If It Is Not Okay, It Is Not the End

Hope is a tricky thing. On the one hand it is the very heart of what moves us, what makes us tick, what keeps us going. However, hope cannot be present without adversity.

 

I am reminded of one of my very favorite movies, The Shawshank Redemption. As I sat to write this, I had the words of one of the lead characters going through my head. “Remember, Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” To be honest with you, as I began to write this, heard those words bouncing through my head and thought they must have been scripture. Instead, they are the words of Andy Dufresne, a man who was mistakenly sentenced to life in prison for killing his wife (which he didn’t do). Those words of hope are offered by Dufresne to his friend Red, who has been released from prison but no longer knows how to live as a free man.

 

As I mentioned earlier, the nature of hope is a complex one. I think we need hope as much as we need air, water, food and shelter. It is one of those vital parts of our inner being that keeps us going. The trick is, you cannot have hope without adversity. A prerequisite for hope is having a situation that seems insurmountable, challenging, painful, harmful, dark, scary, or even evil. For it is in facing such realities that the human spirit chooses to find ways to rise above, and it is in this determination to rise above that we find the seeds of hope.

 

I wonder sometimes about the realities of our American culture. The rates of depression for us are strikingly high when compared to other countries around the world. Could it be that we have so shaded ourselves from reality with entertainment, comfort and distraction that rather than facing adversity and pain in order to find hope, we have opted for living a life under anesthesia? Is, perhaps, part of the problem that we have turned away from our troubles instead of facing them, and by extension, limited the birth real hope in our lives?

 

This Sunday’s scripture lesson shows us real hope—albeit in a very strange place. In the case of Jeremiah, real hope came in the form of a real estate transaction. As Babylon was razing Jerusalem to the ground, Jeremiah was setting up the purchase of land from his cousin—from Jeremiah’s own prison cell, no less! Talk about adversity, pain, darkness and even evil. Jeremiah is pretty much at his lowest low, and here he is buying property. At first read, this seems like such a strange story, but when you think of the symbolism, it is incredibly powerful. Even at this darkest of all moments for the people of Jerusalem, Jeremiah is investing in the future—on the very land the Babylonians were taking from them. Keep in mind, Jeremiah has been that hopelessly negative guy that kept telling everyone that things were going to fall apart and that the world as they knew it was coming to an end. And for people to see pessimistic Jeremiah buying land, must have been a real symbol that the story isn’t over yet. As Richard DeSimone put it at Bible Study last night (borrowed from a Hindu proverb that was later quoted by John Lennon), “Everything will be okay in the end. If it is not okay, it is not the end.” Powerful words. Words of true hope!

 

Perhaps this points at the fact that we do need moments where it is not okay. We do need moments of adversity, struggle and perhaps even evil. Without these painful moments, how else could we find that kind of hope? How else could we find the king of hope that moves us to amazing feats? How else would we be moved to take on the things that others would say are crazy, that we might change the world?

Be A Good Little Pharisee

Let’s talk about Pharisees for a minute. We love to demonize them. They are the bad guys who Jesus went up against. We just love it when Jesus pulls a fast one and pulls one over on the Pharisees. But do we really know who we are talking about?

 

The Pharisees were a religious class in Jesus time (far more prominent after Jesus time, but that is for another reflection). They were not the high priests. They were different from the Scribes in that they didn’t have nearly the power. They were different from the Saducees in their understanding of resurrection and afterlife questions. In a lot of ways, perhaps the best understanding of Pharisees in our modern context would be elders of the church. They were a bit more learned on matters of faith, had a bit of a voice within the religious community, had respect that went with them. All of this is to say, they weren’t really the bad guys at all. They were the good guys. They were the really good guys. But there in lies the problem, and the grounds upon most of the confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees.

