Friday Five – Let There Be Light

Today’s Friday Five by Julie at RevGalBlogPals.org encourages us to find the things that bring light into our lives, even when it seems like there is darkness and danger all around us.

Mission Trip 1

One of the first big projects in my time at this congregation was to accompany a group of high-school youth on a mission trip to Montana. There were many moments of learning and service on that trip, and also moments of good fun and play. On the way from Wisconsin to Montana, we spent a night at a B&B ranch. This photo, taken just before sunset, was one of the moments that made me smile. The light bouncing off the clouds, and the joyful energy of the group – I smile whenever this photo pops up on my computer.

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Morning at Sugar Creek Bible Camp. Every summer, I spend a week at this camp with confirmation students. We spend a couple of hours each day together as a group, learning about the unique and special way that God has created each of us. The rest of the day, the students ride horses, paddle canoes, take part in Bible study, worship, and singing… lots of singing. This picture is from the balcony of one of the cabins where pastors stay. I love to sit there early in the morning and watch the morning light.

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I love the colors of the sky at sunset. I can imagine God sitting with a giant set of watercolor paints and splashing the sky with every color imaginable, and colors that go well beyond our imaginations. The subtle shifting of light and color as day fades to night is endlessly fascinating to me. I can feel my entire body slow down and find its own calm.

Light of a different sort. Daily, I am humbled by the unconditional love of these three. Russell, Liza, and Sadie are so generous with their affection – purring, snuggling, entertaining me with their antics. They are so much more generous with me than I deserve. Even on the days I work so many hours that I barely see them, their welcome is warm and wonderful.

One of the ideas that constantly draws me in is the expansiveness of God’s love. In every way, God’s love goes well beyond anything that I can even imagine. I find reminders of that idea all over scripture. It starts with light, and it spreads into all aspects of life.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not understand it.
(John 1:5)

Where can I go from your spirit? If I ascend into heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and travel to the farthest limits of the sea, even there, your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”  even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
(Psalm 139:8-12)

The peace of God, that confounds all human understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
(Philippians 4:7)

There is indeed light that is bigger, more pervasive, and more mysterious, than we can ever imagine. Thanks be to God.

 

 

Sermon – July 10, 2016

Gospel: Luke 10:25-37

25Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”   29But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”neighbor_10407c.jpg 30Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Sermon

Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

We are never told the name of the traveler who was attacked and beaten and left for dead in today’s Gospel. If this story were set in today’s news headlines, he could have been named Alton Sterling, or Philando Castile, or Brent Thompson, or Michael Krol, or Patrick Zamarripa, or Lorne Ahrens, or Michael Smith.

As this terror-filled, violent week continued, as we watched the shooting of each of these children of God, as we saw the violence streamed on television and social media over and over, we collectively held our breath, wondering if there would be still more. As author Brené Brown described her own reactions:

“I woke up this morning looking for someone to blame. Someone to hate. Someone who I could make the single target of my fear about the officers killed in Dallas and the killing of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.”

We want there to be a villain; we want to be able to blame someone. We want to hear people talk about privilege and racism, and believe that they’re not talking about us. We want to hear God say that our murmured prayers as we pass by on the other side of the road are enough. We want to remind the world that “I don’t even know any black people; I can’t possibly be racist.”

canstockphoto28104926But this time, the parable bites a little. This time, we hear news anchors explain over and over again what it means to be part of a group that doesn’t have to worry about things that Black people worry about. This time, we see the video clips of parents teaching even the youngest of their children a list of rules to follow when they get stopped by the police for a broken taillight. This time, the awareness creeps into our brains that we don’t have to memorize rules, that even if we didn’t do all those things, we would not be killed.

This time, the descriptions of the two who passed by on the other side of the road seems to fit us uncomfortably well.

Just as the lawyer who asked Jesus how much he had to do, or perhaps how little he could get away with doing, just like that lawyer, we want our actions to be enough. We hear the phrase Black Lives Matter, and we respond All Lives Matter, as if both could not be true at the same time. But then we remember the cartoon that was going around social media this week, showing two houses sitting next to each other, one of them on fire.

We remember seeing one cartoon figure saying All Lives Matter, just like All Houses Matter, as he uses a hose to aim water at the house that is not burning. His neighbor replies: I agree, all houses do matter; but at the moment the one that’s on fire should get more attention. And we remember the rest of the conversation: “But by saying that a burning house needs attention, aren’t you saying that all other houses don’t matter?”  “No.” “My house isn’t on fire, but there is some dry rot. Shouldn’t that be fixed?”  “It should, but the fire is very urgent.” “Let’s say that I put out the fire in my neighbor’s house, and then my house catches fire. Aren’t I entitled to water then?” “Yes, of course. But that’s not the one on fire right now.”

