Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Past Two (and a half) Weeks: a reflection based on 1 John 3 (by Josh)

Preached at Christian Union, August 17 2014

The past few weeks have been nothing like I’ve ever experienced, as you all can imagine, and as many of you can relate. Personally speaking, just to be honest to my church family here, I have experienced the highest joys and hopes and have dreamed the deepest dreams, and I have felt great darkness, great fear, frustration. …The first week of Joey’s life was a whirlwind of energy, as the adrenaline of becoming a new father was like a drug to me, I didn’t need more than an hour or two of sleep a night, I was mesmerized by this fascinating little man that wasn’t here and was suddenly here, and didn’t care about much else. The second week, fatigue began to hit me hard; now in the third week, all those crazy emotions have risen to the surface, and so right now, if I’m honest, I’ve been having trouble parsing through it all—which is something I’m not really used to. 

So you’ll forgive me, I hope, if what follows here isn’t a neat and tidy, systematic sermon with a clear point or two--- because right now where I am, I feel like the most authentic thing that I can offer you all, my church family, are the raw thoughts I have that are giving me hope right now--- as I’ve been reflecting on the third chapter of 1st John the past couple of weeks…. Because, every New Testament author has their own “pet phrases” and key ideas, and for the writer John, one of his favorites is to see the church as the “children of God.” – Really it’s another way to say “family of God” which is how we often speak of church, but “children” has a certain connotation, that understandably, I find appealing right now! – And so I’ll reflect here… and as my thoughts revolve around Joey Dae, so will the thoughts I offer. But I hope that as you listen for the next few minutes, you’ll reflect along with me, and consider for yourselves what  these words and ideas offer you and your family, on this day. 

…. So here we go…

1 John 3:1-2

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.

This is the Good News of Jesus’ Mission for John: Join in heart and mind to Christ, and become part of this new family. We became a new family, a new kind of family, at midnight on July 31st, 2014—the culmination of nine months of persistent nausea, 15 weeks of bedrest…not to mention that little thing called labor. Of course it isn’t all resolved at that point like it is in the movies; there is hardly a breath to take between our former life and the start of our new one with our beloved child. Yet thankfully at our hospital we had 15 minutes. Immediately after emerging, the nurse quickly wiped Joey up and placed him, stomach down, onto Amy’s chest and stomach. And his wild, uncomprehending eyes that darted about, immersed with light for the first time, his little lungs filled with those first breaths of air and the cries that go with them… within a minute he settled again, feeling Amy’s warmth, her skin, her heartbeat that only a few minutes prior was the metronome of his existence. And I placed my hand on his back, to feel for the first time his soft, frail skin. People have described that feeling of becoming a parent to me, none of it does it justice. It’s not an elation--- for me at least, it was a feeling beyond feeling. All I know, is that in that moment, I disappeared from my own eyes; he was all my eyes could see--- him and Amy, who struggled so mightily to bring him into the world, so that I could meet him. That moment will always remain with me… a sublime moment that came to an end, perhaps appropriately, with Joey deciding to take his first bathroom break, even as he continue to lay there so peacefully. We’re hoping that this isn’t an ominous sign of things to come.

What could Joey know in those first moments? We are born social creatures; it’s how we are made, I believe. We need each other. Never is that more clear than in the first moments of life… Joey’s eyes sought his mother’s, looking for her voice, long muffled to his ears, how heard clearly for the first time. We are called Children of God; like Joey, how much of this do we truly comprehend? Can we even begin to understand this? John seems to question this. We are spiritually, typically, like infants, struggling to see and hear. In a world full of noises and blinding lights, distractions and preoccupations, God can be easy to miss, as we’ve talked about many many times before here. Yet if we listen we can hear, perhaps especially in those moments where we feel most vulnerable, cold or afraid, or simply unknowing… the voice we recognize deep in our bones, as the voice of Unconditional Love and Acceptance, of a loving Mother who never tires or fatigues of looking into our eyes, letting us rest our heads on her chest. 

See what love this Father, this Mother, has for us. We don’t always, but sometimes we feel like newborns, frail and confused. Thankfully the “knowing” God, that John talks about, isn’t about head knowledge. Despite what the bookstores say, you can’t read a book or study your way into being a good spouse, or a good parent or good child. Likewise we can’t study our way into loving God. But in our most feeble, vulnerable moments, to simply rest our heads, to look towards the faint sound of grace—well this is the place to start, and is the place to which we can always return, and in it, we can re-discover the resilience of God’s love, that is a Given, simply by our sheer, beautiful existence, that cannot be undone.

8Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. 9Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. 10The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.
11For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 

The devil, and demons, are personifications of the evil in our world… that is, it is how the ancient, and especially medieval and pre-modern, church communities imagined spiritual evil. And while there may not be a literal creature with red horns and a pitchfork that tricks people into signing their souls away, spiritual evil is a reality. There are “powers” at work in our world, however you want to understand them—and our modern biases against talk of angels and demons shouldn’t dissuade our acknowledgment of this. We see Powers, in the world--- whenever peaceful protests and otherwise-loving people become fearful and angry mobs, or whenever police officers charged with upholding peace act out of fear and anger against those they're charged to protect---whenever inertia lulls affluent yet otherwise-loving people of faith into stagnation and disinterest about the worldwide poor and oppressed, or when otherwise-loving people become members of Gestapos and KKKs and Al Qaedas and Boko Harams. (All people who by the way were once infants, all of whom remain children of God.).... Powers also rear their ugly heads in our psyches, in our souls, in our old wounds that scab over, but years later are ripped back open… our deeply personal, irrational, anxieties, fears, loneliness, that those external Powers often exploit for their own cause. 

As the great patriarch of the church Augustine would say, all of these things, these inner and outer voices can turn our hearts, which are made to love and be loved, towards ourselves and towards self-preservation or dominance, as was the case in that ancient story of Cain and Abel---- or, sometimes, we lose sight of love altogether, as was clearly the case of Robin Williams, whose recent passing has personally struck me very hard. Timothy Radcliffe is a well-known spiritual writer, and I had the pleasure of being his teaching assistant a few weeks ago while he taught a one-week night course at BC--- and he spoke of Christian love as both Eros and Agape--- that is, both an intimacy, and a self-giving. Both a giving, AND receiving. In love we both delight in the other, and also allow the other to exist on their own terms, to not dominate or control them. Another spiritual writer I like, Miroslav Volf, talks about it as both an embrace, AND a letting go… followed by a re-opening of the arms to start the cycle again, to take the risk to open oneself up, but to have the patience to wait for the other to receive you. If we ONLY give--- we debase ourselves… If we ONLY receive, we are only using each other for our own sakes. In either case, we either misplace love, or forget love, and the Powers consume us. It’s a delicate balance. 

Right after our 15 minute-old Joey gave Amy his own messy salutation, I got to cut his cord. I tried to see this as an act of love, in the way I could show love in that moment, as much as Amy holding him to her skin was. We were embracing him, and also, letting him go. He couldn’t stay in the womb forever; to try to keep him there, safe as he may have seemed, would have not been truly loving. He now needed space to think, see, discover, and dream for himself. To begin the long journey of becoming. 

It’s not an easy way to think…. It’s even harder to think this way once you become a parent, I’ve discovered… because infants are wholly dependent upon you, and can only begin to “understand” your love, on an almost primal level, by your presence, your touch, your responsiveness. And as I mentioned before, especially in the beginning, your desire to give your whole self, for the sake of your child, seems almost, dare I say, easy. (That is, until your body and mind remind you of your limits.) To protect forever, to coddle, to shelter against all germs, boogymen, traffic, against all pain, all difficulty, to hope and pray for an easy and contented life--- this all makes a lot of sense to me suddenly. 

But even as we embrace, we know that cutting cords will also be a part of this journey we’re on with him. For otherwise, what we claim is our love for him, will actually be our anxiety, our fears, in disguise. I’m not sure if I’ve ever felt the kind of crippling anxiety that I’ve felt in the past few weeks. Helping Amy through these past few months, being with her through her labor, all seemed like cake, in comparison to having to let doctors examine Joey, even to let others hold him…. To learn to be okay with leaving him during the day so that I can do my work. This is me learning how to love him—even now, I have to let go, even as I continue to embrace him too.

God loves us, and holds us, but does not possess us, he does not cling to us out of his anxiety, but allows us space and freedom to be, to grow. Living according to this love, is to do “right”, to be “righteous,” --- to love one another. This is the way of the Community of God that Jesus formed, in which glimpses of heaven appear on earth.

