Sunday, June 30, 2013

beyond the manger--a sermon for "christmas and a half"

Rev. Teri Peterson
Beyond the Manger
Luke 1.26-38, Matthew 1.18-25, Luke 2.1-14, Luke 2.15-38, Matthew 2.1-21
30 June 2013, Singing Faith 4, Christmas and a Half

(we're singing basically all the christmas carols in the hymnal and reading the entire infancy narrative from both Luke and Matthew, so the message is straight-to-the-point...)

It feels a little weird to hear these readings and songs in the middle of the year. We have so identified Christmas with winter, that we sort of forget about the whole Incarnation Thing the rest of the year. Of course, in the Southern Hemisphere, where a majority of Christians now live, Christmas happens in the summer, so the traditional carols must feel weird to them every year!

So often when we hear the beginnings of the Christmas story, we start to unconsciously tune out. We know the story so well, and it gives us all kinds of warm fuzzy feelings to remember children’s pageants of years past. We sing the carols with gusto without stopping to wonder just what we’re saying when we sing “you better watch out, you better not cry” or “no more let sin and sorrow reign” or “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Christmas is all about how we feel—and having it in winter, surrounded by parties and presents, is part of that feeling.

Yet when we read the full story, noticing that Matthew and Luke tell us very different perspectives on Jesus’ birth, and looking at more than just the stable, we find that there’s more to the Incarnation than warm fuzzy feelings. In fact, there’s a serious dearth of warm fuzzies. When God takes on flesh and comes to live among us, it’s not to make us feel good about ourselves, but to change the world. So we find old barren yet pregnant women and unmarried pregnant teenagers singing together of God’s goodness. We find foreign astrologers walking hundreds of miles to look for a baby. For the second time in the biblical story we hear of a king whose fear of losing power is so great that he’ll murder children. Once we look at the picture beyond the manger, the Christmas cheer rapidly dissipates.

And then of course we remember: this is not the whole of the Greatest Story Ever Told. It’s just the beginning of the story. An overture, if you will. We begin to see the themes that will mark Jesus’ life and ministry, a foreshadowing of the work he will do in his life and in his death. People who should be on the outside are brought in. Disgraced outcasts are central to the story. The grace of God will call to people beyond the boundaries of nation, race, religion, background, and economy. And people will do anything to maintain the status quo and keep their grasp of power, even in the face of God in their midst.

The story continues even now—God’s love is made flesh not just in Jesus but in the body of Christ, gathered to hear good news and sent out to be good news, to incarnate grace. Not just to make us feel good, not just to kneel at the manger and ignore the rest of the picture, but to change the world. Beyond the manger is a world desperate for hope, for peace, for love, for grace. Jesus grew out of that manger and headed out into that world. So should the Body of Christ. When we keep Christmas to warm fuzzy midwinter sparkles, we miss out on our calling.

Which is why we, with Mary, sing of the great reversal that speaks hope even into the darkest of situations:
‘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 for ever.’

May it be so. Amen.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Friday Five: ready for a break!

Over at RevGalBlogPals, Deb offers us a way to grab a little rest in the midst of the crazy. Just when I thought summer was going to be calmer, June was a whirlwind with so few nights at home that I barely remember what my kitchen looks like. Sounds like Deb had a similar month!
Whoosh! My calendar is packed. And June is almost gone! There's the old saying, "Bad luck comes in threes" but I've decided that "Busy-ness comes in fives!" So this week we'll take things five-at-a-time. 

Tell me:
 1. Five flowers you'd like in a bouquet or in your garden: 
I'd love a bouquet of sunflowers, gerber daisies, roses, tulips, and perhaps a calla lily (the only lily I can be around without dying of pollen, apparently). I think sunflowers are so lovely, they just make me happy. And tulips. Roses are the only flowers that smell good. So, there you go.

2. Five books you want to read (or re-read):
OMG, just five? Well, two are sitting on the ottoman, waiting to be read before the library deadline: Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel--historical fiction of the Henry VIII era, told through the perspective of Cromwell. I'm in the middle of the 3rd Game of Thrones book, and several work books. Things I'd love to just stop and read again: Lamb and all of Harry Potter. (Yes, I cheated. oh well.)

