Archive for November, 2011

November 29, 2011

Everything Happens for a Reason . . . Not

“Everything happens for a reason” such are words that we, as pastoral care givers are often tempted to use though they are not in the Bible anywhere.

We deal with so much crisis. We get tired of saying profound things. We want to feel good about the care we are giving, knowing that our care is making a difference. We want to give people hope that their suffering is not in vain, that it will amount to something greater in the end. We want to be an expert with something to offer the pain of those in whom we are called to care about.

But the truth is we are not God. Sometimes there are no answers. And trying to give a plastic answer often makes it worse. (Read the book of Job lately?)

When I hear the words “everything happens for a reason,” it’s like scraping the chalkboard of my soul. For, as much as I am tempted to say such as a way to easily explain away life’s pains for myself and others as a pastor myself, I simply can’t say (or even hear) these words.

For everything doesn’t happen for a reason. Sometimes life just sucks in this sin sick filled world we live in.  And often it is not our fault. It just is.

I grew up in a tradition of faith that taught when bad things happened in your life it was the result of either a) a major personal screw up b) being out of touch with a close relationship with God via doing things like regular Bible reading, church attendance and tithing regularly. I was taught about a “if/ then God.”  If I do what God wants, then God will bless me.

I truly bought in to this way of thinking as a child, believing that if something was going wrong in my life, it was somehow my fault. God must be punishing me or trying to teach me a lesson. I remember the day my youth group leader told us that you could tell who was living right by who God was blessing with good grades, winning sport games at school, and happily finding mates after completing their “true love waits” pledge to remain sexually pure until marriage. What lies. And it got worse . . . we were told that those who faced difficult life circumstances such as death of family member, the coming of an earthquake or fire, or whose marriages fell apart usually resulted from sin. The reason for these horrible things happening was God saying: “Clean up your act.”

Maybe for those of us who are leaders in giving care to others, we can find ways not to either explain away life’s troubles with “it will all be good in the end” or “it is somehow your fault” instead to simply be with those in pain. Sure, there might be something beautiful that comes out of life’s most tragic moments, but it doesn’t take away the gut-wrenching grief of the process.

For I believe it is not important to figure out the why’s of suffering– life is simply too complex and mysterious such answers– rather to simple be present in life’s moments whatever they may be.  Knowing that as we stay close to whatever emotions we are feeling, whatever is troubling our souls, there will be a path of peace to lead us to quieter waters someway somehow.

Let us stop, my caregiver friends, making this pastoral fail. I wrote this blog for this reason.

November 27, 2011

There is Always Hope

There is Always Hope

Luke 1:5-20

If you were among the millions who did any shopping out and about or simply breathed this weekend, there’s no mistaking in  our culture, what is coming. For the anticipation has been building for weeks now. . . .

 Walk into Starbucks (as I seem to do a couple of times a day with Kevin) and what do you see and hear? Festive music and large signs inviting you to try out a gingerbread latte with whipped cream on top.

Do some grocery shopping at Traders Joes and what do you see at the checkout? Pre-packaged gifts of chocolate for children in the shape of candy canes and Mrs. Claus.

Drive around your neighborhood and what do you see? Lights, wreaths and lawn animals beginning to adorn the walkways.

Hit the scan button on your radio dial and what do you hear? Pop and rock stations seeking to outdo one another with how hours and how commercial free their holiday music selection goes on in a given day.  (With such going on since nearly Halloween, you’d think that the climaxing event was this week!)

What is coming of course is Christmas. There is no mistaking this. And, so even though we haven’t officially even turned the calendar to December yet, we begin our pre-Christmas festivities here at church this morning. We do so not as a church that is taking our cues from the hyper obsessed “All I want for Christmas (you fill in the blanks)” culture. We do so not so that we can get our fill of Christmas spirit here this morning and rush out from the sanctuary and sing, “This is the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” We do so not as a church who is trying to hit over the head our neighbors of other faiths, seeking to say, “We’ve got the market on ‘Jesus is the reason for the season’  so you’d better listen to us.”

Rather, we claim this Sunday as the beginning of our celebrations as a community in anticipation of what is to come on Christmas Eve because we know we’ve got some work to do before we’re really ready to receive.  We call this coming Advent.

And, in celebration of Advent, we take our cues from the heart of what Advent is about– waiting, anticipating, and readying our hearts to believe again that something amazing is coming. We go about the conspiracy of setting our hearts on the stuff that money can’t buy and can’t be ruined by the most dreadful of family dinners awaiting us a couple of weeks and that comes in gift boxes we will remember receiving 10, 20 or 30 years from now. For what is coming is actually going to fill our souls . . .

This morning, we began this journey by lighting the candle of hope. And seems appropriate doesn’t it to begin such a journey of Advent, doesn’t? For isn’t this how most physical journeys you and I start, begin with hope.

When becoming a teenager, we can hope to receive our driver’s license and thus our freedom soon. When we start college, we can hope to finish in 4 years. When we get our first job, we hope we won’t get fired on the first day. When we find ourselves in mid-life, we can hope I’ll make it to retirement with our  sanity intact. And, the list of “hopes” can go on and on.

Rarely to do you and I start something that we don’t hope we can finish. And, finish well.

When we consider our gospel lesson for this morning, a story essential to the Christmas narrative, but often overlooked for it never appears in the lectionary (I just had to add it in on this day), what we find is an elderly married couple who we can assume began the story of their lives together with hope as well. They dreamed of having a productive life. They hoped and expected children. They hoped to grow old happily together. But, what we quickly uncover as we read this tale, is that their dream of “there is always hope” had seemingly passed them by: they found themselves well on in years with not exactly the life they’d planned for themselves.

