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.

Black and Blue

I am really getting tired of having to address the violence and fear in our culture in these reflections. Yesterday, there was yet another shooting of an unarmed black man. This time it was in Florida, and the black man was trying to protect a man with autism who had wandered off from the facility he was in. A neighbor called the cops thinking the man with Autism was some kind of threat, and when one of the therapists at the facility came to try to calm the man with autism down, the police reacted thinking he was a threat. The therapist laid down on the street next to the man with autism and put his hands up. He tried to explain the situation to the police to deescalate the situation, and instead, he was shot. Don’t take my word for it, watch the video here

 

This is a tricky issue, and I may have already lost a few of you who insist politics can never enter into our faith. But I hope you will bear with me, as ultimately, this is not about politics—it is about faith.

 

I have been watching for the past few weeks as friends drew their lines in the sand on Facebook. Some have been all about Black Lives Matter and have passionately gone after anyone who hasn’t changed their profile picture to some sort of logo supporting such views. On the other side, I have seen many doing the same with Blue Lives Matter. The problem is, this whole situation is not about Black vs. Blue; this situation is about how Black and Blue we all feel.

 

For decades, arguably centuries, this has been the norm for Black communities, and minority communities in this country. This is nothing new. As a friend of mine put it, “The violence isn’t new, the easy access to camera phones is.” For the first time, the white community is witnessing the long standing experience of minority communities in this country, and it is disturbing. The problem is, that we have all been so attached to an identity that says we are above the insidious evils, prejudices and violence of other less civilized peoples of the world. Now we are discovering, we are human, just like everyone else. We are discovering that we haven’t moved on from the sins of our forefathers. We aren’t somehow more enlightened. We haven’t held to our ideals of equality, justice, liberty and freedom. It hurts to come to terms with this, but it is essential.

 

At the same time, police are feeling more threatened than ever. They have every right to feel that way too. There is no question, that in the last few weeks, police have become targets. There is no question, that the role of police in society has come into question in a big and threatening way. There is no question that our culture has embraced a “blow up the bad guy mentality,” that is coming into question. We have told them, that this is what we want them to do. We tell them that every time we spend our money on the next “charming-rogue-cop-who-won’t-play-by-the-rules, but-always-gets-the-bad-guy” movie. We tell them that, every time that we embrace a shoot-first-ask-questions-later ideology. We have told them what we want, and now we condemn them for acting the way that we have told them to act. We have created this culture together. We have continued to make decisions as a society that put their lives on the line. And now we are surprised when they feel threatened.

 

Our communal sins are so much deeper than the context of the shooting of black men by police, or police by black men, but this is the most visible place that these sins are on display right now. The problem is, if we simply make this about police vs. black people—which is the rhetoric of the day—it lets all of the rest of us feel like we are off the hook. We haven’t shot any black people. We haven’t shot any police. This isn’t about us. At least, that is what we like to tell ourselves. That is exactly why this issue isn’t about politics. Politics in this day and age is too much about drawing lines and choosing sides. As long as we handle this issue politically, it will essentially break down to an intractable conflict. We will continue to beat on each other, rather than work toward reconciliation. We will continue to be black vs. blue, and we will continue to all feel black and blue.

 

But that is the insidious nature of communal sin—because it is about all of us, it makes it easier for any one of us to avoid responsibility and blame it all on those “other” people. This isn’t about them. It is about you. This isn’t about them. This is about all of us. Every time we load up and unleash on the “other side,” we make the problem worse, and more unlikely to be resolved. Every time we try to pretend this isn’t our problem, we continue to draw lines in the sand between ourselves and everyone else. We are all complicit in the devaluing of black and minority lives. We are all complicit in the culture of violence we have created that places ever greater threat on the lives of our peace officers.

 

So what do we do about this? I think the first step is to stop dividing about the issue. Do not demonize the people that you see as the “other side.” Listen to them. They have real fears. They have real pains. They hurt just like you. They feel black and blue too.

 

Second, stop thinking there is one side to any story—the world is more complex than that. Don’t just watch Fox News. Don’t just watch MSNBC. Don’t only pay attention to your Facebook feed—it is simply an echo chamber. And whatever you do, don’t just add to the cacophony of voices shouting for someone’s head. Don’t post the nasty memes that are meant to make others feel bad for believing what they do. Every time you join that noise, you have essentially joined the crowd around Pilate shouting “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Is that really the noise you want to be making? Seek out voices that disagree with you, and find out why. Be generous. The people that disagree with you are not idiots. The people that disagree with you are not uninformed. The people that disagree with you are not evil. The people that disagree with you are not malicious. They got to where they are for a reason. Once you figure out that reason, you will be on the path towards understanding and reconciliation.

 

Third, ask forgiveness often. The latest shooting may not be directly your fault, but we have all played a part in making that situation more likely to happen. We all need to embrace a kind of humility that remembers this mess belongs to all of us. This Sunday, we are focusing on the Lord’s prayer. I find it interesting that the line of the Lord’s Prayer that seems to vary the most between churches is “Forgive us our ______ as we forgive _________.” Debts, trespasses, sins—we are so overwhelmed by our own brokenness, we can’t even agree what to call it (believe it or not—all three are scriptural!). Notice that I didn’t say, be more ready to forgive, but instead, focused on asking of forgiveness. I think asking forgiveness is much harder to do, and if you can begin to ask forgiveness more often, I believe you will be much more ready to grant forgiveness when the time comes because you will remember how hard it was to acknowledge your own faults.

