Monday, October 24, 2016

A Matter of Respect

This article appeared in the Cape Cod Times on Saturday, October 22, 2016

A couple of weeks ago, when I was asked to write this column, I figured that it was appearing close enough to the election that it would interesting to reflect on what is happening there from the perspective of faith.   I gave my assurance that I would write something faith-based and not become political or endorse a particular candidate.  Then things began to go off the rails: an embarrassing and troubling (to say the least) video; a debate that included one candidate threatening the other with criminal prosecution; another round of leaked emails; gobs of pundits all trying to explain why the sins of the other candidate are so much worse than the sins of their own.
                I would love to ignore the campaign race and give another fun column about sea glass or snakes in the church basement or the joy of silence (though the joy of silence might be especially apt at this time).  Instead, I feel called to write a column about the meaning of respect, a virtue that we as a nation seem to have lost and that communities of faith might help foster.
                I believe that the call to respect begins in the creation story of Genesis 1 where human beings are formed in the image of God.   This symbolic idea has had many interpretations over the years.  For some it has meant that we look like God and God looks like us, which has led to some shameful theologies of gender and race, especially when people are certain that God looks like an old, white guy.  For others, this has to do with divine planning, that human beings are made according to the image or blueprint of the divine mind, though this leaves male nipples as an open question.   
Personally, I have found a story later in Genesis to be helpful.  In Genesis 33, when the feuding brothers Jacob and Esau are reunited, Jacob says to Esau, “For truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God, since you have received me with such favor.”   When someone loves us; when someone accepts us; when someone respects us, we see the face of God.  Although not completely analogous, this as an idea similar to the Hindi greeting , ”Namaste” which is sometimes rendered, “The divine in me bows to the divine in you.”
The baseline of respect is found in seeing the image of God in each person.  This baseline is irrespective of gender or race, faith or lack thereof, political affiliation or history.  I am a white, male, liberal, Christian pastor in a relatively liberal denomination.  I think that climate change is real.  I think that the earth is billions of years old.  I believe that the Genesis story I referenced is a very helpful but symbolic story.  I also think that biblical literalism is a dead end, offering short term benefits but a long term loss to faith.  Some of you reading this now think that I am great.  Some of you reading this now think that I am a heretic.  Some of you think that I am irrelevant (but you have probably already skipped this column for another section of the paper.)
                It is not necessary that you agree with me or I agree with you.  We can still respect and value one another.  We can still hold that baseline level of respect acknowledging one another in our common humanity.  Whether you are a Democrat or Republican or Libertarian or Green or conscientious objector to the whole process, you still breathe like I do.  You still get hungry like me.  You are aging like me.  You probably have some mornings when you wish you could stay in bed.  You get the occasional headache and upset stomach.  You have probably lost your keys or some other important object that you were just holding five minutes ago.  You probably have had the experience of forgetting someone’s name and were embarrassed because it felt so disrespectful to the person in question as well as exposing your own mental fallibility.
                We share so much in common, the everyday experiences that are the fodder of great comedians.  Why must we work so hard to ignore it?  When we lose that baseline of respect, we begin to treat others as less than human; fools to be tricked; pawns to be manipulated; playthings to be grabbed; commodities to be exploited; enemies to be destroyed.

                So look at the people with whom you disagree; who make you absolutely livid.  Take a deep breath and recognize that these are people with hopes and dreams and fears, just like you.  They are people who want to feel safe and at peace, just like you.  They are people who want to be accepted and respected, just like you.  The conclusions of how we get there may be different, but the impulses are often the same.   May you find the face of God in the faces of those with whom you disagree and may they find the face of God in you.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