 3. Five places you want to visit:
I've been plotting about the possibility of a trip to Europe sometime in the relatively near future, so I'm daydreaming about Paris, Geneva, Wittenberg Cathedral, Berlin, and Prague.
I've also been pining after another trip to Rome, a visit to Australia (perhaps to do a real-life Camp NaNo with Kirsty!), and daydreaming about the Woodstock Inn in Vermont, which is probably the nicest place I've ever stayed in my entire life, and they keep sending emails. LOL.

 4. Five people you'd invite for tea/coffee/beer and pizza: 
Sticking with those currently living, at time of writing:
Michelle Obama
Jon Stewart
Joss Whedon
Nelson Mandela (gonna have to hurry, but it will be epic)
any of the hosts from the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast.
(this would be the most interesting pizza-and-wine party in the history of ever.)

 5. Five chores or tasks you'd gladly give to someone else: 
litterbox duty
writing meeting agendas
checking the bank balance
can I list unloading the dishwasher as separate from doing the dishes?
(the fact that I found this list difficult speaks to two facts: 1. that I pay someone to vacuum and clean the bathrooms once a month. 2. I don't gladly give control of many arenas to other people.)

 BONUS: A five ingredient recipe! (This is harder than it sounds!)

spinach enchiladas (6 ingredients if you eat dairy...) :
saute spinach, mushrooms, garlic together until soft.
cover bottom of baking dish with enchilada sauce.
spoon spinach/mushroom mixture into soft flour tortilla. Cheese is optional--if you want it, put it in now.
roll up and place seam-side-down in baking dish. When dish is full, pour enchilada sauce over the top. Put a few mushroom slices for decoration on the top of each enchilada. or shredded cheese, if you so desire.

bake about 20-ish minutes, until bubbly. serve with refried beans on the side. mmmmm....

Thursday, June 27, 2013

degeneration and regeneration

Recently I went to a lecture by Niall Ferguson (that's pronounced like Neil), with these words in the title. Degeneration and Regeneration. It was ostensibly a lecture about how our institutions in the US have declined (maybe even disintegrated), and how the come-back is also happening. Not "how" as in "this happened..." but "how" as in literally what steps took place that brought us here.

His number one point was that this societal/cultural/institutional disintegration is happening because of a "massive breach in the social contract between generations." He talked about how at some point, we stopped caring (or at least our policies and most of our actions imply that we stopped caring)  about those who will come after us and thought primarily about what was good for us now. This wasn't even entirely about generations as we normally conceive of them--Boomers and Xers and Millennials (though there was some talk in this area)--
but as in "those of us alive now" forgetting that what we have was at least partially built by those who came before, and that we should be thinking about what we're building for those who come after.

To which I say: yes yes yes. We have become so enamored of our instant gratification and our ability to meet our every desire that we have forgotten that there's more to life than what we can have, do, or be ourselves.

When this shift happened and our primary concern became ourselves and the comfort of our lives in the here and now, our institutions began to decline so rapidly it's actually a little mind-boggling. Our economic institutions, our religious institutions, our educational system, our understanding of what it means to be a member of a society, our associations and groups, our political institutions--all are failing. The economic collapse is a pretty tangible symptom, and I think we could put Congress pretty squarely in that tangible-symptom column too. And the decline in church attendance. And the decline in groups like Rotary or the Junior League. And the discussion about public schools and teachers, and the discussion about unions and pensions and minimum wage and all kinds of other things.

Though I will note that Niall Ferguson and I disagree pretty heavily about some of those things. (His solution to the education problem is to privatize education and create economic-style competition among primary and secondary schools. I think that would actually further contribute to the breach of contract between generations.)

In any case: his lecture title is about de-generation, which has happened and continues to happen. But he also talks about re-generation--he has massive amounts of optimism, maybe even hope. Some of that may be tenuously founded, but he has it nonetheless.

I think I do too, but I also think it's going to take a HUGE amount of work on our part to re-generate--as in, to rebuild the contract between the generations. It will require actual relationships with people of different ages, socio-economic statuses, life experience, etc. It will require that we constantly and consciously look for the bigger picture--not just what can we do right now, but what will that mean in 5, 10, 15, 50 years? It will require the long view of history and the future. It will require that we learn to listen to one another without formulating our own rebuttal. It will require that we learn compassion.

Most of all: it will require that we actually spend time together not just in our own nuclear families or small friend-groups, but by associating with all kinds of people, even some with whom we disagree, as we listen and search and wonder and serve.

