Sunday, September 27, 2015

Dreaming



He had another dream, and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”  But when he told it to his father and to his brothers, his father rebuked him, and said to him, “What kind of dream is this that you have had? Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?”  So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.  Genesis 37

So far in Genesis we have encountered creation, how God sang all that is seen and unseen into being.  How God sunk God's fingers into the soil and breathed the breath of life into us.  How Adam and Eve hid from God, prompting that great spiritual question, "Where are you?" from God...a question that we will never be able to answer or exhaust fully.  We heard about violence begetting violence in Cain and Abel.  We studied how God appeared under a star-filled sky.  Now, we land in this great narrative of Joseph.  Joseph was a dreamer.  

On one level we all have dreams...both the literal kind that happen when we fall asleep at night...as well as prayers for our future.  I remember in Introduction to Psychology in college, the professor was studying dreams asking, "Why do you have to lose consciousness?"  The class said, "Well, maybe our eyes need a rest from all the visual stimulation."  "Okay," the professor said, "But why do we fall unconscious?  Why don't we just shut our eyes and try to relax?  Why sleep?"  That is a great question.  I wonder if we need that mental break, especially in a world where we are constantly being subjected to stimuli...visually and verbally and within our own minds.  Maybe sleep is the only way to disengage fully from all that is happening around and within us.  

I also think our brain might need a place where all that we experience can come together in some bizarre ways.  Our mind has a way of taking that tense moment, combining it with our fear about an upcoming presentation, and how much clowns freak us out...suddenly, we are giving a talk to a room of clowns who are booing us.  Dreams do show us some deep parts of our consciousness, but is that where we find God?  For some reading this, yes.  For others, no.  Some dreams can leave us feeling icky all day long...others reassure us.  

Dreams happen not only at night...but in broad daylight when we hope and pray and envision a new reality. Scripture says that yesterday need not be like today and tomorrow is a new creation.  We trust in this promise, but we need dreams and hopes to keep us trusting and leaning into God's grace to guide us...sometimes leading us in new places.  Joseph is lead to a new place...albeit because his brothers sold him!  Sometimes we go unwillingly to new places too.

I encourage you in these fall days to keep open to our dreams and where God might (and might not) be moving in our midst.  May we sense the traces of God's grace as we do so!

Blessings and peace ~ 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Abraham and Sarah: Genesis 18



So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?"  Genesis 18...click here to read the whole story

Exhibit A is when Ethan walks out with a mischievous smile on his face and says, “Dad why are jokes about Minnesotan’s so short?”  And I say, “I don’t know, why?”  And he says, “So Iowans can remember them.”  (Insert rim-shot here)

Exhibit B is the story of an angel who went around visiting congregations.  At first, the angel stopped by the Methodists who were so nice, invited the angel to a potluck meal featuring hot dishes and a whole table of Jell-O desserts.  The angel reports all this to God who was pleased.  The next day, the angel visited the Baptists, whose enthusiastic worship was infectious and left the angel singing all the way home.  Again God was pleased.  So, the next day, the angel visited a UCC church.  But the angel did not return that night with a report.  Nor the next night.  Nor the next.  So, God was concerned, went out and found the angel cowering in a corner of the Fellowship Hall.  After God comforted and calmed the angel down, God asked what happened.  Well, the angel says, they have this group called the Nominating Committee here.  I guess UCC stands for United Church of Committees.   (Insert rim-shot here)

Exhibit C is the sound of your groans at my lame above attempts to make a joke.  

Laughter is a gift.  An author once wrote, that laughter breaks us out of the small world of somberness and seriousness.  When was the last time you laughed so hard your side ached, tears dripped from your eyes, and you gasped for breath?  My hunch is that it was not at church.  But such deep laughter lets oxygen into our soul that can clear away cobwebs,  Deep laughter beautifully shatters our need to appear completely in control.  Laughter invites and invokes.  Or as one author says, you cannot love a person until you’ve laughed with her.
  
