Wednesday, December 28, 2011

We are on a spiritual journey. We are blessed by the journey, but often in ways that we weren't expecting and in ways that may cause a fuss among other people. Through all of that, we find God—not in the fuss, but in the surprising truth of our own story, the unexpected truth of our own experience, the mysterious truth of our own encounter with God's surprising love and grace."—Rev. Sandra K. Johnson, from "Much Ado About Something"

Have you ever read a Bible verse and then asked yourself the question, “where does my story meet this text”?  I appreciate Rev Johnson’s insightfulness and her way with words.  We ARE on a journey – all of us. Regardless of our faith traditions, experiences, backgrounds, flavors or colors – we are all on a journey.  We do have the gift, the ability, to find God in the truth of our own stories.  And our own story is unique to us – no one else shares exactly the same story, experience, or understanding of self.

Ezekiel was called to be a prophet.  He had no doubt he was called but I’m sure he probably didn’t want to at first.  Jonah was the one who, when called by God, did the only rational thing:  he ran.  But God caught up to Jonah and he also brought Ezekiel in to ministry in spite of themselves. Being called is not just restricted to those in full-time ministry.  You don’t need to wear a robe or a collar to realize that you have been called.  I believe that all of us are called in to something.  Every day YOU are being called to follow the great commandment to love one another.

There are so many homeless people in our own country.  There are close to 2 million homeless youth, ages 15-17, in this country.  In my own city, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, there are over 400 homeless youth who seek a place to rest every single night.  Health care is a long forgotten luxury.  Many turn to drugs or prostitution to turn a quick buck – a fast food burger to fill their empty stomachs.  “State of Youth Homelessness,” a study prepared by researchers at the Center for Urban Initiatives and Research at UW-Milwaukee determined that 25% of these youth identified with being gay or lesbian.  I read one story – echoed I’m sure by thousands of others – of a young man who came out to his parents his junior year in high school and was kicked out of the home based solely on the fact that he identified himself as being gay and shared it with his parents. 

Rev. Cody Sanders says, “The call to ministry and the call to coming out are always risky ventures filled with tension; tension between knowing one’s internal, deeply held identity as called of God, or created by God and knowing the risk of identifying this inner voice to others. Both the calling and the coming out puts one at odds with others within society and within the church.”   Another journey – another opportunity to find God in and through our own life experiences.  The “unexpected truth of our own experience” as Johnson states. 

Joseph was called by God.  I really have a difficult time trying to wrap my brain around this man, Joseph.  Why he didn’t run, like Jonah, is beyond me.  He would have been totally justified in my book.  The fact that he did not turn on his faith is somewhat of a miracle.  Rejection of God and/or church is typically a result of anger or rejection and Joseph must have felt both.  He did everything he was supposed to do and all of a sudden his future bride is pregnant.  Surely they would be shunned by the community, his friends and his family.  Would the family even recognize them as a couple and would they continue to offer their support of the marriage?  This experience would surely put him at odds with his society and religious elders.  Joseph knew, however, of his own identity as called by God – it was his role – his job – his calling – his purpose – his answer to “what is the meaning of life”.  He knew the risks associated with identifying his inner voice to others yet he did exactly that! 
Not much is known about Joseph.  In accordance with the custom of the day we can surmise that Joseph was probably significantly older than Mary.  It took a long time for a man to become financially secure enough to even consider marrying and then when they did, they typically chose younger wives who could bear many children.  A generation is defined as the span of time between a man’s birth and the birth of his first child.  In Biblical times an average generation was 40 years long so there is a good possibility that Joseph was around 40 while Mary is believed to have been a young teenager. Scandalous to today’s standards but the norm for those days. What was NOT the norm back then, and is often accepted now, is the pregnancy before marriage.  Talk about a scandal.  Yet both Mary and Joseph knew their calling. I’m positive they were scared – I’m sure they were full of anxiety and fear of others.  They probably considered, at first, a few options to hide this situation, like any human would instinctively do.  But they followed their calling. They knew who they were at the core of their being – they knew exactly what God created them to be and what God expected of them. 

I’m pulling a comparison, albeit a dangerous one, between Mary and Joseph and the homeless teenagers in my own backyard.  I point out the glbt homeless youth because, frankly, my heart tends to bleed harder for them.  Two steps is all it took for them to find themselves sleeping in cardboard boxes under bridges or in homemade shelters of drift wood down by the river – in fact, if you come to Milwaukee I’ll personally take you to those locations and you can see for yourself that I’m not exaggerating.  They exist. It took two steps – self-identity/awareness, then self-proclamation – then homelessness.  These are stories that wrinkle the heart. They are stories that should never exist but must be told.  It is the story of Joseph and Mary and no-room-at-the-inn.  It is the story of the 400+ in my backyard.  How many are in your backyard?

Remember the “unexpected truth” of our own experience?  Joseph, Mary, the homeless, the homeless youth – all unexpected truths of personal experiences.  Embracing whose we are – embracing that which is a Holy creation – only to be tossed aside.

Jesus felt this, too, you remember.  Jesus was rejected, remember?  Imagine how it felt to hear the crowd yell “crucify him”. Imagine how it felt to hear the ones you walked with, talked with and grew up with, your child-hood buddies, your friends, your pals and your family – your entire community – turning its back on you.  Christ felt it – the homeless feel it – the homeless glbt youth feel it – perhaps you feel it as well.    Rest assured that Christ knows exactly how the homeless are feeling – how the rejected feel – he experienced it first-hand and He has not forgotten.