Kind of sounds like church.

Here's hoping that the church can recover the best of itself--its calling to be the Body of Christ--and lead the way on this regeneration. of course, that would require that we take the focus off of what and who can serve us (save us?) in the short term and look at the bigger picture. That bigger picture is what we usually call The Kingdom of God. Jesus teaches us to pray that it will come on earth as it is in heaven. That's a pretty long view--much longer than the annual statistical report or the fundraiser or the hymn selection or the new member class or how many hours the pastor spends visiting/in the office/at Presbytery.

Can we take our eyes off the expedient ways we seek to feed our immediate desires long enough to look at that bigger picture, to be a part of the regeneration?

I don't know the answer to that question, but my own answer is: I hope.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Wednesday Interesting...

...things that were interesting pre-SCOTUS announcements this week. The rulings handed down by the court in the past couple of days are intriguing, heartening, horrifying, and everything in between. Besides all that, there's this other stuff too:

We all want to be liked...and sometimes we come face to face with the reality that other people don't think as much about us as we do. And the reality that nuance is hard.
"We don’t give other people credit for the same interior complexity we take for granted in ourselves, the same capacity for holding contradictory feelings in balance, for complexly alloyed affections, for bottomless generosity of heart and petty, capricious malice. We can’t believe that anyone could be unkind to us and still be genuinely fond of us, although we do it all the time."
Interestingly, when it comes to the end of life, the things we regret most? Trying to be what someone else wants us to be, rather than who we actually are. Not expressing our feelings. Also, working too hard. No one ever says "I wish I'd spent more time at work..."


Lots of news this week about daydreaming, mind wandering, paying attention, creativity, space, and thinking.

How do we learn to pay attention? Well, it starts when we're young and we see people either paying attention to us or being distracted by phone/tv/computer...and continues when we're the ones who always have our smart phone ready. How do we communicate that the person we're with is or isn't worth our attention?

Meanwhile, when it comes to work it seems our bodies and brains may work on a similar schedule when we're awake as when we're asleep. If we step away from the work on a fairly regular cycle, we may be both more productive and more creative. "We need to understand that 'on' is impossible without 'off,' and that the distance between the two needs to be made closer: like the beats of a heart or the steps of a runner."

There have been articles like this one about daydreaming running around the internet for about two years now. Surely they were around before that as well. Of course now they're in big news outlets, which will make the chapter in my forthcoming book about mind-wandering/daydreaming as spiritual practice seem both extra-hip and a little late at the same time. Obviously I'm a fan of daydreaming, or I wouldn't have dreamed up an entire chapter about it. Though I am a little surprised by the statistics: 30% of our waking time is spent with our minds wandering away from the task at hand. Of course, some of that is sitting in traffic (fine for mind wandering), some of it is sitting in meetings (less good for daydreaming), and some of it is while we're with people we really need to give our full attention to (kids, spouse, patients, doctors, etc). How we harness that power is the question.
“For creativity you need your mind to wander,” Dr. Schooler says, “but you also need to be able to notice that you’re mind wandering and catch the idea when you have it. If Archimedes had come up with a solution in the bathtub but didn’t notice he’d had the idea, what good would it have done him?”
Speaking of creativity--here are 12 things I can officially vouch are true about creative people. And I'm not even one of them all the time. But yes: we need time to be bored, to experiment, to make mistakes...

Of course, not many employers (or churches) want us out there making mistakes. Which is, in itself, a mistake. No mistakes = factory. Room for risk = lab. Which do you want to be in?

There was a beautiful tribute to philosopher, theologian, teacher, and friend Dallas Willard this week. Worth the read.
Our destiny, Dallas used to say, is to join a tremendously creative team effort, under unimaginably splendid leadership, on an inconceivably vast plane of activity, with ever more comprehensive cycles of productivity and enjoyment.

Power to the Humanities majors! Everyone should pick up a book and learn how to read like an English major. And think critically. And write. Please, please, let's teach people how to write. And you know what? It might actually get you a job after all. Take that, people always mocking the English majors.

As usual, there's lots of "where are the young people??" laments going on in churches all over the place. Of course, it's summer so the real lament is more like "where are all the people?" (answer: at the beach, in the woods, up north, out camping, at Disney, etc etc etc.)

