Monday, 29 July 2013

Conquer Differences with Communication

(Originally printed at the time of the Boston Marathon bombings) 

Yvonne Abraham, of the Boston Globe, writes, “Like so many others this week, local imams (Islamic leaders—often of a mosque and the Muslim community) have been praying since Monday’s bombings. They’ve been praying for the victims. They’ve been praying that the fanatic who did this (bombing) is caught quickly and brought to justice. And they’ve been praying for something more: Whoever it is, please don’t let him be a Muslim. ‘What will happen to us if they arrest someone and that someone turns out to be a Muslim?’”

Grief, confusion, hurt, anger, and conflict abound—assumptions being made—fingers pointed—blame placed. It sickens me that a whole group is already preparing for the days to come—the possibilities that there will be retaliatory shootings in mosques, rocks through windows—more grief, confusion, hurt, anger, and conflict.  All the “work to build bridges” is in jeopardy.

We fear what we do not know. We fill in the blanks when we do not have the answers. We deal with conflict in a way the world has taught to be appropriate. Bad news. Much of world is sick, broken and wounded—covered in the scales of sin that bind us tightly to the ground upon which we slither. Jesus teaches us how to manage conflict and disagreement. He is the model for conflict resolution that serves to address the many issues that divide us.

"If your brother sins against you (or maybe even just disagrees with you, or even is just different from you), go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens   to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matt 18: 15-17). Communicate—one to another.

This is one of the most courageous things one human being can do—go directly to someone to seek the truth and speak the truth—in love. Take a risk, be vulnerable, seek relationship, reach out. Get to know each other as human beings. And if that doesn’t work? Try again. No resolution? Try again. Still nothing? THEN treat him or her as the gentiles and tax collectors—and love.

Jesus was no coward—embracing conflict with truth and grace—and always with love. Imagine if we would embrace conflict, work toward understanding differences, view disagreements as opportunities to "turn the crystal" and see the light of Jesus Christ anew. 

We could be a miraculous witness to a world that seems to know nothing but violence, disagreement and discord and seems to smack its lips in anticipation of the taste. The world is what we will it to be. Live with it or commit to transform it.

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Saturday, 31 March 2012

The Dark Night of the Soul

Spring has sprung! The (Pennsylvania) earth is coming alive again! As Christians we are preparing for the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday—tomorrow), napping in the Garden of Gethsemane with Peter, James and John (tell the truth, you may have been sleeping as well), and preparing for that walk toward Calvary for the crucifixion of our Rabbouni—our teacher.

If you’re struggling to see the end of that story—struggling to see the light of Christ that is the great Alleluia of Easter morning, you are not alone. You are not alone. Spring has sprung? The earth is alive? Happy, happy, joy, joy? Is that workin’ for ya’?

For many folk in our community, there is no spring—no transformation—no renewal or restoration. There is a continuous sense of what John of the Cross, a 16th century mystic, referred to as the "dark night of the soul" —a spiritual crisis. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the famous line "In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning.”

And you don’t have to be homeless, jobless, divorced, disabled, imprisoned, aggrieved, or depressed to understand.  You may have a roof over your head, relationship, health, freedom, and yet—there is still something amiss for you. You may have lost your faith—never had faith, lost your hope—never had hope. You may be one of the millions who are the walking wounded, the broken-hearted, the soul-sick.
Where are we to turn for healing? For wholeness? For reconciliation and restoration? For an experience of the transformative love of God? For perfect love? Jesus had His doubts, and where did He turn? (And prior to placing irate phone calls regarding that statement, please read the account of Jesus prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane—Jesus had His doubts.)

Jesus turned to God in prayer, because God is perfect love. God is restoration. God is transformation. God is healing for the broken-hearted and the walking wounded—the desperate and the lonely, the weary and the grieving. Considering the fact that Jesus had his doubts, why can’t you? I have mine—I have questions about God and the meaning of life and I turn to God in search of the answers.

Now God is everywhere, and that is true. However, I wouldn’t be doin’ right by God if I didn’t suggest you find yourselves a church where you can seek the answers, doubt, celebrate, weep, laugh, wrestle with Scripture, and become who God would have you be. Find a church where you belong—one committed to showing the light of Jesus Christ to all who experience that dark night of the soul. Find a church where there is welcome for the sinner; for me and for you.

