Primitive religion is not believed, it is danced!

Arthur Darby Nock

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Elizabeth Browning

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Gifts Given, Gifts Received. Life in the Shadow of Death

This past week a dear friend of mine went into a crisis.  He has congestive heart failure, and by all accounts, including his doctors, was days from death.  He had a choice.  Sit in his hospital room,doing what he was doing medically, or go to a cardiac center and have more intensive treatments administered.  Tough call when you feel tired, and hurting, and life just isn't very meaningful or enjoyable.  But eventually the call was made, and so I found him in the Cardiac ICU.

Now you have to understand my friend is a very very wise soul.  He is a recovering alcoholic, sober for over 25 years.  He has been through more challenges than most of us face.  And he has come out of it all loving and with some very deep knowledge about how things work.  He still has his challenges, but he is a person whose wisdom I value.

We had a long talk about death, and dying, and medical interventions.  And at the end of our conversation two phrases stuck in my head.  The first was this: "Are we prolonging life of prolonging death?"  This is a profound question for all people with terminal illness.  At what point do we stop prolonging life and start prolonging death?  At what point are we keeping the machine functioning, without any benefit to the heart, soul, and mind within that fleshy mechanism?  I am not sure I have an answer for that question. Indeed I suggest that the answer is deeply personal. For each person that moment, that turning point is likely to be different.  As a pretty persistent, some might say stubborn person, that point might be further down the road for me than for others. Some might hang on to this life much longer.  The differences in our answer will depend on a lot of things. How we see life?  The connections we have here.  Our own sense of what makes us valuable.  And our sense of what lies beyond this thing we call death.  Is it truly and ending, or merely a transition?  For me as a person who believes death is a transition, acceptance of that reality is not such a scary thing.  Saying goodbye, letting go to the things I love in this world? That is the hard part.  But my friend and I both agreed that prolonging death, going to far in medical interventions doesn't make sense, for anyone.  But we also agreed that being too proactive and hastening death is probably not a better choice.

Why?  This is where the second phrase comes in.  "Giving and receiving gifts."  When my parents died, both of illnesses that were progressive and took years, I noticed something very interesting.  With both my father, who died of cancer, and my mother, who died of a neurological syndrome, there were clear losses as the disease progressed.  Dad could no longer do his beloved hikes up Hart Mountain, and mom could no longer bake.  Could no longer put together her "gift" boxes at Christmas for her friends, and make cookies for her grandchildren.  And yet!  And yet both, in those times of loss and pain, received some wonderful gifts.  They learned, as people rallied around them, how many people loved them, and how deeply.  They received, these two busy people, the gift of "down time."  They slowed down (not that they had a choice) and they spent a different kind of time with other people.  Slower.  Longer.  More talk.  More sharing and openness.  They discovered again many small joys.  They traveled together.  There were many gifts received.  

And their were gifts given.  The people they became through their illness was a gift to their children, their grandchildren, the people in their community.  They held bible studies and discussion groups.  They listened to people who really needed someone to talk to... and because of where they were at, they heard.  My father became far more expressive, and started to learn how to talk about love, and nurture.  My mother never did talk, but her presence continued to enrich lives.  Even in terminal illness there are gifts to be given, and gifts to be received.  And so life continues to be a precious thing.  Not something to be held on to so tightly that we prolong death.  But something to be savored until it is time for the next stage in our journey

Thank you my dear friend Scott for the gifts you are still giving.  For the gift you gave to me in such a strange wilderness as a cardiac ICU.  May you continue to see the gifts that you receive.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

God's YES

You know, John's gospel story of Jesus' first ever miracle, the miracle of the wine at the Wedding at Cana, seems a little odd.  What did Jesus first do to reveal his glory to the world? Perform a wonderful healing? - No. Preach a stunning sermon? No. He went round the back of the bar at a wedding and boosted the stocks of best wine - by very generous proportions.

Here we see Jesus doing the unorthodox, perhaps supporting what most would see as excess.
I mean think about it, if the wedding guests had drunk all the wine, did they really need any more?  Yet Jesus created somewhere between 120 and 180 GALLONS of premium wine.  Wow!

