Archive for October, 2012

October 30, 2012

What Makes You Happy?

Recently a friend and I were having the conversation about the fact that women (of course some men too) do a really crappy job of telling people what they need. We’re really good at saying, “What can I do for you?” or giving a passive aggressive piece of advice to our partners or friends, but when it comes down to saying, “I’d really like you to do ___ for me” we stink. We hold back what is true about us. We just don’t know how to ask for what we need. We often just go on doing and doing for others hoping that one day they’ll return the favor by reading our minds.

Maybe it is part of the mothering complex that seems to come with the female personality or maybe it is just generational or parenting issues, but regardless, it has been a long time since I’ve heard a woman confidently say, “This__ makes me really happy.”

It’s a tell tell sign, I think of how out of touch we are when we simply don’t know.

But, we think we do. We are a nation of consumerism after all. We can get loans for what we want like new granite countertops and stainless steel refrigerators, so our kitchens are as nice as our neighbors. And things get worse when we look at what we do to our bodies. In fact, if the stats were revealed, it is true we spend billions of dollars a day on beauty products, get skinny pills and new clothes which are the latest style. It’s not that we aren’t turning our attention inward– it is just what kind of attention it is. We are shiny on the outside with no idea of who we are on the inside.

As my friend and I kept talking along these lines, we both agreed it is intentional act to be able to know what makes you happy and what you most need. It’s not like you can wake up every morning and always know. “I’d like to do __ today.” It’s not always that we as women have this kind of freedom of exploration. We think we don’t have time to know what makes us happy. Isn’t it our job to make everyone else happy?

Yet, I think if ever are going to move past the plastic interactions with each other and find peace for our souls (that I think most of us really want), then we’ve got to take step back and simply be able to answer the question. Easier said than done of course. Sacrifices will be required.

To be able to know what makes you happy is a lifestyle of awareness. It’s a lifestyle of paying attention. It’s a lifestyle of trying new things, taking risks and being able to say “yes” when something brings you joy. And, we can’t feel guilty about such a journey.  The Divine blesses us when we love and respect the beloved creation that we were made to be. And a funny thing happens, I believe, when we begin to live this way: we have something leftover to give away.

Author Leo Buscaglia once said: “You can only give away what you have … If you have love, you can give it.  If you don’t have it, you don’t have it to give.”  So why then are we so focused on filling ourselves up with what will not fulfill us or give us anything in the first place?

For me, one thing that makes me happy is blogging. It’s something I do for myself. (And if any of you happen to enjoy it great). Blogging and other forms of writing are on my happy list along with long uninterrupted conversations with good friends, diet coke from the fountain with just the right fizz, pulling out my passport for a trip, tweeting during major world events, and being at home on the couch in the fall with a fuzzy blanket and a fire going.

I am a writer to my core, so having this place to share, learn the discipline and simply get out thoughts in my head is a gift. Though so many find blogging to be a chore and stop before they get going, for me it is something I eagerly look forward to doing. It makes me happy, but even more important, it brings me joy (the difference between happiness and joy is a conversation for another day).

But, I never would have known this if I hadn’t pay attention or allowed others to pay attention to me in more intentional ways. People who say, “You’ve been writing, haven’t you? . . . You look happy” have encouraged me to not let the fears of “I can’t” get the best of me when it comes to creating prose. I need to keep writing on my good days and on my worst. It’s a nonnegotiable.

So, today, what makes you happy? Go ahead and do it. Or make plans to do it soon. If you don’t know what “it” is– figure it out. You’ll be glad you did.

October 29, 2012

Why Do You Read the Bible?

Continuing with my series of questions about the life of faith. Up today: why do you read the Bible?

When I was a child, I was told that the Bible was God’s word, no errors in it at all. Moses, you know, wrote the first five books and Jesus said word for word everything we find in the red letters.

I was taught to read scripture regularly because this helped me to live a life pleasing to God. I was told to have a daily scripture readings in my routines, to memorize scripture, and to use scripture to help me figure out what it was that I was to do in my life, finding a life verse to guide all my days.

I was encouraged not to stray from the morals of the good book (no drinking, fornication, or wearing two piece bathing suits were among the favorites of my youth pastor)– for if I did, then bad things might happen to me  the pastors said. And who wants that, right? I needed to follow orders!

In fact at my church, an extracurricular activity for us church kids in elementary school was Bible drill. “Study to show thyself approved unto God” we were told over and over again. The implied message was God would like us more if we knew this Word.

