Category Archives: Uncategorized

And That’s Exactly How I Feel

I ended up in an unusual discussion with a friend of mine today. She was commenting on the riots at Berkeley and her feeling that the riots happened because “the left” is unwilling to hear dissenting opinions.  I had to disagree, partly because I am a liberal and so technically part of the ‘left’ and I don’t really have a problem with dissenting opinions as long as the other person is able to explain their opinion to me logically.  The other reason I disagreed with my friend is because I don’t really believe you can categorize a group that is so large and diverse with just two words.

“The left.”

Is there actually such a thing? If there is, surely there must be “the right” as well. But can we so easily be divided into two camps?  Are we really so simple and so binary in our opinions?

If we are going to be honest with each other, no.  It isn’t possible to simplify our politics into two separate groups labeled ‘left’ and ‘right’ and then fully describe each group to clarify their positions.  The idea that we are so easily divided and defined is a fallacy that many politicians and journalists like to use when they make statements; it’s a great way of polarizing the issues and labeling your opposition as ‘other’ and incorrect in their thinking.

Except people aren’t so easily defined.

My parents are conservatives both theologically and politically and yet they are both disgusted with our new President and his latest antics. They are disgusted by Breitbart News and horrified by the taint of racism that hangs over Steve Bannon and several of Trump’s cabinet nominees. My parents have voted republican for as long as I’ve been alive, and their views have grown more conservative as they’ve aged, and yet they fail to meet the criteria of being in the religious right.

Why? Let’s start with the fact that neither of my parents is interested in the “Freedom of Religion” legislation that allows Christians to discriminate against LGBTQ persons on the basis that the LGBTQ lifestyle is counter to their religious beliefs.  To quote my mother, “If you find that kind of lifestyle sinful, then don’t live that lifestyle. Other than that, what’s the issue? They are people just like you and me, sinners just like you and me, and God loves them, just like you and me.”  Remember, this is my conservative mother who continues to believe that homosexuality is not God’s will and not righteous… and both she and my father believe that to discriminate against any LGBTQ person is to offend God and to commit a sin.  So are my parents ‘right’ or ‘left’?

Both?  Neither? Somewhere in the middle?

My parents are what I like to call Compassionate Conservatives, a group of people who hold their religious beliefs and morals close to their heart but refuse to use those morals and beliefs to exclude or openly judge the lives of others. They consider such behavior counter to God’s will that they extend the love of Christ to everyone, no matter who that person is or what their choices are.  In the same vein, they realize that their life experiences have led them to certain values, morals, and beliefs that other people who did not have those same experiences may not share. In fact, they openly admit that perhaps they would think differently if they had had different life experiences.

And that is the crux of the matter.

It is so easy for us to judge someone else as wrong from our personal vantage point.  It’s so easy for white people to throw out the line “All Lives Matter” when we have not ONE idea what it is like to fear racial profiling, to fear the police will shoot you simply because you don’t get on the ground fast enough after a traffic stop; we have no idea what it’s like to wonder if our black life actually matters to our local police or politicians.  It’s so easy for men to call women out on using the “woman card” when they have no idea what it is like to be demeaned, mansplained to, sexually harassed, sexually discriminated against, and to be passed over for promotions because management fears that you’ll consider getting pregnant sometime in the distant future, as if your brains and skills are worth less because they come with a uterus as standard equipment.  It’s so easy for financially comfortable people to give that dirty look to the person who pulls out their EBT (food stamp) card, yet they have no idea what it is like to live in a two income family and still not have enough money to pay for food and electricity if you also pay for rent and transportation, or for your child’s schooling and medical needs…or to be a single parent trying to figure out how to work and pay for child care and still have enough to cover daycare so that you actually can get a job.  Don’t even get me started on white privilege and the number of times I’ve had to explain that white men in sports cars don’t get pulled over on the assumption that a white man must have stolen a car that nice (which happens to young men who are black or Latino all the time.)

My point is this: YOU ONLY THINK YOU KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE FOR THAT OTHER GUY OVER THERE.

We only think we know what it’s like to be that other person, to live their life, to wake up in their skin, to face their daily challenges, to have to see the future through the eyes of their past, and to live with the things they fear.

And because we don’t know what it’s like to live their life, maybe we should try asking a few questions before we start judging them.

To give one example: if we wonder why the people of Ferguson rioted in the streets, maybe we ought to listen to them tell their stories of bad action by the police. Maybe we should ask them what it’s like not being able to trust the local police to treat them fairly and with justice, to fear that instead they will be unjustly arrested and perhaps even attacked by the police. Maybe we should try to imagine living in a city where you don’t know who to fear more: the criminals or the police.  Maybe we should try to imagine being arrested by policemen that we believe will do everything in their power to unjustly convict us.   Still wondering why the young men in Ferguson act in confrontational ways towards the police? No, me neither. No.  Actually, their reaction kind of makes sense in light of the reality they live in.

When I was a young girl I read Corrie Ten Boom’s memoir, telling the story of her resistance to the Nazi’s and subsequent arrest for hiding Jews. My father discussed the book with me and told me that true Christians stand in opposition to unjust authorities, even if it means that we will be arrested and punished.  My parents taught me that morality is greater than the law because God Himself declares what morality is…and the highest moral is love for all God’s people. To stand against an unjust authority is to act in imitation of Jesus Christ.  If I lived in Ferguson…I’d be resisting the local police for the sake of justice for my neighbor.

That brings me back to Compassionate Conservatives.

I only call them that because I’m liberal and I think we are a compassionate bunch, but I’m betting there are some conservatives who would disagree, and they’d probably have really good examples of liberals who have done horrible things in the name of being right (not ‘right’ but right as in correct.)

Maybe this whole deal—religion and politics—would work better if we just started being more compassionate, if we started working more diligently to see how hard the other guy has it before we rush to judgement.  Maybe we should assume that people have a good reason for the behaviors and beliefs we think are so strange and unacceptable.  Maybe we should even start asking more questions and listening more than we speak.

Holy smoke, I think I’m onto something.

Whether you are ‘right’ or ‘left’ doesn’t really matter, because we’re all just trying to do what is best for our country and our people.  Let’s start there: that we all want the same thing—prosperity and success—for ourselves and our country and then see if we can’t find some more common ground to stand on.

Because if we continue with this ‘right’/’left’ thing all we’ll manage to do is play tug of war, and I don’t think that’s how you run a nation unless you are running it into the ground.

How Can Feeling so RIGHT be so WRONG?

Anger is a poison you drink hoping the other person will die.   Unattributed

Anger.

It’s everywhere!  Part of it is the political season, but lately it just seems that anger is the emotion du jour.

Anger, by itself, isn’t really a bad thing.  It helps you express your opinion and your frustration, often loudly and forcefully.  But the whole thing about anger is that you are supposed to speak your peace and then be done…let go…get over whatever happened and get back to normal, which for most people means getting back to contentment and maybe even happiness.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t work for everyone.  Or more accurately, that is not how some people choose to deal with their anger.

I regularly deal with clients who live in a perpetual state of anger, constantly reciting the wrongs done and the righteous indignation that comes from being wronged over and over and over.