 

The Pharisees were the ones who followed the rules, did as they were told, and looked down upon those who did not. They were self-righteous. They knew that they were better than everyone else, and they acted like it. That is often where we find them in the stories when they confront Jesus. This week, Jesus is dining with a mixed group of sinners, tax collectors, as well as Pharisees and Scribes. The Pharisees and Scribes are turning up their nose at those “other” dinner guests. That brings on three parables from Jesus, the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son (better known as the prodigal son).

 

All this Pharisee talk is important because it tells us that there is a part of this parable that we often miss. Again, Jesus had several different audiences, and the sinners and tax collectors loved hearing of the redemption of the lost son. That is often the part we love to hear too! We love the idea of being welcome with open arms by our God when we have wandered off from home. However, we often don’t realize that for most regular church-goers (most of you reading this email), our part in the story is often a lot closer to that of the older brother, rather than the lost son. Yeah, I know—none of us want to hear that. The older brother is self-righteous, conceited, and merciless. He is really only concerned about what he gets from things. He is a Pharisee. He has done everything he was supposed to be doing. He has done what he was told. He has acted the part. Now he wants his piece of the pie. He doesn’t come off looking so hot.

 

That is kinda the warning to us—God loves that we have been doing as we have been told. God loves that we have been faithful and loyal. God loves that we are dependable and wear those butt prints into our pews on Sunday. But beware the temptation to self-righteousness. It is easy for those of us who do behave as we are expected, to start looking down on those who don’t. It is easy for us to fall into the same trap as the older brother or as the Pharisees and think that we are somehow better than those who have not lived by all the rules. Thing is—that isn’t how God operates. God loves us all. Period.

 

One of the beauties in Jesus’ teaching is that these parables do speak to so many audiences. There are times in our life where we are the prodigal and need to be welcomed home. There are also times when we need to realize we are the older brother and need to be better about the welcoming part—which brings us to this Sunday!

 

I hope you all have been good little Pharisees and done as you were told—inviting someone to church. It is Back To Church Sunday! This is an important time for us to practice the grace that the older brother lacked. It is time for us to welcome with open arms, those who we haven’t had sitting next to us. Frankly, it is always time for us to welcome with such grace, but now is a good time to practice. We’ll talk a bit more about Pharisees and Prodigals on Sunday. See you then!

WARNING!WARNING!

Many people are uncomfortable with the words of the prophets, as many times those words are filled with wrath and threat. The passage from Jeremiah this week is no different. In Jeremiah 4 we hear the threat of what is to come from the Babylonian armies, if God’s people don’t shape up.

 

On Sunday, we will certainly spend a great deal of time talking about how we make sense of the wrath and the anger, and what that means for how we live our lives of faith. However, something else about this passage caught my eye this week, and it bears some reflection. Take a read and see if this part of the passage reminds you of another passage of scripture:

 

23 I looked at the earth, and it was without shape or form; at the heavens and there was no light.

24 I looked at the mountains and they were quaking; all the hills were rocking back and forth.

25 I looked and there was no one left; every bird in the sky had taken flight.

26 I looked and the fertile land was a desert; all its towns were in ruins before the Lord, before his fury.

27 The Lord proclaims: The whole earth will become a desolation, but I will not let it be destroyed completely.

 

I don’t know about you, but I hear a reflection of the creation story from Genesis 1. What God is seeing is the way that we are undoing the good creation that God has made through our actions. Jeremiah wanted us to see that the ways that we have been unfaithful at times have led to the undoing of the world around us.

 

These are important words, at an important time in history. This past year has been filled with news stories that are tucked back behind the main headlines that tell us some rather disturbing things are happening in the world around us. There have been stories about permanent ice loss in the arctic and Antarctic. There have been stories about the temperature of the whole globe rising by a degree and a half. That same temperature increase is affecting the oceans as well. We are hitting milestones in the condition of the earth that scientists did not believe would happen for many more years.

 

Now, I know that some of you do not think that these changes in the globe are connected to human activity. The politics of the global climate change crisis often still point to other factors. Perhaps that is the case. At this point though, I think most people accept that there are some disturbing changes afoot. However, let us think about the theological case here, and put politics aside.

