Sunday, February 19, 2017

When things crumble

185 Chairs

Our family has been on a month long trip to Australia and New Zealand. Last week, we were in Christchurch.  In 2010 a huge earthquake hit Christchurch and caused extensive damage. Thankfully nobody was killed.  18,158 aftershocks followed, and people functioned in a daily life that felt unsure and threatening. They had no idea what to expect; anything could happen.  And six months later, it did. In February of 2011, a bigger quake struck. Large swatches of the city were decimated, thousands were injured, and 185 people died.  A lot of businesses and individuals have left the city, and while a lot of rebuilding has been done, a lot remains, and Christchurch is a city still locked in PTSD and exhaustion, as the slow work of rebuilding continues. 

Near the place we were staying, a 90 year old women came most days and set out a few dozen water color paintings along the sidewalk, for people to peruse and buy. She’d been painting for 60 years, she would tell everyone who walked by. One day, part of our group stopped to chat with her. And, as went with many conversations in Christchurch, she told them where she had been in the earthquake.  She had just come out of her home on a hill, where she had lived for most of her life. She walked down the walk to the mailbox and opened it, and was pulling out her mail when the quake struck, knocking her to the ground. She looked up and watched the house she had been sitting in 30 seconds before, collapse from the top down, and crumble into rubble before her eyes.

When our scripture opens, Jesus has just come out of the wilderness – 40 days in another world. No cell phone, newspaper or social media; he wouldn’t know if his great aunt had passed away while he was gone, or if the president had changed.  He wouldn’t have had any way of checking in on life back home, which is good, because he had his hands full with what he was doing out there anyway.
The wilderness stripped Jesus down to his most basic self, no protection or community, just him, out there in the elements, hungry, tired, alone, and then, at his weakest, tempted mercilessly by the Accuser. And when all that was finished, we are told, “The devil left him, and suddenly angels came and ministered to him.”

So Jesus returns to the hustle and bustle of the real world, sunburned and skinny, and the first thing he hears is: John has been arrested.

And it crumbles before his eyes.
While you were away, your cousin, the one destined from of old to pave the way for the Messiah, was seized by the authorities and locked away.
And the community surrounding John was undoubtedly in upheaval. What kind of tweets and status updates and forwarded articles were going around the followers of this movement? What urgency and fear hovered over them all? What rumors, interpretations, and rallying cries? What moans of despair, and calls for action? And what did it all mean? Does God’s plan get derailed? Does this mean the end?

Jesus, if you thought this would be easy, think again.  You’ll get no gentle reentry, no chance to reacclimate to ordinary life, in fact, here’s the new ordinary: you wont know what to expect. Anything can happen. And while you know in your bones and soul you can trust God; you can’t trust that God will protect those involved in God’s schemes from suffering and injustice.

So, the text moves really fast through this part, but what Jesus does next is super important: He withdraws to Galilee. And I want to stop in that little space between the period and the next sentence for a minute, because this says something a little shocking and pretty significant: 
Jesus disappeared for a while. Even though he had just returned, even though the community was swirling in drama, Jesus stepped out of the fray, off the grid.

Jesus withdrew. In Matthew, this verb is used when circumstances bring unexpected threat or loss - the Magi returning home another way, Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt, Jesus, later on when he hears John is dead, retreating to a quiet place – in times of upheaval, this verb has people “stepping out of the situation.”
Jesus steps out of the situation.
He withdraws, and gets his grounding. He does what he maybe just learned in the wilderness: he separates himself from the situation and puts himself where God can meet him uncluttered, unencumbered. 

In Presbyterian Women’s gathering, for over three years, we’ve been going through a book about women in the bible. It is taking us so long, because we love to talk, so we get through just one or two women each month, and it turns out, believe it or not, there are a whole lot of women in the bible.  So this week we met Philip’s daughters, in Acts, who were, all four of them, well respected prophets in the church; they spoke words of encouragement from God to the people.  And we began to talk about prophecy, and why we don’t hear so much about prophecy or prophets in the church these days.
Then one of us (Rosie) made the observation that today we live a non-stop life surrounded by noise. We are rarely quiet. Rarely still. We hardly ever let ourselves stop and simply be.  Even when we are alone, we fill the space with radio, television, other distractions. And perhaps with this way of living, we make it a whole lot harder for ourselves to listen to God. Maybe if we were still or quiet more, we would be more likely to hear God.

