Saturday, January 30, 2016

Something Stupid....Love

What does it mean to be “called by God?”

I think I say those words a lot, “called by God,” but like anything else that we say a lot, the meaning can be taken for granted. Or  the meaning is lost, just one more tumble of over-used words. Worse, words can be used without giving them any thought, without really thinking about what  is being said. Maybe that is the end result of the furious pace of social media? All one has to do is watch television or follow a long stream of “notifications” in one’s “newsfeed” on Facebook, and one is inundated with words being thrown around without any real thought as to how hurtful they might be or how uncivil they might be or how unkind they might be. Sometimes I shake my head, it all can seem so stupid. 

Jeremiah, the prophet who speaks through the first reading we heard this morning, certainly wrestled with what it meant to be called by God. First he pretended he didn’t hear. Then he said no. Then he said, God, you must be mistaken, it’s not me you want. He protested. But, ultimately to no avail.

Being called by God begins first with God. God chooses us, each one of us, like God chose Jeremiah. And God is persistent and tenacious and eventually God get’s God’s way. 

Because God sticks with us, regardless of where we wander off too, no matter how stupid the direction might seem. Then God makes use of what ever it is we do, helping us to bring forth God’s hope for the world.  God created everything, called everything “good” and has expectations for this creation. God hopes. 

What is God’s hope for the world? Well, we hear this over and over in scripture. Today’s Psalm says a bit about this, God’s hope for the world is that we will recognize God in one another. The ancient Hebrew people who wrote this Psalm and sang it first in their temples and homes believed in a God who was present in a physical way, a rock, a whirlwind, a force that separated water, an angel who wrestled and broke hips, a hand that held the broken hearted and the lame. By the time we get to the Gospel of Luke and to Paul and his letter to the Corinthians, God has taken on human flesh, Jesus. God is indeed physical, calling all the parts into a whole.

Last week the reading from 1 Corinthians made it clear what it means to be a - flesh and blood - body. It means all the parts, eyes, ears, mouth, hands, feet, heart - every part - works together for the whole. One cannot say, I have no need for you, for one part needs all the rest in order to be whole. Any scientist who studies the earth learns that each organism, each creature, each plant, every single component of the earth and the solar system is part of the whole, interconnected in a cosmic way. 

For example I was surprised to learn just how valuable prairie dogs are. It’s true that most ranchers despise these creatures who burrow underground and leave holes on the surface that trip their cattle and horses, breaking legs and losing profitable animals. So the ranchers kill of the prairie dogs, poisoning them in their dens underground. But it turns out that prairie dogs are vital to the sparse ecosystem of the wild west with its tumbleweeds and sage and ragged mountains. Because when the prairie dogs are killed off the fragile land loses its aeration and the little bit of fertility in the soil is gone and it all turns to dust and blows away. Without the prairie dogs there is no usable land for ranching. The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you. The rancher cannot say to the prairie dog, I have no need of you, at least not if he really wants a ranch.

Paul wrote this letter to the people in Corinth because they were being self centered - beginning to think that one person, or one kind of spiritual gift, or some achievement was greater than another. As if the person who made the most money was the best person in the community. As if the person who could speak most eloquently was the best person in the community. As if the person who was made the most elaborate meal was the best person in the community. As if any one person was the best person, to this Paul tells them to knock it off. No one person is the best, it takes all of them together to make a whole. 

But it’s not just being together that makes them whole. No, they need to be much more aware of how they are being together, how they are called to be the body of Christ. Being called it turns out means learning how to love and being able to express God’s love into the whole body, the whole world. All the time. 

I woke up yesterday morning with an ear worm, a song lyric rumbling around in my head. I have no idea why it was this particular song, I can’t remember when I heard it last: Something Stupid sung by Frank Sinatra, and this line

And then I go and spoil it all, by saying something stupid like: "I love you”…

That line in the song stands in stark contrast to God’s love. Maybe that’s why it was in my head, as a sharp distinction between God’s love and the way we humans can be sometimes?

God’s name for you, for me, for all of us, is love. God’s work for us is love. Love is more than a noun, it’s a verb, an action. Called by God. Called to love, and there’s nothing stupid about it.

a reflection on the readings for Epiphany 4C: Jeremiah 4:1-10, Psalm 71, 1 Corinthians 13

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Greater Gift

One of the things I got for Christmas was this Garmin. It captures all my steps, heart rate, sleep patterns, calories burned and can be a motivator to stay active. If I sit too long it vibrates and tells me to move! 