Our own blessings may very well cause a fuss among others.  Our own callings may and probably will cause a fuss among others including those with whom we are close.  But it should be in and through these callings and blessings that we come to a fuller understanding of God’s creation – God’s call on humanity.  God’s creating spirit has yielded such a diverse world that not one creature is exactly like the other and THAT is the mysterious truth found in God’s amazing and surprising love and grace.  Just as pain, sorrow, disappointment, depression, and negative circumstances knows no prejudice – neither does God’s love and grace.  For through these experiences and through each one of our unique and precious stories and journeys is found the very nature of the Holy – love and grace.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Filling The Gap

Hurting people are so needy, aren’t they?  The ideal is being with people who have been through some struggle and arrived on the other side already.  We love to hear their stories of overcoming obstacles and we listen intently.  But bring in someone who is needy – they drain all the joy, they take the energy away, and they ultimately remind us of our own weaknesses.  Who needs or wants them?
I heard of a church who was building an addition on to their current building. They were doubling the size and one of the projects was a kitchen. This kitchen would be state-of-the-art and would be run by a small group of professional cooks and chefs, most of whom donated a majority of the funds to outfit the kitchen with the latest gadgets and appliances.  The price tag was pretty steep. The kitchen and the adjoining hall were large spaces.  It was truly a unique ministry opportunity.  Or so one person thought.  He rejoiced one Sunday morning that once the kitchen and hall were finished they could open their doors to the homeless and hungry.  “Imagine how many hungry people we could feed!” he proclaimed.
The people who donated money were appalled.  One woman actually said, “This kitchen is ours - no bums allowed”.  The man later learned of the paperwork, procedures and approvals that a group in the church would be required to go through in order to use the kitchen with the clear understanding that it is to be used for the church family only.  No feeding of the homeless and hungry – no food pantry – no ministry to outsiders – just a perk for members only.
I do not believe that Christ would belong to anything that stated ‘for members only’.  I always had an appreciation for the United Methodist approach to the communion table.  Come, ALL who are in need of Christ’s love and grace.  The Methodist church practiced what is called an open table.  Everyone is welcome.  Christ embraced the needy and the weak and the celebration of the Christmas truth should embrace the same.  In Matthew 12:20 it says, “He (Christ) will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle.”  You see, the needy and the weak would love nothing more than to wake up one day with tons of energy and a renewed sense of hope for the future…but it’s just not going to happen like that.  They would love to suddenly make the decision to be well, no longer needy, no longer hungry, no longer plagued by the demons of their past.  But the truth is, that is a very hard place from which to escape. 
This Christmas season, like the ones of our past, we are called to enter into an attitude of celebration.  We celebrate the gift that God gave us – the gift of HIS Son and in the realization of everything that was wrapped up in those swaddling clothes – the gift for humanity.  But what if we just do not feel like celebrating? Sure it is a great time of year but all we see is waste and want and people are still pushing aside the hungry.  Feeding the hungry one or two times a year doesn’t feel like much of a sacrifice.  And Christ says that when you do feed the hungry it is akin to feeding Him.  You offer the hungry some food and you have just offered food to Christ.  You bring water to the thirsty man and you have answered the call of Christ when he says I am thirsty. 
Christmas time is one of the most depressing times of the year because among the running around, the shopping, the traffic, the trees, the spending of money, the building up of debt, the lights, plastic snowmen and even the light-up plastic Jesus in the front yard – none of that feeds the hungry, or gives water to the thirsty, or offers a warm blanket to the cold and dying.  None of that brings comfort to those who cry every day as they try to run from their demons.  As you turn the lights on for your tree the very light in a young man’s heart has all but extinguished.  As you gaze in wonder at the decorations the widow’s eyes only see darkness where there was once great light.  In all that is Christmas today the lost and lonely, scared, sad, and hurt people are forgotten.  Swept under the tree to be hidden from view.  There is no room for them at the inn because we are too busy having a party. The problem is – we do not know what it is we are celebrating. 
I dare you this season to stretch out from your comfort zone and do something crazy.  Reach across the table and offer someone food and drink.  Give the cold man a blanket and the homeless woman shelter.  Bring the reason for the partying to the feet of those for whom the Christ child came.  You need no proclamation – no Twitter or Facebook CheckIn – no announcement or smart phone photos uploaded in a flash to show everyone what you are doing.   Do it because it is the right thing to do.  As millions begin to celebrate the birth of a poor baby, may we commit to reaching out to the poor babies in our wealthy nation.  May they find a full table at which to sit.  When the gap between the rich and poor seems to be at its widest may we find opportunities to reach across, no matter what our status, and not only bridge the gap – but fill it. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Forgive Me, Lord, As I Forgave Whats-His-Name