When Jesus heard the difficult, and potentially frightening news, he stepped out of the situation.  After the period and before the next sentence, Jesus put everything down and withdrew to a place where there was nothing that could distract him. 
And I think it’s safe to say that in that place, apart from it all, God met him, because (as we’re learning), when we stop, God meets us. And when Jesus was finished, when he remembered whose he was and who he was, he came into the next sentence with direction and clarity.  He packed up his things and left his hometown, Nazareth, in the region Galilee, for a new city, Capernaum, by the Sea of Galilee, the land that used to belong to the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, but hasn’t been referred to that way for over 700 years.
Until this scripture. 
Because Matthew is always linking Jesus back to the prophets, showing the continuity of God’s story, so he draws on a prophesy and promise in Isaiah 9, the one we always read at Christmastime,
Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
   on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
   have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
   light has dawned.’
and if we continued on, we would come to, "...for unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, authority shall rest upon his shoulders and he shall be called wonderful, counselor, mighty god, everlasting father, prince of peace,” and end with “the zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”

Here’s what all that is saying about Jesus as he begins to carry out God’s ministry in the world: God-with-us goes to make his home in the land of those God has not forgotten. This story has a long arc, and God’s promises do not fade away.
This is the story you are now part of.

Now once Jesus has settled into his new home, he begins his ministry by picking up the message John the Baptist got started, Repent! For the Kingdom of heaven has come near!

The word repent, Μετανοεῖτε means literally “change how you think after being with,” in other words, turn around, shift your being in another direction, change your purpose after this.” We could think of it as laying down your mind and exchanging it for the mind, perspective, and purpose of Christ.

The kingdom of heaven has come near. The reign of God, the way of life with God in charge, where we all belong to God and we all belong to each other, the order God created for the world and is leading the world towards, in Jesus, this reality has come near. It has come to live among us. 
So here is what that looks like:
We spent our last week with a group of people from New Zealand, South Korea, Vanuatu, and Tonga. We prayed together, sang together, and ate together; we shared stories of joy and suffering, listened to one another, and encouraged each other.
Even though we are divided by language, tribe, miles and circumstances, we found ourselves acting as though we belonged to each other, living out the truth of the Kingdom of Heaven right here on earth, because that is the real reality.

Then on Saturday, our group had the opportunity to help restore a memorial to the 185 people who died in Christchurch’s 2011 earthquake.  An artist had painted 185 chairs white, easy chairs, dining room chairs, folding chairs, car seats and wheelchairs. And he placed them on a grassy spot in rows.  Six years later, this exhibit remains one of the most powerful places of healing for this city.

So that morning the kids and I joined the artist and several other volunteers, many of whom have cared for this display for years, and we helped to repaint the chairs, lay down fresh grass, and replace the fresh chairs in their rows.  We worked alongside those who had lost loved ones, for whom a particular chair meant someone no longer in their world, and alongside these people we’d been spending the week with, none of whom were from Christchurch either.  And the importance of what we were doing, and sorrow for what it represented, did not hinder the laughter and cooperation, the tentative conversations, and the synergy of working alongside one another. 

And at one point, I looked around at this group of strangers in the summer sun, on the other side of the planet from where I call home, working together to minister to a city, and I felt overwhelmed by the awareness that we all belong to each other, and we all belong to God.  With paint on our arms and dirt under our fingernails, the kingdom of heaven has come near. 

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is here.
Perhaps it’s been taught to us in church, or at least insinuated, that Jesus never got afraid or worried, never felt overwhelmed or dismayed. But the way the gospel writers tell it, his whole adult ministry begins with God claiming him in the waters of John’s baptism of repentance, and then the Spirit immediately driving him into the wilderness of temptation. So I would be wiling to bet that sometimes he felt overwhelmed, and at times he felt tempted by the fear and the messages of the empire’s power to derail what God was doing. 
Rather than think that Jesus never needed to repent, I wonder if in fact Jesus repented all the time, if, at the first inkling of fear or doubt, Jesus steps out of the scene, opens himself to God, and allows his mind to be changed, his perspective shifted, and his being reoriented back God’s truth.

