Put in Our Place

One of my goals for the New Year was to cope better with my chronic aches and pains. Now the phrase “be careful what you ask for” has new meaning for me. I injured my right shoulder a few months ago and was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff, 50-50 chance that physical therapy would help me avoid surgery. I think those odds have gone down. I have reinjured it twice in last couple of weeks lifting things the wrong way. This is not the way I wanted to practice dealing better with pain.

My theologizing about pain seems to come around on a two year cycle. (cf. my post on 3/25/17 “Rejoicing When God says No,” and 5/19/15 “Encouraged and Inspired.”) As in both of those instances I keep coming back to St. Paul’s verses (II Corinthians 12:7-10) where he describes his repeated requests for God to remove an unidentified “thorn in the flesh.” I don’t know if this is an actual physical ailment, a metaphor for another kind of suffering, or both. Here’s what those verses say in the NRSV:

“Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

If this was just about physical weakness I should be getting stronger by the minute, but of course it isn’t. The repetition of “not being too elated” indicates that’s important. The “slings and arrows” of life can serve to keep us humble, and when dealing with God’s power that’s the only realistic stance to take.

Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of these verses in “The Message” helps reinforce that point:
“So I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me, ‘My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its own in your weakness.’”

I don’t like the word choice of “handicap” by Peterson. In no way do I want to tell anyone with a disability or handicap that it is a gift from God. But we all have challenges to cope with be they physical, emotional, or relational, and accepting those humbly as just the way things are is much better than either being resentful or conceited.

God is not a super being that we can call upon to intervene and pull out our thorns. That’s like complaining that roses come with thorns instead of rejoicing that thorns come with roses. For reasons that are above our pay grade to understand the human condition comes with pain. I am inclined to agree with Buddhism’s diagnosis of that pain as being caused by our “attachment” to things that are temporary. My physical limitations remind me constantly that aging is about letting go – letting go of things I can no longer do and humbly finding and celebrating things I can do, I hope with more wisdom gained through experience. Letting go is important practice for that inevitable letting go that comes with mortality.

And ultimately the feeling of being at home in the universe, my favorite definition of “Faith,” comes from letting go of our need to control or understand everything. As mere beings our humility/weakness makes room for the true majesty and mystery of Being itself, which we call God.

I don’t claim to have achieved Paul’s contentment with “with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities,” and no, Lord, I am not asking for those so I can learn to deal better with them!! But I do recognize that state of “being content with whatever I have” which Paul describes in Philippians 4:11 as the goal of faith.

Paul describes that feeling in different words that are very familiar: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) But I also like the way Peterson paraphrases that verse because it emphasizes the Creator/creature nature of our relationship with God which is the reason humility is our ultimate reality.

Peterson says, “Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.” That puts things in their proper perspective.

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Cross Roads

crossroadsThe final scene of the excellent movie “Castaway” shows the star, Tom Hanks, in a barren landscape at the intersection of two deserted country roads.  Hanks plays a FedEx pilot who is the sole survivor of a crash in the Pacific.  He manages to stay alive on an island with no companionship except a volleyball he names Wilson.  When he miraculously is rescued and returns to his former home after several years he discovers that it is sometimes true that you can never go home again.  His wife having buried a symbolic empty casket after giving up hope of his survival has remarried and moved on with her life, leaving Hanks more adrift on land than he was at sea.

Then years behind schedule Hanks delivers the lone package that survived the crash to a rural address where a beautiful artist lives.  Leaving her home he comes to the aforementioned crossroads, and the film ends leaving the question hanging as to which way he will turn.

That metaphor came to my mind as 2019 began 12 days ago, perhaps because our nation and world seem to be a crossroads where the future shape and even survival of our planet depends on choices we as world citizens must make about climate change, international relations, our use of technology for better or worse, etc.  Perhaps the cross-roads image is even more vivid for me because the church denomination I’ve given 50 years of service to is coming up fast on an intersection in Indianapolis in less than a month.  A church conference will be held in February that will determine if the United Methodist Church survives and if so in what form.

Personally my 73rd New Year’s means I have accumulated many memories of different turning points and roads not taken in my own life. Professionally 2019 will mark the 50th anniversary of my ordination as a United Methodist pastor.  I made huge decisions to accept the responsibilities of ordination, and in those 50 years since I’ve made thousands of personal and professional decisions that brought me to where I am today.  Yes, there are many of those decisions for which I’d like to have do overs, but like the Hanks character I know I can’t go back and make a different choices as to which way to turn in my life.