One final, short reflection:
16We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action…
 23And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.24All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

This ‘laying down’ is the self-giving agape love that marks the Beloved Community, the Family of God, we as God’s children. Children of Love. For John, our journey as Children of God into spiritual adulthood begins with our clinging to God, as he says, “abiding” with him, even in our unknowing, our limited vision for what God is up to in us, and in the world. Over time, as we engage in the great dance of Love with God, who embraces and lets go, we become God-shaped lovers, who loves as God loves, with compassion and utter lack of possessiveness. 

This journey, this growing into who we were made to be, isn’t a straightforward one. It isn’t always pretty. And all the while good and evil powers and people are at work, either pulling us towards or away from growth. But it’s an illusion to think that once we “grow up,” we stop growing. The journey Joey has begun, will never be complete. To fancy ourselves as “grown”, fully matured, with all the answers in life and faith, is actually to atrophy. Like a muscle that, once it stop being used, begins to shrink and lose strength, so our souls, our capacities to love, can shrink. And so how do we continue to boldly face the journey? 

The way I am working on right now, as a new parent, is to engage in the prayer, the spiritual practice, of trying my best to see every moment of life as a gift. In the fleeting moments we have with Joey in his newborn stage, every moment is a gift. For life is infused with God’s grace. Everything is given, we possess nothing. The great Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez calls this God’s gratuitousness. 

Watching Joey sleep, hearing him coo, feeling him snuggle into our arms--- it’s pretty easy to see the gift there.  But the 2am feedings? The seemingly insatiable wails? Diaper changes? … during which Joey has a penchant to constantly kick alternately with both legs, full force? --- (He’s gonna be a soccer star. Or a karate champion, not sure which.) The gift might seem a little harder to find. And yet it’s there! My boy is telling me what he feels and wants. He can’t put it into words yet, so he communicates however he can—lungs, hands, feet. He’s telling me what’s wrong, he’s putting his trust in me to solve his problems. I’m probably gonna long for these days when he’s 15 and giving me the silent treatment. --- Every moment is a gift. 

Some moments of life are, of course, even harder—even seemingly impossible—to find grace. We know tragedy and heartbreak in our own lives. We know tragedy and despair in our world—in Gaza, in Honduras and along the U.S./Mexican border. When people blame God for the evil actions of humans and the powers they helped create, or for natural disasters, we misunderstand how God wills and acts in our world; we box God into an image that conforms to our own limited imaginations. But God’s spirit, does WILL the good, constantly and steadily. And God is, as I like to say, in the redemption business. Just as in the cross, God took what appeared by all accounts to be the most horrifying end to Jesus and his Beloved Community, and redeemed that moment, as a moment of love at its most visible, a love that can even defeat death.

And so even suffering, even as it remains suffering, can also have threads of grace that carry us through the suffering into new hope. Precious children: let us love as God loves, not with words or speech, but in truth and action. For every moment is gift: in the Spirit of renewal he has given us, as we walk the road, as we journey the journey, as we abide. 

  • "The thing for which I would pray above all others, would be for ever to behold his face, for ever to lay my head upon his breast, for ever to know that I am his, for ever to dwell with him." 
                            – C Spurgeon

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Jacob & Esau - Is reconciliation merely a pipe dream?

When we were growing up, if you had asked my mother if my sister and I would ever get along, she would have sighed and said, “Oh goodness, I hope so…but, that will be a miracle of God.” In many ways we were like day and night…and in other ways, we are annoyingly alike. But, oh we could argue for the sake of argument. I don’t think it really mattered what we argued about. We would just argue to disagreeing. It was our version of an Olympic sport. There were usually tears and my mother was often dragged into the middle of the arguments to serve as the referee.

During the summers, we would spend a month with my grandparents. Those were some of the best parts of summer. Grandparents are just good people. One afternoon, my grandfather took us to run errands and we stopped at King’s Ice Cream and Candy to get Root Beer Floats. This was a huge treat. No sooner had we sat down with our delicious floats then my grandfather spotted a friend. His friend came over to say hello. As they chatted we began to bicker… over important things like who was drinking their float faster. I’m not sure how long we bickered but when we got back into the car, my grandfather was very quiet for a long time, finally he said to us, “I have never been more embarrassed in my life.”  We were both ashamed.