Ten things to take seriously, including "Young people are tired of having assumptions made about them "Young people" are often seen as a commodity. And furthermore, seen as THE commodity that will save the church. A church is seen as thriving if it has young adults and we sometimes feel only like numbers and a bullet point in the strategic plan. We are talked about and around and all sorts of people have ideas about what we want and what we need, most of which is wrong. There is a pretty easy way forward. People could ASK us what is important to us."

And then there's the perpetual problem (at least for those of us who are trying to lead a church that straddles both 1.0 and 2.0 cultures) of passive v. active engagement. This went viral this week, leading people to wonder why we can't have more participative, interactive, building-something-together church. Why can't we? Well, there's very little stopping us, aside from generations of tradition.


Last but not least, two completely hilarious things. I mean seriously. So so funny.

You don't need to join pinterest, but you do need to see this board.

Also this. so much cuteness. I defy you not to at least smile:

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Wednesday Interestings...VBS week

This week we are busy with Vacation Bible School--we have an Everywhere Fun Fair going on, and there are almost 60 kids and another 20 leaders filling up our building with music, science, stories, crafts, laughter, decorations, serving, hospitality, and fun. So I don't have a ton of time to comment on these this week, but here are some things I've come across in the last 7 days that seem like they're worth sharing!

A guy woke up to a gaggle/herd/flock/TON of bald eagles hanging out on his lawn. Aside from the part where they weirdly encourage small children to approach wild animals (bad idea! leave them alone and enjoy from a distance!!), it's pretty awesome.

Apparently in addition to the recognizable Chicago city flag (sky blue and white with four red stars), there's also a "municipal device" that can be found all over town if you know where to look. Cool.

We all know that introverts have a hard time in our extrovert-rewarding world. We extroverts are busy talking our heads off and running the place, while the people who usually think before speaking (must be nice) end up frustrated. Given how many people think "introvert" = "shy" (which it does NOT), this article about brain structure and our hormonal "reward" system is super interesting.

Ever wondered why it's hard to lose weight? Why we can't seem to stop even when we're super full? Why certain things are tastier than others? Here you go:

On a related note, though, finally an ad agency is refusing to continue the unrealistic airbrushed-model images. I love that they're taking a stand and refusing to participate in that. Because you know what? The model is already thinner than the average person AND gorgeous--why airbrush half her arm away?

You may or may not know that the ubiquitous "Happy Birthday to You" is actually a copyrighted song--you can't use it in a money-making venture without a license. This is one of the reasons so many restaurants have their own cheesy versions of a birthday song, for instance. The song was originally written as "good morning to you," for use in a preschool/kindergarten setting, by two Presbyterian Sunday School teacher sisters. Over the years they morphed the song into many versions, using the same tune and different words, and published it several ways. Well, now there's a legal challenge to their family foundation's copyright. What do you think: should Happy Birthday be in the public domain?

some churchy stuff:

This. Yes. Even now as a thoroughly ensconced church-goer (obviously), it hurts my formerly non-churchy soul when I hear people talk about how non-christians must have some kind of black hole inside them. "As one panelist said, “I bristle at someone saying ‘I’ve got this thing you are missing.’ as if I’m lacking.”

On the same "listening to the nones" vein, there's also this interview which not only discusses some of the realities of "none" as a religious identity--which seems to be primarily about not wanting to be summed up by a single religious/spiritual check-box--but also gets into how churches are actually contributing to people leaving religious traditions.
"What tends to happen with Mainline Protestants is that they are deeply affirmed in early formation and then they “graduate” from church. And we let them have that model. Our church schools are parallel to other kinds of schooling. One young woman told me, “I learned everything I needed to know there, I get it. I don’t need this in order to be a good person or in order to make sense of everyday life.” I hear this when I interview parents as well: “Our children will learn good values. Check. They’ve learned this, we can move on.”

Someone sent me this article about young adult atheists a few weeks ago, when we had an adult-ed discussion about the difference between "belief" and "faith"...I'm just getting around to sharing now, because I think it's so relevant both to other links today and to ongoing conversation in churches. If faith is primarily about intellectual assertions (aka "beliefs"), it will never be important enough or rational enough. Even I, the pastor, don't care that much about something that's just in my mind. It needs to be about a different way of living in the world, or why bother?