But the past is prelude to my next chapter.  I can learn from the choices I made in the past to inform decisions I will make in the future.  The kinds of crossroads I will face in my 70’s and beyond are certainly different than those I encountered earlier in my life, but as long as I draw breath I will make decisions about how to live each day of my life and what goals or bucket list items I choose to pursue.  In retirement I actually face more decisions every day since my daily routine is not predetermined by job responsibilities.  There’s both freedom and anxiety in that situation.  It requires more energy to make so many decisions at a time in life when energy is at a premium.

Twice in this New Year I have seen something early in the morning on our bedroom floor that I have never noticed before.  I’m sure it must have been there before, but I am not a morning person and admit I am even less observant when I first roll out of bed than the rest of the day.  What I’ve noticed is that the light that slides out from under our bathroom door intersects with a white edge on our carpet to form a beautiful cross.  I’m still wondering why it is just now that I’ve recognized that symbol, but what it has helped me realize is that so many of the decisions that have determined my course in life revolve around the cross.

I was born into the church, baptized as an infant and taken regularly to church my entire childhood.  That decision for my early life in the shadow of the cross was made for me, as was one of the most significant turns in my life course when I was 11 years old.  Until that point in my life we had attended a small rural Congregational church in the community my father grew up in 5 miles from our home.  But when I was nearing my 11th birthday my parents made the decision to find a church in the town where we lived.  They wanted me and my sisters to go to church with the kids in our school and for me they wanted a good Boy Scout troop.  It so happened the Methodist church had the best Boy Scout troop in town, and as they say “the rest is history.”

Because of the sacrifice my parents made in giving up the congregation and friends they loved my life went down a totally different path than it would have otherwise.  My life for the next 7 years revolved around that church and that scout troop.  My values were shaped by the Sunday School teachers, youth group leaders, and scout leaders who went down that road with me.  All of my friends and most of the girls I dated were part of that congregation, and when I answered the call to ministry I chose to attend a liberal United Methodist seminary that transformed my faith and purpose not only for ministry but for my life.  As a United Methodist I was active in the leadership of the Wesley Foundation student ministry in college, lived in an intentional covenant community/rooming house sponsored by that ministry; and it was also on one of my first visits to the Wesley Foundaiton that I met my first wife who is the mother of my children, grandmother to my grandkids, and still a dear friend and colleague in ministry.

All because of a choice made for me to attend First Methodist Church.  And now 62 years later that denomination, which became the United Methodist Church in 1968, is facing a momentous decision about the acceptance or rejection of LGBTQ persons as full and equal sisters and brothers.  Which road our General Conference will choose to follow next month will have far-reaching consequences for this large denomination of Christians and will create a crossroads that will require many people, including me, to make difficult personal decisions about our own relationship to the church.  My prayer is that the Holy Spirit will empower faithful and courageous choices inspired by the one who chose to take the road to Jerusalem and face the cross waiting for him there.

I/We can do worse at the cross roads of 2019 than pondering the meaning of these words written for the 1905 Methodist Hymnal by Frank M. North:

“Where cross the crowded ways of life,  Where sound the cries of race and clan

Above the noise of selfish strife, We hear your voice, O Son of Man.”

 

Lighting the Christ Candle

In the darkest of days we gather once more on this special night to celebrate the holiest of births. We come searching for God in a world that has lost its way. But lest we despair at the state of our world the familiar Christmas stories remind us that things were not all calm and bright that night in Bethlehem.

Jesus was born in a barn because Roman oppression forced his parents to make that painful journey. But there into that terrible situation came an incredible gift, not delivered by FedEx, but by a frightened peasant girl, wrapped in swaddling clothes, announced by a heavenly host, and sent by almighty God who still loves our troubled world.

Tonight that gift comes again silently and calmly to those who have ears to hear the angels and eyes to see the star. It comes to those who take time to pause from the hectic activities of the season, [pause] to be still and at rest in the presence of a baby who sleeps in heavenly peace.

During the Advent season we have lit candles of hope, peace, joy and love. Tonight our waiting is over; our expectations are filled to overflowing as we again dare to light the Christ Candle, the light of the world.

Unison Prayer
O God of Grace and Glory, tonight our hearts are calm and bright, not because of our cares and concerns, but in spite of the things that keep us awake at night. As your Holy Spirit came upon Mary so long ago please send it again to us this very night. Conceive in us a new birth of joy and hope. Fill us to overflowing with your peace and love. Light in us again the eternal flame of your holy presence that we will go forth bravely into the darkness to do the work of Christmas, to feed the hungry, to comfort the sick, to share with all our neighbors the light of the world that no darkness will ever overcome. Amen

Christmas Panic

It’s December 23! Christmas is two days away!! How did that happen? While the Scrooge/Grinch in me was busy wrestling with the true spirit of Christmas somebody flipped the pages on the calendar. I’m mostly “ready” for Christmas according to the culture’s standards. Cards sent, most shopping done, decorations and tree have been up for weeks, and family celebrations are planned.

