Monday, August 15, 2016

Falling in love...again

It seems that I’m falling in love with the people of Ascension Lutheran Church. Now, mind you, I loved them before I ever really knew them, back when I was interviewing with them. That’s when I became acquainted with an extraordinary group of people who were forthright with me about the joys and challenges of being Ascension. They helped me to imagine myself as their pastor, using my unique gifts and a lifetime of experiences, and yet still being challenged and stretched in new ways. I came to believe that they needed me. I considered the opportunity with my head, but it was my gut that convinced me I would be their next pastor.

Love always leads me to a new call, even while love makes it so difficult for me to leave the church I'm serving at the time. Whenever I change calls (and it’s happened for me five times now!), before I’m formally called by a congregation, I’ve already started to love them as their pastor. 

If I can’t love the people in my congregation, I have no business being their pastor. And I have loved every congregation I’ve ever served. Sometimes I wonder if I serve them because I love them or I love them because I serve them. Certainly, I feel committed to love my congregation through thick and thin whenever I accept a call to serve them. That kind of love is something akin to loyalty and faithfulness. It’s just what I do as a pastor. It's a commitment and doesn’t have anything to do with my feelings. But then, in time, something grabs me in the gut as I live among God’s people in community. 

A lot like falling in love, it’s a visceral feeling I can’t explain. A week ago, while we were singing “Blessed Assurance” at 10:00 worship, I looked out into the congregation and saw faces that were becoming familiar. I was learning their names and their stories, and I knew how much Ascension meant to them. That’s when I teared up as I felt it in my gut for the first time, I really do love these people.

Last Sunday I preached a hard sermon where I told my congregation that the way to freedom and redemption is preceded by confrontation and conflict. I absolutely hated telling them that and inside I kept wanting to say, “No, I didn’t mean it. Please disregard what I just said; it’s not true.” Of course, I couldn’t say that because it was true. It was love that led me to feel uncomfortable in the role of a prophet within my new faith community, and it was love that compelled me to speak through my discomfort because that’s what it means to love God by loving God’s people. But I knew I was falling in love with them because I didn’t want to be the one to share that hard truth with them.

And so it’s happening. Our journey together has begun, and I’m already falling in love with the people of Ascension Lutheran Church. Experience has taught me I can expect that to grow exponentially. 

Friday, August 5, 2016

Then and Now

I find myself doing a lot of comparing these days. I suppose that’s normal when you leave one place behind and move on to another. You can’t help but think about how things used to be and compare them to how they are. Lately, I've been comparing the church I used to serve with the one I currently serve, and the pastor I was in Charlotte with the pastor I need to be in Towson.

I think I basically had Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Charlotte figured out by the time I left them. Not much there surprised me after 11 years. I knew how they thought, I could predict how they would react, and I cherished the sweet comfort of the familiar. Now I’m with a congregation of people who seem to surprise me at every turn. I feel awkward and unsure of myself. It’s like dancing with a partner who knows all the steps to a dance I’ve never seen. I know that I need to learn quickly because I wasn’t called to Ascension to follow; I was called to lead. So I’m figuring it out. And as I do, I can’t help but compare the two dances, both beautiful, but distinctly different.

Last week my mind was drawn to the whole idea of diversity. My former congregation was known for its diversity, and it would appear that my current one has hardly any diversity at all. But as I get to know them, I’m starting to think about this in a new way. There’s more than one way to be diverse. At Ascension there is great diversity of thought, which is something I didn’t encounter at Holy Trinity because, for the most part, we pretty much all thought the same way. I've navigated diversity of thought before, in previous congregations, but I’m a little rusty in my skills of diplomacy (not that it’s ever been one of my strengths).

Today, I’ve been thinking about how easy it was to take risks at Holy Trinity because we really had no other option. When I arrived, we were one flush away from going down the toilet. I figured that if we were gonna go out, we were gonna go out following Jesus. So we went for broke and we did the best we could to follow the Jesus Way. It took us places most congregations wouldn't dare to go. In hindsight, I suspect that was exactly what we needed to do to become a church again, and God blessed us in a big way. 

So, now I’m in a congregation that has so much going for it. We’re big (by Lutheran standards), and vibrant, and blessed with incredible leaders, and for the most part, comfortable just as we are. There’s no need to change, and there’s a lot to risk if we should try to do a new thing and fail. And yet, we seem to be stuck, and we’re going to have to risk failure if we want to move forward. I’m sensing that change isn’t going to be as easy at Ascension as it was at Holy Trinity, and if you know me well you know that I’m not the most patient pastor on the planet.

If this is starting to sound like a perfect storm, I want to assure that I'm not seeing any foreboding clouds on the horizon. I came to Ascension because I felt ready to be stretched in some new ways and that’s exactly what’s happening. It was a good move for me and I continue to be thankful for the opportunity. Although it’s challenging, I’m feeling up to it. Mainly because of another comparison that has become apparent to me over the past month. I praying more here than I did in Charlotte!