For My Dad

Yesterday (9/20/2016) my Mom called to tell me that my Dad had died.  He went for a walk on a California morning by himself and never came home.  Somewhere along the way he collapsed on the trail.  This morning, in the midst of trying to figure out logistics and next moves, I wanted to write something about my Dad, David Evans.
                My Dad taught me a lot about paying attention to little things.  He was an entomologist and Biology professor.  I remember for a time the floor space at his lab at Kalamazoo College was taken up by a children’s swimming pool filled with sand, home to a colony of velvet ants (wingless wasps).  We used to go searching for them on the sand flats outside of Kalamazoo.  It was all about watching and paying attention to things that most of the time we walked by without noticing.
                My Dad taught me that our brains are a gift.  It is all right to learn things for the sake of learning them.  It is all right to question and look at things from a different perspective.  This is probably the reason that as a pastor I have little or no patience for literalism, nor for versions of Christianity that can’t deal with scientific inquiry.  For the church folk who might read this, using our brains is just good stewardship.
                My Dad taught me that gentleness is simply better.  On his sabbatical year in Sierra Leone, he used to take naps during the heat of the afternoon.  One day the neighborhood children were playing outside his house.  “Go away or I will bop you, “ my Dad shouted out the window.  This was a common threat in the village.  The children continued to play so he went into the kitchen and grabbed a wooden spoon.  He went out to the front porch and said again, “Go away or I will bop you.”  According to my Dad, the children looked at him, half-awake and brandishing a mixing spoon, and began to laugh saying, “Bop me first, Dr. Evans.  Bop me first,” at which point they all laughed together.   
                My Dad taught me that humor is important and the pursuit of good humor is a fine way to spend some time.  He was the one who took me to see The Three Amigos at the theater and to this day I cannot hear the words “infamous” or “plethora” in the same way.  He was the one who introduced me to Monty Python, Black Adder, and the Two Ronnies.  He was the professor who was invited to dedicate the new condom machine at the dorms.  His sense of humor embraced the silly and the sardonic. 

                I am grateful to my Dad for all that he taught me.  I am saddened by his loss but grateful that he did not have to experience a long decline, which I think he would have hated.  Whatever comes next, I hope that I can honor him by passing the gifts of curiosity, gentleness and humor to my children and the people around me.

Monday, June 13, 2016

After Orlando - June 12, 2016

                As I was driving home from our synod assembly in Springfield, MA I was listening to the news about the shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL.  At the time I was listening, details were still a bit hazy.  Authorities knew that the shooter had pledged allegiance to ISIS.  President Obama had labeled the tragedy both an act of hate and an act of terror.

               At one point as I was driving through some side roads in western Massachusetts I looked up to see the confederate flag flying over a household.  At least in the south, one can claim an historical justification for flying the stars and bars (not a great justification, but a justification nonetheless).  In the north the confederate flag seems to say, “I’m good with hate.  I want you to fear me a little because I am comfortable with hate.”

                As I thought about that confederate flag, I thought about how it incorporates elements of the national flag though arranged differently.  It has stars and stripes.  It is red, white and blue.  Although it draws from good source material, it represents something very different, a painful history of slavery and racism.

                This is the nature of hate, to take good source material and twist it into shapes and symbols that confuse and distort the original.  The Ku Klux Klan sets a cross ablaze and a symbol of hope and life becomes a symbol of fear and intimidation.  A young man listens to messages of hate and a religion that is centered on striving for wholeness and peace becomes an excuse to kill the innocent.  It is no wonder that there is a debate about how to label this extremism.  Most Muslims don’t want their faith associated with ISIS any more than I want my Christian beliefs associated with the KKK.

                But now his excuse for bloodshed will become an excuse for others.  Some will use the Pulse as an excuse to hate Muslims.  Some will use this tragedy as an excuse to put up walls of separation.  Some will use these shootings as an excuse to put more guns on the street.  Some will even find a way to use this hatred as an affirmation of their belief that God hates the LGBTQ community.

                It is tempting to segue into using tragedy as an excuse for good, but that never seems to do justice to the tragedy itself.  Over 100 people, all children of God, dead and wounded, are not an excuse for action, good or bad.  Responding to Orlando requires us first to sit with the tragedy, to mourn for the dead, to pray for the families, to care for those who are wounded, grieving and afraid, and finally to look at ourselves and acknowledge the attitudes we tolerate that allow hate to grow: irrational fears of those who are different, intentional ignorance of other faiths, scripture used primarily as a litmus test to determine who is in and who is out.

