Thursday, April 10, 2014

Changing Holy Diapers

“Treasure each and every one of these moments, they go by so quickly.” 

What parent hasn’t heard this?  Usually from an older adult, and often when your child is having a melt down in the check out line at the Costco.  

It’s a truth no one can deny, and is often not helpful.

“It just feels like so much pressure,” one mother confided to me at church.  “Not every moment as a parent is actually cherish-able.”

Couple of things for all of us to consider then. 

Unsolicited advice; it’s usually more about the one giving it than the one getting it.  If you have the urge to give advice no one has asked for, no matter how sound, it’s probably a good opportunity for self reflection.  Who are we really speaking to? 

To the other point. 

Can you love your child without being crazy about everything having your child entails?  Like wiping noses, dirty diapers, or scraping peas off the ceiling?  

Well yes.  Of course.  Unless sleep deprivation has you a little punchy.  Being less than enamored with every aspect of parenting is pretty typical, and doesn’t mean you’re a deficient mom or dad. 

Parents in the midst of actually raising their child, often don’t make or take the time to see the big picture.  Then, out of the blue, they’ll see their child sleeping angelically and be stopped dead in their tracks at the sacredness and beauty of their child and this enterprise they’ve been called to as parents.  

Then the kid wakes up and it’s time to change another diaper.

There’s a wonderful book by Jack Kornfield called, “Enlightenment, Then The Laundry.”  The title says it all.  

Gradually, the realization dawns that these magical moments don’t really come out of the blue.  They come from all those mundane tasks that seem like drudgery.

It’s like a necklace. You can see it as individual beads, and judge the merits of each bead.  Or, you can let your perception sink deeper.  To the thread that holds them all together.   Voilá.  The necklace comes into view. 

So much of our lives are spent in dualistic thinking, judging each bead.  Prayer, contemplation, meditation, teaches us a unitive way of seeing.  It doesn’t mean we don’t have to change any more diapers.  It means that even the diapers we change are opportunities of grace.   Vehicles to a sacredness that surrounds us, all our lives.  

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Taking Worship Public

We’ve been trying something a little different for Lent this year.  Instead of scrambling to make soup, eat supper in the church basement and then have a worship devotion, our midweek Lenten devotion has gone public. 

Each Wednesday, we’ve met in a local restaurant, eaten a meal, shared readings, table discussion based on a Scripture passage, and been home in time for young kids (and old pastors) to be in bed.  

It took awhile for this idea to gel.  Finding the right spot was important.  Someplace that can seat 10 or so together to allow easy discussion.  So it can't be too noisy.   Diners work well.  Or a family restaurant.  Even a fast food restaurant can work.  Though they tend to be on the noisy side and tough for people with hearing issues.  Then there’s the ethical issue of patronizing profitable fast food chains paying an “un-living” wage to their employees. 

All of that was considered as we chose places to meet.  Once you find the right venue, you might be surprised by some of what you’ll discover.  Here’s what we found.

Taking our worship public has had two particular advantages:

It frees up time for working families to enjoy a devotional focus at midweek.  Getting the evening meal together for the family can be challenging enough.  Preparing a meal for up to 10 extra people, not to mention lugging it to church, the set up and clean up, was becoming a pressured event that achieved the exact opposite of what we were aiming for with a midweek devotion.  Going public changed all that.

The opportunity of being the church in public.  Our presence in the restaurant is a tacit invitation to the other diners to join us.  Or at least, listen in and consider the conversation.  I notice that our conversation, and indeed, our entire time together, has a more relaxed feel to it.  More natural and spontaneous.   That was a kind of an unexpected bonus. 

It's important then to make a sign identifying who you are and inviting others to join you.  And don’t structure the program too much.  Allow the Spirit room to work, enjoy the company of your church family and the presence of God among you, and know that you are almost certainly making an impression on the people around you as well as nurturing your own faith. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Discovering Your True Self

imagesLent is a season of self denial.  We take that to mean giving up sweets, or meats, or something we'd probably be better off without anyway.

Not that there is anything wrong with this.  We should probably live this way all the time, not just Lent.  So go ahead and give up something.  Make it something good.  For instance, I’m attempting to fast until evening, one day a week.  Taking the money I would have spent for food that day and giving it to Bread for the World.  Anyone care to join me?  Love to have you come along.