When we repent, when we change our mind for Christ’s mind, and turn around and head another direction, we also lift gaze lifted to a further horizon to see the long arc of God’s salvation, and the endurance of God’s promises that cannot be derailed.

Jesus gives us a way; he shows us his way. When he hears the news that John has been arrested, when he feels the messages closing in around him, bombarding him, threatening to make him believe the empire is in control, he withdraws. He leaves the scene and finds himself alone with God.

I was in Australia for the presidential inauguration, and for the next few weeks afterwards. And every day, because of the time difference, I would wake up in the morning and it would be late afternoon yesterday back home. And every day, I logged onto the internet and saw news that made me feel afraid, worried, and despairing.  And most often, I did not choose to step out of the situation, pray and seek direction, and let my mind be shifted back onto God. Most often I obsessed, and read every article I could find, and fretted and worried about what it could all mean.

But after I came home, a couple of days ago, I came into this sanctuary, and I laid out an American flag and some candles, and I sat in silence before God.  And I found myself being shifted back into the mindset of Christ, which is to say, I repented.

This is part of the story. I was reminded. This is not the whole story. 
The world belongs to God.

And after laying down my fears and frustrations, I felt myself rest. 
Instead of worrying, which is practicing fear over and over again, I rested, which is practicing trust. I let myself fall back into the care of God. 
And when I was finished, I found I could approach the world and my concerns with new clarity and purpose, with confidence that the Kingdom of God is here. Even when we can’t always see it; we know where this is all heading. And we get to live in that confidence and trust by living out what we know to be true, boldly and joyfully in a nation starving for connection and hope.  
And I will tell you that I will be doing that in this space every Friday morning from 9:30-10:00 am, and I welcome anyone who wants to join me, to come withdraw, repent, and practice trust with me.

In this life, anything can happen. 
And while you may know in your bones and soul you can trust God; you can’t trust that God will protect those involved in God’s schemes from suffering and injustice.  Things can crumble to the ground before our eyes.
But every day we can repent. 
Every day we have the opportunity to turn around, and change our mind for the mind of Christ. When we start to believe the empire is in control, when we start to shift into fear, when things are falling apart in front of us, we are invited to step out, into a place apart where God can meet us, and to shift our being and our purpose back into God’s reality.  And this story of God’s has a long arc, and the promises of God are trustworthy and true.

So come to me, Jesus says, and I will give you rest.
Follow me, Jesus says, and I will fulfill your purpose and bring you into my kingdom work.
Repent, Jesus says, for Kingdom of heaven is at hand.
And indeed it is.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Are you tired yet?

At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ 
Matthew 11:25-30

Every day here in Australia I wake up to a Facebook feed flooded with anger and fear and frustration and desperation. Sign this petition, call your congressperson, here’s fifteen vital things you should be paying attention to for the next four years!  And underneath of all of all these cries of Urgency! Vigilance! I hear deep sorrow, fear, and an unyielding fatigue. We thought when the contentious election season ended we could finally stop being on constant alert. But it turns out that was just the beginning, and there is no end in sight.  Americans are divided in many ways, but one thing we all have in common, is that we are weary.

Into this weariness come Jesus’ words, Come to me, Jesus says, and I will give you rest.

OK, Jesus, that sounds nice, but get real. It will have to wait. You must not be paying attention. This is clearly not the time to rest. If there were ever a time in our lives for vigilance, attention and non-stop effort, surely this is it.  How could we really contribute if we stopped and rested? What would it say about us if we turned away, if we weren't watching every moment, absorbing and feeling every blow? How would we measure our commitment if we didn’t pay 24/7 attention to it all?

In regular life, we're already a mess around the idea of rest. Those we esteem most in western cultures are the tireless, the unstoppable, the fighters that just keep pushing themselves, those that get it done. How are you? We ask each other. “Busy!” we always answer, cheerfully, proudly, exhausted. We might as well answer, “Distracted! Pulled in many directions. Unable to focus on or enjoy any one thing. Weary.”