Sibling conflict is the theme of the relationship between Jacob and Esau. While Rebekah was still pregnant, her children struggled with in her. As the text tells us, She had a vision from the Lord which told her that her sons would be two divided peoples and the younger would be more powerful than his brother. When it came time for them to be born, Esau was born first but as he was pulled from her, Jacob, his brother, was grasping his heel. The brothers fought for the position of honor in the family even though by custom, the higher position belonged to Esau since he was eldest. The boys struggled and their parents chose sides. Isaac sided with Esau and Rebekah sided with Jacob. Their attempts to best the other seemed ceaseless. Esau was impetuous and bombastic, he was a skilled hunter and possessed impressive physical strength. Jacob was the quiet plotter. He could not compete with his brother through strength so he sharpened his wit and used trickery and deceit to best Esau.

As the story goes, Esau came in from a long hunting trip and was famished to the point of death. All the while, Jacob had been cooking a delicious Lentil Stew. When Esau smelled the stew, he asked Jacob for a bowl. Instead of giving his brother a bowl of stew, Jacob offered to sell his brother a bowl of stew. For the low, low price of his birthright. Basically, Esau gave Jacob the status and position of the eldest child in exchange for dinner. In turn, Jacob flees his home and family to escape the wrath of his brother.

We shake our head at this seemingly meaningless family conflict. It could be easy to wonder why they could not just get along, why their parents didn’t give them the talking to that they needed to straighten out their foolishness. Yet, it almost seems as if these types of conflicts are encoded in our DNA. Just as these brothers, and perhaps many of us, experience conflict on the micro level, We need not look far to see larger versions of these same conflicts.

On Shabbat in June of 1998 a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews attacked a group of American Conservative Jews at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Both groups had gathered to pray. The first group objected to the fact that the second group was comprised of men and women who prayed together.

This June, our sister denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA met for their national meeting known as General Assembly. During this meeting they GA voted to allow pastors to perform and bless same sex unions at the discretion of the church leadership and congregations. As a result, churches inside the denomination who are unhappy with the decision are pursuing legal action to leave the denomination. The emotions and convictions of each side are so elevated that neither side is talking to the other.

These battles echo the struggle between Jacob and Esau within the womb…within life. Two factions who should be one are fighting one another for power and position. These people who are part of one another’s identity spend their time tearing one another down and seeking the destruction of the other in the name of faith, in the name of goodness, in the name of God and true belief.  John Calvin reminds us, “No one can be injurious to his brother without wounding God himself.”
These battles choke the life out of our spirits leaving us bloodied, bruised and looking for favor with our God who has born in himself the depths of the wounds we have inflicted on one another.

It can seem as if there is no conflict as bitter, as painful, or wounding as a family feud. The sting from these battles lingers. The memories haunt us in our quiet moments. It is amazing how closely related the emotions love and hate can be to one another. In these situations, what are to do? Do we stay and fight, stand our ground and try to convince the other? Is the solution to cut off contact? Is reconciliation merely a pipe dream? Will we always be left, pointing our gun at the other refusing to lay ours down until they lay down theirs?

Norman J Cohen suggests that reconciliation between Jacob and Esau was possible precisely because they were part of each other’s identity. They were like two halves of a whole, and each needed what the other had. Esau needed the patience and forethought of Jacob, while Jacob needed the position and strength of Esau. Each was identified by his relationship with the other. They could never escape the bond that connected them.

In Romans 8, Paul reminds us that it is not a belief in reconciliation is not a hopeless, pipe dream. He explains that the Good News is found in the fact that these battles and wars of the flesh cannot and will not have the last word if we walk in the Spirit of Christ. In Paul’s metaphor, if we put these family feuds into the category of failings of the flesh, then it is not a failing to which we are hopelessly bound. It is a failing that we are set free from by the Spirit of Christ. Paul says it this way, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit who is alive inside of you.” (Romans 8:11) When Paul talks about the failing of the flesh, he is referring that capacity inside all of us toward strife and fractured relationships. We see this tendency in the story of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. We see it in the story of Jacob and Esau. We see it in our own lives and relationships. We even see it in our relationship with God. As our relationships fracture and as those fractures grow, we can feel helpless to repair them.  As the gulf grows wider and the relationship grows messier, our hope for a different outcome, our hope for reconciliation grows dimmer and dimmer. St Paul reminds us that there is hope: these relationship conflicts, these family feuds that crush the Spirit and leave gaping wounds can be healed. “The rule of the Spirit of Life is in Christ.” And that Spirit, will set us free from all that kills and destroys.