I don’t really blame them for their anger.  After all, things actually did not go their way and they did get hurt…there are real reasons for their anger.

But why in the world would anyone want to be angry all the time?

There are lots of reasons.

Admit it: there is a certain amount of self-justification and righteous indignation that go with being angry.  It is very affirming to know that you are RIGHT when the other party is SO WRONG.  And can we admit that being angry is very energizing?  I know several women who pour their anger into cleaning frenzies that leave the entire house spotless while leaving them spent, with no energy left to feed their anger.  It’s a great way to burn off all the jagged hyperactivity that anger can bring, especially if you want to avoid pouring your anger out all over your kids or your partner.  I have indulged myself with more than one cleaning frenzy since I got married and I have warned my husband to never try and stop me because no one should have to deal with me when I’m that angry.  Besides, a clean house is a nice thing. So get out my way, don’t talk to me, and LET ME CLEAN!!

There…I feel better now.

Every angry client I see says the same thing: I can’t let it go. What they did was so wrong. I can’t seem to get over it!  And I respond the same way every time.

Anger is a secondary emotion.  Anger is the human version of a dog growling and baring its teeth…and dogs do that when they are afraid or in pain.  Humans become angry to cover three emotions: pain, sorrow, and fear.  We use anger to gird ourselves for battle despite our fear and pain, and to cover our grief with energy for action.  After all, when we are afraid we want to do whatever we can to eliminate the reason for our fear.  When we are filled with grief and sorrow we want to stop whatever caused our grief (thus groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Stand Up 2 Cancer, etc.)  When we are in pain, we want to lash out at whatever and whoever is causing our pain.  Thus…anger and all the energy it brings.

Anger is a great emotion, created by God to help us take action (when we need to) to get out a bad situation that is causing us fear, pain, or sorrow.  Anger is very useful, and the energy that anger brings is often exactly what we need to get through a difficult moment.

However, anger is supposed to be a temporary solution.  We aren’t supposed to stay there, lingering in our anger, simmering like a pot constantly on the edge of boiling.  We are supposed to use our anger while the threat still exists, and then move on to processing the underlying emotions that fed the anger.

Counselors have a saying about emotions: Feelings are like farts. It’s best if you let them out, even though it will be unpleasant for a while.  Suppressing your feelings is as bad for you as trying to hold in your farts: eventually they will come out and it will always be at the wrong time and it will always be messier than you want it to be.

Emotions are also a lot like water: if you give them air, they will eventually evaporate.  Unfortunately, anger has to bottle up the fear, pain, and sorrow in order to gain its energy; as long as the anger continues, the fear, pain, and sorrow cannot evaporate at all.  The thing is that in order for the anger to stop, you have to choose to open up that bottle and pour it out, and most folks don’t want to do that. And who would blame them?  Fear, pain, and sorrow is that they are really unpleasant emotions.   Even worse, when you are dealing with fear, pain, or sorrow it can feel as if you will always feel this badly, that you will always be stuck in this agony, unable to move forward.

Of course, that is a lie.  For some reason we are deeply aware that happiness and joy are fragile, passing emotions that can be swept away from us by circumstance. Despite this awareness, we often act as though our pain, fear, and sorrow can trap us, keeping us locked in misery for the rest of our lives.

Maybe we believe this because we’ve seen people who seemed to live in perpetual misery.  Dealing with them is another blog post entirely, but for now let’s just say that anyone who lives in perpetual misery has allowed a single emotion to become their identity…but they CHOSE to have that emotion become their identity.  It didn’t happen by accident.  They invested in keeping that particular emotion alive. Thus the person you know who is always angry for one reason or another: they have chosen to let anger become their identity.

So what does this have to do with you?

When you find yourself stewing over something, constantly mulling it over and replaying the argument or the situation, take some steps to kill your anger.  Remember, you have to choose to open the anger bottle and pour it out.  Here are a few techniques to help you:

Ask yourself:

  • Is there some action I need to take? Realistically, is there anything I need to DO before I let this go? Do not include things like giving someone a piece of your mind, or giving them a taste of their own medicine in this list.  Valid actions would be having an honest discussion with the other person, or looking up the relevant rules and laws surrounding the situation.  In other words, angry actions do not belong on this list.  Pick actions that could potentially create a solution to the situation.
  • What am I feeling besides anger? Am I afraid of something bad happening? Am I hurt or embarrassed and therefore lashing out? Does this situation make me deeply sad?  What ELSE am I feeling?  This one could take some time because often we go straight to anger without really giving ourselves time to feel the fear, sorrow, or pain that started up our angry reaction in the first place.  This is an exercise in getting in touch with your own self and your own needs.  It can be difficult, so be prepared to journal, to give yourself time in silence, to pray, and to talk with a friend (not about your anger!) to clarify your feelings.  Ask yourself: what am I afraid of in this situation? What do I stand to lose? (grief/sorrow) What does this situation mean about me? (pain)
  • Take a moment to honestly assess what could go wrong if you don’t stay angry. What do you stand to lose? For instance, if staying angry means that you stand up to someone who is trying to take illegal action, then stay angry for a while and go back to #1 and decide what you need to do.  And let me be clear: letting go of your anger doesn’t mean that what the other person did or said is okay.  Letting go of your anger has nothing to do with the other person at all.  Your emotions are your own and no one else is feeling them.  They may know that you’re angry and it might even matter to them, but you staying angry doesn’t make them decide that they were wrong.  Your anger isn’t a punishment to anyone, but if you hold onto it long enough it will become a punishment to you.

Most important to remember is that most human beings don’t do what they do in order to hurt you, scare you, or make you sad.  If you have people in your life who actually do things just to make you hurt or be frightened…leave them!  Leave them now!  That kind of behavior is sick and disordered and you need to remember that is not just my opinion; I’m a counselor and I’m telling you that people who hurt you and scare you on purpose are disordered and sick. Normal behavior is mostly self-focused, and when the average person behaves they are simply meeting their own needs even when the behavior seems directed at YOU.  Personalizing someone else’s behavior or words makes about as much sense as believing that guy who lives across the street brushes his teeth in the morning to make fun of you.  Stupid, isn’t it?  Yep…so stop believing that your partner leaves their shoes and clothing all over the house because they don’t care about you, or believing that the guy in the next cube turns his music up too loud because he’s trying to piss you off.  No…they are simply choosing not to perceive how their behavior impacts others, which isn’t great, but it still isn’t behavior done on purpose to hurt you or make you angry.

Do yourself a favor: don’t drink the poison.

Did You Miss Me? Well…did you???

