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.