Sunday, July 19, 2015

Restoring the Soul


Psalm 23
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Kingsway Christian Church
July 19, 2015

When I was a child, we had a brick fire place in the backyard where my father burned trash and garbage. One morning my father was emptying trash cans into a blazing fire. I was about five years old. A metal pipe was sticking up out of the flames and it appealed to me. I reached out and grabbed it, closing my fingers around the hot metal. I screamed in pain. My mother came running outside and put butter on my hand. She gave me an aspirin and we sat together until the pain subsided. She loved to tell people what I said as I sat beside her and sobbed… “Oh, Mama! That’s two important lessons I’ve learned now. One: Don’t ever grab things out of the fire. And Two: Oh, Mama! I’ve already forgotten the second lesson!”
When we look back over the important lessons we’ve learned in life, isn’t it usually associated with some kind of suffering, illness, injury, a loss or a dispute? Nobody wants to suffer but everybody does suffer.
Life involves suffering. Just being born into this life is frightening and painful. Babies cry first thing after they are born and those of us who have been here a while sigh with relief. “Ah, she is alive! She is now suffering with us.” Each of us deals with suffering in our own way.
Last year, in the United States, doctors performed over 15 million cosmetic procedures. Nearly 13 billion dollars were spent on breast augmentations, nose jobs, lipo and face lifts. We do whatever we can afford to do in an effort to deny that we are aging, to avoid the look of suffering. *
An estimated 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain. There is a rising tide of addiction to prescription pain killers that has touched nearly every corner of our country. The problem can be found in thriving cities like San Francisco, Chicago and New York.  But the epidemic is harder to manage in rural and more isolated areas where poverty leaves residents particularly vulnerable and with substandard healthcare systems. ** We do what we can to avoid suffering. Nobody wants to hurt.
In my life and in my experiences of suffering I have learned two important lessons. And fortunately I remember them both at the moment…One: Don’t ever grab things out of the fire. And Two: Trying to deny or escape suffering brings its own kind of pain.
Look at us. We like to think of ourselves as self-sufficient. We enjoy believing that our lives are grounded in an order that makes sense, a routine that is dependable and under our control.  And yet we come here; we gather in this place, this beautiful church with its lovely sanctuary, to connect with the grace of God and to be honest about our need for the compassion of Jesus. We come here to be healed.  I can relate to the weariness of the disciples and I can also see myself among those who press in for a touch, for healing. We live in both places because being Christian, being faithful, being committed isn’t a vaccine against suffering.
In today’s gospel reading we see the twelve disciples returning to Jesus. They had been out teaching, preaching and healing. Jesus looks with compassion at the fatigue on their faces and he directs them to get away and rest. But before that can happen, the crowds recognize Jesus and his disciples. They press in. Jesus looks with compassion on their suffering. He attends to the needs of the crowd. We imagine the disciples also rolled up their sleeves and got to work, in spite of their fatigue, attending to the needs of that crowd. Wherever Jesus was became the place of compassion and the crowd recognized that. This happens twice. And you can imagine the disciples wondering about their benefits package. Wasn’t there any vacation time in that agreement they signed?
It is as if we are to get two important lessons from this reading: One: Jesus values Sabbath rest. His compassion recognizes that his disciples cannot meet the needs of others without being restored themselves. Two: Jesus’ compassion compels him to meet the needs of others when they come for help. And so it is that the disciples must be honest about their own suffering and humbly acknowledge that they belong to the crowd, the needy people pressing in, begging. I see the weary disciples kneeling and reaching to touch the fringe of Jesus’ cloak.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He restores my soul…” We know the Twenty-third Psalm so well that it rolls off our tongues. We memorized the verses when we were children in Bible School. We teach the verses to our children and grandchildren. It is so familiar that we can easily miss the power in it: He restores my soul.
An eighteenth-century spiritual director, Jean Pierre de Caussade, wondered how we as human beings can know what God wants us to do, what God expects from us, in any given moment. Are we to rest now or keep on working? De Caussade concluded that God reveals Godself in each moment: in our rest, in our play, in our work and in our suffering. God is present and it is our duty and privilege to discern, to surrender ourselves to that compassionate presence. He wrote: “Everything turns to bread to nourish me, soap to wash me, fire to purify me, and a chisel to fashion me in the image of God. Grace supplies all my needs.” ***
The good shepherd provides pastures with fresh water and green grass for all of his sheep, a place of compassion where all souls are restored. That is what the church can be. A place people recognize as a place of compassion. The place where people come to touch the fringe of his cloak. To be comforted and healed with us. We are not always the givers. The crowd has much that we need to receive. There is no us and them in the shepherd’s green pastures. 
My partner, Anna, and I had the privilege this week of touring St Jude Children’s Hospital. We met so many nice people. Even the guard at the front gate was exceptionally helpful and kind. The place is cheerful, brightly colored with interesting art on the walls. We heard lots of good stories while we walked from building to building and while we ate lunch in the cafeteria. We heard about mothers who come to the front desk with desperation in their eyes and a sick child at their side. The receptionist at the front desk has seen mothers empty out their purses, saying, “Take it. Take everything I have. Just, please, do something to help my child.” And the receptionist has the privilege of responding with compassion and generosity. “Keep your purse. We won’t need your money.”
A place where people come for healing, mercy. A place known for its compassion.
I saw a Danny Thomas quote on one of the walls: “Success has nothing to do with what you gain in life or accomplish for yourself. It is what you do for others.”
The successful church is recognized as a place of compassion, a place where all people recognize their need to touch the fringe of Jesus’ cloak. A place where all souls can be restored.


