More than two decades ago, Bette Midler released a song that topped the music charts: From a Distance. (If you’re old like me, you remember it. If you’re too young to remember it, well, that’s what You Tube is for. Check it out.)
The song’s overall message is that all of us, across the world, share a great deal in common. We share common desires for hope and peace and we must learn to share this world and its resources. But I do take issue with the song’s recurring chorus that God is watching us from a distance.
Today is Christmas Eve. On this day followers of Jesus celebrate that God does more than watch us; that our God is not one who monitors the situation from a distance, keeping us at arm’s length. To be a Christian is to reject the notion of a “distant” God. The baby whose birth we celebrate today is a God who came to live among us (see John 1:1-14).
It’s a remarkable thing if you stop to think about it. The God of the universe chose to put on human flesh. And not just any human flesh. He came as a baby… which was particularly bold and risky. In the first century Middle Eastern world, children weren’t adored and doted over as they are in our culture today. From a first century perspective (read some first century writings and you’ll discover this is true) children had little value aside from their potential to grow up and become adults who could maintain the honor of their family and provide “social security” to their parents in their old age. The rate of infant mortality was incredibly high. To be a child in first century Palestine was to be in an incredibly vulnerable position. That’s why Jesus points to children as model citizens in the kingdom of God.
That the God of the universe chose to put on human flesh of any sort is astonishing enough. But to come as an infant makes it even more remarkable.
Right now we are living in a world where everything and everyone seems to be “amping it up.” We’re awash in rhetoric of power and dominance. But, if we believe the Christmas story at all, we must accept the truth that love is expressed (and life is truly lived) through vulnerability. Today is a “holiday” not for the mighty and powerful; but for the most humble and vulnerable among us. Luke (chapter 2) communicates that it wasn’t the Emperor Augustus who showed up to worship the baby in a manger; it was shepherds, blue collar laborers working the third shift. Matthew (also chapter 2) tells us that King Herod never made it in time to see Jesus (and slaughter him as he hoped to do). But little Jesus was visited and worshiped by a bunch of “heathen” foreigners with dubious religious and cultural customs.
Johann Christoph Blumbardt wrote: “The Savior of the world is one of us. He placed himself in the midst of our human condition. He is not like one who stands apart and looks high above us.” Our God is with us.
I know… Thanksgiving is already over – technically speaking.
When I was 5 or 6 years old, I remember learning about Thanksgiving in school; you know, the Pilgrims and the “Indians” all gathered round the table. We traced our little hands to make turkeys. Remember? (Just as a reality check, the first national day of Thanksgiving didn’t occur until 1863, under the presidency of Lincoln. Even after that, it was hit or miss. It wasn’t until FDR signed a joint resolution passed by Congress that Thanksgiving became a National Holiday.)
It’s important to give thanks and count our blessings; but I also think it’s important to have a clear theological perspective. I’m always troubled by those people who, when interviewed after a deadly disaster, give thanks to God for saving them (often adding that God must have a special plan for their life). That will segue into the next interview with someone who lost a loved one in the same disaster. Are we implying God did not want to save them or ran out of plans for them?
Here’s what concerns me most: When all the blessings in our lives become personalized as something God expressly chose for US, it can become an excuse for not doing more to address the suffering and injustice of others.
I’m not sure there has ever been a Thanksgiving when I have thought about this more than this year. I have followed the news reports about the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s protest over the Dakota pipeline which will run beneath Lake Oahe and could potentially leak and contaminate the Missouri River. There’s a lot of history behind this protest; 150 years worth of treaties the government has initiated and subsequently violated. I guess the Native tribes long ago missed their window of opportunity to build a wall to keep us from crossing into their territory.
Several years ago I had the opportunity to attend a Spanish immersion school here in the Midwest. The native speakers were all bi-lingual young people who were first generation Americans. I remember one young woman’s shocking story. Her parents had legally entered the country on a Visa with hopes of immigrating. They didn’t understand the legal process; but they gave all of their savings to an attorney to file the necessary paperwork. The attorney kept their money but never filed any paperwork. They wound up penniless with an expired Visa. Since then I’ve learned of many similar stories and experiences.