I love Ira Glass. In fact, it's no secret that I love public radio. I love Ira and Peter and Jerome....I don't love Terry, but I know many who do. I love the way I get more than the headlines, and how the stories they tell in shows like This American Life or Worldview or Here and Now go beyond news to everyday life and real people. They make what could be an otherwise mundane existence interesting.
Having said that, I don't know if I agree with Ira Glass's assessment of Christian media portrayals, but I'm glad someone thinks about things. I do wish that there was more media coverage of what I would call "normal" Christians--not extremists, but moderate and progressive people of faith who are trying to make the world a better place without condemning everybody and everything.

Last but not least...

This made me laugh hysterically. So many more at the link.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

dear dad

my awesome dad in front of the Modern Wing of the Art Institute, when it had just opened
I write a lot of dear-mom letters. I miss my mom every day, and there are some things a girl just needs her mom for.

But I haven't written a dear dad letter, maybe ever. I don't know why--you would think I'd have learned my lesson about saying the important stuff before it's too late.

So, here goes.

Dear Dad,
Thanks for being awesome. You took on a lot when you came into our lives more than 20 years ago. You wrapped up me and my brother in your heart in ways we could never have expected. You've supported us through more bad times than seem fair, and innumerable good times too. You're generous and kind, and even though you don't talk much (which I confess I joke about sometimes!), I've never wondered if I matter, I've never wondered if I was good enough, and I've never wondered if you love me.

I appreciate how you always send a Valentine box and an Easter basket and just about whatever I've asked for in terms of birthday and Christmas presents (even when I say it's ridiculous as I ask). You've been beyond patient when I couldn't quite figure out how to get the gift-giving thing in order myself, and only joked a little about the year that you got a combined birthday-christmas-fathers-day gift because I couldn't decide what picture frames to get. You've been keeping me (and my brother) above water for years, holding us together when we couldn't quite do it ourselves. Actually, I should write that whole sentence in the present tense, because who are we kidding: I like to pretend I'm a real grown up, but we both know the reality isn't quite as neat or independent.

I'm sorry I'm difficult sometimes. If it was possible to apologize on behalf of my brother, who's equally difficult, I would, but since I can only speak for myself...well...please just know that we both know we're a pain in the you-know-what, and we're grateful for your patience and your encouragement and your challenge.

Thanks for teaching me how to do things, and going along with some of my wild ideas, and being willing to try out opera, and helping me through life, and sending me random movies and books.

Love you, dad. Happy Father's Day.


PS: I'm glad you're coming in summer this year....we should take some more pictures. lol.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Wednesday Interesting

I read a lot of things every day--both print and online. I click licks on facebook, I browse on all kinds of topics, occasionally a search turns up not just what I'm looking for but something fun as well. Probably the majority of my days are generally spent reading and writing, with a generous side of talking to people.

But it's also super common for me to go "I read something about that....where was it?" So I decided to follow the example of some of my other favorite bloggers, and post some links I've found interesting in the past week or so. The document where I'm saving them all us is titled "things worth sharing" but could just as easily be titled "things I want to be able to find again," except then I'd have to figure out how to make it searchable. One of the beauties of a blog: searchable.

So, today: some things I've found interesting lately, and you may or may not also find interesting...

I super want one of these at church. Because I am not kidding when I say that I roast The Best marshmallow out of anyone ever.

I'm generally a fan of technology--I use a lot of it, though nowhere near to its potential. As someone who lives far away from most of my family and friends, it's pretty much indispensable. As someone who likes to know things before I forget what question I had about them, it's useful. And as someone who really values the time spent face to face, it can be frustrating. So this was timely for me.
Simone Weil wrote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” By this definition, our relationships to the world, and to one another, and to ourselves, are becoming increasingly miserly.
… We often use technology to save time, but increasingly, it either takes the saved time along with it, or makes the saved time less present, intimate and rich.

This made the rounds on Facebook, as does *everything* this pope does. Protestants have a serious pope crush going on. When I read it, all I could think was "It is not good for the human to be alone." Which makes us wonder whether this pope might be laying some groundwork for some major change in the Catholic Church....though change at anything like the pace we who are not part of that tradition would like to see is unlikely. (Also, it's not our tradition to change, so there's that...)

Za'atar is one of my favorite spice blends. I started making it myself recently but it's just nowhere near as good as what I first discovered in Damascus, much like this person did....