How many times should we forgive someone and when we do forgive them, what’s next?  Peter came right out and asked Jesus this popular question.  We read about the recollection of the conversation in Matthew 18:21, 22.  Jesus says, “not seven times but seventy times seven”.  That’s a lot of grace for one person to dish out, don’t you think?  What’s the popular phrase?  Oh yeah – “Once burned, shame on me; twice burned shame on you”.  Doesn’t seem to match up with scripture but most of us are inclined to proclaim the popular secular decree rather than the scripture-based instruction.
First of all, let’s do the math. Seventy times seven is 490.  So we need to forgive people 490 times.  Is that for the same transgression or do we keep a tally for each transgression for which we grant forgiveness?  Let’s take a look at Israel…there is a chance that Jesus was actually referring to historical significance here.  The people of Israel transgressed a LOT.  It wasn’t necessarily the same transgression but wow they really racked up the points.  Lucky for them, and for us; God shows mercy and grace – unlike his creation who seldom show mercy and grace especially to repeat offenders.   
Do you think the act of forgiving is a choice or a feeling?  Is it a state of being or an actual physical action?  We have clear Biblical instruction:  Colossians 3:13, “bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”   You read that right – we are to forgive (just) as the Lord (has) forgiven us!  The prayer that Christ himself taught us to pray states, “..and forgive us our sins (or trespasses, depending on your faith tradition) as we forgive those who sin against us”.  Oh wait a minute – THAT was tricky.  He threw that last part in to trip us up, right?  Kinda like the time they were about to stone that poor woman and Christ picked up a rock and said, “He who is without sin must cast the first stone”.  We thought for a moment that, as Christ picked up a stone, he was affirming that we were actually right and justified in stoning that poor woman to death.  But at the last minute, when we least expected it, he throws in a “yeah, but”.  Kinda like Steve Jobs always did in his announcements, remember?  He would always say, “oh, and one more thing”…and that one more thing was always HUGE!
We know we should forgive but what happens when we just plain don’t feel like it?  Our grievance is valid, right?  Our anger justified.   Why should we forgive some of the uglier sins of others like lying, stealing, cheating…how about physical pain or even murder?  Why assume that God will have complete jurisdiction over them and will judge them according to His standards when our standards seem pretty fair, right?  Hmmmm…fair…
Corrie Ten Boom, a Nazi concentration camp survivor, says, “Forgiveness is to set a prisoner free, and to realize the prisoner was you.”  There is a wonderful clearing of the conscience when we forgive and then move on. That moving on may involve a lot of healing time, and grappling with our definition of justice versus God’s.  Relationships may falter during that time and friendships are re-defined.  We become a new sculpture, really, in the artists’ hands during this time.  For when we forgive, as the Lord’s Prayer says, and we forgive just as we want and hope that God will forgive us and that our fellow man will forgive us; there is a sweet release in the Spirit.  The prisoner is indeed set free.
Forgive the man who drove drunk and killed a mother and her children?  Forgive the man who, without notice or warning, takes his own life and leaves behind a path of destruction?  Forgive the one who cheated in mind, spirit AND body?  Forgive the one who sold us out, threw us under the bus, ratted us out, and turned against us?  Forgive the very ones who crucified you and left you on the road side to die?  Forgive the one who beat you?  I’ll have to think about that one for a while.
And while we think, we continue to utter those words all too easily; “…and forgive me of my wrong doings in the same manner in which  I have forgiven all people who have done wrong things to me”… and don’t be surprised if you don’t feel the release of that burden right away. After all, you just asked God to do something very specific – not simply forgive you, but use YOU as His guide to how to forgive.  You just asked God to use you as the standard by which he will shower you with mercy and patience.
We don’t forgive for the sake of the sinner – that’s God’s job.  We forgive for our own sake.  It doesn’t mean forgetting nor does it mean we are enabling the sinner even more.  It means we have let it go.  As long as you have un-forgiveness you have anger, or hatred, or maybe resentment towards that person.  Which means that person is still in control of YOU.
Is has been said that forgiveness “is me giving up my right to hurt you for hurting me”.  Mark Twain said that “forgiveness is the fragrance the rose sheds on the heel that has crushed it”.  Forgiveness is not about forgetting – it is about finding a new definition for that experience.  It’s about discovering a new ‘normal’.  It’s about creating a new way to remember that changes the bad memories of the past in to the hope for our future. 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Right Where You Are

One of the many arguments I hear from people as to why they do not attend church or why they are not ‘religious’ is that at one time or another they were turned off by feeling like someone was trying to cram religion down their throats. They were turned off by blatant, in-your-face, guilt-them-into-accepting-Christ; evangelism.  I will be the first to admit that perhaps in some cases there are people who desire and need this type of evangelism in order to encourage them to take a leap of faith.  But for many people it is one of the easiest ways to push them away from Christ.

I have never been known as a ‘Bible basher”, using scripture and evangelism to verbally beat people in to submission.  The only thing you get from that is a bunch of people who are tired of being beaten so they give you what you want just to shut you up. 

One of the points of the Christian religion is to allow you to be met by the living Christ.  There’s an old song from the 80’s called, “Right Where You Are” that spoke of this same idea. The image is of God, in the flesh of Jesus Christ, meeting us wherever we are in life.  He met the woman at the well, Simon while he was fishing, and He meets you wherever you are in life.  We don’t have to come up to meet Him, Christ steps down to be with us.

I believe that if Christ were walking here today, He wouldn’t walk on the side of the street where the church rummage sale was taking place.  I believe He would be walking on the side of the street where the homeless hung out, where the druggies scored, the prostitutes worked, and where the lonely and depressed go to end their lives.  He wouldn’t be knocking on the church door but He would be knocking and opening the proverbial closet door where thousands of young people are hiding, scared of who they are and how people will treat them. 