And we begin to realize that perhaps we have spent all of our energy protecting ourselves, even when we’re not in danger, and we have not acted to help our neighbor whose danger is very real. And we wonder… could that be why Jesus told this parable in the first place?

As we hear this parable set against the backdrop of violence and killing, we hear parts of it with new ears. Jesus didn’t say Go and say a little prayer as you pass by on the other side of the road. Instead he said Go and do likewise. Go and get your hands dirty. Go and put yourself in the middle of the muck in the spots were people are hurting. Go and speak up when you hear a joke that makes fun of someone because of their race. Go and help your neighbor, even if you think they don’t deserve it.

There is good news and hard news and more good news for us this week. The good news is: the violence and bloodshed this week is not the way that God wants things to be. God’s desire for us and for all of God’s children is that those who suffer are lifted up and those who are hurting are cared for. The hard news for us is that God has appointed us to step into the middle of the pain and injustice and be God’s presence. And not just a passive presence, but God sends us to act, to leave our comfort zones behind, and to walk right into the middle of the hurt.

But there is still more good news for us. Even as we bid farewell to our comfort zones, we are not alone. Instead, we walk in Jesus’s promise that “I will be with you, to the end of the age.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Unholy Week

Earlier today, some friends of mine, a bus full of people who used to be my neighbors, traveled to their state capitol to present a proposal. The state was considering a bill to expand the capacity of the prison system in the state, and my friends represented a community in which a prison site had closed several years ago, eliminating jobs and weakening the economy of the community.

Their proposal was to use the existing building and reopen it, bringing back a number of jobs (apparently at union salaries, though I’m not familiar with all of the details of the bill). My friends were prevented from presenting their information at the hearing, because a protest disrupted the session. The protesters were standing against any expansion of the prison system, because (as they believe and statistics bear out) sentencing falls disproportionately on people of color. Instead, they were (as best I could tell) advocating for investment in education, early childhood development, and other programs that could, over time, reduce the need for prison cells.

I understand at least parts of the positions of both groups. It is sad evidence of broken systems in our society that we need as many prisons as we do. And I have some serious questions about privately owned facilities. It is also true that prison sentences fall more heavily on those who have been given the least opportunity to begin with. On the other hand, I also understand my friends’ desire to have a new employment opportunity in their community. I love the people and communities of rural America; it’s why I have intentionally served in rural ministry since I graduated from seminary. And I definitely wish that my friends had been able to present their proposal without interruption.

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Protestors disrupt hearing

 

But the thing that horrified me the most was the rhetoric of the people commenting on the Facebook thread where there was a film clip of the last few minutes of the protest (see the news clip above). As I read several of the comment threads, I was sickened by the vast number of comments that were rude and insulting to anyone who held a different opinion. And the reliance on stereotypes and generalizations instead of nuanced thinking nearly made me cry.  At one point, I decided to count the number of times someone (regardless of their position on the issues) used the word “they” to characterize a whole group of people in a negative way. The word “they” was applied to protesters, to residents of the community with the prison facility, to all people of color, to all Democrats, to all Republicans, to all prisoners, and there were probably a few more over-generalizations that I missed.  I gave up counting after I reached 100 occasions of over-generalization. I don’t imagine that any of those groups is comprised of people who all have identical histories, identical beliefs, identical priorities. And it makes me sad that anyone would seem to think that “they” can all be painted with the same brush.

I know and respect people with whom I am likely to  disagree deeply on any number of issues. And it hurts me when some of those very people say that I cannot possibly care about the lives of rural Americans because I do not support Donald Trump or Scott Walker. In the middle of Holy Week, this degree of pride in intolerance is especially tragic. Perhaps my friends think their venom was worthwhile, because the vote eventually went their way, at least for this round.  If there is any truth to that, it would make me even sadder.

I wonder what it would take for people who disagree to stop calling each other vile names, or – could it ever be -maybe listen to the needs and hurts that motivate the other person’s thinking.

There’s a Christian song in which these words are attributed to God: “I will break their hearts of stone, give them hearts for me alone.” Maybe God needs to do it again. Maybe God already has done it, by continuing to love us even after we have done our absolute worst, to God and to one another.

In this Holy Week, Lord, wake us up to our own self-centeredness and give us eyes to see our neighbors as children of God, just as we are. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

[A NOTE ABOUT COMMENTS: Comments are always welcome. You may agree or disagree; but I ask you to do it with civility and respect. I would love it if you tried to point out something of value in the other person’s argument, even though you might not agree with their conclusion. Any comments that are rude, profane, or demeaning may be deleted.]

33 for 33 – What was I thinking?!