                After we acknowledge the pain and its impact, then we can respond with greater love.  The shootings in Orlando are a terrible symbol of the fact that we have not yet lived into the reign of God, that holy mountain where they will not hurt or destroy; that holy city where weeping and crying and pain will be no more.  Yet as church we are called together in Christ to live toward God’s vision of loving peace.  We are called to go out with good news that God’s love is for all: male and female, straight and queer, regardless of race, class or culture.  God is in love with Muslims and Christians and Jews and Hindus and Buddhists and Wiccans and a list of faiths too long for this entry but also includes atheists and agnostics.  God is in love with people whose sexuality might make me blush.  God is in love with those who struggle with mental illness.  God is in love with every person who is different by anyone else’s definition of difference. 

                May that love be our guide as we go about the world.  May that love be our message in the face of fear, hate and bigotry.  May that love be the means to put an end to tragedies with names like the Pulse, Emanuel AME Church and Sandy Hook Elementary.  May the love of God that surrounds Orlando be comfort to the mourning, healing to the wounded, and peace to all who are afraid.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Finding Focus - A Peace-centered Church

A Church Centered on Peace
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. – John 14:27
                The good news of Christ can be described in many ways.  Often when we talk about the big issues within the faith, we are only describing a single aspect of a multi-faceted reality.  I have heard the gospel described as peace and grace, love and life, joy and hope.  A seminary professor once summed it up by saying that the good news is that God’s final word is “Yes” and not “No.”  Jesus keeps comparing it to the coming of the reign of God.  None of these are comprehensive; all of them point toward the good news.  Even as Jesus declares that “The kingdom of God has come near,” he then describes that kingdom through a series of parables that seek interpretation.
                Because last week I wrote about finding focus, I thought it would be interesting to consider what might happen if a church centered on one of these aspects and let that shape its ministry and life together.  This week I am going to write about a hypothetical church that shares the gospel as peace.
                The mathematician Blaise Pascal once wrote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from the inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”  Peace is more than avoiding violence, but is also learning contentment.  In scripture peace has more to do with being whole and complete than the absence of war and strife.  The good news of peace is that you are whole and complete in the eyes of God just as you are.
                Every day we are faced with images and ideas that tell us that we are not enough; that we don’t look good enough; that we don’t have enough; that we are not smart enough.  A congregation centered on peace would begin by reminding its members that whoever they are and whatever baggage they bring, they are complete in the eyes of God.   There is nothing they have to do to be loved and nothing they have to do to be accepted.
                Worship in this congregation might be a bit quieter and calmer than others.  Where other congregations might find value in getting people emotionally stirred up, this congregation would intentionally provide a space to calm down and decompress.   The congregation might be more apt to work with silence and contemplation.  Musically, its worship would tend toward simplicity.
                The challenge for this peaceful congregation would be twofold.  While the gospel offers good news of acceptance and love, it also offers the challenge of growth.  As the Buddhist teacher Suzuki Roshi once wrote, “Each of you is perfect the way you are and you can use a little improvement.”   The purpose of peaceful contemplation and not simply to snuggle with the loving presence of God, rather the contemplative seeks a transformative experience of God, one that sets them free from habitual thinking of regrets for mistakes or grudges over past offences or distractions from love.  Without the challenge of growth as disciples and the conflict this kind of change and growth can bring, this church could easily fall into holy naval gazing. 
Second, this church would have to work to get outside of itself.  It would be tempting to sit together in the warmth of God’s peace, but that would miss the outward call of the gospel of peace.  The church seeks to find its peace in God so that it can spread peace in the world.  A congregation that is centered on peace might look for ways to establish wholeness in the local community, making sure that the hungry are fed, that the homeless are safe, that the lonely have companionship, that the anxious find calm.  This congregation might also be involved in environmental causes and ministries, whether that be seeking natural settings for prayer and meditation or advocating for the care of those same settings.