I like the tagline of the United Church of Christ:  Whoever you are, where ever you are on life's journey, you are welcome here!”  Wherever you are. That is a powerful image, isn’t it?  Just think about where YOU are right now on life’s journey. Think about where you have been and all the changes that have occurred – the colors of your journey have changed so many times during your journey yet Christ has been the one constant.

The First Congregational Church of Baraboo, Wisconsin invites anyone who has “…ever known exclusion…or questioned how dogma and doctrine can be so hurtful…” to visit them and experience a ministry that they believe is truly Christ-centered. 

The United Methodist Church still explicitly and categorically excludes gay and lesbian Christians from full participation in the life of the church yet more than 360 United Methodist congregations have voted unanimously to become a welcoming or reconciling congregation – welcoming people of all orientations in to full membership and participation.  Proof that the hearts of God’s people are earnestly seeking and listening for the voice of God.

The Episcopal Church calls for full civil equality for gay men and lesbians and the Church’s General Convention has passed resolutions that allow for gay and lesbian marriages in states where it is legal.  Gene Robinson is the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop. 

I list these (and I could list thousands of other short news briefs) to support a point:  God is simply not finished with us.  Did God simply create us and then let us to our own devices or is it possible that God continues to create us?  Is it possible that the kingdom of God is so diverse in its color, flavor, ethnicity, background, orientation, that those within the creation are unable to see it yet?  Did God create us from one cookie-cutter or is it possible that God’s creation contains countless imprints, colors, creeds, life-styles, etc. 

Some religious organizations still refuse to ordain women although as early as 2285 BC Sumerian and Akkadien were priestesses who held equal status of high priests.  In the Buddhist tradition Ani Pema Chodron became the first American woman to be ordained as a Buddhist nun (bhikkhuni).  In 1989 Barbara Harris was the first ordained bishop in the Anglican Communion for the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts and in 2006 Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected as the first female presiding Bishop.

In the Wesleyan tradition, those who come to be ordained are asked an important question.  “Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life time?”  The answer is tough but it is asking for a pretty specific response.  I expect only to be made perfect in love at the time of my death but I am working today as if it were possible to finally achieve it in this life. 

"As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit." (1 Cor. 12:12–13, NAB)  This is a powerful passage of scripture as the Apostle Paul talks about how each body part works together.  "The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you,' nor again the head to the feet, ‘I do not need you.' Indeed the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary . . ." (1 Cor. 12: 21-22) The wonderful thing about God is His generosity in creation.  Each part is so different from the other yet without one another, the whole cannot function, cannot be complete…in other words…fails.

We are all members of one body. Christ is the head and substance and everyone else has a job to do.  A role to play and responsibilities to attend to.  The hand cannot be a foot and the leg cannot be an ear no matter how hard they try.  It is wrong for the ear to say to the other parts, “you need to be more like us”.  It simply won’t happen.  Yet when the ear expects that and purposely shuts out the other parts the ear fails.  The ear cannot possibly complete its purpose.   

A church in Kentucky recently voted to not allow bi-racial couples in the church or to participate in the life of the church.   A friend of mine was denied the position of Director of Music because someone found out he was gay.  A family was denied access to the church school because, although they paid the annual fees, they didn’t meet the required annual pledge to the church.  A man and his wife hit hard financial times and enter foreclosure; and because of that they are asked to step down as elders. 

My heart aches for these people and for the countless others who have been ‘turned off’ to the Gospel of Jesus Christ because of people with blinders on their eyes.  But my heart aches, also, for the people who made the decision to remove someone from the church.  I believe they are missing a valuable point.  If our pews were meant for only the righteous we would be preaching to an empty room.  If our doors only opened to the Godly, they would always be closed.  If everyone could give as the church wants everyone to give, the offering plate would be empty.

The call to ministry is a personal, intimate calling.  If God only wanted the perfect – perhaps he should not have called me.  If God only wanted the righteous – perhaps he should not have called me.  If God only wanted those who never questioned faith or never struggled with spiritual matters – perhaps he should not have called me.  If God only wanted those who looked the part and dressed just like everyone else – perhaps he should not have called me.   But if God called me because of my heart and because my faith in Him is authentic and my love for humanity is wide – then His calling is perfect.

Were I to have a church, I would want people to know this:  if you are imperfect, come in.  If you have a dark past, come in.  If you believe no one who loves God should be excluded, come in.  If you are being true to how God created you, come in. If your mind is as wide as a clear night sky, come in.  If you have a genuine, authentic love for Christ, come in.  If you seek – come in.  If you have unbelief, come in.

God’s creating nature will not be mocked. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

I had a long day.  The night before I got no sleep as I took a young man to the hospital who attempted to take his own life.  I stayed with him in the emergency room and then transported him to an in-patient hospital where he could be safe for a few days.  Not having much sleep the next night brought me to this day.  I took care of my household needs, some family needs, and then made my way back to the hospital for the two hour visit with him. 

I sat in the waiting area about 30 minutes before the allotted visitation time and watched the people go by.  I noticed an elderly lady sitting all by herself in the middle of the waiting area, watching television, and managing to smile at every person that walked past her.  I believed her to be a kind soul, with many stories, and strength. 

I observed another lady, about the same age; sit near her and after a few moments they realized they knew each other from business dealings fifteen years earlier.  They had a wonderful time catching up with one another. 