Scripture tells us that Zechariah was of the priestly line of the order of the priests of Abijah. It was the kind of guy who had his life together and had tried really hard throughout to do the right thing and usually did. Not only was he a priest, as his family lineage had asked of him, but he married good girl, Elizabeth. Elizabeth was the daughter of a priest and of lineage of Aaron– the first priest ever and brother sidekick of Moses.  Look with me in verse six to hear the narration about them: “[Zechariah and Elizabeth] were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.”

(And, isn’t our assumption that if we do the “right” things in life and don’t offend God too much that we can find our way into “living a good life” category?)

Well, in this case, the Zechariah and Elizabeth were known to have a good life– a really good life, except one thing: they couldn’t have the son or any child for that matter that would ensure their lineage for generations to come. Long before the idea became popular in modern times that a woman or man’s worth was not determined by their childbearing status, in this time and place, having a child was everything. Absolutely everything to “success” in life as a Jew, where the growth of the nation had everything to do with Jewish families birthing more Jews.

And it is to this state of affairs, we find ourselves at the moment when it was Zechariah’s turn to offer the incense offerings on behalf of the rest of the community– a privileged honor that only happened once in one’s lifetime–  that a visitation occurs with an angel. And, not just any angel: Gabriel.

As the hopes Zechariah and Elizabeth had of passing on the good thing they had going on to a child, were already long past (verse 18, tells us that Elizabeth was long past childbearing years), Zechariah hears the proclamation of hope.

Look with me in verse 13. The angel says:  “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son and you will name him John.”  Consider this, the name John, that the baby to be would be asked to take, meant in fact, “Yahweh has shown favor.”

And, it was true after all of these years that Zechariah and Elizabeth were going to be biological parents!

Though today as we hear this story and the ones to come about Joseph, Mary and the shepherds, our natural response is to feel all warm and fuzzy inside. However, what we might not realize at first glance is that truly it was a LONG road of feeling as though God had forgotten this family and pure hopelessness for YEARS and YEARS to get to this moment. Though it is easy to focus on the “happy ending” saying, yes, everyone finally got what they really wanted– life, as we know it too, often spends more times on the process than it does with the “happy” solutions. There’s always a process to get to the end– and often the process can be quite dark and quite painful.

Consider this: while we read our Bible from cover to cover and see a seamless transition between Old and New Testament– a transition for us that is as speedy as the time it takes to turn the page– in actually the transition to the good news of the New Testament was not that fast.

Did you know that there was 400 years of silence, as far as prophetic words of the Lord went between the time the acts of the first testament ended and the second testament began? 400 years. If you consider our nation as only been an independent entity for 237 years,  with pages and pages of history books telling what happens in this nation in this story period of time, can you consider 400 years of nothing from God? Nothing new? Nothing.

With this true, I wouldn’t have blamed them for thinking that God had forgotten them, would you? After such a rich history of prophets and leaders to guide them at every step and from generation to generation in the bad times and the good, to go SO long without as much as a word from God, would be the epitome of life without hope.

Yet, sometimes it takes a really long wilderness of despair to position us for what is next in this sin sick, broken world of ours. We just can’t avoid the pain, no matter how good we are.

But, if we consider the meaning of Zechariah’s name, “Jehovah remembers,” we understand that he was the right guy to hear the news of promises of what was to come next. For, as this gospel opened: there would be a new calling for the entire community. No longer were they to go about business as usual. Now was the time to know that there is always hope. For if angels were now appearing to ordinary priests and older women, long past childbearing time were conceiving, and if grown men went mute in awe of the word of the Lord, then, reason to hope could be alive and well.

Though I really want to take issue with the Lord on this one– “400 years, really, what did you expect them to do if you were truly quiet this long? and “Why, why, why?”– what was coming was in fact so good that it was long worth the wait.

Though in the context, hearing that a barren couple was going to have a baby was not that big of deal, was it? It was just one couple, right? Though I am sure it was a painful life for the two of them, what really was the point for the community gathered around this story then and for those like us gathered around the story now?

As is the case with any blessing of God– blessings are not meant for self only. We are given much so that others can receive much as well. Sure, it was going to bring Elizabeth and Zechariah a lot of joy to finally have the child they thought they’d never enjoy (which I’m sure God wanted to overflow in them), but this son of theirs would play a much larger role in salvation history.

John, the cousin-to-be of Jesus, would be full of the Spirit and would be used by God at this crucial time in history to bring about the coming of God’s favor: a favor for all people in manner unprecedented before or since.

So, not only would Elizabeth and Zechariah receiving blessing from cuddling and showing off their miracle baby, but God would use their offspring to send a message to the entire world of: get ready, I’m about to remind you that there is always hope.

But, why?

Hope, as concept is one of the hardest things to lose when life’s seas get rough, isn’t it?  Sure, we might keep going, but it is so easy in your life and mine for bitterness to seep in when we find ourselves  with nothing but broken pieces in our hands.

Yet, the “why” of this great hopeful message comes in claiming and seeing ourselves in the particularities of the characters of the story.

Though it might be easy to say, “I’m old” and if life really needed me to do anything important “it would have happened years ago” the example of Zechariah and Elizabeth reminds us that if we are still breathing then there is always hope. So I ask you today, are you still breathing? Check your neighbor to the right and see if they are still breathing. If so, tell them: “In your life there is always hope.”

