Saturday, February 16, 2013

God spoke to me today in my living room

Eight of us met this morning in my living room for a Lenten mini-retreat. I led the group, inasmuch as I was the one who got them started, but in the end, I was as much led by them as they were by me. My goal was to get them thinking about how they have grown spiritually through the years so that they might be open to growing some more during the season of Lent. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?

To reflect on the past, I asked them to map out their spiritual journeys, noting the highs and the lows, the bumps and the turns along the way. I will admit that I had assumed their journeys would look a lot like my own. That’s what I was expecting. But that’s not what happened. Instead, I heard eight entirely different stories. One had been raised on hell-fire and brimstone. Another had never once doubted the love of God in her whole life. Still another had grown up within a faith community where she felt truly loved only to later experience judgment and rejection when she didn’t meet their expectations as an adult. Most had “wandered off to find where demons dwell” at some point, but in different ways, at different times, and for different reasons. It was amazing to find us all in the same room at the same time sharing our diverse stories.  None but God could have pulled that off.
Despite the differences in their stories, there was a common thread I heard that blew me away. Without any prompting on my part, they discussed their spirituality in relationship to their connection to church. They felt strongest in their faith when they were most connected to a church, and when they were floundering, church was absent from their lives. So, I wondered, was it that when they felt more connected to God, they also wanted to be a part of a church, or was it when they became involved in a church that they also felt more connected to God? It’s the proverbial chicken and egg question, only the chicken is faith and the egg is church. In this little focus group, I was trying to draw conclusions from what they were telling me about the life of faith. Well, some said that faith came first and church followed, while for others, it was being part of a church that led them to a stronger faith. So, it was puzzling just how it worked for them. But one thing was clear -- their connection to God and their connection to church are intertwined.

I know that as a pastor this shouldn’t surprise me, but it does. Why? Because my inclination has been to accept church as a necessary evil for people of faith. The spiritual journey is just too hard to go it alone, so we need to be a part of something larger than ourselves.  The Church isn’t perfect, and there are lots of things we get wrong, but it’s all we have. So, by default, we have to do church. My attitude has been pretty negative, I admit. Sometimes, as a pastor, I feel like I’m a zookeeper tending to one of the few remaining dinosaurs on earth. In time, church will become extinct along with the ones who pastor them. Lately, I had been thinking that this might not be such a terrible loss.
But for these dear saints sitting in my living room, there is a direct correlation between the strength of their faith and their spiritual grounding in a faith community. I’m still trying to consider the significance of this. No, church is not God. No one in my little group would say that. They know the difference. But, maybe that’s not the whole story. Maybe church is not God, but church also IS God. After all, the scriptures teach us that we are Christ’s Body in the world and that when we love, we are in God and God is in us. It’s not so easy to separate them and say that this is God and that is the Church and never the two shall meet. Among all the paradoxes that I have grown to accept as a part of what it means to live by faith, that is one that I had never considered before. Church is not God/Church is God. I’m hanging onto that for a while, turning it over in my mind, and waiting to see if it still holds true for me in a month or two. If it does, I’m hoping that I have a clearer understanding of how this matters for me in my life and vocation.

My sense is that this is disruptive enough to my way of perceiving the world that it will result in a shift in my thinking. I don’t know where it is leading, but it definitely changes the way I think about my role as a pastor. For starters, I realize that I haven’t taken it seriously enough. What I do and how I do it matters more than I had ever imagined.
I have encouraged the people in my congregation to think outside their comfort zones during Lent this year, to be open to God’s Spirit of transformation calling them to a wider and deeper understanding of their faith. I am teaching an adult class that will challenge many of their long-held views. I gave them a reading list of dangerous books that will mess with their minds. I have pushed them to move forward, to lean into their fears, and venture into unknown territory. I hadn’t really thought too much about how that might be a good Lenten activity for me to engage in, as well. Not until this morning.

If that wasn’t God speaking to me through a community of the faithful meeting in my living room on this first Saturday in Lent, I don’t know what was. God is not church; God is church. Well, yes.