The peace-centered congregation may not appeal to every person.  Some will find it too quiet and not stimulating enough but others will find it to be a helpful alternative, especially if they find that their lives are already overstimulated by stress and anxiety.  It could stand as a living example of the gospel as voiced by Jesus, Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Pursuing the Why - Finding Focus

                I’ve often been told that the church is like a business.  This idea frequently comes in the midst of a budget discussion from someone trying to get to the root of the problem.  The church is like a business, needing to make a profit or at least break even.  Like a business, we cannot spend more than we receive.
                I have never liked the business image, in part because it feels like the person who says it to me assumes that I don’t know how things work in the “real world,” as though being a clergyperson has removed that part of my brain that tells me how money works, or perhaps they want to believe that my calling has put me above thinking of such worldly things and I need a reminder.  My experience in the church is that there is often a suspension of disbelief when it comes to money.  The fair-priced repair on one’s private home becomes a horrible rip-off when offered to the church at the same price.  The musician who earns his or her bread by playing becomes selfish for seeking a fair wage for a Sunday morning.   The extra money that buys coffees and scratch tickets would be an unreasonable burden to cast away in an offering plate.
                I also dislike the business image because it creates an unclear role for people in the congregation.  Are the members of church the customers or the employees?  Is the pastor the shopkeeper for whom the customer is always right or a manager of a difficult crew?  Perhaps church members are more like the stakeholders in a cooperative market, partaking in the services of the community while also asked to serve the business.
                I now realize that the main reason I dislike the business image is that we won’t take it far enough.  If the church is like business, we have to go further than profit and loss.  For instance, most discussions of outreach don’t take into account the idea of a customer acquisition cost.  Most businesses assume that it will cost a certain amount of money in areas such as marketing and product development to obtain new customers.  Many conversations around the church involve the desire for growth and new members, but few conversations acknowledge that there is a cost to reaching out as a congregation.
                More importantly, I have found that in the church, if we say we are like a business, we are unclear about the nature of the product or service that we are promoting.  At one point, we could say that our product was Lutheranism, which we might identify as a Christ-centered, grace-centered theology packaged in a mix of cultural practices and liturgical worship.  But our product, at least as traditionally packaged, hasn’t been selling for quite a few years.  We are moving from having a decent share of the market, to being only found in specialty stores, where surprised shoppers look at us and say, “Remember this.  I can’t believe they are still making this.”
                To be clear, the essence of our product is solid.  We should by no means step away from the Christ-centered, grace-centered theology which is at the heart of who we are.  We should not fall in line with popular theologies that tell the world that God is waiting to bless you if you only prove your trust or that the good news is a promise of success,  wealth or blessing.  We should continue to tell the world that God has already blessed humanity more than it can know in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  We should continue to speak of a divine love that dwells with us in spite of our mistakes and not because of our good actions.
                Yet we may need to change how our product is packaged.  We may need to share our understanding of the good news in new ways or with new language.  We may need to look carefully at how the way we organize and live as congregations serves as a reflection of what we believe.  If we say the gospel is joy, but do nothing to spread joy in our community, we are guilty of false advertising.  If we say the gospel is peace or grace, but then organize ourselves in ways that demand large amounts of time devoted to meetings, meetings that tend to add more stress to already busy lives, we are also guilty of false advertising.
                We need to find a focus for our understanding of the gospel and let that inform our life together.  If the gospel is joy, how do we create joyful worship and fellowship?  If the gospel is grace, how do we live out the idea that there is nothing we have to do while still being responsible as an organization.  If the gospel is about peace, how do you show what peace looks like? 

                To go back to the business model, if we know our product, it makes it much easier to promote and sell.  If we know why we do what we do, it will have a great impact on how we do what we do.  None of this is intended to take away from the good news of what God has done in Jesus, but rather is intended to give focus to how we share it.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Pursuing the Why