On Sunday afternoons before choir practice, we’d memorize the books of the Bible– learn to say the book before, the book after (for example, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus). We’d memorize scripture passages– 25 a year. And, after a school year of prep, we’d go to competitions– local and statewide. In 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th grade in fact, I was a state champ in Bible drill in the state of Tennessee. Bible drill seemed to take well to me and I to it. I knew scripture well, at least the lections I was taught, verse by verse at a time.

When you are taught the Bible this way and encouraged to think of the Bible this way– as something to be conquered as something to be read in chunks, you can easily begin to take scripture out of context. For example, verses like I Timothy 4:11: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission” can be used destructively, destroying the self-confidence of an entire gender of the human race. As as I heard Brian McLaren say at a conference this year on children, youth, and a new kind of christianity: “Scripture can easily become loaded time bombs ready to explode.”  Yet, when your faith begins to beckon you to ask the bigger picture questions where there are no easy answers, confusion, disillusionment, and apathy can easily set it.

I’ve been reading this week, Rachel Held Evans’ book Evolving in Monkey Town and she speaks of her personal journey of just this. (A great read, I might say. Check it out). After growing up in a conservative home in the South, Evans finds herself  as a young adult wanting to love scripture, knowing it well, but being repulsed by it and the community she reads it with  for they have great distaste for her questions. My story is similar.

There came a point in my life when I stopped reading the Bible for devotional reasons. It was the second month after I was ordained as a pastor. What should have been the most joyous junture of my life was one of the lowest. I wondered what in the world I’d gotten myself into, being a “professional Christian” who now was not allowed to question her faith?

Regardless of any fears, cold turkey one morning I gave up devotions. My morning routine changed for years from what it had once been. Again, not something that you expect a preacher to admit but it’s the truth. It was just so hard for me to reconcile the faith I was taught in small chunks of Bible drill with the God I wanted to love, the God I thought I knew, and the faith that I knew had the power to do something for good in the world.  I was upset that the church wanted to condemn all of my friends of other faiths without even the chance to know their hearts.

I could have very easily lost my faith. I could have easily lost my job if my supervisors knew it. It ate me up inside not to be a space where I could be honest. But, I knew I needed rest. I needed to find another way. And, soon I found myself into the loving arms of Washington Plaza Baptist Church.

Preaching every week has saved me.  By making it a point to preach in context with an eye for the “non-tradition” interpretation, with eyes open to apply to my own life– step by step I’ve come back. For in having to wrestle with scripture every week no matter how I felt or didn’t feel, God has spoken to me, guide me to center again. Preaching has helped me engage with texts that have just been what I needed to see God’s presence in some difficult situations of my own life.

And though there are those colleagues of mine and naysayers who want to say, “Shame on you. How can you be a preacher if you only read your Bible in preparation for your sermon?”I say thank God I had at least sermons to preach regularly for the last several years! And, at least I’m being honest.

I’m now beginning to read scripture again, but never like I did in elementary school or even college when I used to spend hours doing Beth Moore expository studies on the back porch of my dorm room.

I read scripture to see God’s story– to see how God has faithfully guided humanity into relationship with the divine. I read scripture to know who God is– to gain a countercultural view of the world where the first shall be last and the last shall be first. I read scripture to be reminded of God’s inclusive love for all people– to see how even in the passages I want to throw out for their harshness of cruelty, there’s a message of hope, justice and concern for all. I read scripture to remember who I am and who I’m not– I am a beloved child of the great mystery of the divine.

I’m glad for how the gift of weekly preaching has saved my faith over these past four years. I’m thankful for a congregation who has entrusted in me this privilege, having no idea what kind of gift they were giving me to grow alongside them. I’m glad that the memory verses I learned as a child were not wasted on state trophies long past, but have come to be a part of the larger picture of faith I keep finding a way to make my own.

For I believe, all of us are on a journey with scripture– a journey that is unique as the fingerprints on our hands– and who are we to judge the quality of one another’s faith by the sheer number of times we pick up the book? Who are we to ever say 100% that we know what a passage means? Who are we to say that the revelation of God through scripture will not continue to find us, no matter what we do? Even preachers need to hear the good word too. Church everywhere: give us grace to grow-up too.

October 24, 2012

Why Do You Pray?

As a child, I was taught that prayer was talking to God. It was right to give thanks to God for food. I was encouraged to pray for those who were going through difficult times. I learned that if you didn’t confess sin before you prayed then God wouldn’t be too happy with you.