I will call the first lady Gracie just to make the story easier.  Gracie told her friend that she was waiting for her husband to come out of surgery.  She told the story of how they met and it brought a tear to my eye.

It was 1950 and she had just gotten engaged to the love of her life when he got called to active duty to fight in the Korean War.  Three years went by and communication with him had come to a halt.  No letters, no calls and any inquiries she made came back empty.  She wasn’t sure if he had just changed his mind or had been killed. She said she made the assumption he was lost in battle.  A couple years went by and she did eventually marry and had five children.  In 2008 she lost her husband.

During the funeral of her husband there was a volunteer at the funeral home helping to guide people to where they needed to be.  His eyes gave him away instantly and he immediately recognized her smile.  They embraced and the truth was revealed:  he was the man she thought was lost in a battle in Korea.  The got together about a month after the funeral and renewed their friendship.  Two years later they wed. 

He had been shot and got lost through the hospital system and did not make it home until a year after the conflict had ended.

I wanted to hear more but it was time for me to go check in and complete my visitation for the night.  As I got up I was compelled to stop by the two ladies and say something.  I approached them and apologized for interrupting their conversation and told them I overheard their stories and was so moved that I needed to tell them.  I told them their conversation and their smiles had blessed me and they were almost as giddy as two school girls!  They smiled and thanked me and as I walked away I heard Gracie say, “What an unexpected surprise that was”. 

When the time comes that I begin to enter the autumn of my years I pray that some young person might come along and thank me for something as simple as story-telling or just smiling. 

Solomon tells his son to “…respect your mother when she is old…”  Christ mentioned that the Pharisees had made the law of God void by their disgraceful treatment of the elderly.  Even Elihu, the younger of Job’s friends waited patiently to speak to Job until all the men who were older than he was had spoken.    Leviticus 19:32 says “Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly.” 

Throughout cultures and beliefs the treatment and respect for the aging is clear.  In the practice of Confucian, filial piety is one of the primary virtues to be held above everything else:  a respect for parents and ancestors.  This filial piety is reflected in the book of the same title, a conversation between Confucius and his student, Zeng Shen.  It addresses how to set up a good society and that the practice of respecting the elders is key to this success.  The term ‘filial’ is used in Christian churches for the titles of particular clerics whose church is subordinate to one that is larger (filial priest or filial vicar).  In the most general of terms, filial piety simply means to be good to one’s parents.  In the Chinese culture it is considered the first virtue.

In China it is widely accepted that Buddha rose to heaven to spend three months with his mother, teaching her his new ideas; an act of proper concern and respect.  The “Sutra on the Weighty Grace of Parents” was written in the early Tang dynasty (618-907) and talks about the great sacrifices that a parent must make for the sake of their children.  Children are expected to return this kindness though loyalty and respect. Although this particular text would later be determined fraudulent, the message remains strong and truth-filled.

The overall world-wide view of the treatment of the elderly in America is that we tend to consider them a burden and will quickly place them in care facilities.  Whether or not this is an act reflective of the selfish nature of some western civilizations or just a misunderstanding of the child-parent relationship is inconsequential – the fact is that it should force us to closely exam how we treat our older family members.

The commandment to honor thy father and mother is one that deserves close study.  It would serve everyone well to make a list of the ways we can honor our parents and elderly and to begin putting them in to practice today.

The goal of this life-journey is to be in union with God in the beatific vision. The characteristic condition of old age could be an occasion for spiritual transformation and transcendence - for acknowledging the fundamental truth of the human condition, our dependence on God and on his love and mercy. The frailty and dependency of old age, in our Christian past, were understood both as belonging to the given order of life - as inescapable in character - and as having a positive role in disposing us to the fulfillment for which we were made by deepening our awareness of our dependence on God.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Milk - Potty - Finished

I sat down recently with one of the couples that are planning to get married this coming year and have asked me to be the pastor.  I am always honored to be a part of such a wonderful occasion.  I especially look forward to and enjoy the process of meeting and getting to know the couple before the ceremony.  It can be a very special time for them as well as I encourage and, in some cases, teach new ways of communication.  It is a time to be challenged and encouraged.  It is an added benefit if we are friends before they even asked me to marry them.  Sometimes I even cry just a little during the ceremony!

The young lady said something that has been resonating in my soul for a while now.  She said that sometimes she feels he does not love her as much as he used to; and then without skipping a beat she said, “But perhaps that’s really just me not loving myself at that moment and not understanding why someone would still love me”.  What an incredible epiphany. 

Loving ourselves is perhaps one of the hardest loves to experience.  We see and feel so many flaws and errors and it is not unusual to expect that we would project that on to others – resulting in a doubt.  Of course the man in the relationship quickly said he has not stopped loving her or declined in his love for her but still it is a true feeling and I encouraged him to recognize it as a feeling and then to talk it out.  Feelings are often hard to put in to words and too many times we find ourselves choosing the wrong words to describe how we feel – it is only through conversation and patience that we can possibly develop the correct and accurate language for our feelings at any given time.  The human language is just too limiting.