 

There are changes happening. Big ones. Scary ones. What we can learn from the prophets, and Jeremiah 4 in particular, is that there are warnings about changes on the way. If Jeremiah is to be seen as a sample case, we tend to ignore warnings. Jeremiah is the story of how God warns (repeatedly) the Israelites from playing political games with their big bad neighbors, the Babylonians. Yet, the powers that be in Israel continue to ignore God’s warnings. In the end, what comes to pass is much like what Jeremiah has written about in this passage—the undoing of the world as the Israelites knew it. The undoing of God’s good creation as they were hauled away into slavery and exile by the Babylonians.

 

We will spend some time talking about how we make sense of these anger and wrath passages on Sunday, but in the meantime, let us acknowledge that there are consequences to our actions. The actions of the Israelites led to the undoing of their world. These words from Jeremiah seem to suggest that seeing the world unravel as we are seeing it now, may be a warning to us, that some things need to change. Even if there are other causes to the global climate crisis, it cannot be denied that we could be doing a much better job caring for God’s good creation than we have been doing. At the moment, it seems we are content to ignore the warning signs around us, come what may.

 

Perhaps one prime example of this is what has not been in the news until this week. For months, there has been a standoff between a major international oil corporation and the Lakota Sioux tribes in North Dakota. There have been some serious underhanded dealings that have led to a pipeline being built in the Lakota Sioux’s backyard and across their main source of water. Much of the situation is the result of dubious deals between the US government and the tribe 50+ years ago. I am willing to grant, that maybe there is another side to this story. However, I am also fairly convinced that the reason we have not heard more about this story is that the corporations who bankrolled this pipeline also happen to be the ones who have a controlling interest in the news media. It wasn’t until last weekend, when dogs were sicked on protestors and pepper spray used, that the internet lit up with this story and major news media had no choice but to start mentioning it.

 

Again, maybe there is another side, but shouldn’t this come as a reminder that perhaps we have been ignoring warning signs all around us as well? The prophets are a voice that is there to draw our attention to the things that we are content to ignore. The prophets are the ones that are not popular, because they tell us what we do not want to hear. But the prophets are also the ones that are there to wake us up before it is too late. Things didn’t work out so well for the Israelites when their world was undone by ignoring the warning signs all around them. Will we repeat their mistakes?

Meaning Without Answers

This week health has been on my mind. On the one hand, we have a scripture that deals with Jesus healing a woman who was “bent over.” Probably such an extreme form of Arthritis that she could hardly move. On the other hand, my children have started school (Rowan for the first time), and with the start of school comes all sorts of wonderful germs. Both have been down for the count for extended periods this week—not fun! Imagine though, I struggled with sick kids for a week, and we are told this woman suffered for 18 long years and was healed!

 

This kind of healing raises all sorts of interesting questions for us: How do we make sense of biblical miracles? How come we don’t often experience healing in this way? Why are some healed and some are not when facing debilitating diseases? Why can’t the synagogue leaders celebrate instead of criticize for this healing on the Sabbath?—That’s the one we will tackle on Sunday.

 

On top of my typhoid Finch problem at home that had me thinking of health, I had a powerful experience on Monday this week. I was in the office, reveling in the quiet (church usually closed on Monday), when a woman that we have helped before came in. She came with the news that she has terminal cancer, and 3 kiddos at home. There is no other family support. If ever there was a woman in need of healing, it was her. She asked me to pray for her. She asked me to heal her. She believes that faith will take the cancer away, and she wanted to know why a friend of hers who had terminal cancer and survived was healed, and yet, things look so bleak for her. I had no answers. I still don’t. There are so many platitudes that we offer for times like these that ring hollow—or worse, bring despair! “Everything happens for a reason.” “We don’t know God’s plans.” The worst of all, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” (By the way, that last one is a butchering of scripture, Don’t use it!)