Though it might be easy to say, “I’m broken” as Elizabeth must have felt– her body was broken and couldn’t seem to do what came to every other woman so naturally, this story reminds us that God’s time-table does not take cues from the untruths we think of ourselves. For no matter how broken we feel in our bodies, our spirits or even how broken talents are, there is not a single one of us that is too messed up for God to give us our particular part to shine in. Look at your neighbor to the left and say, “No matter how broken you may feel, there is always hope.

And, though your life story might tell a tale of being sight unseen in a crowd, being the one who was left out in your childhood family when plans were made, being the one whose birthday gets forgotten year after year, or the one who just feels as if though no one has understood you in years, find kinship with Zechariah and Elizabeth and their soon to be outlaw preacher son, John. Though from humble and as ordinary as they come beginnings, God saw them and God used them to be the catalyst in God’s great plan to bring hope to the world again. So, turn behind you to someone different and say to them too, “I see you and there’s always hope.”

Author Emily Dickerson describes hope like this: “Hope is that thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops… at all.” So, though we may walk through many dark nights and cold shadows to get to the place where you and I are to go, we keep singing. For there is always hope.

This, my friends, is the good news of the first Sunday of Advent. No matter who we think we are. No matter who we think we aren’t. No matter where we have been. No matter how old, washed up or how many broken pieces there are around us, today we lit the candle of hope to remind us as we prepare our hearts for Christ’s coming that what? “There’s Always Hope!”


November 21, 2011

My Thanks

What are you grateful for? I mean, really, what are you grateful for?

Such is a question that many of us are asked on a regular basis as the season of Thanksgiving approaches. When asked, we might scratch our heads, and fill in the usual blanks with statements such as “I’m thankful for my family.” Or, “I’m thankful for my home.” Or, “I’m thankful for food to eat.” But is such what we are really thankful for?

If I were being honest with the question myself, even as traditional as my answers may be, I’d probably be right there with you replying in the same way. For it is the people and provisions that surround our lives that make them so great! But deep down, I’m truly thankful for so much more than what the basic answers suggest.

I am thankful for the families that fill my life—at home, at church and in this community and beyond, even if we aren’t technically “blood relatives.” I’m thankful that I have a place to sleep every night, but I’m also thankful that my bed is comfortable with lots of pillows and the fact that we have central air and heat in our home. I’m thankful not only for my food, but for the fact that I can make the choice almost every day to get what I eat. In contrast to my brothers and sisters around the world who have rice and beans or something simple of this nature every day, in this country, in this town, I have the opportunity to eat the finest of foods as much as I want, whenever I want. I am spending some time over the next month, beginning as I pen this article for you, singing one of my favorite old hymns, “Count Your Many Blessings.” For certainly, I have a lot to be thankful for.

I’m thankful too to be a pastor of a congregation that has enriched my life for nearly three years now (oh, how time flies when you are having fun). I am thankful for the ways in which we’ve grown in our relationships with one another. I am so proud the church: the questions they ask in Bible Study, the dedication of the servant leaders, the newcomers that are all welcomed in to our services, the kindness the members show each other when you meet both in and outside of church (I’m still smiling after our Thanksgiving service yesterday at the ways you all expressed thanks to one another publically). I always said about the day I received the opportunity to pastor my own congregation that I’d want us to “know and love each other well.” And I believe, as we reach this reflective season of the year again, we are well on our way to doing just this.

I am thankful for the gift of writing and the opportunity that having a blog like this gives me to connect on a level of “the stuff that matters” with all of you who are kind enough to take time to read. I’m thankful that as of last week I was notified that I was awarded a pastoral study grant through the Louisville Institute out of Louisville Seminary. This means I’ll have funding to take some extra time off next year and supportive resources to bring my idea for a book long project into reality. Me, a writer? I think I’m actually starting to believe it and for this and all that will come, I am grateful.

I am always grateful for those who hang tight in my life through good times and bad. I have some of the best friends (and husband too)  a girl could ever ask for– something that has been new in my life the past couple years and there are no words to really describe how thankful I am.

Sure, there are things in my life, like I bet there are in yours, that you’d like to change– that you aren’t grateful for– but for this week I will choose to say thanks knowing that the good far surmounts the bad.

May you have a joy filled season with whomever is around your Thanksgiving table this year, knowing that as I count my blessings, you my church, you faithful blog readers, and you dear friends are among them.


November 21, 2011

The One Who Said Thank You

The One Who Said Thank You: Luke 17:11-19

If your mother or parent figure in your life was anything like my mother, there was one thing certain after any birthday or Christmas celebration with family. We’d be required to write thank you notes. Who cares that it was the “job” of my grandmother and father (right?) to buy us toys for Christmas, or that I never actually met the real Santa, anyone who gave my sister and I a gift got a “Thank you so much for ___” note, from us.

If you are 5 or 10 or even 16 and your mother is making you sit at the kitchen table and pen out a thank-you note when you’d really rather be outside hanging with your friends, the practice of saying thank you becomes a dreaded exercise. “Do we have to, Mom? Can’t we do this later at some other time?” was always the cry of my sister and I.

Of course now, as I recognize the good parenting move in my mom in this manner– as I receive (and don’t receive) thank you notes when I purchase gifts for my younger nieces and nephews– I have come to believe that gratitude is a life style that never goes out of style. That time spent writing those thank you notes was indeed not wasted. In fact, expressions of gratitude are among the best ways we can give love back to our community. For, who doesn’t want to be sent a “thank you” note or told by a friend or loved one “I appreciate you?” We all do.