Just understand what we’re doing doing and why. Self denial really doesn't mean denying ourselves; something.  Cookies.  Cake.  Ice cream.  Cigarettes. Wine. Beer. Sugar and spice and everything nice.

We can deny ourselves all of that and more, but if we're still all about us and what we’re bravely sacrificing, we’ve totally missed the point.  In fact, we’re probably worse off because now we feel righteous, and superior and proud of what we’ve accomplished. We really ARE something, aren’t we!

Self-denial actually means denying ourselves ONE thing.   

Look at the temptations of Jesus during his 40 days in the wilderness.  It’s the reason we observe the 40 days of Lent in the first place.

There's a common theme running through those three temptations.  Jesus is being tempted to make it all about Jesus.

“Turn stones into bread and satisfy your hunger Jesus.”

Well, why not?  Nothing particularly wrong with that.  Jesus will do virtually the same thing when he feeds the 5,000  with a couple of loaves and a few fish.  That was a miracle.  This is a temptation.  What's the difference?

A miracle is about feeding 5000 hungry people.  A temptation is about Jesus taking matters into his own hands to feed himself after his 40 day fast. Using God as his personal ATM.

Or, throw yourself off the pinnacle of the Temple. Let’s see if God has your back, or foot as the case may be.  Better to know going in whether you can depend on God, right?  You have to watch out for number 1.

Or, bow down to your desire for fame, wealth, and power.  What glory and splendor is at your feet. Yours for the taking. If nothing else, think of all the good you could accomplish.

Isn’t that the basic fantasy everyone has walking away from the counter clutching their lottery ticket?  We envision all the people we will help if we win.  Family.  Friends. All the good we can finally do.  And a new car on the side.  Now, that's tempting!

You see where this is going.  The three temptations are really one temptation in three different forms.  What’s the point of Jesus life if it is not about Jesus?  What is the point of my life if it is not about me?  My safety, my security, my well-being, my happiness and my fulfillment?  Me, me, me, me...

Jesus denies himSELF, or at least that version of himself, and puts the period there. Today, we'd call that self “ego.” The ego-self takes center stage in the universe, does its little song and dance and waits for the applause. Gives up sugar, or chocolate, or smoking. Turns stones into bread, whole grain organic of course.  TA DA.

Jesus denies this ego-self because this is not who Jesus really is.  And it's not who we really are either.  Though we spend a tremendous amount of energy on it.  This ego-self is an illusion that leads to a dead end.  A temptation that sells us short and leaves us banging our heads against the wall.  It equates serving and self-serving.  Good with what’s good for me.

What’s the outcome of all that?  Look around.  Does today’s politics look attractive to you?  How about at the vast inequities in our society today.  The ego-self walks a a road that ends in ruin, division, animosity, accusation and blame….

But there is another self.  A more authentic version of Jesus and of us.  A self that doesn’t run everything through the filter of ‘me’.  A self that seeks wholeness and unity in loving the God who loves all things.

A self that perceives the world as God sees it, and fasts because there are too many people in our world without enough to eat.  A self that gives up some small pleasure as a gesture of connection and understanding with those who must live their lives devoid of the pleasures we take for granted.  This is the self-emptying that Paul talks about in Philippians.

You see, the ego-self we deny at Lent is not particularly awful, just like the temptations Jesus faces.  Just kind of stunted.  Not the whole picture, though we treat it as if it is, to our own detriment.  There is something better.

It’s the difference between saying your prayer and living it.  The ego-self says long and elaborate prayers. The disciplines of Lent deny this self so that we can discover a more authentic self, true to who God created us to be.

Not reciting prayers, but living prayer.  Emptying ourselves so that God may fill us.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Decision Day In Arizona

The Arizona state legislature passed a controversial bill (SB 1062) that would allow businesses to exercise "religious freedom" by denying service to anyone.  The bill is ostensibly written to target same sex couples.  At this writing, SB 1062 awaits the signature of the Arizona Governor (R) Jan Brewer.

As a religious leader, I am disgusted that political calculations like this are done behind the fig leaf of “religious freedom” and I feel compelled to speak out.  Because the only religious freedom being exercised here from a Christian standpoint, is the freedom to ignore Jesus teaching. 