My former brother-in-law and his wife had a marvelous way of raising their young daughter.  Their first child hardly fussed at the dinner table.  Although she could hear well they decided to teach her sign language right away. They knew that children know what they want but they don’t exactly have the software installed yet that allows them to articulate it using their new-found lips and tongue.  Instead of fussing and crying because she wants milk, and instead of having mom and dad get frustrated and at the end of their rope trying to figure out why their child is fussing – my niece would simply use the sign for milk and all would be well.  The same for ‘potty’, ‘sleep’, and ‘finished’.  Finding the right combination of words to describe what we want and what we are feeling is difficult and often leads to misunderstandings, arguments, resentments, and feeling unloved.

We often think that God would not possibly love us because we cannot love ourselves.  If WE see all that is wrong with us certainly God does, right?  So how could he possibly love us if He knows the truth about us?  We can hide it from others but not from ourselves and not from God.  And when we do seek Him and try to share what we are feeling we lack the words and we feel like we fall short of reaching Him.  The same with our human relationships:  We simply fail at communicating, accurately, the way we are feeling and we often times let our mouths get us in to more trouble!

This young lady was able to discover that perhaps what she initially perceived as a lack of love from someone was actually her lack of love and respect for herself, projected on to someone else, and reflected back to us all distorted.

Thank God that we can communicate with the Holy in ways other than words.  Sometimes it is music, or the words of some other inspired individual through books or prayers or scriptures.  Sometimes it is through actions like helping others or maybe just taking a few moments to breathe deep and look around you.  These seemingly simple actions, like the simplicity of the sign language for milk, or potty, or finished, are sometimes all we need to get our message across.  Sometimes we just try too hard when the answer is actually pretty simple.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

My uncle, over the past couple of years, has been sending out randomly scanned photographs of my grandparents to the family.  My grandparents were wonderful people. They truly were. They touched thousands of lives during their long journey here on earth.  They endured incredible hardships and battles as well.  I love the photos and each time I see them I can hear my grandfather’s voice, his beautiful whistle, and my grandmother’s unique vocal character especially how she said my name.

I have OFTEN said that every single person and circumstance that has crossed in to or across our life path are now an important thread in the fabric of who we are.  I still totally believe that.  I learned that lesson from my grandfather.  Not in those words for those are mine that my spirit was able to finally put together to express some of what I learned from this amazing man.  Even our pets have made a profound impact.  By removing any of these threads we weaken the strength and integrity of the fabric and of who we are.  By ignoring them we, in essence, tear out that thread.

Have you ever been laying there in bed, trying to sleep, and found your fingers playing with a loose thread in the quilt?  They are usually tough almost fishing-line thread.  Very hard, and ‘hurty’ if we wrap them around our fingers and try to pull them out.  But eventually we do pull them out and unfortunately the integrity of the blanket has now become compromised beyond the point of no return. 

That is what it is like when we ignore or try to rip out any part of our life journey, any person, and any circumstance, which we have encountered.  We discredit the importance and the impact they or it made on our hearts, our souls, our spirits, our nature, emotions, memories, and our human integrity.  We expect much from our relationships with other humans.  They need to live up to our expectations or they suddenly are not worthy of being in our inner circle. 

And in the same respect we often fail to realize the impact we have made on others.  Too often we fail to recognize the size and importance of our very own fingerprints upon humanity and this present world.  We also put a lot of pressure on ourselves for not living up to our own expectations.  Our lives have not worked out the way we thought they would or how we planned.  Maybe the world did not change to suit our needs so we reach down and start pulling out threads, causing minor holes at first but then losing more and more of the threads until a square is gone, then another, and another.  Each thread in the fabric having a significant impact on the person we see in the mirror and on the choices we make.

I know that some of your threads are negative.  They have been abusive, cheating and set out only to deceive you.  Some just wanted something from you and gave nothing in return.  There are threads that we have tried so hard to forget but whose pain and torment haunts us every waking moment.  We can’t run far enough away – we can’t hide from it – it’s always there.  So we try to pull them out and eventually what happens is that we lose our own identity and purpose.  We totally lose sight of any purpose for our existence.  When we lose enough of the threads in our very own fabric we lose ourselves.  We become lost, lonely, scared – seeking a way to totally destroy the now worn quilt of our own existence.

But if every person and circumstance that you have encountered in your life truly does make up the person you are today – how many threads in the fabric of others has your name on it?  Do you know the impact you have made on others? 

My grandfather knew he made an impact because it was his gift to humanity for the positive impacts people made on him…and sometimes it was his response to the negative as well.  He was a good soul – a giving soul – a soul who knew the power of the spoken word.  He was a man who believed and lived as though every single soul was worthy of life and of life in abundance.  Sound familiar?  It’s on purpose:  Christ came so that you may experience life in abundance as well.  Stop yanking on those threads and start living again.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Authentic, Synthetic Worship

I am a pastor without a church.  It is on purpose right now and I feel pretty good about this.  I get the chance to talk to people that church-workin’ pastors would not have the chance.  Many times it starts with some negative feelings and experiences by a local church that turned them completely off of church and, in some cases, have led them to a total disbelief or questioning of God.  They are usually surprised to find that I am ordained and tell them that I actually became ordained AFTER I left full-time local church ministry.