And, while I learned to like God and all through these years of Christian education at church– all of the “rules” of prayer seemed to be just that, rules. I didn’t understand why I was told to have a relationship with God, but yet there were so many particular rules.  As I grew up and learned to make friends, I came to realize that relationships are always in flux, changing over time, growing as life beats on. So, then, why then did God want me to talk to him at 20 the same way that I did when I was 5? This is what my church lead me to believe.

I took a break from prayer for many years in my 20s, at least serious prayer that is. I know that’s not something that preacher types usually share; for they fear it will ruin their holy complex. Well, if you have a holy complex about me, let it go now. I’m just a human being like everyone else.

And, it’s so true. For many, many years, I didn’t really “get” prayer, at least private prayer. Sure, I could stand up in church on Sunday mornings and ask God to bless the sick in my congregation, those with troubles in the world and find a way to end with the Lord’s Prayer– but things weren’t so intimate with God and me. I didn’t see the point, especially as I walked through difficult situations and nothing about my situation seemed to change . . .

But over the last year or so, this has shifted. And I now pray for completely different reasons.

My baby steps back toward prayer centered on praying for those I love.

I don’t know if you are like me or not, but when I love, I fiercely love. I love my congregation members. I love my husband. I love my dears kindred spirit friends. I love dear ones of all kinds that find a way to intersect my life in unique ways. And for me, sometimes, it is hard to know what to do with that love. I truly want the best for them. I want to see them thrive. I want life to be as good to them as it possibly can. However, there comes a time when relationally I have done or can do all I can, but yet my heart isn’t at peace for them. So I pray.  I find joy in giving those I love to God.

And, so I’ve learned to pray– love by praying. To ask God, who I believe is the divine parent of us all– to watch over those I know are in need of peace, support or wisdom in their daily lives.

A funny thing has happened to me along the way. I have found myself wanting to pray more. It’s no longer a chore. It’s a sweetness in my day. It has become a relationship between God and my community.

While many might think, it’s shallow– to just pray for people who you love– I say, don’t judge too quickly. In getting the conversation going again, God has come near to me in other ways. I’m beginning to get back to all the other stuff too like “Oh, God I have fallen short of your best for me in this way” or “Oh, God bless those in need in far away places” or “God bless so and so who really annoys me.”

So, why do I pray now? I pray out of relationship. Sometimes I get it right. Sometimes I really mess things up. But, I keep learning to pray because I long for the Creator of this world to bless those whom have touched by life so profusely. I pray because it is an act which connects me to the soul of others like nothing else. I pray because as my compassion muscles are able to grow for others, I truly believe I come and learn more of who God truly is. God comes near– the best gift of all.

October 22, 2012

Walking Humbly with God

Mark 10:35-45

When is the last time you got in the car with a group of friends and somebody called, “shotgun?” Do you know what it means?

As my twelve-year-old nephew, Jayce likes to remind me every time we take him out on an outing, “Calling shotgun means you get to sit in the front seat of the car” as he promptly calls it out before his younger brother, Landon.

According to the rules of the official shotgun website (yes, there’s a website for everything these days) “the history of calling “Shotgun” goes back to the days of covered wagons and the Wild West. On a trip across the plains, the driver of a wagon would hold the reins of his horse team and concentrate on driving. This left him and the occupants of his wagon susceptible to sneak attacks from bandits and thieves. To avoid this atrocious circumstance it became necessary for one person to sit next to the driver with a shotgun and fend off the enemy.”

But these days most people I know who call “shotgun” (like my nephew) do so because they like to control the temperature or what type of music blasts from the stereo. In the case of Jayce he always picks anything by Reba McIntire or “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” (Keeps life interesting for sure!) All in all most kids and teens I know like to play the game of calling “shotgun” because if you win, it’s a position of leadership, of control and most of all one that makes you feel better than the rest of the passengers stuck in the backseat. Or, as Jayce says when he beats Landon (pictured several year ago out to the right) out by seconds, “Na, nah, nah, nah. I won. I beat you!”

There’s just something innate in what it means to be human to want to position ourselves higher than others—to know that we count, to know that we are going to get what we want out of life, to know that above all we are more special than the rest.

Over the course of the past two Sundays, we’ve been sticking close to the gospel lections from the book of Mark as well as our theme verse for the stewardship campaign this year, Micah 6:8. Asking ourselves the question of “What does the Lord require of us? But to do justice, and to love mercy”  . . . and today to arrive at the final part “and to walk humbly with our God.”

It’s also Pledge Sunday, the day we commit as a church to where we want to go in the future. Who do we want to reach out to with our building? Who do we want to support in our missions? What kind of people are we going to be in the coming year—are we going to be counted among the members of this congregation?