But amp up the ante, put the whole work-weary, pressure-weary, election-weary nation under this new regime that is systematically dismantling much of what had seemed definitive and unshakeable about our country, and we’re in uncharted waters.  “Weary” doesn’t begin to describe people’s emotional state, but we tell ourselves we’re not allowed to be weary. That would be like giving up.

Rest is a nice idea, a someday luxury for a less urgent time. We’ll save rest for the sick and utterly depleted, for those fighting illness or recovering from surgery. Maybe when you absolutely can’t keep going, and you’re forced to stop and catch your breath, you can briefly rest until you can amp back up again.  Rest takes us out of the fight, and that can make us feel like we're abandoning others.

This passage of scripture comes in the middle of a long rant of Jesus’ about how the people are missing the gift right in front of them.  And it begins with the part where Jesus pauses in talking to the people, and raises his face to the heavens in a mid- argument prayer.  Like an exasperated mom, he blocks out their whining for a minute, heaves a dramatic sigh and intones, Oh, Thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because, clearly, you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants…

Infants get it, and we don’t.
Here’s the thing: Infants don’t exist on their own. They come attached to a parent. Completely dependent. Known, loved and cared for, learning who they are and experiencing the world through that secure attachment. 
And beyond that, infants don’t do a darn thing, really. They don’t contribute anything to the household economy or pitch in a single helpful thing to the community around them.  They don’t seem to feel at all driven to accomplish anything at all. And they hardly ever compare themselves to each other, or to their developmental milestones, to gauge where they are lacking or take pride in how quickly they are advancing. 
Babies are completely unconcerned about persuading others to think like them, or judging those who don’t, and infants rarely obsess about the future.
And they are only children of their parents; their identity is from the ones who gave them life. It would never occur to a baby to imagine you feel anything for them other than unconditional delight and devotion.  

To be an infant is to be vulnerably and simply you.  You, belonging.  You, beloved.
At the very most core –babies are still completely connected to God, and they take for granted that we all belong to each other.
They rest in their reality; they trust:
My needs will be met.  
I can sleep when I am tired. 
I can eat when I am hungry.  
I can cry when I am sad.
I can close my eyes without fear.  
I am held by someone stronger than me.
I belong to these people. They belong to me.
The world is filled with beauty, wonder and love.

Jesus doesn’t say, Come to me you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you extra energy and the strength to power through.  I will give you an edge, a do-over or a bump up.   I will promote your agenda or satisfy your desires.  Jesus isn’t offering a strategy to win, or to overcome our humanity and need, to fix the world how we think it should be fixed. 

Jesus is inviting us to tell the truth with our lives, to live how we were made to live – attached to our source of life. To come back to the reality that babies still exist in, to return to the natural order of things.
Rest is part of the cycle of creation itself, hibernation, germination, night, day, winter, spring.  It is initiated, and in fact, commanded, by the creator of all, who rests. 

The Old Testament often refers to the promise of salvation as “coming into the rest of God.”  In other words, rest is what it feels like to be saved from whatever keeps us captive, released from whatever consumes us, freed from whatever enslaves us, restored from whatever disconnects us from God, and relieved of whatever keeps us divided from each other.  Salvation is coming into the rest of God.

But, especially in the midst of what feels like such a national crisis, how do we do it?  
How do we actually put down what is weighing on our minds and pressing on our souls?  How could we ever allow ourselves to?

He answers the how question too.
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,” Jesus says. A yoke is a wooden crosspiece that is fastened over the necks of two animals and attached to the plow or cart that they are to pull.
“Take my yoke upon you.” This is a straight up trade. Jesus says, I will release you from your work and give you a different job altogether.  I will unhook you from all that you are dragging around, and connect you back up to me, and you will carry what I carry into the world instead.