What did Jesus first do to reveal his glory to the world? Perform a wonderful healing? - No. Preach a stunning sermon? No. He went round the back of the bar at a wedding and boosted the stocks of best wine - by very generous proportions.

You might wonder why Jesus would be at a wedding in the first place. It's only what you'd expect - that God who took such delight in creating the world and all its people, would delight to be with people on a day of celebration; that God whose whole being is wrapped up totally in love, would want to share the wonder of a young couple's love by joining in their wedding party.

Of course we know from our own experience that weddings aren't all joy. If we were able to see the wedding party through Jesus' eyes then we would know that perhaps there was some local drama here.  The families wanting to put on a great event to impress the village.  The father of the bride, that father buying drinks for everyone at the bar, over reaching and getting himself into massive debt, and still coming up short.

But what about that wine.  Jesus quietly snuck behind the bar and somehow transformed ordinary water into finest quality wine.  Not second rate wine… who at this stage of the party would have noticed?  But first rate wine.  What was that all about?  Oh, and not just good wine…. LOTS of good wine.  120 Gallons?  Really!?

Jesus didn't spend any time carefully calculating precisely how much wine was needed to keep the party going to a certain time. No: he got all the empty containers they could find and filled them right up to the brim. I can imagine him saying, “That should do it”, with a smile.

This was more than enough. This wasn't just generous. This was a scandalously generous gesture. Which is precisely what Jesus intended it to be. Because after all, isn't the whole thing about God coming to earth scandalously generous? 

And that is precisely the point. God’s loving generosity.  And we see that even more clearly if we look at story number two, which is essentially a foil to story number one.  This story is that of the cleansing of the temple.

The time of this story coincides with the  Jewish Passover celebration.  The entire Passover celebration took a week. Attendance for adult Israelite males was supposedly compulsory.  Every male Jew, if at all possible, from the age of twelve and up, was expected to attend the Passover at Jerusalem.  It is very difficult to imagine the scene that our Lord’s eyes fall upon as He enters Jerusalem and approaches the temple. Talk about a lot of people!  Think the Super Bowl.   Think National Championship game, World Series.  It was a madhouse, with people from all over the world in attendance.  Now all these people Jews and Gentiles alike would have to pay the half-shekel temple tax in the coinage of the temple to be there.  Foreign monies were unacceptable and had to be exchanged for the proper coins. Thus the money changers.  And yes, there was a fee, just like those ATMS.

And these worshippers also had to offer up their sacrifices, and for many of these travelers, the only solution was to buy a sacrificial animal there in Jerusalem.  In days gone by, they would have been able to purchase these animals and exchange their money in a place outside the temple courts, from vendors over on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, but at this point in history they had to buy in the temple courts, doubtless in the Court of the Gentiles (the outermost court).

And to be blunt, there were major abuses.  There was exploitation. The vendors took advantage of the pilgrims, and in the process made a lot of money.  A lot.  . And in view of these conditions the Holy Temple, intended as a house of prayer for all people, had become according to Jesus in Mark, a den of robbers.  In the words of John, a marketplace

So what do we have in our second story?  Jesus, rejecting the norm, the status quo, the orthodox, the accepted, the set religious practices of the time.  Rejecting a faith system gone sadly astray.  A faith system that limited access to God.  Which manipulated, even took advantage of those seeking God.

Why these stories?  According to John the Wedding at Cana was the first of seven signs performed by Jesus to reveal the heart of his way.  What is Jesus pointing to with the story of the wedding, made more powerful by the following story, of the cleansing of the temple?  What is at the core, at the heart of the Jesus way?

Certainly not the old, the dead, the concrete.  He is making it clear that when we make ritual, and systems and orthodoxy more important than God’s love, God’s spirit, that we are in trouble.  When we make those things central, the most important things, we die, spiritually, and we miss so much

But the core of the Gospel… as seen in Sign One, in that Wedding at Cana, and those jugs of wine, is centered on God’s generosity
On a free flowing spirit.
It is about love
It is about gratefulness
And yes…. Exuberant joy

I love the ecstatic exuberance of ee Cummings
I thank you God for this most amazing day; for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes!!!!

