Wednesday, November 27, 2013

How Do You Give Thanks?


Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-17

This seems like fairly simple, straight-forward advice...especially on the day before Thanksgiving.  But, I invite you to really try living this tomorrow.  We might be thankful for family, but the truth is also that no one knows how to push your buttons in the exact right order to annoy you quite like your family.  To rejoice always might make us a bit skeptical.  We might wonder what exactly is Mr. Smiley Von-Smileson really hiding?  No one is happy all the time, especially after that comment Uncle Frank just made that was insensitive on so many levels.  How about we just rejoice when everyone is out of the house and the holiday is over?

Speaking of which, we might try praying without ceasing, and on Thanksgiving it might go like this, "Please God, help me make it through this meal."  Or "Please God, give me wisdom to not talk about the Health Care Act with certain members at the table."  Or "Please God...just please."  

But it is the third piece of Paul's advice that always strikes me.  Give thanks in all circumstances.  You would think there would be some circumstances where gratitude cannot be found.  I am thinking the Philippians right now.  Seeing the devastation on T.V. breaks my heart.  Only I also know that there are families there that are grateful to be alive, while deeply grieving the lost of friends.  I might think about debilitating disease, but I have also found some incredibly joyful people facing some very awful physical pain.  

Then, it was pointed out this week by Ed Dobson, that the passage has a very important preposition, "in"...NOT "for".  I don't have to be thankful for every situation.  That would not be honest to God who knows me better than I know myself (see my last post).  Rather, I can be thankful in the midst of even difficult moments. Of course this requires us to be aware of what we are looking and how we are looking at things.  If all I do is look at the negative, chances are I may have a difficult time in that moment to find something to be grateful for.  But if you look around enough, even if you feel like you are in the dark, there might be some faint glimmer of light to be grateful even in the midst of the darkness.

I think this is a practice.  You don't just go out and buy gratitude.  It is cultivated like a tomato plant.  Like that ruby, red tomato plant, it takes time to grow and bear good fruit.  One day is not enough to really taste the fruits of cultivating gratitude.  It takes weeks, months, and sometimes years.  But, I think there are ways to do this.

First, be specific.  Rather than just saying, "Family"...name something more descriptive.  Your son's sense of humor, your wife's sarcastic remark this morning about the weather, your daughters endless joy.  

Second, be intentional.  If you just think, "Oh, I can do that," without making a plan or appointment to carry this out, it will be hard.  But if you begin each morning with giving thanks for certain moments the last day or end each night with giving thanks for serendipitous moments, these are intentional practices which can begin to cultivate gratitude.

It will be work ~ like your job or working out or watching your diet.  Any practice worth doing will cost us something.  But any practice worth doing will also eventually bring some grace-filled moments.  I believe if we can be intentional and specific beyond just one day on our calendar, we will sense a trace of God's grace this week and every day we engage the gratitude of life.

Blessings and Happy Thanksgiving ~

Friday, November 22, 2013

What is Thanks?



A Psalm of thanksgiving.

1 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
2     Worship the Lord with gladness;
    come into his presence with singing.
3 Know that the Lord is God.
    It is he that made us, and we are his;
    we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
    and his courts with praise.
    Give thanks to him, bless his name.
5 For the Lord is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever,
    and his faithfulness to all generations.

This psalm pretty well says it all for me.  I think God loves a joyful noise, whatever you can get your hands on.  A drum?  Great.  A lute?  Play on, my friend.  Two wooden spoons?  You go!  An accordion...whoa, slow down there!  No need to get too carried away.  

There is something infectious and contagious about joy.  If you are around a happy person you either find yourself starting to smile, or you will find yourself get more and more annoyed by that person. There is no neutrality.  

The psalm affirms the truth of Genesis 1, that we are made in God's image.  And it is more than reflecting God's fingerprints, God intimately knows us.  Perhaps better than we know ourselves.  

Often though, we have some fear and trepidation about God knowing us so well.  If we take that to its natural conclusion God isn't fooled by the nice clothes and ties and hats we wear on Sunday morning.  God knows what lurks just beneath the pearl or cross necklace.  And God really knows what we did at work or on Friday night, we might not see that as good news.  