Speaking of the Middle East, a place close to my heart if far in miles, this story of a Palestinian Christian was both heartrending and hopeful. Thanks, Ruth.
Daoud says: “There is a way for a better future, this future will not be a gift from others.” And so they continue to work. They plant and harvest, they collect rainwater, and they run summer camps for children, focused on the creative arts. They believe Jesus’ message of peace. They live Jesus’ message of peace. Love your neighbor as yourself.
This made me laugh out loud. And nod my head in recognition. heehee.

This, however, made me cringe and tear up a little with both frustration and sadness. I've been involved in several conversations in the past couple of weeks that both highlighted how blind we often are to our own privilege and assumptions and highlighted my own privilege (in a really bizarre way, but still).

On the other end of the video spectrum, though, this is SUPER COOL. You'll probably want to heed the volume warning, though! Science is so interesting. Also, it's fun to note what must be the frequency of Celtic artists, near the end. :-)

This is probably my favorite open letter of the week. So much strength, so much potential, so much awesome...why aren't we figuring out how to empower and tap into that? Thanks, Queen Rania.
If one girl with courage is a revolution, imagine what feats we can achieve together.

Parker Palmer is an incredibly gifted writer, teacher, speaker, and thinker. I appreciate his work so much. This is a great discussion of the importance of vulnerability, of speaking truth even when it's hard, of being honest about who we are so we can fully receive who others are too. I would add that when we're fully honest about who we are, we also find ourselves open to God...Unfortunately, too many churches are places where this level of vulnerability is frowned upon. How do we create a community that is trusting and safe and sacred enough to allow one another to be fully human?  I wish I knew the answer to that, because I watch too many people get hurt by betrayed trust, by thoughtless replies, and by subtle shunning and shaming.

Last but not least, What is Church for anyway? Is it just an institution that meets our social needs, an outlet for volunteerism, or something more? And for those of us who know the institution is in a change-or-die moment (though the Body of Christ will always exist), what does all that mean?
“this is what church is supposed to be. Not comfortable gatherings for self-improvement, not a means to enjoy feel-good sentiments, but equipped communities mobilizing together in Jesus' name to serve in real and loving ways in this world of need.”

That should be enough interesting to keep you going through the rest of the week!

Sunday, June 09, 2013

What Story? A sermon for June 9 2013

Rev. Teri Peterson
What Story?
Deuteronomy 6.4-9, Matthew 28.16-20
9 June 2013, Singing Faith 2 (Ordinary 10C, Psalm 146)

I Love to Tell the Story
What A Friend We Have In Jesus
I Will Sing A Song of Love

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ ~~~~

Christians, along with Jews and Muslims, are known as “People of the Book” because we believe we can encounter God over and over again through the stories God has given us in scripture. God created us to be a people of stories, plugged in to the big story God has been telling since before time began.

In Deuteronomy we hear that we are to “keep these words in your heart”—which is immediately followed by “recite them to your children, talk about them at home and away, at night and in the morning.” God asks us to know the word, but to keep does not mean to hide it away for ourselves. We cherish God’s story enough to give it away. Or, as Jesus put it, we go and make disciples, teaching them what Jesus taught us, because once we’ve heard the good news, we can’t help but share.

We have been cast in an epic play of grace, redemption, hope, and justice. Is this the story we love to tell?

In the beginning, God spoke, created, sculpted, breathed, loved. God called the world very good. God called all creation to live in harmony. God gave us stories, commandments, and experiences to help us live that harmony. When speaking wasn’t enough, God came to be even closer to us, living and working, laughing and crying, being a friend who comforts and a friend who challenges, loving up close and personal. He said, “leave everything and follow me.” The stories Jesus told, the things Jesus did, the people Jesus hung out with, were hard to understand. He said things that go against the grain, like love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, give away all you have, turn the other cheek. Every word was a challenge for love. Then he also said “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” He taught us to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And he showed us how to live in that kingdom by doing God’s will here on earth, even if it meant losing the world’s popularity contest. He told us to love as God loves, to be the light of God in the world. He sent the Holy Spirit to be our breath, our life, the fire of passion and hope and change.