It is no secret that many church bodies are experiencing a time of decline.  In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, congregations have fewer people in worship than in previous decades.  Fewer people are enrolling in seminary to become pastors, a reflection of the fact that ministry feels less secure than it once did.  You would never get rich as a pastor, but you could provide a dependable income for you and your family.  This was part of the image of pastoral ministry when I graduated from seminary almost twenty years ago.   Now we are starting to see articles about the joys of bivocational ministry (aka part-time pastor and part-time barista).
                Recently I convened a meeting of anyone who wanted to take part to talk about the future of our congregation in Falmouth.  About twenty people attended.  We talked in more detail about these trends and their impact on our community.
                At one point, the participants were broken into four groups to answer a series of questions:
1.        What sort of church do you want to be for the next 5 years?
2.       What needs to happen for us to be that church?
3.       How will we support that church?  What are you willing to do to make it happen?
In answering the first question the groups came back with: 
1.       Focused on seniors and social needs
2.       More welcoming
3.       Open – Not Gone
4.       In existence
The first answer reflects a sense of hope and purpose.  The group talked about reaching out to older people because that is the makeup of our area of Cape Cod.  It is true that we have families with young children (the current holy grail of church life) but many of the people around us are 55 and older.  It would make sense to look at the needs of our current older population rather than continuing to hope that younger people will seek out an aging congregation.
The second answer, be more welcoming, is one I hear frequently and have heard in several congregations.  Many people seem to think that the solution to a multitude of the church’s problems is to be friendlier.  To be clear, there are congregations that have a reputation for simply being unfriendly or closed off, where no one approaches the visitors at fellowship and unsuspecting guests are ejected from family pews (or at least seriously glared at).   There are also congregations that do hospitality very well with good signage and happy, smiling people to greet you at the door.  I suspect, however, that for many congregations, the hope to be more welcoming is a reflection of visitors who come and don’t return.  What did we do wrong?  If only we had been friendlier.
Yet often when people don’t return it is more complicated than being treated in an unfriendly way.  In this era where denominational loyalty is less important, people may visit  a church with something specific in mind other than having Lutheran on the church sign.  The Lutheran label might be a bonus if that is your family heritage, but it is probably not the first priority.  The thing they are looking for might be a program, like Sunday school or social outreach.  It might be a worship style.   If they are younger, they may be looking for a place with people of their own generation.  I have received several comments from people who visited our congregation, thanked us for being very welcoming, but acknowledged that they were simply looking for something else.   Don’t get me wrong.  We should be as gracious and welcoming as we can be, but should not have the expectation that friendliness will make us all things to all people.
The final two answers, “open-not gone” and “in existence” represent the reality for many congregations today.  We look at empty pews and deficit budgets and wonder how we can make it through the current year much less look at life five years in the future.  It can be as dangerous to get mired in the current reality of the church as it is to ignore it.
As we consider the future of our congregation, the question that needs to be asked is “Why?”  Why should we remain open?  When there are several congregations in the area that are on paper more viable, why does God need this pocket-full of Lutherans on the heel of the jester’s shoe that is Cape Cod?
I suggest that this is where we need to spend some time together in conversation and discernment.  If we can find no other reason to be open other than to be open, then it is seriously time to consider how we can best look toward closing with dignity.  That may sound harsh, but it is difficult to justify through scripture or tradition a church that is open simply to be open.  If there is no mission or purpose that undergirds the life of the church, then we are, as a colleague once put it, “a museum of Lutheran studies with a music appreciation society.” 

If we are the church, then God has a mission for us.  We are here to spread the good news, continuing Christ’s work in the world.  As a congregation, we are a unique gathering of Christians, with talents and resources for sharing that news.  We don’t need to ask if we are called to share it, but need to ask how we are called to share it.  The good news can faithfully be described in many ways: grace, peace, forgiveness, promise, life, joy, hope, love, truth, justice, equality, wholeness, mindfulness, and welcome, just to name a few.  What would our life together look like if we said that we are here to share the good news of grace in Christ?  Peace in Christ?  Joy in Christ?  If we find a way to focus our attention, perhaps it will help us look forward.  My next few blog posts will continue to look at how we pursue the why.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Mothering God - In honor of Julian of Norwich on Mother's Day 2016

This article appeared in Matters of Faith column of the Cape Cod Times on May 7, 2016

