Friday, September 18, 2015

The Courage to Know Who You Are

September 13, 2015

Last year’s 8th graders are now Freshmen. We’re blessed with a Senior in the house now, and we see the signs of the empty nest that’s coming fast. The harvest of last spring’s Kindergarten classes are just beginning their 12-year journey of discovery that we hope every child will take toward adulthood. Even if you spend almost no time on Facebook, you’ve seen the back to school pictures. The pride of parents, the excitement of a new start, meeting new friends, falling in and out of love, and the constant care and attention of adults whose calling is among the highest: to equip the younger human beings in our care for life.

When Jesus asks his disciples who people say he is, it’s not an academic question. It’s not a question to be addressed with doctrine, although doctrine has its place.

As Mark relates the stories of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus’ question is a pivotal point for them all. Until now, everyone’s been asking him questions. Spirits ask what he has to do with them. Beggars ask for healing. Religious leaders ask what authority he has and why he eats with sinners. On the sea, the disciples ask if he doesn’t care they are perishing. His neighbors at home ask just who Jesus thinks he is, this kid they’ve watched grow up. When confronted with a challenge, his followers again ask Jesus what to do, and he tells them to feed them, and they ask how.

It takes tremendous courage, I believe, to ask the disciples the question Jesus asked. Who do people say that I am? Because not many of us really want to know the answer to a question ke that. We think we want to know. Does he think I’m foolish? Will she like this tie? What if I ask him out and he says no?

Most of us at work grow accustomed to being evaluated on our performance. Each year when review time comes around, that meeting with the supervisor or boss shouldn’t contain any surprises, not if they’ve been managing the company well. But it still takes some courage to walk into the room and hear what someone else thinks of how you’re doing.

In school it happens all the time. Tests, quizzes, and for teachers course evaluations and online teacher rating sites. We live in a culture where we measure the formation by what we learn, how we perform, the results we attain. SAT, ACT, PSAT. the MInnesota Test of Academic Skills, the football team’s winning or losing record.

It takes courage to ask someone else, especially the people who are closest to you, who others say you are.

It also takes a willingness to let others be wrong. “John the Baptist raised from the dead, Elijah or one of the prophets.” Heady stuff. Counter-culture heroes. And keep in mind that he's asking this question in foreign land, the city of Caesarea Philippi, a Roman city.

But it takes even more courage to ask, “Who you say that I am?” No hiding behind the anonymous mask of “Well, you know some people are saying…” or “It’s not my opinion, but here’s what I’ve heard in the parking lot…”

Jesus won’t let his disciples get away with what others say. he has the strength of heart to look them in the eyes and ask, “Who do YOU say that I AM?”

I suspect he’s looking for an honest response. One that digs down deep. One that gets past the educational, occupational and geographic. Go to a party and the surface questions have to do with where you’re from, who’s your family, where’d you go to school, what do you do for a living? What brought you here?

But Jesus doesn’t ask us a surface question. He confronts us with the question of identity. His and by extension ours.

What would we discover if we asked our neighbors who we are as a church? What would our Lakeville neighbors say? Our Burnsville neighbors? Not our own self-definitions, not the mission statement we tell ourselves. But who do they say we are?

Would some say, “Oh, you’re the ones who do the oil change?” You’re the ones who… what? Would they answer by describing the things they see us do? Would they know us by our welcome, by our love?

But JEsus didn’t ask his disciples what they saw him doing. He asked who they said he was. Who he is. Can we do that? Can we say, by our words and actions alike, who Jesus is? And if we believe that he is the human face of God, what can we say or do to reflect what we believe?

Because what we say or do will reflect who we believe Jesus to be.

When I was in Tanzania for a meeting of the World Council of Churches Faith and Order Plenary Commission, I’d been working as part of a group on something called the Apostolic Faith Project. It was the culmination of 70 years of intentional work by Christian theologians from every tradition around the world to answer Jesus’ dying prayer that his followers would all be one.

The document I had helped prepare earlier the previous year in Bucharest, was a study guide on Sharing the One Faith. In Tanzania, representatives from the global church community debated and discussed the central affirmations and concerns that had to be addressed to overcome our divisions while maintaining and honoring the best of our individual and church identities. As a Disciple, I was able to bring the confidence that the one thing we all have in common is that we see what Peter saw: Jesus is the Christ. We don’t always agree on what that means, but it's the distinctive vision that Christians share.