You probably haven’t noticed…but I’ve been gone for a while. It’s been almost six weeks since my last post.  The first four Thursdays were lost to traveling, and last Thursday was dedicated to Annual Conference.  Being gone for such a long, long time has left me with several things I want to say to you.  About the trip through Europe:

  • The world is a wonderful place! My husband Phil and I stayed in Dublin for a few days, and then flew to Amsterdam so that we could board a river cruise that took us through Holland, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary.  Every place we went was all about the rivers: Liffey (Dublin—we stayed in the Docklands); Rhine; Main; and Danube.  Dublin is a huge city divided by the river and our long walks along the river were equally peaceful and exciting. The land along the rivers in mainland Europe was beautiful: rolling hills, little towns, ancient castles and cathedrals, mobile home and RV parks where people hung out to fish and relax.  The scenery was lovely, but that’s not what made me so happy.  People make me happy.  Over and over, on the cruise and out in the towns, we met wonderful, friendly, helpful people.  It’s easy to forget how friendly and helpful the world is when what you hear on the news tells you to fear others, to fear the immigrant, to fear Islamic peoples, to fear in general.  We went on a walking tour of Frankfurt and our guide was a young Muslim woman. She was friendly and easy to talk to, and while discussion of religion led us to disagree about the interpretation of the Christian scriptures, Phil and I found her to be fascinating and friendly. I would gladly have spent the entire day with her so that she could tell us more about life in Germany, but she had other tours to lead that afternoon.  And then there were the people who were with us on the cruise. It was a small boat, and there were only 111 passengers, so it was easy to get to know folks, and most of the people we met were not from the US.  We spent most of our days going on walking and cycling tours with our brand new friends, and most of our nights singing and dancing with them in the lounge.  It was fantastic!
  • The world is not always kind enough. This I learned mostly on the ship as I got to watch human beings behaving badly: too drunk; too rude; and too impressed with their own class, wealth, and achievements to treat the people serving them as equals. It is really hard to watch someone behave that badly and not say something, and I found myself apologizing to waiters, housekeeping, and bar staff for the behaviors of others.  It’s interesting to note that bad behavior isn’t limited to one color, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic class.  Apparently, we are equally capable of being a**holes no matter what our background. Unfortunate, but true.
  • The gender and sexual preference gap isn’t as large as we think it is. There was a large group of gay men travelling together on the cruise, and two of them had originally booked this cruise as a couple.  Sadly, their six year-long partnership came apart shortly before the cruise date.  Friends of theirs who were also on the boat agreed to change room assignments so that the newly dissolved couple didn’t have to share a room.  Phil and I met the entire group the first day of the cruise, and it wasn’t long before one of the friends let us in on what was causing all the sturm und drang (a great phrase if you are touring Germany!) Watching their broken hearted attempts to enjoy the trip was painful. Watching one of the them drink himself into oblivion over his broken heart was agonizing. Listening to that same man discuss the problems he was having with his new partner was enlightening.  Apparently, couple drama is couple drama and what side of the sexual preference or gender divide you fall on turns out to be meaningless.  Two men fight and cry and worry just like two women fight and cry and worry just like a man and a woman fight and cry and worry.  The other dimension is also true: the joy of one type of couple doesn’t look much difference than the joy of a different type of couple.  Shortly before my husband gave me a beautiful Swarovski bracelet for our 28th anniversary, we watched Micheal give Christopher a watch for their 9th anniversary…and Chris’s reaction was pretty much the same as mine was.  Two people loving each other is a beautiful thing, and there was no difference in how we celebrated the many wedding anniversaries for straight couples or the anniversaries for gay couples.  Apparently, love is love is love is love and we might want to quit worrying about what separates us and simply focus on increasing the amount of love in the world. It’s a beautiful thing.

 

Only five days after we came home from Europe, I found myself back in a hotel, attending the Annual Conference of the Desert Southwest Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Man that’s a mouthful!  Let’s just call it DSW2016, because it’s easier that way.  Anyway, the Bishop had asked me to preach the memorial service this year, mostly because I am an ordained Deacon (the specialist type of minister in the UMC) and this year was the 20th anniversary of the Order of Deacons.  It was an honor to be asked to preach at annual conference, but also a very anxious thing. I fretted over that sermon, let me tell you.  I was so anxious the day that I had to preach that I had trouble drinking my coffee—it gave me a stomachache.  I’m pretty anxious in general, and moments like this only make it worse.  Anyway…I preached my sermon and it went really well. Really well, as in better than I could have hoped it would go. However, there are a few things that I learned from preaching at DSW2016, and while I don’t expect my colleagues in ministry to be reading this, I’m going to say it anyway (probably because it’s hard to shut me up…and I’ll bet you see what I did there!)

  • Avoid backhanded insults disguised as compliments. Saying “Wow! I didn’t know that you could preach!” or “You did a really good job on that! Did you write that sermon?” is just rude. Folks, I went to seminary just like all the other ministers do and I’ve been clergy since 2003.  Really? If you can’t say anything nice…
  • Unless you are the one directly benefitting from someone else’s hard work, say “Good job!” only once. More than that and it starts sounding insincere. I admit that this might be my insecurity talking, but at the same time, all I can think of is how we overly praise a four year-old for their scribble drawing…and how insincere it is.  Too much praise is uncomfortable and smacks of condescension.
  • Let your emotions speak. This year’s memorial service honored the recently deceased spouses of a number of my colleagues, and after I preached, one of them came up to me and hugged tightly me for a good minute. She didn’t need to say anything for me to know how she felt about my sermon, or how well I had memorialized her husband.  There aren’t enough words to convey what that hug and her tears said to me.
  • Finally, don’t be afraid to put your praise in writing. I had several colleagues who emailed me to say ‘good job.’ I save emails and notes like those for bad days when my self-esteem is low. Words of praise that are tangible (i.e. written) are powerful talismans of past achievement and can lift someone up years after the words were written. It is a great gift to tell someone in writing what good you think they have done, even if the message is brief.

And that’s it.  It’s good to be back home and back into my routine, and good to be talking with my readers again.  Enough people asked for copies of my memorial sermon that I am attaching it to this post for their convenience.  I hope you enjoy it as well.

The text of the memorial sermon preached on June 16, 2016 at DSW Annual Conference 2016.

Luke 22:14-20

14 When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. 15 He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16 for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18 for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

Do this in remembrance of me.

We normally speak those words as we stand at the altar, elevating the bread and the cup as we enter into the Lord’s Supper. But tonight, we are gathered to remember in a different way: tonight we memorialize and honor those who have died and gone home to glory.  We are here because they were our colleagues, our friends, our family…and we love them and so…tonight we are here to remember.

But what is it that we should remember?  In the memorializing of a life, what do we come to remember?  Their actions? Their achievements? Their legacy?

Maybe it’s the good times. We only get so much time with the people we love and no matter how much time we get, it’s never enough.  Both of my in-laws have passed on and I must admit that I often think about how much I would love to have an hour with them now.  An hour would be great…not because I want to say anything profound to them and not to thank them for the gift they gave me in my spouse because I did that while they were alive.  I would love an hour with my in-laws just to laugh with them about the stupid stuff we used to laugh over…to remember all of our stories.  Like the one about how my father-in-law ended up sitting on Santa’s lap. Or how he hid an entire pound of Ethel Mastin’s homemade peanut brittle because it was SO good and he didn’t want anyone else to eat it all up. You start telling stories about the people you love, and one story leads to another and then another and each story is funnier than the last one until there are tears dripping down your face, not from sorrow but from hilarity. Perhaps a life is best remembered in laughter.