               On May 13 of 1373 a woman whom we only know today as Julian in the town of Norwich, England was deathly ill.  A local priest was summoned to administer the last rites and be with her at her death.  As part of his ministry, he held a cross before her face and told her to look at and take comfort in it.  According to her writing, as she looked at the cross she was given a series of sixteen visions (or showings, as she called them) about the nature of Christ, the nature of humanity and the nature of God.
                Julian recovered from the illness and spent the rest of her life as an anchoress, living in contemplation in a room attached to The Church of Saint Julian (from which she probably took her name), meditating on and writing about this series of visions.  Dame Julian is especially remembered for her summary of God’s promises for the world:  “All will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing will be well.”  She came to understand that the love of God would simply overflow and dilute the worst that humanity could do.  All will be well in spite of our mistakes, our missteps and our misfortunes, events beyond our control.  Over and over again in her writings she is comforted by the voice of Christ telling her that, in the end, “All will be well.”
                In artwork, Julian is often pictured holding a hazelnut.  This stems from one of her visions of God.  She looks in her hand and sees “something small, no bigger than a hazelnut.”  She comes to realize that it represents “everything which is made.”  She is amazed that something so small and fragile can endure but then understands that it exists (and all creation continues to exist) because God made it, God loves it, and God continues to preserve it.  Again, the overriding sense of her writing is that it is the love of God which weaves together the fabric of creation in spite of our efforts to unravel it.
                As we approach Mothers’ Day, I thought it was appropriate to draw attention to another facet of  Julian of Norwich’s writings, namely, her use of maternal imagery for God.  It is not that Julian exchanges paternal language for maternal language.  Rather, she uses them side by side, expanding the vocabulary of divine description.  “As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother, and he revealed that in everything, and especially in these sweet words where he says:  I am he; that is to say:  I am he, the power and goodness of fatherhood; I am he, the wisdom and the lovingness of motherhood; I am he, the light and the grace which is all blessed love.”  (Revelations of Divine Love, Chapter 60)  She also frequently refers to Christ as “Mother Jesus” a reflection not of gender but of role and relationship saying, “So he [Jesus] wants us to act as a meek child, saying: My kind Mother, my gracious Mother, my beloved Mother, have mercy on me.”  (Revelations of Divine Love, Chapter 61)
                Living in the fourteenth century, Julian would have experienced more rigid definitions of gender roles in parenting.  Mothers and fathers had specific spheres of influence in the lives of their children.  In the twenty-first century, we may question the cultural assumptions about family in Julian’s time, probably giving more value to equality and shared responsibilities in parenting.  Yet we still might see the important implications of Julian’s language, that defining God by a single gender or a single role limits our vision of the love of God.  As Julian experienced the breadth of God’s love, she could not help but go beyond the traditional labels of father and descriptions of a father’s love.  She had to include another image of love and kindness that she had experienced, the love of a mother.
                There are many images of God that come to us both through scripture and centuries of faithful people trying to express their relationship with the divine.  God is described as a Shepherd, a Rock and a Shield.  God is praised as Charity, Wisdom, Humility, Patience, Security and Love.  Jesus refers to God as both a Father in heaven and as Abba (the Aramaic word for Daddy).  None of these titles or descriptions are mutually exclusive.  Instead, they point to aspects of an eternal God who is beyond any label.  Julian referred to God as Mother not because paternal titles were wrong, but because they were too limiting.

                God is our Shepherd.  God is our Rock.  God is Love.  God is our Father.  God is our Mother.  God is none of these titles exclusively.  God is all of these titles at once.  Most importantly for Julian of Norwich, God is the one who, in all of these guises, will make all things well.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Jesus and the Last Cookie - A Lenten Meditation

