Month: May 2013

Why Church Matters in an Age of Narcissism

That was the title of the doctorate class I took this past week in Chicago. It was a good week of studying different books and meeting with their respective authors on what they were thinking about religion in our narcissistic, fear driven, lonely, world today.

Everyone came to the class with their own hang ups and biases, myself included, on hipsters, corporate size churches, atheists, Joel Olsteen, orthodoxy, polity, boundaries, ego and helping. After a six-hour drive home last night and feeling more guilt than is humanly possible for being away from my children and church, I come away with more questions than answers.

There was one day in particular that really got me worked up. We were talking religious maturity and the comment was made how “small-minded” it is when people say after a tragedy, “by the grace of God, I’m o.k.” The opinion was that when people make God into their own, personal, genie who wills good things or bad things, that that is damaging to oneself, religion,and society as a whole. I partly agreed with them.

For example, I remember a story about a woman who told me she found a set of dishes on eBay and she told me, “it was such a God Thing that I found those dishes!” I wanted to gag. “Lady, the Creator of the Universe is not your personal shopper.”

On the other hand, I became very defensive when the comment was made that people who say after a tragedy, “thank God” are some how immature Christians. I flew out of my seat in rage and defense. Having personally experienced tornado damage, communities being lost after storms and flooding. Having had a child in a serious accident and thinking how lucky she was that she had not suffered greater injury. I understand that primal, frontal lobe feeling of fear, and that immediate response of “Thank you, God.” I also understand that when we say “thank you God” many people, not all, but many are also feeling incredible empathy for those whose loss was greater than their own. I have always been moved by the acts of compassion that come from tragedy. I was stunned by the cynicism in the class.

Yes, I know you can’t stay in that theology forever. I am a big fan of Bonhoeffer and I readily preach on his comments on cheap grace. I know we all need to get beyond our own personal, Jesus. However, when you are scared as hell and you realize you are alive, by all means Thank God. Prayers of gratitude, can then move into prayers of lament for those who experienced loss. We should never make trite comments like “God had a plan,” or that it “is in God’s hands,” or “God did this to punish us” or other glib remarks that some how makes God, Zeus. We do say as William Sloan Coffin said when his son died. That God was the first to grieve.

Religious leaders need to stop thinking they have an “in” with God because they have gone deeper with issues of life and death. At the end of the day we are all human, with a measure of faith. Some days it’s just a teaspoon. Whatever gift of faith we have received, let us be very careful of judging another person’s faith for the measure they have received. If our faith compels us to thank God, for the love of God, thank God!

Asking for Help

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“Get in the car! It’s time to go!”

“I can’t find my head band!!”

“I can’t tie my shoe!”

“The dog just ate the cat’s food!”

“Mo-om! Madelyn has on my socks!”

“Lets go guys, we are going to be late.”

“uh Oh. I forgot, I was supposed to be at school early.”

“and I have sharing!”

“ugh people!”

….five minutes later…the drop off….

“Ok guys, have a terrific day! I love you!”

“Bye! Love you!”
“Love you too!”
“Love you, Mama!”

“Wait! Jackson, we need to tie your shoes.”

And so goes a typical morning 8 minutes before school — before work! As much as I try to prevent said drama, I always come up short. I do the setting things out the night before, get up earlier, take responsibility for your own lunch and making your bed thing. Still, the drama ensues. It’s exhausting.

Suddenly it occurred to me that no one was asking for help. Oh they were asking ME for help, but they were not asking each other.

“Let’s try this,” I said, “instead of screaming, ask for help. Instead of whining, ask for help. And if you see that your sister or brother is struggling with something, ask them if you can help them. Now, that doesn’t mean you do it for them, or you take over, or you put them down. Just say, ‘can I help you with that?’ AND, if someone offers to help you, you can say ‘no thanks’ in a polite way without getting snarky. Recognize that someone is trying to help you. And if you offer to help, and they say ‘no’ you can’t take it personally. So let’s stop screaming and start helping each other.”