I believe God blesses us and saves us. John’s gospel tells us that God so loved the world that he sent his Son (John 3:16-17). And I also believe that God can bring good out of even the worst of circumstances (Romans 8:28). But I also want to remember that some of my “blessings” of status are the unhealthy by-products of injustice and, while I may not be able to address all those injustices, I can – at the very least – acknowledge them for what they are.
In the tenth chapter of Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells a parable about a Good Samaritan. It’s definitely one of Jesus’ best-known parables; so well known that all 50 of our states have some kind of Good Samaritan Law.
As a pastor, I always remind people that – when it comes to bible stories – context is critical. And many of us forget the context in which Jesus told this parable. A “lawyer” (an expert in interpreting religious commandments) asks Jesus what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Since the man is an expert in religious law, Jesus tosses the question back to him. The man must be good at his job because he responds to Jesus’ question with an answer straight out of Old Testament law about loving God and loving one’s neighbor. Jesus gives him a “thumbs up.” But the story doesn’t end there. The man pushes the question a little deeper by asking “Who is my neighbor?” As someone married to a professional educator, I know teachers love it when students ask clarifying questions. It’s generally a good sign. But, our gospel writer gives us insight into the motivation for this guy’s question: he wants to “justify himself.” That word for “justify” is a relational word. Like it or not, Christianity is a relational belief system. It all boils down to the kind of relationships we have – not just with God, but with other people.
Anyway, Jesus proceeds to tell the lawyer a story about a man who gets the modern equivalent of car-jacked: beaten up, robbed, left for dead on the side of the road. Eventually a priest comes along. But he’s not interested in stopping. Neither is another high ranking religious professional. We don’t know why they didn’t stop. Our gospel writer doesn’t tell us… although people have loved speculating about it. But, does it really matter? Finally a Samaritan comes along. Remember that Jesus was Jewish; his disciples were Jewish; nearly all of the people who followed him were Jewish. And Jews despised Samaritans.
The Samaritan stops; he applies first aid to the guy, then he provides him with transportation and takes him to an inn (no Urgent Care or ER’s in those days). He pays the inn keeper to continue taking care of the guy as he recovers. He even promises he’ll be back that way later to see if there’s a balance on the bill. If there is, he’ll pay it. Jesus’ parable ends with a final question Jesus poses for the lawyer: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man…?” I find it interesting that the man can’t even say the word “Samaritan.” Instead he responds, “The one who showed him mercy.” “Go and do likewise,” Jesus says.
I think of the parable of The Good Samaritan every voting season. Have you ever noticed how many politicians proclaim to their constituents “I’ll work for you.” But who is the “you” they’re going to work for? Will they be protecting my interests or your interests? What if my personal interests are in conflict with your personal interests? For what it’s worth, here’s what I think the question of Christians should be when we go into that voting booth: “Which candidates’ policies are most likely to ‘show mercy’ to those in life’s most vulnerable circumstances?” Now admittedly, it’s sometimes challenging to evaluate a candidate’s record. That takes a lot of work and I confess, I don’t always do as much research as I should. But it doesn’t take much research to define those most vulnerable; our bible gives us plenty of clear examples: widows, orphans, foreigners living in our land, the poor, the sick, the broken, the hungry, the imprisoned. Those are our “neighbors;” those are the ones most in need of our mercy.
Jesus asked, “Which of these was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “God and do likewise.” Go and vote likewise, my fellow Christians.
[On Election Day between noon and 1:00 p.m. stop by Trinity United Methodist Church (404 North 6th St., Lafayette to pray for our nation. Prayer resources will be available. Simple brown bag lunches will also be available for those in a hurry to return to work.]