This post is being written partway through the season of the Lent in 2016.  For many people, Lent, the liturgical season before Holy and Week and Easter is a time for establishing a personal discipline.  Following the ancient tradition of fasting, it is common to give something up for the season.  Chocolate, soda and other types of junk food are common.  I once had a friend who gave up money for Lent.  She was a college student on a university food plan and living in a dorm room so food and shelter were not an issue.  She took out $100 from the ATM at the beginning of the season in case of emergency but then attempted to go through the 40 days without buying anything extra, though mooching off others was not out of the question in her discipline.
              There is no issue with trying to be more disciplined.  I admit being impressed by those who seem to have better self-control, running the marathon, doing the crunches, eating unprocessed, low sugar foods, foods that offer a culinary joy that seems akin to reading the privacy information policy that the bank keeps sending.  As I have said to my congregation, it is not that I want another donut, I just keep finding myself in situations where I happen to have another donut.  I have often tried, failed and tried again to establish some personal disciplines.
              My question is, does Jesus care?  Does Jesus care if I give up chocolate for 40 days?  Does Jesus care if I eat only tofu in his name?  Does Jesus care if I eat the last cookie in the box?  Some people may feel very strongly that Jesus does care because, after all, these disciplines are being carried out as a sign of respect and honor. 
              I just wonder if we are honoring Jesus with gifts that he didn’t ask for, the religious equivalent of sending an ill-fitting sweater to your cousin in Florida, a gift that will be examined quizzically and lost in a deep closet.  Jesus asks for love, kindness and compassion and we offer touchdowns, chocolate and the last cookie.  And it is not that Jesus won’t accept these gifts.  He will receive them with a smile and a nod and the hope that next time we will pay more attention to the registry.
              This is a nagging feeling that also follows me to worship.  As a pastor, I think about the time and effort we give to the Sunday morning hour, an event that is often at the heart of religious experience, that frequently defines the pastoral role, and yet is something that Jesus does not ask for.  There is tension about worship in the scriptures.  The faithful are called on to praise God and worship.  Paul assumes that the early church will be singing hymns and sharing the Lord’s Supper.  At the same time the prophets critique that worship.  Amos speaks for God saying, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”  It might be said that because we proclaim Jesus as divine and fully God, the calls to worship that come out of Hebrew scripture also apply to Jesus; we worship Jesus as God.  My point is that Jesus himself never asks to be worshiped.  He never asks for buildings or organs or praise bands, ecstatic hand-clapping or stolid liturgy.  He asks to be followed.  “Take up your cross and follow me,” he says.

              I suspect if our focus on proper worship or dedicated touchdowns or the last cookie are really distractions from the hard work of following, of learning to welcome and love the stranger, of standing with those in need, or struggling to love the enemy.  I’m sure Jesus smiles and nods at much of our worship, accepts our Lenten fasts, even accepts our gift of the last cookie in the box, but perhaps we should intentionally seek to offer that for which Jesus asks, our love, our kindness, our compassion, the very gifts that he has first given to us.

Monday, February 1, 2016

A Midwinter Resolution

The following article appeared in the Cape Cod Times Matter of Faith column on January 30, 2016.

It is the time of year where the glow of fresh resolutions is starting to fade.  War and Peace remains unread; the daily trip to the gym has become weekly; I swear the chocolate chip cookies are a special treat and not a habit.  Our will power has been tested and though I am certain a few hang on, many have left the dreams of a better self by the wayside for another year.
              But it is never too late to make resolutions and I have a one that I would like to suggest, especially in this season of political putdowns: give someone a genuine compliment.   I think we would be happier people and a more generous society if we could learn to point out the good things we see in the people around us especially as we see them.
              Some might read this and think I am in a power of positive thinking phase.  I prefer to think that I am an advocate for paying attention in a new way.  I often hear people paying attention to the irritants around them.  They notice what is not proper, what doesn’t meet their standards.  The lone seed found in a supposedly seedless clementine orange ruins the rest of the fruit.  The sneakers on a teenage acolyte are noticed as she lights the candles but not the gift of her time and effort.
              This is not to say that there is no room or reason for complaint.  I suggest that it is a matter of scale.  The people in Flint, Michigan who have been drinking lead-tainted water for a year have something to complain about and we might be moved to complain with them.  Folks in the Black Lives Matter movement have valid complaints that need to be voiced if things are going to change.  If you are pointing out injustice, if you advocating for the needs of others, let the complaints fly.  If you are griping about what bugs you: a color scheme, a bruised apple, a long wait at the checkout, keep it to yourself or, even better, pay attention to something else.
              When I studied Hebrew in seminary, I remember a discussion of the word hinei (pronounced hi-nay), which often gets translated as “Behold!”  For example, from Psalm 133, “Behold!  How good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”  However, the word is more an interjection for emphasis than an actual verb, sort of like starting a sentence with “Hey!” or “Yo!”  It is a short word that means, “Pay attention to this moment; these words that follow.  Look over here and take notice of what is happening.”  It is a wonderful word to throw out when the urge to grumble and complain begins.  Hinei!  Pay attention to something else.  Pay attention to what good and beautiful thing is happening around that irritating moment.
              The other week I had to give a blood sample for a physical, something I don’t enjoy and which draws me back to the blood drive my senior year in high school when I passed out in the donation chair.  I remember waking up with a nurse gently slapping my face and me trying to figure out who she was and why she was in my room.  I was certain it was my room at home.  Why would I wake up anywhere else?  When I arrived at the lab, the attendant asked if it was all right for one of the students in training to take my sample.  I hesitated, worried about waking up to another strange person slapping my face, but then agreed.  Hinei!  She did a fine job, or at least as fine a job as one can do jabbing someone in the arm with a needle.  But she only had to jab me once and took the sample quickly.  So I said something like, “I think you did that well.”  She smiled at the compliment and we made a brief connection over a task that probably doesn’t earn too much gratitude.  I like to think that both of our days were a little bit brighter because of it.
               I am not trying to be the hero of my story, rather I wanted to point out that she was a hero to me.  Be sincere.  Don’t force a compliment.  This is not about coming across as good or nice or likeable, but instead pointing out what is good, nice and likeable in the neighbor next to you.

