Thursday, November 20, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving

O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!  Psalm 95

This evening at church, we enjoyed a Thanksgiving feast.  There was turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and of course, pumpkin pie.  There is something about this combination of food that fills us with comfort, joy, and Tryptophan to grant us all a peaceful night's rest.  Thanksgiving is also a time of counting blessings, reflecting on what brings us joy, and makes us laugh. 

Thanksgiving is a threshold moment too.  We know that 2014 is dwindling and soon a new year will dawn.  We know that December days are packed with a variety of tasks and parties and events.  The cooler winds, even in Florida, proclaim that change is in the air.  

Music plays a key role in this time of year.  Familiar carols fill the airwaves as we shop, drive down the road, entertain, decorate, on television specials.  So, here is my challenge to you:

First, this season listen to the carols.  Really listen to the words.  What do the words and phrases describe?  How do they point to the mystery of God breaking into the world?

Second, which of the traditional Advent words (hope, peace, joy, or love) would you associate with that carol and why?  The why is really the interesting part.  When out at lunch with a church friend, talk about which category "O Little Town of Bethlehem" or "O Holy Night" might fall into and why you think that way.

I pray this will fill you with joy and help you make a joyful noise this season.  I pray as you give thanks in worship on Sunday and throughout the coming weeks, what are you most grateful for?
I know for me my random list is:

A loving family with two growing, healthy kids
A wife who understands and loves me
A diverse church to serve as a pastor
The challenges, good challenges, I face every day
And of course, Thanksgiving feasts that end with pie.

May your Thanksgiving and the rituals you engage in over the coming week bring you more than a trace of God's grace.

Happy Thanksgiving and blessings ~

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Disappointments



Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Psalm 23:4

We all have moments of feeling disappointed.  Something doesn't go our way: we are passed over for a job promotion; someone says something that reminds us that while sticks and stones can break our bones, words really do sometimes hurt us; or we feel an internal sense of unrest.  In these valley moments sometimes we turn to the church.  But what exactly are we looking for?  Do you want the pastor to do a reprise of "The sun will come out tomorrow" from Annie?  Or do you want the pastor to dwell with you in the disappointment?  Or do you want a distraction?  Or some random combination of all three?  

Most of the time when dwelling in the valley of disappointment, I don't know exactly what I want.  Someone starts to give me advice or cheer me up or give me that look of concern and I find myself frustrated that it is not right.  Part of the issue is that this is a cultural myth of happiness.  We are all convinced that God wants us to be happy.  But is it really possible to be happy all the time?

St. Augustine is famous for comparing grace to a toothache.  He wrote that before his tooth started to hurt, he did not know how good life was.  But once that throbbing started in and he could not find relief, he would have done ANYTHING to go back to his previous, albeit naive, state of life.  Grace allows us to hold in tension the good and the bad.  Grace allows us to move forward, even while carrying the rocks from the past.

I think most of us eventually make peace with disappointments in life.  We move on.  But for me disappointments also remind me that I am not constantly in control.  I do things, say things, and assume things that have consequences.  I don't expect God to be Super Spiritual deity to swoop in and save me from my boneheaded self.  God does, I think with grace, help me pick up the pieces.  God does help me see the errors I have made...not with guilt but with grace.  God does help me have the strength to wake up tomorrow and say once more, "Thank you God for waking me up and thank you God for getting me up."

For me, the cliches don't always cut it.  Disappointments don't always make me stronger.  I can't just forget and forgive.  I don't just put my chin up or pull myself up by my boot straps.  No, I don't do any of that.  But faith gives me a light to see.  Faith gives me a hope to lean into.  Faith gives me a grace and love that make all the difference.  That is what I give thanks for every day, even in the valley moments.

Blessings and peace ~

Thursday, November 6, 2014

In the still of the night



I am a morning person.  There is something about the crispness of the air as the sun starts to peak over the horizon; that warm cup of coffee in your hands; facing the day as a blank canvass.  But by the end of the day, I am usually exhausted.  My mind is sluggish and that blank canvass I started with twelve hours ago is now covered, spilled on and even spilling over onto the ground from the activities of the day.  Some of what covers the canvass of today I am proud of; moments ~ when I sensed God in a real way.  But other parts are not my best work; moments I strayed or said something that I instantly regret.  Even though I love to begin each day, it is also sacred work to step back and look back at what happened in the past hours.