But, what about Jesus? Today being the last Sunday of our liturgical year– knowing as the celebration of Christ the King day on the eve of the American holiday of Thanksgiving, have you ever thought about how often Jesus receives words of thanks from folks like ourselves who say we’re on a life path of following him? How often do you think Jesus was thanked when he lived on earth? How often do you think he is thanked now?

Well, when we encounter our gospel reading for this day, we uncover a situation where we find those two beautiful words uttered in the direction of Jesus: “thank you” by unlikely character, who simply did not forget how Jesus had blessed him.

The story goes that Jesus’ was taking his ministry on the road. No longer staying simply in Galilee, he makes the trek with his disciples toward Jerusalem. And on the way, he finds himself stopping at a village where ten lepers approach him.

If we’ve been around scripture for very much time, we are certain to become familiar with a disease that seems to appear frequently called leprosy. Leprosy, known to us as Hansen’s disease, the disease that causes grave skin malformation and open sores, but in Jesus’ time, any who was labeled a “leper” as a person suffering from a range of skin issues and thus not allowed to worship or participate in cultural activities due to the regulations in the religious laws. The priests called lepers unclean.

So, for the ten lepers to approach Jesus was a very big deal. Though we often don’t think of Jesus this way and at the time, his “radical” reputation was growing– Jesus was still a Rabbi, a teacher of the law and thus for the lepers to come near Jesus at all was completely against the rules. So, what were they thinking?

I can imagine that they were thinking that they wanted to get better. And no matter how crazy this idea was to approach Jesus and ask for healing, they were willing at this point to try anything. If Jesus was a God inspired healer, as word was getting around town about him, then maybe by calling out: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” might just do the trick.

And this was Jesus’ response in verse 14: “He saw them, [and] said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean.”

And, WOW, to be labeled as “clean” meant everything to their future. Because really it wasn’t the skin condition that they had which was killing them, but the isolation of being left out of everything in society. To be called clean again meant these “lepers” would be invited back into society as ‘normal’ human beings (and to be “normal” is what we all really want in life, isn’t it?).

No longer would they be left out of  invitations to family parties and religious ceremonies. No longer would they be asked to live outside of the city limits. No longer would by-passers point and stare behind their backs when they walked into a room. What Jesus gave them when he looked these lepers in the eye and said, “Go and show yourselves to the priests (the clearing committee of the time)” was giving them their life back, before their skin disease came in and took it away.

I don’t know if you have ever dealt with a long period of waiting, hoping or longing for something– such as whether it is to be married, graduate college, or hear from your doctor that you are indeed cancer free.  In the midst of waiting, the process to get to the day when everything is right, everything is ok, is often excruciating isn’t it? Nights of not sleeping, long days of hoping, and hours of daydreaming what it might “feel” like the day that you get the good news that you’ve long been waiting for.

But what happens when it such a dream day actually does come true? What does life feel like when the good news finally comes? If you are like most people in situations like this, once you reach a desired state of life, often, you not dare go back in the direction of what happened out of fear of it happening again. It’s just too painful.  You are ready to move forward.

With this true about our own experience, we understand the bee line for freedom that the 9 of the 10 lepers expressed that day. Even with SO much to be thankful for, it doesn’t necessarily make you thankful, does it?  After being healed, we never again hear about what happens to the 9.

However, in this text, there is one who forges a different trail– a trail paved in gratitude.

“Then, one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.”

It is significant to note here that this one leper was the ONLY person in the entire gospel account that ever said thank you to Jesus. Though hard to believe, there was only one!

Of course, Jesus said “thanks” a lot. Thanking God for the blessing of food. Thanking God for God’s presence with him. Thanking God for the gift of his disciples.  But, never, except this one account, do we hear of Jesus being thanked by anyone.

And, if you think with me a moment about all of the healing stories and life changing moments that disciples and the surrounding crowds experienced during Jesus’ time on earth, it seems outrageous that only ONE came back to say thank you.

But, while shocking to us, such a phenomenon is not outside our own realm of experience. We don’t say thank you as much as we should, not because we don’t feel it nor think it, but we forget too. We figure the person or persons for whom we are grateful know how much we love and appreciate them. We figure someone else has already told them, so we don’t need to. We figure that those who serve us like teachers, parents, or those in position of leadership in our government do so without any need for “thanks” in return– so why waste our energy?

But, might we be missing out on the lifestyle of gratitude that was modeled for us by the leper who came back?

In Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel, The Help, she tells the story of a recent college graduate girl, Skeeter, living in Jackson, Mississippi who begins a writing project about the African-American women who are “the help” to the white women in their homes in 1960s. During the course of her project, Skeeter, convinces several of the town’s maids to secretly meet with her and share their experiences anonymously  of working for white women in a segregated society.

During one such interview Skeeter encounters a maid who worked for a woman who has recently died. The maid, though like a family member to this affluent white family, was never treated with the dignity and respect she deserved especially as she was known to work wonders with the family’s colic prone children, often staying up in the wee hours of the night with them.

As the story goes, while attending the deceased woman’s funeral, the maid, tells Skeeter, that she receives a note written by the woman she served right before she died. And, this is what the note to the maid said: “Thank you for making my baby stop crying. I never forgot it. Thank you.”

The maid went on to tell Skeeter why it was important for her story to be recorded in the book. The maid said, “If any white lady reads my story, I hope they realize that saying thank you when you mean it and remembering what someone has done for you is so good.”

In hearing the maid’s story, Skeeter is surprisingly convicted about her own lack of gratitude toward her life-long maid, Constantine, whom she loved even more than her own mother, but never said thank you to either.

