Life as Improv

drama masks
As a retired pastor I have often joked that I cannot find the concept of retirement anywhere in the Bible, but not being employed by a church during busy and important seasons like Holy Week reminds me of both the benefits and challenges of being “retired.” It is certainly nice to be more relaxed and not put in an extra-long work week with preparation for 3 or 4 worship services on top of dealing with routine responsibilities and any pastoral emergencies. It’s great to have more time for personal and family activities that pastors sacrifice even more than usual during the busiest times of the church year.

On the flip side retirement often lends itself to a feeling of being less relevant and important, maybe like being the maid of honor or mother of the bride, though I confess I’ve never been in either of those roles. And speaking of roles, I was reminded today of Shakespeare’s line from “As You Like It”: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts…” Some days retirement for me feels like I am still on stage but I no longer have a script. Some days I have trouble remembering which act or scene I’m in or even what play. I miss cues and interactions with other actresses and actors who are no longer in the cast.

When I was a child I had a blind trust in my parents and others in authority to direct my life and give me wise counsel. I made my way through much of my education playing the part quite well of one who learned my lines and fed them back to teachers on exams. With age comes an increasing realization that life is more improv than memorizing lines or taking direction. Many of my mentors have made their final exit from this stage of life, and the need to write my own script and take responsibility for the meaning and purpose of my life without a boss or other authority figure directing my play is both intimidating and liberating.

Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking of God as the great director or playwright of our lives. It sounds comforting to think God has predetermined our fate and knows the outcome of our lives. But then we realize the terrible cost we pay for that escape from freedom and responsibility. If we surrender our free will to a notion of such a controlling God or any false gods we become more like puppets than actors and lose the very essence of our humanity.

Life as improv means cutting the puppeteer’s strings that bind and control us, being open to new challenges as adventures to be embraced instead of wasting our time looking for a script to tell us what we should be doing at any given stage of life. We humans don’t come with an owner’s manual. Lots of people try to usurp the role of producing and directing our lives for us, but ultimately the stage lights go up again every day and we get to improvise.

Unfortunately religion is often used as a tool to stifle creativity and freedom. Yes, we need guidance and direction from a higher power, but we do not need a micro-manager for a God. The Judeo-Christian Scriptures can be viewed as a guide book or a rule book, but in reality they are really a collection of scripts from the lives of those who have gone before us in the faith journey. We can learn from the lives of the heroines and heroes of faith in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures (and also from the villains who show us what not to do). But their lives and contexts are not the same as ours. We have to write our own scripts that account for the unique circumstances of the scenes we are called to perform in the 21st century. That does not mean we start from scratch. The basic guidelines for living a faithful life of integrity don’t change. Very few of us can memorize a long script or recite multiple chapters and verses from the Bible. But the essence of God’s direction for our lives is neatly summarized in key verses. Among the favorites that I fall back on when I can’t remember my part or all my lines are these:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” Matthew 7:12

“Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31

Those words do not dictate stage directions for what I should do in a particular situation, but they describe the quality of the character we are all called upon to play no matter what our role is. The roles change from time to time as Shakespeare tells us, but how we are to play our parts is very clear. God as director says, “Love me and love your neighbor.” The details and nuances of how we do that is where we get to improvise.

Advertisements

Not With Swords, Matthew 26:52

Tuesday of Holy Week 2016 and we awake again to news of unspeakable violence – this time in Brussels. My heart breaks for the victims, of course, but it also aches for all of us who now suffer from a new wave of fear, anger and despair. The death toll will be much higher than whatever the final gruesome body count is in Belgium because fear and anger will spawn new and very natural responses of revenge. Violence begets violence. We know, but we seem powerless to respond in any other way. I get that, but I also know that if we continue down that wide well-traveled road the only destination is more destruction.

