Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Holding the mystery of the incarnation in my arms

For the second time in my life, I am blessed to hold a newborn baby in my arms during the days leading up to Christmas. My daughter Gretchen was born on December 5, 1978. 39 years and one day later, she gave birth to her second son. Nothing humbles me like holding a tiny baby during Advent as I ponder the mystery of God-with-us.

Just as I did with his mother, I rock Justin to sleep in the glow of Christmas tree lights singing, “Silent Night.” And I think about how Jesus began his life in much the same way. With teeny-tiny fingers and toes. A soft spot and fragile little neck that couldn’t support his head. Crying when he was hungry, or wet, or tired. Nourished by his mother’s milk. Cuddled into contentment as he “sleeps in heavenly peace.” I hold him and ponder, How could the Creator of the Universe become so vulnerable, so helpless… so small? 
When my daughter was born, my heart was so full that I couldn’t imagine how it could ever hold as much love for any other human being as it held for her. But along came my son Ben, and I realized that I had been wrong. Yes, I could love another human being just as much as I loved my daughter. Who knew my heart was so big?
Then, with the birth of my first grandson, it happened again. I felt my heart swell and I couldn’t imagine how I could ever love another person the way I loved Nicholas. And yet, by golly, it's happened once again as a six-pound bundle named Justin holds my heart in his miniature hands. It astounds me to experience how the love of each one of them fills my heart completely, while the love of the many doesn’t diminish the love of the one. 
What I appreciate most about being a parent and a grandparent is the transformation it stirs within me. God knows I’m far from the most loving person in the world, and yet my children have stretched me to love in a way that is far beyond me. It brings me as close to divine love as I have ever experienced. Even at that, I know that God’s love for us far surpasses anything I could ever grasp. It’s a parent’s (or a grandparent’s) immeasurable love for one newborn baby extended to every baby ever born. 
More than just a mushy feeling, it’s love that empties itself completely for the sake of the beloved. That’s the wonder of the incarnation. It’s the hope of all the world entrusted to the world. The God of Love trusting in the love of humans. 
The sheer humility of the Word made flesh humbles me. I can hardly get my mind around it. And yet, when I’m holding my newborn grandson, somehow in a way that transcends language or reason, I feel like I am holding the mystery of the incarnation in my arms.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Beyond the Manger

Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus, right? Yes, and no. It’s about the birth of Jesus, yes, but that’s not all it’s about. The birth of Jesus embodies something profound about God that we often lose in the swaddling clothes and the manger and the straw.

I’m talking about the incarnation here. The word incarnation means an embodiment of a god or a spirit in an earthly form. Christianity, as well as Hinduism and Buddhism all include the concept of incarnation in their belief system. Within Christianity, John’s gospel introduces an incarnational worldview as he begins with the proclamation that the “Word became flesh and lived among us.”

Father Richard Rohr talks about four possible world views that people can adopt.

The first is the materialistic world view. This perspective says the only stuff that’s real is the stuff you can measure, the stuff you can see and touch. It’s the perspective usually taken by a scientific thinker.

The second world view is spiritual. Those who adopt this view spiritualize everything. They don’t take the material world seriously. What you see out there is just an illusion. The real stuff is the inner stuff. It’s the perspective usually taken by a religious thinker.

And then, there’s a third world view that Father Rohr labels as the theological. People with this view spend their lives working really hard to put the material world and the spiritual world back together again.

Now, all three of these views are based on dualistic thought, an either/or way of looking at life. Something is either good or it’s bad. It’s either right or it’s wrong. It’s a rigid way of looking at things and lies at the heart of fundamentalism. And it’s not at all the Jesus Way of being in the world. The Jesus Way honors mystery and paradox.

And that brings us to the fourth world view that Father Rohr identifies. It’s a way of seeing the world that Jesus came to claim: an incarnational world view, which says that matter and spirit have never been separated. While the theological world view works so hard at cramming God back into the material world, the incarnational world view says that you don’t have to cram God back into the world because God never left the world. God has been here all along.

