Jesus is talking about with the dead prophets, and take it all in?  NO!  He insists on saying something, saying ANYTHING, no matter how stupid, just to break up the…awkwardness, I guess?  “Teacher, this is good stuff.  Let’s build houses!  We’ll build you a house right here on the mountain!  Not just one house, but THREE!  One for you, and one for each of the….ghosts?” 

The more you think about it, the less this seems like a Biblically important event—a clear sign from God about Jesus’ divine identity—and it seems more like a story about a party you went to in college.  Jesus is shining white, there are two other glowing dead guys, Peter rambling about building houses—despite the total lack of available construction materials—the other disciples just scared out of their minds, voices speaking down from the clouds…it’s like a rave gone badly.  And at the end of all of it, Jesus, having just been transfigured from ordinary Rabbi to Son of God cosmic power broker, Jesus comes to Peter and the other disciples and says, “Tell no one about this until after I’m dead.”  Don’t tell me that’s not like an epic college party.  Even Jesus doesn’t want this story out there until after he’s gone. 

We are a headline kind of people.  We want to know what happened, we want to know what was said, we want facts and figures and unbiased news, and we want all these things because they help us gauge our expectations for reality.  We like signs—even passive aggressive ones—because we want the world to be discernible, we need to be able to be confident in our decisions and our choices, and if we are going to break the law or disregard society’s norms, we at least want to know how badly we’ll be fined.  We have the easiest time in life when we have, at the very least, the illusion of control and the assurance of expected outcomes.  You know what I’m going to say next?  Can I ruin the punch line for you? 

bananaIn the course of human history, God has not given us a lot of evidence—or any, really—that God cares about our expectations.  Traditionally, it is much more likely that God defies and confounds our expectations.  You may not find that particular joke very funny.  Have you ever seen someone slip on a banana peel?  It’s hilarious for the people watching, but for the person doing the slipping, it looks pretty painful.  Knowing the punch line of the universe can be a funny thing…unless the joke is on you.  Unless it’s YOUR expectations that are being confounded…unless it’s your life getting turned upside down…unless it’s you falling on the ground. 

Across New England this morning, faith communities have called off worship and closed their doors because of a blizzard that is raging across our land.  Is this because we were unprepared for worship?  Is it because we don’t love getting together to worship our God?  Is it because we are unfaithful or lazy or unable to battle extreme weather in order to commune together?  No.  It’s because every once in awhile, there’s a crazy blizzard in the middle of the snowiest season in the recorded history of New England, and the worst of the wind and snow is predicted to fall right at the exact moment of our regular morning worship.  And the only difference between this being funny and this being tragic is whether or not someone gets hurt (or worse) on their way into church on Sunday Victory Baptist Church in Brant Rock (this morning, apparently?)morning.  The tragic headline would be, “Faithful Church Member Dies In Sunday Morning Blizzard.”  The joke is, “400 Hundred Year History of Faithful Sunday Morning Worship Rewarded With Epic Blizzard and Historic Snow Fall.  God has refused to comment.” 

Sometimes when we only focus on specifically what is being said or what is happening…we miss the point entirely.  God says to listen to what Jesus has to say, and his first sentence after this event is, “Don’t say anything to anyone.”  God’s Truth can be revealed to us, splendor can happen right in front of our eyes, we can commune with spirits from the past, and the Glory of God’s Heaven can be touched and lived into right here on earth.  It’s possible to live in the moment and experience the divine humor in the great cosmic joke, when we find that despite our best laid plans and our most precious expectations…everything in the world can go wrong and somehow God is still with us, and Heaven is even more present to us.  But like any great joke…we can’t talk about it too much, or try to pick it apart or dissect it.  Comedy doesn’t work that way, and neither does God.  Whenever we think we’ve got God figured out, and we try to put God in a box, sooner or later we open up that box and discover it was just ourselves in there the whole time.  Life as God has created it is full of grace and splenrod, and though it’s natural to be hurt when our own expectations fail us, we can see it as an invitation to laugh along with the mysterious and absurd wonder of God.  And sometimes, like any good joke, talking about it just ruins the punch line.