The wedding of Cana is about God’s yes!
And yes which why we can grasp
Even embrace
In our church
In our worship
In our lives

That is it
It is about loving, deeply and truly
Even if you break some of the rules
It is about being for others
It is about passion for God not passion for the book of Order

It is about
Feeling the presence of God
The flow of the Spirit
Of smiling
And doing a little dance
And saying

I thank you God
For this day
For that person
For your love
I thank you for the glint in that young boy’s eye
I Thank you God for forgiveness and second chances
I thank you God
For everything that is natural, is infinite, is yes!

The Gospel is all about God’s YES
And our “Yes” in return….

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Agents of God

The opening chapter of John is all about dichotomies.  About great cosmic, spiritual, opposites.
The big two, Chaos VS Order and Darkness VS Light

And the basic message of the chapter?  That something, someone, the “Word of God” moves people, no, more than that, moves all of creation from one side of the dichotomy, from one end of the spectrum, to the other.  This word, this power, this person, creates order out of chaos, and brings light in the darkness.

The word of God!  What are we talking about?  One way to think about it is to understand that the word is the creative, the ordering, the life giving power of God.  Think about Genesis 1.  That is the real reference point for this passage.  What is the key phrase in Genesis 1?  It is pretty obvious.  “And God said”.  God spoke… The word of God is the power which brought the world into being.  The word of God created humankind in God’s image.

We can also think of a word as a vehicle of expression. Words are used to convey thoughts and ideas.  In listening skills workshops we talk about the interpersonal  gap, and about how one person, in order to bridge the cap, the chasm really, between one person and another, must “encode” what is inside them, that which they want to communicate, into some sort of code…. Either words, or body language… interesting how here John talks about the word became flesh….

So through Words, through the “flesh” we put what is in here out there, we make what we are thinking and feeling, we make who we are accessible.  We enable the other to know us, to understand. So Christ, as the Word, reveals God to us

Now, this is what is important.  When God becomes real, in any form, as the Creator, In the person of Jesus, as the empowering Spirit – when God comes to us.. puts himself out there… connects with us,  something happens.  As John puts it, “Grace is piled on Grace” and we receive “God’s fullness”,  and little order, a little wholeness, and a little light

But there is a trick to all this.  We have to hear the Word. We have to  be aware of this presence.  John suggests that this can be a problem.  “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.”  We have to learn to see.  We have to learn to hear.  And the reality is, that if we aren't looking for God, we can miss him even though he is right in front of us.  So we must “attend” to God.

But if we do look, and do see?  Have you ever had one of those moments when you learned about a new word?  Or hear a new song.  Learn a new fact?  Suddenly its everywhere!!!  You see that truth, hear that song, everywhere.  That new word appears everywhere.  It has been circulating all along, it's just you never knew to notice it before.  So it is with God.  Once we get hear that word, see that light… once we make that connection with God’s reality, we find God everywhere. 

And frankly we need God’s word in this world.  We need to have a sense of God, and God’s presence, reality.  God’s work.  Think there is a little darkness out there?  What does it look like today  - Greed? Throwing the poor under the bus?  Drugs?  Materialism?  War, violence poverty?  Actually all we have to do is remember that today is September 11 to get a sense of darkness.

What is chaos?  That lack of knowing who we are?  How we are to Live?  Who we are to be?

The presence of God help us see darkness, and fight it  The presence of God helps us make sense of our lives, it creates order out of the chaos – and we become, as individual Christians –a presence, the way God has a voice, and is “enfleshed” today.  John puts it in a number of ways…”we become the children of God”….”from his fullness we have all received grace from grace.”  People full of grace.”  “Children of God.” 

We become people who make God real, for ourselves and for others

The sparkling Christian essayist Phyllis Theroux began one of her articles as follows:  Many years ago I took a Civil Service entrance exam that contained certain questions designed to sort out the people who had “Messiah complexes” or thought that J. Edgar Hoover was giving them varicose veins.  Those questions were easy to spot although the only one that still sticks in my mind is “Do you think you are a special agent of God?”  I paused, thought about all the government benefits which hug upon my answer.  I wrote “No”  I would like to think that under the same circumstances, Mr. Hoover might have lied too

We are special agents of God.  We are called, and empowered… to see the chaos, and fight against it
To see the darkness and fight against it, to see God, be God’s voice

We cannot stick our heads in the sand.  WE cannot ignore the injustice, the wrongs all around us.  We cannot ignore the darkness, or even go along with it.  We cannot allow chaos to continue to rule.