 

I don’t know why our friend is dying of terminal cancer. I don’t know why some people experience miraculous healings, and others don’t. I don’t know why such cruelty can happen to someone who is already in such desperation. There are plenty of “answers,” but none of them are truly good ones.

 

Here is what I do know. My time praying with this woman was powerful. I do believe for her, as well as for me. She overflowed with thanksgiving for Chris’ ministry with her, for the support of the deacons, for my time with her. She showed me what faith can look like in the midst of deep despair. I know how much my own heart was breaking for her, and how deeply I prayed to God for healing. I do know that our calling is to do what we can to help heal each other, and anytime we stand between someone and healing, we are no better than the synagogue leaders. I do know, that as we sat there together with tears in our eyes, I experienced the presence of Christ with us. I do know that I have been haunted this week by our prayer together. As I read a passage from Ecclesiastes 3 to the gathered session and deacons on Wednesday night, I couldn’t help thinking of our friend, “God has made everything fitting in its time, but has also placed eternity in our hearts, without enabling us to discover what God has done from beginning to end.” I do know that this week, I have experienced what it is to pray without ceasing for someone—I hope you will join me in prayer for our friend.

 

There are not always real answers, but that does not mean that there is not meaning. Although God has placed eternity in our hearts, we will not know in this life, why some things happen. I do know that there are often times where other answers and meaningful questions present themselves, even when our original questions go unanswered. Finally, I do know, that in the face of such big questions, there is but one response from those human hearts chasing after eternity…Prayer. Will you pray with me?

Mud Pies

I have spent a lot of time this week thinking about conflict. The scripture passage this week has Jesus telling us that he didn’t come to bring peace, but division. If that is truly the case, maybe the nastiness of the times means Jesus is alive and well all around us! How’s that for looking on the bright side, huh?

Anyway, one of the thoughts I have had, is about how we deal with conflict. Quite honestly, I don’t think most of us do so well. If social media is involved, I think the likelihood of conflict being handled well is even less. However, I don’t think it has to be that way, and I don’t think that it should be that way.

This whole passage about peace and division starts off with Jesus saying, “Much will be demanded from everyone who has been given much, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked.” This ought to hit us as a shot across the bow. As followers of Christ, we definitely fall into this category. We have been given so much, by the Grace of God, and the reality is, I think there is much expected of us.

When we wade into conflict (and we all do at times), I think that we need to be holding ourselves to higher standards. We know better. We know what is good and kind and loving. We have the ultimate example in Christ. We know what is expected of us. I know how easy it is to get caught up in the moment and lose yourself, your kindness, your love. However, we need to practice rising above.

This past week, a long-time friend of mine found was caught falling into the fray online. One line of political comments quickly devolved into name calling and other nastiness—a story that is too oft repeated in this election cycle. It did not take long for things to get completely out of hand and fell to a level that can’t be repeated here (and shouldn’t be repeated anywhere!). I was, however, quite impressed with one particular person’s comments that were very much along the lines of what Jesus said. Rather than continuing the mud-slinging, this person brought a calm voice to the conversation that said, “You all know better than this. Show some respect to each other.” And that ended the fight.

I think that it is easy for all of us to forget that we are all better than how we often act—especially when politics are concerned! As Jesus starts his talk about conflict, he does so with the reminder, “Much will be demanded from everyone who has been given much, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked.” That’s us. That is all of us! When we are tempted to fall into the slime of the political season, remember that you are exactly who Jesus is talking about. We are the ones that need to be setting a higher standard for all the discussion. And when we find that conflict, or that disagreement that really gets our goat, remember, you are a beloved child of God, and so is the person that is angering you. Try to extend some grace. Now, if only our political leaders could actually set that kind of tone, we might all be much better off.