A good friend of mine, Pastor Meredith McGrath, started a Facebook group called “Giving It Away for Lent” a few years ago. She has been the chief cheerleader as those of us in the group have worked on using the season to simplify our lives in a variety of ways.  One year, the challenge was to give or throw away one thing on the 2014-09-06 22.49.48.jpgfirst day of Lent, two things on the second day, and so on.  Fortunately, I had quite a stash of empty prescription bottles, and one tube of Fixodent (a gag birthday gift) so I was covered for close to two weeks.

This year, we are both trying to follow another aspect of simplifying, brought to our attention on a blog called Be More with Less by Courtney Carver.  For several years, Courtney has been challenging her readers to build a wardrobe that will function for 3 months with only 33 items (including clothes, shoes, accessories, jewelry, and coats or jackets).  We both decided to get serious about it this year; we would narrow our wardrobe to 33 items to last for the remaining 33 days of Lent (not counting Sundays, because that’s how the church counts the 40 days of Lent).  I knew it would be a Big Deal for me, because I have way too many clothes. Meredith is already done assembling her wardrobe, and she has blogged about it here. My effort is still a work in progress, due to be done this week.

My first reaction was to pile everything from my closet onto a bed, grouped by type of clothing (pants, jackets, tanks/shells, etc.).  Bye-bye, guest bedroom!  I’m actually afraid to count how many things are on that bed. Then I did what I do when I’m packing for a trip: I made a list.  Here’s how my list looks at this point:

  • 1 dress (basic black)
  • 1 skirt (black again)
  • 6 pair of shoes/boots: 1 pair of dress shoes, 2 pair of “everyday” shoes, 1 pair of casual/walking shoes, 1 pair of ankle boots, 1 pair of tall boots
  • 5 pair of pants: 1 pair of jeans, 1 pair of corduroy pants, 3 pair of black pants
  • 6 tanks/shells/tees
  • 4 tops (to wear alone or layer over tanks)
  • 4 jackets (to layer over tanks or tops)
  • 4 scarves
  • 2 winter coats: 1 long coat, 1 jacket

What’s not on this list: underwear, jewelry, clergy shirts, winter hats/gloves.  According to Courtney’s guidelines, jewelry should be included in the 33 items; but I’m giving myself a little grace this time, since it’s my first venture into limiting my wardrobe this drastically.

2014-09-01 19.36.52The secret, I decided, is to pick one or two colors and make sure everything coordinates with those colors.  This time the color of choice is (liturgically correct) purple. I’m already impatient for the lighter brighter colors that I can bring back in the spring. And I’m resenting the fact that winter coats are taking up two precious slots in my allotment.

My task this evening is to put the lucky 33 items back in my closet and store the rest away somewhere (bye-bye guest room closet). I’ll take a few pictures to mark my progress. Beginning tomorrow, I should be ready to start wearing only those 33 items.

I’m surprised at the level of anxiety I feel about doing this.  It’s amazing the kind of “stuff” that gets triggered by messing with the status quo. I’m reflecting on how truly I am my parents’ daughter.  Mom and Dad both grew up during the Depression; one of the effects that had on them is that they could never throw anything away. Everything was kept, “just in case.”  When we cleaned out the house, first the workshop and garage after my father’s death, and then the rest of the house after Mom died a few years later, I was overwhelmed by all of the things that were being saved. Small bits of scrap wood from various projects, because you never know when you might need something exactly that size or shape or thickness to shim a cabinet door or prop under a wobbly table leg, boxes of greeting cards that had been received over 40 years or more, plastic containers in the kitchen with straightened-out twist ties from bread sacks.

Somehow I thought of myself as being so much more enlightened than that. But what I’ve come to realize is that I do exactly the same thing, just in different parts of my life. I don’t have a woodworking shop, but I have knitting and weaving supplies. I don’t save greeting cards, but I am a confessed office-supply junkie. My security blanket might not be the boxes of checks from decades of bank statements; instead, it’s the accumulation of clothing.

One of the attractions of doing this “33 for 33” program is the hope that this new minimalist thinking might become contagious to other parts of my life.  Could it be that I might build up the courage to tackle the stash of knives, peelers, and other gadgets in my kitchen? Or the shelf full of cleaning supplies I buy, somehow thinking that’s the same as actually cleaning? Or the boxes of who-knows-what that have moved with me to 3 different homes in 10 years? I’m not sure whether I’m excited or terrified.

It’s going to be an interesting Lent.

 

Help Me Understand

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There are many things in this world that I do not understand.  Some of them are things I can research and learn about; some of them are things I can ask someone more knowledgeable than I am.  Some are things that I simply place in God’s hands.

But there are a few things that Just. Don’t. Make. Sense.

So here’s my question, and perhaps friends who oppose any control of guns or background checks for gun ownership can help answer this (in a civil and respectful way, please):

I read a couple of articles today that reminded me of something that I had read before, but that struck me in a new way after all the violence this past week. First, the sheer scale of the violence sometimes escapes us when we only look at the one situation that’s on the news in any given day.  One article pointed out that there have been 186 mass shootings in our country since June – that’s more than one every day.  (Mass shootings were defined as situations in which four or more people were killed.)