As Cohen suggests, it may just be in the flesh itself, in the interweaving identity among siblings, among the children of God, that the potential for being instruments of God’s grace resides. It is in our very being, created in God’s own image, to reflect the divine grace of God in our relationships. Christ offers us this freedom so that old injuries may be healed. Christ offers us the freedom to embrace our profound connectedness through relationship.

If you are thinking to yourself that this is not an easy road, you are correct. The road to reconciliation is painful. It asks you to humbly open your life instead of protecting your old scars and wounded pride. It invites you to try again and again as you relentlessly believe that change can happen. The Good News is that you are not alone on this difficult path, in fact it is on this path that you find you walk the road of Christ.

Monday, June 30, 2014

On That Windy Mountain

I imagine the day was dark. Surely the sky was cloudy and ominous as Abraham and Isaac made their way up the mountain. I imagine Abraham fighting against the force of the wind and the weight of his own dread with every step. He was arguing inside himself the whole way up the mountain. Surely it took every bit of his strength to trudge up the mountain – step by step by step. I imagine the sinking feeling that settled in the pit of his stomach as they arrived at the place for the alter. There was no more stalling; all that was left was to build the alter and offer the sacrifice.

The story of “The Binding of Isaac” is not an easy one to digest. For most of us, it does not leave us uplifted in the way we might be after remembering the story of Daniel in the Lion’s Den or David and Goliath or Jesus feeding the 5,000. Naturally we like to focus on the ending where God sent the angel and a ram to spare Isaac. But, even with the happier ending, I contend with the nagging questions that ask:

Why was Abraham even taking Isaac up there in the first place?
What kind of terrible neglectful parent would think God would ask them to sacrifice their child?
We call this man the Father of many nations? He almost killed his son Isaac, after sending his other son to die in the desert.

On the surface it seems difficult to give Abraham much of a pass. We might gloss over the terrible parts in our sermons and Bible studies because everything worked out in the end, but the layers of this story are filled with darkness and despair. We cannot help but think Abraham found himself in a situation we would never dare to consider.

Of course there are some who will point to the beginning of the story and say, God did tell Abraham to sacrifice the child whom he loved. This line of thinking could lead us to believe that surely Abraham misunderstood God. After all, would God really ever ask a parent to sacrifice their child? This does not jive with our understanding of Jesus who stretched out his arms and welcomed all the little children. On the other hand, one might point to the theological argument that reminds us that God has bigger purposes and plans and since God spared Isaac, the point was probably just to test Abraham’s faithfulness. For all I know, this is the exact reason Abraham found himself placing his beloved child on an alter on top of a mountain. My only niggling question is, didn’t God already know the faithfulness and lack of faithfulness of Abraham? We believe that God sees and knows the depths of us, surely God saw into the depth of Abraham. Besides that, Abraham had been on this crazy journey with God for at least 30 years when God asked him to leave his home and family and everyone he knew and loved to go to a random place in the desert. Surely God had a full understanding of Abraham’s level of faith and obedience.

The context of this narrative offers the reminder that Abraham lived in a time and a place when it was perfectly acceptable to sacrifice one’s child to their deity. This was a part of religious service/devotion for many. No one was looking at those parents and calling CPS or even calling their decisions into question. These sacrifices were normal and lauded. I cannot help but wonder if one of the points God was making to Abraham was to offer him even more evidence of how God is different than the deities worship by surrounding peoples. God is the giver of good gifts, the keeper of promises, and one who values all life. God’s actions and interactions stem from deep love and goodness. Of course belief in God requires sacrifice but the sacrifices God requires are often different than what we expect or what seems normal.

Writer and speaker, Will Willimon tells a story about teaching this biblical narrative to children. He showed them an impressive video depiction of the account. When it was over he asked the children if they knew what sacrifice meant? One little girl raised her hand and said, “My mommy and daddy are doctors. They help sick people to be better. Every day they do operations to help people.”

Willimon was not quite sure the little girl grasped the concept of sacrifice and asked her to tell why she believed that was sacrifice.

The girl continued by explaining, “And I go to the day care center after school. Sometimes on Saturdays too. Mommy and Daddy want to take me home, but they are busy helping sick people -- so lots of times I stay at the center. Sometimes on Sunday mornings we have pancakes, though.”