I must admit, though, that when I talk about the people that I love, I do tell an awful lot of stories about what I learned from them.  In the end, if you are paying attention…if you are listening and watching…there is so much to learn from the people we love.  There are the lessons they teach us on purpose:  how to change a tire; how to cook a meal; how to drive stick shift; how to balance a checkbook.  Then there are the lessons they teach us by example: faith; honesty; kindness; patience.  And then there are the lessons they taught us with simple words shared at the most crucial times: words of forgiveness and grace that we could not have granted ourselves; words that convey lessons of life wisdom learned the hard way.  When I was a little girl, my father told me that if I thought he was wrong, I should tell him, and we would discuss it, and if he was wrong he would apologize. My father’s parents were NEVER wrong. I never forgot the day my father apologized.  It was a huge lesson: it gave me permission to challenge authority when I thought it was wrong, but more than that: my father gave me permission to be wrong and ask for forgiveness for my error. Perhaps a life is best remembered in its wisdom.

You know that joke: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, I am my mother after all”?  I remember the first time I heard my mother’s words come out of my own mouth, not in repetition of her wisdom, but yelled at my children. I think all of us relate to that moment…we’ve all gotten there, especially if you have children…because there is no way to avoid imitating the people you love the most. You spend so much time with them and they have such a huge impact on your life.  How can you love someone and not be impacted by who they are when you admire so much of what they do and what they say? When you admire so much of how they are in the world?  And honestly, there is no way to be loved by someone and not be changed by the relationship you have with them.  It’s as if the love they have for you leaves an indelible mark on you that can never be erased.  It’s almost as if they are a tea bag that steeps in the pot that is you and leaves behind a flavor that can never be removed no matter how many other flavors end up in that pot over time.  Whatever they leave behind is permanent.  In the end you end up taking on some of their ways of thinking and some of their ways of being and some of their habits…maybe a life is best remembered in imitation.

And let’s admit it: love changes us because love is a revolutionary act.  It really is, because sometimes someone loves you in direct defiance of what the world thinks of you, in direct defiance what the people around you think of you…sometimes they love you in direct defiance of what YOU think of you.  I swear, the hardest thing to accept is that we are lovable despite all of our flaws and our failures and the mess that we are inside.  And every person who loves us…THESE people who we are memorializing who loved us…they gave loud testimony to the worth that was inherent in our being and to the beauty that we possess even when we deny it.  Love is a revolutionary act, and the fact that these beloved that we are honoring loved us…that they TRULY, DEEPLY loved us…was amazing, and life-changing, and life-giving, and live-sustaining.  Maybe a life is best remembered in love.

Do this in remembrance of me.

When I was in studying at Claremont School of Theology, I had a New Testament professor…Greg Riley.  One day in class he said that we might just have the Last Supper all wrong, that we may have interpreted it incorrectly for hundreds of years.  He said to the class “We think that Jesus meant that we should remember Him when we eat bread and drink wine…that we should gather around the table and do this together and remember Him.  But what if Jesus meant: do THIS (breaking motion) in remembrance of me?  Do THIS (poured out motion) in remembrance of me?  What if He wanted us to allow ourselves to be broken as He was broken and poured out as He was poured out…in remembrance of Him?”  I think about that a lot.  I think that these saints before us today already had that figured out and spent their lives living it out. 

I’m a counselor, and in graduate school I was taught that we come into this world a tabula rasa…a blank slate. I knew that to be a lie the minute I heard it, because if there is a slate that is me, a slate that is YOU, that slate is carved with the image of Jesus Christ…an image we bear that cannot be erased. It can be covered up, but it cannot be erased.  And anywhere we are…anywhere where we try to leave our mark…evidence that we were here in the world…what we leave behind is the image of the living Christ that is stamped into our very being.  That is what the people who we remember today brought into the world.  But they didn’t stop there.

Because these saints that we remember today did not live meager lives, going forth only to do just a little, and get by.  These saints LIVED in the name of Jesus Christ.  They THRIVED in the name of Jesus Christ.  They SERVED and they GAVE in the name of Jesus Christ.  These saints lived a life that truly remembered and honored the One who is their Savior.  They left their mark.  The image of Christ that they leave behind is imprinted on us, and their willingness to be broken and be poured out in Jesus’ name has left their imprint on their family, on their friends, on their Church and their community. There is no way you can miss the mark they have left behind!  Praise be to God!

If we are going to remember them, then let us tell their stories and laugh because they brought us great joy!  Let us remember their wisdom, because they guided us well and led us on the paths that lead to righteousness.  And then let us live in imitation of how they lived, leaving behind the image of the living Christ wherever we go.  Let us love in their memory…let us love in a revolutionary way…loving one another and our neighbor, loving our enemy and the people we fear the most and despise the most…loving beyond borders and beyond all reasonability.  But most of all, let us live like they lived so that when we die, we will be remembered as they are being remembered today: as ones who allowed themselves to be broken and poured out in the name of One was broken and poured out for us all.

Do THIS in remembrance of them.  There is no better way to remember a life. Amen.

 

 

Deserters, Betrayers, and Liars!

12 On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, “Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” 13 So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, 14 and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 15 He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.”16 So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.

17 When it was evening, he came with the twelve. 18 And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” 19 They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, “Surely, not I?” 20 He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me. 21 For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.”

22 While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” 23 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. 24 He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. 25 Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” 26 When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.27 And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written,

‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’

28 But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” 29 Peter said to him, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” 30 Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” 31 But he said vehemently, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And all of them said the same.

Mark 14:12-31

We all know the story of the Last Supper. At least we think we do.  The meaning that this meal has taken on for us—the fact that it has become a ritual and the holy meal of Communion—I don’t think that’s what it was for the Disciples that night.  I honestly don’t think that’s what it was for Jesus either.  I think maybe the disciples had a good idea that something big was about to happen, and of course Jesus knew exactly what was about to happen.  But for all of them, the meal that night—the meal many of us with re-enact tonight—that meal was a holiday meal.  It was a Passover meal shared between thirteen friends…thirteen really good friends.

Jesus had gathered his 12 best friends in the world for one last dinner before he had to face the cross.  And it was the Passover feast, and so it was going to be one heck of a dinner: lots of ritual, lots of meaningful things to remember from their history as a Jewish people, and of course, incredibly tasty food!  Jesus was there with his Disciples to celebrate the things that mattered to them: faith and family, even when that family is made of friends.

So…why was Judas there?

You have to ask that question, because in general, we Christians don’t like Judas very much.  He was a vile betrayer!  Judas was one of the twelve disciples. He had been there from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  He knew Jesus as well as any of the other disciples.  Jesus trusted him enough to let Judas be in charge of the money that was donated to support Jesus’s ministry, the money that fed Jesus and the disciples and kept them all together so that they could minister to people all over Judea.  And after all that, Judas turned around and betrayed Jesus.

So…why was Judas there?

You have to admit, it’s kind of weird to invite the guy who is about to betray you and guarantee that you will die a horrible death on the cross to a lavish holiday dinner that you are about to share with your best friends.

As Christians, we tend to revile Judas. I don’t know about you, but I have always thought of him as a smiling, slimy Yes-Man.  You know, that guy who smiles at the boss while he does his own thing under the table; the guy who makes it look like he’s totally committed to the vision we are all pursuing while lining his own pockets at our expense. The thing is that we get to form our opinions of Judas in the aftermath; in other words, the things we know about Judas are the things that got found out after everything was over and the betrayal was revealed.  The things we know about Judas start with our awareness that he betrayed Jesus and then we work backwards from there.