Recently I discovered that there is an app for my cellphone that claims that for just five minutes a day one can rewire one’s brain and produce an attitude of gratitude. The app has a variety of ways to do this, including a journal for inputting five things every day that one is grateful for, and a variety of settings to motivate one to do this for 21 days in a row, because it takes 21 days for any practice to become a habit.

Research indicates that a daily gratitude practice enables one to develop a deeper capacity to experience positive emotions, feel more alive, sleep better, express more compassion and kindness, and even have a stronger immune system.

Some people, instead of using a cellphone app or keeping a gratitude journal have chosen to create a gratitude jar - every day they write a brief note about something they are grateful for and put it in the jar. At the end of the year they reread all those notes and experience a bounty of gratitude.

Paul, who wrote letters to the churches in the years after Jesus’ death, knew something about gratitude and love. But he did’t come by it naturally, in fact Paul, when he was known as Saul, was not a nice guy. But he met God one day when he was out for a walk and it changed every thing. To the church in Corinth he counsels them to love, “strive”, he writes, “for the greater gift.”

Paul’s letters to the churches are filled with teachings about how to love one another. And Paul is not talking about romantic love or being gratuitous. Paul is talking about life transforming love, the love that struck him on that walk one day, the love that God poured out in Jesus, the love that God asks of us, too. 

Loving as God loves is flesh and blood love, it’s found in a body of hands and heart and feet, of mouths and eyes, and all of these parts are necessary for the body to be whole. One part cannot say to the other, I have no need of you. Each part needs the other.

 Christ Church, this church, is made up of many parts that make us whole: the Vestry members who lead with compassion and wisdom, caring for the whole as well as the parts. Thank you. I am grateful.

 The body is made up of those who serve on Sunday morning from Altar Guild, to altar party, from music to ushers to coffee hour, to Christian formation, each person brings their gift of presence, one part of the whole. There are those who tend to our finances helping us be good stewards. Thank you. 

There’s the gift of Maryjane and all that she has given to us these last two and half years, I am thankful for her contribution to this body of Christ. I am grateful for our staff and the property commission who tend to this building.  The gifts of time, talent, and treasure of each and every person are vital parts of this whole body, Christ Church. Thank you. Thank you.

But when Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians, he didn’t just stop with listing how important the parts are to the whole. No, he went on the talk about the relationship of all the parts living together in love. In chapter 13 of 1st Corinthians he explains what he means when he says, strive for the greater gift. He writes:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Paul didn’t need an app on his cellphone to remember to feel grateful and love as God loves because Paul centered his life in Jesus, which means he centered his life in gratitude and love.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things….

Strive for the greater gift. Love, and the fruit of love is gratitude.

It might be fun to have a gratitude app on my phone and it might be insightful to maintain a gratitude jar and reread the notes at the end of the year. But ultimately it is love that moves us, transforms us, and fills us with gratitude. Let’s strive for the greater gift.

A reflection on the reading for Epiphany 3C: 1 Corinthians 12 & 13, for an annual meeting day

Saturday, January 16, 2016

When miracles happen...

It was early but the Chicago rush hour traffic was already thick when I took the exit ramp off of Lake Shore Drive. A row of cars had stopped ahead of me, all waiting for the light to change so we could turn onto Fullerton Avenue. I sat idly in my car, probably listening to the radio since this was long before cellphones, let alone CD’s or iPods. I remember looking in my rear view mirror and noticing that a car, exiting onto the ramp behind me, was not slowing down. As if in slow motion I pulled my car into the other lane and watched as that oncoming car smashed into the car that had been in front of me. My car was not impacted by the collision. Despite a full-on collision no one was seriously injured, although there was damage to several of the cars. I remember thinking that it was a miracle that I had looked up and somehow taken notice of impending danger and moved my car. However, what was a miracle to me was not a miracle for the others who had been hit.

What constitutes a miracle? Even in our gospel reading from John only a couple of people realize that Jesus has performed a miracle, turning water into wine. Listening to the conversation between Jesus and his mother and it seems that even for her this was not going to be a miracle, just Jesus, her son, being who he was. As if he had been changing things from one substance to another or healing people or whatever, but doing stuff like this at family gatherings his entire life. She knows what he’s capable of and calls him to rise to the occasion. She even tells the servants, “do whatever he tells you.” It was no miracle for her. It was no miracle for most of the guests, who may not have even noticed what they were drinking. It was however a miracle for the close friends of Jesus who saw for the first time what he was capable of.