Though we talk a good talk about gratitude at this time of the year, when the truth boils down in your life and mine, we might just have to confess that we haven’t been that one who remembered to say thank you too.

Life has gotten in the way. We’ve been too busy. And, before we know it, those in whom we want to say thank you to the most have passed away and our opportunity to express gratitude is gone. But, does this have to be our story?

But, if we sit for a while with the words of our text once again, we realize the exhortation placed before us today.  Though it may be our natural tendency to get through difficult circumstances, rough patches in our lives and never look back, Christ’s call of gratitude is to never forget the journey and though who have walked with us through life’s dark days or who have stood in the gap of our lives at times when we needed them the most.

On Thursday afternoon, at the Ladies Bible Study that meets monthly currently at Eleanor Penney’s home, the women gathered and I found ourselves in a conversation about gratitude.  Janet Rickert shared a testimonial about a recent practice of hers– writing notes to those in whom helped to raise and guide her becoming as a child who weren’t members of her family. Taking the time as adult to write a note of gratitude for how her life had been touched by their contributions to it. When we asked her what happened next– did she receive any response to the notes? She said yes. Those who received her cards got word back to her how happy they were to actually know of how her life had been blessed by them.  What a rarity, they noted, in our world to receive words and gestures of gratitude!

And, after Janet told this story, I could help but think, what might our lives be like if such was a regular practice of our lives– not just in cards, but in every day words and deeds? What if it didn’t take a season of the year for our lives to overflow in thanksgiving for how God has watched over us, protected us and guided us through our days?

What if we slowed down our lives at such a pace that we were able to say “thank you” more often to those in whom we’ve had a soulful connection that has encouraged our hearts?

What if we told teachers, doctors and family members who care for us in our hours of need, thank you for their love and care? What if we looked around this room right now at the faces of our church family and said to someone how grateful we are to have them as part of our lives and as part of our worshiping community?

I believe there is something about gratitude that changes us. It connects us again to our larger human family. It takes us out of our self-centered pity parties. It opens up our hearts to make room for deeper relationships– relationships that can truly feed our souls. Gratitude reminds us that we never journey alone.

So, might you consider practicing gratitude this morning as a way of giving feet to this sermon– so that none of us can leaving saying that we didn’t tell someone thank you today.

So, as Ken begins to play in just a moment the music of our commitment hymn, I want you to live into your thanksgivings today.  So, this is what I want you to do: go to one person in this room and say thank you, to tell them that you are grateful for either their presence here today and/or their presence in your life for a particular reason.  Knowing that as you do it will do your heart good as much it will do for the one who hears your thanksgivings.

Then, we will gather together again and sing the hymn “Count Your Many Blessings” as a way to thank the One for whom we ultimately all our lives to anyway, Jesus Christ who is our Lord.

Let us practice thanksgiving today.


November 17, 2011

Wordless Wonders of Church Ministry

This is my church. I bet you can see why I love them so. (Thanks, Carolyn, for the pictures!)

November 15, 2011

Letting Go

When I first arrived on the scene as Pastor of Washington Plaza almost three years ago now, I was handed a stack of files to read to get to know the church a little better. Though a common practice– often it is what occurs with any professional during their first week of work at any job– I was a bit overwhelmed as I began reading. I wasn’t sure what I had gotten myself into.

Within these files I found on my desk, I uncovered more details of the story of the church that had been– ten, five and even just a couple of years before my arrival. It was a story of conflict. It was a story of misunderstandings. It was a story of theological differences among the members that couldn’t seem to be resolved except in a stance of “us vs. them.” It was a story about a community of people not fully living up to their God-given potential.

But, for as much I knew that for any organization to be on a path toward growth and vitality the emotional and toxic stuff had to get out, reading over the files made me sad. I could hardly stomach it. I could tell I was already learning to love them and they were such amazing people who had been through a hurricane of church conflict in their history, but they weren’t bad people. It pained me to see the reputation of the church from the past continue to cause pain in the present. They deserved better.

Though no Pollyanna in the challenge of this re-building project I’d gotten myself into, I knew the past had to stop with me.

So, what did I do with these files during my first week? Probably I should have turned them back over to the filing system in the office for the archives. But I didn’t. I held on to them. I put them where no one in the church could find them, hoping the files wouldn’t be missed. Looking back on that first week now, I realize it was my symbolic gesture to say the congregation and I were beginning with a clean slate. I would trust them to be who they said they were when I was hired.

So, now fast forward almost three years, and a free afternoon that I found myself with yesterday. With no one in the hospital this week and no Advent bulletins to work on yet, I decided to engage in my least favorite and usually ignored pastoral office task: filing old papers and sermons. And, as I filed, I re-discovered these documents placed on my desk on my first week here.  I paused for a minute to re-read these papers– old newsletters, staff reports and church business meeting minutes– and as I read, I surprised myself. I was no longer afraid.  What was is no longer what is.

For by now, shared ministry and engaging community life is our norm. We’ve practiced together a new way of valuing every voice, thankfulness and consistency.

We don’t yell at one another in church meetings, but ask thoughtful questions and trust the intentions of the leaders we’ve elected to see projects through. We aren’t afraid to talk about Jesus or what it means to be a gay Christian or even to celebrate Advent without the Christmas hymns yet. We seek to appreciate those who serve in church leadership positions so that they don’t go running out the door when their term is over. We express love and appreciation for one another in Sunday morning worship services, during lunches we share together after worship as well as the other times during the week.. We are not simply a hospital for the sick– as has been the motto about this church in the past– we are a place of discipleship for any to come and place deep roots.