And then there was this article on the New York Times website. According to this research, death by gun homicide in the US is proportionately higher than almost anywhere else in the world, except for war-torn and organized-crime-controlled Mexico and El Salvador.  And that’s just homicides; that doesn’t even count the number of suicides by gun or accidental gun deaths.

So my question is: if, as the NRA claims on your behalf, our easy access and unregulated ownership of guns isn’t a factor in the degree of gun violence in our country, then what is it that sets us apart from most other countries in the world?  There must be something that accounts for that excessively violent record, year after year.  What is it? How does a reasonable person explain our astonishing level of violence?

And a second question that occurs to me: if, in fact, more guns and no control over gun ownership just might be a factor in the huge number of people who are killed by guns each year, then why wouldn’t we take some steps to fix the problem?

We are willing to limit our freedom to use cars in unsafe ways in order to save thousands of lives each year.  We accept speed limits, traffic rules, tests to obtain drivers’ licenses, and the loss of the right to drive if we repeatedly violate driving laws.  Why in the world would we not think of guns in a similar way?

Why would we knowingly sentence thousands of our fellow citizens, our friends and neighbors, to be shot to death each year?

 

Sunday Best

You are a child of God...
You are a child of God…

NaBloPoMo stands for National Blog Posting Month.  It’s a campaign that challenges bloggers (and would-be bloggers) to post something every day in the month of November.  My first reaction to that challenge is to realize that my mind is a complete blank, like somebody shook the Etch-A-Sketch (or is it a more contemporary analogy to say that somebody cleared the Smart Board?).  Fortunately, there are a couple of sources of prompts for those of us who are not in the habit of blogging every day. One of today’s prompts is a question about church wardrobe: what do I wear at church?

Well, there are lots of possibilities.  It could be something like this:

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Or something like this:

Conference Pastors

(Both photos taken by the very talented pastor and photographer Peter Jonas.  His work can be seen at Outta the Box Photography.)

But really, I rarely bring lightning or rough seas to church with me (at least, not on purpose).  Usually I wear an alb and stole when leading worship.  In summer, I’m more casual, but that was something I had to get used to.

When I read the question about what to wear to church, my mind started spinning through generations.  I’m an early Baby Boomer, which means that my parents were Depression Kids and my grandparents were first and second generation immigrants.  I don’t remember ever seeing my Grandma Elsie in anything other than a dress, with stockings and sensible shoes.  And for all of my growing-up years, my mother wore a dress to church every single week.  I think she was well into her seventies when she first wore slacks to church.  That kind of imprinting is almost impossible to shake off.  Even now, I feel a little bit out of place if I don’t wear a dress to church on a Sunday morning.

And then there’s the matter of the office I hold, the role of pastor in leading worship.  There’s something deep inside me that pushes me to be more formal in my words, my dress, and my manner when I’m leading worship. Worship is the primary time when the community gathers, and I take my role as a worship leader very seriously.  For me, that means a more formal way of dressing, even though my clothes won’t be visible under my alb.

I have colleagues who are every bit as serious about worship as I am; but their dress is much more casual. That works for them, not so much for me. I occasionally do wear something more casual on Sundays; but when I do, it’s most often the result of a laundry crisis. When that happens, I carry a bit of a “great imposter” feeling through the day. I feel most comfortable, I feel most like the person I am called to be, when I am wearing my “Sunday best” clothes to lead worship.

NaBloPoMo – Say THAT Three Times Fast!

I’ve just learned that November is NaBloPoMo: National Blog Posting Month.  The idea is to post something on my blog every day for the entire month of November.  As one who struggles to get something posted every week or two, that seems like a daunting task.  But perhaps taking on this challenge will make a weekly post seem easier.  So I’m going to try.

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Today is November 1.  It is also All Saints Sunday, a day when many congregations remember those who have died during the past year.  This is one of my favorite Sundays in the church year.  We read each name, and then an acolyte lights a candle.  As a community, we pause to thank God for the lives of those who have been part of our community and are now held safely in God’s care.  Memories run deep on this day, as we hear name after name and remember the rich ways that God has blessed our congregation with their presence over the years.

But the part of this day that truly makes it my favorite is what happens next.  We move to another list, the names of those who have joined the Communion of Saints through baptism.  Again, we read each name, and an acolyte lights a candle.  We join in thanking God for the new lives through which God continues to bless our congregation.  So hope runs deep, right along side the memories, on this day.

As we steep in that rich broth of memories and hope, we experience the reality of our connection to God’s children of all times and places. And that makes a difference in how we live in this time and place.