Exhibit D is this story above about the patron saints of laughter, Abraham and Sarah and their soon to be born son, Isaac, whose very name means laughter.  Yet, my guess is you did not laugh when you clicked on the above link to read the whole story.  So, let’s try this again.  Abraham is sitting at his tent door in the middle of day.  We are talking hotter than Florida in September kind of heat, where the sun shines unmercifully, searing all that it touches, and sending up waves from the sand.  You can imagine Abe getting a bit sleepy, his eyes heavy, when suddenly appear three people before him.  Now, as the ones eavesdropping on this sacred moment, we know that it is the Lord, Yahweh, God.  But it is not clear if that is how Abraham sees his guests.  All we know is that he bursts into full scale Martha Stewart and Bobby Flay combined with a dash of Usian Bolt.  He starts running around.  Picture that.  His feet touching the hot sand, so he is kind of running on his tip toes like you do when going to the beach.  He has his robe yanked up so he can move faster.  His first stop is Sarah’s tent.  He yells to make cakes and has the audacity to tell her how to make it.  I am pretty sure Sarah had made bread before.  But before she can respond, Abraham is off to get a calf, milk, and curds that he will put into a delicious Jell-O mold served on a lettuce leaf.  And while it doesn’t say it, he probably made a dolphin ice sculpture and folded the napkins into the shape of a swan.  

He serves all that to his guests.  I have to wonder if they even picked up their forks to poke at this feast.  Because the visitors didn’t seem to come for the buffet,  Rather they ask, “Where is your wife, Sarah?”  I can just see Abraham confused and flummoxed, stammering out his words, “Um, in the tent?”  All the while thinking, “Why in the world are they asking that?”  And suddenly the promise that was echoed to Abraham under a star-filled sky in chapter 17, a promise that Abe himself fell on the ground and laughed at, circles back.  Sarah will have a baby.

The next part is one of the funniest moments in Scripture.  The narrator gives us an aside.  Now Abraham and Sarah were old.  And as the listener, I am all, “Okay.”  But it keeps going.  “They were advanced in age.”  And I am all, “Right, heard you the first time, I get it!!”  And finally, "It had ceased to be with Sarah the manner of women."  And all I can think is, “Yup, and I thought people shared too much on Facebook.”  So, Sarah and Abraham are promised a child.   

Unfortunately, too often, the lingering residue of sexism has been woven into this passage.  We been taught to hear the visitor’s response to Sarah’s laughter as confrontational at best or condemnation at worse.  But maybe there is another way to read this and say our past interpretations were wrong.  I think the visitors are laughing along with Sarah.  Of course, Sarah laughed.  Just as hopefully you are laughing now.  Can you read the, "Oh yes you did laugh" not in an angry tone, but as the guests laughing so hard they can barely get the words out?  This is such a profound, beautiful story.  I love that God comes to Abraham and Sarah in the midst of the mundane and ordinary of a Tuesday.  I love that lingering question, “Is anything too wonderful?"  Or that could also be translated, 'Hard for God?' And that is not rhetorical, that is our question.  Every person reading this is dealing with some kind of barrenness, brokenness, given up on ever experiencing grace.  We have moments of God-forsakenness.  And in the midnight of our soul, laughter is a prayer.  Not a prayer that everything is going to be all chocolate rivers and rainbows, but that even when the lingering chaos that first swirled at creation comes roaring in, there are still traces of grace.  

But it is hard to see the trace of grace through the blur of tears of grief, loss, brokenness, stresses and strain.  In moments when we’ve given up all hope and God’s promise feels empty, laughter is a prayer that can echo in the cavernous parts of our soul, awakening us to something new.  And finally, this story has so much to teach us about stewardship.  Abraham promises water, rest, and shade, and ends up giving them a feast fit for royalty.  Abraham thinks all he needs to offer is tangible gifts, but God is there looking for Abraham and Sarah’s whole life.  Stewardship is about recognizing and responding to God from whom all blessings flow with all we have.  Our offerings to God are not only about money, be we offer the blessings of laughter, blessings of someone’s shoulder to cry on, blessings of someone who will listen, someone to be angry on your behalf and share in the ups and downs of life.  Someone to reach out to the lost, lonely, left out, those on the edge.  You see for all that we could philosophically talk about whether anything is too wonderful for God, the real question is, how do we live trusting in that truth?  How do we leap each day into knowing that God will show up sometimes with the most seemingly unbelievable ideas?  