But what if it was?  Can you imagine someone covering all you are with a love that will not let you go?  Perhaps we want to be punished, that some how that makes us feel better.  Only God is not interested in making us feel better.  God is interested in love, a steadfast love that endures always.  The Hebrew word here is hesed, it means a lovingkindness that can come only from God...occasionally from humans in the book of Ruth, in the ways Ruth treats her mother-in-law Naomi.  It is a beautiful narrative of what human hesed looks like.  Otherwise, hesed usually comes from God.

If we are wrapped in that kind of love, then perhaps our thanksgivings will lead not only to gratitude, but leaning and living out that gratitude more purposefully.  Making decisions based on gratitude, not on the impact on our bank account.  Listening with kindness and love, rather than for a pause to get our words in.  

I invite you as we enter into this week of thanksgiving to focus on the word, "Gratitude."  How would you define that word?  How would you live that word?  How might that extend that past this Thursday?

I pray as you think about this may you sense more than a trace of God's grace.

Blessings ~ 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

God in the Ordinary




I am a child of the Eighties.  I grew up pumping quarters into the Pac-Man machine at the arcade, wanting to own a black trans-am sometime in my life, and thinking it was so cool to push your sleeves up to your elbows.  All this to say that the good old days were perhaps not always so good.   And then there is this.  I don’t know what kind of sinister, James Bond-like villain, Darth Vader breathing evil genius came up with the idea that trying to get all the same colored stickers on the same side would be fun.  This tells me the truth that you can use your powers for good or for bad.  Most of the time I love puzzles and mysteries and brain teasers.  But when the puzzle pieces won’t fit, when the last chapter of the mystery novel is missing, when the brain teaser starts tormenting refusing to reveal a solution, then, then like this Rubik's cube, it stops being fun.  And let’s face it most of life is filled with paradoxes that will not submit to simplified, straight forward solutions.

And one of the most vexing paradoxes in life is that there are moments of incredible joy and times of tremendous sorrow.  There are times when laughter comes easy and times when pain won’t budge in your heart.  Happiness and tears are woven into our lives.  And somewhere, at some point, we got the crazy idea that faith was suppose to solve this paradox, make the puzzle pieces of life fit neatly together, and solve the mysteries.  Preachers for far too long have sold people on faith being a commodity you consume to cure what ails you.  Faith does not lead us toward fame and fortunate, faith challenges us to live our life not as our own, but as belonging to God.  Nowhere is that more evident than in the life of Moses.  The name Moses means drew out, deliver, save.  Moses was born at a time when the Pharaoh’s fear ordered that all baby boys be killed.  But Moses’ mother put him in a basket of reeds, set him sailing down the river where the Pharaoh’s daughter undermines her father’s public policy and drew Moses out of the water, raised him as her own in the palace right under the Pharaoh’s nose.  As Moses grew, he one day saw a guard beating a Hebrew person, and took the law into his own hands, killed the guard, but realizing what he had done he ran away.  At that moment the only thing Moses was saving was his own neck, the person he was delivering was himself and he left Egypt faster than a piece of chocolate is devoured at our house, can I get an Amen?

Moses married, settled into life, took over his father-in-laws shepherding company.  It was an ordinary life, Egypt was so distant in the rearview mirror it could no longer be seen, it was not even a small speck on the distant landscape.  Until that one day Moses was out with the flock and stumbled across a burning bush that was not consumed.  The setting the story matters.  Moses was on Mount Horeb AKA Mount Sinai AKA that mountain where Charleston Heston receives the 10 commandments.  The burning bush is important because it is a visual reminder of God’s presence.  And also we are told that someone inside or around the bush was the angel of God, a messenger of God, but this angel is mute, but the point is not really the burning bush at all.  That was just to get Moses’ attention, because in the midst of our ordinary lives we often miss the traces of God’s grace.  We often miss the smile of a co-worker because we are too caught up in deadlines or miss the child laughing hysterically because we behind on our to-do list.  Moses might have missed that bush had it not been a blaze and the warmth baptized his skin.