              So that is my suggestion for a midwinter resolution.  Pay attention and notice the kind word and the kind act.  Be generous with compliments and stingy on complaints.   Take the time to acknowledge the beautiful and the good.  Hinei!  Pay attention to the sparkle of sun on snow; to the joy of a warm drink on a cold day; to ever-so-earlier sunrises and ever-so-later sunsets.  Most of all, hinei! pay attention to that person next to you, who may well have some irritating qualities (as do you) but who also has qualities of goodness and beauty and lovingkindness.  Hinei!  Pay attention to the world in a new way.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Discipleship and Grace

For 2016, our congregation on Cape Cod is going to be spending time focused on discipleship.  During the Advent season, we talked about hope using Julian of Norwich’s summary of the good news, “All will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing will be well.”  My assertion is that discipleship and lives shaped by faith blossom out of hope.  The gift and task for every Christian is to study, do and live the practices that reconnect us to that hope found in Christ.  This is a lifelong challenge because it is so easy to forget the promise and so easy to be distracted from the path.  There are simply too many voices making promises of salvation through other means (like wealth, power and assorted stuff) and too many voices telling us that all will not be well, distracting us through fear and terror.
              When Lutherans talk about discipleship, the biggest complaint is that we are stepping into the area of works.  A misinterpretation of the Lutheran tradition is that because we are saved through faith in God’s work in Christ and not by our own works, we don’t have to do anything.  This is technically true.  There is nothing we can do to earn a relationship with God.  There is nothing we can do to save ourselves.  These are precious and generous gifts from God.
              However, in the Lutheran tradition, the expectation is that real faith will inspire real works.  If our faith in Christ does not inspire us to want to live our lives centered on Christ, seeking ways to be closer, seeking ways to spread that good news, then we may need to reexamine the nature of our faith.  If we as the church are not inspiring those who come to worship to deeper lives in Christ outside of worship, we may need to reexamine our purpose and practices.
              In the past I have compared the gospel to an excellent piano (or whatever instrument you like) being left in your living room as a surprise gift.  Whatever way you use the piano, it will be a lovely addition to your living space.  I’ve been to many homes where the piano, probably acquired to give lessons to a less than enthusiastic child, is essentially an extra shelf for knickknacks, photos and flowers. 
              As you begin to explore this instrument you discover that along with it there is a collection of piano instruction books and even a set of free lessons with a teacher.  The piano is yours, whether or not you take the time to study and learn, but imagine what can happen if you do take that time.  Imagine working with this instrument, playing familiar melodies, creating harmonies, improvising something new from old.  Imagine the joy you might find for yourself and the joy you can share with others.
              This is the vision for discipleship.  As we deepen our lives in the gospel, we participate in God’s unfolding vision for the world.  We don’t do it because it makes us good Christians.  We do it because the vision of hope, promise and life is good and just.  We partner with God and God invites us to improvise on the theme of good news.  We take our gifts and skills and use them to celebrate and be part of what God has done, what God is doing and what God will do.

              The Zen Buddhist instructor Suzuki Roshi once wrote to his students, “You are perfect just as you are, and you can use a little improvement.”  For me, this is a great summary of how I understand living as a disciple.  The call to discipleship does not take away from the graceful promise of the gospel, but gives us the foundation to explore.  We are accepted as we are and we are invited to go further than where we are.  The promise of the good news, a promise into which we are baptized, is a beginning to a life of growth and depth in faith.