Friday, February 15, 2013


Imagine what it might have been like to be among those who got to hang out with Jesus. Wouldn’t it be great to hear his voice and get the inside scoop on what God might be thinking about the really big stuff, like life and death? Well, if you’ve read the New Testament, you may have noticed that Jesus’ closest friends, the ones who got to hang out with him day after day, had a lot of trouble receiving what he was saying to them. They only heard what they wanted to hear. And it’s really quite puzzling... until you consider the fact that we tend to do the same thing.

Did you ever notice when people tell you how they heard God’s voice, the kinds of things they heard God telling them to do?  “The Lord told me to buy this house.”  “The Lord told me to come to this church.”  “The Lord told me to invest in the stock market.”  In all my 60 years of life, I have yet to hear someone come up to me and say, “The Lord told me to give away everything I have to the poor.”  I’ve come to the conclusion that so far as listening to the voice of God is concerned, we’re more than willing to do what God is telling us to do, so long as it’s what we wanted to do for ourselves anyway. 

So, here’s something Jesus said that can make us suddenly hard-of-hearing: “Unless a kernel of wheat dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Um. Did you hear that? He’s saying that the way to find life in all its fullness, is by giving it away. It’s not just true for Jesus; it’s true for us too. And here’s the thing. This isn’t one of those extraneous sayings of Jesus. It’s a truth that is so central to his teachings that, if you miss it, you don’t really get what it means to follow him.

Jesus’ tells us that life is about more than avoiding suffering at all costs. And he taught not only with his words, but with his very life, that suffering isn’t just something to be endured. While there’s no value in suffering for suffering’s sake, and we certainly don’t go around looking for it, it finds us all. And when it does, it is the way to life.

That’s not an easy message for us to hear. Especially in a culture where we’re taught that our most basic task in life is self-preservation. We assume that the most important choices we make are deciding between life and death. But from Jesus we learn that the most important choices are deciding between self-preservation or life-giving sacrifice.

This truth is beautifully illustrated in Margery Williams’ children’s story, The Velveteen Rabbit. It’s all about a stuffed rabbit who comes to understand what it means to be real.  There’s a conversation that takes place in the nursery between the rabbit and a toy horse: 

         “What is real?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room.  “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

        “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse.  “It’s a thing that happens to you.  When a child loves you for a long, long time not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become Real.”

        “Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

        “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful.  “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

        “Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

        “It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse.  “You become.  It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges or who have to be carefully kept.  Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.  But these things don’t matter at all, because when you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Sometimes we can get so caught up in worrying about saving and protecting and pleasing ourselves that we have trouble seeing beyond it.  The fact is, we are each given one life on this earth. And our lives can be spent in love for God and others, or they can be spent hoarding all that we can for ourselves. The ironic truth that Jesus shares with us repeatedly in the scriptures is that if you try to cling to your life you will lose it, and if you are willing to give your life away, you will save it.

Yep, that’s what Jesus is saying to us. For those who would follow in his way, it’s our truth. If you can't hear it, you may need to turn up your hearing aid.


Monday, February 11, 2013

When I grow up I wanna be just like the pope

I think more about retiring these days, since I turned 60. I seem to be going strong in my ministry, so I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon. I have no date in mind for wrapping things up; I’m playing it by ear for now. Although I know there are pastors who are counting the days, I’m not one of them.

Instead of counting the days, I’m praying for the wisdom to know when it’s time to go. No doubt that’s not always easy to see. I know this because I’ve watched some pastors hang on way too long at the expense of their congregations. People are too kind to put their pastor out to pasture when that pastor has done so much for them through the years. Yet, all the while they may be murmuring amongst themselves, “Is she ever going to retire?” Ugh.

It really is best for everyone involved if the pastor is the one to decide when it’s time to pull the plug. Unfortunately, when a pastor is all wrapped up in being Pastor, the last thing she or he wants to do is end it. Personally, I don’t think I’m all that attached to the role; for most of my adult life it has felt like an ill-fitting shoe. And, to be honest, I’m looking forward to the day when I can have my weekends free, so retirement is not something I dread. When the time is right.

