“And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.” (Genesis 4:8b, NRSV)
I’ve spent this past week ruminating over all of the violence in the news. Britt and I watch the nightly news over dinner many evenings. If the news starts while one of us is in the kitchen, it’s become not uncommon to hear the question, “Is that the same shooting they covered last night?” No, sadly, it’s often a brand new, fresh dose of lethel violence.
I guess violence is nothing new. Those early stories in the book of Genesis reveal not only the character of God; they reveal the character of humanity. Lots of people debate the reason behind God rejecting Cain’s sacrifice. But, I don’t think that is the point of the story.
Who knows why, as humans, we so easily experience resentment, envy and anger. It seems to well up in us so easily. And who knows why we so easily allow those emotions to lead us to sinful responses. We resent the student who gets a better grade, the co-worker who gets a more lucrative promotion, the neighbor who gets a new, flashy car. And, while murder is still the response of the minority, we find other ways to do one another harm and destroy the competition.
Above all else, the Church ought to be a place where we can model and present an alternative response… a response that says, “even if I don’t think things worked out as they should have, I can choose gentleness over retribution.” Right now I feel discouraged that my chosen “brand” of Church (the United Methodist Church) seems so saturated with violent rhetoric over the issue of homosexuality. I appreciate the efforts of Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter and many others to try and develop a way for us to move forward as a denomination (www.awayforward.net)… and I don’t claim to have any better answer; that’s for sure. But, at the very least, it seems our violent language that so frequently labels those of differing viewpoints as less than Christian cannot be in any way helpful to us or to the world that observes our witness.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not so naive as to think that, were the United Methodist Church to change the way we speak to and about one another, that it would put an end to all the world’s violence. But it might, at least, be a good place to begin and to remind ourselves that God has created us with free will and a choice: we can choose to see the other as competition to be eliminated or as brother and sister.
When I should have been in a session during Annual Conference this weekend, I decided to go to the movies instead! Our conference was able to preview a movie that Group Publishing will release sometime this fall. Called “When God Left the Building,” it’s a documentary about the decline of the American Church. (OK, I didn’t say it was a happy movie!)
It looks at the state of a variety of churches in America – some thriving, some failing, some mainstream and some cutting edge. But, the bulk of the film is focused on a dying church in upstate New York. What makes the film especially interesting is that its producer (a life-long photographer) parallels the church’s story with that of the Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, NY. The film maker interviews one of Kodak’s product engineers who, incidentally, created the first prototype of the modern digital camera! But, the Kodak big shots weren’t impressed by the idea and so it was never pursued.
Many of us can remember the Kodak ad campaign that ran from 1950-1990: The Kodak Moment. Four decades is an awfully long time to run one ad campaign! It became part of our vernacular. We described sentimental occasions as “Kodak moments.” At one point in the interview, the Kodak engineer expresses what we all could have figured out: that Kodak didn’t know what it was or what it should be. He says something to the effect of, “Were we a film company, a chemical company, an image company?”
I’m sure that everyone else in the room viewing the film with me was relieved that I didn’t blurt out what came immediately to my mind: “You’re a Moment-Making Company!” It’s your image! It’s your slogan! Why not live it?
If Kodak’s goal had been to provide America with the means to capture the moments of their lives, I think they could have much more easily made the leap to digital photography. When I was 11, my big sister graduated. I wanted to capture that moment. I took a picture with my camera, dropped off the film at the drug store and several days later, I had a moment captured forever. Two weeks ago, when my husband graduated with his Ph.D., I took a picture with my phone. I captured a moment so I could text, Tweet and FB it. It was all about the moment.
At another point in the film, the pastor of the dying congregation is asked to recite his church’s vision statement. Neither he, nor any of his parishioners can do so! There’s nothing uncommon about that.
I think that, sometimes, churches struggle because they develop an image or persona (i.e. an ad campaign) that doesn’t match their vision or their reality. And so we have conflicting messages; there’s inconsistency and confusion. Lots of churches in America come up with slogans, vision statements, purpose statements, etc. that describe something awesome and worthy of pursuit. But, like Kodak, we don’t always follow through. We want catchy words and phrases that will capture people’s attention. But if the words or phrase can’t be seen – or, if people don’t realize the power behind the words – it’s an empty and vain pursuit.
I wonder if Kodak ever realized that those “moments” were what the company was really all about. Their capacity to empower all of us to capture joy, awe, goodness and beauty. And isn’t that joy, that awe, that goodness, that beauty in life what we’re all trying to capture? Now that Kodak has gone by the wayside, perhaps there’s an opening for another organization to reveal joy and awe and goodness and beauty…
I’ve decided that life is like my refrigerator…
I hate cleaning my refrigerator. I usually clean it at the point that shame (at my messy refrigerator) outweighs my dislike for the chore. I don’t even understand how refrigerators get so dirty… except that my mom always said I was a really sloppy cook. I cleaned my refrigerator yesterday because a friend is dog sitting this weekend and I didn’t want her to see my dirty refrigerator… OK, it’s that shame thing again.
The primary reason I hate cleaning my refrigerator (aside from the fact that I always spill water on my shirt and my kitchen floor during the process) is that I can never get the shelves and drawers back correctly in exactly the same configuration as I began with. It’s so frustrating. I don’t know how someone with a higher education can be completely thrawted and utterly defeated by a refrigerator… but my defeat is pretty consistent. Until last night! Last evening I managed to clean the entire refrigerator, remove every drawer and shelf and get them all back in with ease. While one would think this accomplishment would fill me with joy, my response is one of utter disgust. “Why?” you ask. Because in about six weeks, my refrigerator and I will part ways when I move out of my house. It will remain behind to gloat to its new owners of its roughly 10 and 1 record. (OK, I’ve anthropomorphized my refrigerator, but indulge me.)