But as usual the tensions between the materialism of how we do Christmas and the crazy busyness of the season are at war with the joy and peace I preach and write about. Is it harder for pastors and other religious leaders to reconcile those warring factions than for others? I’m not nearly as frantic with church responsibilities as I was pre-retirement; so it’s not that, but the struggle didn’t retire when I did.

Part of the problem is that all the “peace on earth” and “joy to the world” stuff just doesn’t ring true with what I’m seeing and feeling around me. I am genuinely fearful for the future of humanity just now. Climate change predictions are frightful and the leadership vacuum in our government on that issue is so short-sighted as to be criminal. Thousands of immigrant kids are locked up at the border, cabinet members and other key advisers to the president are dropping like flies, the stock market is on the verge of a crash, and part of the government is shut down because the little boys in DC can’t put national interests ahead of political ones.

Am I a hypocrite to proclaim good news when a deep part of me doesn’t believe there is any? Methodist founder John Wesley is credited with saying, “Preach faith till you have it.” That advice certainly keeps one humble and searching for a lifetime, even when the darkness seems to be extinguishing the last ray of hope.

And that’s why we tell the ancient story again. It’s an old story. David defeats Goliath and now this tiny, vulnerable, defenseless heir of David has an insecure ruler shaking in his boots. We know the story. Herod doesn’t win; wealth and worldly power are no match for God incarnate in a refugee child. We know the story, but we need to hear it again and again. Love wins! Love Wins! And we must tell that story over and over until we believe it.

4th Sunday of Advent, Candle of Love

Like expectant parents we can hardly wait for the miracle of new birth this Advent season. Our spirits are anxious about the labor pain required of us to be reborn in Christ, but the Love of God is stronger than our fears. And so like Mary and Joseph and. Elizabeth we dare to say no to hate in all its ugly forms and a resounding yes to God’s gift of Love wrapped in swaddling clothes.

It is God’s love we celebrate in Joseph’s devotion to Mary, a love so strong that even the baby John feels it while still inside his mother. It is love that dares to believe in the impossible, even a virgin birth. Love is the source of all of the Advent gifts. Hope, Peace, and Joy all flow from God’s love, but the greatest gift is Love. And so on this 4th and final Sunday of Advent we light the Candle of Amazing Love that gives Hope, Peace and Joy to a world that badly needs them all.

Prayer of Confession: Please pray with me: O God of holy expectations, we are humbled when we ponder the faith and trust of all the Christmas story characters who trusted and believed in the power of your incredible love to change the world. We confess we don’t say yes to your Holy Spirit like Mary did, we don’t believe like Joseph, we don’t leap for joy like Elizabeth. The pressure of deadlines and responsibilities are enemies of love. Fear of getting outside our comfort zone keeps us from sharing the most precious gift of your love. Help us in the middle of this hectic season to recognize acts of kindness in others and face honestly our own failures to trust and obey your radical claim upon our lives. Help us keep Christ in us. Give us eyes to see the star, ears to hear the angels and the courage to obey and go where you say. Our Christmas prayer, O giver of life, is that we will be open to your amazing love being conceived in us this Holy Season. Amen

Incomprehensible Incarnation

Amid the cacophony of the mad world, in the darkest days of the year, in times of personal stress or sorrow, when we most need the peace that passes all human understanding, that’s exactly where God chooses to break into our world. Praying that you will feel that holy presence wherever you need it most this Christmas.

THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT LITURGY: JOY

First Reader: On the third Sunday of Advent we ponder and celebrate the gift of Joy. We remember that life was not all calm and bright for Mary and Joseph either. The Holy family lived under oppressive Roman rule. Because there was no room in the inn Mary’s labor room was a barn. And yet baby Jesus slept in heavenly peace there in his manger bed.

Second Reader: From day one Jesus shows us that Joy does not come from external circumstances. As he would later sleep through a storm at sea and face crucifixion with steadfast faith, Jesus shows us that joy is an internal state of being, and He is the way to true Joy. He was at home in God’s universe no matter what was going on around him. (As reader 1 lights 3 candles) And so today we relight the candles of Hope and Peace and add the third candle, the candle of Joy.

Unison Prayer of confession: O God who loves us so much you came to a humble stable. You sent John to warn us to turn back from the things that bring us no joy. We confess we have not always listened to your prophets. We have not always lived lives that bear good fruit. We have failed to receive the power of your Holy Spirit. This Advent, fill us to overflowing with true joy. Let us follow the true Messiah who sets us free to share joyfully with our neighbors. Teach us to be humble bearers of Good News so our lives may be signs that proclaim Joy to the World. Amen