Offering our whole life, trusting in the radical promises of God’s presence every day, and sharing laughter, that sounds like the kind of person I pray I can be and the community I would give my whole life to.  What you say, all in favor, signify by laughing. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Genesis 4



When I stare into the mirror that the story of Cain and Abel holds up to my life this morning, I am reminded that no group puts the fun in dysfunction quite like your family.  Church committees can sometimes come close.  But family members know that special combination of buttons to push that can send your blood pressure soaring and the tiny vein in your forehead pulsating.  While culture shows us families with lovable curmudgeons, perfectly timed commercial breaks, and everything being resolved in neat and tidy ways within a half hour.  I soon realized that one, family tensions we have can sometimes fester for years with the unspoken rule that we don’t talk about it... whatever “it” is.  While the hymn is right, "Blessed be the ties that bind," sometimes those ties can also make us feel bound and gagged with guilt or brokenness or pain.  As you read Genesis 4, it is like looking into the mirror of Cain and Abel, you may only want to glance, not gaze too long.  The witness of Scripture on sibling relationships is not exactly an uplifting one.  Brothers, Jacob and Esau wrestle in the womb, only to have Jacob fool his father and steal the birthright blessing. Sisters, Leah and Rachel both vie for the affection of Jacob. The dreamer Joseph annoys his brothers with talk of them bowing down to him, so they sell him off, only later to have him play a prank on his brothers who come groveling to Egypt to get food, just to have a reunion with his father.  And it is not only in the Hebrew Bible, Jesus most famous parable is about the Prodigal Son, whose relationship with his family is like watching an episode of Dr. Phil and leaves you saying, “Gee I thought my family was dysfunctional.” 
So, Cain and Abel might be a difficult story, my prayer is that as we dwell with these words, we might find traces of grace and realize the truth that pain in our lives that is not process is passed along.  We start with Cain, the older brother, whose name means, "Spear."  He is part of the noblest profession, farmer...said the person from Iowa!  Later comes along, the younger brother, the apple of Adam and Eve’s eyes, the one who gets the car and the easier punishments and the better parenting, can I get an Amen from the older siblings reading the blog?  Abel means breath and he becomes a shepherd.  Pause with me, because I love the way Scripture echoes.  Genesis 2 talks of God breathing in the breath of life...so two chapters later, Adam who received God's CPR, calls his second son, "Breath".  That is beautiful.
One day, Cain and Abel bring an offering to God.  Notice, up to this point, God has not asked for an offering.  This is the first act of worship described in Scripture.  And we don’t know what prompts this moment.  Maybe gratitude or holy obligation or some messy mixture that still stirs in us on Sunday morning that brings you to church rather than lounging around reading the comics.  But there is this worship moment.  And we are told that God’s reaction to Cain’s offering is, “Eh,” while God responds to Abel with applause and a standing ovation.  Again, we don’t know why.  Perhaps Cain brought some broccoli, I am sure he did not bring corn, because this story would be totally different.  Maybe, some rabbis suggest, it was what was in Cain’s heart or that he brought leftovers to God.  That is challenging.  How many of us, when we pray or worship or tend our relationship with the Holy Other offer God lukewarm left overs?  And as interesting as dwelling with why the brothers worshiped and why God gave Cain’s gift only one star and Abel’s gift five stars, it is the next scene that captures my heart.