Jesus, on the other hand, met Judas before it all began.  Jesus got to know Judas the exact same way we get to know all of our friends: we meet them unaware of who they are and come to like them because of who we perceive them to be.  We hang out with them and laugh at their jokes, put up with their temper, and lean on their character when we are feeling low and incapable.  In other words, Jesus got to know Judas just like we get to know everyone we eventually become friends with: in real time, not knowing how the story will end.

Yet Scripture tells us that by the time that Jesus was sitting with the Disciples at the Last Supper he knew that Judas would betray him.  He knew that Judas was the one that would turn him in to the authorities and get him crucified.  He even says so right during the Last Supper.  It’s in the Scripture at the beginning of this blog post.  Jesus knew that Judas was going to betray him, and yet he invited Judas to the dinner.

It baffles the mind.  Why invite the man who is going to betray you to the last meal you will ever eat with your friends?

The answer is right there, in the question.  Jesus invited Judas to the Last Supper because Jesus invited his…friends. Judas was His friend.  That’s why he was at the table with Jesus.  Because Judas one of Jesus’ best friends in the world.  It almost doesn’t make sense.

But it does make sense.

After all, Peter was at the table too.

Peter—that guy who was going to deny Jesus three times.  Jesus knew that was coming too.  Mark 14:30 says “Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.”  

Jesus sat there through the entire dinner with Judas and Peter knowing that both of them would betray Him before the night was over.  And you might think “Yeah, but Judas got Jesus killed, and Peter…he went out and did good things to create the Kingdom after Jesus was killed. Peter became a great evangelist who created the Church and Jesus knew that was going to happen…Jesus knew that too.”  And that makes it look like Judas is a vile betrayer and Peter isn’t all that bad.

And I say to you—if Jesus knew what was going to happen with Peter after Jesus’ death, wouldn’t Jesus also know that Judas would die because he betrayed Jesus? Wouldn’t Jesus know that Judas would die alone, more alone than Jesus did…after all, Jesus’ mother Mary and Mary Magdalene stood at the foot of the cross so that Jesus wouldn’t be alone when he died.  Judas? Judas was alone. There was no one there for Judas when he died.  No family, no friends, no comfort.  And Jesus knew it was coming.  Mark 14:21 says “For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” 

I’m betting that Jesus knew that the disciples would never forgive Judas; that no one, not even any of us would ever forgive Judas.  We revile him for what he did.  He betrayed Jesus.

But so did Peter.  So did every last disciple!  They all ran when the Centurions came and Jesus knew they would run.  Mark 14:26-31:

26 When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.27 And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written,

‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’

28 But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” 29 Peter said to him, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” 30Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” 31 But he said vehemently, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And all of them said the same.”

They all swore they would stay with Jesus and they all ran. Every. Last. One.  They all deserted Jesus and left Him to be accused of things He didn’t do by people who hated Him.  They left Jesus to be beaten and humiliated by Roman centurions while He listened for the cock to crow twice so He could know that Peter had finished denying him.  The disciples ran and Jesus died.

Jesus ate his last meal on earth with his 12 best friends in the world…deserters, betrayers, and liars…every last one of them.

And that is why you and I are invited to this table tonight and every month when we celebrate this meal.  Because when Jesus shares a meal, He shares it with His very best friends in the world.  You and I…all of us…are invited to this specific meal, the very last one that Jesus will have on earth before He dies.  And we are here because Jesus invited us…because we are His very best friends in the world…deserters, betrayers, and liars…every last one of us.

We are just like the disciples were. We are just like Judas. We betray Jesus every day. We ask Him to be a savior that fits us for Heaven and heals our illnesses and relieves our woes even as we pray for Him to keep some particular candidate that we don’t like out of the President’s office because we don’t like them.  Seriously?! That’s why Jesus died?  So we can have good politics?  But isn’t that what Judas wanted: a political Jesus?  Someone who would come into Israel and set things straight; make the world according to God’s will.  That’s all Judas wanted.  Admit it, we kind of want that too.  And we lean on Jesus when we need Him, we call on Jesus to lead us through the darkest night, but then don’t really like it when Jesus makes claims on our time and on our money and on our spending habits and on the ways that we express ourselves.  We want a convenient Jesus was can turn to in times of need, but then when Jesus turns to us because He needs us to pony up and stand with Him in a difficult time, suddenly we go all Peter on Him and deny Jesus again…and again…and again.  We see Jesus taking us to that point in His ministry where things get really tough, that moment when we are asked to stand with Him when standing up with Him means that we will lose power and lose face in public.  When standing up for Jesus might mean that we have to be the underdog and love our enemy when our enemy is ready to kill us…and at that moment we desert Jesus just like the rest of His disciples.  In the end, we find ourselves in that “throwing stones in a glass house” space.  We can’t shake our fingers at the disciples because we are just like them. We can’t throw any stones at Judas because we ARE Judas.

And that is exactly why we’re invited to the table today and every time that the Church celebrates Communion, the Holy Eucharist.  Because Jesus just wants this last meal on earth with as many of His best friends that He can fit in the room…deserters, betrayers, and liars. We are His best friends in the world, and He wouldn’t have it any other way.

So take some time to celebrate the Last Supper on this night…the night before Jesus gives His life to save your life and mine.  Our Savior wants to spend as much time with His best friends as He can possibly have.  We owe it to Him, so let’s break this bread and drink this cup in remembrance of Him.  Amen.

 

Happy Sheep Ranting (nothing like Good Will Hunting, I promise)

Matthew 25:31-40
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”

Would you mind being patient with me for a moment?  I need to rant just a little.

I am sick to death of attending worship services.  I am tired of being told that I need to worship the Lord and praise Him for His mighty works in some prescribed way on Sunday morning or Wednesday evening.  I am also weary of all the talk about worship you hear from church leaders.  I am weary of hearing people talk about how we need to have more passionate worship.  I am sick of church leaders discussing how to increase the quality of our worship so that we can increase the number of people attending worship.  I don’t want to hear one. more. word. about. WORSHIP!!

Am I making myself clear here?  I am done with worship.

I guess that I am struggling with the theological implications of what it means to worship God.  I struggle with the theological implications of having a God that wants to be worshipped. If God is my father, then I think my experiences as a parent tell me a lot about God’s experiences with me.  As a parent, I just want my kids to love me…not worship me.  It’s not just that I don’t deserve worship (because I don’t)…it’s that worship doesn’t do anything for the relationship between me and my kids.  I don’t want to have my kids ‘adore’ me…I just want to be loved and to have them be in a relationship with me. Heck, I want my kids to want to be in a relationship with me and not feel like it’s an obligation.  If God is my father…yeah, that again…it just makes sense that He might feel the same way. The older I get, the less sense worship makes to me, and the less I relate to worship, at least worship in the traditional sense of worship.