Monday, July 18, 2016

BOTH Martha AND Mary

Preached at Ascension on July 17. 
I don’t know if you grew up in a family like mine, but here’s how a typical Thanksgiving went at our house. My mom was up before the sun to get a humongous turkey in the oven, and then she spent the entire day in the kitchen, enlisting help from us kids or other female relatives. She worked toward the big moment when all the food was transported from the kitchen to the dining table and the feasting began.  
And then, after we finished stuffing ourselves well beyond the limits of our stomachs, all the men retired to the living room to watch football on TV. while the women cleared the table and did the dishes.
Somewhere in my high school years, I began to notice that there was something wrong with this picture. How is it that my mom and the women worked themselves ragged all day on this meal, and then when it was finally over, they got stuck doing the clean-up, too, while the men just sat around on their duffs watching TV?
After I started college I became even more aware of gender roles, and I decided that I could no longer participate in this oppressive system of injustice. That year when I came home for Thanksgiving, after the meal was over, with a shot of defiance coursing through my veins, I took a stand.
As the women scurried about clearing the table and washing the dishes, I retired to the living room with the men. I thought I’d get some grief for doing this, but no one seemed to notice or care. So, I sat on the sofa between my brother-in-law and my uncle with the football game blaring on the TV. And, guess what? In no time, I was the only one awake.
There I was, basically alone, watching a game on TV that didn’t interest me in the least, sitting between a couple of snoring old geezers. All the while I could hear chattering voices and explosive laughter coming from the kitchen, and I couldn’t stand it. What were they talking about? What were they laughing about? Enough of this. I was back in the kitchen before the end of the first quarter.
I decided that I made my point, to myself if to no one else. I could go with the men, or I could go with the women. And I went with the women. Not because it was expected of me, but because it was my choice. And, let’s face it, the women were a lot more interesting, and a whole lot more fun!
When I read the story of Martha and Mary, I have flashbacks to my childhood Thanksgivings. Here’s Martha, scurrying about, waiting on everyone and running herself ragged like a good woman should. She was doing exactly what was expected of her in that time and place.
It reminds me of the second miracle of Jesus recorded by Luke in the 4th chapter. The story is just two verses long, and it goes like this: After leaving the synagogue he entered Simon’s house. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked him about her. Then he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. (And then listen for what comes next) Immediately she got up and began to serve them. Seriously?
Well, that’s what was expected of her. Not only was it a gender expectation, but it was also her house and there were definite cultural hospitality standards.
This was also true for Mary and Martha, who were hosting the gathering with Jesus in their home. So, there are layers of expectations at play in this story.
Mary is a woman after my own heart because she bucks the system. She doesn’t seem to give a rat’s petutti about expectations. She wants to hear what Jesus has to say. Jesus is in her house. What an opportunity! She’s not going to waste it in the kitchen. She’s going to sit at his feet and take in every word he has to say.
Now, in fairness to Martha, we also need to consider this story from her perspective. She’s justified to be outraged by her sister’s behavior. Why should she get stuck doing all the work? Maybe she’d like to sit at Jesus’ feet, too, but somebody has to serve all the guests. It’s really not fair. She’s hoping Jesus will notice that and see it her way.
But he doesn’t. He’s actually a little harsh with her. He says, “Martha, you need to chill. What your sister Mary is doing is a lot more important than what you’re doing.” Ouch! Those words had to hurt.
I suppose most of us can identify with either Martha or Mary in this story. Martha, the one who’s busy doing, serving, making sure everyone’s taken care of. And Mary, the one who takes time to be--listening, learning, growing in her relationship with Jesus. How many Marthas do we have with us today? And how many Marys?
If you were here last week, you heard the parable that immediately precedes this story of Mary and Martha in Luke’s narrative -- The Good Samaritan. It’s a story that’s all about doing, serving, and making sure our neighbor is taken care of. Jesus praises such behavior.
And then, *boom* we’re in the story of Mary and Martha, where Jesus praises the one more concerned with being in his presence than the one who’s doing for others. What gives? Is Jesus talking out of both sides of his mouth? It’s either important to be out there doing for others, or it’s important to grow closer to Jesus. So, which is it?  
Well, here’s the deal. The life of faith isn’t an either/or proposition. That’s what we call dualism. You’re either this or you’re that. You’re either a Martha or you’re a Mary. You’re either good or you’re bad. You’re either a saint or you’re a sinner. Jesus was either human or he was divine.
Dualistic thought gets you into trouble because the life of faith isn’t that simple. It’s not a matter of either/or. The life of faith is about both/and. It embraces paradox. Jesus is both human and divine at the same time. We’re both saints and sinners. We’re both good and bad at once… And we’re both Mary and Martha.
As people of faith, we long to serve others. We want to help out with Vacation Bible School. We want to sing in the choir, volunteer during the week. We want to help people in need in our community. We want to speak for those who have no voice. We want to stand up for those are being treated unjustly. Following Jesus is all those things, and we want to be people who do.
But we’re often inclined to do, do, do, without taking time to be. There is both an outer life of faith, and an inner life of faith. And in fact, a full life of faith includes both. If we do, do, do without taking time to go inward, not only do we burn out, but we lack direction. We spend all our time running from one project to the next, setting the agenda for our ministry without really taking the time to listen to what God’s calling us to do.
I felt myself struggling with that the week before last when our country was experiencing one senseless violent act after another. More black men were killed by law enforcement officers. Then in the midst of a peaceful demonstration, a crazy man opened fire on the police. It was too much. I’ve been so upset and angry about this stuff that I wanna scream. Enough! Enough! Enough! I can barely catch my breath and then the horrific violence in Nice, France.
My first thought is, what can I do? What can I do to make this stop? When I hear people concluding that all we can do is pray about it, I can’t stand it. We’ve got to do more than just pray! My Martha comes out big time.
But then, I also think about how these acts of violence are calling me to go deeper into myself. How is it that I might also be a part of the problem? How is fear of the other and racism a part of me? How can I listen to people of color and better understand their experience? That’s my Mary.
It’s not a matter of one or the other. The life of faith is both/and. And in fact, the outer life of doing flows from the inner life of being and vice versa. We act and we reflect on our action and based on our reflection we act, and it goes back and forth.
Notice how Jesus was constantly moving from an outer expression of faith to an inner expression of faith throughout the gospels. He recognized that he needed to spend time being in the presence of God. He went inward. And that strengthened him to continue teaching, healing, and proclaiming God’s reign in the world around him.
I think also about a central message of John’s gospel where Jesus tells us again and again the importance of abiding in him. We abide in the vine so that we can bear fruit.
This is certainly true for us as a congregation, as we move forward. Are we drawing upon both inner and outer expressions of faith as we strive to fulfill God’s mission for us? If we neglect one way or the other, we’re not all here. We’re not completely experiencing all that we can as God’s people.
This is also true for us as individuals. If you feel like you’re missing something in your faith life, this may be a key for you. You may be living your faith in an either/or way—either inwardly or outwardly. And when you do that, something’s definitely missing.
Strive to live as a both/and person of faith. Spend time listening to Jesus, sit at his feet, join him at the table, savor his presence. And follow him into the world, serving him by serving others. If your natural tendency is to be like Mary, spend some time cultivating your Martha. If you tend to be more of a Martha kind of person, don’t neglect your Mary.
In today’s lesson, Jesus stuck up for Mary. Within his culture, that was necessary. Mary needed permission to sit at the master’s feet. For us as a congregation, and for you as individuals, what’s the expectation we bring to the life of faith? If you expect it to be about doing, give yourself permission to be. If you expect it to be about basking in the presence of Jesus, give yourself permission to do.
Then you’ll experience what it means to be all in as a follower of Jesus. You’ll be on your way to discovering the breadth, the width and the depth of living fully in Christ.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The most dangerous moment of my day