And with all of this true, it seems quite significant that we’ve landed this morning at the exhortation of “walking humbly with God.” For it’s a big thing to do to pledge—to make the step of faith to say—I’m going to give of myself in this way to the work of the Lord in this place in the coming year.

In fact, it’s a grown up, mature faith statement of humility. It’s a statement that says, I am not going to put my family, my needs and my friends above God. I’m not going to make any plans for my finances until I give what is God’s first. And even before 2013 starts I’m going to say in the presence of this congregation and most importantly God, I’m going to acknowledge God’s Lordship over my life, my finances included. (Not just to make my income taxes come out nicely in the end, but because I acknowledge the Lordship of Christ in all things).

Yet, as we know from how the children in our lives, walking humbly before God is much more difficult than it first may seem, especially if we are talking about money and all the attributes that go into making our money like power, position and achievement.  We, as adults, are not known to give up our control on such too easily.

In Mark 10, we find a story of two disciples who also were learning that “walking humbly with God” was going to be they weren’t really the ones calling the shots in the first place.

This is the scene: Jesus and his disciples were on the road heading toward Jerusalem, for the Passover celebration. It would be Jesus’ last journey there. I can imagine his nerves. But, to the clueless disciples—their mind was on something altogether different—who was the greatest.

When I first began studying this passage in preparation for today, the first word I wrote on the sheet of paper where I took notes was, “boldness” in all caps. For, I give them credit for gutsy right away in verse 35. For, I don’t know if I could approach Jesus as they did when they said: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you. And [Jesus] said to them, ‘What is it that you want me to do for you?’ And they said, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’”

Basically, James and John wanted to play a game of grown-up calling shotgun “when we get to heaven” style.

“Hey Jesus, we’re calling it first. When we get up there in all your majesty when all is said and done, we want to be next to you in the best seats.”

And of course, since they were the first ones to ask out of the twelve AND Jesus had already said that he’d entertain whatever they wanted from him, I can imagine that James and John thought they were automatically in for making the “who’s who of heaven A team.” They were going to get to sit on the right and on the left.

It’s the way things in the world, work right? You go chase your ambitions. You ask for whatever you want. And in the end, hard work pays off to those who don’t give up! “If you want something, go out and MAKE it happen” is what all of the self-help experts say.  It’s the modern American dream in fact. We know this story full well.  Maybe some of us are living this story right now.

Well, Jesus would have nothing of it.

Why? Because the kingdom in which Jesus was seeking to usher into this world was not about who was on top and who was not, but ultimately about the walk with God, a journey both of high peaks but also of suffering too.

Get this: it’s almost as if James and John were sleeping through the previous conversations the disciples and Jesus had shared about who Jesus was and what was to become of his future. For Jesus had JUST told them that the Son of Man would soon suffer and face death.  Jesus’ hardest days were ahead of him with every step he took closer to Jerusalem. So, in fact, if James and John HAD really been listening maybe they would not have called shotgun so quickly on this one—

Hear Jesus speaking this to them in verse 38: “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

Well, nope would be a proper answer because as we know from the rest of the story, they can’t stick with Jesus through the long night of his arrest, trial and day of crucifixion.

But at this time, bold little James and John think they can. And in saying, “We are able” to Jesus’ proposition, proceed to make the rest of the crew jealous and break out into quarreling.

No one want to be the disciple sitting in the last chair at the end of the table, do they?

But, as Jesus uses this moment for teachable purposes we learn that Jesus doesn’t really care at all about rank or promises made to him. No, not at all; rather, he says, following me boils down to this:

“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For, the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as ransom for many.”

We could get easily side tracked here with the insertion of the word “ransom” into this theological statement about what Jesus would soon be doing for us on the cross and all the atonement theories that have followed through the centuries of the Christian church. But, we’ll save that conversation for another day and simply point out this: following Jesus means putting the ranking games we play with one another away.

St. Augustine told a wise and wonderful story to a man who confronted him about the logic of heaven. “Why doesn’t God make me a rich man? I’ve prayed for money again and again and God doesn’t answer my prayers.” St. Augustine asked him what he would do if he became a rich man. The man replied, “I would have land and I would have people work for me for a change. I would be in charge.”

“And what’s your life like as a poor man?” asked St. Augustine.

“I have my family. I have my friends. We all work hard together. But we’re all poor.”

“Well, I can see why God has answered your prayers with such profound wisdom,” said St. Augustine.