This last week has been a week filled with family and friends.  Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were huge celebrations, with 19 people cramming into my mom’s house to celebrate dinner as a ‘framily’.  The framily is what my mom calls her blood relatives along with the friends who are so close that they might as well be family.  The next day I had 10 framily members at my house for presents and dinner.  Then yesterday we got to visit with more framily when my godson Reid and his father Dave came through Phoenix on their way to 29 Palms military base where Reid is stationed.  After my yoga class this morning I stopped by to hang out at a good friend’s house for a while.  She had made soup for my mom who is about to have back surgery and I stopped by to pick it up and chat. Later on I caught up with another friend while looking up medical information for her online; half the time we giggled about stupid stuff and the other half of the time we discussed really serious stuff.  It’s kind of nice to talk to someone and know that you can giggle and weep in the space of only five minutes and be certain that things will still be cool when you’re done.

Why am I telling you this?  Because…after each visit with my framily, I found myself praising God and thanking Him for the blessings of family and friends, for the joy and peace that I feel when I’m with them, and for the freedom to laugh and cry and find comfort and support in those relationships.  I am acutely aware of how deeply blessed I am; just how much God is present in my life through the presence of these people.  I feel God when I am with them because they love me and I love them back…and God is in that love, every time.  If God produced metrics and tracked how often and how much I praise Him, God would be able to tell you that I praise Him long and loud after hanging out with the people I love.

And that’s where I suddenly start thinking about ‘worship’ again.  Because I enjoy the beautiful music, the corporate prayer, and the great sermons I hear at church, but nothing really transports me into the joy of God the way that relationships can.  And it isn’t just close relationships with my friends and family, either.  I am one of the pastors at my church and I spend a lot of time with the people who attend services there either simply catching up with them or listening as they share their current challenges and sorrows and then taking time to pray with them.  I am not close friends with each and every person at my church, mostly because there are so many people there that I wouldn’t have enough time in the day to be friends with that many people. I’m definitely a people person, but that’s pushing it, you know?  I’m know that Kim Kardashian has over 1 million ‘friends’ on Facebook, but I’m betting she doesn’t have time to get personal with each and every one of them, and if she does…well…she is married to Yeezus.  Maybe he’s helping out somehow.  Yeah.

Anyway…

Even in the small encounters I have with people at church, I am uplifted and feel the joy of Christ.  I come home from church each Sunday high on the joy that comes from serving the family of God, blessed to be allowed to be with them in their triumphs and trials, and blessed to find my best friends among the people who call God their father and Jesus their friend and savior.

I wonder sometimes if God isn’t more interested in seeing His children come together and love on each other than He is in hearing us sing songs to Him and praise Him in worship.  There are times when I wonder if God isn’t a lot like any parent whose idea of a great Christmas gift is to have all of their kids come home for a visit at the same time so that they can bask in the glow of all that love and laughter.  There is something about having the whole family together that makes everyone feel stronger and life feel easier and sweeter.

I wonder if God feels on Sunday mornings much like I felt watching my family and friends hang out together on Christmas Eve.  I took in the scene, watching all 19 of us laughing and sharing stories, and I felt deeply peaceful and filled with joy.  There was so much love!  So much laughter! Even when there were a few tears (because life is difficult even in the best of times) there was comfort and peace and so much love. God must look at moments like this and think “This is why I created humanity! To love each other like I love them…to love Me and be loved by Me in return.”

The passage of scripture that opened this blog entry is frequently quoted and often the subject of sermons.  What we do for others we also do for Jesus Christ himself…and of course Jesus wants us to give not just to the people we love but also to the people we don’t even know and don’t love, to people that we wish we didn’t have to know, and to people who will never really want to know us“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matt 25:40) In almost every sermon you hear on this passage, the preacher will focus on caring for the people on the edges of society: the marginalized; the immigrants; the widows and orphans; the disabled; the veterans; the homeless.  Absolutely! I couldn’t agree more with that interpretation.

But I want you to also hear this interpretation:  true worship is not about singing songs or reciting scripture passages or remembering to thank God for what you have been given in a litany of prayer on Sunday morning.  It is about coming together in love and friendship, loving each other freely and in doing so, loving God.  Can you imagine what it feels like for God to watch us gather together and laugh with each other, love on one another, cry with one another, and pray for one another? Each prayer, each hug, every single word of comfort, every moment of laughter—each and every one is actually shared with Christ Himself.  These aren’t casual moments and they aren’t trivial encounters.  There is no such thing as casually laughing with Jesus.  Believe me if Jesus showed up in your living room this afternoon to share some holiday cheer with you it would not be something you would think of as casual or trivial; you would remember that moment as a pivotal, life changing encounter!  You would also remember that moment as one where you asked yourself if you were hallucinating or if the world was coming to its end…but you’d get over that soon enough.  I’m guessing when Jesus says “Fear not!” that his proclamation pretty much ends whatever panic attack you started having when he walked through the door (or the wall…I’ve heard he does that.)

Coming back to where I started, I don’t want to hear about worship—I don’t want to discuss how to make it passionate, or how to draw more people to attend.  You might as well ask how you get more people to come and visit you in your home, or how to be more passionate in your relationship with your kids (doesn’t THAT sound weird and disturbing?)  Don’t ask those questions because they aren’t useful and they won’t change anything.

Stop asking about worship and start doing what Jesus told you to do.  Love one another.  Love one another. Love. One. Another…just like God loves you, and that means unabashedly, without limits, overmuch.  Infuse your love with laughter and joy, with tears and honest sharing of your pain, and with a true commitment to serving one another.  You want passionate worship?  Start there…with LOVE.  You want more people attending ‘worship’?  Love.  Start with love.  You can’t go wrong with love. Love is passionate and it will draw people to you.  No matter what you do, you can’t go wrong with love.

I’m done ranting now.  Thanks for listening.  I feel better already.  I’m going to go get ready for this evening’s festivities because the framily is getting together for worship, so to speak.  We won’t do much singing, and we might not do any praying, but we will love on one another quite a bit and where there is love happening there is worship.

Happy New Year and many blessings in 2016!

Christmas Trees In Hell

Luke 1:29-56

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.  And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.”

I spoke with a good friend today who is going through hell.  If it can go wrong, it has gone wrong.  Serious problems with her health.  Idiots at the doctor’s office that pay no attention to what they are doing, making the same mistakes over and over and over and causing delays in her treatment. Serious problems with her kids. Idiots in the school system who seem to think that parents can solve all the problems their child has if only they will try hard enough, even when the problems are beyond the parent’s control (hello, genetics!)  Problems with her house, that like all problems with housing take a good deal of money to solve.  Problem upon problem, and none of them have easy solutions.  I called her after reading her Caring Bridge journal entry.** All of my friend’s journal entries have shared her frustration with navigating the medical system, but this is the second journal entry in a row that has been filled with serious signs of despair.

I have to admit that it’s tough listening to someone whose problems are so big that there are no cute solutions to suggest; it’s hard to hang in there when there are no resources to offer that will help the situation. After a while, you realize that the best thing you can do is be present in the midst of hell.  There are quite a few people who would pay good money to avoid hell in their own life and do everything they can to escape reminders that hell is real and active in other people’s lives; this is how I came to realize that there is value in simply hanging out with a good friend whose life has hellish places.  When half the people you talk to turn tail and run from the hell in your life, hell starts seeming like a very lonely place to live.  Having someone to sit with you in hell, while it doesn’t change the hell at all, makes hell that much more bearable.