It dawns on me that life is a little like my refrigerator. It seems that, just when I begin to feel like I am really catching on to something – really understanding how all of the pieces fit together – it is time to move on. When I arrived at Castleton three years ago, one of my primary tasks (actually the only one that has remained consistent since day one!) was to focus on developing small groups. I’d had some success beginning a small group ministry at my church in Gary. But now, three years later, I realize how little I knew and how much of those first several months involved floundering and fumbling. Over the past two years, mountains of books, conversations, research, etc. have taught me so much about effective small group discipleship. And here it is: time to move on.
I once had a supervisor who assessed that I “like things a little edgey.” By that I think she meant I enjoy a good challenge… although sometimes I’ve wound up biting off more than I can chew. And yet, I suspect she’s right. Life is continually changing and, without those new challenges, think of how bored we’d all be.
In this Easter season, I wonder sometimes why it is that – of all the benefits we’ve received through Jesus – we talk so little about the blessing of becoming part of God’s family. Now, I don’t want to downplay benefits like forgiveness of our sins and eternal life. But I can’t help but wonder: Do people who don’t consider themselves religious really think much in terms of sin and holiness? I’m sure they think about right and wrong, but “sin” seems like an awfully “churchy” kind of word. And, as for eternal life, I once had a friend tell me that the thought of living forever in some “form” that couldn’t be clearly described or defined, just seemed freaky and a little scary!
But I think all of us can relate to the idea of family… even if our primary reference is one of a dysfunctional family. And, when family is dysfunctional, I think somehow, somewhere down deep, we know it isn’t right and we long for a healthier experience of family.
In John’s gospel, right in the introduction, we’re told that, by trusting in Jesus, we become “children of God” (John 1.12). And, on Easter morning, when Jesus talks to Mary in the garden, he tells her to “go to my brothers” [the disciples] to tell them, “I’m ascending [up to heaven] to my Father and your Father…” (John 20.17). Over and over again, scripture reminds us that trusting in Jesus makes us part of God’s family; which means it makes us part of one another.
When I pastored in Gary, I had eye surgery. It turned out to be a way bigger deal than the surgeon told me it would be. For the first week, my eyes were stitched almost all the way shut! My sister in Pennsylvania couldn’t drop everything, drive nine hours, and come take care of me. But, my church family did. They took turns. They’d sit with me when my husband had to go to work. They brought me groceries and cooked for me. They even brought over dog food (for the dogs, not me!). Since I could hardly see, one even read to me from bible commentaries… although I do think she got a kick out of inventing crazy pronunciations of technical bible study terms.
Family – when it’s functional, when it works like it should – are the people who take care of us, help us, and make sacrifices for us. If and when Church is that kind of family, why don’t we talk about it more?
I’m gonna try and talk about it more this Sunday…
Over the last several weeks I’ve been reading a book called “Questions God Asks Us” by Trevor Hudson. (I’ll be leading a small group study on the book during Castleton UMC’s Midweek Connection starting this Wednesday at 6:30.) http://castletonumc.org/midweek-connection/
I love this book because it invites us to consider the bible not so much as an “answer book,” but as questions from God that challenge us to reflect on how we live our lives. One of the questions Hudson focuses on is God’s question to Elijah in 1 Kings, chapter 19.
To make a long story short, Elijah runs off to Mt. Horeb because he’s angry and frustrated and discouraged. He’d just had this “mountaintop ministry experience” and yet when the evil Queen Jezebel sends her posse to track down Elijah, Elijah feels totally alone and totally defeated. And so, as Elijah sits on the mountain depressed and disillusioned, God poses the question, “What are you doing here?” The answer Elijah gives is pretty whiney and pathetic. But, I have to confess, I can relate. It seems like, no matter how many incredible blessings God gives us, we always seem to focus on our failures and disappoints. It’s easy to forget what goes well; but so hard to remember the victories and blessings God gives us.
One of the funniest (OK, at least I think it’s funny) parts of this Elijah story is his dogged certainty that he is all alone. At the end of the story, God reminds Elijah of what he already has been told: there are 7,000 people who share his love for God. It’s pretty hard to consider yourself alone in a company of 7,000! But, we do. We all do from time to time. Convinced that our own shortcomings, frustrations, disappointments, etc. are somehow unique to us… and we want to whine about it.
But if we pay attention… If, in those moments of silence we really listen for the voice of God, we hear and we know that we’re not alone. Others are with us: in our joys and in our sorrows; in our disappointments and in our victories. It’s the reminder God whispers to us… in a still, small voice.
I’m someone who finds transitions difficult. I’ve done a lot of moving in my life. At this point, I don’t even keep count anymore. My dad lived within one hour of his hometown for all but eight of his eighty years of life. That’s hard for me to even fathom.
I suppose as Christians we should expect to be “journey people.” In the Old Testament, God’s first word to Abraham was “Go…” Moses spent 40 years journeying through a wilderness. And Jesus and his disciples were always on the go.
Right now I am in the midst of transitioning from one congregation in Indianapolis to another in Lafayette, Indiana. Part of the challenge of transitions, I think, is to view them as open space within our lives. As we, in a certain sense, hang suspended between one location and the next, what – or more importantly who – fills that open space? I can certainly find something to fill it – anxiety, uncertainty (when will my house sell?), tasks and “to do” lists (how have I acquired so much “stuff” since my last move?). Or, I can reserve that open space for God’s grace. As I prepare to move all that stuff… books, clothes, and furniture, what might God be preparing to do within me? It will be up to me to take the time – to make the time – and notice where God’s Spirit is moving.
In one sense, the journey is just beginning; but, in another sense, it is always ongoing. In all of our lives, regardless of geography, God’s Spirit moves within us and speaks the word: “Go.”