And when he realizes that the sacred and ordinary have converged in that moment, he says, I must turn aside, turn away.  How often do we do that?  How often do we think that we can explain away, rationalized, force logic upon the mysteries and holy moments we encounter day in and day out?  I can’t explain why a hug from someone can fill me with such joy, so I will just talk about nerve ends connected to my brain as though all I am is some science experience in life.  When we encounter the sacred in the midst of running errands, do we pause long enough to witness and even hear as Moses does God calling our name?  And do we respond by saying, here I am?  One of the most central promises of the Christian faith is not that God will solve all of our problems and paradoxes and puzzles with a little pixie dust and suddenly everything is rainbows and roses.  The central promise of the Christian faith is God’s presence here with us and then and there this week.  And that promise is holy.  We want to remove our shoes, which in Moses’ day was a sign of submission and vulnerability and is so too today.  And lest you think it is not vulnerable, take off your shoes!  Right now!  How many of you just felt your heart skip a beat and pray to God that I was not serious, but I am.  God identifies God’s self not through parlor tricks of burning bushes, God reveals God’s self in the everyday, ordinary, mundane moments when we least expect it and we are invited to notice and name the ground as holy.  The ground at work, at home, at play, at prayer, and at church as holy because God is here.

Yet, God, like this Rubik's cube is not so easily understood or solved.  Moses tries every evasive maneuver he can think of.  Moses ducks and weaves in this passage to avoid his mission to go back to the land and the Pharaoh he fled because it seems impossible.   Moses first says he stutters, which the Hebrew means that he had heaviness of tongue.  I love that, because I have heaviness of tongue sometimes when I have to confront someone I love or question someone who I know is going to be defensive.  So, I practice right.  Moses grew up around Rameses the Pharaoh and knew him to be a hard-hearted man.  I, too, would have a heavy tongue or such a dry mouth that my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth.  But God compromises.  So, Moses asks for God’s name.  God says, I will be what I will be.  Or better yet, God says, I will be there.  In this narrative God is not a noun or just a name, God is a verb, a promise, a presence, but still a puzzle that will leave us scratching our heads.

Moses’ narrative reminds us this morning of two truths.  First, there is no distinction between our spiritual life and our everyday life.  You are just as likely to encounter a burning bush here in church as you are at your work, if…IF…you are willing to notice.  Second, the point of life is not to resolve all the tension or put an end to the paradox, the point of life and faith is to lean into the tension, the risk, and the mystery of faith in our everyday life.  Mary Oliver has a great quote, she writes “Instructions for living a life.  Pay attention.  Be astonished.  Tell about it.”

Friday, November 15, 2013

Echoes of God

  
Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.  Amos 5

This is a favorite passage of many who like to talk about justice.  Yet, what Amos is more than a bump sticker for our cars.  Amos says that what is happening in worship has gone so awry that the singing, preaching, and playing the harp can no longer be redeemed.  When our spirituality does not support our lives, something is not right.  When what we say and sing on Sunday has no impact on Monday something is not right.  When our worship surfs over the surface of our lives without challenging us to change both what we are doing inside and outside of the church, then in the famous line of I Love Lucy, 'We have some 'splaing to do.'  

One of the favorite quotes I picked up along the way was, "We want justice for everyone else and mercy for ourselves."  Justice is great when we are talking about CEOs who raid pension funds or companies that pollute the environment or that neighbor who borrowed tools two years ago and now claims they are 'his'.  But what about us?  The clothes we wear.  The cars we drive all over.  The pension funds that are invested in places we don't even realize...or want to realize.  Then, please God have mercy on us.

And what about our worship?  When we coast through the prayer of confession.  When we zone out during the scripture reading.  When we contemplate our shopping list during the prayer.  I love the ending of Amos...but I need to realize that when the justice rolls down it is going to wash over me in ways that will forever change my life.  All of us will need to be transformed, not just the people who disagree with us.