I was warned repeatedly about this before I came to Ascension, Towson, and now that I’m in my first week, I know beyond a doubt that the warnings were justified!

Before I decided to come here, I’d ask people from the congregation, “Is there anything else I should know about Ascension if I should come to serve as your pastor?” Because there always seem to be a few things in a new congregation that I wish someone had told me before I started, I had to ask.

So, what was the big cautionary tale at Ascension? “If you’re crossing the street to get to the church and the light says Walk, don’t trust it. Wait until the traffic has come to a complete stop before you go.” Really? I couldn’t imagine how crossing the street to get to the church could be such a big freakin' deal.

The church parking lot is on a very busy street that must be crossed to get to the building. Years ago, the church had a traffic light and crosswalk put in. You know, the kind where you press the button to cross the street and the sign lights up saying, Walk or Don’t Walk. Well, they were right. When the sign says, Walk, don’t you believe it!

The light turns red and the cars completely ignore it. I’m not just talking about a few that squeak on by after the light changes. I’m talking about cars that continue speeding down the street driven by people who are absolutely oblivious to the fact that there is a traffic light at all. Although it’s been there for years, they don’t see it!

This morning, I parked my car, went to the crosswalk and pushed the button. The light turned red and the Walk sign lit up for me to cross. I waited for the traffic to stop. And it didn’t. It kept going and going so that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to cross the street at all. Finally, I stepped off the curb and waved my arms pointing to the red light. Another car whizzed by. Then I started yelling at the cars. Eventually they stopped. I’ve never seen such a flagrant disregard for a traffic light in all my life.

As I crossed the street, I thought about how safe my world usually is. When I leave the house in the morning, I don’t worry about being in danger. I expect to be unharmed as I cross the street, especially when there is a traffic light on my side. But when I cross York Rd. to get to Ascension, I can never let down my guard. I can’t trust the law to keep me safe. It’s scary.

I tried to imagine what it would be like to go through every moment of every day feeling unsafe, never really sure that the law will protect me, fearing for my own life and for the lives of people I love. I realized that just a few miles away from me, people were living in such a world.

And then I turned the key in the door to the church building and I was inside, safely ensconced in an air conditioned office, checking my email. My brief ordeal crossing York Rd. was all but forgotten and I was enveloped in the comfort of my privileged life.