We must open our eyes to the needs.  The hurt, the pain, the poverty, the lostness.  For as Desmond Tutu once said… if you are neutral in cases of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor

We have no choice but to ask ourselves about how we are going to be in this world, which so wants to move to darkness and chaos.  We must choose how we are we going to participate in the work of God, that work of bringing light in the darkness, order in the midst of chaos.

Community gardens.  Wellness programs, Cooks night out! Listening, caring, taking food to the ill.  These are all ways in which we fight the chaos and darkness

Chaos and darkness are out there, and gaining power.
The world is full of chaos thinking,  darkness thinking.

We have to be the antidote to that
We have to see God, receive God, be empowered by God
And then - Be love -- Be Grace  -  Be the creative restoring redeeming word of God

But it all starts with “attention”  With that focus on God that allows us to “see”.

There is a story about Russian who heard a preacher say "pray without ceasing" He puzzled about how to do this, and so, after his wife's death he left home and set out as a pilgrim, seeking a teacher who could help him.  Finally he found a monk who taught him the Jesus Prayer, which simply goes “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”,  and he spent the rest of his life practicing it ceaselessly

As he talks about his experience he ends with these words.  If someone offended me, I needed only to remember the sweetness of the Jesus Prayer and hurt and anger vanished.  I was very much at peace, and often even dreamed that I was uttering this prayer, I thanked God!  For now I understood clearly the meaning of the apostle's words that I heard, pray without ceasing.

Remember God... look for God....See the Light... Hear the Word... and life will be transformed.  I’d like to end with some words from the old Presbyterian Hymnal that to me become a wish, a prayer of response to today’s passage….

God be in my head, and in my understanding,  God be in my eyes and in my looking
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking, God be in my heart and in my thinking

Monday, September 5, 2011

God the Innovator!

Most of us know, at least at some level, the stories of Samson, the biblical Judge.  The life of Sampson was really quite a mixed bag.  Some of the stories about him inspiring.  But some of the stories are actually kind of dark and confusing.

On the good side we have his miraculous birth, Samson as the pure, and amazing strong Nazarite.  We have Samson as person in whom the Spirit of God “stirred.”  And then here is the story of Samson killing a lion with his bare hands.

But there are also stories of foolish bets, and liaisons with prostitutes.   There is Samson killing 30 men for clothes so he could pay of a debt, and the horrific cycle of revenge and retribution that followed.  And there is the story of Delilah, where Sampson is seduced out of the secret of his strength, and defeated.

And we have that odd ender to the story where three thousand Philistines are gathered on the flat roof of a large building. And a blinded, enslaved, and ridiculed Samson is brought in for “entertainment.  As the story goes the blinded Samson, his hair grown back, is placed between two pillars that hold up the roof of the building. Samson flexes his muscles and cracks the pillars and the whole building comes crashing down, with three thousand Philistines dying in one horrendous moment.

The thing here is that God had a plan for Samson.  As an almost superhuman Nazarite Samson was going to rescue Israel and defeat the Philistine.  I am not sure what God’s original plan was for how that would happen…But I am pretty sure Plan A did not include a prostitute, a seductive woman, and fights over clothes.  Nor being blinded and enslaved.  I assume that God planned for Samson to be a leader, and with his strength and leadership deal with the Philistines in what we might call traditional ways.

But Samson, in I think many ways, blew “Plan A” to smithereens.  So there he was  -- Defeated.  Blind.  Enslaved.  Sinful.  He was a mess.  But, he still believed.  He still had a sense of God’s reality and presence.  And so he cried out to God and asked for God and God’s  power to come into his life “one more time.”  And God was ready with “Plan B”.  And Samson did defeat the Philistines.

I am thankful for that story. Often, we are in a period in our lives where we have kind of messed up God’s original plan.  If God has had a plan for us.  For our lives.  For our relationships.  Well we have made choices that have blown that plan apart. 