I bet we all have examples of something or some time when we said, “That was a miracle!” A time when it was miraculous on a personal level, but when no else may have even noticed. 

Or more likely we all have occasions when we prayed for a miracle. Oh please, God! I need a miracle. As one of my friends says, God, BE GOD! Do what you do, okay???… because a miracle right about now would be perfect. 

I wonder how many people purchased Powerball tickets with that hope in mind, the need for a  miracle! I didn’t buy a powerful ticket, and besides, I’m not sure playing would have helped my odds anyway. But, I still fantasized a little about what it would have been like to win. I wonder how many people did play with the hope that winning would solve ALL of their problems. Except I’ve read that Lottery winners often end up in bankruptcy because, as it turns out, winning may not be a miracle, but a curse.

So miracles may be some event that a person or even a group of people experience together, but not all of them will experience it as a miracle. Some will just experience what happened as kindness or generosity or entitlement or luck, or a given or even a curse. Miracles may not be all that amazing, they may be just ordinary events that are experienced in extraordinary ways, like the impulse to move out of the way of an oncoming car. 

Perhaps what really makes something a miracle is not an event, but a feeling, a sense of gratitude, that makes one say, Oh Thank You, Jesus! I finished that paper. Thank you Jesus, I made it to the gas station before I ran out of gas. Thank you Jesus, it’s a miracle. A miracle may be nothing more than that which inspires a sense of gratitude. 

 The weather held out, the drive was less stressful than anticipated, the flight was made on time, a neighbor brings over casseroles, a friend invites one out for coffee, ordinary things that, given the circumstances, can all make one feel grateful, can all feel like a miracle. 

A church leaves its doors open for the mail carriers to come in out of the cold and use a bathroom - on some of the worst days, it feels like a miracle to the mail carriers. 

A church offers food for hungry families and gives them a Kroger gift card on top of it, for some it literally is a miracle.  A church helps a neighboring church collect drinking water to combat a local water crisis, for those families, it’s a miracle just to have water. 

A church gives another church nearly $100,000.00 to help build a school, a relationship was forged across the globe, and the school is well on its way to being completed. No doubt it is a miracle.

A church redesigns its interior to be more accommodating to people with wheelchairs and walkers and it redesigns its entrance way and offers free outdoor summer concerts. A church commits itself to being a teaching congregation and mentors lay people and newly ordained people into priests for the wider church. 

A church, our church, has done all of these, because we have chosen to live with gratitude, to be, in as full and rich a way as possible, a Community Centered Church and to fulfill our mission to feed people in mind body and spirit. 

Like Jesus, when we are true to who we are, when we do what God is calling us to do, when we live with gratitude, then, call it what you will, but the truth is, that’s when miracles happen. 

(A reflection on the reading for Epiphany 2C: John 2:1-11)

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Caught in the undertow

I spent most of my sixteenth summer on west side of Michigan, not far from Traverse City, with a friend and her family. Every year this family rented a spacious cottage in a resort community that rested on a small private inlet lake which connected to a beach on Lake Michigan.

One day we all went to the beach on the Lake Michigan side. It was a beautiful warm day, with small but vigorous waves. The usual freezing lake water had warmed over the summer to a perfect temperature for swimming. After lounging in the sun, on the pristine white sand, I decided to go for a dip in the lake. The water was a clear blue. I swam out into the deeper water and then turned back to shore. I was standing in water, about waist high, when something knocked me off balance and I fell into the water. I felt myself being pulled under the water by a force stronger than myself. I managed to stand up, only to be pulled under, again. I tried to move toward shore but instead I was being pulled out into the lake. I was disoriented by the weird pull, tugging me into and under the water, and I couldn’t figure out what was going on.

After several rounds of falling, standing, pulling under, in a vain effort to move to the shore one of my companions noticed what was happening. He waded into the water and was able to pull me out.  It was only when we were finally sitting on our towels in the sand that I fully realized how helpless I had been, completely submissive to the power of that undertow.

There are many occasions in life when we are caught in an undertow, emotional, physical, or spiritual. These occasions may not be life threatening but they can leave one feeling overwhelmed, helpless, vulnerable, or angry, lost, or full of despair. Last week I mentioned that I had unsubscribed from every move on dot org group, every political or social justice group that sends me emails because I am tired of their message of doom and gloom. I don’t want to get sucked into the undertow of todays news, social, and  political arena. I want to start 2016 with a new perspective, one that helps me focus less on angst and more on peace. By this I mean the peace of Christ, which is a particular kind of peace. 