Thy Kingdom Now

Are there any grammar hounds among you? Anyone who just loves to correct others when they misspell “their,” or “they’re,” or “there?” Perhaps you won’t admit it, because it is not often a trait looked upon fondly by your peers, but sometimes grammar is incredibly important.

 

This is one of those times. This week Jesus tells his disciples, “Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father delights in giving you the kingdom.” That is a pretty standard translation of the verse. Most of the time we read that and we think that we are reading the future tense—God will be giving us the kingdom sometime down the road. However, in Greek, the verb that means “to give” is in an aorist tense—that means it is past tense. In other words, for all those non-grammar hounds, God already gave us the kingdom. The kingdom has been established. The kingdom is all around us. We are already a part of God’s kingdom. So a better reading might be, “Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father is delighted to have given you the kingdom.”

 

Though many of you may be shaking your head and thinking, “what difference does it make?” It does make a difference. Often times, Christians tend to be forward focused—we are working towards attainment of God’s kingdom, we are looking for to the kingdom to come. While there is certainly something to be said for God’s promise of what is to come for each of us, there is a danger in too much forward thinking—we forget the here and now. At times, the church has been so focused on saving souls for the afterlife, that we have forgotten the people that lie in need before us right now, in God’s kingdom that Jesus tells us is already here. At times, we are so worried about believing the right things so that we might be with God in the kingdom of heaven to come, that we forget that God placed us in this world as stewards of this kingdom. The result is often that we neglect our responsibilities to each other, and to this earth. Just this morning I was reading the paper and came across this article, that is disturbing: A stunning prediction of climate science — and basic physics — may now be coming true. Say whatever you will about the politics of climate change, the fact of the matter is that there is no question that we have fallen short of the calling God has given us to care for the earth.

 

The passage that follows Jesus statement, “Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father is delighted to have given you the kingdom,” is one that is often used to think about the kingdom “to come” in the future. “Be dressed for service and keep your lamps lit…You also must be ready, because the Human One is coming at a time when you don’t expect him.” The way we have traditionally read this is that we must be on our best behavior because we don’t know when Jesus will return and establish the kingdom. In fairness, that is how it reads in Matthew. However, Luke is doing something different. If indeed, Luke’s message is that the kingdom is established, we have to read this as a reminder that our service is never done. It means we have to be aware, because the kingdom is happening around us all the time, and we are supposed to be caring for that kingdom now—not in the hope (or threat) of things to come. No—instead, it is in the realization that Christ has great faith in us to care for the kingdom now.

 

If we are reading this correctly, I think it is a call to service now. It is a reminder that we cannot rest on our laurels while there are problems to be solved and people to be served in this world now. Truly, we are a people that God has already graced with the kingdom of God—so act like it! It reminds me of the saying by Rabbi Tarfon in the Pikrei Avot:  “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.”

 

Friends, God’s kingdom is in our midst all the time. I hope that is a reminder that we really ought to be better about caring for it, as it is all around us.

Stop. Breathe.

As many of you know, this week, I was in Colorado with my pastor’s group, the “Mountaineers,” for a week of study leave. For the last couple of years, our group has been spending our continuing education time together focused around the theme, “Ruach Elohim,” or Breath of God. As we Christianized this concept as the Holy Spirit, I sometimes fear that we have tamed it. The reality is there is so much depth to the Breath of God, that Spirit seems a bit divorced from the great breadth of meaning that lies there in. One thought that has been central to our studies has been the idea of each breath we take being God. When God blows into that earth and creates Adam, that Breath forever becomes the reminder of the living God through whom we have our life. If we take that seriously, we understand that the air around us is the very embodiment of God. In fact, it means that every breath, every breeze, every wind, every bubble, even every word spoken using our breath belongs to God and is the movement of God in our world.  As I write this, sitting in a coffee shop, a woman just walked past me causing a stir in the air—every time we move through this world we are effecting the movement of God for those around us! If, indeed, this is the case, then we must be all the more careful with the air around us. The words we utter. The garbage we dump into our air. Our movement in the world.