Much like the long walk to Golgatha, your search may be painful and burdensome, but at the end there will be a community who loves you, who invites you to belong, and who proclaims the glory of the living, risen Christ! 

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Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Transformation and Gardening

Each and every year I read a short novella entitled Being There by Jerzy Kosinski. The main character is a man named ChanceChance the gardener. He works for a wealthy invalid and his days are spent working in the garden and watching television. Poor Chance isn’t the sharpest hoe in the shed. He’s never seen the outside world—never interacted with people beyond the house. He’s a bit of a modern day Robinson Crusoe.

When the old man he serves dies, Chance is left to fend for himself in a world he’s only seen on television. Long story short—he’s out and about (save yourself the read and find the movie on Netflix—Peter Sellers is fabulous!), is involved in a minor accident with the wife of a tycoon, and is ‘adopted’ by this family who has mistakenly heard him say his name is “Chauncey Gardner.”

After spouting a great many ‘vague aphorisms’ about gardening, this family believes him to be wildly intelligent, with extravagant witticisms, insights and brilliance beyond compare. “In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again,” muses Chauncey. His audience is captivated and fascinated, as the rest of us read, or (for those of us who like to) watch, in horror as they are buffaloed by this illiterate buffoon.

Being There is the book that has been under my skin for years. While once I found it to be nearly a waste of my time, and certainly below my fine liberal arts education, I pull it out annually to read about this man Chauncey, and his understanding of servanthood, growth and transformation.

I daily do the metaphorical work of a gardener, studying the environment of which I have responsibility, preparing for growth, laying out a purpose, and tending to individuals to help them grow and bear fruit. I dearly enjoy the actual labor of gardening, as transformation is clearly evidenced. I find myself constantly concerned with how fast some plants grow, how much sun they need, what hinders growth, when a plant grow best, how the growth of one plant affect the growth of a neighboring plant.

For those of us who are able gardeners, again— metaphorically—we have a responsibility to tend our garden (our community, if you will). There aren’t traveling gardeners and roaming gnomes passing through our towns looking for beds and plots in which to work. We have an obligation to serve—until those being served become freer, healthier, wiser, more autonomous, and more likely themselves to be gardeners.

The first job, which God gave to the first man on earth, Adam, was to be a gardener: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” (Gen 2:15). The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. Put your gloves and boots on—there’s room in the garden for you.

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Saturday, 3 March 2012

Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm... Snickers!

What should we ask for in life? Ask and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full (John 16:24). But what should we ask for? It’s no use asking for what we desire, because all our desires are corrupt. When it comes to what we want and desire, we’re a bit like schoolchildren. But I must admit to a moment of pure joy reading a sermon from my colleague, The Rev. Fr. J. Matthew Tucker, the rector of Christ Church in Bordentown, NJ. 

The sermon included a story from NBC's the Today Show. They were talking about the grade school system in Mississippi and their latest totalitarian gesture to ban certain foods from the school property and force the children into gastronomic correctness.

The reporter stated some children were doing a wonderful black market trade selling to others contraband—officially disapproved candies-- Snickers, Lemonheads, Reeses--mmmmmm, snacks and pop. Just when I thought every last trace of initiative had been bludgeoned out of our children and all of them brainwashed into politically correct fads, I hear of this marvelous entrepreneurial spirit.

My friend Becky Greene posted this today, as her daily reflection: "Is what we want good for us?... And even if its good for me, how might my little drop of a life cause a ripple effecting all the other people in the pond?... Do we even know what we really want?"

We tend to like and want what’s bad for us psychologically and spiritually don’t we? Our prayers go wrong when we ask for health and happiness. Not that there’s anything wrong with health and happiness.

So is it safe to ask for anything? Have you ever been to one of those weird churches where the intercessions are like a sort of global tour? Prayers are said for parts of the United States and a few countries who we view as tragic? These intercessors trail after the TV news like rodents following a healthy aroma of leftovers—searching for the latest local disaster or famine.