He said that all the children in the room nodded their heads because they understood.

In his reflection on the conversation, Willimon remarked, “How odd that we who make our homes and plant our gardens under the shadow of the mushroom cloud, who regularly discard our innocents in sacrifices to far lesser gods than Yahweh, should look condescendingly upon Abraham. No stranger to the ways of the real God, Abraham would know that a mad, disordered, barbaric age needs more than a faith with no claim but that its god can be served without cost.”

I sometimes wonder if we get so caught up in pointing to God’s goodness that we forget that there is a cost that comes with faith. Our faith in God is not something that simply enriches our life in much the same way as exercise, or reading, or making sure to eat our veggies. Abraham was willing to pay a price but the payment his sacrifice also missed the point. In response to the question, what does God require?  We hear the echo of the prophet Micah who says: Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

We willingly make sacrifices for many other little gods: work, comfort, the perception of others, the list goes on and on but those are not the sacrifices of true faith.

Faith requires us to consider what is just for the world and the people who live in it?
Faith teaches us that if we want to say we possess any type of love we express it through kindness to all.

Faith reminds us that like Christ, we put on humility to walk with God. Like Christ we notice the needs of others instead of seeking to secure honor and garner favor. 

The sacrifice that is required is ourselves. Matthew reminds us of Jesus teaching, “If you want to save your life you will lose it but those who lose their lives in service to me will actually gain it.” (Matthew 16:25) 

Where are the places we willingly sacrifice?
Do they do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God?
Is there one area where we are more comfortable in our sacrifice than others?

Sacrifice requires us to step out of ourselves and onto the windy mountain. Sacrifice can seem scary and ominous but, perhaps, like Abraham, on that dark and windy mountain we will also meet God.

Monday, June 23, 2014

I See You -

The story of Sarah and Abraham and Hagar and Ishmael is on that fills me with great sadness. It is a complicated story fraught with human emotion that reminds us how our understandings of life and cultural expectations and faith can become knotted up and lead to unnatural, unhealthy, and devastating situations. I suspect that we often read this story and immediately identify characters in this way:

Abraham = the great patriarch of faith
Sarah = the great matriarch of faith
Hagar = the pesky other woman

It isn’t much of a leap for us to arrive at these definitions…especially those of us who have grown up steeped in the stories of our faith. After all, Abraham and Sarah are the parents of Isaac, the promised and longed for child.

As I read this tale, my heart reaches out to Hagar. I want to weep on behalf of her situation. You see, as much as we want to paint her as “the other woman,” “the mistress,” “the whore of pre-Babylon” she did not have much say about her situation. She was a slave in a culture that did not recognize our cultural understandings of marriage, partnership, and fidelity. She was their property and they could do with her what they liked.

As a result of decisions made on her behalf, Hagar finds herself and her child alone in the wilderness without water or food. How does she protect her child from wild animals? How does she look into his hungry eyes and tell him there is nothing to eat or drink? What does a woman do in the midst of loneliness and desperation as her heart breaks with in her?

There are simply no words.

So, Hagar, hides her son under a bush. Maybe she is protecting him from the dehydrating effects of the sun…maybe she simply cannot bear to watch him die. In the midst of her despair, she sits watch over her child as she weeps and prays.

But, God breaks into her weeping – God speaks into her silence, “I see you… I see you….I see you.”  Then, God takes Hagar over to her son, looks into her eyes and says, “Do not be afraid. Hold him tight.” As the mother holds her child, her eyes are opened in a new way and she sees a fountain of life giving water.

We do not know much more about the story of Hagar and Ishmael but we do know that God saw them and they lived.

I know a woman who grew up attending church. Zoey was involved in summer camps and mission trips and youth group. She and her boyfriend were leaders – others saw them as super Christians. But, as often happens with high school relationships, they broke up. The dissolution of a long term relationship is difficult for a couple and even more difficult when it seems as if a church community is taking sides, making judgments, and casting blame. (These types of situations make for the best sorts of gossip) Anyway, Zoey bore the brunt of the blame. She was shunned by the community of people she once knew as friends and suddenly had no place inside the only church family she had ever known. Whether the community would have recognized it or not, Zoey was heart broken, cast out, and left alone.

Like the story of Hagar, Zoey’s story breaks my heart.