The first thing I generally tell them is that my personal jury is out on this so-called organized religion.  I, too, have been jaded by committees, chairpersons, lay leaders, pastors, clergy, church ladies, choir sopranos and old saints.  I prefer to be where people least expect me or where people are hungry for authentic worship moments like the nursing home, the hospital bed, the emergency room, and bedside.  I prefer to be where I would want to meet Jesus – not at the altar, not during a hymn or a potluck dinner but walking down the street, or in the store, or in a moment of true crisis when the church doors are the last ones I would think of pushing open at the moment. 
Now don’t get me wrong – I actually adore corporate worship and the local church setting.  I have been witness to the moving of the Holy on countless occasions during many different church experiences.  I have preached in churches with over 10,000 in attendance and as few as ten.  I have seen, felt, heard and tasted the Holy in Sunday worship, Bible study, in-home prayer groups, communion, baptisms and yes, even a potluck dinner.  There is authenticity to be found everywhere two or more are gathered in His name.  The problem is that there is also a lot of non-authenticity to be found in those gatherings as well.

The definition of authentic is to conform to fact and therefore worthy of trust, reliance or belief.  It is having a claimed and verifiable origin or authorship, not counterfeit or copied.  The opposite of authentic includes supposed, false, fake, mock and synthetic. 

A synthetic experience is one that is made up to solicit a pre-planned outcome.  Many years ago I was an adult leader for a confirmation camp experience.  The teachers had prepared a very dramatic presentation of the cross which called for an evening walk through the woods, up to a hill, where they would experience three living people on crosses about 15 feet in the air, completely reenacting the crucifixion.  Their goal on the outside was to allow the young people the opportunity to experience this tragic moment in Christian history – the pivotal point of our faith.  But what they wanted was to melt the kids emotions to the point where they were on the verge of tears and then to pop the salvation question on them and see how many would come to Christ.  Not surprisingly most of them received Christ that night.  But was the experience authentic or synthetic?  I think it was synthetic for most.  For some the experience hit home and it was the drama that touched their hearts but for a lot of them it was fear that motivated their decision.  I’m not saying the experience was wrong – it just should have been a choice given to the young people as to whether or not they would like to share in a re-enactment of this particular event.  They were given no choice – they were lead there to fulfill the synthetic worship goal.

One could argue that all worship is synthetic and it is this lack of authenticity that pushes people away.  I, for one, have never found it to be a worship experience to pile as many kids in the front of the church every February and force them to sing, “My Jesus Valentine”. I found it fake – contrived – and somewhat pathetic.  But in the same vain I have been moved to tears by a solo song performed only in sign language – a liturgical dance – and yes, even a sermon. 

I’m getting to my point.  I see corporate worship as BOTH authentic and synthetic.  When I was a church organist there would be times that people would complain about the really loud postlude or the 20th century composition I chose to play in the middle of the service.  Sometimes I would brave it and ask the question, “so of the 21 pieces of music I played today, the only one that spoke to you was the piece that you really disliked?”  Of course not – and that’s my point.  Corporate worship is designed to try and reach everyone – some through music, some through song, through dance, through scripture, through tradition and some through call and response.  Yes, some people do still get moved by speaking the Lord’s Prayer or even the Apostle’s Creed during worship.  Some people can sense the Holy and truly enter in to worship surrounded by 10,000 people while others find Christ in their midst in a crowd of 2 or three.

Authentic worship is that moment when YOU experience the Holy.  It can happen through a synthetic, contrived and purpose-driven worship experience in your local church building.  It can happen in a casual encounter with a small group of close friends.   
I miss the local church but since I have been out I have had some unique and wonderful encounters with the Holy.  It does not matter where you are.  Sitting in a church building doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in your garage makes you a car.  But you CAN find the holy in all creation and I encourage you to seek it out.  Once your heart is in tune with your spirit you will encounter the Holy.
Remember the story of the woman at the well?  A woman who at the time was seen as less than anyone else (she had had several husbands and was now living with another man who was not her husband).  In the heat of the day when she knew no other people would be at the well fetching water, she went to the well.  It just so happens that Christ was walking that way also, headed to the same well.  It was there that she had an encounter with the Holy.  Christ called her out for her sinful ways and encouraged her to confess her sins before God and to walk right.   Christ spoke of the living water – the water of life – as it, too, refreshes just as the cool water from the well.  The Samaritan woman was enlightened.  She realized that through God comes the true refreshing of her soul.  She actually went on to share her encounter and subsequently led many people to a similar experience.

This woman does not appear in scripture again.  It is a story used as an illustration – a story or a truism, it fails to matter.  The point is made clear.  Even Augustine, almost 400 years later, would use this story to describe the spiritual thirst of humanity and the thirst that is never quenched until people are in the presence of the Holy.
When I am so blessed to enter in to conversation about faith there is a common river that runs between all of them and me.  It is a thirst for more – a thirst for a true encounter with the mystical, the divine, the Holy.  It’s a thirst – a need – for an authentic encounter with the Holy.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Can Humanity Love UNconditionally?

I have been learning a lot about myself the past week or so.  More so within the last 72 hours.  I have learned that although I have an enormous capacity to love people – I have limitations.  When I realized that I immediately pushed it down deep inside me.  I was shocked and somewhat embarrassed to hear my conscience admit that I do not love completely, wholly AND unconditionally. 