Ironically, the birth of Christ embodies the incarnational nature of God, and yet every year when we celebrate Christmas, we become preoccupied with how we’re going to split it in two. There is the sacred celebration of Christmas and there is the secular celebration of Christmas and we see them as two separate things. Heaven forbid we should mix the two. We don’t sing “Jingle Bells” at a Christmas Eve service because that has nothing to do with the real meaning of Christmas, we’ll say. And yet, we certainly don’t want to give up “Jingle Bells” and only celebrate Christmas as a sacred holiday. That’s no fun. The implication is, of course, that the sacred celebration is meaningful and the secular celebration is fun. It’s either one or the other, but it can’t be both. So, during the month of December we all adopt split personalities. I wonder if that adds to the stress of the season in a way we don’t even realize.

Well, here’s the thing. The whole point of the incarnation is that there is no line dividing the sacred from the secular. God is a part of it all. Singing a medley that includes both “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and “Here Comes Santa Claus” is completely appropriate from an incarnational perspective. In fact, the way that the celebration of Christmas first came into being is an acknowledgement of this. Originally, it was a blend of the pagan celebration of the winter solstice and the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ.

So it always amuses me when I hear Christians getting all hot under the collar because Christmas has become so secularized, as if that is some kind of an affront to God. The only thing that is an affront to God is a dualistic worldview.

The big thing about living in a split universe is that you are always having to decide where God is and where God isn’t. You get all caught up in judging, based on the false assumption that God is selectively present in the world around us. God is in America, but God is not in Iran. God is in Barack Obama but not Donald Trump. God is in Bach but not Lady Gaga. God is in Ascension Lutheran Church but not the Hindu Temple. If we spend all our time determining where God is and where God isn’t, it’s not much of a leap to say, “God is in me but not in you.”

When we live with an incarnational worldview, there’s no decision to be made about where God is and where God isn’t. Yes, we find God wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger. But we don’t stop there. We look at the world around us, seeing God in it all.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Is the World About to Turn? (a reflection on #metoo)

There have been moments in my lifetime that I never thought I’d live to see. Schooled in post-WW2 America, I learned about the Soviet Union and countries we referred to as “behind the Iron Curtain.” I thought that curtain would always be there. Now, not only is the curtain gone, but so is the Soviet Union, and that Wall in Berlin, with all that it represented. I never thought I’d live to see it. Similarly, when Obama was elected President, I was blown away. I never could have imagined I would have a black President in my lifetime. Then again, when marriage equality became the law of the land, I was in disbelief. Was this really happening?

Moments like these are surreal to me. They embody the words of the rousing hymn we sing in church, “Canticle of Turning.” Based on Mary’s Magnificat, it’s meant to be sung with gusto and always beckons me to stomp my feet and dance in the aisles. (Someday I might actually DO it!)

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn!

I’m feeling a bit of this about the #metoo movement as women who long have been silent are finally speaking out about their experience with men who have harassed, assaulted, and violated them on so many levels. But this change feels a bit different, because this time it involves me and my experience. I’m not watching it unfold as an outsider. I’m standing on the inside and am not sure what to think. I’m having trouble objectively grasping the significance of the moment; it's hard for me to perceive that the world may be turning while my head is spinning.

I’m so accustomed to a world filled with toxic masculinity and men who believe women exist for the sole purpose of pleasing them that I can’t imagine one where this is no longer acceptable. I’ve lived the past 65 years deferring to male power, fearful of male power, enraged over male power. It’s been a helpless feeling that I haven’t dared express because, well, that’s just the way it is. I've often thought that if I could suck it up and go with the flow, I’d be a lot happier, as if I myself were the problem.

These days it seems that we’re hearing about sexual misconduct cases involving famous people every day, if not every hour. Some of them go back decades. We have quite a backlog to clear away because women have never felt safe revealing the truth. They haven’t felt that their voices would be heard, and their only recourse has been to remain silent. Now their silence has been broken in a big way, and we’re seeing how prevalent the problem is. And just to be clear, the problem isn’t only that men prey upon women. The larger problem is that this has been acceptable.