When I was in the 5th grade, we had a substitute teacher at school one day. It was a small school and we rotated class rooms (with our classmates) throughout the day to prepare us for Middle School the next year. As we moved along the hallway, students began to whisper about the substitute teacher. She’d never subbed at our school before and she seemed mean and frightened them. I arrived, quite nervously, at her classroom that afternoon. Her behavior frightened me too. When the bell rang, I exited the room with a sigh of relief. A friend was outside the door, waiting to enter. She asked me about the teacher. I confirmed, she was mean and she scared me. Unbeknownst to me, the substitute teacher had exited the room and was standing behind me. Suddenly, I felt fingernails dig into my arm. She grabbed hold of me by my hair (long at the time) and began to shake me as she verbally berated me. I cannot remember anything she said to me. I can only recall my feelings: sheer terror. I don’t even recall how I got from that hallway to the principal’s office. But somehow I did and my next recollection was hearing the principal speaking with my mother by phone. There’d been an unfortunate incident and my big brother (13 years my senior) had been dispatched to pick me up and take me home.
It was not easy for me to get past the violence of that day. Violence never really leaves us. Its remnants are like an unpleasant, sticky residue that settles in our souls.
A few years ago – I don’t remember exactly when – I started a new prayer habit. At bedtime – as I snuggle in to my warm, soft bed with a kiss from my husband and my dogs settled in to their dog beds next to mine – I pray God’s mercy for those who do not know my blessing of a peaceful night’s sleep. It seems such a simple thing; but I recognize that around our world, it is not a blessing to be taken lightly. I think of families in places like Aleppo who cannot possible relax at bedtime as they await the next round of bombing. I think of people in places like Chicago’s South Side who lay in bed uncertain if a stray bullet might find its way into their home and find a target in the darkness. I think of people whose nationality or ethnicity means they must live on “high alert” for danger 24/7, even in their own home. I think of children who live in terror of the family member who will visit their bed in the dark of the night to do unspeakable things. I think of veterans and others who have suffered severe trauma whose persistent nightmares replay their horrors over and over again.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the gentle, for they will inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). First century Palestine was a tough place to be. The “look out for number 1” perspective of the religious leaders would lead them to offer Jesus up as a sacrificial lamb to save their own skins. And the “take no prisoners” mindset of Rome would lead to Jesus’ sentence of crucifixion, the most brutal form of capital punishment. Resolutely embracing the value of gentleness meant a lot of hurt and pain for Jesus… Perhaps that is why many of us, as his followers, still don’t seem very keen on the idea.
In a recent small group I led, I asked, “What does it mean for us to live as Christians today in counter-cultural ways?” Someone tossed out, “Is it about following the ten commandments?” Another person responded, “I wonder if it is about living out the Beatitudes?” (see Matthew 5:1-12) Hmmm…
Jesus said: “Blessed are the gentle… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… Blessed are the merciful… Blessed are the peacemakers… Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you… on my account…”
[If you live near Lafayette, join us on 9/11 at 3:00 p.m. at Memorial Island in Columbian Park (http://www.lafayette.in.gov/Facilities/Facility/Details/Columbian-Park-7) for an Inter-Faith Service of Peace and Unity.]
A while back I heard a TED Radio Hour interview with Frank Warren, founder of Post Secret, the Community Mail Art Project. Warren founded the project in 2005. People mail Warren a postcard of their own artistic design that includes a secret that is absolutely true and has never been shared with anyone. Interestingly enough, new secrets are posted each week on Sundays… a sort of colloquial prayer of confession. As I’ve read some of the secrets and a little about the project itself, it has left these impressions with me… People have a lot of secrets. Down deep, they don’t want to keep them; they want to share them but fear rejection. As human creatures, we invest a great deal of energy into hiding those parts of ourselves that we think others would reject or judge as immoral, weak, ineffective, inappropriate, or just plain strange. One of the secrets Warren shared came from a woman who wrote that she still had saved on her phone the last voice mail ever received from her dead grandmother. Just before grandma died unexpectedly, she had called to wish her granddaughter a happy birthday. She sang a silly little song she made up. The granddaughter was embarrassed that she couldn’t bring herself to delete the message. As a pastor, can I just tell you how common that is?
If there is one thing I’ve learned in 22 years of ministry it is that people in churches are often just as reluctant to share our secrets with one another as is the general public; sometimes more so. Shame is a powerful thing and a destructive thing. Yet church, more than anywhere else, should be a place where we can be honest about who we are; a place where we can be honest about what we struggle with and be an encouragement and support to one another. God never intended for us to go it alone. It’s not how God built us. In Genesis, chapter 2, after God creates the man and places him in the garden, God evaluates: “It is not good that the human should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” (Genesis 2:18) It’s a shame that scripture is often restricted to wedding ceremonies because it has a broader, deeper meaning: as human creatures we were designed with an innate need for one another’s help and support.