What can we ask for ourselves? We  can and should ask for the forgiveness of our sins. This involves accepting that we have sins and that we are responsible for what we do. I thought of this when I read an advice column that was passed along to me. A young woman wrote to say she was fed up of going out three or four times a week, getting drunk and waking up full of self-disgust. 

The expert gave her about 800 words of psycho-babble about getting in touch with her inner self and learning self-acceptance. She saw her as a victim of social determinism and irresistible psychological forces. What should the expert have said? You don’t like it? Don’t do it!

The Christian faith is majestically realistic. God bids us see ourselves as we are: as sinners in need of forgiveness. So we should ask God for the forgiveness of our sins. We should ask for help in spiritual warfare. We should ask God to help us overcome our vicious selfishness. We should ask God to help us mend our character—which is another way of saying save our souls.

We are perverse: all the good things we do by the grace of God, we take credit for; and all the things we do by our own wickedness we blame on circumstances and irresistible forces. We must ask God to give us the courage to help us face ourselves. If we want the best for ourselves—that is, if we want what can really do us good, we should ask God to give us Godself.

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Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Want Fries With That?

This past Wednesday many Christian communities celebrated the traditional feast day of Ash Wednesday. Many of my colleagues around the country (and by colleagues I mean Christian leaders of churches of many denominations including Evangelical Lutheran, and United Methodist, as well as our church- Episcopal) were involved in a movement called “Ashes to Go.” 

A2G is intended to provide an opportunity for those who do not attend church or not able to get to church that day (don't get too caught up in the reason) to receive the imposition of ashes. I’m always looking for that thin place where the veil is parted between the secular and faith communities—where the church spills into the world which she is in, but not of, so what the heck, riiiiiiiiight?

I saw some reports of coffee shop ashes, parking lot ashes, office building ashes, and even drive-thru ashes (with that one you get a tri-fold brochure on the sacraments and a free Lenten meditations book.) What, no toy? But is this too far? Is this cheap grace? 

If I stood in front of the Bossa Nova Coffee Shop, in Franklin, PA, and reminded people, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” what would I accomplish? If you missed me out there on Wednesday it’s because I wasn’t there. I was still uncomfortably riding the fence.
I do a great deal of social networking, “ministering to and counseling people” through chat boxes and Google “hangouts.” It’s not the same as face to face, but the ministry is important. I would say the ministry is imperative. I find myself in conversations that are profoundly spiritual and deeply moving. I try to make the time to leave the church and go “out” to where the people who are hurting so often express their pain.

So, I’ve been praying more about this whole “Ashes to Go” thing. If I was called to the hospital to impose ashes on the forehead of a twenty year old with alcohol poisoning from the party the night before, would I go? Yes. But what about the seventy-five year old smoker who, because of his thirty year habit is unable to leave the house because even the walk to church is too far? Yes. And the grandmother who calls about her grandson who is incarcerated in jail because he beat his daughter? Yes.

If I would serve those people who are unable to come to the church, then why wouldn’t I leave God’s house to become the Body of Christ in the world and provide “Ashes to Go?” Are those who are too busy to come to church any less hungry, angry, lonely, tired, captive, or

You might ask, "But what are the intentions of those who seek ashes?" I have minimal concerns about why someone would stop for 30 seconds to receive ashes--motivations, thoughts, or otherwise. I am more concerned about why the church does A2G. 

Are her intentions God-centric? Is the minstry about bringing the church (the Body of Christ) out into the world to preach the Gospel? I mean, when someone comes to the altar of God seeking the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, I don't ask anyone's intentions. That is between God and God's people. For the same reason, I can't imagine ever asking why (s)he stops for ashes. 

However, in the interest of being wise as the serpent and innocent as the dove, and keeping watch for false prophets, I think the question of "Why is the church doing this?" is a valid question that demands a response that is Christological and Theological in thought and purpose. 

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the season of Lent. The very word “Lenten” derives from the lengthening of days—a preparation for new growth. This is historically to be a time for preparing folk for Christian initiation or providing an opportunity for those who have been excommunicated and separated from the church to be reconciled to her and to God. 