Of course, all men are not predators. Every man in my life hasn’t disrespected me as a human being; most have been decent guys. Yet, even among those who haven’t worked against me, I haven’t always felt that they were on my side. Their default setting seems to be looking the other way, rather than confronting the misogyny
that so blatantly affects half the population. Even among the good guys, my hurt and anger have been dismissed and not taken seriously. Rarely have I heard a man ask, “If she weren’t a woman, would it be acceptable for her to be treated this way?” But guess what, guys. That question is always on my mind.

Like nearly every woman I know, I have endured moments of fear, powerlessness, shame and humiliation at the hands of men. I don’t need to enumerate them here. But I will say that I have been changed by the women who have bravely chosen to confess “me too.” It has given me the courage to say “me too”, as well. Doing so has freed me. So, whether the world is changing or not, my world is changing.

It grieved me when I saw my daughter post #metoo on Facebook, knowing that she hasn’t been spared the trauma women suffer at the hands of men who think they are entitled to prey upon women. It rips my heart out that I wasn’t able to protect her from that. Back when she came forward and reported what had happened to her, I was at her side, so proud of her courage. But those in authority didn’t believe her. The world hadn’t turned soon enough for her.

Now I have grandsons who still have the opportunity to grow up in a different world, not just for women, but for all people. May kindness and compassion be their way in the world.

For all of us, but especially for our those who come after us, I’m praying that the world is about to turn.

Friday, November 17, 2017

It Just Doesn't Matter

One of my favorite speeches of all time is given by Bill Murray in the movie Meatballs. He’s a counselor at a camp for losers and they’re getting geared up to get their butts whooped for the umpteenth straight year by the hoity-toity camp on the other side of the lake. His motivational message to the campers is that “it just doesn’t matter.” He works them into a frenzy as they all rise to their feet chanting, “It just doesn’t matter! It just doesn’t matter!” Oh, I love that! I often silently chant it to myself when I catch myself getting all caught up in some effort to prove my worthiness to the world around me. It just doesn’t matter! It just doesn’t matter!

When my daughter was in high school she was one of the kids in her class who was competing to be the valedictorian. This wasn’t anything her father or I encouraged. It came from someplace within her. She pushed herself to be the best. Well, I believe it was sometime in the middle of her junior year that she got an A- in some rinky-dink class like health. She felt it was unjustly given and she fought it, but the A- stood. I did a little happy dance. “Thank God!” I said, “Now you can stop worrying about being perfect.” I mean, really. It just doesn’t matter. I recall that at the time she was a bit miffed by my reaction, but she laughs about it now. (She still finished third or fourth in her class and got to make a speech at graduation, so she was pleased with herself in the end.)

I was a band kid all though junior high and high school. And the thing about being a band kid is you really can’t care a whole lot about what the other kids think of you. You’re so far from being cool that you’re just not in the running to be anything but a world-class dork. So, you get to go through high school with this it-just-doesn’t-matter attitude. That’s why the band kids always have more fun than anybody. Being a band kid is great training for the rest of life. It helps you put things into perspective. So much of what people strive for in this life just doesn’t matter.

We spend our lives trying to prove that we’re better than other people. Our house is bigger. Our car is faster. Our yard is greener. Our children are better behaved. Our job title is more prestigious. We have more degrees hanging on the wall, or more published articles, or more awards. We’re thinner. Our teams win more games. We get invited to more parties. Our church has more members or a bigger building or a more exciting youth group. Our country is more powerful or more prosperous. Oh, the list could go on and on. We are so busy proving that our lives are worthwhile that we can’t see how, in the grand scheme of things, this stuff just doesn’t matter.

If we’re lucky, we have an opportunity to see what doesn’t matter and what really does. Most often, it comes when we are confronted with failure or disappointed by reality. We get fired. We end up with a debilitating disease. Our children get into some serious trouble. Our marriage falls apart. We have to file for bankruptcy. Something happens to strip away the fa├žade we’ve created to prop ourselves up in the eyes of the world. It may feel like the end of life as we know it, but if we’re smart we won’t let the opportunity pass us by. It’s our chance to consider what really does matter.