The president of Tanzania addressed our meeting. And he introduced us to the African concept of Utu (human nature, humanity). It’s a word for extended family. It is a profound understanding of the shared bonds we have as human beings, and the shared responsibilities we have for each other. If you are my brother, if you are my sister, we are responsible for each other. That responsibility for each other is at the essence of who we are.

We find our identity in a relationship we didn’t originally choose, and have the privilege to honor each moment of every day as those who are made in the image of a God who in the essence of God’s own being is relational. Utu means we are one mutual sharing, a fellowship, a family. And how we treat each other, even our enemies, if we are to be authentically followers of Jesus Christ, reflects Utu.

In a world where forces of greed and selfishness lead us into smaller and smaller circles, Utu reminds us to stretch the circle wide enough to include not only neighbors, not only enemies, not only the whole human race, but all of creation as well.

The biblical word for this is koinonia. And I believe it takes courage. To answer the question, “Who do you say that I am?” by saying, “You are the Messiah,” the anointed, the Christ, the human face of God, we are led to ask the question of ourselves. Who do our neighbors say we are? Will they see in us the oneness, the compassion, the love of God working through us to reform unjust social structures and respect each person’s dignity?

Courage, by the way, is rooted in the word cor, heart. May our hearts be one.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Getting the Best of Jesus Getting the Best of You

September 6, 2015
Mark 7.24-37

It’s hard this week not to have seen the the photo of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year old boy who was fleeing the war in Syria with his family on a smuggler’s boat. They were trying to reach Sweden by way of Greece after their asylum request to Canada was denied. Aylan’s father and mother were trying to get the boys to safety. Their northern Syrian city of Kobani, which is a little smaller than Apple Valley, has been in the news for two years as Kurds and ISIL have been taking it back and forth from each other during one of the most violent civil wars of modern history.

It’s even harder to have seen the photo of Aylan. When the tiny, overcrowded boat was abandoned by the smugglers in rough water and capsized, Aylan, his 5 year-old brother, and his parents were thrown into the water. His brother drowned first, then his mother, and despite his father’s best efforts, so did Aylan. The boy’s body was discovered Wednesday morning washed ashore in Bodrum, Turkey, his shoes still on his feet (did his dad tie them that morning?), his head gently cradled in a pillow of sand at the edge of the Mediterranean. His funeral was on Friday.

The United States has accepted fewer than 1,500 refugees from Syria since the fighting began. 350,000 have reached the border of the EU this year. The UK announced yesterday it will accept 20,000. Australia has accepted 13,000 refugees worldwide this year and just announced they will accept more. Hungary has recorded 135,000 asylum seekers this year. Austria and Germany are sending buses to bring asylum seekers to their countries, and Germany in particular has announced they will take 100,000 refugees, spending an estimated $16 billion dollars, as German business owners make the case that it’s good for the German economy. “Angela Merkel insisted Berlin could still balance it budget while fulfilling its ‘duty’ to offer asylum to refugees.”

It’s an extraordinary moment.

When Jesus crossed into what is now Syria, he came in from the south. He was a foreigner, not necessarily a refugee, but moving on rather quickly after conflicts with his own people. We tend to spiritualize these stories too quickly, turning them into theological narratives with Aesop-like morals. But the gospel writers preserve the human particulars of these stories for a reason. There may be universal truth in the things Jesus did, but there is universal truth in everything we do, too, if we look carefully enough. To see it, you need the particulars. It's how incarnation works.

Jesus came to Syria. He wanted to stay hidden. But he couldn’t hide. A woman of the region came to him and asked for healing for her daughter. We think of Jesus as kind and gentle. But here he acts abruptly, even rudely. She asks for healing. He tells her dogs don’t deserve what’s meant for the children. Calling a woman a bitch didn’t mean something different back then than it does today. It wasn’t a term of endearment. 

But she persists and reminds him that the dogs still rely on what falls from the children’s table. And Jesus has a comeuppance. His own "come to Jesus moment." She gets the best of him. It’s a transformative moment in his ministry. And he realizes he’s not only being rude but that she sees his mission more clearly than he himself has seen it. She can tell God’s love and wholeness are for all. Not just people like his own.

The reason the second story is told right after the first is, at least in my mind, because it shows that Jesus learned his lesson. He travels north further into Syria, then turns south again through the Roman region called the Ten Cities or Decapolis. On this trip he encounters a man foreign to himself, one who can neither hear nor speak. (It’s hard to speak properly when you can’t hear. Or when you don’t listen.)

But Jesus had listened to the woman back in the coastal Syrian town. Now he pulls the man aside and opens his ears and mouth. And the man’s friends hear of it and speak out. Jesus gets the best out of them.