“God hasn’t answered my prayers at all. I’m still a poor man.”

“Not at all. You’re a very rich man. God has simply not given you gold. But by denying you gold, he has prevented you from becoming greedy, abusive, and arrogant. Why would God give you something that would help you to harm the people you love? By withholding gold – and only gold – God has allowed you to be rich of spirit. You are kind, generous, loving and loved.”

The man stared at St. Augustine, then collapsed in tears.

And in the same way, we too might need to re-consider our ideas about power and control of our lives. For you and I can play the games as long as we like, trying to use our resources to get ahead of our brothers and sisters, to stand out, to be noticed for having more, being more, and excelling more for being the bold ones who go out there and actually achieve our dreams. BUT, Jesus says to each and every one of us, the only way we’re ever going to find the fulfillment that we are all seeking is if we walk humbly with the Lord.

Humility is a word that can mess so many of us up, though. For, there are so many ways that our culture can distort this word. Telling us that humility is about putting ourselves down. Telling us that humility is not taking praise. Telling us that humility is seeing ourselves as lower than a particular type of person or gender.

But, I don’t think this was what Jesus was telling us at all as he encouraged servanthood.  As one Biblical commentator says, “being a servant and a slave [as Jesus talks about in this context] is not about subservience to Jesus, but about joining him.”

The invitation, you see, to walk humbly before God, is one where we get to come learn of our Lord’s business, a trusted companion for the journey. So, James and John had one thing right—there would be an invitation to come and sit beside Jesus for the rest of their days and the eternal life to come. But the difference would be that everyone else would be there right beside them.

This too is our invitation today as we prepare to bring our pledges for the next year to God. We pledge because we too understand that walking humbly with God is about doing our part, no more, no less so that others may join us in this experience of church. We pledge because we believe in giving to God at this church is an act of justice, is a way we love mercy and is how we humbly walk with our Creator.

So, this morning, I challenge you to do what you can do. And in just a few moments as we bring our pledges forward to do so in a spirit of humility. Not with your head bowed.  Not with fear or anxiety. But with confidence that can only come from following in the next step of your discipleship journey—here in this place.

Let us give to the Lord this, walking humbly together.


October 16, 2012

Writing In Other Places

For all of you faithful blog readers out there, I wanted to take this Tuesday morning to say thank you for reading! It means so much to me that you’d share some of your precious time with me and my musings. And second, I want to let you know that if you enjoy reading here, I also write in several other places on a regular basis.

It has been a gift over the past almost two years to write commentaries for the Associated Baptist Press and now also for the Associated Baptist Press blog.

I’ve recently published articles at each of these sources if you want to check them out. Since it’s Pastor Appreciation Month, I thought I’d share along the lines of this theme in both places:

On the Main Site: “Re-thinking pastor appreciation.”

On the blog: “Where pastors find support.”

I’ve love to hear your feedback on this topic, both from clergy and non-clergy alike. What should we be doing to encourage our ministers? Or is this topic too over promoted and thus needs no more conversation at all?

Blessings to you all!

October 16, 2012

To Love Mercy

Mark 10:17-31

Last week, we began by asking ourselves some big picture questions as a congregation: who are we? And where are we going? Following the lead of Micah 6:8, we answered by remembering that our first calling as a community is to do justice by simply opening our eyes and seeing people that we might otherwise overlook.  Justice begins with opening our eyes to see. But this morning, let’s take the conversation one step further—asking again, who are we?

If you are like most, you probably would answer this question based on where you find yourself in this moment of your life. I am a grandmother. I am retired. I live in Reston. I work in Tysons. I live in a brick house. I drive a Honda hybrid.

Though we know intellectually that we are more than our jobs or more than our titles or even more than what we own, it is very easy to talk about who we are by the stuff around us. It very easy to be people who are always out for the hunt for something more—just as a recent survey of American reported than a large majority feel that they deserve right now a 20% increase in pay or that if they made at least 20% more money than they made right now then they’d be happier.

But Micah’s exhortation encourages us today—that our second call as congregation is to be a people who “love mercy.” People who not only see the needs of those around them, but begin to use their resources they have—whether they be time, talent or even finances to come to the aid of others.

And in this calling, as we consider living it out, can come in direct assault to the ways and the stuff around us that we normally define ourselves by.  What if we didn’t buy the new I Phone 5 and instead sponsored a child monthly through a relief organization in lieu of that extra special data cell phone plan? What if we waited to purchase a vacation home and instead agreed to assist our grandchildren for paying for college? What if we left our high paying job (and thus guarantee for an early retirement) for a career in the non-profit sector where we knew we could use our talents for the great good of our community?