Of course, none of what we strive so hard to achieve matters a hill of beans to God. In fact, this is the very stuff that keeps us from experiencing an authentic relationship with God. We can never really come clean with God until the trappings that we hide behind are stripped away. That’s what Jesus taught us when he said that if you want to gain your life, first you’re going to have to lose it. He wanted us to see how so much of what we think is so gosh darn important just doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you follow the law to the letter and pert near never do anything wrong. It doesn’t matter if you hang out with all the best people. It doesn’t matter if you have all the right answers. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich. It doesn't matter if you're admired by all the people in your community. None of the standards and measures we use to judge who is better than whom matter. It just doesn’t matter.

But here are some of the things that do matter, according to Jesus: humility, honesty before God, mercy, kindness, compassion. It’s not what you get that matters, but what you give. In short, what matters most is love. The opportunities we have to give and receive love are what make our lives worthwhile. It’s love that binds us to God. Wherever love is, God is.

Blessed are those who come to realize what matters and what doesn’t.

Friday, November 3, 2017

No pastor dust for me, thank you very much.

Unless you’re also a pastor, or a funeral director, you probably don’t spend as much time at funerals as I do. And you may not know that there is a tradition about the placement of coffins for church services. If the deceased was a lay person, the head is toward the congregation, so they are looking up to the front. But if the deceased was clergy, the head is toward the chancel, so they are looking out into the congregation. This way they’re facing the same direction that they faced as a preacher/presider during their time on this earth. It’s a peculiar tradition that speaks volumes to me. Certainly, it shows a respect for those who preach. But, as one of them, it makes me more than a little uncomfortable. Is the separation between pastors and the people they serve so definitive that it must continue even beyond death?

Among my peers I’m something of an oddity because I actually went from college to seminary and was ordained at the not-quite-ripe-enough age of 26. This is the only life I’ve ever known as an adult, so sometimes I’m not sure who I am apart from the role that I fill. I’ve struggled with this throughout my life. While I feel blessed to be in ordained ministry, and am thankful for the rich life I’ve enjoyed because of it, I also am keenly aware of the fact that this is what I do and it’s not who I am. There is so much more to me than the role I fill for other people as their pastor.

I have relished those moments in my life when I have been with people who either: (a) didn’t know that I had a “Rev” in front of my name, or (b) couldn’t give a rat’s ass about it. While serving my second parish, for a time I played with an orchestra in the next city over and enjoyed being known as “Nancy who plays the piccolo.” After seminary, when I returned to school, it was in a public university setting where I was simply another grad student. And for a season of my life I enjoyed contra dancing where I was just another middle-aged woman trying to twirl around in a thrift-store skirt. I always need people in my life who don’t know me as “Pastor Nancy." Without them, I’m afraid I might lose myself completely.

So, do I really want to be marked as a pastor even after I die, as if that’s the essence of who I am? The very idea of having my coffin turned in a different direction than the other dear saints in my church disturbs me and it gives me one more reason to be cremated. After my vital signs have ceased, they can harvest any body parts that might be of use to anybody and then freeze-dry the rest of me. Please know that when they do, I will not become pastor dust, thank you very much. I will just be dust!

Of course, in whatever life that follows this one, the fact that I served as a pastor won’t amount to a hill of beans. In fact, I suspect that in the next life the most useless job of all will be that of the professional holy person. I mean, why will anyone need to have someone pointing them toward God when they’re in the actual presence of God?

So whatever will I do with myself? Who will I be? I suppose it’s possible that many of the things I’ve been preaching about will turn out to be true and I could strut around telling everybody, “I told you so”, but who would really care at that point? I’d rather bask in God’s glory with everyone else as we experience the breadth and width and depth of God’s love for all creation in a way our narrow minds could never comprehend in this lifetime. That’s when I’ll know that I’ve finally become the person God created me to be.

Yes, this gives me something to look forward to -- the day when my body will be dust and Pastor Nancy will become absolutely useless. Oh, yeah!

But I’m not in any hurry. I’ll wait my turn.

Monday, October 23, 2017

You mean it's not about a guy named Stewart?

Preached October 22 at Ascension Lutheran Church, Towson, MD.
Then Jesus said to them, "Give back to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's."
A coin with a picture on it—the Emperor’s. It was required to pay the imperial tax. That’s the one paid to their conquerors for the privilege of being an occupied territory. It was a perverse tax and the Jews resented it. Well, not all of them. There were some who were in cahoots with the Romans, like the Herodians. So, it was a political question, the kind you can’t answer without getting yourself in trouble with someone.