N.T. Wright's book, Simply Christian, he names justice as one of the echoes of God.  The other echoes include the thirst for spirituality, relationships, and beauty.  These interconnected echoes support and sustain each other; they need one another.  Spirituality that is not concerned with the suffering of this world can soon become escapism.  Justice that is not connected to worship and true relationships might slowly whither because progress moves slower than a sloth sometimes.  And in the end, there are moments we need to understand the truth when God says to Job, "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" (Job 38:4)  There is beauty all around us and sometimes it becomes a blur because of our frenzied pace.  

I have invited you to think about ways of giving thanks.  And now, can we begin to see beauty around us, between us with others, within us in a prayerful life, and in our actions of sharing God's compassion with the least and lost among us.  If we can, I trust there will be a trace of God's grace.

Blessings ~ 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Thanksgiving Part 2



The classic symbol of Thanksgiving is a cornucopia.  While we are used to nuts, dried corn, pumpkins and gourds flowing forth from this odd shaped basket.  In fact, it is actually a horn that comes from Greek mythology.  One of the more well known stories is about Zeus, who has an infant, broke off a rams horn that became an endless source of food for his nourishment.  You will never look at your centerpiece the same.

Regardless of where the cornucopia comes from, today, we find it to be an expression of bringing in the harvest and the abundance of life.  Yet, I wonder if we might find other ways to fill the cornucopias of our lives.

Besides fall items/food that are warm oranges, brilliant yellows and browns that still seem to radiate life, perhaps we could start to think about people and experiences and events to fill our cornucopias.  Or, we could think about, besides food, what nourishes our growth?

For me, worship on Sundays nourishes my growth and stirs my souls.

My family nourishes my growth and fills my cornucopias.

Last Friday, I enjoyed the movie Free Birds with the kids.

These moments are not only what helps nourish me, they are also traces of God's grace.  These moments become ways I sense God's presence in my life.  

I invite you to continue to consider what is nourishing you and what blessings are flowing in your life right now.

And as you notice and name those moments, may you sense God's presence and a trace of God's grace.

Blessings ~  

Friday, November 8, 2013

Thanksgiving take 1


If the only prayer we ever utter was "Thank you" it would be enough ~ Miester Eckhart

There is something about the autumn air swirling around us that awakens our desire to give thanks.  We know we should be grateful in every season.  But let's face it, in early spring the snow has turned grey and will not go away.  But the time the sun finally melts all the piles, we are longing to get out and do something.  We might utter thanks as we rush off for a walk or on a vacation, but as the temperatures fall, our ability to be thankful seems to raise.  Perhaps it is also because the days of year are dwindling and we are reflective.  Perhaps it is because the culture at large encourages us to be thankful.

What are you grateful for this season? 

I wonder if perhaps it is the food that helps.  The first taste of apple or pumpkin pie.  Warm banana bread or comfort foods of meatloaf and mashed potatoes.  These seem to help give us the energy to turn our thoughts to giving thanks.

My family just began a practice this week that I think would be good for all of us to practice not just for one Thursday in November, but everyday.  Before we eat...and believe me this is challenging to my son who sees food and the fork seems to have a magnetic power to start bringing the food toward his mouth...we go around and offer one moment/event/thing for which we are thankful.  Then, we say a prayer of thanksgiving to God.  

Let me be clear on two things:
1).  We've already given thanks for such great "amazing things" as electronics games, Garfield comics, American Girl dolls, and getting things done at work...I am sure you can sort out who said what.  I really do love Garfield :)

2).  But...and I am not making this up...the kids actually want to pray.  And by Wednesday, the kids wanted to lead the prayer.  

I was amazed.  And I was very thankful!

So, in this season of so many blessings, I offer this to you as an opportunity to let the build up to Thanksgiving Day be about more than getting the turkey or figuring out where your family is going to sleep (as important as that is).  Perhaps we could each live thanks every day.