Except that hell is never as bearable as you’d like it to be.

Today’s scripture bears witness to that.

Today’s scripture passage is about Elizabeth and Mary; the mothers of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth.  One was ridiculously young, unmarried and pregnant. The other was way, way too old to admit to having sex, let alone admit to being pregnant.  Elizabeth is estimated to be 88 years old at the time that she conceived John.  I have no idea if that was true, but she was old enough that when the angel Gabriel declared to her husband Zechariah that they were going to have a child, Zechariah replied “I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” (Luke 1:18b)  Zechariah may have just as well have said “Look man, Viagra hasn’t been invented and let’s just say that my wife doesn’t need tampons anymore.”  The fact was that Zechariah and his wife had prayed to conceive a child for many, many years without any luck; at this point both Elizabeth and Zechariah had given up. After this many years stuck in the hell of infertility, they had built a house there and given up on anything ever changing.

God loves moments like that, because those are the moments when His intervention yields the greatest change.

The moment when you think everything is broken. The moment when what is happening isn’t supposed to be happening and you just want to die.  The moment when what isn’t happening was supposed to be done a long time ago, and you are so humiliated that you want to fade into the woodwork. Moments when everyone knows that everything in your life is wrong.  There you are: you are in hell, and there isn’t a damn thing you can do to get out.

But you’re wrong, and God knows it.  God loves moments like that, in fact, God excels at working through moments like that.

And this is the whole point of today’s scripture.  You see, today’s scripture is the moment when the young, unmarried, and embarrassingly pregnant Mary comes to visit her old, decrepit, and embarrassingly pregnant aunt Elizabeth. The two women, neither of whom should be pregnant, greet each other with joy and sing songs of praise to God for what neither woman ever expected could happen.

Luke 1:41-49

“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’  And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.’”

Doesn’t it sound like Mary and Elizabeth are happy beyond words? And they are…for this moment.

Despair and hell are places where we wait for moments like the one Elizabeth and Mary had together, moments when everything that is going wrong is placed in a framework where it all makes sense, where our suffering and our struggle begins to come together in a coherent picture that no longer seems to be filled with random tragedies but instead is filled with events coordinated by God’s own hand to bring us to a place that we didn’t believe actually existed.

These kind of moments are never fun while you wait for them and they often aren’t fun when they are happening.  They gain their meaning only in retrospect because at the moment they happen, you’re still kind of in hell.

Think about it: Mary is about 13 years old, unmarried, and pregnant.  The standard wisdom of the day is that Joseph should have refused to marry her and she should have been taken outside the city gates and stoned to death.  Her whole family is humiliated, and her husband looks stupider than stupid for not kicking her to the curb.  Mary looks like a tainted woman (and that’s saying it nicely.)

Elizabeth is old.  Maybe she isn’t 88 years old, but really…would 78 be better?  68?  58 and pregnant?  How about 48 and pregnant?  No matter how you look at it, at Elizabeth’s age, pregnancy is a problem.  It isn’t just that she’s so old that she’s not supposed to be having sex anymore.  It’s that she’s so old that carrying a child is a major problem.  She’s at risk for all sorts of things going wrong, including the death of both the mother and the child.  And if she lives through the birth, then she has to raise a child…and HOW old is she?  Can you imagine chasing a toddler full-time–not as a grandparent where you send them home at the end of the day but as a parent, where your raise them 24/7? Can you imagine dealing with a toddler at 48 or 58 years old?  How about at 78?  The idea of chasing a toddler at 88 years old is beyond imagination to me.  Elizabeth isn’t just embarrassed about being pregnant, she’s terrified of what this pregnancy will do to her old body and what raising a child will demand of her old body.

God has created what appears to be an untenable situation for both Mary and Elizabeth, and yet Christians read these passages at Christmas and we tend to paint them as happy, sweet moments of joy.  NO!! The rejoicing that happens in Luke 1:41-55 is nothing more than tiny little sparks of joy that flared up in the midst of what appeared to be very close to hell for both Elizabeth and Mary.

This turns out to actually be the greater promise of the Christmas season: that joy and peace and salvation appear as sparks in the midst of hell itself. When John and Jesus were being born to Elizabeth and Mary, so much of what was happening was all wrong. The government and the economy in Israel were bad.  Everyone was registering so that they could be taxed (yippee!)  Neither Elizabeth or Mary was supposed to be pregnant according to what was acceptable in Israeli culture. Neither of them was pregnant at an opportune time in their own lives.  For both of them their pregnancy was life-threatening (Mary due to Israelite law, Elizabeth due to her age.)  For both of them their pregnancy had the possibility of ruining their lives. Yet God used these pregnancies, endured in the midst of hellish times, to create salvation for all people, everywhere.

God tends to work best in the blackest of nights.  God’s hand is most visible when the night is so dark as to be a total blackout.  God excels in rescuing us from the most terrifying situations and the most horrific places.

Why am I willing to sit with my friend in the midst of her personal hell?  Not because I am such a good person—that is a ridiculous notion. I am no better than anyone else.  I am willing to sit with my friend in the midst of her personal hell because this is where God always begins to do His best work and I just want to have a court-side seat when He starts to turn things around for my friend and her family so I can join in the rejoicing.

The promise of Christmas is that no matter how much hell you have endured, God will take a single spark of hope and turn it into salvation so strong that everyone is swept up in the joy of it and is transformed totally.

God be praised as we wait for the birth of the One that change all things to glory.  Amen.

** Caring Bridge is a great way for people with serious illnesses to update everyone they love about their illness and their treatment with just a single journal entry.

Because I won’t be writing next week (so much to do before Christmas comes) I leave with you one of my favorite scripture passages.  We sang this every morning at Claremont School of Theology as we chanted our morning prayers.  It brought tears to my eyes every time I sang it, and it brings tears to my eyes now.  It is meant to give hope to those who are still suffering in hellish places.

Luke 1: 78-79

“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Merry Christmas!  May the joy of the birth of the One Who Is To Come overwhelm you and end all your suffering and pain and lift you up until you praise the name of the Most High God.

Facepalm Jesus and the Teeny, Tiny, Father

Last week’s topic was fear; I guess this week’s topic will be fear as well.  You see, I start with the scriptures for this week out of the lectionary (which guides the scripture readings and preaching in most mainline denominations) and the majority of them deal with fear.

I am a counselor, and I am forever telling people not to judge their emotions.  There is nothing wrong with fear…as long as fear doesn’t become the thing that drives you.

Fear is an extremely powerful emotion, and a powerful motivator. This is why torture is so effective.  Not only are you consumed by pain when your captors are harming you, but you are consumed by fear of what they are capable of doing next when they are with you, consumed with fear that you will be killed before they are done, and when they finally leave you alone in your cell, you are consumed with fear of what they will do when they return.

Lest you think I am overstating the case, let me remind you of what fear does to ordinary people in everyday situations.  Fear of being alone is what keeps people in bad relationships, even relationships where there is violence.  Fear of harm is what causes parents to become overprotective.  Fear that their child will fail at life is what drives helicopter parents.  Fear of failure is what keeps so many people from trying anything new. Fear of looking stupid keeps people from speaking up. Fear of disease often keeps men away from the doctor (not that they won’t have a disease if they don’t go to the doctor, but they won’t know that they have the disease.)  Finally, fear drives codependents to save their beloved addicts over and over and over despite the growing evidence of the damage caused by the addiction.