*“Nip. Tuck. Or Else.” Time Magazine, June 29, 2015

**“The Price of Relief” Time Magazine, June 15, 2015

***Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 3, Pentecost and Season After, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, page 262

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Need For Weakness


Shady Grove Presbyterian Church
July 5, 2015
Psalm 123
II Corinthians: 12: 2-10


“Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are. Choosing to be authentic means: cultivating the courage to be imperfect, exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made from strength and struggle and nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we believe that we are enough.” (Brene’ Brown: The Gifts of Imperfection) 


According to ancient Christian legend, God created the angels to worship and serve God. Then God created the world and human beings. “Serve humans and worship me,” was God’s command to the angels.

To the angels, this was a strange command. They were pure spirit. So why should they defer to lesser beings? Why should they mingle with earthly matter?

Now, as it happened, there was one angel who was the most beautiful and brilliant of all the angels. His name was Lucifer, known as the “light-bearer.” Lucifer, immersed in his own brilliance and enamored of his own beauty, declared, “I will not serve humans!”

And so it was that Lucifer and his followers were cast out of heaven and into a place created for devils.

In commenting on this popular story, St Augustine observed, “It was pride that changed an angel into a devil; it is humility that changes men into angels.” (Kurtz & Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection)

“Have mercy, upon us, O Lord! Have mercy upon us!” The psalmist prays, telling God, “We have had more than enough of contempt. We have had our fill of scorn.” As people of faith we realize that when we pray this prayer in all sincerity, God is most likely in her wise and merciful way to put a mirror before our faces. Because she is most interested in our spiritual growth and maturity, she invites us to see how we have shown contempt for others, how we have been scornful, arrogant and full of pride. Few of us are pure victims and none of us are innocent.

If we pay attention, if we take our spiritual life seriously we learn to pray, “Have mercy on us, Lord! Have mercy on us in spite of our repetitive failings, in spite of our pettiness, in spite of our insistence on comparing ourselves to others.”

In today’s epistle reading from Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth we read Paul’s defense of himself. The Corinthians are being seduced by prophets, men who claim to have special powers and mystical connections with Christ and heaven. At one point, Paul refers to them as “super apostles.” He is defending himself as an apostle and he is trying not to boast in an effort to differentiate himself from the boasting super apostles. It’s tricky. He doesn’t want to fall into the pattern of his opponents. And yet he must steer clear of ugly accusations and blaming. That can be so demeaning when we’re trying to look dignified and righteous. After all, this is the church. It is the early church and we can only hope that early Christians abstained from impertinence and pettiness in their relationships with one another. Right? Wrong. Humans have always been humans, in the church and everywhere. Paul is as human as you and I as he defends his position as an apostle.

A story: One night the pastor of a Presbyterian Church, in a frenzy of religious passion, rushed to the front of the sanctuary and fell on his knees. Beating his breast, he cried out to God, “I’m nobody! I’m nobody!” An elder in the church, impressed by this example of spiritual humility, joined the pastor on his knees, crying, “I’m nobody! I’m nobody!” The church custodian was watching from the hallway. He joined the other men on his knees, calling out, “I’m nobody! I’m nobody!” At that point the pastor nudged the elder, “Hey! Look who thinks he’s nobody!”

Humility is not self-abasement and it is not self-exultation. To be humble is NOT to make comparisons. It is to recognize the reality: Each of us is no better or worse than the one next to us. We are who we are and on our own particular spiritual journey, trying to connect with the best of ourselves more often than not. We hope to do the least harm and, if we’re fortunate, to find ways to help ourselves and others find God and live in peace together.