So far this modeling has worked 60% of the time….but what occurred to me was that asking for help, receiving it, and offering it are all learned behaviors. We don’t innately know how to ask, offer, or receive help. Maybe it’s ego that keeps us from this behavior. Maybe it’s culture that defines help. Whatever it is, it struck me that every child is learning whether intentionally or not, how to ask and offer help.

As adults we take that behavior of helping on, either expecting it, or being embarrassed by needing it, or feeling that we don’t deserve it.

I think helping is an art. It’s never perfect. It takes practice and experimentation. It takes understanding two things. We can only help as far as we are able. We have to know our own limits in helping. And second, we have to be able to ask for help ourselves and receive it as it is offered. In essence we have to respect each other’s humanity in the art of helping.

When Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her. Jesus gets triangulated in family drama. Jesus didn’t have mediation training, so he doesn’t tell Martha to talk to Mary herself. He does tell her that she is troubled by many things and that Mary has chosen what was best for her. Did Martha say “fine” and leave and go out for Martinis with the girls? I would have.

Martha still needs help. I think Jesus helps her by seeing that what she needs help with is not emptying the dishwasher. She needs help in sitting still and leaving the dishes in the sink for one more hour. Chill out Martha. You’re missing the point.

If the library books are late, or the hair isn’t brushed, and there is sticky orange juice on the floor. Yeah, it’s annoying and a royal pain, but chill out, and ask for help and take what you get. What matters is this:

“Have a great day! Know that I love you!”
“Bye! Love you too!”
“Love you!”
“Love you, Mama, see you after school!”

Amen

 

When Jesus Prays, Sermon on John 17:20-26

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My favorite assurance of pardon is this:
“Hear the Good News, Jesus Christ died for us, Christ rose for us, Christ reigns over power for us, Christ prays for us. Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation, the old life has gone, behold a new life has begun.”

Each of these clauses are testimonies of God’s grace. – He died, He rose, He reigns and He prays. Dying and the praying are the two human acts and the rising and reigning are the two Godly acts. We will die and we all can pray. In our Gospel reading today Jesus is preparing his disciples for the very human experience of his death. These are his last words in the Gospel of John before his arrest and trial. This is a place of fear and unknown for the disciples. It’s not unlike going into a surgery in which the outcome is worrisome, or waiting for results of medical test. It’s a scary, vulnerable place to be.

It’s at this raw place of human vulnerability that Jesus offers a prayer. The prayer is not for himself, it’s for his disciples and it’s not just for the disciples who will witness his death, but it’s for disciples to come. He says, “I’m praying not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me.”

This is where we claim the statement that Jesus actually prays for us. Certainly the writer of John’s Gospel knew that there would be people who never knew Jesus personally who would follow him and believe him to be the Son of God.
Have you ever had anyone pray for you? It’s a profoundly vulnerable experience to have someone say, “how can I pray for you?” It’s not like asking, “how are you?” or “what can I do for you?” It goes deeper. It goes to your core. It addresses your soul. When someone says, “how can I pray for you,” they are asking you, “what does your soul need?” We neglect our soul. We abuse it. We shove it away in a shoe box under the bed. And so when somebody says, “how can I pray for you?” our dusty souls come out and are so needy for attention. Our souls don’t know how to respond at first, no one has ever asked us that before. No one has ever taken the time to look in on our soul, and so it’s a little scary, because if we let our soul respond, our soul may just run wild and get out of control.

Three weeks ago I went to a Presbyterian retreat for pastors called CREDO. It’s an opportunity for pastor’s to retool and reconstruct priorities in their vocation. On the third day, they offered a service of healing and wholeness. In four corners of the room, facilitators sat and waited to hear the prayers of pastors. It took so much courage for me to get up and go to a corner. When I got there, they asked me how they could pray for me. I was so touched by that question, it took only seconds for my soul to open up and cry out. Not for any particular reason other than that my soul needed to be heard and recognized.

A vulnerable reality about being prayed for is that the words that come from the one is praying are not our own. One time I went to visit someone in the hospital, offered a prayer and was told after the “Amen” that I didn’t ask for the right things. When people pray for us, they may pray what they feel we need, not what we feel we need. They may pray for patience, when we may want action. They may pray for forgiveness, when we may want justice. They may pray for unity, when we may want to get our own way.