Maybe the Arizona legislature was on the golf course this past Sunday, but in church, we heard Jesus point out that God does not discriminate, sending the sun to shine upon the just and the unjust alike (Matthew 5:45).  Something the Arizona legislature should be extremely grateful for at this point.

Gov. Brewer, your state legislature has already caused enough pain to same sex couples and shame to the state of Arizona.  I hope you will do what your legislature didn’t.  Go to the window.  Look at the beautiful sun drenched landscape of your lovely state.

If you do, you’ll know what to do with SB 1062.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

So, You Wanna Get To Heaven?

_1KN3600“We are saved by grace through faith, apart from works of law.”  As Lutherans, we get a little choked up when we hear those words, you’ll just have to excuse us. 

Martin Luther lifted this little gem from Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, and it became the lynchpin of the Lutheran Reformation.

For the benefit of the non-Lutherans out there (and probably more than a couple of Lutherans too), Lutherans have always taken this to mean that we don’t earn our salvation by doing good deeds (works of law), or even by being good.

Salvation is ours purely out of the grace of God.   Furthermore, God’s grace becomes real in our lives by faith, which is just another way of saying, by trusting it.

Powerful stuff.  And, just a bit counter-intuitive.  Even Santa Claus knows if you’ve been bad or good.  And ever since we ran to our stockings on Christmas morning and breathed a sigh of relief—no coal—we’ve been taught through a system of external punishments and rewards.

Justice is when actions and consequences match up the way they’re supposed to.  Injustice (and grace too ironically) is when they don’t.

Grace is being rewarded when we don’t deserve it.   Injustice is being punished when we don’t deserve it.

This kind of “grace-talk” makes people, and institutions, very nervous.  Grace means institutions lose their leverage and grace means we do too.  Institutions will build elaborate schemes to channel grace and make it behave.  So do we, because trusting grace feels like leaving an awful lot to chance.  Very risky.  We'd rather hedge our bet with a couple of good deeds.

If actions and consequences are out the window when it comes to the most important question any of us will face—where will we spend eternity—then what?   Why be good if there is no payoff?   Why not be rotten to the core if there is no punishment?   Either way, I’m going to heaven!?!

I’m not sure I want to go to Disney World if the losing team gets to go too.

But that’s the whole point!  Saved by grace is not about going to heaven.  It’s about how we’re going to live right now!

You want to win a million dollars?  Here, it’s yours!  Now what are you going to do?

You want to be loved despite how broken and unlovable you feel most times?  Here, you’re loved! Unequivocally and absolutely!  Now, what are you going to do?

You want to get to heaven?  Here, you’re going!  Now what are you going to do?  

Saved by grace, through faith is really just another way of saying, “ball’s in your court, now what?”

People who get that and trust God’s grace,  behave in life affirming ways for the same reasons lottery winners buy new cars.

Grace-led people open their hearts to those who are different, they take big risks, they fail more times than not, and find its true, its all true.  Heaven isn’t some far off thing.  Heaven begins here.  Trusting God’s grace means living with one foot inside the Pearly Gates right now!

Or, to put it another way.  Salvation isn’t so much God’s plan to get you to Heaven when you die some day.  Salvation is God’s plan to get Heaven to you today, so you can live!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Purity Of The Heart

images-3“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”   Matthew 5:8

An unexpected snow fell last night.  Not much.  Just about an inch.  It turned frigid again too.  Temperatures in the low teens made the snow light and fluffy.  Picture perfect, like a department store display.

After I walked the dogs, I went back out to shovel.  Before the snow got packed down.  Mine were still the only foot prints on the sidewalk.  The only marks in the thin white blanket that fell across boundaries and fences and property lines and stitched a single tapestry of our neighborhood.

It’s easy to see God in this iconic image of purity.  The driven snow.  Blinding in its purity before it is toned down by life.  The cars of people on their way to work.  More footsteps from dog walkers and kids on their way to school after the 2 hour delay today.  The sun rising higher in the sky, reducing this white blanket bit by bit.

That’s the trouble with purity.  It doesn’t hold up well.  Our images of God can be as fragile and fleeting.  Ruined by something as innocent and necessary as a man walking his dogs early as the pink sun breaks over the trees.