God says to Cain, why are you angry?  Why are you distressed and dejected?  The Hebrew here can be translated, why are your faces downcast?  God names Cain’s innermost feelings.  God cuts through the masks we often wear and shines a light on what is in our souls.  And that is not easy.  We like to think we have everyone fooled when we put on a smile and say that everything is “Fine, just fine,” even though we say that through clinched teeth and our shoulders are more tense and tight than a freshly wound spring.  C.S. Lewis often said that God’s interest and affection and insight into us was the intolerable compliment.  We couldn’t handle that.  In some ways, religion likes to put conditions on unconditional love. In churches we make each other jump through hoops with statements of faith and membership forms and even this act of passing the offering plates that put barriers between us and God.  God becomes distant and disinterested in us.  But in this story, God comes to Cain as a counselor and confident.  Be careful, Cain, God says, brokenness can beget brokenness.  Do you notice that Genesis 4 echoes Genesis 3?  There is temptation that leads to a decision and action that leads to conversation that leads to consequences.  The writers of Genesis introduce this theme in the early pages of Scripture and return to this refrain time and time again.  You could even say, holy week, is a riff on that same refrain.
So, Cain goes and murders Abel.  And I don’t think this is because of some defective or deficient strain in our DNA that has been passed down.  I think it is because brokenness begets brokenness.  Someone gossips about you behind your back, you feel your checks rush, flood red with anger and hurt and humiliation, and so you turn around and spread a rumor about that person.  The cycles of violence, physical and emotional and psychological have been turning since the very beginning of human relationships.  That was true in the time when people shared sacred stories around campfires and it is still turn over cups of coffee we share at Starbucks.  Brokenness begets brokenness and it takes grace, more than just positive thinking or our own will, to over come and break out of that.  Most of us get mired in the messiness of relationships.  We know what it is like to feel hurt and harmed by family and friends, to clinch our fists and teeth and try to count to ten.  We know the greatest lie is told in the rhyme, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me."  Words hurt.  And we hurt each other.  Just like in Genesis 3, God asks Cain, where is Abel?  God continually asks, where are you?  God asks us to be open to our location.  Or to quote an author, we need to pay attention to what we are paying attention to.  Cain shrugs his shoulders, “How should I know where Abel is?  Go ask the sheep.”  While our ethic of love demands us to care for each other, to be each other’s keepers, in the initial pages of Scripture it is God who is the keeper of humans.  Notice, even when God convicts Cain of the crime, it does not break the bond of unconditional love or unceasing grace.  Cain cries out over his punishment and God promises to watch and keep Cain, even though he was unwilling to do the same.  God marks Cain not with a scarlet letter, but as a sacred sign, even a blessing, to live differently.
Cain goes off and settles in Nod, means wandering or restlessness.  It means he was unsettled.  Ever been to Nod?  Ever unpack the boxes in a new place, but still feel homeless?  Ever been in that place where your soul was restless and could not find rest?  If so, you’ve visited Nod, maybe you are living or vacationing there right now.  So what?  Why care about this story?  On the one hand, I think this narrative pushes back on redemptive violence.  It holds that mirror to the ways we hurt and harm each other.  Even when we don’t kill, we still damage each other.  This narrative tells us that from the very beginning, before there was Moses with the Ten Commandments, killing, harming each other, was un-kosher in God’s creation.  This story point great themes of life and death, intimacy and jealousy, offering and inadequacy, honesty and political spinning.  Finally, this story reminds us that the great phrase, "Whoever you are and wherever you are really," was not created by the UCC, it was God’s gospel truth from the very beginning.  So may you this week, gaze, not just glace, at the relationships in your life.  May you this week, know that our God does not put a mark of judgement but one of unconditional love upon us.  And may you pause where you are, survey your surroundings, to see if you are in Nod or Oz or Sarasota or somewhere in-between, but may you know the truth of whoever and wherever God is there.  And may that be good news to heal our souls for the living out of these days.  Amen.