And what does Jesus pray for when he prays for his disciples? “That they may be one.” That we may be one – one with each other, one with Jesus and God, one with ourselves. And that being one, we may have peace. Jesus says “the goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind, so they might be one heart and mind with us.”

What a lofty goal for the church. What a lofty goal it was back then and remains today. There are more denominations in our town then there are cereal boxes at the grocery store. Yet Jesus prays for unity. – Is that what we pray for? Is that the prayer we want from Jesus?

Where do we begin? Where do begin to strive for unity in a world so polarized and fractioned? I think we begin one relationship at a time.

Naomi Shihab Nye, the American poet born of an American mother and a Palestinian father, writes about Oneness in a story from the Albuquerque airport –

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed for four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.” Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there. An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly. “Help,” said the flight service person. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”

I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke to her haltingly. The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is picking you up? Let’s call him.”

We called her son and I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to her–Southwest. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up about two hours.

She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee, answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies–little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts–out of her bag–and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo–we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.This can still happen anywhere.
Naomi Shihab Nye Gate A-4 from Honeybee, c. 2008

Answer to prayer is always witnessed through acts of love.

And we discover in these acts of love our common humanity that not all is lost.

Writer Lauren Winner tells about her prayer life after her mother died. She writes, “sometime after my mother died, after I got married, I ceased to pray. That is I did not pray by myself. ‘Without prayer,’ Catherine Doherty once wrote, ‘the life of the Christian dies.’

“Her words scare me,” Winner writes, “ I have edged closer to them then I care to admit. She means that if you stop praying your spiritual life will shrivel up like a fruit. But her statement has overtones and I start to suspect that the reason my Christian life hasn’t completely conked out is that even when I am not praying, other people are praying on my behalf.” –Lauren Winner, Still: Notes on Mid-Faith Crisis. 2012. Harper Collins: New York.

And that my friends is why Jesus prays this prayer for unity at the end of John’s Gospel. Because he knows we need others to pray on our behalf. He knows that there will be times when we cannot pray for ourselves. When things are too hard, too painful and we cannot find the words to pray. In our unity, someone else will fill the void and pray the prayer we cannot.

There are prayers running through us and for us that we never know are taking place. It should compel us to pray in the same way. When we see a tired mother at Wal-Mart and we can tell she has had a hard day, say a prayer. When we see an ambulance race down the street, say a prayer. When we see a person on the street looking for food, say a prayer. When we see a friend struggling with their job, say a prayer. Pray for the farmer in the field, the solder in the desert, the defeated, the lonely and broken. Pray for those who you do not understand and do not like. It is in those silent prayers for the stranger that we become more aware of our common humanity, and thus become unified.

Now, if that’s not profound enough for you, here is the next piece of grace and good news – When you have no prayer to say, and even when you are sure no one else is praying for you, even then you are not alone, even then you are being prayed for – every step of the way. Jesus prays for you today.

Each of you received a rock this morning as you came in. It’s a prayer rock. It’s to remind you that you are grounded in someone greater than yourself. It’s to remind you to pray and that you are prayed for. In about 30 seconds I’d like to invite you stand and say to someone standing near you, “Remember, Jesus prays for you today” and then exchange rocks.

Friends believe the good news of the Gospel, Jesus died for us, he rose for us, he reigns in power over us, he prays for us. Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. The old life has gone, a new life has begun. Know that you are loved, forgiven and freed. Go and be at peace.

Mom

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There is a picture of my mother and I that I love. She’s about 24 and I am about 6 months old. It’s a summer day, and mom is rockin’ it in a swimsuit and a Jackie O hairstyle. I am a round, soft, baby looking at summer for the first time.

Neither of us have a clue what the next 40 years will bring. Two more little girls, days full of practices, lessons, meals, cleaning, driving, vacations, illness, pets, church, shopping, crying, teaching, praying, laughing, shouting, searching.

As a mother now, there are things Mom did for my sisters and I, that I find heroic. I think, “how did she do that?” She would coordinate meals, with a set table. The table would have all the food groups presented. “It’s important to have color,” Mom would say. The ambiance always included a lit candle or fresh flowers, and classical music in the background.