Though we have a LONG way to go in fulfilling our mission, re-reading documents of the church’s history encouraged me that we are in the process of living out our dreams.

After three years, I was ready to let go. The files are in the archives as of this morning. I no longer cared who saw them.

The old is gone and the new is on the horizon of becoming.  I’m glad some paper shuffling in my office reminded me of this truth again.

November 14, 2011

Time, do we have all we need?

I find myself being aware of the fact that I think about time almost all the time. . . . .

How I don’t have enough of it. How fast it seems to fly on Saturdays: the one day of the week I get to spend completely with Kevin and other non-church friends.

How slow it seems to tick on Monday afternoons when it is just not time to go home yet.

How I’m already hoping God grants me some bonus years so I can go and do and see all I dream about experiencing, though I realize I’m only 31, with seemingly a lifetime ahead of me.

And, most of all, I think about how time is the great leveler for us all, rich, poor and middle class alike. We all get a chance at the same amount. Though ‘they’ say you can buy happiness, no one can buy time.

I have a friend, Sarah who lives with her husband and two small children in intentional community in North Carolina. Intentional community is just a fancy way of saying that she lives with others, both married and single alike, by choice, creating a makeshift family where all contribute to the financial and emotional load of the house. Sarah does not work full-time as most thirty somethings fresh out of school do. It’s a lifestyle she began even before she had kids or was married. It has been her choice to devote her life to causes that she believes in first rather than her time being eaten up by the demands of a paycheck.

When I asked her why she chose to work less (and how in the world could she pay the bills?), she told me that the more she worked, the less simply she could live. And, living was more important for her.

Sure, she’d miss out on buying new clothes or getting fancy haircuts or go on trips without the consistency of a full-time income, but she’d also have the gift of time in exchange. She’d have time to garden. She’d have time to read. She’d have time to help the kids in her neighborhood with their homework whose parents were sight unseen. She’d have time to share lunch with her husband and friends who came in town to visit. Most of all she’d have time to contribute to the human race by breathing alongside it and actually being aware that she was doing so.

It’s been years now since Sarah and I had this conversation, but its delightful tone has pierced me ever since.

More work= less time but more stuff (do we really need it?)

Less work= more time but less stuff (but stuff really isn’t that bad when we need it?)

However, unless the solution to all of our time problems is to live in co-housing communities with one another (which simply just don’t work with every lifestyle), what are we to do to make our lives simpler? Where are we to find time?

Thanks to my new ministerial colleague, Mary Ann, I’ve been musing more about the concept of Sabbath. Mary Ann, her husband and kids are engaging in a project of celebrating Sabbath (a day of rest from work) intentionally and she’s writing about their experience in book to be published in 2012 called: The Sabbath Year. Mary Ann’s project  (and the act of writing about it too) is forging a way of keeping the Sabbath as a lifestyle– in the craziness of life in the DC metro area with three small children alongside– enjoying time as God’s gift to us.

What if we all weren’t in a race against time? Practically, Mary Ann’s words have stirred me to re-think Kevin and my run around crazy on Saturday trying to get errands done routine. Do we really have to go to Target every week?

Because isn’t time is what we all make it to be? In the same way that my friend Sarah has made choices with her vocational pursuits to carve out time for people and things that matter in her life, so we all have the opportunity to make similar choices in each week’s plans.

Though the phrase “I’m busy” or “I don’t have time to ____” seems to rattle off all our tongues as quickly as “I’m hungry,” we often have already made the choice to be busy. We allow our time to be eaten by stuff, no matter if the decision is conscience or not.

So, do we really have all the time we need– in our weeks (to get the house chores done), in our months (to attend to the goals at work we’d said we complete asap), in our years (to fulfill all our dreams for ourselves and our families)?

Maybe we do in a spiritual frame of reference of time. Maybe such is possible, if less consuming lifestyle habits and Sabbath days of rest found its rhythms into us. Maybe. I’ll keep thinking about it.

November 13, 2011

It’s Time to Grow Up

Grow Up!

Hebrews 5:12-6:3

In the lectionary cycle, we are reaching the end of the time of year that is named “ordinary time.” Next week, we will celebrate a service of remembrance of Thanksgiving and then the following Sunday, November 27th will begin Advent. (Hard to believe we are at Advent again, isn’t it?)

Though “Ordinary time” isn’t the most exciting descriptor of course of all the good work we’ve been exploring together in worship since we celebrated Pentecost Sunday in June, it’s the liturgical season we stay in the longest in any given year.

Ever wonder why the color of the pulpit cloth and my stole is green and has been green for seemingly forever (unless you are Ernie and just noticed the color change last week?). Green is a color that symbolizes growth, and summer and early fall– the time of year that ordinary season occurs every year– it’s a time in the life of the church to put all our attention on “spiritual growth” without the highs and lows of the religious holidays such as Epiphany, Good Friday, Easter or Christmas to distract us. During ordinary time, we are to devote ourselves to the business of deepening our faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.

All of this to say, when reflecting about the fact that our “ordinary” (aka growth season) in the church is nearly over, I could help but take the opportunity and go off the lectionary for this week and do a check-up of sorts about how it is that we are doing in the “growing up” portion of our own spiritual lives. Drawing upon some wisdom from the writer of the book of Hebrews– a book we don’t hear too many sermons from in a given year given its complexity and unknown authorship, but has much to teach us about the richness and the beauty of what following Christ is all about.