As we have jumped into this study, we started with solid biblical study with a scholar in Chicago. We also spent time with the unpredictable and wild energy of improv comedy—taking classes in it at the IO theater—to dive deeper into the Breath of God. We have studied physiology and the way breath and heart works together to center us, to keep us moving, to keep us living. This past week, we climbed to the top of the second highest peak, in the lower 48 states to experience breathing in thin air.

This was a powerful experience for me. I very nearly did not make it to the top of that 14,433 ft tall mountain. There were several things that came together for me to be able to make it to the very summit that were most certainly connected to the movement of the breath of God. Don’t worry, you will hear about many of those stories in upcoming sermons. However, in the meantime I wanted to focus on one aspect of this climb—Breathing when there is no air.

In Albuquerque, we already live at a much higher elevation than the rest of the country at 5,312 ft. But let me tell you, the 9,121 ft difference from Albuquerque to Mt. Elbert is huge. It was at about 12,000 ft that I got to a point where I could not breath. I sucked in and sucked in, and I never felt enough air in my lungs to be able to put one foot in front of the other. I began to feel dizzy. I began to feel faint. I began to feel a killer headache coming on. At 12,000 ft, I almost gave up. However, I started moving again, agreeing with myself that I would take about 30 steps, and then take about 30 seconds to catch my breath. I finished the last 2,433 ft in this fashion. Walk and then rest. Walk. Then Rest. It took me as long to hike the last 2 miles of the hike to the top as the first 5 miles. But I made it. I made it by taking time to breathe. By Stopping. By Resting.

 

Friends, I don’t have to tell you that we live in a world where the air—the Breath of God—sometimes feels a little thin. It is easy to find ourselves out of breath when we look around at the mountain of challenges before us. However, small steps and taking time to breathe can give us the strength needed to overcome. I don’t think that message comes easily to us. As I sat there at 12,000 ft contemplating whether to turn back or press on, my head filled with meaningless slogans from our culture—Just do it! Never Give up! Those messages just filled me with cynical responses that probably shouldn’t be shared here, but most of which had to do with pushing through and dropping from a heart attack. While those have their place–namely selling stuff, I feel that the more important thing to remember is not meaningless platitudes or sneaker commercials. It is to stop and breathe. Take the time to rest. Find your pace, take a few steps, then stop and breathe.

When Jesus was confronted by the Tempter in the desert, and was encouraged to turn rocks to bread to sustain himself, Jesus quoted a reminder from scripture, “Humans do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” Think about it. Words do not come without Breath. The Breath of God carries the WORD to us. It seems so simple, and yet so hard—Jesus is telling us to stop and breathe amidst the challenges and hungers we find around us.

Looking up at the 1st of 3 false summits, knowing I had miles and thousands of feet of elevation to go, I was ready to give up. But taking those first few steps, and stopping to really breathe, let me focus on the next few steps, and the next breath.

It is the same with our life in this broken world. Take time to stop and breathe. When it all becomes too much, remember, you are not sustained on bread alone—on this world, and the stuff in it alone—but the breath from every word of the Lord. Stop. Breathe. Pause. Take it at your own pace.

It is an important reminder in this week as we turn to Luke 12:13-21. This passage talks about the accumulation of stuff, and far too often, that is one of the reasons we don’t stop to breathe. We push ourselves to succeed, to accumulate, to attain, and so often it comes at the cost of breath. It comes at the cost of rest. It comes at the cost of forgetting that we are sustained not on bread alone—not on stuff alone—but on every breath/every word of the Lord.

Stop. Breathe. Move on. Stop. Pause. Reflect. Pray. Move on. Stop. Breathe. Remember that those breaths are the Breath of God. Move on. Stop. Breathe. That is what Sunday morning is about. Stop. Breathe. Carry that breath out into the world with you. Stop. Breathe. It is the only way to make it to the mountaintop.