In the month of August, I’ll be preaching a sermon series called “Tell Me a Secret.” I’ll be examining four “types” of secrets that are also struggles faced by bible characters. I’m not so sure it really does much good to share our deepest, darkest fears, misgivings, doubts, and shortcomings through an anonymous postcard. But I feel pretty confident that Christian communities are places where people should be able to open up to one another and be who they are and that – if we can do that with integrity and grace – we’ll really become the help to one another that God intended us to be from the very beginning, the genesis of time.
Right now in the church, we’re in the season of Epiphany. Epiphany was actually observed by the early Christians before they celebrated the holiday of Christmas. (That is, Epiphany – which comes after Christmas – actually came before Christmas… Are you confused yet?) There’s been plenty of speculation about the dating of Christmas and Epiphany. One theory considers the influence of the winter solstice. “Pagans” had festivals to try and coax the sun back out – the Festival of the Sol Invictus (unconquered sun). Everyone loves a good party, right? So what better time to set as the date of Jesus’ birth – the Unconquered Son of God?
I think a lot about Epiphany… mostly because I hate these long, dreary winter days. I celebrate my own mental festival. Once the winter solstice has passed, each morning that I awaken in the dark, I begin the day reminding myself that the worst is over… it’s all uphill from here… every day will get just a little longer. Phew.
As an adult, I find this darkness annoying. As a child, I found the darkness scary. Like most young children, I imagine, I was afraid of the dark. I remember when I was little; I had a picture of Jesus, made out of this cardboard tri-fold. I don’t know what chemical or material was used to create the face of Jesus on that cardboard; but, if you held it close to a light and then turned off the light, it continued to glow in the dark for a while. It became a reassuring nightlight for me. As children, darkness creates fear…
But I’m convinced that, as adults, it works the other way around… our fear creates darkness in the world. We’ve become such a fearful culture. And it is a mindset that much of our media relishes. It seems as if most network news reports make the cultivation of fear their raison d’etre… and it is usually fear of some category of people; people who are “different” than me who, through their difference pose some horrible, nebulous threat to my well-being. Now, I’m not naïve; I know bad stuff happens in our world every day (we call it sin by the way and, in varying ways, we all engage in it). But I refuse to succumb to a fear that labels “the other” as my enemy.
A couple weeks ago at my church, we had three Muslim young adults, come and dialogue with us about their faith. Many who attended have continued to tell me how much they appreciated it. It gives me hope that, despite what the newscasters and politicians say, some of us would prefer knowledge and understanding over fear and ignorance.
True followers of Jesus bring light, not darkness, into the world. I wonder if they still make those glow-in-the dark, cardboard pictures of Jesus like I had as a child. Maybe we should all try to get one. It might go a long way in reminding us that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). Happy Epiphany.
In his book “Meditations of the Heart” Howard Thurman tells the story of a man walking along the sidewalk. In front of him is a paper bag and a small flock of birds pecking at it to no avail. The man bends down, tears open the paper bag, and pours out the crumbs on the sidewalk. As he continues on, the birds return to consume their now accessible feast. In Thurman’s telling of the story, the man continues on without ever giving the birds so much as a backward glance.
But I wonder if perhaps the backward glance is a good thing. If, perhaps, the backward glance, the observation, reveals our natural human desire and delight. Allow me to explain…
My church is preparing to conclude our annual Stewardship campaign. This year, people are invited to “pledge” (along with their money) a talent or skill with which they can serve the church. I came up with this idea (which means, if it flops, I gotta own it!). But honestly, I’m excited and hopeful to see what people will offer. I wonder how creative people will/can potentially become at visioning and dreaming ways to serve one another. And if they do, when they do, I want to watch it unfold. I want to see the paper bag torn open and the gifts, the feast, come pouring out.