The snow is easy to clear.  It’s not the heavy snow we usually get here in Northern Virginia, that pushes back belligerently against the shovel and feels like a load of cement when you try to lift it.  This snow is agreeable.  Co-operative.  It yields happily to the shovel and I am able to clear the walks quickly. Except for the white footprints, where I stepped this morning, left on the cleared sidewalk like a very boring Arthur Murray dance step routine.

At the edge of the property, I look back over my work and see the traces of my steps from when the world was clean and unspoiled.  But it’s not despoiled landscape.  A different purity has emerged.  The purity of cleared sidewalks, and straight lines, waiting to receive more walkers, more footsteps to join mine, that mine may disappear into something larger.

I see the purity that Jesus means. Not the purity of the pristine.  I see the purity of labor.  The purity of care.  The purity that allows the passing footsteps of God to be clearly seen.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

In Praise Of Serpents And Sheep

“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”   (Matthew 10:16)

Jesus defines two things for his followers; their reality (sheep among wolves), and the proper response to reality (wise as serpents and innocent as doves).   

The reality description goes without say for most of us.  Goodness seems overmatched and on the run just about everywhere.  The stream of daily news offers ample proof of that every night.  I don’t need to rehash that here.

It’s the response that Jesus lays out that I find most important.  Wise as serpents and innocent as doves.  First the fact that Jesus pairs these things and then goes on to give the serpent top billing.   Bet you didn’t see that coming. 

The wise serpents I’ve known have been anything but innocent and the doves have been anything but wise.   Rarely do you find these two things together.   

In fact, in the church especially, there is almost an implicit expectation that doves will disown their inner serpent.   In the world, vice versa.  We like things neat and clean.  More than anything else, the expectation that things be neat and clean has done more damage than all the serpents and all the wolves combined.

Jesus was always bringing opposing concepts together.  Sheep and wolves, serpents and doves.  The mark of faithful discipleship (authentic living) is found in the interplay between opposing realities.  Not in how well one reality dominates the other. 

The truth is not in the sheep, nor is it in the wolf.  Not in the dove, nor the serpent.   Sheep, wolf, dove, serpent; all are blessed.  The truth is in how well these opposing realities coexist and find a home in us.   How well we integrate and incorporate them into our lives. 

Could it be that Jesus is saying that this is the mark of faithful discipleship?  That this is what Jesus expects from us?  

Or in other words, in these polarized times when orthodoxies everywhere have run amok, faithful people, by the standards Jesus lays out, are marked not by how much they reject, but by how much and how many they can manage to bring together.   

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Lost Afternoon

Yesterday was a lost day.  No, I didn’t come down with amnesia.  I wasn’t wandering the "Alice in Wonderland" streets of DC.

seda-cars-peopleI spent the day at the Nissan dealership buying out the lease on our car.

You’d think that would be a pretty straightforward process.  Sign a few things, shake a few hands, and on your way.  Ha.

No, our car had to be inspected first. I was told I needed new tires to pass inspection.  I pointed out that if Nissan didn’t put such crappy tires on their cars in the first place, I wouldn’t need tires after 25,000 miles, but thank you, I knew that and would be stopping for new tires on my way home.

“Oh, we can do that here,” they said.

“Oh, how nice,” I said.

My Odyssey had now begun.

I spent the rest of the afternoon shuttling from person to person.  I saw the service manager, the salesman, the lease specialist, the appraiser, the business manager, back to sales, back to service.  I learned their first names.  I met the cleaning people.

Now it worked out OK.  In fact, everyone was very polite and courteous.  They all apologized continually about the process and thanked profusely me for my patience at every opportunity.

I was given a loaner because they kept our car overnight to do the tires and alignment.  Which could be considered pretty devious once I'd already decided to keep the old car.  But that's another story.

The bottom line is that despite spending a lost day, and now a follow up later today to get the car back, the end result was good.  Took a while to get there, but here we are.

It was like having the flu for a day.  At least you get to choose which day.  And on the bright side, nothing can make you quite as grateful for an ordinary gray Wednesday afternoon in January, as driving away from a car dealership with a fat envelope of carbon copies and a complimentary pen.  This must be what a caught and released bass feels like!

I couldn’t help but wonder though, while I was wading through this process, if this kind of paper work, background checking, DMV statements, papers signed to verify that I signed other papers, is what you go through to get a gun?

And, if not, why not?