I am self-aware enough to realize that some things aren’t working like they used to: I’m not as quick as I once was, I seem to get more easily confused, and I lack the stamina I had in my younger years. But, so far, I believe that I more than make up for these limitations with the 34 years of experience I bring to ordained ministry. I don’t have to work as hard as I once did because I am working a lot smarter than I ever have. I believe that and hope I’m not deluding myself because I want it to be true.

If I live long enough, the time will come for me to retire. I just hope that the time when I need to retire doesn't come before I actually do. I would rather my congregation shed a tear at the time of my exit than do a happy dance in the parking lot. And so, it’s my prayer that when the time is right, I will know.

I've always felt that the most important thing a pastor can do for their congregation is love them and I've even stated that when I don't love the people I serve any more, it's time for me to go. But as I've been thinking about retirement, I realize that the time may come for me to go, not because I don't love the people I serve, but because I do. I pray that my decision about retiring will come from a place of love, that I will leave when I know that it is better for the congregation I love that someone else serve them.

So today the pope told us that he is "retiring." From the tone of his statement, it sounds to me like he’s doing it from a place of love – love for the Church to which he has devoted his life. I admire him for that. And for having the good sense to know when it's time to step aside and let someone else do the job. In fact, I would say that this might be the most admirable thing this pope has ever done, in my book. It's definitely the first time I've ever thought that someday I might like to follow his example. Only much, much younger, thank you very much!

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Tell-Tale Peanut Butter

“Villains!' I shrieked. 'Dissemble no more! I admit the deed! Tear up the planks! Here, here! It is the beating of his hideous heart peanut butter!”– with apologies to Edgar Allan Poe
It was one of those dreadfully bone-chilling days with the temperature just above freezing; rain-drops and ice-pellets took turns tormenting me. The forecast said an all-out ice storm was on its way. I dashed to my local Food Lion to pick up a few essentials and found a scene bordering on pandemonium. (Particularly in the bread and milk aisles!) Since I only needed a few items, I didn’t bother with a cart. My goal was to get in and out as quickly as possible. As I scurried down the aisles, I kept picking up just one more thing until my arms could hold no more. When I passed by the peanut butter, I remembered that I was running low at home, so I grabbed a jar. Having no way to carry it, I slipped it into my coat pocket until I would pull it out at the checkout counter and pay for it.

The lines were long and, of course, I picked the wrong one. The cashier was obviously new and overwhelmed by the situation so that the manager was repeatedly called upon for assistance. Should I switch lines or stay the course? Because I already had so much invested in the line I was in, I didn’t waver. Finally, I checked out and made my way for the exit. It was raining again, so as soon as the doors slid open I sprinted for the car, threw my bags of groceries inside and then myself. It was after I took a deep breath and went to fasten my seat belt that I felt it -- the jar of peanut butter, hanging out of my coat pocket. Damn.

I couldn’t believe how easy it was to walk off with it. The peanut butter wasn't hidden; you could clearly see it popping out of my coat. When I later told this story to a colleague who is African-American, she told me she would have been hauled to the police station when she slipped the item into her pocket, much less getting out the door with it as I did. I don’t know if that’s true, but it was certainly easy enough for me. Some of you may recall that a few years ago I blogged about how I had walked out of a grocery store with half a sheet cake without paying for it. So, is this a pattern with me? I’m afraid it has more to do with my failure to pay attention to what I’m doing than it does any inclination toward kleptomania. If I intentionally wanted to steal something, I wouldn’t be able to do it. My problem is unintentionally stealing things.

Now, here’s the part of the story where I crept to the edge of the proverbial slippery slope, my feet slid out from under me, and I landed face down at the bottom... After I discovered the peanut butter in my pocket, I considered doing the right thing, returning to the scene of the crime and paying for it. Yes, I considered it. For about a nanosecond. But it seemed like more trouble than it was worth and I just wanted to be back in my warm, dry house, cuddling under a quilt with my pets. So I drove home.