They wanted to trick him, and he tricked them back. In the process, he taught us a concise lesson on stewardship. Give to God the things that are God’s.

The things that are God’s. And what would those things be? The way you answer that question says everything about how you live as a person of faith.

I know that a lot of people hate it when preachers talk about money. I was never crazy about it myself. And that’s forced me to ask, why? In order to answer that, I have to come clean about my relationship with money.

Some of you are really good with money. Me…not so much.

I grew up in a home where I was never taught about money and I didn’t have any good adult role models. I don’t recall any budgeting happening. If it did, I wasn’t aware of it. My parents had no pension plans. They assumed Social Security would get them through old age. No investments. No savings. It worked like this… If you had some money, you spent it. And sometimes you spent it when you didn’t have it.

There was no charitable giving, other than maybe the Salvation Army kettle at Christmas time. We weren’t a church family, so I had no awareness of the fact that somewhere there were people who actually put money into an offering plate on a regular basis.

I had a lot to learn about money, as an adult. Particularly as an adult person of faith. It’s been a journey for me.

When I first heard the word stewardship, I thought people were talking about a guy named Stewart who wanted to take us all on a cruise. Then I learned that stewardship is about faithful management of all that God’s given me—which is everything I have. I have to tell you that learning that hasn’t made it any easier for me.

Once, when my son Ben was 5 years old, for his birthday he got some cash. Actually, a lot of cash for a 5-year-old in 1986. When we counted it, it came to 43 dollars. “What are you going to do with all that money?” I asked him. “I’m going to give it to the church to feed hungry people,” he said.

Without thinking, I responded, “Oh, you don’t want to give it ALL to the church, do you? Don’t you want to spend some of it on yourself?”

Yes, I said that. I’m not proud of it. But it revealed a lot about where I was on my personal stewardship journey. I was not what you what call a cheerful giver. There was little generosity in my heart. When I gave money away, I was always thinking about how I could spend it on myself. I would think about the car I could be driving, or the wonderful vacations I could be taking with the money that I was giving to the church. I gave, but I did it with resentment. I was begrudging in my giving. I gave only what I thought was enough, so that I always had plenty for myself and my family. I confess that I was stingy.

I came to realize that there is a correlation between being stingy with my money, and stingy in other areas, too. I looked at people I knew who had generous spirits. They were generous in their money, in the way they spent their time, in their relationships… Their generosity knew no bounds. They never seemed to worry that they were giving too much of themselves or their possessions. To me, that’s what it looked like to live by God’s grace. I envied them. I longed to be more like them.

And I decided to open myself up so that God could create a more generous spirit within me.

Now one of the secrets of the faith is that if you long to become a person of faith, you don’t just think about it. You don’t just pray about it. You do the things that a person of faith does and eventually, your heart catches up with your actions.

So, I made some changes in my behavior. I changed my spending patterns. Living within my means came to mean, living within my means so that I could share out of my abundance with others. That meant that I was okay with a used car. That I didn’t buy a house with mortgage payments that made it impossible for me to give a portion of my income to the church.

I made a commitment to give off the top. To give my money away first, and then figure out what I had left for myself and not the other way around.

Now, at different times of my life I’ve been in a position to give more money away than I have at other times. Right now, I’m single, my children are grown, I make a decent living, and there’s not much that I need. That hasn’t always been the case, so I haven’t always been able to give as much away as I can now, but it’s not so much the amount given as the longing for a generosity of spirit that’s nudged to give more through the years.

About 25 years ago, I started to pay attention to the percentage of my giving. In the Bible they talk about 10% as a faithful response for all that God has given, and I like that as a goal for myself as a person of faith. I’d never ever really done the math before and was surprised to learn that I was giving about 6% of my income, after taxes, to the church.

I didn’t feel good about that, so I decided to work toward 10%. I would do it by increasing the percentage of my giving by one percent per year. A couple years some things came up, and I just couldn’t swing it, so I did a half percent those years. After 6 years I was at 10%. That was right about when I started using Simply Giving, so the money is automatically taken from my bank account and it’s money that I don’t miss.