Blessings ~ 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Psalm 150



Let everything that breathes praise the Lord Psalm 150

Think of a time this past week or month that you were
really excited, enthusiastic, and caught a case of contagious
joy.  I a sure several of you immediately thought of when the
alarm clock went off this morning.  Perhaps others thought of a
chocolate induced euphoria you enjoyed on Friday night after a
long week of work or meeting a new friend or a meal with your
family.  Having just returned from vacation, this is perhaps an
unfair question.   We don’t spend much time in church talking
about joy or how laughter is a prayer to God.  We seem to have
accepted that church is serious and sober business.  On the one
hand we know all too well that this world is not as it should be,
that there is too much pain, far too frequently people are not
treated as beloved children of God, too often we cling to the
truth that might makes right and the one with the most toys
wins.  On the other hand, perhaps we need open ourselves more
to what the psalmist describes as striking up the band and
joining all creation a sacred dance celebrating God’s presence.

The very first word of Psalm 150 is praise.  The Hebrew
word is Tehillim. That is important not only because it can help
you answer Final Jeopardy, it is important because our Jewish
brothers and sisters don’t call the book of poetry and hymns the
psalms, they call this book “Tehillim,” or Praises.  The irony, of
course, is that many of the words in this book are anything but
praises, often the psalms come across as cantankerous or
violent or even angry.  Within the Jewish understanding tehillim
points towards what is to be at the center of our faith and lives. 
As people of God, we are to join creation’s choir, sing out with
gusto, making a joyful noise to the One who is the source and
ground of life. 
 For all you left brain, logical folks, who are not quite sure about
how to take the psalms, it is important to notice that the writer
of the 150th psalm actually lays out a very clear, concise, linear,
logical argument for why we are to praise, how we are to praise,
and whom we are to praise.  Verse two states that we praise
God because of God’s actions and because of God’s surpassing
greatness.  The psalmist believe deeply that God was active in
this world, God is not distant or disinterested in our lives.  Early
on in this book of praises, the psalmist asks the poignant
question, what are human beings that you, O God, are mindful,
care about us?  And yet, God has left God’s fingerprints upon
on very lives.  When I asked you above, what event this week
awoken joy within you, part of what I am getting at is how was
God’s presence woven into your life recently?  We need to be
awake, alert to that, because the frenzied pace we live our lives
today means that traces of grace can be blurred and we might
miss the subtle ways the sacred is stirring.  We need to practice
noticing and naming for each other God’s serendipitous
movement, because let’s face it, if we don’t, who is?  We
praise, tehillim, because God is present here and now, then and
there this week. That’s our why, the reason and our rationale
from which our praise springs forth.
Having answered the why question, the Psalmist moves on to
tell us how we are going to praise God.  We pick up a trumpet,
a lute, a harp, a tambourine, clashing clanging cymbals, strings,
and pipes.  Basically if something makes a noise and your
mother never would have let you play it inside the house, it is
on and fair game.  And if you don’t want to be part of the band,
you are invited to be part of the joyful procession and divine
dance of praise.  Thirteen times the psalmist shouts out praise. 
Every sentence but one starts with tehillim and the exception
just puts the word praise near the end.  The way the psalmist
describes praise is really self-abandonment.  We let go of our
carefully guarded public personas, we drop our hidden agendas,
and we fling ourselves with reckless disregard for all
respectability.  I am not sure that is usually how we define
worship, but it is how the psalmist describes worship.  But
maybe we should think of worship more like this, as Charles
Wesley wrote in the hymn, Love Divine All Loves Excelling
worship is when, we are lost in wonder, love and praise.  When I
asked the question about a recent joyful moment, I used the
word enthusiastic.  That word today is equated with being
excited, but origin of the word was the combination of en and
theos, in God or even possessed by God.  That somehow in
some way you let go of self and became entrenched in the holy,
beyond our rational, reasonable selves.  How we go about
praise is to get caught up in the stirring of the spirit that is
beyond our control and will invite us to sing at the top of our
lungs, dance with excitement, and generally make a spectacle of
ourselves.  That is how we offer praise to the One who fills us
with joy.
So, we know why – because God is always present and how,
even if we don’t fully think we can do it.  But finally, the
psalmist answers the question, who?  And the response is one
simple statement: everything that breathes is called to this kind
of praise.  There is a universality, all creation joins in worship. 
And we remember that one of the first acts of creation in
Genesis is God offering breath to everything, so everything in
creation is to worship.  And friends, this is not a new idea.  In
fact, it is as familiar as the doxology we sing every single
week.  We sing these words about praising God from whom all
blessings flow.  Praise God all creatures here below, all that
breathe.  Praise God above all else.  Praise the one who creates,
redeems and sustains, because God is.  But that doxology, that
sung prayer is not just for the checks and financial gifts, like
Psalm 150, those words are a vision for our lives.  To praise
God with the rising of the sun to the going down of the same. 
To praise God when we pour over budgets or make decisions or
even disagree.  To praise God in all times and places.  That is
the vision of our faith the Psalmist wants to leave us with.  The
question is the same as it was when Psalm 150 was originally
premiered in the temple, will the people do it?  Will you enter
into that kind of life this week, praising God not just when
singing the doxology, but with your words and actions and
whole life this week?  So that when you come into worship the
following week and someone asks you when were you
enthusiastic, immersed in God’s presence, living the doxology? 
You pick up a trumpet and clang the cymbal and start singing. 
Suddenly we realize that this is not ending to the psalms, it is
the beginning of life and faith, and that is what stewardship is all
about: Praises. Tehillim.  Amen.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Sting of Death