 

Finally, act. Stop sitting on the fence. Stop praying about it and do something. As the old African proverb says, “When you pray, move your feet.” Or as the meme I passed along on Facebook this week says, “Faith can move mountains, but don’t be surprised when God hands you a shovel.” One note on acting though. Whatever way you choose to act, do so with grace. Don’t just go join the front lines and shout at those you believe are wrong. Be the voice of reason that is willing to listen and seek reconciliation. If you go march with Black Lives Matter, or Blue Lives Matter, be the ones who seek out the other side to take pictures together or hold cookouts together like these stories. Again, don’t add to the shouts of, “Crucify them!” Add to the quiet that is ready to listen.

 

Do all of this knowing full well that you do it not because of politics, but because your faith taught you to do so. Christ taught us all to do so. That is who we are called to be in this world—the reconcilers, the listeners, the lovers, the peacemakers. It is a lot harder to act this way, but that is exactly who Jesus has called us to be.

Thank God for VBS!

I had a pretty powerful moment this week that I wanted to share with you. I don’t know about you, but after coming off of vacation this week, and hearing the news (we were completely out of touch for the last few weeks) I was overwhelmed. I am getting to the point where I wince every time I turn on the news because I am afraid of what I may hear. There are many tears to be shed these days.

 

Against this background of sadness and fear in the world, we had an amazing VBS this week. As Lynn Scott mentioned, it was such a joy to see the kids play in the garden and be enthralled with worms and mud and plants. It was fabulous to see their joyful depictions of God’s beautiful creation. The energy that the kids poured into everything they did was delightful and infectious. This week came as a powerful reminder that as dark as the world may seem at times, there is always hope. There is always joy. There are always new seeds being planted that can lead to a better tomorrow.

 

One of our scriptures this week was the parable of the mustard seed. In Mark’s version, we are reminded that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed. In these past days and weeks, it hasn’t been hard to imagine that, indeed, the kingdom of heaven is as small as a mustard seed. However, as was said by Papa Cedar in the skits this week, “You know the thing about seeds don’t you? They Grow.” Yes, at times the kingdom of heaven seems to be minuscule compared to the darkness in the world around us…BUT, it is growing! And when we see the way those seeds are growing in kids like the ones we were playing with this week, it is easy to have hope. Thank God for VBS. Thank God for the hope that these kids bring.

To Hell and Back

As for the reflection, this Sunday has an extremely interesting passage (Luke 8:26-39)—the Gerasene Demoniac. There are so many interesting aspects of this passage, but the one I wanted to reflect on is location. Luke’s version of this story is very specific about this. Jesus travels across the sea of Galilee to find this man. This is not unlike saying that he went over to the wrong side of the railroad tracks. Gerasene was a gentile village, it was unclean and would’ve been off limits to a rabbi. Next, Jesus encounters a man who has been living in a graveyard—unclean! Next, that area is also being used to heard pigs—unclean! Next, the man is known to be possessed—unclean! What we are being told here, is that Jesus is heading to the last place that he ought to be hanging out, to find this man.

 

One interesting thing that I heard this time as I read the story again this; this time in the Common English Bible version. Most of the time, the way that the story is translated it sounds like Jesus is casting the demon out before the conversation ensues. “28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!”

29 For Jesus had commanded the impure spirit to come out of the man.” (NIV) However, I noticed that the CEB makes it sound more like Jesus may have met this man before, and was coming to cast out the demon again. “’What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” 29 He said this because Jesus had already commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man.” (CEB) The Greek isn’t exactly clear about the timeline and both readings are possible.

 

If, indeed, this is a second encounter, there is a really powerful message here—Jesus traveled to the worst possible place imaginable for a Rabbi in order to find this particular man and heal him again! Jesus goes to more than extraordinary lengths to find this man and to heal this man. What a powerful message about the love and grace of God!

 

Not only that, but what a message for us. When we find ourselves in the very worst of places or circumstances, that may just be exactly where we need to be to be found by Christ.

 

I had always disliked the phrase that was officially added to the Apostle’s Creed in the 8th century “[Jesus] he descended into Hell, and on the third day rose again.” You see, the story on that is about a particularly nasty kind of theology that was popular at the time—Christus Victor. Under this line of thinking, Christ went to Hell after his death in order to do battle with Satan, and burst the gates of Hell to let the prisoners free. This particular theology was very militant, violent, and bloody, and focused on a continual kind of divine battle between Christ and the devil. There may be a place for this kind of metaphorical imagery about the person of Christ; however, this has all kinds of theological problems, not the least of which is that it is incredibly imperialistic and completely misrepresents the Christ that forfeited his life for us, rather than take up the sword.

 

When I came to Covenant, fresh out of seminary, I had trouble uttering that line of the Apostle’s Creed. Catherine Robinson pointed out, that the original meaning may have been poorly thought out and misleading, but the message for us now is powerful. There isn’t any place Christ won’t go to bring us the love and grace of God! When we find ourselves in the depths of our own personal Hell’s we aren’t there alone. We stand there with Christ by our side. We stand there loved. We stand there with grace. Just like the Gerasene demoniac, who was sought out in the worst of places to be brought back into community, Christ will search each of us out as well, even if it leads him into hell with us. Needless to say, those wise words from Catherine have stuck with me, and I am no longer troubled by those words from the Apostle’s Creed.

 

Where do you find yourself upon reading this? Perhaps not the depths of hell. Perhaps not a graveyard full of pigs. However, I would be willing to guess, you have found yourself in some pretty unfortunate places and circumstances before, and maybe you find yourself there now. The Good News, is that wherever you may be, you are not beyond the love and grace of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Never forget, that the worst depths of Hell aren’t even out of bounds for Christ—he will come for you with open arms, ready to embrace you with the love and grace of God!