This is an ancient practice within the Christian developed by St. Ignatius called the Examination,  He advocated for five steps before going to bed each night:
1. Become aware of God’s presence. Take deep breathes, clear your mind, try to let go of the "could'ves" and "should'ves" we all pick up and put in our bundles every day.
2. Review the day with gratitude.  Giving thanks, focusing on the good is always a great way to start.  It is easy to bogged down in the negatives, especially when life doesn't go our way.
3. Pay attention to your emotions. We should never gloss over what we truly feel.  Even if all you can give thanks for is the breath you breathe in step 2, then you can move on to step 3 you can acknowledge the other thoughts stirring within.
4. Choose one feature of the day and pray from it. What one event or experience sticks out?  Maybe a conversation or moment; focus and listen to what it has to say.
5. Look toward tomorrow. As you close out the day, prepare your heart for tomorrow.  This could include needing to say your sorry for the boneheaded thing you said or it be saying thank you to a friend for lunch.

Nighttime is the best time to do such an activity.  Creation is slowly down.  There is a quietness starting to take hold.  It is good to listen to the sound of crickets or the soft wind blowing through the trees.  Nighttime is also a vulnerable time.  And the steps above invite a type of vulnerability.  It is to say that we are not as in control as we like to think.  I often find that during the day time it is harder to hear creation.  Noise from cars or your neighbor working outside drown out God's voice singing in creation.  Of course, noise is not only external.  Sometimes the hardest noise to quiet at night is the inner voice that keeps wanting to re-hash that conversation with a friend.  Or you finally come up with a snappy come back to that rude store clerk.

I invite you tonight, as you read this blog, to enter into the steps of the examine.  See where our still speaking God guides you.  May you have a peaceful nights rest with the traces of God's grace around you.

See you in the morning.

Blessings ~

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Voices

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”  Isaiah 40

The other evening I was listening to an author talk about her recent book and she said one of the first tasks of writing a book is to find and listen carefully to the character's voice.  I was struck that such a task is not only for writers, but for all of us in life.  We need to find our voice; our authentic, unique, wonderful voice.  And once you find that voice, you begin to explore your range, just as a singer knows his/her range.  And once you find your range, you try to sing and share your voice with others in the best ways you can each day.

Yet, I also wonder how many people feel like they have to switch voices throughout the day?  Do you feel like you have one voice at work and another at home and still another at church?  Such switching can leave us feeling at once hoarse and confused, especially if one of the voices you are called on to sing is outside your range/comfort.

I know as pastors, we need to find our voice.  Often our first few sermons are part seminary paper, part biblical treatise, and part imitation of some preacher we read/really liked in seminary.  But over time, you cannot preach/sing/speak in a voice that is not yours.  More importantly, finding a voice is a process not only for preachers but for all people inside the church.  Often people come into church after a week of using a voice that did not feel very authentic or true; the stress and strain wearing on them, and do we on Sunday offer a chance for every person to remember/reclaim/rehearse his/her authentic voice God gave each of us?

If the greatest joy of God is a human/creation fully alive, then part of being alive is singing/speaking with gusto to the One whose very breath is what supports our voice in the first place.  And while it is great to think about our own voice, we also have to be careful and honest about which voices we are listening to.  Isaiah says 'A voice cries out in the wilderness.'  That voice brings promise and words of hope and that the future pathway of life will be a blessing.  Yet, very few voices I hear today offer such hope to us.  Most tell us that if we vote for the other party, the pathway will be rocky.  Most commercials tell us if we buy the other car we will be stranded on the side of the road.  Most of our colleagues, stressed by life, tell us we are foolish to think/trust/believe that there is any hope.

What voices are you listening to?  How is what you hear impacting what you say?  I invite you to sit with me alongside those questions this week to see what trace of God's grace might stir.

Blessings ~

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Relationship and rules part 2



If the Ten Commandments are really about relationships rather than rules; if the Ten Commandments are actually an invitation to dialogue and discussion; if the Ten Commandments are about how we can connect with God, ourselves and others in concrete ways...well that WE have some work to do.  We have some work to do as we sort out how we can authentically live these ten ways to life.

Last post I laid out the following understanding of the Ten Commandments:

1.  Put God at the center
2.  Don't try to confine God to the palm of your hand
3.  Don't use God for your own agenda...one that lots of us struggle with today.
4.  Keep the Sabbath...or as Barbara Brown Taylor says, "One day, you need to be good for nothing."  Just be, rest in God and not in your accomplishments.
5.  Honor parents...or better yet, honor all elders and those who have wisdom to offer.
6.  Be careful with weapons and words, both can be used for violence that kills
7.  Honor relationships, intimate and others too.
8.  Honor other's possessions...we all learned that in kindergarten
9.  Honor your own words...let them be authentic
10.  Let your deepest desire be God, or put God at the center, so we come full circle.

Then, I asked you to come up with concrete ways; actually examples, and I would do the same.  So, here are some thoughts:
1.  Put God at the center ~  I try to start every day with prayer.  I read a devotional, sit in silence, try to take deep, deep breathes, relax my shoulders, imagine handing my stress over to God, resist trying to take it right back from God.  Yet, just a few minutes in the morning, rarely feels like enough.  I have been trying this week to also spend time in the car in silence listening for God.  I think as a church at meetings we need to stop filling the agenda with our voices and let God get a word in edgewise.  Will some church members think this is a waste of time?  Sure!  But these are often the people who need to be still and listen.

4.  Being good for nothing is the hardest for me.  I have been working since I was 14 years old, before that I was responsible for making dinner and ironing!  Working becomes part of your DNA, the way you understand yourself.  However, when you live in Florida in the winter you have NO excuse not to get out and sit on the beach...and simply be.  Be in God's presence knowing that you are enough, without needing to produce a single thing!

5.  I have been thinking about who the elders or wisdom speakers in our world today?  Which voices give me new insights, and which voices challenge me in good ways?  I am still trying to comprise my list and will offer it in a future post.

10.  Let your deep desire be God...we know that all religion rests in the heart and we cannot see/know what is in another person's heart.  We know plenty of people who put on a facade and try to play the religious role.  Other people eschew the church, but are incredibly faithful.  So, actions and words are not some formula that we can determine what is going on inside someone.  You have to get to know them.  Many ways, I think we also need to get to know ourselves.  What do you believe?  And do your actions and words really match those convictions?  That is the challenge.  If the God of love is my deepest desire than love should be felt in my actions and words.  Not all the time, of course.  I am human, I get angry and tired and frustrated and say things I instantly want to rewind time to take back.  But when I do the very things I don't want to do, I can spend time asking, "Why?"  Why did I say that or do that, what is really at the heart of that action.  The more I can probe to the deeper part, and not just blame others, I can get closer to living out the image of God invites each of us to embody completely.

I know I did not comment on all Ten...but this is a glance at what is going on in my mind and heart.  How about yours?

Blessings ~ 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Relationships and rules



Often when we read the 10 Commandments, we conflate this top ten list with rules we need to unquestionably obey.  Etched in our mind is Charlton Heston coming down with his hair flowing... his beard flowing...his robe and words flowing saying, "I thus giveth thee tenth Commandmenths".  But when you read Exodus 20, God speaks.  God does not have Moses play secretary, God simply speaks and a relationship with God's people is formed and fashioned.  

That is pretty much how every relationship is formed.  You talk...and talk...negotiate and re-negotiate.  The rules around relationships are bendy and flexible.  Which is a pretty good description of God's relationship with us, it is flexible.  I know this is not the normal interpretation of the Ten Commandments.  But throughout Scripture these ten guidelines for life that is true life, keep getting discussed...sometimes debated with others.  Rabbis and teachers would keep entering into dialogue with people as they tried to put God first, even as other voices (like say, Caesar) clamored for that spot.  They wrestled with what was an idol and whether art pointed to (rather than tried to contain) our relationship with God.  They wanted their words to be honest and authentic.  They wanted to honor other relationships too, whether intimate or other human connections.  All of this was up for discussion.

Somewhere we stopped participating in the dialogue.  Somewhere we lost our history and our nerve of talking about how we form a meaningful relationship with God, with ourselves, and with others.  Yet, we can rekindle this love affair.  The first three commandments deal with our relationship with God:
1.  Put God at the center
2.  Don't try to confine God to the palm of your hand
3.  Don't use God for your own agenda...one that lots of us struggle with today.

The fourth is about our relationship with ourselves
4.  Keep the Sabbath...or as Barbara Brown Taylor says, "One day, be good for nothing."  Just be, rest in God and not in your accomplishments.

The last six have to do with our relationship with others:
5.  Honor parents...or better yet, honor all elders and those who have wisdom to offer.
6.  Be careful with weapons and words, both can be used for violence that kills
7.  Honor relationships, intimate and others too.
8.  Honor other's possessions...we all learned that in kindergarten
9.  Honor your own words...let them be authentic
10.  Let your deepest desire be God, or put God at the center, so we come full circle.

I invited the church today to not just read these, but to actually come up with concrete ways to live these Ten Commandments.  I encourage you to do the same.  In the next post, I will offer some of the ways I have come up with for my own life.

Until then...happy pondering!

Blessings ~

Sunday, September 28, 2014

What a Covenant...Wait! What is a covenant?


What a fellowship, what a joy divine! Leaning on the Everlasting Arms!
What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,  Leaning on the Everlasting Arms!  
First verse of the hymn, What a Fellowship

In the last post, I laid out one understanding of a narrative arc in scripture going from creation to crisis to community to Christ to church to culmination.  And like all human understandings there are pros and cons to this idea.  One drawback is that it does not emphasize enough the word, covenant.  Our modern day understanding of covenant tends to conflate or confuse it with contract.  While culturally there are similarities, I think within Scripture the two are  not synonymous.  A contract has a legal aspect and well-defined consequences for breaking the contract.  If I decide to jump ship from Verizon and go to AT&T, there is a well-defined financial consequence for that choice.  We are bound by contracts from the places we live to the credit cards we carry to even our jobs.  So, it makes sense that we view covenant through that same lens, it is convenient and seems to be the way the world works.  

Yet, a covenant is different.  A covenant is a vow made between to people.  A covenant is most concerned with the relationship.  Marriage vows are a covenant.  When my wife and I exchanged vows, we made a covenant to each other.  We did not sign our names on a dotted line with those words printed above, we looked each other in the eyes.  We did not talk about "early termination fees" or ways the vows would be "null and void", although there were implicit, if unspoken, ideals about what it meant to live out and live up to the words we were saying.  What I remember most is our final words of our vows, "I give myself to you as I am, as I will be, and I do it for all of life."  There is an elasticity to covenants that a contract simply cannot capture.

Often, when we think about the 10 Commandments, Exodus 20 (click here to read),  we read that as a kind of contract.  When that is the mindset we bring, it means that if you break one of those commandments, there is, "Gonna be some splaning to do" to quote Desi from I Love Lucy.  Or some even preach that God is going to have some smiting to do.  But what if these are viewed through the lens of a covenant?  Of God's relationship with us?  God's vow of connection?  God's hope for our lives?  Like wedding vows, God looks into our eyes and says, "I desire to be at the center of your life; I ask you to not confine me in easily understood boxes, I pray you will not causally throw my name around..."  That is a different way of reading.  Perhaps we prefer to keep the commandments as more of a contract.  But I wonder if we do this so we can stay in control?  Because if the commandments are primarily about us, then the onus is only on us, not equally on God, then we are in the drivers seat.  But all relationships, all good relationships, are about mutuality.  Covenants are about mutuality, a willingness to dance and have a give and take with each other.  

In the next two posts, I will comment on the Ten Commandments.  But for now, I offer you the chance to ponder prayerfully if viewing these Ten statements as covenant in our unfolding relationship with God might be helpful.  I pray it is and I pray you sense more than a trace of God's grace as you do so.

Blessings ~