If we demand an eye for an eye, blood for blood, it will not make us safer. We have the power as some have suggested to bomb the enemy into oblivion and in doing so we would lose our soul. Terrorism would win and it would be reborn somewhere else while we waste our resources on more instruments of death instead of spending our time and money and energy on education and humanitarian efforts that make for peace and understanding.
I would suggest we use this latest attack as a motivation to take the passion of Holy Week more seriously. Let’s ask the hard questions about what Jesus’ death and resurrection really mean in a world gone mad in 2016. Is it more than an ancient story we re-enact in bad bathrobe dramas? Is it more than jumping easily from Palm Sunday to Easter morning because the middle part of the story is too hard to swallow?

I believe that the popular substitutionary atonement theology of the cross is largely to blame for our failure to apply the hard parts of the Gospel to our lives. The abridged version of that theology says that Christ died in our place as a substitute for our sins in order to offer eternal salvation to everyone who accepts Christ as his or her Savior. There are several problems with that theology, but the basic one is that it lets us off the hook too easily so we don’t have to take the hard truths of Jesus’ teaching seriously. It makes the cross something Jesus did once and for all, but that Gospel ignores the fact that the Scriptures tell us multiple times that Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me” (Matt. 10:38, 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). Luke even adds we have to do it “daily.”

Jesus doesn’t need or want worshippers or Sunday only Christians, he wants followers; and that means just what it says—imitating how he lived and practicing what he taught. And here’s the intersection between Brussels and Gethsemane that we don’t want to hear. Matthew (26: 47-56) tells us that when they came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on Thursday night “one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. ‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.’” He doesn’t invoke the second amendment or argue for peace through strength. He says, “My way is not the way of the world. The way of the sword has never brought peace and it never will because one cannot bring life through the instruments of death.”

We don’t want to hear it because we’re afraid, but we must grow some ears that can hear Christ’s truth before it is too late and the way of the sword continues to fester and spread like a plague. Doing the right thing is easy for most of us when there is little to lose by doing so. Jesus followers do it when it’s seemingly impossible and impractical according to the ways of the world. Real Jesus followers make hard choices when everyone around them and their own instincts insist on the way of the sword.

It comes down to practicing what Jesus preached even when it’s unbelievably difficult. For example, in both the Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain Jesus says we are not to resist evil but to turn the other cheek when someone strikes us (Matt. 5:39; Luke 6:29). It’s very easy to say that in a safe sermon by the seashore or from a comfortable pulpit. I’ve preached and taught those words hundreds of times, but how often have I lived them when the going got really rough? Jesus does. As he is about to be arrested and most certainly executed, he lives what he taught. With his earthly life on the line he is true to the eternal truth he came to show us and says, “Put away your sword.”

That’s the Gospel, the good news, during this Holy Week when the sword seems to be winning. Is cheek turning and pacifism practical? Will it work against a hurricane of hate? We don’t know because it has never really been tried on any global scale. A few martyrs have followed Jesus’ example, and they inspire us from afar. But Brussels is real life here and now, and if we let the way of the sword prevail again, if we let fear and anger triumph over peace and love, even for our enemies, then terror wins and Jesus loses.

I don’t pretend to have the faith I need to lay down my life for my faith. But I wrestle with these hard truths from Holy Week because I still believe deep in my soul that it is the way and the truth and the life. The way of the sword has been tried forever in human history, and it has failed to bring about a lasting peace. Jesus followers are called to wrestle with both the words and example of Christ who is still saying to us during this Holy Week “Put away your sword.”

I don’t have the answers, but we who call ourselves Christians must wrestle with the questions. We desperately need meaningful dialogue on this topic. Please share any thoughts or suggestions or questions you have about what peacemaking looks like on a personal or global scale for you.

“A Broken Jar,” Sermon on Mark 14:3-11

We’ve been talking about all kinds of brokenness during this Lenten season. Most of the brokenness has been about things that we cannot control – stuff that just happens to us or is going on out there in that scary world. When I started working on this sermon for some strange reason one of the broken things that first came to my mind was my aging body. I did hear a great line recently about aging. It said, “Don’t worry about getting older; you will still do stupid stuff, just more slowly.”

One thing I’m learning about aging is that it does no good to complain. I am much better off, and so is everyone else, if I embrace my brokenness and celebrate what still works instead of moaning what doesn’t.
And we all know something about broken relationships. I recently read a novel called “The Burgess Boys” by Elizabeth Strout, and near end of the book one of the title characters, Jim Burgess is depressed about a whole series of life events including separation from his wife, estrangement from his kids, and loss of his job. He’s hit bottom and says to his brother, Bob: “I don’t even have any family.”