That jar of peanut butter remained on my pantry shelf for 11 days. Although it bothered me a lot during days 1 through 4, somewhere around day 5, I was learning to live with it. Then this morning, on day 11, all that changed. I spread some peanut butter onto an English muffin and finished the last of the jar I had been working on. And suddenly it occurred to me that the next time I wanted some peanut butter, it would mean breaking open my ill-gotten jar. As I tried to imagine how that would feel, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to eat it. I considered donating it to Loaves and Fishes, a local food pantry for people who would love to have a jar of peanut butter. But that really didn’t solve my problem.

Now, there’s a back story that provides some necessary context for this sordid tale... Last year, I rented a house from some people who were dishonest with me from beginning to end. They promised me things they had no intention of delivering. They deceived me by pretending to care and then stabbing me in the back. I could list at least a dozen things they did as landlords that were illegal. And they flat-out lied to me. I couldn’t stand it anymore and decided to get out when my lease was up.

I left the house in great condition: plugging up all the nail holes and repainting, having the leaves in the yard raked, hiring a service to clean the place after I moved out, etc. I did everything I was supposed to do, including pay my rent through the end of my lease, although I moved out a month early. Imagine my surprise when I drove by the house and found someone new had already moved in before my lease was up! And do you know how my double-dipping landlords informed me of this? They didn't. Not a word.

The last straw for me was when they neither reimbursed me for the rent they received from their new tenants, nor did they refund my security deposit. It all got quite ugly on the telephone and I was getting nowhere, so I filed a claim against them in small claims court. I’ve never done anything like this before in my life. I like to give folks the benefit of a doubt and I don’t believe in suing people who make honest mistakes. But this was not an honest mistake.

While waiting for the wheels of justice to turn, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about honesty. I have to wonder how liars live with themselves. Maybe they rationalize what they do, believing there’s a good reason for their deceit. Maybe they’ve lied so much that they don’t even notice they’re doing it any more. Or maybe they’re so good at lying that they can even lie to themselves by convincing themselves that they aren’t liars. I don’t know.

But then, there’s the matter of the peanut butter. I suspect that we’re all dishonest to one degree or another. I certainly don’t like to think of myself in the same category as my lying landlords. But clearly, I’m capable of lying. (And stealing!) If there is a difference between us, I like to believe it has something to do with the fact that they have already spent the money they swindled from me and, if I kept that peanut butter, I would never be able to eat it. We are not the same!

So, I put the peanut butter back in my coat pocket. And I drove to Food Lion to pick up a few items. While no one was looking, I slipped it out of my pocket and into the shopping cart with the rest of my groceries. Then I proceeded to the check-out line to pay for it.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The only thing about us that matters

You may think you’re hot stuff because you speak eloquently, or you may be smarter than anyone else around. Your list of accomplishments may be a mile long. You may be oozing with talents that amaze all your friends. You may pride yourself on being a good, moral person who always does the right thing. But none of that stuff amounts to a hill of beans if you don’t have love. So says the famous love chapter in the Bible, 1 Corinthians 13. For all that stuff is going to come crashing down someday. It will all be forgotten or lost. The only thing that stands the test of time is love. So, if you’re going to strive for something in your life, don’t go for that which will one day fade or fail, rust or rot. Go for the one thing that is endures forever: Love.

Now, there’s a special word that’s used for love in this passage. It’s not the same word in New Testament Greek that is used for the love you have for a friend, or the love you have for a romantic partner. It’s agape love, the love of God. Love without expectations. Love without an agenda. Love without conditions. Perfect love. It’s the kind of love most people long for, but few experience.

For typically, the love we express for one another has more to do with us than it does the other person. We love another because of the way they make us feel about ourselves. (It’s pretty hard to love someone who does nothing for you.) And so, our love isn’t exactly pure. Our own needs and wants, our own woundedness and brokenness get in the way. That’s why it’s pert near impossible for us to be patient and kind all the time with one another. That’s why we get jealous. It’s why pride gets the best of us. We get defensive, and self-protective. Sometimes we do things that are downright crazy. Because we’re not perfect. And so, our love is less than perfect.