Are there Syrians we will listen to and learn from? Who are already showing us our own mission in the mirror of their persistence and faith? Will we let them get the best from us? How does Jesus get the best out of us? Opening our ears, our mouths? What voices will we listen to? Whose voices? And what will we say in response? 

Week of Compassion is working with Church World Service to resettle Syrian refugees. Some may come to Minneapolis. The Minnesota Council of Churches is accepting donations to help these families resettle.

We know a thing or two about being displaced. It took Jesus getting away from his homeland to hear the full measure of his calling. It changed the way he did ministry. I pray we never forget that we were strangers once in a strange land. 

May our ears be opened, you and I, by Jesus whose own ears were opened when his deep gladness met one woman's deepest need. May he get the best of us.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Alfie Doolittle got it wrong

We've been moving at Spirit of Joy. As in relocating. We're settling in to our summer home away from the mold of our Lakeville building. It's made me keenly aware of the difference between going to church and being the church.

When you "go to church," you've decided that church is a place. It's a location, an edifice, a building, a destination. Like going to the grocery or to the hospital. "Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and look at all the people." I bet you just put your hands together and acted it out.

Alfie's got to be there in the morning. But it's just to receive a service he isn't really sure he even wants.

Trouble is, when you're moving out of your building because it's making people sick, you realize that buildings only define us at our peril. Buildings express the intentions, the theology, the self-understanding of the communities who build them. Form doesn't just follow function, it expresses identity.

Still, we know which came first. And it wasn't the building. Church is something we are, something we do, not somewhere we go. Church isn't a noun in the end. In the New Testament, the word is ekklesia, from a verb that means "called out."

That's what I'm becoming aware of. We've been called out together into the community, out into the neighborhood, outside our walls and beyond our parking lot into the streets. As church, we're not a location, not a destination, but a people sent on a mission. But never alone, always at least two by two.

Thanks be to God!

Blessings and Peace,

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Fingering chart for the Spirit

During TaizĂ© prayer this morning, I happened to glance at my recorder right before we entered silence. Specifically, I noticed the thumbhole.

I'm sure you remember how this wind instrument works. You probably played one in elementary school. It's a bit like a long whistle with holes up and down the front and a thumb hole high on the back. Depending on which holes you cover and which ones you leave open, you play different pitches when you blow through the mouthpiece.

Spiritually speaking, none of us stays open all the time. Likewise, none stays perpetually closed. But the Spirit still blows. And depending on who is open and closed at a particular moment, the Spirit's tune changes.

How important it is that we each are open and closed at the right times — to the Spirit, each other, our own ego, will, desires, and distractions. When we are open and closed at different times of our lives, the Spirit sounds different. As I close down, you may open up, and that changes things. It's, well, dynamic.

When we each open and close in the right proportions and rhythms  throughout the church community, the Spirit makes beautiful music, not just spiritual noise.

My insight was that we don't all have to be open at once. Lower notes require more holes to be covered. And there is even one note that requires all holes to be filled. It's hard to play, but occasionally the music calls for it. And as important as that one note is, there's not much worthwhile music written for one note alone. The Spirit uses our emptiness and fulness alike to sing God's song.

If we ever become a one-note church, or if one of us never opens up or never shuts down, the song won't be as beautiful as it can be. We'll get anxious, bored, frustrated, or tired. We need all of us, working in concert, open and closed, empty and full, to become the song the Spirit wants most to sing.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Blessing of Being O&A: Advocacy and Incarnation

Advocacy. In a word, this is the blessing of being an Open and Affirming congregation. It's what sets O&A churches apart. It doesn't just mean everyone is welcome, if they choose to join us. It means we'll go be church most fully when we're outside our walls. It means we stand up for each other and never back down until the full equal dignity of each person is affirmed in the public square.

To be Open and Affirming means we stand up not only for those who are like us but those who broaden our sense of who "we" are. Being Open and Affirming dismantles the advocate/victim dichotomy. It picks apart the paternalistic care-giver/care-receiver attitude and declares that we're all in this together. No more we/they. No more gay Lazarus scrabbling for crumbs beneath Dives' straight table. From now on, "we" means more than it meant before. A place at the table set in the presence of enemies with whom we may yet become friends. A place at the table even in the valley of the shadow of death.

Too many churches suffer from the paternalistic attitude that "we" are here to help "them," where "we" are the sympathetic rich, healthy, white, straight followers of Jesus, and "them" means the people gospel calls us to serve: the abstract hungry, thirsty and oppressed minority, the sexually diverse, the "nones." As if "they" aren't already among "us." Sigh. This gets to the heart of the problem.