Bob says, “Yes you do. You have a wife who hates you. You have kids who are furious with you, a brother and sister who make you insane, and a nephew who used to be a drip but apparently is not so much of a drip now. That’s called family.”

A prison ministry volunteer from our church told me about an inmate at the correctional facility where he does his ministry. This man has a tattoo over his eyebrow that says “Broken.” Maybe we all need one of those! We are all broken in one way or another because we are fallible human beings who live in a world created by other fallible human beings. That’s just the way it is, and no amount of regret, anger, complaining or wishing it weren’t so will change that. In the words of Ernest Hemingway, “We are all broken, that’s how the light gets in.”

Today we have heard Mark’s Gospel describe the story of a broken jar, a jar of very expensive ointment. 300 denarii were equal to a whole year’s wages for a worker– think a very large bottle of Chanel #5. This costly ointment was used by an unnamed woman to anoint the head of Jesus shortly before his final trip into Jerusalem. Unlike most brokenness in our lives which we try to avoid at all costs – this one is a voluntary act of a costly sacrifice. There is no crying over spilled ointment here because this jar was not dropped accidentally – the brokenness here was intentional and chosen for a very clear purpose.

We don’t know who this woman is. Like most of the women in Mark’s gospel who are followers of Jesus, her name is unknown. But as the text points out, her actions are remembered for posterity because she, unlike the men who hang out with Jesus all the time, recognizes who Jesus is and does the one thing she can do to honor his Messiahship. She anoints Jesus’ head – an act normally reserved for kings, and as they say, “no good deed goes unpunished.” She is immediately criticized for wasting such a valuable asset that could have been used in more practical ways, like being sold at the silent auction to feed the poor. A few drops of the ointment would have been plenty to anoint Jesus, but she chooses to be extravagant like our God who pours out grace and mercy on all people. So she gives Jesus everything’s she got.

Then comes what is for me the most curious part of this story. Jesus says, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.”

Compassionate Jesus who normally is a chief advocate for the poor seems to be saying, “Forget the poor – you can take care of them anytime you want. This is about me for once.” The context is important here. Jesus knows what awaits him in Jerusalem while the Disciples are still in denial about his impending demise. So Jesus tells them yet again, “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

Like most of life, this situation is not an Either/Or but a Both/And. We know from the consistency of Jesus teaching and actions throughout his entire ministry that he is not saying we should not feed the poor. That’s a given. It’s depressing but true that we have the poor with us always – that’s part of our broken world that favors the haves over have nots. To suggest we can choose between honoring Jesus and caring for the least of our brothers and sisters is a false dichotomy. In fact, we can’t really do one without the other. Without the love of God to empower us in the face of all the brokenness around us, we burn out like a candle in the wind.

Have you ever felt powerless in the face of someone’s brokenness to know what to do or say? How often do we hesitate or fail to go the funeral home or visit someone recently divorced or suffering from some other brokenness because we feel awkward and don’t know what to do or say. How often do we fail to give to a charitable cause or ministry or volunteer to help because the problems of society and the world seem too overwhelming. It doesn’t mean we don’t care – in fact it feels like we care too much but feel inadequate to do anything that really matters. Because as unfair as it seems, some brokenness just cannot be fixed.

That should not come as news to us – most of us learned that lesson at a very early age from that great philosopher, Mother Goose:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

But we never learn from Mother Goose or Dr. Seuss what to do when we are in one of those hopelessly broken places. Fortunately we don’t need to learn that because we all come hardwired to respond to the pain of others.
A little boy came home from visiting his elderly neighbor who had recently buried his wife of many years. The lad’s mother was curious what the two of them had done, and so she asked, “Did you play catch with Mr. Benson?” No, said Bradley. Did you help him in his garden? No. Did you watch TV or play checkers? Brad shook his head. “Well, what did you do?” she finally asked in frustration. “Oh, we didn’t do anything. I just sat on the porch and helped him cry.”