But what I see in the story of Samson is that God is the great innovator.  God will take us from where we are, and move us forward.  God will take us from where we are, and work his purposes out.

We may have made a mess of things
We may have done things the wrong way
We may have made a mess out of Plan A
But if we are open.  If we trust.  If we are willing.  If we ask!
God will pick us up from where we are, and another plan will emerge, an outcome God wants and intends will be there

There are two phrases that are the key to this passage.  One, “The Spirit of the Lord stirred in Samson and came upon him mightily.” Yes, that is how it is for all of us.  We have that Spirit stirring inside of us.  That is cool.  And it is key.  Paul notes, “the secret is this, Christ in us.”  This Spirit connection with God is the key to our life with God.

But the other line I like was the cry of Samson  “Lord, come to me one more time that I can do your will”
God knows what he wants for our lives.  God has, I think a plan.  We are masters at messing that plan up.  I doubt that Plan A almost never happens, at least the way it was intended.  But God will still be in us, and god will still work through us.   God is the great innovator, and will find a way to make his intention for our lives happen. God will find a way.  God will always find a way…All we have to do is ask, seek, be willing.

Sometimes he may just change the way we get to our destination.
I am convinced that sometimes he actually ends up changing destinations.
He may have had a plan.  But as he works with what we offer
He creates a new plan
A new destination
He finds a new way to use us
A new way for us to benefit the kingdom

Someone once talked about our lives being a sacred text
God writing our story
And kind of making it up as he goes
I like the idea of my life being a sacred text

But this is an awkward place to be,
Relying on God to be the innovator,  to lead us, each step of the way….

It is interesting to me that Samson found his Plan B  by praying.  I struggle with prayer.  I am really bad at it, to be honest.  Perhaps because I am so busy trying to orchestrate my own plan.  But I think prayer, or at least a conscious openness, a conscious focus of God through the Spirit, is how we help God implement Plan B, or C, or D, heck I may be on plan Z.

Anne Lamott says that the two best prayers she knows are “Help me, help me, help me”
And “Thank you, thank you thank you.”  I like that.  She knows a woman whose morning prayer is “whatever” and whose evening prayer is “Oh well”.  I like all of that.  Because it points to that need to  -- wherever we are--  be open to what God has in mind. 

It is time to be willing not willful
And go with god where God leads…
And accept that God can use even our mistakes

Faith work is not seeing it all in a glance, knowing where we are going… seeing into infinity
Faith work is one step at a time

To return to Anne Lamott, she tells of a time that her minister, an African American woman was talking about God’s direction.  She said that when she prays she only gets one spot of illumination.  One little circle of light into which she can step.  This minister, a Presbyterian by the way, then said, “We in our faith work, stumble along toward where we think’ we’re supposed to go, bungling along, and here is what’s so amazing… we end up getting exactly where we are supposed to be.

Another author put it another way.  He states that “the Gospel is able to accept that life is tragic, but then graciously add that we can survive and will even grow from this tragedy.”  He continues wit hthese words.  “It all depends on whether we are willing to see down as up; or as Jung put it, that “where you stumble and fall, there you find pure gold.  Think about the story of redemption. It was set in motion by the “transgression” of Adam and Eve, and then the whole world was redeemed, say Christians, by an act of violent murder! If God has not learned to draw straight with crooked lines, God is not going to be drawing very many lines at all. The beauty Judeo-Christian salvation history is that it refuses to deny the dark side of things, but forgives failure and integrates falling to achieve its promised wholeness…”

I don’t know what God had in mind for me originally.  Maybe he wanted me to be a teacher?  Or something totally different.  I am sure I have blown God’s Plan A to smithereens - No question about that!  But I believe that God is the great innovator, and that God will take me from wherever I am  - to where he wants me to be.  No matter what choices I have made, no matter what mistakes I have made
I believe God will take me   To something good.

Plan A? Plan B? Plan C? Plan Z?
If we are open, If we go with God
If we are open to God writing our story, open to our lives as sacred text
God will make something amazing and and wonderful happen

We never have to give up
We never have to believe that there is no next step
We can always believe in God
And know, and know, and know… that our future is in God’s hands
Thanks be to God, the great innovator