Many years ago, when I was in the ordination process, we were required to attend a discernment weekend. It was a much dreaded weekend filled with a variety of “opportunities” for a group of strangers to discern if one had a “call,” in part by assessing if one was capable of managing the complex nature of ordained ministry. The weekend included one-on-one interviews and group sessions.

 In one group session we were all asked a specific question that focused on some aspect of how we had been perceived by the listening team. My question was, “What does the peace of Christ mean to you?” I went all clammy and squirmed in my seat before I launched into, what I hoped would be, a reasonable, heart-felt, honest answer. Some people left that weekend being told that no call to ordained ministry was heard, others were told they had more work to do, and some of us were given the go-ahead to proceed in the process. I have forgotten much about that weekend, except I still think about that question, “What does the peace of Christ mean to you?” In the twenty years since that weekend I have continued to try to understand what the peace of Christ means to me. No doubt the answer has changed over time, but it is still a good question for me consider. 

This morning’s reading from Isaiah is intentionally paired with the story of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel of Luke. The readings point us to consider the assurance of God’s love for us, which was Isaiah’s message to the Israelites who had suffered much. And, as Christians, the Gospel of Luke helps us understand how God’s love is fully revealed in Jesus. In the chapters that follow today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel we hear that after his baptism Jesus prayed, then he was sent by the Spirit into the wilderness where he was tempted for 40 days, upon his return he begins to teach and lead people into a deeper understanding of God.

There are any number things to lift up from the readings today, but central is the idea that the assurance of God’s love in our lives is not a divine license to do whatever we want nor to behave any way we wish. We are not to judge others, we are not to treat others with prejudice, bigotry,  arrogance, or mean spiritedness. Rather God’s assurance of love in our lives is an invitation, a choice we can make to be different from the pulls of the world. It is an invitation to anchor one’s self in the peace of Christ. 

Centering prayer, silent prayer, helps me find the peace of Christ, pulls me out of the undertow of life’s anxious moments and gives me strength and stamina, to wade through the rivers of life, to resist the current, until I can rest in calmer waters. 

I wonder, what does the peace of Christ mean to you, how do you seek to find it, and where might it lead you in the year ahead?

(a reflection on the readings for Epiphany 1C, The Baptism of Jesus: Isaiah 43:1-7, Luke 3:5-17, 21-22)

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Epiphany: The Journey Toward a Meaningful Life

One of the last things I did in 2015 was to unsubscribe from every move-on dot org, political action group, political candidate or social justice organization that sends me emails. I simply couldn’t take it any more, receiving 50 or more emails a day of doom and gloom requesting just a $1, maybe $3 to help out. No doubt I will still support the causes and candidates I believe in, and as soon as I sign another online letter of support or protest, I’ll be back on all the list-serves, but for now I can enjoy a respite from the constant ping of emails arriving in my inbox. 

I’ve also made an effort to stop watching the nightly news. I simply can’t take the first twenty minutes of reports on who killed who. I mean, is that really what news stations think is new-worthy? 

And, what about devoting the last three minutes of a thirty minute news report to a charming story about someone making a difference? Does that closing effort, in some way, balance how the news began?

Like the story about a woman who is seen walking the beach with a paper bag in her hands. Every so often she stoops and puts something in her bag then keeps on walking. People who see her think she is picking up sea shells. But when one person stops and asks her what she is doing she says that she is picking up glass. And, not the beautiful sea glass that has been rubbed smooth by waves and sand, she is picking up the sharp shards of glass that can cut bare feet. She says she does this so that surfers and others walking barefoot on the beach won’t cut their feet and have their day ruined. A simple act of kindness, making a small difference in the world. 

I started watching the news, and reading the news, in order to become informed about the evil that is lurking about and doing harm. This was when I was in my twenties and I yearned to know my purpose in life and how I could make a difference. Back then I was what one would call spiritual but not religious. 

Bertrand Russell, the English philosopher and mathematician was imprisoned for opposing World War I. There's a story about his arrival that reportedly goes this way:

"When I reported to the warden," Russell said, "he asked me the customary questions - name, age, place of residence. Then he inquired, "Religious affiliation?"

Russell replied, "Agnostic."