We innately know how to care but often our compassion gene gets overridden by our own brokenness, and we need to remember again that childlike, natural way to just be there with and for someone.
The woman with the jar is in one of those situations in Bethany where there’s little she can do for Jesus. His fate is sealed. Jesus’ unconditional love and faithfulness to God will not be compromised even in the face of death on a cross.

The woman at Bethany can’t fix that problem. She is apparently a woman of some means or she would not have a jar of very expensive ointment. But no amount of earthly wealth can stop the wheels of hate and oppression that are about to consume Jesus’ earthly life. But that does not mean there is nothing she can do. She takes what she has available and acts on her recognition of who Jesus is. She honors him while he is living instead of waiting until the funeral.

I listened to a very helpful webinar recently about empathy and compassion that this story illustrates for me. Thupten Jinpa, a colleague of the Dali Lama was talking about the emotional part of our reaction to the brokenness of others. We identify with the pain and suffering of someone else, and we call that empathy. But as Jinpa pointed out, while empathy is necessary and important, we can’t get stuck there or we suffer from empathy burnout. We can feel all the empathy in the world for the kids at Avondale School without adequate heat, or the thousands of Syrian refugees, or the flood victims in Louisiana & Mississippi, or people living in Flint. We can have great empathy and all of us here do, but that empathy needs an outlet. Our emotions have to translate into an action step or they can weigh us down like we are carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders and in our hearts.
That is especially true in the 24/7 news cycle world we live in. We know about more brokenness in the world than any generation before us has ever known, and it wears us down. We can’t fix all the brokenness, and we have to pray for guidance to know where and how we can respond – with cookies for Kairos, or money for UMCOR, or just crying with someone who needs a friend. Some problems require action to right an injustice or build a handicap ramp or fix meals for the hungry folks at Manna café. Others just need our presence – either physically or spiritually to be with the broken hearted.

My dear mother-in-law is one of the most caring Christian people I know. She’s 98 years old and has been confined to a wheel chair for several years, but her awareness of what’s going on in the world is far better than younger people. We were talking about some big global problem one day or probably more than one, and she asked me, “What can someone like me do?” She is one of the most generous people I know when it comes to charitable giving, and she’s one amazing prayer warrior. She has empathy in spades, but she also puts that empathy into acts of compassion through her giving and prayer.

Compassion is the action step inspired by empathy, and we need both. The woman at Bethany had empathy for Jesus’ plight, but there wasn’t anything she could do to change the situation; so she did the only act of compassion she could think of. She moved from empathy to compassion.
By comparison Jesus’ band of disciples react by criticizing her or in the extreme case where empathy was absent Mark tells us, “ Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them.“

What’s the difference? Judas, in arrogant pride thought he knew better than Jesus what needed to be done. Many believe he was bitter and disappointed that Jesus was not the military liberator he expected the Messiah to be. In all fairness to Judas, we don’t know what brokenness he was dealing with that was crying out for compassion, but we do know the woman with the jar came in humility to honor the servant king.

It’s a funny thing about humility and brokenness. Back on Ash Wednesday we read from Psalm 51 which says, “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” Why would God want us broken-hearted and contrite? Because then God can work with us and mold us like the potter’s clay. But when we are full of ourselves and hiding behind a phony image of ourselves as all-knowing and successful, afraid to let our brokenness and vulnerability show, not even God can get through that wall to reach us with a healing touch.
But when we recognize and admit our own brokenness – when we confess our need for forgiveness, we are broken open to give and receive the compassion and love of God and others. That expensive ointment could do absolutely nothing for Jesus or anyone else sealed up safe and sound in its fancy container. But when the jar was broken open it anointed a Messiah and filled the house with the sweet aroma of loving compassion.
Each of us is a beautiful jar created in the image of God, and inside all of us is the precious ointment of compassion. Don’t hoard that priceless gift. In the name of Christ, break it open and pour God’s love freely on someone’s brokenness. Be extravagant because that precious ointment comes from an eternal source and it will never run out.

Preached March 13, 2016, Northwest United Methodist Church, Columbus, Ohio