For those of us who might have readily identified with Sarah, we must ask ourselves, “Who we are casting out?” We must consider how our own actions (intentional and unintentional), judgments, jealousies, and false piety can result in another being left for dead in the wilderness. While we often look at Sarah as the matriarch of our faith, in Hagar’s story she (and Abraham) is the one who casts out. In Hagar’s story, Sarah (and Abraham) is the villain. Do our own insecurities make us into the villain? Do they keep us from reaching out the hand of love? And that’s the challenge, isn’t it?

The other truth is, many of us have been to the wilderness. We have run out of water and sat alone feeling utterly hopeless. The greatest challenge is to follow the finger of God to the life giving water. It is truly more difficult than it sounds. When we feel desperate and helpless, it is natural to close our eyes and hearts to anything except what is dying in front of us. It is natural to wrap ourselves in grief and hold tightly to it because it seems that our grief is all that remains. Yet, if you dare to open your ears, you might be able to hear the voice of God through God’s messenger saying, “I see you. I see you. I see you.” No matter how we might feel, no one is invisible to God.

I do not have easy answers about loneliness and suffering.  I have lived on both sides – I have been both Sarah and Hagar. I have been the cause of the loneliness of others and I have felt the sting of loneliness myself. The reality is that it is not as simple as just drawing a line and standing on one side or the other. I have walked in the shoes of both women. What I do know is that whether we find ourselves in the situation of Sarah or Hagar, we have been seen by God. If we understand what it means when God says, “I see you – all of you,” then we have a taste of how important it is for us to be God’s messenger who turns to see others.   

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Worry and Rest

True Confessions: I am a list maker. Yes, I am one of those people. In fact, I probably fit into the category of one of those “sick” list makers since I derive great pleasure from scratching things off my to-do list. I actually put easy tasks on my list just so I can check them off. Who else includes “eat breakfast,” “make coffee,”  “get dressed” or “make bed” on their to-do lists? Me. I feel like the day gets off to a great start when I can immediately check several things off my list. Making a list helps me to feel organized, it helps my day to run more smoothly, and it helps my sometimes-forgetful nature. Of course, there is a shadow side to these seemingly helpful lists. This darker side involves creating tasks to add to my list so I will feel busy and important. Everyone knows that the busier one is, the more important and valuable they are.

There are several problems with this line of thinking. If one gains value from their ability to stay busy and accomplish, what happens when they are no longer able to go and do and be and accomplish? What happens when a person becomes physically limited by age or a medical condition? Is the woman who tears a ligament in her ankle and finds her movement limited for months and months of less value than one who is not injured? Is the man who finds his strength has been slowly eroded by time of less value than those who are young and strong? What about the woman who spends weeks and weeks in bed due to pregnancy complications? Is she a less capable mother than the women who paint her child’s nursery, assembles their furniture, organize their clothes, work and attend aerobics classes until that child pops out? This line of thinking points to our own self-evaluations, our own self-perceptions, our own ability to love appreciate and accept ourselves, but also to a broader cultural dynamic and sickness that places “value” on humans based upon productivity/or the lack there of instead recognizing one another as created in the Divine image.

This morning, our lectionary kicks off the season of Ordinary Time by remind us of two important truths. 1) Our value is derived because we are created by God - in the image of God. 2) God rested.

Have you read the creation accounts lately? Take a moment and read the poetic account that beautifully personifies God’s presence in the midst of creation and serves as a reminder of God’s love and care for all humans: Genesis 1:1-2:4.

And God created Humankind in God’s own image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female, God created them.[1]  As people, our value is solely derived from the fact that we are Godbearers, as Christians, we are little Christs. This means that our living and being and moving is the light of God in the darkness, together as community we are the bread and the cup which makes up the Body of Christ. There is nothing apart from this that gives us greater value. We only have to accept this is where our value comes from and then live. If the living part seems daunting to you, do not worry, the Spirit of God lives in the world and helps us, reminds us, and empowers us. Hello Pentecost!

If our value is no longer derived from our accomplishments then we are free to let out the breath we have been holding. We are free to cease from our busyness and rest. We rest inside community when we gather to worship. We rest in our homes or in the nature that surrounds us, and when we can bring stillness to our minds, we rest inside our selves. We can put aside our lists and worries and exhale. We rest because we are not ultimately in charge, no matter what we say and despite our actions to the contrary, we do not possess ultimate control. That is God’s job. We must not confuse our role of Godbearers for actually being the Divine who creates and sustains.