We like to blame other people when things do not go to suit us or when things go badly wrong. It’s those immigrants. It’s the city council! It’s the police! It’s the Republicans! We find somebody to blame and that allows us to feel more secure, superior. But blaming is counterproductive to progress as individuals, as a church and as a society.

Included in the article is a short film that shows the NYC subway stop on 36th Street. There is something absolutely unique about that subway stop. One of the steps in the staircase leading up to the street level is a fraction of an inch higher than all the other steps. The video shows person after person tripping on that difference.  Black people, white people, men, women, young, old, a man carrying a baby, a woman carrying a briefcase…people trip. Fast-paced piano music underscores all the people tripping and catching themselves. (It’s funny!)

James Bording observes: “On its own, when you see one person slip, you automatically assume that person who slipped was clumsy or not playing attention. But when you look at the aggregate, you realize that the failure isn’t on the individual at all, rather the structures that cause certain people to fail with almost no fault of their own. And yet, without this data, people will very quickly ascribe the mistake to themselves.” I must be clumsy.

In the case of this subway step, it would be inaccurate to solely blame each individual for tripping. Only by observing the aggregate can we see how a social structure—here, the design of a stairwell—is a more powerful cause of what seem like individual errors.

We all trip. We all deal with larger surrounding forces that throw us off balance from time to time. All of us make mistakes. We get it wrong and have to try again. We’re imperfect.  And because that is true, it just makes good sense for all of us to let up on the blaming and our attempts to one-up the other guy. It makes good sense to find ways to value ourselves and our neighbors. It makes good sense to work together to right wrongs and to leave the world in better shape than it was before we got here. It makes good sense to realize we all need to lean on the mercy of God.

There’s something more, something bigger, wiser and filled with more love than we are able to imagine out there.  That something is the God who created each one of us. While we make mistakes, God does not make mistakes. So it is safe for us to trust that we are who we are meant to be—even with our flaws and shortcomings. We are God’s creation and so are our neighbors. It is as much a mistake to judge and condemn our neighbors as it is for us to allow the negative judgments and condemnations of our neighbors to overwhelm us with shame. Our neighbors’ opinions are nothing in the light of God’s creative brilliance and love for each one of us.

Paul tells the Corinthians that he has struggled with a thorn in his flesh. Maybe he is referring to a chronic sinus infection. Maybe the thorn is a particularly annoying person in Paul’s life, somebody toward whom he cannot feel kindly. Maybe Paul is referring to an attraction for men. Some scholars think Paul dealt with homosexuality. We do not know what the thorn was but we do know that Paul was courageous enough to be vulnerable. He models for us authenticity and vulnerability. Something about himself was not what he would have chosen for himself. Repeated prayers received this response from God: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

Accept who you are and have faith. It is so simple. We find that kind of simplicity so difficult to trust.

Paul concludes by realizing that he is grateful for his weakness, this thorn in his flesh. It is his weakness (an intentional gift from God) that leaves an opening, a place to connect with all that is good. “Just as I am.” Paul might start singing. He was well loved and put to good use by God—just as he was. Just as I am. Just as we all are.





Saturday, July 4, 2015

What Keeps the Fire of Your Faith Burning?


Binghampton United Methodist Church
July 4, 2015 

Six weeks have passed since I was invited to answer this question, “What keeps the fire of your faith burning?” It is an invitation to share with you, the people of Binghampton United Methodist Church,  my testimony. That is how I see this opportunity, as a chance to give testimony to what keeps me from falling into despair. I grew up in a church where we had “Testimony Meeting” every Wednesday night. We sang choruses, raised our hands toward heaven and gave testimony, telling what God had done for us that week, what prayers had been answered and how our faith had been nourished. Those testimonies shaped our understanding and appreciation for each other. They shaped our understanding and appreciation for God. Those who have heard me tell stories about my childhood know that I am grateful to be free from the rigid legalism and the self-righteousness that was part of my childhood church. However, I am also aware that being raised in the church and in a family where faith was foremost, I have become a person of faith. It is as much a part of me as my eyes, my thoughts and my emotions. I cannot escape faith. It has been baked into my bones. And the faith that has been mine since childhood still gives my steps direction.