Listen, I will tell you a mystery 1 Corinthians 15

One week ago at this exact time, we gathered in the church I grew up in; the church where I was ordained; the church that had been a source of hope and deep inspiration.  Only this time, the reason for the gathering was laden with heavy hearts as we were there to celebrate my mother's, Joyce, life.

I don't know exactly what you are supposed to feel when your mother passes away.  I have gone through about as many emotions as Kleenex.  I was numb for quite awhile, even thought I knew my mother's health had been deteriorating for the last year and half.  I was angry, sad, hopeful, filled with God's grace and peace, and there were also moments of laughter as we talked about how mom loved the seasons of Thanksgiving and Christmas.  We even sang, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" at her funeral, not because it was her absolute hands-down favorite carol.  More because mom is now part of the heavenly hosts that sing in harmony and in peace in God's embrace.

Grief is different for all of us.  Paul says the church in Corinthian that death has been swallowed up and has lost its sting.  That is, of course, the Easter message.  Jesus' death and resurrection changes everything.  Yet, let's be honest, death still has a sting worse than when I stepped on a hornet's nest ten years ago and my angle swelled to twice it's normal size.  Death still has a sting that is not erased or easily treated.  Hugs and cards help.  But death leaves its mark upon us all.

We are, by and large, a death denying culture.  We don't like to talk about it.  We feel awkward at visitations, standing there next to a coffin trying to comfort the family, and all our good thoughts and prayers won't seem to be formed on our lips, and resist our attempts to be expressed.  Yet, because we feel like we cannot fix death, we try to avoid it.  In some ways, the advances in medicine are certainly about better health, but they are also about prolonging our life...pushing off death.  But, medicine will one day fail us.

Unfortunately, I wonder if the church fails us too.  We rarely, outside of funerals and Good Friday services, talk about death.  We don't talk about grief.  Yet the truth is we experience the faithful mixture of life, death, and resurrection all the time.  We may not use those words.  We might talk about anger or pain; we might speak about coincidences or good timing.  But what we really experience is death and resurrection as key parts of our life.

Right now, that is certainly true for me.  I faced my mother's death...but I also felt wrapped by too many hugs to count.  I certainly miss hearing my mom's voice...but I also have had some amazing conversations with my father.  I will miss my mom's cards...but I also know that so many people sent sympathy cards that I have received more than enough from Hallmark to last me awhile.  In short, death and resurrection has been mixed into my life in a new way.

I cannot explain how that is any better than Paul.  It is a mystery.  One that I will not wrap my mind around to fully understand for some time, I suspect.  Yet, some how, in some very profound ways, I am wrapping my life around this truth.  There is for me more than a trace of God's grace in this.

May the brokenness and grief you experience in your life right now also find the hope, grace, and love that comes from God with a renewed sense that life matters and your life matters to God.

Blessings~