The other night, I woke up at 3:07a. It might have been earlier than that but it was 3:07 when I finally looked at  the clock on my phone. As I lay in bed, my mind raced from subject to subject worrying and fretting and trying to find solutions and answers to problems that I cannot solve and questions I cannot answer. My grandfather always offered the reminder that one should pray during middle of the night worries but it is quite difficult to pray when one is busy trying to do God’s job.

As people of God we are quick to talk about the Sabbath. We are quick to remember the commandment about remembering the Sabbath and keeping it Holy. Most of our school-aged children can even tell you that on the 7th day of Creation, God rested. When it comes down to it, we all have our own little ways in which we wrest control from God. In doing this we heap untenable burdens onto our own lives and will eventually buckle under their weight.

Perhaps this week, we can practice resting. Perhaps we can let go of our needs to be and do and control and we can even speak back to that annoying little voice that pushes us into that unhealthy way of living. It isn’t easy to rest, it isn’t easy to quiet our minds when we have spend years practicing a different pattern of living. This is why rest is considered a Spiritual Practice. We practice it a little every day. We practice it a little every week and over time we find that our practicing has strengthened our resting muscles. As our resting muscles strengthen we just might find that our ability to trust God has increased. For when we practice rest we are also practicing trust, we are saying “God’s got this covered, God’s got me covered, and that is more than enough.”

[1] Genesis 1:27

A few thoughts on Trinity Sunday

Good Morning Friends,

This morning is Trinity Sunday. Some might say, it marks the ending of all that is fun and exciting in the Christian Calendar: Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost. This Sunday ushers us into the period we call Ordinary Time and will carry us until the end of the Christian year. I will say more about  the beginning of Ordinary Time a little later today but stumbled across this passage written by NT Wright about Trinity Sunday and wanted to share it with you here. If you are interested, I have included a link below to the book from which this excerpt is taken.

Love and Peace,

“In the church’s year, Trinity Sunday is the day when we stand back from the extraordinary sequence of events that we’ve been celebrating for the previous five months—Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost—and when we rub the sleep from our eyes and discover what the word ‘god’ might actually mean.  These events function as a sequence of well-aimed hammer-blows which knock at the clay jars of the gods we want, the gods who reinforce our own pride or prejudice, until they fall away and reveal instead a very different god, a dangerous god, a subversive god, a god who comes to us like a blind beggar with wounds in his hands, a god who comes to us in wind and fire, in bread and wine, in flesh and blood: a god who says to us, ‘You did not choose me; I chose you.’

You see, the doctrine of the Trinity, properly understood, is as much a way of saying ‘we don’t know’ as of saying ‘we do know.’ To say that the true God is Three and One is to recognize that if there is a God then of course we shouldn’t expect him to fit neatly into our little categories.  If he did, he wouldn’t be God at all, merely a god, a god we might perhaps have wanted.  The Trinity is not something that the clever theologian comes up with as a result of hours spent in the theological laboratory, after which he or she can return to announce that they’ve got God worked out now, the analysis is complete, and here is God neatly laid out on a slab.  The only time they laid God out on a slab he rose again three days afterwards. 

On the contrary: the doctrine of the Trinity is, if you like, a signpost pointing ahead into the dark, saying: ‘Trust me; follow me; my love will keep you safe.’ Or, perhaps better, the doctrine of the Trinity is a signpost pointing into a light which gets brighter and brighter until we are dazzled and blinded, but which says: ‘Come, and I will make you children of light.’  The doctrine of the Trinity affirms the rightness, the propriety, of speaking intelligently that the true God must always transcend our grasp of him, even our most intelligent grasp of him.”

~ N.T. Wright, in For All God’s Worth: True Worship and the Calling of the Church (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997), p. 24. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

This week at Christian Union

Hi Everyone,

We have a busy Sunday heading our way! This Sunday at Christian Union:

Father's Day - We celebrate our Fathers, Grandfathers, and those who have been like Fathers in our lives. Their love and presence is a gift from God.

Graduation Sunday - We are honoring our High School and College Graduates. These students have worked hard in their studies and we celebrate them and their accomplishments!

Please join us in worship and celebration!

Pastor Amy