Genesis 3



Genesis...this book of beginnings and attempts to respond (not necessarily answer once and for all, but contribute to the on-going conversations that matter) to the big questions of life: if we were created good and set in a beautiful garden (albeit one that had loneliness of Adam and anxiety of Eve talking to the serpent), why is life so hard?  Enter in a dialogue with snake...a forbidden fruit...clothing of their nakedness...and God walking in the garden.  This would be where you want to cue the dramatic music please.  Go ahead...I'll wait.

The narrative of Adam and Eve is about our humanness in full, beautiful display.  But this narrative is NOT an eraser that wipes clean God's original blessedness and proclamation that you are good...VERY good.  Rather, this introduces tension.  Or rather seeks to respond to why we feel tension in our lives.

We all live in that messy middle of blessedness and brokenness.  It is just east of Eden, where we feel like we are so close to what could be an amazing, awesome and life-changing encounter...but we are stuck in a cul-de-sac and can't seem to get our way out of.  Why?  Some say, that is life so deal with it.  Others say it is all our fault as humans.  But Genesis seems to suggest that the tension is part of being fully alive.  David Lose points out that the part of our brain activated in flight or fight is also one of creativity.  We need some of the brain's fear chemicals to be creativity.  That totally explains why cramming for a test in college worked.  But, live too long in that fear...as we are now seeing in children who have spent their lives afraid of being shot or in constant anxiety can leave us hurt.  That totally explains why cramming did NOT work the fourth, fifth, sixth...eventually I did learn.

So, fear is both good and bad.  So is having knowledge.  Paul says, "Even if I have all knowledge and can even move mountains...but have not love...I am nothing."  That is a radical statement.  We don't act like it in the world.  We don't live that way.  Yet, that is what our faith calls us to.  Power, knowledge, and success get us so far...but we still may feel empty.  It is something else that makes us whole.  And it is not the fig leaves we sew together.  At the end of Genesis 3 God clothes Adam and Eve.  God clothes Adam and Eve...not with judgement or smiting...but with bands of love and grace that still sustain us and blesses us.  

I pray as you live in the tension, you will sense the clothing of God's presence surrounding you, giving you peace, and you sense more than a trace of God's grace.  

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

creation 2



Then the Lord God formed a mud-being from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being..The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. Genesis 2:7 and 15

We have just passed Labor Day weekend.  While it is often seen as the bookend to summer which started with Memorial Day weekend, to celebrate the work of our heads, hearts, and hands in this world is perhaps sometime more.  From the very beginning God calls the mud-being to work.  Please notice that "Adam" in Genesis 2 is less a formal name and more a generic description.  Adam means of red earth and it sounds very similar to the Hebrew word for "Ground".  To call this being God fashioned and formed into being Adam is stating the obvious...the being was "of dirt and mud" and more importantly...love.

Work today has a complicated place in our lives.  Many of us, myself included, define who we are by what we get paid to do.  Many today, myself included, want to be known for MORE than just our job.  Many Baby Boomers, approximately 10,000, retire each day still full of energy and dreams for the next stage/chapter want to offer their insights, ideas, and lives in meaningful ways.  It is no coincidence that Rick Warren's A Purpose Driven Life sold millions of copies.  People want purpose and meaning.  I don't know if Adam found meaning in tilling the ground.  Perhaps with the dust he stirred up, he was reminded of want he was made of.  There is something satisfying about weeding and trimming and taking care of creation.  Each week when I mow, I look over the grass going from unkempt to neat/tidy and feel good.  I weed the flower beds, filling bags, and look at the ways the flowers now seem taller and stand out more.  Work can be holy.

In fact, in the Protestant Reformation, Luther was passionate about vocation.  Now, in English, we conflate and inter-change vocation with work.  And that is true on one level.  But there is also a difference.  Vocation has the same root as "voice".  Finding your voice, where you can sing in harmony with all that is around you, is where your holy calling is.  The trouble is that so often we think there is only ONE way to do that...maybe it is not one way...but many over the course of life.  What might be my vocation, my fullest voice, in one season may fall flat in another.  I think this is especially true for people as they age.  Vocation may not be what we are paid for and it may change over time and it is sometimes found in the roles we take on.  I have vocation not only as a pastor, but as a husband, father, friend, and son.  I have vocation as a brother and fellow believer in Christ.  I have a vocation as one created in the image of God and one who has divine DNA.  Vocation is expansive and dynamic and rarely fits neatly in any one box.