Let me interrupt your regularly schedule sermon narration to ask for a true confession time: are any of you willing to admit that you still are holding onto an object of sentimental value from your childhood? It could be an old lunch box, your favorite stuffed animal or that leather jacket that you just had to have your senior year of high school but is now five sizes too small with no possible way that you could find your way into anytime soon? If so, feel free to raise your hands now.

If I were to make my own true confession it would be that I still have a baby blanket that my great-grandmother made me for me. It’s a carefully crocheted in pastel colors that has stood the test of time, these 31 years of my life. Mu, as she was affectionately known on my father’s side of the family, died when I was a year old, so though I have no memories of her, the blanket is still special to me– even though as you can obviously see, I am no longer a baby in need of a blanket.

Why is it that we hold on to such things– long past their time of practical usefulness to us? The obvious answer is the emotional comfort the continuity of such objects in our lives provide.

But in the case of my blanket and your  fill in the blank items as well, we keep them close for comfort’s sake, but in doing so, might we also have our “growing up” stumped a little in the process? Do we really NEED such things from our childhood?

In the same way, the preacher of our text for this morning, is too trying to find a way to say to his congregation a word or two about the “growing up” that he feels they need to do as well, letting go of what had worked for them in the past.

I don’t know if along the way in your educational life, you ever encountered a teacher that was known to challenge their students: challenge in the sense of motivating students beyond originally felt was one’s capacity for study. Well, if you have had such an experienced or journeyed with your child in such a hard experience, then you have an idea already what the Hebrews preacher is up too.

If we were to read on past where our lection ends today at verse two of chapter six, soon we’d be in some of the most complex passages in all of the New Testament. Passages which speak to the nature of some of Christianity’s most important concepts: faith, the place of Jesus in relation to God and even about who angels are.

Like any good teacher, the Preacher of Hebrews knew, that if we went over his congregation’s head and just jumped into all of this deep stuff, without some good hook, they’d soon stop listening and maybe even fall asleep during the end of the sermon. So, this is where the words of our text come in. Look with me at verse 12: “By this time you ought to be teachers, but instead you need someone to teach you the ABC of God’s oracles over again.”

Though at first glance this verse seems to sound like a lecture given from a lofty pulpit with a harsh tone, it isn’t actually. It is a rhetorical strategy used by the preacher/ teacher to say: “Listen up friends. I am about to tell you about some of the most amazing teaching you’ve ever heard, but you aren’t ready. So I won’t.”

The hope of the words that follow, then is persuasion for the congregation to listen up, to prove their teacher wrong. That, yes, really yes, they could handle it. They were ready for more. To say with the nods on their heads that yes, wanted to journey with the preacher into conversation about the deep waters of faith.

Because if we understand the type of teaching in Christian community commonplace among converts at this time, we realize that much like our regime of offering Sunday School for children and adults, the intended audience of this sermon had also been through instructional teaching for a year or sometimes three at least. These listeners were not those who had never been around Christianity before and need a 101 lesson. Rather, they at least had heard the basics.

But, even with this true, the preacher says, in 6:1: “Let us stop discussing the rudiments of Christianity.” What does this mean? Doesn’t everyone need a refresher course every now and then?

But the preacher is saying: the time of hashing and rehashing over the same “Jesus was important teacher. Jesus died for my sins. Jesus rose again which is why we celebrate Easter…” just can’t last forever. As good as it was to know and hear the basics, life in the ways of God was so much more adventurous than this. They were asked to no longer stand still. In fact, the Hebrews preacher suggests that staying in the same place spirituality that they had always been was in fact NOT standing still, as it might seem. Rather, it was indeed going backwards.

The analogy employed here in Hebrews, is in fact one that has stood the test of time from ancient to modern.  Look with me at verse 13 when the preacher says, “Anyone who lives on milk is still an infant, with no experience of what is right. Solid food is for  adults, whose perceptions have been trained by long use to discriminate between good and evil.”

And such a statement we understand from this preacher: “Are you still an infant in the faith? No. Well, then why in the world are you still drinking milk only? Don’t you know that as adults, your calling is to eat and teach others to also eat solid spiritual food– food that cannot be merely gulped as a whole, but food that needs to be carefully cut into smaller pieces to be digested slowly.”

A friend of mine was taking her young son to the dentist for his annual check-up. When the dentist examined my friend’s son’s teeth, immediately he had that look of alarm that every parent knows. Something was up. The dentist began to ask more about the child’s diet and when and if he still took a bottle at night.

When the answer to the milk in a bottle question was yes, the dentist was quick to respond: “You know that this is not good for your son. He has to stop drinking milk this way and taking bottles altogether at his age. He’s growing up you know, and if he keeps at this ‘infant-like’ behavior the growth of his mouth as an adult will actually be stunned.”

So, the question before us this morning is, are we still drinking milk spiritually or have we moved on to steak or a plate full of the most beautiful sautéed vegetables (for the vegetarians in the room)?

Not that there is anything wrong with milk if we are new to the faith– of course. When we are newborn in terms of accepting Christianity as our spiritual home, milk is perfect. Actually, it is indeed THE most nourishing substance we can provide and surround ourselves with, often taking it in as newborns take milk from their parents– being feed by those who are more experienced at spiritual food than we are and taking it all in.

Drinking spiritual milk would look like coming to Bible study and asking as many questions as we need. Sitting in worship, not saying much but listening well.
Not tithing part of our income to the church yet, but giving what spare change we can find in the bottom of our purse. And, reading scripture or other devotional texts  as we feel moved to do so. All of these baby steps in faith become beautiful testaments to the work of God that is beginning to take root in our souls. And if this is where you are today, I say, keep drinking up the milk. Go for it. Drink up.