Ouch! This “love mercy” stuff is no easy calling . . .

However, as we take a closer look at our gospel lesson for this morning, we know that we are in good company.  The earliest disciples suffered from the same struggle too.  The cost of discipleship was in fact harder than their check-list faith paradigm from the past might have otherwise imagined.

As recorded in Mark 10, Jesus has had a hectic day of ministry but a man comes running toward him after the blessing of the children. This man was a courageous young fellow as he risked ridicule by humbly approaching this Teacher everyone was talking about.  Clues from other gospels help identify him by the title of Rich Young Ruler.

And because of his wealth, this was also a guy who we can imagine got everything his heart desired—only the best social status, the best camel his dinari could buy, and handsome garments to wear to prove to the world that he was somebody. Basically, his life was on a direct path where everything was as it should be. (Though I’m sure he still thought he needed 20% more!)

Furthermore, from this passage, we gather that even in the religious realm, the Rich Young Ruler was the kind of guy with every t crossed and i dotted— he followed the commandments of his faith doing everything that was expected of him.

However, one huge unanswered question mark remained. Was he completing the right to-do list? The Rich Young Ruler wanted to know if his efforts to be a godly person were enough to get him on the “Who’s Who of God’s People” yearbook.

Thus, we hear him uttering this question to Christ: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” in verse 17.

And this question is not just one that 1st century Jews were asking themselves—it still lingers as one of the most pondered questions in the modern-day.

Answer the question in a book of 150 pages or less with good marketing and you’ll be a bestselling author. Speak prophetically about the nature of salvation with specific dates about Jesus’ second coming and you’ll be the founder of a new branch of Christianity. Preach a five step salvation plan and you might just be a pastor of a growing mega church.

But why? I believe it’s because there is something in all of us that craves a checklist faith: we want concrete answers. We want a rubric that leaves us with a chart full of gold stars from God at the end of our lives. And we want all of these achievements in a package we can easily understand, so we’ll have time left where we can cram in everything else in our lives that we think is important.

In the same way, the Rich Young Ruler truly got this desire of ours. In his craving to know what Jesus’ bottom line was for salvation, he was just asking to see the black and white meaning of eternal salvation. So, why couldn’t Jesus, this good teacher, just tell him? He knew whatever it was, he could do it.

In typical Jesus fashion, he steers clear of an easy answer and adds an impossible addendum to the commandments he was already keeping in verse 21: “Go, sell everything that you have and give it to the poor.”

“What, are you crazy?” the man must have thought, “This is NOT what I expected to hear!”

For, he knew he could not give up everything as Jesus said. Jesus was asking for ownership of ALL of his life, not just the part he could easily give him.

Having a conversation about money and faith . . . Oh, this would be too hard. Impossible in fact, for a guy like him, as everything in his life was tied in some way to physical possessions.

Asking this man to give up his stuff was more than just a call to poverty (as this passage is not just about money), but it was a call to complete surrender of his life. It was a call to acts of mercy, to a lifestyle of mercy.

Thus, we read in verse 22 that the man’s “face fell” upon hearing Jesus’ exhortation. He journeys away saddened by the proposal. For, he could do nothing.

And, the Rich Young Ruler was not the only one for whom to love mercy would be difficult.

The disciples found themselves confused too. Was there any possibility of salvation for them either? Peter (as always) quickly speaks: “We have left everything to follow you!” Peter wants to make it clear that if anyone had made great sacrifices, they certainly had. Wouldn’t that certainly be enough for his kingdom? And while Jesus says their efforts will be recognized, he doesn’t directly answer the question. Because to love mercy was not something that could be translated  into a black and white spread sheet or action that could be qualified by human standards . . .

Because perhaps because Jesus’ life provided a completely new paradigm of loving neighbors that would not be dependent on human ability to follow the law . . .

Perhaps because salvation would take its cues from the cross— a place of self-emptying, a place of unselfish love, a place where the mercy of our Lord the gift given for us all!

You see, the type of kingdom the Rich Young Ruler, the disciples and even you and I are often looking for is one where we don’t have to suffer. A kingdom where we can be sure of our salvation we had the right answers or a kingdom where our faith does not have to change our daily to-day lifestyle, vacation plans or shopping trips to the mall. Many of us live on fixed incomes after all. We’ve made decisions about what to do with our finances years before we retired. There is no way we could change now!