It goes without saying that, when we Christians speak of “serving God,” what we really are talking about is serving others. We serve Christ by serving others. And that, I imagine, is what binds us together. While reward, praise or gratitude shouldn’t be our motivation for serving, what could possibly be wrong with our longing to see the joy our service brings to the lives of others. I want to celebrate what I can do for you. And I want you to celebrate what you can do for me. And, most of all, I want us to celebrate together.
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he reassures us that our Heavenly Father feeds the birds and us. And I don’t doubt it at all. But perhaps God feeds us all by providing opportunities as we journey down the sidewalk of life for us to pour out crumbs of kindness for one another.
My big brother died suddenly of a heart attack at age 47. He and I lived 500 miles apart; in opposite directions of our hometown, Johnstown, PA, where most of our family still lived. I’d been living in western Ohio and Dan had been living in Coatesville, PA for more than two decades. My brother was divorced but, it was important to his 18 year old son that his dad’s funeral service take place in Coatesville.
Like so many young people, my brother fought with our parents about attending church as a teenager (a difficult situation for a preacher’s family!). As a young adult, Dan left the church. But, as is often the case, he returned to the church when he and his wife began a family. After their divorce, church became even more important to my brother. When we spoke on the phone it was clear that church had become his family away from home. He took mission trips with the congregation, attended bible study, served as a deacon. But the “church program” I think he cherished most was their church’s motorcycle group. On many summer Sundays they brought a sandwich and change of clothes with them to worship. After church, they changed, ate their lunch, then got on their motorcycles and headed out to spend the afternoon weaving down those eastern PA roads. Their day would conclude at someone’s home who would grill and they would eat and fellowship together well into the evening.
The day of my brother’s funeral, the church was packed and his motorcycle was parked out front. The pastor entered the pulpit with Dan’s helmet in his hand. Members of the congregation were invited to share memories of my brother. That time of sharing was the most wonderful gift that congregation could have given our family. The stories they told – many funny, some deeply moving – made clear how much they loved my brother. I was being introduced to a whole new dimension of his identity. They spoke of the richness of his faith. It was all a balm to our souls.
I once had a friend who didn’t like to attend church and was fond of saying he could talk to God just as well on Sunday mornings from the comfort of his own home. No debate there. But church is so much more than “me and Jesus.” Church is really about us and Jesus; Church is about family, the family you choose.
This Sunday, August 23, my church will have a Fall Kick-Off and Outreach Sunday (http://www.trinitylafayette.org/). I’ve encouraged church members to invite a friend to join them for worship. We Methodists aren’t very good at inviting people to worship. The average United Methodist invites someone to worship once every 38 years! (statistic taken from the book “Get Their Name” by Bob Farr, Doug Anderson and Kay Kotan, published by Abingdon). I would guess other mainline Protestants and Catholics have pretty similar stats.
And I wonder why…
Sure, many of us have had negative experiences with churches; painful experiences. But is that a reason to avoid them altogether? I once had a painful, negative experience with a dentist. He loaded me so full of Novacaine I thought I’d be blubbering until my next birthday. It felt like every inch of my checks and gums had been pricked by a syringe. It was horrible. So, I found a new dentist.
I feel badly for people who self-identify as Christians, yet do not have a church family. The love, the encouragement, and the fellowship we share with a church family are priceless. Stories like my brother’s are not unique. I’ve heard them many times over the years. When we invite someone to our church, we are offering them a gift. Shane Claiborne is fond of saying that the best things in life are meant to be shared. So why aren’t we sharing church with people?
With this blog I want to put out a challenge…
- If you attend church and it’s been a blessing to you, don’t keep it to yourself. Share the blessing by inviting a friend to attend church with you.
- If you’ve tried church and it was a bad experience, don’t give up. Try again.
- If all you’ve ever known about church is showing up for an hour of worship, don’t stop there. Dive deeper into the life of your church so it can become your family and not just a building you enter once a week. Trust me; it’ll be worth it.