Maybe the best preparing the Body of Christ can do is to allow God to prepare us for a different understanding of what is church, who is church, to whom do we belong, and who is our neighbor? How best do we do mission and ministry in God’s creation? God is making all things new. This includes the church, me, and you too.

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Friday, 24 February 2012

Here I Am

Many of us look at our society and see tremendous disparity between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots.’ Some who do works of Gospel proclamation get an unfortunate reminder of how good we have it when we see those who are oppressed or poor and walk away feeling much better about our own lives, and yet actually feel confused about ourselves.

The Israelites of Isaiah's time had a similar problem. They were practicing all of the right practices and couldn't understand why God didn't seem to hear them. They were fasting and offering sacrifices but not practicing righteousness, not practicing justice. They put on a show hoping God would give them stuff. This is not the kind of worship which God seeks.

God says, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them…?” God wants the people to fast from injustice—not merely to humble themselves for a day. God wants them to fast from oppression not to roll around in ashes.

God shows them what could be theirs if they would worship the Lord in righteousness. God says, “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and He will say, Here I am.”

God will answer our prayers if we live a righteous life. God will heal: physically, emotionally, and spiritually, if we live in holiness and righteousness. God will grant us whatever we want if we live holy lives—but not in the easy way we want. When we are living righteous lives, God will give us what we want not because we've earned a reward, but because as we live into God's holiness our desires are shaped by God's desires. Our hopes and dreams are changed from selfish and petty concerns to the hopes and vision of the Kingdom of God here on Earth.

Our whole lives will be changed if we truly submit ourselves to God's righteousness and continue to strive for God's justice. We will see God in our lives in new ways, not because God makes Godself available to all righteous followers in different or better ways than the unrighteous and unjust. We will see God anew because our eyes will be shaped and formed and changed so that we can see the God who has always been there for us. We will see the God we ignored for our own selfish vision of God. We will cry out and finally be able to hear God say “Here I am!”

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Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Speak Lord, For Your Servants Are Listening

As my head hit the pillow last night the words of Shel Silverstein’s famous poem, “What-if” got me. "Last night, while I lay thinking here, some What-ifs crawled inside my ear and pranced and partied all night long and sang their same old What-if song." Being in our own beds—in our own homes—late at night—can be scary.

These “what-ifs” of which Silverstein wrote are the products of fear; fear of the unknown, fear of the known, fear of the dark, fear of the light, fear of change, fear of stability, fear of loss, fear of gain, fear of... well... fear of fear. 

Silverstein continues, “What-if I get beat up? What-if there's poison in my cup? What-if I start to cry? What-if I get sick and die?" Fear drives folk to be less than who they are to be; less of a parent, a lover, a friend. “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration,” writes Frank Herbert in Dune. He is so very right. How then do we alleviate fears—fears that are so very real? 

I find my fears I am unable to shake are most often wrapped up neatly in my not addressing them—in the light, and out loud. Identifying them in the dark and in silence are quite enough for me at times, thank you. However, my faith and hope lead me to believe if I ask God to show me my fears in the bright light of the sun AND the bright light of the Son--AND to whisper in my ear what I need and who I am to be, then I will see everything I fear in a completely different
way. I will be not merely be changed or different... but I will be transformed, made new by God, in a way I can neither ask, nor imagine. 

It takes courage to realize God knows who we are and what we need. It takes even more courage to hear that and act upon that knowledge. A brilliant man—actually a frightened teenage servant—once said, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” He spent his nights asleep in the temple at the foot of the Ark of the Covenant. It would seem we can’t expect to find all the answers we seek in a church. Samuel certainly didn’t. 

When I listen for that still small voice of God, I am so afraid sometimes of what I will hear, and other times I am terrified that I will hear nothing. But all of the evidence points to eventually hearing something. God has always spoken to us and is speaking to us still, and will certainly speak to you. But God never forces us to listen. God's message may be different to each of us, but I believe the voice of God always speaks to us, not just in words and not just in the middle of the night. 

We have to summon up all our courage and say, "Speak Lord, for your servant is listening." Bold talk—it takes nerve to open our mouths and say, "Speak Lord, for your servant is listening." Even now, I wonder, “What-if nobody else feels this way? What-if they don’t like what I write?” “Speak Lord, for I am listening.”

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