It has not been an easy assignment, discovering what it is that keeps the fire of my faith burning. First I reflected on how I know that I have faith. What is faith? It is certainly more than thoughts, memorized scripture verses or belief that God exists. Faith, for me, is a way of understanding life. I have faith that my life, as well as your life, means something. I am not here just to breathe, eat, sleep and move from birth to death. I am here to satisfy something deep within myself and to assist the Creator who brought me here. I believe my life means that I matter because the one who brought me here matters. And, if I pay attention to the presence of love in my life, I can help the Creator make creation what she first imagined when her work began. I am capable of helping to satisfy the Creator by becoming all that I was meant to be and by letting the light of love shine through me in such a way that creation moves toward fulfillment in the eyes of the original Creator. We are co-creators. I am a worker bee in the holy hive of life.  I have faith that we are all here to engage in divine work with the Creator.

I have concluded that there are three things that keep my faith alive: 1.) my imagination, 2.) the spiritual discipline of daily prayer and 3.) the steadfast love of my partner, Anna.

First: I imagine better days. I imagine a world where soil, water and air are treated with respect. I imagine a world where dogs and cats are not abandoned or mistreated. I imagine a world where everyone has enough tasty food to eat and regular opportunities to enjoy meals, music and dancing with friends and family. I imagine a world where diversity is a treasure to be valued and honored. I can see it up ahead. I feel it coming. And so I tell stories as a way to make it real even now—if not for all of us then for some of us. I listen to the stories that people want to tell, need to tell, as a way to let them hear for themselves how much meaning they experience in their lives, how much unique power they have to share. If not for all time then for some of the time. I imagine a better life for all of us. And I am deeply grateful for that capacity to imagine. It gives me hope and keeps me from falling into despair. I recognize that there is something childlike about the way I put my imagination to use. Some might perceive me as naïve or uninformed, too trusting for my own good, too simple to be taken seriously. There was a time when I thought I might be unintelligent, not smart enough to see how awful our circumstances are here on earth. But my faith informs me that I am surely smart enough to know that hope must be kept alive by those who are trusting, simple and imaginative. I carry a light that comes straight from the gift of my vivid imagination.

Prayer keeps the fire of my faith burning. I pray every morning, the first thing I do every day. I sit on the couch with my dog and my cat. I drink coffee, read scripture, look out into the back yard, journal and talk with God. I talk and I listen. I tell God what hurts and I share my confusion. I ask for what I want and apologize for wanting so much. I lift up the people I know who need a touch from the hand of God.  I feel heard, cared for and respected. I receive what prayer has to give me, the promise that I am not alone and that my day will not be pointless. Every day that includes a time for prayer is a day when I make spiritual progress. I trust that my entire day belongs to God but I am only able to focus on God when I sit down and devote a specific time for our relationship.

Prayer is a matter of discipline for me. I learned from my mother how to exercise and value self-discipline. I set goals for myself and work on building a new habit, whatever it is that I want to add to my daily life. Eventually the habit comes naturally and fades into my identity. I have become a person who prays every morning. That is how I see myself. It is not an effort that strains me. It is who I am. I value the discipline of daily prayer and recognize that it keeps the fire of my faith burning. I am not alone no matter what challenges face me.

And the third thing that I recognize as fuel for the fire of my faith is the steadfast love of my partner, Anna. The steadfast love of God is called “hesed.” It is a word that refers to the dependable, unchanging love of God. While God is good and being loved by God is amazing, I need to touch and be touched by love that lives in a human body. I need ears that listen to me with patience and respect.  I need to hear a voice that speaks kindly to me. I know there are cloistered saints and people of deep faith who are celibate. I am not one of them. I need to interact regularly, intimately and intensely with another human being. I need that kind of relationship in order to grow in my faith, to recognize where my own growth still needs to happen and to be reassured that I have not been abandoned. Anna is hesed personified. My faith in the goodness and abundance of God is made real for me in the love that I receive from Anna. I am grateful for my daughter’s love. Jennifer inspires me to love my own life because it is the life that gave life to her. I want her to have faith that she, too, comes from goodness and light. I value the love that I receive from so many friends. Those relationships teach me how to ask for what I need and to accept with grace the gifts that I am given.

I live in faith that we are all learning together. We have all been lost together and we have all been found in the love of God. Each of us moves back and forth between lostness and foundness. It is part of our imperfection and human weakness to waiver in our faith. We are not God. Knowing that, I trust that a better day is coming, something only God can imagine. I have faith that my prayers are all being answered and the prayers of all people are being heard even now.  And I believe that the mercy in God’s redemptive friendship with us is deeper and wider than anything we can possibly know.

This is what keeps the fire of my faith burning and I am very grateful to you for asking.