Fear.  I’m a counselor and you can trust me when I say that I spend a lot of time dealing with fear and how it drives people to unhealthy behaviors.  I remember my mother telling me that a little healthy fear was a good thing and that it would keep me from doing stupid things…and then telling me in the same breath that too much fear was destructive and would keep me from enjoying my own life.

The thing that many people don’t know about fear is that it drives another emotion: anger.  You see, anger is a secondary emotion, in other words, it is an emotion that arises to help us take action when we are confronted with emotions that can leave us feeling helpless, emotions like fear, sorrow, and pain.  We often can’t do anything to eliminate the things that cause us legitimate fear, like disease, or the threat of loss.  Nor can we eliminate the things in life that cause us sorrow and pain, like losing a loved one.  Most of the time we just deal with our fear, sorrow and pain and skip using anger to help us, since a little time spent processing our fear, sorrow, and pain can actually alleviate the fear, sorrow, or pain entirely.

Not that I want to bad-mouth anger: anger comes in handy when we need to take action.  Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) was created by a mom who lost her daughter to a drunk driver who had four prior DUIs.  She knew that very little was being done to prevent repeat drunk driving offenses, and she allowed her sorrow and pain to become anger…and she let her anger spur her into productive action.  The National Institute of Health states that “Since its inception, MADD has been successful in the enactment of more than 1000 new laws at both the local and national levels, including minimum drinking age, server liability laws and sobriety check points. A particularly effective measure was the production and dissemination of a widely published, annual comparative legislative “Rating of the States/Provinces”. In fact, MADD appears to have exhibited a stronger influence than the Breathalyzer legislation in reducing drinking-driver fatalities.”  This is what anger is for: to get us moving, to make us change things, to help us turn our fear, sorrow, and pain into something productive and good.  This is effective anger; it is anger worth having and worth using.

However, fear can lead to other kinds of anger that aren’t productive at all, like racism.  Fear leads us into the kind of anger that causes Donald Trump to proclaim that he wants to bar Muslims from entering the country and that he wants to register the Muslims that are already here.  Trump will tell you that Muslims want to harm people in the US.  But we’ve thought like this before about other people who scared us…and we were wrong then too.

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum states that In late 1938, 125,000 applicants lined up outside US consulates hoping to obtain 27,000 visas under the existing immigration quota. By June 1939, the number of applicants had increased to over 300,000. Most visa applicants were unsuccessful.”  The US turned away the SS St. Louis, a ship carrying 908 Jewish refugees; later 288 of the passengers died in the German death camps; of the 620 who did not die in the Holocaust, only 366 survived the war itself.  Six million Jews died in the Nazi Concentration Camps; what did we have to fear from those people? Yet it was our fear that caused us to turn them away and let them die.

During WWII, the United States relocated and imprisoned between 110,000 and 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry.  These people were forced out of their homes in the Pacific states and relocated into crowded camps in the interior of the US.  Many of these people lost their homes, possessions, and businesses when they were forced to relocate.  The interred Japanese people were often forced to live in squalor, living in buildings formerly used to house livestock. The Commission on Wartime Relocation of Civilians (1997) stated that “The forced relocation and incarceration has been determined to have resulted more from racism and discrimination among people on the West Coast, rather than any military danger posed by the Japanese Americans.”  These same people eventually were released; they moved into communities all over the US and there is no history of violent action by them against US citizens either before or after the war.  What did we have to fear from these people?  Yet our fear caused us to take away their freedom and treat them as our enemy.

In the years since these two actions, most US citizens have realized that our fear-driven actions were not only unnecessary, but that they were unkind and that our actions did not reflect the values that our country supposedly espouses, values like compassion and cooperation.

So…what does this have to do with you and what does this have to do with God?

It must have something to do with God, or the lectionary scriptures for this week wouldn’t all seem to focused in the same direction.

 Zephaniah 3:15b-19a
“The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. “

This directly says that when God is in our midst we should not fear disaster, that our God will remove disaster from us and we will not bear reproach for what disasters have happened in our past.  God also promises to deal with our oppressors.  Surely God is greater than ISIS, isn’t He?  At least, my God is greater than ISIS, greater than the evil they can do, greater than their rhetoric of hatred.  If your God is not, may my God bless you richly until you don’t fear ISIS anymore, for all things are in my God’s hands.

Isaiah 12:2-6
“Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”

You might say “It’s easy for you not to fear—you haven’t lost anyone to terrorism.”  You are correct, I have not lost anyone to terrorism.  But I have a daughter who was addicted to drugs when she was only 15, and I could only put her in treatment—I couldn’t save her and I couldn’t guarantee that she would become sober and stay sober.  I have helped several parents bury their children after an overdose ended years of addiction.  When my daughter was addicted, I didn’t lie to myself about what was possible.  All I could do was rely on God to take care of my family and ask God to guide my actions.  It’s not terrorism, but if you’ve ever had a child lost in the grip of drugs, you know how terrifying it is.  I understand fear; I understand helplessness.  I also understand that my God is still bigger than anything I might be facing and I trust Him to lead me in the ways of peace.

Philippians 4:4-7
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

When the Apostle Paul talks about the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, he is not talking about the peace that comes when you have an arsenal of guns to protect your family.  He is not talking about the peace that secure finances and retirement funds can provide.  Paul is not talking about the peace that comes when your country is barring the scary immigrants from entering the country and taking up arms against people in other countries.  The peace of God that surpasses all understanding occurs when none of those things are present, when all indications say that you should be consumed by fear, when everything in front of you screams ‘Duck and cover!’  That is a peace that passes all understanding, and nothing you or I can do will create a peace like that.  It only comes from God and is granted when you place your requests before the Lord with prayer and supplication and thanksgiving.  The peace that passes all understanding comes from placing your trust in the only thing that does not fail.  This peace is not easily achieved and often must be granted again and again as petty (and not so petty) fears drive our peace away.

Luke 3:7-11, 18
“John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

The peace that passes all understanding also demands that you share what good you have with others who have none.  We can’t share what we have until we have no fear.  No one gives away the very things they have worked so hard to get when they fear that they do not have enough to care for their own family.  Charitable giving, inviting refugees into your country, helping others…all of these things spring from an attitude of gratitude and the awareness that we have more than enough to share.  If your heart is filled with fear there will be very little space for gratitude and even less space for a sense of abundance.

In case that wasn’t enough Scripture for one day, let me add a little more:

Matthew 8:26   “And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm.”

Regarding a demon that the disciples just could not conquer…sound like ISIS to you??

Matthew 17:18-20  “And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?”  He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

There are a million other examples, but it all boils down to this:

When your God is big enough to conquer anything, you have nothing to fear.  So, if you are afraid of ISIS…if you are afraid of the Syrian refugees…if you are afraid that Obama is coming to take your guns and you won’t be able to protect your family…if you are AFRAID, ask yourself:

When did the God I say I worship become so small and powerless?

When did my God get so small?