Click on “duck” below to see a pic of the Quack Clack
[In the Spirit of Pentecost, I’m updating this blog… In my Pentecost sermon on May 24 at http://www.trinitylafayette.org, I challenge my congregation to ask the Spirit to equip us to communicate the love of Christ to others in a language they can comprehend. Here’s the prayer I’ll be asking my congregation to pray every morning for forty days, beginning on Pentecost Sunday:
God, today I am ready and available to your Holy Spirit.
I am willing for your Spirit to come upon me
so that I might share the good news of salvation through Christ
with someone else who does not know the story.
Help me, equip me, to speak the love of Christ in ways that can be heard and understood.
I ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.]
I’ve now lived in two communities in a row with ponds loaded with ducks and geese. Don’t get me started on how annoyed the geese make me, but I love the ducks. My husband has bought me duck books and I think one day I’ll rise to his challenge to write an entire devotional on ducks. But I digress from the point of this specific blog post…
Here in Lafayette we have these brown and white ducks that are actually domestic ducks cut loose in the wild (at least according to what I’ve read on the internet and how could the internet lead you astray?) But here is what I find fascinating: this particularly quack clack is always together – 3 brown and whites (domestic) and one male Mallard (wild). So, how did the Mallard break into that group?
I mean, it’s hard for us human creatures. We tend to be drawn toward people who are like us – people in our economic bracket, on pare with our education level, in line with our theological and political bents. Even more fascinating about the clack is that the brown and whites never mingle with any other Mallards. One guy broke through the ranks. How did he manage that?
I’ve been here in Lafayette for a year now and I think I’m fixated on this quack clack because that Mallard has accomplished something I’ve not yet figured out. My church congregation is a very different culture than many of the people who live in the community around the church building and I wonder if that can change. Many of us want it to change. Recently we’ve been doing neighborhood walks to get ourselves out into the community more. We are a friendly church. You don’t need to take my word for it; the research of our church growth consultant bears it out. Our world is increasingly global and yet I’m sure it’s made it any easier for us to forge true community among different sub-cultures.
Too bad that Mallard doesn’t talk…
OK, so I don’t think you’ll find anything written by Thomas Merton or Richard Foster; but in support of spiritual practices being relevant to cultural context, I think we might need to consider the spiritual discipline of boredom.
I remember being bored as a child… but I’d be super curious to hear from anyone under 35 to see if they remember being bored as a child. I was raised back east and have spent most of my adult years in the Midwest. Both regions have now given boredom the status of sin, I think. Long, long ago – when I was around eight years old – most businesses in my city of origin were closed on Sundays. After church we’d go home and eat lunch and then it would seem as if the afternoon stretched on into infinity. There was nothing to do. Sometimes I played with a neighborhood friend. But, if she wasn’t around or available, I would have to figure out a way to entertain myself. And so, I got pretty good at playing jacks, I was awesome at walking up stairs on stilts (a trick I was careful to keep hidden from my mother). And I “cooked” strange and exotic dishes by mixing all kinds of curious substances found in nature. (Don’t worry; I never actually ate any of them; but the textures they created were fascinating.)
Today, for the most part, children don’t need to worry about boredom. We keep them as busy as we keep ourselves. The only downtime it seems they get are hours spent in cars, vans or buses en route to contests, games, tournaments, etc.
I read an article a few years back about the brain and multi-tasking. Ironically, the skills we need to multi-task can only be developed during times of intense focus. In other words, to effectively speed up, we have to have purposeful times of slowing down. I think we religious folk call that Sabbath. Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying we need to go back to those days when all the businesses were closed on Sundays… which, if you’re Jewish or Muslim would be pretty annoying I imagine. But it seems we ought to be able to grant ourselves – and our children – some down time without necessarily legislating it. I still find that I do my best creative thinking on “days off.”
I wonder about our future as a culture. We’ve programmed our children to avoid boredom at all costs. I think it’s “threat level” is right up there with ISIS and Ebola. If we had images of the brains of eight year old’s from the past four decades, I wonder if we could see differences over time as we’ve gradually cultivated a culture that avoids, even sabotages any potential down time.
Jews and Christians share that epic story of Elijah on Mt. Horeb; that story in which God speaks not through the fire, wind or earthquake, but in the silence. Hmm… We could find a lot to ruminate over in that story. But time is a wasting and I’d better get back to work.