A little while ago we sang that we love to tell the story of Jesus and his love. Though the song doesn’t tell the story itself, it prods us to remember just what that story is and whether our lives and our words are actually a witness to the God who loves, creates, calls, dreams, hopes, and commands. Katherine Hankey, who wrote the poem that became the hymn I Love to Tell the Story, was one who knew firsthand the transformative power of God’s story. As a teenager in the mid 1800s, she organized Sunday Schools for both rich and poor children. She brought kids together and arranged for them to hear about God’s love, Jesus’ life, and the Spirit’s call to new life. Katherine wasn’t kidding when she said she loved to tell the story. She knew it by heart, and couldn’t help but share the good news.

Her song is about telling the story in the here and now, because it can change the life of the teller and the hearer. “Tis pleasant to repeat what seems each time I tell it more wonderfully sweet” and "those who know it best are hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest." But then in the refrain, which was added by the tune composer about 10 years after the hymn was written, we sing about our theme “in glory”—which we take to mean the afterlife, implying that we can relax now, because telling god’s story is for heaven.

But remember: “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus said “go and teach.” Deuteronomy says “recite these words to your children.” God tells us to fill our lives with the word…and to teach it to others, so they too can follow God’s call. Remember a few weeks ago I mentioned that the Hebrew word for “hear” also means “obey”? It’s at the beginning of this text—Shema Israel—hear and obey, O Israel. Love God with all you are and all you have, and share the story in every moment of your life, night and day—and in so doing, we can and will live in the kingdom of God now. So when we sing “it’ll be my theme in glory” and mean “when I live in God’s kingdom”—that means it’ll be my theme right now, day and night. When we live a with-God life, aware to God’s presence all the time, we are bold to tell the story with our lives and our words. Presbyterians say that one of the purposes of the church is to “exhibit the kingdom of heaven to the world”—to be a living story about another way of life, possible now because of God’s grace.

And yet the story the world hears from Christians is more about judgment and hypocrisy, about a narrow worldview that abandons this world and most of the people in it in favor of getting to heaven. They get that message because we tell any number of stories, about one another, about other religions, about people who disagree with us politically or economically or socially. We hurt each other, we forget to be gracious, we withhold love. When we do tell something resembling the biblical story, often it’s a watered down version that leaves God off in the distance until we need something, then paints Jesus as the kind of friend who approves everything we’ve already decided. It’s a story that says “if you’re a nice person, don’t rock the boat, God will help you succeed in life, and you’ll go to heaven.”

That story bears little resemblance to the story of the God whose voice thunders through the prophets, who commands us to do justice, love mercy, and be humble. That story has almost nothing to do with Jesus who was a poor refugee who gathered the losers as his disciples, had dinner with the outcasts, accepted sinners, and told stories that crossed every boundary imaginable, only to end up tortured and killed because he was so obedient to God’s call and shared God’s grace so widely. The story that tells us to be nice to get to heaven ignores the rushing wind of the Holy Spirit that sets people on fire and changes hearts and even changes whole societies. In other words, that other story waters down love to just a pink fluffy heart, and in the process loses the good news.

The story of the living God has changed the lives of many. A man whose hymn we’ll sing next spent his whole life trying to live the sermon on the mount literally. He shared with anyone in need, giving away even the clothes he was wearing. He worked only for those who could not pay. He spoke and lived peace. His friendship with Jesus, the living word of God, was true and deep, not the kind of friend who rubber stamps our every desire, but the kind of friend who changes us from the inside out. And he was an eccentric outcast in his community and even in the church.

So when we tell the story, I hope we’re singing of a Jesus who is the kind of friend we all really need. A true friend is compassionate and loving, and also challenges our assumptions, encourages us to widen our perspective, and helps us be the best version of ourselves, to seek who we are called to be. When we sing about the friend we have in Jesus, I hope we’re singing about a friend who will bear our burdens and also remind us how we picked them up in the first place. I hope we’re singing about a friend who walks with us through trials and temptations, in order to help us resist those temptations. I hope we’re singing about a friend who knows us so fully that he can push us to overcome our egos and to grow through our weaknesses, a friend who sees that we doubt even as we worship, just like the disciples did on the mountaintop—but who sends us out to do his will anyway, knowing that faith is a journey. I need a friend who will help me go out and make disciples, not a friend who’ll walk meekly behind while I try to figure out how to be successful by the world’s standards. I need a friend who can handle it when I say “you know, Jesus, you’re being a little harsh” but who won’t just agree to back down and get by. I need a friend who wants me to be transformed into the image of God more and more every day, a friend who will remind me over and over again that it’s not all about me.