Jesus says he comes to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. We can do that safely enough with ministries of checkbook and pen and feel pretty good about ourselves, without ever addressing the essential problem of human nature, our us/them tribalism, our insistence on being separate, destined, unique.

The thing is, when Jesus proclaims his calling, he can't just mail in a check or stand at a distance and talk. He comes. He doesn't wait for those he serves to come to him. If Incarnation means anything at all, it means Jesus enters into the reality he comes to reconcile. He breaks down the first person/third person divide. He takes the us/them of poverty, sickness, disability, and, yes, sexual injustice, and he walks in the midst of it all saying we're in this together. He doesn't ask, "Are you with me?" but declares, "I am with you." The first is just recruiting. The second is advocacy. Even when he says, "Follow me," Jesus doesn't recruit. He invites us to find our wider voice.

Incarnation means God "the Father" sets aside paternalism. No more condescension, no more patriarchy, but "he walks with me and talks with me": now a Paraclete coming alongside us, transforming human relationships by means of equal justice and unconditional love.

The O&A church knows in its bones the experience of Incarnation. It feels in its heart that there is no "we" inside the church serving the likes of "them," outside, somehow objectified and made the recipients of our magnanimity and public policy work. It means we move the boundaries of who we think we mean when we say "we." When we advocate, speaking truth to power, we aren't speaking out on behalf of some abstract third person we call them. We are finding our new voice as a broader we, a voice truer to God's heart and more inclusive than before.

Being Open and Affirming means we speak up and speak out, yes, for GLBT sisters and brothers, not apart from who we are but because we now know we are one. We straight, we gay, we lesbian, we bisexual, we transgendered, we questioning and queer, we who embody Jesus' incarnation as fully as a community can so that dividing walls come tumbling Jericho-like down, became a wider, deeper more radically inclusive "we." 

After all, we really are all in this business of life together as God's beloved daughters and sons. Becoming Open and Affirming, we become Advocates for ourselves, because we realize we are infinitely more than we ever imagined. We are the Incarnate, Infinite, Embodied, Communitied, Holy Oneness of God.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

It Doesn't Matter How Dead You Are

May 24, 2015
Ezekiel 37.1-14
It Doesn’t Matter How Dead You Are, These Bones Will Live

It was 9:00 a.m., May 1, 1865. The event: a contender for the original Memorial Day observance in the United States.

The Charleston Daily Courier reported that for 10 days in April of that year, 28 freed slaves who were members of a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, constructed a graveyard with a wall ten feet high. This was on the grounds of a former race course in Charleston that had been converted to a prison camp by the Confederate Army. The freedmen landscaped the graves into neat rows, whitewashed the fence, and built an arch over the entrance. On the arch, they painted in black letters, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”  

They then exhumed the remains of 257 Union soldiers who had been buried in the prison camp’s mass grave. They relocated the bodies to individual plots in the new cemetery, and at 9:00 in the morning on May 1, 1865, nearly 3,000 black schoolchildren marched around the racetrack carrying roses in their arms and singing John Brown’s Body. Three hundred freed women of the Patriotic Association carried flowers, wreaths, and crosses for the graves. The freed men of the Mutual Aid Society marched around the track and into the cemetery, followed by crowds of black and white together.

Professor David Blight, author of Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, wrote,

All dropped their spring blossoms on the graves in a scene recorded by a newspaper correspondent: "when all had left, the holy mounds — the tops, the sides, and the spaces between them — were one mass of flowers, not a speck of earth could be seen; and as the breeze wafted the sweet perfumes from them, outside and beyond ... there were few eyes among those who knew the meaning of the ceremony that were not dim with tears of joy."

An official dedication ceremony was conducted by the black ministers of Charleston, followed by some 30 speeches by Union officers, black pastors, and abolitionist activists. Picnic lunches followed, and the afternoon witnessed a Union brigade, black and white together, conducting exercises on infield.

Ezekiel’s vision is of a valley where we can imagine a terrible battle had taken place years before. The bones of the dead are scattered, cleaned by time and its attentions. They are dry. This is no recent tragedy. Ezekiel was a preacher’s kid, or at least born into a priestly family. He was among the Israelites who were forcibly marched out of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and into exile. He was perhaps less pastor or priest himself than he was a prophet, but he clearly loved his people. By Ezekiel’s visions and symbolic actions, God offered a hurting community, a vision of hope.