As we move away from Labor Day (and start getting ready for Halloween...which might also say something about vocation as we "dress up" and that Halloween ranks second in consumer spending), I invite you to think about vocation.  Have you ever had a moment when you thought, "I was made for this?"  Have you ever had a moment when the tiny hairs on your arms stood on end because of something you were a part of (like raising money for cancer research OR painting a picture)?  Focus on vocation, moments you have felt fully alive...even if you don't feel that way right now.  As you do, can we pray that our still-creating and singing God might move in our lives in meaningful ways awaken a song within our hearts and moments of sharing our vocation/voice with others.  

May the traces of God's grace guide you this week

Blessings ~ 


Saturday, September 5, 2015

Creation


In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  Genesis 1:1-2

Beginnings matter.  Where you start a story sets the tone and leaves an impression in the hearts of the listeners.  Take, for example, the first date with my wife.  I could the start the story by telling you about how I was willing to see a movie a second time...which clearly tells you that I am a caring guy.  Or she might start the story by telling you that she had to call me and that I did not return her phone call right away.  I would, of course, chime in and say my parents were in town at the time.  And we converse in loud, emphatic voices about the reasonableness of this excuse.  Or we could start the story years before, in college, when we were both at young adult retreat and I can still remember the flannel shirt she wore...again proving my caring nature.
So beginnings matter.  Beginnings set a trajectory toward the ending and chart the course for where you will go.  Start a story with a sad statement, and it is hard to start making jokes, it is too much of an emotional roller-coaster.  Start with humor, and it takes a while for people to know if you are joking or serious.
Genesis, the beginning of Scripture, starts with some amazing forest-for-the-trees views.  God begins to create with a voice.  I often have imagined that God must have been at the edge of the universe singing out with gusto and the sound of God's voices echoing...echoing...echoing all around.  But, recently, it was pointed out that God could have whisper like a mother to her infant.  That gives a different spin on these traditional words.
I love that God's spirit surfs and stirs over the chaos in the beginning.  If that is the first act, can we trust and be open for God stirring in the chaos of our daily lives?  Think about what feels chaotic for you right now:

Are you trying to get your kids back into the school routine?  (Don't get me started on the pick up and drop off lines at school...take about Lord of the Flies kind of chaos!)

Is there tension at your job or family?  Relationships change in the blink of an eye and can invite chaos into our lives before it knocks on the door.

Is there a health concern bringing chaos into your life?  There are certain words a doctor speaks in the sterile examine rooms that send our minds spinning and stirring in chaos.

Are you struggling with purpose and meaning?  The dance between our minds, hearts and bodies, the call to leave our fingerprints on this world in beautiful ways can be unsettling and wreak havoc sometimes in our lives.

What other ways am I missing?

Chaos remains an undercurrent in our world.  Chaos still surges and sloshes around.  Chaos is reported on nightly in the news and is stirred up by politicians looking to grab headlines.

And while we could focus all our attention on the chaos, where is the creative spirit of God moving in your life right now?  What feels new or re-newed in your life right now?  Genesis 2 will tell us about God's divine breath infused and enlivening all that is around us.  How are you catching wind of our still-creating God right now?

There is a holy dance between chaos and creativity.  There is a sacred two-step that is woven into our world from the very beginning.  In what ways do you find that to be true?  In what ways does Genesis 1 and 2 still get stuck in the mud and muck of "science verses religion" debates?

Take some time this week...better yet today...to dust off your bible you got in grade school and re-read these words.  How do they settle into your hearts right now?

I pray you will sense MORE than a trace of God's grace as you do so.

Blessings ~