The poor man looked up. "How do you spell that?"

He spelled it for him. The warden wrote the word carefully on the admission form, then sighed, "Oh, well; there are a great many faith traditions,  but I suppose they all worship the same God.”

The magi were astrologers or pagans or maybe agnostics? People throughout the ages have speculated on who they were, but no one really knows. Regardless they felt called to find Jesus and bring him gifts. But the best gift was what they did, going home by another way, and thus protecting Jesus and his parents from the jealous rage of Herod.

Russel is claimed to have said that at various times in his life he was a liberal, a socialist, and or a pacifist, although never in any profound sense. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his literary writings that supported humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought. He did what he thought was right even though he was not motivated by religious principles.

There exist many spiritual paths that follow a wide variety of spiritual thought. Sometimes these differences are used as a weapons to separate one group of humanity from another. Sometimes these different thoughts and beliefs are used to bring people together. Regardless the difference always lies with us - Am I working to build up others or to build up myself at the expense of others? One might ask, am I a magi or a Herod?

No doubt people who have no faith, or people who are spiritual but not religious, can be good people, working to right the evils of the world and bring forth justice. Like Russell, the woman at the beach, or the magi one does not need to be a person of faith to do good work in the world. 

However, when I was not part of a church I experienced a kind of “any thing goes” spirituality and I felt untethered as I tried to make sense of life and live a meaningful life. Becoming a member of a church community frames what one does in a particular way. As a member of a faith community, of a Christian church, I want to participate in preventing the Herod’s of the world from acquiring a stranglehold on societies and nations. Christianity anchors me in a community of faithful people shaping who I am and supporting me. Being part of a Christian community affords me the communal wisdom of experience that comes from a long tradition of people who have and are wrestling with keeping faith relevant in the world; and it connects me to a living history, the body of Christ alive in the world today.

In a few minutes we are going to baptize Kaitlyn into the body of Christ. Almost eight years old Kaitlyn was able to participate in her baptismal preparation yesterday, answering questions and joining in the discussion about sin and evil and good. Today Kaitlyn takes on her identity as a Christian and begins her journey, living life as a follower of Jesus, learning to love as God loves. 

The Epiphany story challenges us to embrace a larger vision of the world, what it might look like if we remove the shards that wait to cut people open. What the world might be like if we are willing to do our part to help heal a perpetually wounded world; picking up the broken pieces, striving for wholeness, and uniting all of us as a people of God. 

Friday, January 01, 2016

Friday Five: Blank Slate

3dogmom, over at the RegGalBlogPals blog offers this Friday Five:

So here it is, the first day of a brand new year. Let’s try a less conventional lens to think about the blank slate of 2016 with these prompts. The questions are intended to help explore the category–how you answer is up to you!
Share with us what new horizons might be in your sights related to:
Food: I have made a lot of food and entertained a fair amount over Christmas and New Years. It's been fun, and something I like to do. However, in 2016 I'd like to explore some new restaurants in my area - we hardly ever go out to eat, it would be nice to check out some of the local favorites. 
Reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic: I am currently reading the 8th book from the Outlander series. I hear Diana Gabaldon is writing a ninth...not sure when it is due. I have not yet read the last released book from Julia Spencer Flemming, which I have in hard copy, signed by the author. Perhaps I'll get to that this year, before she releases the next one. :-) I have done almost no "creative" writing on my blog, I am in a real dry spell - or rather, the things I'd write about are not things I want accessible, yet, to a wide audience. 
Relating: I do hope to increase my work with clergy/congregation wellness and conflict reconciliation. I am doing some of this kind of work around the diocese. I also hope that we actually get some refugees, as we anticipated, into the area, and can do some of that important work. And, perhaps I'll find a Spiritual Director this year. I have worked with two different Spiritual Directors over the years, about 18 years of the last 20, but haven't had one since my last one retired and moved away two years ago. 
Mother Earth: No trips planned, thus far for this year. However next year, when I turn 60, I hope to do some traveling with my daughter and a friend and then with my husband. 
Creating: I am in the middle of three knitting projects: two hat and matching scarf sets and the second sock of a set I've been working on (or not working on) since last summer. 
A different kind of bonus: Parker Palmer has an excellent blog post about five new year’s revolutions that I found inspiring, challenging, and thought-provoking. Consider it an eighth day of Christmas gift! And may the year ahead bless you in all your endeavors and pathways in life.

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