Ken Lawrence taught religion and art at TCU, religion and human experience, religion and personality development. But he was far more than a professor to Katy and me. He led study trips overseas exploring religion, art and architecture. I want with him to Greece and Turkey, Katy to Italy. He could stand in the ruin of an ancient temple or before a painting in a museum and hold an audience spellbound for hours, opening up windows onto entire worlds and worldviews that sparkled with ideas still relevant today.

Ken went to seminary at Brite after serving in the military, where he had worked developing NORAD, the North American Radar Air Defense. For his doctorate he did clinical work in a mental hospital in Boston and spent months studying Renaissance art in Italy. He and Dad were regular roommates at the annual meetings of the Association of Disciples for Theological Discussion. And Dr. Lawrence — Lorenzo, as we who traveled with him came to call him — became advisor, mentor and friend. After Dad died, Lorenzo was the one who guided me toward graduation. But more, he understood what I was going through. And he could assure me in ways I might not have trusted others to tell me, that I’d turn out ok.

When Katy and I taught second and third grade Sunday School at East Dallas Christian Church, we used curriculum Lorenzo had developed, a three-year cycle of art, poetry, prayer, and other resources that related to the texts in the Revised Common Lectionary. We taught our kids to read the works of art just as they were learning to read the text of the Bible, which they did out loud every week as part of the class.

When our class came to this vision of Ezekiel, we started the day with a scavenger hunt for cut-out bones that the kids then assembled into a dancing skeleton on the wall. We read the words of the vision in a rhythm that still runs through my head every time I hear this text:

The hand of the Lord came upon me,
and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord
and set me down in the middle of a valley;
it was full of bones.
“Bones, bones, dry bones;
bones, bones, dry bones;
bones, bones, dry bones;
now hear the word of the Lord.”

It didn’t matter that the kids were in second or third grade. They understood something of death. More than one had lost a beloved pet. At least one had a grandparent die whom they’d known and loved. Children that age have brains that are just beginning the transition from literal, pre-critical thinking toward metaphorical, abstract thought. They are learning to write the language they’ve already learned to speak, to express symbolically in images and actions the truths in their experience they may not yet have words to explain. This is why the stories and images of scripture, especially the fantastical and parabolic, connect so well to children. When we give them permission to wonder, to ask, “what if?”, to pay attention to their own responses instead of adding our own moral to each story, we set their imaginations free to experience God in ways that open them to understand in the core of their being that they are loved.

Sadly, this is not how many of us were raised, nor have we raised our children to read and hear scripture honoring the wonder and curiosity that brought it to life to begin with. We teach our kids to do with scripture what Billy Collins says some students do to poetry: 

All they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it. 
They begin beating it with a hose to find out what it really means.” (Introduction to Poetry)

When we fail to engage children in the wonder and delight of poetry, story, or song, because we ourselves are stuck in our own fears, we teach them, too; but what we teach them changes. We teach them that fear is more powerful than love, that being right is more important than doing good for others, that faith is an escape from reality not a promise to transform it.

The dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision aren’t just the dry bones of a community in exile. They are the dry bones of our faith when we let it descend to a Sunday morning talk-show shouting match of who’s right and who’s wrong. We’re willing to harm each other over land, money, an inheritance unfairly divided. As the Pew study that’s been getting so much press recently makes clear, Christianity that’s all about either/or and not about both/and is on the rise, and the both/and traditions are losing ground.

God calls us to be both faithful and active. We are called to become a both/and people. And if this means that our faith doesn’t make as much sense in the culture of death that surrounds us, maybe that’s because we know the reality of suffering and still believe in life. Our vision is set in a valley of dry bones, but the bones don’t just lie there. In death, the power of God is to bring life.

It takes work, of course, and we have a role to play. Prophesy to the bones. Speak God’s presence to those who are dead and dying. Speak a word of love to the loveless, of healing to the sick, of presence to the abandoned, of food to the hungry. And don’t just speak of such things but act. Because God will make these bones live.

Then, when the bones are reassembled and the flesh has returned, prophesy again: to breath this time, to God’s presence, to a spirituality that is prophetic and lifegiving, that connects us to the source of being itself. Prophesy to the breath. This doesn’t mean predict the future: it means announce God’s presence where we are to whomever will listen.

And the breath will fill the bodies, all together, so they may rise up as one, and jut as Israel’s exile will end with a return to the land of promise, so too will our faithful community thrive.

We have a prophetic role to fulfill, speaking a word of life to dry bones, in  the wake of violence and destruction, not giving up, trying again and again, with God's help, to grow not just sinew, flesh, and skin, but breath.

It doesn’t matter how dead you are. God’s spirit is moving. We will live.