But, what about the rest of us? Why are we still drinking milk (like the picture on the front cover of our bulletin for this morning)?

What about those of us for whom we raised in the church?

What about us who have been re-associating ourselves with church and now realize we’ve been a member regularly attending WPBC for five years or more?

What then, is the” grow up” message of our text for this morning? How might the spiritual practices of our past be holding us back, stunning our growth, much like the mother who couldn’t refuse her child his bottle at night but then got the bad news from the dentist? What might a life of solid spiritual foods look like?

But, the truth be told, I can’t describe what spiritual solid food will look like in your life and what it will look in mine. If we take a minute and consider just a moment how it is that we digest a meal such as the one we have on the altar table, we might find some clues to get us moving in the right direction.

Consider thinking about spiritual food like we do solid food.

Spiritual food like solid food takes time to come together. Just as we can’t come home from work quickly and put together a five course meal in the matter over 30 minutes or less if we haven’t prepared ahead of time, we can’t expect to receive spiritual nourishment if we just call upon  God when a crisis hits or our guilt gets the best of us.

Spiritual food like solid food takes time to digest. Unlike drinking a cold glass of milk in under a minute if we want, eating solid foods takes time. To eat solid foods, we must slow ourselves down to chew so that we simply don’t choke. Growing spiritually does not come from reading a couple of sentences devotional every now
and then– it comes in setting the intentions of our days that growing in relationship with our Creator is actually something we want to put into our schedule. Not lunch on the run, or lunch multitasking while on our email, but lunch with time and space to enjoy every bite of God’s love given for us in the Word called the Bible.

Spiritual food like solid food comes in various forms. At some points in our lives, we could eat chicken fingers and mac and cheese for every meal. But as we grow
older, we often learn to eat foods we would have turned our noses up to as kids– broccoli, spinach, and carrots, just to name a few. In the same way, the intake of spiritual foods in our lives will probably look different with each passing year. Sometimes it will look like lots of Bible Study classes. Sometimes it will look like weekends devoted to social justice projects. Sometimes it will look the quiet devotion of abiding in deep friendship with other believers. But regardless– it is nourishment that we need at the time and we must eat up, not being to picky complaining that our spiritual food doesn’t look as good as our brother or sisters’.

So this morning, I ask you, again, do you want to grow up? Do you want to have something other than milk for dinner? Do you want to taste and see that the Lord is indeed good? Then, come join me, come join your fellow believers on this journey in the feast of spiritual foods that our heavenly Parent has laid before us.  Let’s do this important work and grow up in the faith together.

I promise you that as you learn to eat your spiritual food, it will taste better than you could have ever imagined as you keep chewing it, preparing it, feasting on it and sharing your meal with others.


November 6, 2011

Worship and a Hug

Do we truly understand how much God loves us and wants to bless us?

Today in worship we talked how BLESSING is one of the themes found in Matthew’s Beatitudes– that as Jesus spoke these words of “Blessed are . . .” he was seeking to tell this followers exactly how he already felt about them. Jesus spoke to the disciples not as those whom he was commanding to act a certain way, but as a loving teacher to a group of people he cared deeply for.

We also talked about how hard it is for us to receive Jesus’ blessing on us because we want to assume it comes with conditions that sound like “you must do this first.” Could Jesus possibly love us even if we don’t come to him in perfection yet?

Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest, author and professor, tells the following story about how hard it is for all of us to receive blessing but also how each of us hungers for it more than we realize.

While living in the L’Arche community for mentally and physically challenged adults called Daybreak in Toronto, Canada as a resident chaplain, he found himself in the following  conversation with a patient there while going about his daily chores:

A woman named Janet came up to Henri and asked for a blessing. In response, he remembers walking up to her and giving her a little cross on her forehead.

But, she said, “Henri, it doesn’t work. No, that is not what I meant.”

Henri notes that was embarrassed and said, “I gave you a blessing.” She said, “No, I want to be blessed.” He kept thinking, “What does she mean?”

[Later on] there was a worship service. After the service Henri said, “Janet wants a blessing.” He had an alb on and a long robe with long sleeves. Janet walked up to Henri and said, “I want to be blessed.” She put her head against my chest and he spontaneously put my arms around her, held her, and looked right into her eyes and said, “Blessed are you, Janet. You know how much we love you. You know how important you are. You know what a good woman you are.”

She looked at Henri and said, “Yes, yes, yes, I know. I suddenly saw all sorts of energy coming back to her. She seemed to be relieved from the feeling of depression because suddenly she realized again that she was blessed. She went back to her place and immediately other people said, “I want that kind of blessing, too.”

Henri went on to recount, “Then, countless people kept walking up to me and I suddenly found myself embracing people. I remember that after that, a man in our community who assists the handicapped, a strong guy, a football player, said, ‘Henri, can I have a blessing, too?’ I remember our standing there and I put my hand on his shoulder and said: “you are blessed. You are a good person. God loves you. We love you. You are important. Can you claim that and live as the blessed one?”

And this process, according to Henri, went on and on for days as members of the community heard that he gave out blessings.”[i]

We all need blessing more than we sometimes know.

So, after I shared this story in my sermon and we had a service of communion with one another, I offered the congregation a blessing if they wanted it. Several deacons assisted in this by standing to the side of the room with hands open wide to give hugs and the blessing of “Jesus loves you.” Several folks told me after the service how powerful it was for them to leave worship with the experience of having a blessing instead of just hearing about one for others. I think we might just need to engage in this spiritual practice of hugging more often.

Worship with a hug . . . sometimes it is the smallest gestures that can be so powerful.

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