I feel I would remiss if I didn’t interject here that I totally understand how hard this is, to open up a conversation on acts of mercy that flow out of our pocketbook.

Not even pastor types, with a Revs in front of their names are experts at mercy. We too like our stuff as much as the next person.  (It is true, that I have been accused on many occasions of having a love obsession with my IPad or my purse collection).

Maybe this is why Jesus said in verse 25, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Did you know that in Jerusalem there is an eye in the needle gate? Kevin and I saw it ourselves a couple years ago on a trip to the region.

In ancient times, the needle of the eye gate was purposely built with a very small entry way so to prohibit invaders from coming into the city. However, this safety feature was not without its disadvantages. What if they wanted to get necessary goods into the city?

When traders wanted to come into the city of David with their camels (or other animals) loaded with goods, they could not fit in the gate. The only way for the camels to get in “the eye of the needle” gate was for the owners to unload their goods and leave it outside until someone else was able to bring it in through another way.

So, to is our work if we are going to be people who enter the kingdom of God as lovers of mercy.  If we are going to be people who live in the city of God, then we are going to have unload on a regular basis, so to make room for of God’s ways in our lives.

But, why? Really, why mercy? Could that just be left to someone else?

Biblical commentator, David Lose, answers the question in this way—we love mercy because:

The way we spend our money (and I would add here time and talents) “has a great impact on the welfare of our neighbor. Notice that Jesus doen’t just tell the man simply to give his wealth away, but rather he tells him to give it to the poor. . . . Jesus invites not just the rich man but all of us to imagine that we are, indeed, stewards of our wealth, charged to use all that we have to best care of all the people God has given us as companions along the way.”

We love mercy because there are those whom we need to assist that will not otherwise have what they need unless we give. Simple as that.

He also adds that we are to love mercy because:

The way we spent our money (or our time and talents) has a great impact on our own welfare as well. Consider [how our relationship with what we earn ourselves] can mask our dependence on God and each other by creating a sense not just of independence, but actually of not needing each other. . . . Jesus knows there are few things more important than for us to do than to share our abundance.”

We love mercy because it is good for us. We remember who our Creator. We remember to whom we belong which is to ALL our human brothers and sisters. We remember that just as we give, we receive.

How did this passage end? Look with me at verse 31. It’s a favorite of mine: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

This my friends, is THE radical message of the teachings of Jesus. Our life is found loving mercy. For as we give we might just find that no matter how much money is or is not in our bank accounts, retirement funds, or how much our savings bonds are worth, we’d rather love mercy than be in love with our new car, dream vacation or even season tickets to our favorite sporting team.

Hear me not say today that Jesus is not anti-stuff or anti fun. God, I believe wants to us to enjoy what brings us delight and what we’ve been blessed with. What good is it to have anything if we walk around feeling guilty about it all the time?

But, in the end, we are to love the most is mercy. Our lives as Christians are to overflow with mercy. Or church is to overflow with mercy—not just when we have enough in savings or our building suddenly stops aging or when our pledges get over a certain amount for the year ahead or even when we have a certain number of people in worship, when we think we can afford  it. Nope. Mercy is never about cost and benefit analysis. Nope. Jesus says, “Be merciful now. Be merciful now. It’s what I’ve asked you to do if you want to follow me.”


October 11, 2012

When I Am Not Writing My Sermon

In my weekly schedule Friday is usually set aside as sermon writing day. It doesn’t always happen (you know, there’s always Saturday), but I try to honor the discipline of time it takes to write a thoughtful sermon by putting it as my only “do to” on Fridays. It is also a day I work from home.

With this being the case, you’d think I’d have it done by noon so I’d could have the rest of the day for leisure or one of those church administrative tasks that just has to be done before Sunday. But I don’t. I almost never get my sermon written before 5 or 6 pm on Friday afternoon. And that is, if I am lucky.

Such a fact drives my husband crazy because he knows my mind is never at peace until at least something is drafted. He also knows that I won’t be ready to go out to date night (what we do on Fridays when we’re both in town) until it’s finished.

But the thing is– I can’t help myself.  As much as I wish a sermon would flow like an English term paper I used to write in college, it doesn’t. And, I don’t think it ever will.

Sermons to me are sacred acts. Sermon writing is a conversation between God and me and whatever text I happen to have before me in a given week.

And because this is true, I can’t just “Sit down and write a sermon” the way some do. No, it really does take me the whole day to write. And I’m not just saying this because my head is buried in commentaries all day.

Rather, sermon writing for me is active. I have to do something to find meaning, to collect my words and to be in a mental space to allow it all to flow together.