Take a look at this Wikipedia™ definition for unconditional love:  Unconditional love is a term that means to love someone regardless of one's actions or beliefs. It is a concept comparable to true love, a term which is more frequently used to describe love between lovers. By contrast, unconditional love is frequently used to describe love between family members, comrades in arms and between others in highly committed relationships. It has also been used in religious context to describe God's love for humankind (source: 

Unconditional love is that love that has absolutely no ‘end game’.  It has no last straw, end of road, or final curtain.  It has no strike outs.  It has a selective memory and easily forgets wrongs.  It holds no grudges.  It has no tipping point, no boundaries to cross, no place it cannot go.  This type of love has no expiration, no ‘honeymoon is over’ and does not vanish.  It does not kill nor can it be put to death.  As the song goes, there is no mountain to high and no river to wide.  It has no sense of ‘too much’ and does not give up when “at the end of the rope”.  In fact, it is the type of love that doesn’t have any end whatsoever. 

Author Earle Josiah says that “our actions possess moral worth when they are based on goodness and love” (EXPAND YOUR CAPACITY TO LOVE;  BookSurge Publishing, June 14, 2007).  He goes on to say that if we would just educate and “cultivate our minds so that every wish of our hearts is inspired by love”, that we would be less likely to withhold love.  No more of this, “I can only love certain people” or “I just can’t love this person”. 

In the Greek there are four words that are often translated, “love”.  They refer to love as sexual attraction (Eros), a feeling based on blood relationship (Storge), warm friendship founded on mutual esteem (Philia) and love based on principle (Agape). 

Agape is that type of love which is hardest to live out.  It demands that we surrender emotions and nature.  We put aside our ‘gut feelings’ and ‘intuitions’ and love no matter what.  It is the same type of love Christ implores us to participate in when he said we should love our enemies.  It is the love that we should probably be aspiring to embrace but our human experiences, our hurts, our short comings, our ideologies, and our spirituality all serve to limit our capacity to love. 

When we put our love for someone in a box with conditions, when we keep a score card of the relationship in order to justify love, we fail ourselves and those whom we are trying to love. 

I believe that in order to love another person with as few conditions as possible (I’m not saying that as an excuse to get out of loving them with zero conditions but merely pointing out a shortcoming of humanity) we must first have the capacity to love ourselves. 

We fail to love ourselves because we are, indeed, caught up in our misdemeanors, our offenses, our sins, our errors, and our short-comings.  We know the true self and when placed in the light we are embarrassed, ashamed, and sometimes down-right horrified.  Perhaps if we tried really hard to love everyone around us as deep as possible then we won’t have to love ourselves.  But that type of love gets tiring for both the giver and receiver so it is easier to not love ourselves and to limit who we love and how we love them.  We get little back in return and when it does get returned to us it is distorted, misinterpreted, and expects even more from us. 

Is it possible to love UNconditionally?  Is there room in the human heart and mind and spirit to love in such a way where there is absolutely no way that love would fail, drift, lessen, or die?  Or do we refuse to do that because we are afraid of, or believe that we will be, hurt in return?  Our experiences tell us this will happen – our love won’t always be returned in kind. 

Christ did not mention that loving our enemies would reap a great harvest of sunshine and satin pillows of happiness.  Mohammed, Shakespeare, Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II all urged us to love one another with great passion, energy, forgiveness, kindness and with no limitations but none of them mentioned what we would get in return.  They simply said we should strive to do that.  Our reward comes around later BUT that is not characteristic of humanity and we want something for our investment.

Look – all I’m trying to say here is that when we love someone hard, fast, furious, passionately, and unconditionally – when it HURTS to love them so much – we are setting ourselves up for disappointment IF we are expecting something in return.  Being loved and showing love are two completely opposite experiences.  We can hope to be loved unconditionally and therefore be allowed to have shortcomings but first we must love ourselves that way.  We must make the right choices for ourselves.  We must agree to learn from our mistakes and not continually beat ourselves up for them.  We must ignore negative behaviors of others that tend to bring us down.  We must strive to be a better person in all aspects of our lives and we must be able to hold ourselves accountable for our actions while allowing ourselves to be loved.  Then we can love our fellow humans with few, if any, conditions.

You have probably heard or read I Corinthians 13:4.  It is commonly referred to as the ‘love chapter’ and is read at pretty much every wedding I have ever attended.  I offer it up here for you with some editing.  I challenge you to do what I have done and in verses 4-7 and substitute the word ‘love’ for your first name.  If you believe you truly love Unconditionally than this will be a clear and truthful reflection of you.  But if it causes your heart to shout, “Doh!” or your spirit to feel shame, then give yourself permission to change and embrace it. 

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4 Kurt is patient, Kurt is kind. I do not envy, I do not boast, I am not proud. 5 Kurt does not dishonor others, is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, and Kurt keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Kurt does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 Kurt always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

8 Love never fails. ……13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Hold yourself to these ideals and see what happens in return.  Loving unconditionally – by definition – may be something we never fully achieve because of our human shortcomings.  Love is a state of being that we should all continually strive to achieve.  It is in the trying and practicing that we will experience agape.

--------------------------------------QUOTES TO PONDER---------------------------------------

“Intense love does not measure, it just gives”…Mother Teresa

"The ultimate lesson all of us have to learn is unconditional love, which includes not only others but ourselves as well"...Elisebeth Kubler-Ross

"You don't have to go looking for love when it's where you come from"...Werner Erhard

“…There’s nothing wrong with tough love, as long as the love is unconditional”…George W Bush

“To give and not expect a return, that is what lies at the heart of love”…Oscar Wilde

“The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image.  Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them”…Thomas Merton