But the love of God transcends all that. The love of God is pure, complete… perfect. So, does that mean that agape love is God’s thing, but it can never be ours? Is agape love like “The Impossible Dream” for us, something we are compelled to strive for, knowing darn good and well that we’ll never really achieve it? Before we can answer that question, let’s consider the human experience of love.

The most basic way of experiencing love is on a feeling level. It’s the way you’re drawn to someone you find attractive. It’s the mushy feeling you get inside when you think about that special person who means the world to you. Or it may be the way you ache inside when you see someone who needs your help. It’s a heart thing. It’s something that you feel. You can’t fake it. Either you feel it or you don’t. And for a lot of people, that’s what love is… that’s all love is. It’s a feeling. But the thing is, you may feel loving one day, but not the next. Feelings come and go. If love is a feeling, it’s a very shallow form of love.

A deeper way to experience love is not about feeling; it’s about doing. It’s doing loving stuff for one another. We serve one another. We help the one who needs us, whether they deserve it or not. We show compassion toward our friends and even our enemies. We act in loving ways, whether we’re feeling the love or not.

Have you experienced that kind of loving in your life? Have you ever been in a situation where you knew you were truly loving in an agape kind of way? If you ever have, chances are your experience was hard to sustain over the long haul. The agape love of God was flowing through you in a very real way, you experienced it for a moment, and then it was gone. If you look at the kind of love we hear described in 1 Corinthians 13 as something you aspire to, then, that’s as good as it gets. If you really work at it, every so often, you might catch a glimpse of it.

But there is yet an even deeper way of experiencing the love of God. Deeper than feelings, and even deeper than the act of loving itself. And that is to know God’s love, not as feeling, and not as doing, but as being. Perhaps this may sound a little far-out, but hang in there with me.  It’s a line of thinking that takes you from a childish understanding toward growing into a mature understanding of love. It's the sort of thing Paul is talking about in verse 11 when he says that when he was child he thought like a child and behaved like a child, but when he became an adult he put an end to his childish ways.

It’s not quite as easy to put your finger on love as being as it is love as feelings, or love as actions. It’s a mystical way of experiencing God’s love. It’s the love that knits us to God. And it’s the love that knits us to one another in the Body of Christ.

So often, we tend to think of God as the other. God is there, and we are here. God reaches out to us in love, and we receive that love. Then we try as best we can to love God and other people in response to the love we receive from God. And that works.

But consider the possibility that God is not the other. Consider the possibility that we are a part of God and God is a part of us. I like the way John puts it in his first letter, where he says, God is love. And although no one has ever seen God, when we love one another, God lives in us and God’s love is perfected in us.

What if we allowed God to be God in our lives? What if we recognized the unity we have with the God of love? What if we didn’t have to work so hard at acting in loving ways, but we allowed the love that is already within us to be? What if we didn’t just feel love, or do love, but what if we are love? We wouldn’t have to think about whether we will choose to love at any given moment. We love because we are deeply connected with the One who is Love. We love because God is in us and we are in God. Love is who we are. It’s the essence of God that has been at the core of our being since creation – the essence of God that is Love.

Could that be what it means to be created in the image of God? Could it be Love? Could that be what 1 Corinthians 13 is about? It’s not about whipping ourselves into shape and becoming different people, people who are more loving. But it’s about becoming who we already are, people created in the image of the God who is Love.  

We look in a mirror and we fail to see ourselves the way God created us to be, we fail to see the image of God looking back at us.  So much gets in the way. In church we say it’s our sinfulness that's the problem. Yet that doesn’t mean it’s everything about us that is wrong or bad. It’s just our very human limitations that are inescapable: our hurts, our confusion, our misplaced priorities, our brokenness -- all the stuff that obscures the God of love within us.

But let there be no mistake. You were created in the image of God. And if you look closely in the mirror, although that image may appear dimly, nonethless it’s there.  Someday, Paul says, we’ll see that image clearly, without the impediments that obscure it in this lifetime. We’ll be able to look in the mirror and see what we were created for in the beginning, and what will remain of us for eternity: Love.