So when “I’m not writing my sermon” what you might find me doing is:

– baking bread

-folding the laundry

-making myself a sandwich for lunch

-straightening up the living room

-filing the mail

– serving the web

Though many might call this procrastination, the longer I’ve been a regular preacher the more I’ve come to give myself the grace that “this is my process.” Mind you, all of these activities I do alone. This may be the key to it all: solitude (what we in our culture have so little of these days).

Getting my house in order, or baking bread for Saturday morning breakfast or even catching up with the latest news on Facebook can indeed be just what gets the holy juices flowing. Sure, there comes a point when I have to do as my fellow writing Rev friend, Ruth says, “put butt in chair and write” but until the time comes, it’s good to do other things. (I will always be thankful for the wisdom in particular of Kathleen Norris’ book, The Qutoritian Mysteries that helped me down this track back in seminary).  These others things may indeed be my work.

For after all, aren’t I preaching about a God who first said I’ll met you every time you break bread? I’ll keep baking it and cleaning my house as I keep learning how to preach week after week after week.

October 2, 2012

Ten FriendshipThoughts for Tuesday

1. Best piece of advice  I ever got about becoming an adult was- “Make good friends and keep them.”

I ran across this quote last week from Anne Lamott and posted it on Facebook. Seems to be appropriate to share here too: “It’s funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools – friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty – and said ‘do the best you can with these, they will have to do’. And mostly, against all odds, they do.”

2. In the same way, I recently heard Oprah say recently something to this effect “Some people don’t have the oxygen to make up life’s mountains with you.” Some friends are just for a season. They don’t have the oxygen to climb with you, and to make them feel bad about this is not fair to either of you. Keep climbing beside those who do. You might have to make new friends. You might need to rediscover friends from long ago,  but it is all good. The climbing partners are there. Keep your eyes open.

3. There’s always time for relationship surprises. Henri Nouwen wrote of a now-famous conversation which helped him think about this concept: “While visiting the  University of Notre Dame, where I had been a teacher for a few years, I met an older experienced professor who had spent most of his life there. And while we strolled over the beautiful campus, he said with a certain melancholy in his voice, “You know . . . my whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work.” Maybe that phone call or email or visit that you didn’t expect today could be in fact your greatest gift to give the world today . . .  something for all of us to think about.

4. Friends can be the family we most need. I give thanks this week for one of my dearest friends, Kristina whom spent a lot of time this week visiting DC with her husband and daughter. Somethings never change like the fact that folks either think we’re related or they mistake us for one another from a distance. It was fun to be called, “Kristina” this week again when a church member couldn’t tell us a part. And to finish each other’s sentences!

5.  To love someone, though is not to cling to them. Can I say how much I have loved the book, Awareness by Anthony de Mello. It’s a text that I know is not new to the world (was published in 1990) but it has been the gift that has kept on giving to my life in the past month. Every morning de Mello and I have a date and it’s wonderful! And he writes this: “Perfect love casts out fear. Where there is love there are no demands, no expectations, no dependency. I do not demand that you make me happy; my happiness does not lie in you. If you were to leave me, I will not feel sorry for myself; I enjoy your company immensely, but I do not cling.”

6. To love someone, is also to hold them close in committment. One of my favorite quotes about this, I blogged about this over a year ago, here.

7.  “You can only be as close to the heart of God as you allow your heart to be to others.” A spiritual director imparted this wisdom to me years ago. It was a season of my life when I was wrestling with how much time I spent studying for school and how much time I allowed my daily patterns to be spent with a group of people I was growing very close to. Her words encouraged me that friendship is as much of a spiritual discipline as is prayer, quiet, service, etc.

8. Can pastors be friends with parishioners? Such is a question that is frequent discussed in my clergy circles. Most of my colleagues seem to have a different opinion about it usually based on their personality, family situation and church size. I’ve come to believe that while maintaining healthy boundaries is appropriate, it’s a decision that everyone has to make for themselves. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

9. Friends are those who walk beside us and love giving the good gift of silence. Sometimes there are no words for the grossness of life that we are asked to walk through with each other.

And because one can’t get enough of Henri Nouwen on this topic, here’s another quote of his that I adore: ““When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” from The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey

10. True friends are those whom you tell the same story to at least 10 times knowing that when you need to tell the same story over for the 11th re-telling they’ll be around to hear it then too. Who says stories only need to be heard once? Thank goodness there are those who can hear us into understanding!

Here’s to hoping your life is filled with some moments to share today with those whom you call friends!

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