What story we tell matters. If the God of our stories is just like we are, why bother following? That story is so boring that no one will want to sing it. But we have a story of love, of power, of creativity, of hope, of grace—and it comes with a call to new life, to leave behind the way we think we know and set out on a new adventure, every day. That’s a story worth singing about, a story worth being known for, I love to tell. I hope you love to tell it too.

May it be so. Amen.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

working the plan

A month ago today, I was settling in to a lovely retreat center north of New Orleans. I'd grabbed beignets in the airport, (half) jokingly begged the shuttle driver to show us a drive-through daquiri place up close and personal, and been super grateful for the homemade hummus I'd tucked into my awesome hello-kitty thermos (thanks Max!) so I could turn a lettuce-and-tomato sandwich into a fantastic snack.

Throughout the week about 30 presbyterian pastors spent time learning about all kinds of things, then praying and talking about how we could put those things into practice to improve our lives and ministries. The week culminates in the creation of a plan that involves words like "goals" and "objectives."

Now, I'm not a huge fan of goals and objectives. They seem so black and white, with so much opportunity for failure or disappointment. I really do not like to disappoint people. (This may be what I spend most of my hours in therapy talking about.) Of course, what I really mean is that I don't like to disappoint other people. Disappointing myself still sucks, but falls lower down on the scale of most-hated things, somewhere around "getting shots" and "eating something gross", just above "wearing orange."
My version of planning is usually something like this....not a chart or, heaven forbid, a spreadsheet. lol.

You can see where this is going, right?

Because I had been told to create this plan, and I wasn't about to disappoint anyone, myself included, by not doing it, I did.

I will note that we were told repeatedly that we could use whatever language and format was useful to us, because it was MY plan, not the faculty's plan, not the denomination's plan, not my friend's plan, not my church's plan. But it seemed like they'd put an awful lot of time into coming up with this particular format for a plan, so I thought I'd try it. I put my goals and objectives into the chart. I answered all the questions. And then, of course, I broke out the crayons and drew all over it.

I was skeptical about my ability to stick to a plan. But today, at the three-week-check-in with my small group, I found myself saying things like "well, I've done this, and I'm working on that..." and "I feel pretty good about how this is shaping up."

It turns out that Charlie was right. I can in fact work the plan. I have the skills and even the willpower to do it, if I just put it on paper and have some people to check in with about how it's going.

The latter is the hardest part for me. Because I had to tell someone else what I hoped to do, and the people I've told have been really great about checking in to ask if I'm doing it. It's like a weird combination of doing something that's good for me and doing something that won't disappoint other people. Yes, I should have all kinds of internal motivation. But who are we kidding. My motivation is just as mixed as the next person--some from within, some from the Spirit, some from abject fear that people might think I'm a slacker.

I wonder whether this kind of process could work for a whole group of people, too. Like, say, a congregation. Could we spend time learning, then praying and discerning and talking, in order to create a plan that we can work? The idea behind the plan is that it is an expression of what God calls us to...surely that's what we're asking in church too? What is God calling us to? How can we get there? And if there's a plan to which other people are holding us accountable, would we be more likely to persevere even when it's hard going?

It seems many congregation's plan has been: do what we've always done, or do what we used to do, and wait for people to find out how great that is.
This is probably obvious, but: that plan does not work. That is a plan for the church we used to be, not the church we are called to be. If I had created a plan that was all about practicing the clarinet, it would be a plan doomed to fail. Those were wonderful times in my life, but they are not the times I'm in now, nor the times I'm headed toward. A plan for how I could live in a place where leaving the house was difficult due to the harassment level on the streets would also not be a good plan--it's a plan for 2006, not a plan for 2013 and beyond.

I'm sure there are churches that are as wary of the whole goals-objectives-plan thing that I was (and maybe still am). It feels so boxed-in and clinical. But so far I am experiencing "working the plan" as a freeing option--it allows me to think about a variety of things rather than just "what do I do now?" Maybe that would happen on a communal level too?

I recognize, of course, that interruptions to the plan are inevitable. That no matter how carefully we work a plan, things happen. That's why we also need to remember this: