Saturday, June 24, 2017

Acting Up and Out ~~ The Church Today

Saturday morning prayer...

The sturdy stump sat solidly
as I slowly chipped away at it.
Saw dust stirred and settled in the grass.
Bits flew suddenly off.
And there were moments I wondered if I would ever finish
Or was just the task an exercise in futility.

Piece by piece.
Step by step.
Painstakingly slow.
Wondering if I was really make progress.
Just like life itself.

Rarely does a day bring leaps and bounds of success.
It takes time.
One step forward...two back...two forward in a divine dance.
One of the ways prayer works on you is a place and pace to reflect.
Review your life.
Renew your spirit not by doing but by being.
Prayer invites us to breathe in grace
And exhale anxiety.
Breathe in love
And exhale our less-than-gracious understandings of self and other.
Breathe in hope
And exhale all that stale, stifling sense that things have never been this bad.


And be drenched in more than just a trace of God's abundant grace.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Acting Up and Out ~~ The Church Today

When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.  Acts 7

If you have a chance to read all of Acts is a cliff notes version of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Stephen is giving his sermon in response to the false charges.  He talks about how Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and the prophets were all agents of social change.  They each faced opposition (who said life was supposed to be easy?).  They all stumbled and bumbled around a bit...yep, I can relate to that.  And yet, God worked through their humanness.  The great message of the Hebrew Scriptures is that God is not distant or disinterested, God is not discussed by our brokenness, God is able to let a light shine through the cracks of our lives.  Are you with me?  Yes, there is violence in the Hebrew Scriptures (and in the above passage.  When people say, the God of the Old Testament is so mean.  I want to say, "Don't forget about Stephen being stoned!"  Not exactly how I want to spend my Tuesday.)  The truth is we still live in a time of violence.  For the last fifteen years our country has been involved in the Middle East.  The state of Syria continues to unravel.  And we could go on and on.  Do we really think we are going to be judged as more enlightened or as more of the same?  That question tends to sit heavy on my soul.

  As I said in the last post, when you try to change or challenge the status quo...people tend to react and respond in less than positive ways.  They will discredit, dissuade, divide you for friends, and defend the current system.  Even though we are in constant change, our natural/normal mode of operation is to see change drenched in a negative light.  So rather than facing changing, the powers that be simply do away with Stephen.  Just as we did with Dr. King; just as we did with Malcolm X; just as someone tried to do this last week with Republic representatives.  When I read Genesis 3, I don't hear that as proof of original sin...I hear that as proof of brokenness begets brokenness begets brokenness.  When I (like Eve and Adam) listen to those voices that tell me a false narrative, I make decisions that are born out of brokenness, which causes brokenness in my family.  Or sometimes I try to hide from my responsibility (like Eve and Adam).  And I often defend my position or even pass along blame (like Eve and Adam).  The events in the garden didn't have to literally happen for them to actually be true in life.

And when we cause pain...when we throw stone to hurt and harm others...when we want to make ourselves feel better by pushing another person who is different than us down...all of that is what this story is shining a light upon.  The prayer of confession has fallen out of favor in our church today.  We come to church to feel good, we don't make us think about all that bad stuff.  Besides...we reason even more...I am really nice to my African-American co-worker and I just had drinks with my gay I am cool.  But...that doesn't stop the fact that racism and sexism and homophobia are still baked into our collective societal pie.   That doesn't stop the fact that if we don't process our pain and our responsibility, we pass it along to others.  Confession isn't about raining guilt, it about getting the moldy parts of our lives out into the light so they don't keep festering and fueling our lives in destructive ways.  Just as in AA you need to make a complete inventory of those you've harmed...not because you are a lousy person...but because you are a person.  We all have done things that we need to seek forgiveness and reconciliation.  And while I am pretty sure I have never thrown a stone...I have lobbed quite a few verbal words meant to do internal damage and I have judged people and I am so good at seeing the speck in your eye while missing the log in my own.  Darn that Jesus for calling us to another way, path and image for life!

Finally...notice the name Saul...that is actually the guy we are about to meet who will become Paul.  Yes that Paul (no not McCartney...although I am a fan).  Paul is in the one who writes over half of the New Testament with his letters.  Paul who goes from being passionate persecutor to professing that Jesus is the way.  We will get to him in a bit...but for now, just notice he was there.  And that perhaps this moment left a mark on his life.  After all brokenness often begets brokenness.

May the trace of God's grace interrupt and disrupt us from those vicious cycles that form well worn ruts.

Blessings ~~  

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Acting Up and Out ~ The Church Today

Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, 
Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue, stood up and argued with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. Then they secretly instigated some men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council. They set up false witnesses who said, “This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us.” And all who sat in the council looked intently at him, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.  Acts 6

One of the hallmark characteristics of the early church was caring about and for people.  One of my professors used to say, "People will care what you know...when they know that you care."  So often today, care is understood almost exclusively as doing.  We serve meals or deliver them to someone's door.  We buy food or box it up for someone.  We build homes, sign petitions, and our understanding of mission involves perpetual motion.  But when do we sit and listen?  When do we see maintaining a relationship with someone who is struggling to be just as vital and vibrant?  In a world that loves the concrete and tangible, so do we when it comes to serving others.  We want to point to the pot of stew or the paint on the wall as a tactile expression of love.  And it is!  But just because someone's stomach is full doesn't necessarily mean she has fully encountered or experienced God's love.

One of the new words being bantered about is rather than mission to be missional.  To be missional is to be relational.  It asks us to take seriously that the person who is hungry also has a story about how and why that came to be.  It is in hearing and honoring each person's story, that we take a deeper step to be in right relationship with a child of God.  The person is more than a need to be filled.  But wait...that takes time!! Yup.  But wait...we won't be able to serve as many people!!  Yup.  But wait... getting my life twisted and tangled with someone else is messy.  Yup.  It is vulnerable.  It might expose our own weakness and we might have to dig deeper into our own privilege and hard to answer questions of why do I have a home and the person before me has none.  Missional will ask more of us.

But...and this is an important but...we will have to go beyond our own resourcefulness.  We will have to full of grace in order that we might have the grace to not just serve, but perhaps be served.  Missional relationships are less about I have something for someone else, and much more egalitarian.  The other has something you need as well.   I encourage you to ponder this prayerfully.  This is not the way the system is set up right now.  I can give anonymously...and I say that is for the other person's dignity...but perhaps it is for me to protect my own vulnerability.  I often give money... rather than really confronting an economy that is unjust and where I am on the positive side.  I volunteer cooking rather than sitting with the same person day after day, thinking I am being a servant...but it also is a way to shield myself.  This is the harder path Christ walked and invited us to travel as well.

Finally, when we start to say things like this, people are going to get upset.  That was true of Stephen and it is still true today.  Many people think about how great Rev. Dr. King was...and he still is!  But what we often gloss over is that near the end of his life he preached out against the Vietnam War.  People kept saying, "Martin, just still to civil rights."  But he felt compelled and convicted to shine a light on all that was unjust, not only racism.  Stephen is stepping on toes...he is confronting and trying to change a system.  When you do that...people tend to react rather negatively.  We don't like change.  We'd rather volunteer on our time table...rather than get too tangled in a relationship without an exit strategy.

My life is no beacon of this.  I have a looooooong way to go.  I have much to learn.  But I am convinced that in this new century, we need a new way of relating to those who have needs for shelter, clothing and food beyond our current structure.  I pray as this story of Stephen settles in your heart and sings to your life, there will be more than a trace of God's grace surrounding you.

Grace and peace ~~

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Acting Up and Out ~ The church today

Saturday prayer....

Rather than make a list today,
I might find a place to lay.
I might find the space to pray.
I might search for the room to sit and stay.

Rather than accomplishment I boast,
Perhaps it is tending a relationship with family or friends,
Perhaps it is creating a meal to enjoy,
Perhaps it is just being and breathing.

Of all the business and busyness of our churches today,
We still don't help people understand the importance of rest.
To realize that God's love doesn't depend on what we do,
But on who we are.
To realize that grace is not earned like a merit badge,
But offered freely everyday.

To rest in that promise,
To wrap ourselves in that truth.
That is what I am going to do today.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Acting Up and Out ~ The Church Today

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet. Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.” When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died  Acts 5

Come on, now, is this not one of the most mysterious, odd, wonderful, frustrating, and amazingly outlandish stories in all of Scripture?  I love it.  What I don't love is what the church has sometimes down with this.  Let's confess that we have taken this as permission to rain guilt on you about giving to the church.  We have, sly smile on the preacher's face...tongue in cheek...made a few jokes about what might happen to you if you don't give more to God.  When preaching on this passage, pastors (who depend on your gifts for our livelihood) who are willing to explain away how the sun stood still or how it doesn't have to be the Bible verses science, suddenly become literalists.  We confine and define "stewardship" so narrowly in our society to money.

That is because we live in a material world...we live in a world where cathedrals are build to capitalism....where we are what we spend and with the swipe of a credit card I can create a whole new identity.  Suddenly, with my skinny jeans and hipster glasses, I can try to be the cool pastor rather than just another schmuck who spent a lot of money on clothes.  So our natural and normal default is to read this passage through the lens of money.  Our natural and normal default is to read this passage as straight-forward equation that we cram into our lives.  You sell something, win something, get something, give some of it way.

But that isn't what the passage actually says.

First, we know that the early church held all things in common.  All things.  The earliest converts to the Way all pooled their resources: financial, time, and talents.  There was a common treasury that provided for all the needs of the community.  The closest we might have are the Monastic orders of St. Benedict or St. Francis or the New Monastics (click to read more).  But the vast majority of our churches really don't function in this way.  We really don't want to deal with four hundred utility bills, mortgages, groceries bills of our families.  So, there is already a difference and distinction we need to hold onto.

Second, the real issue isn't the is the lying about money.  That is where this passage gets interesting in my opinion.  I recently finished the book, The Soul of Money, which talks about how much of our self-worth is wrapped up in our net-worth.  How we constantly feel like we don't have enough and are not enough.  We are ruled by scarcity rather than abundance.  We lie about this all the time.  We don't question how much money plays a role in our individual, family, community (taxes!) decisions, country and worldwide decisions.  We are now part of a global economic system that cannot turn back the clock to the good ole days...which we don't really want to give up our Smartphones any way!  Because we buy so much on credit, it is even easier to lie to ourselves and justify that we deserve this item or seek happiness from things.  While I am no literalist, I do know lots of folks like Ananias and Sapphira who are still breathing but dead inside.  I know lots of folks like Ananias and Sapphria who keep on spending their way, trying to buy happiness.  I know lots of folks who want a bigger house, a newer car, the latest and greatest technology...because.  Well, they can't quite tell you, "Why?"  Because the why is...that is what you are supposed to do.  Which we all know our mother would say, "If they jumped off the bridge, would you do that too?"

We keep on...keeping on.  We prop up an economic system, spending our way through the day.  To dive ask the harder questions:

What do I really need?  What?  Why?

Those are exactly what the corporations are now trying to answer in thirty second soundbites of ads.  You need this Iphone.  Why?  Because it's you are cool.  It has a better camera than that old one in your pocket.  It has a new feature we won't let you use on that old phone.  In fact, we are just going to stop updating that old you have to buy this new shiny one. we drop out and off the grid?  All move to the swamp of central Florida?  Or the plains of Montana?  No.
But we can be more honest about what we really need and why we want it.  I was just looking (okay drooling a bit) over the new wireless speakers...comparing the one from Amazon and Google...reading about which is which.  Why do I want one?  I would be nice to listen to music, but I can do that now.  It would be nice to turn on the lights when I am not home.  But really it is just a toy.  And that makes it a great gift idea for Christmas or my birthday.  I don't need it today.  That helps me dive deeper and realize that in the world we swim, there is a deeper soul to money that we all need to engage a bit more.

And may we do that with more than a trace of God's grace.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Acting Up and Out ~ The Church Today

The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. They seized Peter and John and, because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day. But many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand. The next day the rulers, the elders and the teachers of the law met in Jerusalem. Annas the high priest was there, and so were Caiaphas, John, Alexander and others of the high priest’s family. They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: “By what power or what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people!  If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. Jesus is “‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone." Acts 4

The C.S. Lewis quote is one that hovers and hangs around my heart daily...not saying much...but it's presence is constantly there.  "If you were brought into a court; accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?"

It is easy to lapse into listing all the things I do to live the hymn lyric, "They will know we are Christians by our love."  I volunteer time in a social justice ministry.  I visit the sick.  I try to preach meaningful sermons and blogposts.  I love my family.  I recycle.  I give money.  Part of the problem with these lists we form, these outward actions we offer a hurting world, is that they are so often centered in what we do rather than what God is doing through us.

This is a thin line.  Might seem like spitting syntax in frustrating ways.  But the call of the church to act up and out has always been immersed and infused by the Holy Spirit.  What sustains us is something deeper than a "good feeling" or moral is a Spirit that compels and challenges us that how we live every moment is how we live our life.  A Spirit that cannot be contained or confined or even comprehended.  A meddlesome, meandering Spirit that stirs in serendipitous ways.   A kind of Spirit that sees a man laying by a gate, rather than tossing or throwing a coin, stops and says, "Look at me."  A Spirit that knows the truest sense of compassion is companionship.  That the two fit together.

Perhaps we as a church have offered too easy a path to compassion, offered it at a reduced price so that you don't have to stop your other activities.  Write a check.  Just one hour.  Keep on praying.  But we know that the cost of sharing God's love means more than quickly dropping off a hot meal with a quick, "Hello".  It means looking the one in her eyes and realizing one day it might be you on the other side.  It means learning her name.  It means asking how her foot is feeling.  Yes, there are other meals in the car and others waiting who need more than the warmth of mashed potatoes, but the warmth of human love and interaction that truly feeds the soul.  The warmth of more than a meal to a homeless person but the warmth of hearing why he is there.  The warmth of more than a blanket wrapped around in the cold night, the warmth of hearing how cold our world still is to those on the fringes.  It takes more than a check or signing a quick petition.  It takes our life.

How we live every moment is how we live our life.

Not to say, we don't need rest...renewal...recreation.

The book of Acts will not let us off the hook as easily as we might like.  To act up is to act out in the world.  To act up means we will go out and show the world what the wisdom, "Love your enemies" looks like embodied today.  What the wisdom, "So as you did this to the least of these, so you did to me," might sound like today.  What the wisdom, "Look at me," might feel like today.

So may that truth rummage and roam around your mind, heart, soul, and whole life this day.  And may more than a trace of God's grace guide us all in such a time as this.


Friday, June 9, 2017

Acting Up and Out ~ The Church Today

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon. 2 Now a man who was lame from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. 3 When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. 4 Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!”  Acts 3

A beautiful gate.
One that separated who would be let in and who was to keep out.
How could that be beautiful?
One that King Herod ordered artists to fill with images that delighted the eye and stirred the soul.
But still, it was a gate.
Yes, it distinguished and defined...and maybe today opens our eyes to the gates around us.
Gates that years ago proclaimed, "No Irish Need Apply" or "Whites only"
Gates that still today have realtors subtly try to steer certain people away from certain neighbors.
Gates that still today have men and women doing the same job, but cashing checks of differing amounts.
Gates of laws and legislative prejudice about whether LGBT can adopt or if businesses can refuse service.

Gates are not new.
Gates still let some people pass through with barely a second glance.
While others are stopped and frisked and asked, "What are you doing here??"
Gates that swing wide open for some and slam shut in the face of others.

Peter stood at the gate and asked the man there to look at him.
Might that be the call for the church today?
To go to the gates.
To see those who are shut out as beloved children of God.
To see those who struggle and are often invisible.
To see God's fingerprints upon those at the gates.

To do that might not be the Mona Lisa...
But it is beautiful.

May the traces of God's grace be with you in beautiful ways as you go to the gates that still exist in our world today.