I’m living within my means, and my means includes charitable giving.

Then once I reached 10% of my income after taxes, I worked toward 10% before taxes. I decided that the 10% after taxes would go to the church. The additional money, the difference between before taxes and after taxes, that 10% would go to other charities.

One thing that’s new for me over the past few years is that I’ve become more intentional about the organizations I give to beyond the church. This time of year, I receive all kinds of solicitations for money from lots of worthy organizations. I can’t give to everyone who asks. I need a plan for my giving.

At the beginning of the year, I consider my options, and I decide who will receive my money that next year. Sure, something may come up, like Disaster Relief, and I can give to that over and above what I had planned for the year.

I want to give to organizations that I know will use my money wisely, and organizations that I believe in, ones that share my values. I do my homework before I give away the money God’s entrusted to me. This year my extra giving includes micro-loans for women entrepreneurs in developing nations, the Vision for the ELCA Fund, the World Hunger Appeal, ReconcilingWorks, my seminary, ACTC, BRIDGE Maryland, public radio.

I want to be intentional in my giving, just as I’m intentional in my spending.

That’s what stewardship is all about. Being intentional in how I use the gifts God’s given me so that the way I use those gifts reflects my relationship with the one who’s given me everything. Giving to God the things that are God’s.

When it comes to money, that doesn’t only mean stewardship of the money I give away, but it also means the money I spend on everything else, too. I continually ask, how does the way I spend my money reflect my relationship with God? This year, I took a sharpie pen and drew a cross on all my credit cards. That way, every time I use one, I’m reminded that the way I spend my money isn’t all about me; it’s a faith statement. 

I’ve become more generous through the years. That doesn’t mean I still don’t struggle sometimes, and I’m okay with that. God loves a cheerful giver, and that’s certainly true. But I take comfort in the fact that God loves a grumpy giver, too. The important thing is that I’m a giver. And God is helping me grow in generosity.

That’s a lot about me today.

What about you? What’s your personal history with money? How does the way you deal with money reflect your personal values, your relationship with God? Are you open to growing in generosity?  

Monday, September 25, 2017

Where do I stand on the national anthem? On the side of healing, please.

Professional athletes are making a statement during the national anthem again. I say again because this isn’t the first time this has happened. I remember well the black fists on the podium at the 1968 Olympics and the outrage people expressed as a result.
Clearly, Americans have diverse feelings about our national anthem. I will admit that it chokes me up when I sing it, although I’m not exactly sure why. I suppose it represents my country weathering hard times and surviving them…it's a source of pride for me. (I've only known the first verse most of my life, and that's what I focus on.)
Although it’s just a song and the flag is just a piece of cloth, they represent more than that. For some people, they are synonymous with our country, so to disrespect the anthem or the flag is to disrespect our country. If you lost a family member who fought for our country in the military, your connection to the flag probably runs deep. The flag may be a person you love who was taken from you in an act of bravery defending something they believe in. Any sign of disrespect for that is unfathomable.
I suppose it makes sense that when people are really angry with our country, they will attack our symbols. It’s a powerful way to make a statement and a lot better than blowing up government buildings. No one is physically harmed in the process. And yet it’s hard to say that no one is hurt.
I’ve been a bit puzzled by the fact that few people are pointing out the obvious about all the NFL players who got down on one knee during the national anthem this week. Those who are protesting are overwhelmingly African American. As a white person, I can’t pretend I haven’t noticed.
I have no clue what it’s like to be black in our country; that’s not my experience. But I want to do my best to understand. I would like to hear from those who are angry enough with our country that they can’t bring themselves to stand for our national anthem. I would like to understand why they feel this is necessary. Instead of accusing them of being traitors, I would like to understand their perspective.
That may sound un-American to some folks, but seeking healing in a nation that is clearly divided is born out of love for my country. And clearly, as a follower of Jesus, that’s where I’m called to go.
We are so quick to accuse “them” and defend “us.” We do this without taking the time to listen to one another. It's not productive and will never move us forward. I hate watching our country go through this latest controversy, yet again casting judgment with no concern for understanding.
Instead of accusing or dismissing those who don’t share our experience or perspective, why don’t we try listening?