There were routines Mom set in place, patterns in the day and week that always brought order and comfort. Saturdays the house would be filled with choral worship music and the smell of Pinesol. No one cleans a floor more thoroughly than Mom. No one cleans anything more thoroughly. We’d all pitch in with our rubber gloves and buckets and clean, clean, clean.

Saturday afternoon was our turn. Long baths, blow dried hair, trimmed nails, and homemade pizza for dinner. Sunday was church, playing outside and popcorn and apples for dinner.

I cannot figure out with three kids, how Mom had time to read to me. I loved the cadence of her voice. We read “Charlotte’s Web” and cried when Charlotte died. We read “A Wrinkle in Time,” and pretended we were Margaret. We read “Little House in the Big Woods,” and fell in love with Pa.

She and I had days together when it was just a day for us. How did she manage that?! We would spend the day shopping for new shoes, clothes, getting my hair cut and going out to lunch. I realize now it was a day for me.

When adolescence beckoned we listened to tapes by James Dobson about the perils of being a teenager. Something she sorely regrets. I was well-informed and scared to death.

At night we would pray and talk about God. She was my first spiritual teacher. I always thought she had an “in” with God…I still do. I never questioned that she questioned.

Mom has always been strikingly beautiful and unintentionally funny.

When I was 4, she sat on silly putty on our shag carpet in our basement and got stuck. She had to cut a hole in her pants and in carpet to get unstuck. It’s the first time I remember laughing.

When I was ten, we were picking blueberries in Wisconsin and she stepped on an anthill. Ants ran up my Mom’s pants and she ran home and jumped in the tub. 100’s of ants drowned that day.

She would croon Joan Baez songs while my Dad played his ukulele around the campfire and my sisters and I tried to not to laugh as we listened to her singing. We were not successful.

When I was 11, I was in my first play. I was funny. I wasn’t that funny. But Mom thought I was hilarious. She started laughing uncontrollably. My Dad had to escort her from the gym.

She taught me to love public television, piano, reading, NPR, classical music, nature, justice, and beauty. She was my first friend, my greatest advocate, my fiercest defender, my biggest fan and my strongest critique.

I look at that photo now and I wonder if Mom planned to do all that she did as a Mother, or did it just come to her….like a summer day?

Happy Mothers Day.

Snow on Daffodils and Psalm 40

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Good Morning God,
I have waken with the birds as usual.
Dawn is here.

It’s my favorite time of the day. The house and its inhabitants are still sleeping. Except for the animals, who have been staring at me in the dark, waiting for me to rise and fill bowls.

I let the dog out.
The calendar says May 3.

Snowflakes fall on my eyelashes and
ices my daffodils.
I say a prayer of lament…
for God’s ears only.
God can take it.

The dryer buzzes, the washer turns, the coffee belches.
Cats hiss, dog regurgitates, unfinished homework lies on the table.
I realize I have had my hands in more poop before 6:00 a.m. than I care to admit.

I sit down to pray and read scripture.

I always open to the Psalter.

“I have waited patiently for The Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock making my steps secure.” (Psalm 40:1-2).

Ancient words. Same challenges.

“My inequities have overtaken me until I cannot see; they are more than the hairs on my head; my heart fails me. (40:12)

Indeed.

“All I want is a normal life.”
Wisdom replies, “there is no such thing.”

It’s just life.
It’s wondrous and torturous.
Beautiful and painful.
It’s snow on daffodils.

Rather, look for the will of God.

“He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise.”

Do the birds outside my window sing for the morning? Do they sing for that which is yet to come?
Do they sing for no reason other than they are able?

They sing because they can. Snow on daffodils will not stop them.

What song would I sing if my throat was open and I trusted the cry to come out?

What song would you sing?

“May all who seek thee rejoice and be glad.”

And yet, and yet dear God, I cannot sing without you. I cannot sing without your presence as I go about the daily. I am impoverished for your strength and needy for your support. You alone are my help and deliver.

Do not tarry, O God.

Do not tarry.

Without you, I see only snow on daffodils.