What are you weary of?
What heavy burdens are you carrying around? 
To what are you captive?  
What feels most pressing, most urgent, most demanding?
These are what Jesus will ask you to lay down. 
That feels terrifying.  Because the very things we are often most weary of, are the things we also believe define us, or the things we think can’t happen without us.  We tell ourselves they are our identity, our purpose, our reason for being.  And who would we be, without these things?  How can we be expected to lay those down?

The yoke we are given by the world, the one we instinctively pick up starts in the very earliest lie, which says we are in this alone and God can’t be trusted.  It goes on to convince us that the goal of life is security and self-sufficiency at all costs. Those around us are competition, threat and obstacle; there is not enough to go around, so guard yours well. It says that the powerful matter and the weak don’t, that having more makes you better, and that all human worth is earned. It’s all up to you, so never slow down, never give up, never let go, never lose your place.
That’s the yoke we are accustomed to being strapped into, the cart we are most often pulling behind us.  Regardless of how we each specifically fill it – this message is the gyst of it for us all.  And this way of life demands constant vigilance and self-protection.

We can easily see this mentality shaping the current regime, but when it comes to doing justice, fighting for rights, standing up for one another, this mentality also often shapes our actions.  Life is a battle. It’s all up to us. The “other side” is the enemy. Those who dehumanize others are less than human.  No rest for the weary – you must stay constantly engaged. You are not doing enough. You are doing it wrong.

Anger sets people on fire. Rage motivates, and fuels, and makes people show up and do good things.  But it only works if you continually stoke the fuel of despair and outrage, and even then it burns out quickly and leaves ashes and exhaustion in its wake. And then the people who care, and want to make a difference, feel guilty for not maintaining that level of urgency and involvement, for letting everyone (themselves, God, and especially the vulnerable) down. 
This is one way to carry the heavy yoke.

But there is another yoke. There is another way.
Jesus’ way, the Kingdom of God, says we are already connected to God, like infants to a mother. And life begins in abundance and gift.  Our God comes into this life with us in weakness and impossibility, and stands with the poor, the stranger, the abandoned and the overlooked. That’s where God already is; that is where you will always find Jesus.  
And you are loved already, just as you are, and you are not meant to be “perfect,” you are meant to be the only you God ever made, in all your glorious difference, alongside all these others who are different from you, but also who are in it together with you as, sister, brother, friend.  There is enough to go around, and life is for sharing.  And no matter what it looks like at any given moment, it’s all heading toward connection and wholeness, because God is the one who decides the end, and in Christ, it’s already been decided.  Living in freedom, connected to God and each other – this is Jesus’ “yoke.” Bearing this is what Jesus is inviting us to join him in. 

Our life could be dictated by the things we avoid or fear, by the expectations put on us by others, by our bosses or bank accounts, or by the desperation and urgency of the current national crisis.  This is an option, and it’s a compelling one at the moment.

Or we could turn to God, who is Lord of heaven and earth, and find ourselves along for the ride in Christ’s work of loving and healing a weary world in all sorts of unexpected, impossible and subversive ways.  
God’s way is not our way. All true transformation, healing and newness comes through weakness, futility and impossibility.  
Lest we forget: we don’t have a triumph and might faith, we have a death and resurrection faith.  
It’s our job to remind each other of that.

I love that in the Jewish understanding of Sabbath, the day begins at sundown. That means that rather than rest being a reward for a job well done, or a last ditch attempt to recover from hard labor or relentless fighting, rest is where it all starts.
Rest is where your being and your belonging begin. 
In rest, we trust:
my needs will be met.  
I can sleep when I am tired. 
I can eat when I am hungry.  
I can cry when I am sad.
I can close my eyes without fear.  
I am held by someone stronger than me.
I belong to these people. They belong to me.
The world is filled with beauty and wonder and love.

And when you wake, all your work and efforts and living flows from this rest, this place of groundedness, peace, salvation. 

When things feel most urgent, most pressing, most despairing, this is not the time to panic, talk faster, run harder, strive further. On the contrary, this is the time to stop. 
To return to the natural order of things, to come back to the reality that babies still exist in, completely connected to our source; belonging to God and belonging to each other. 
To let what we do and say next flow from salvation’s rest. 
From abundance. 
From trust that God is doing something, always, and that we have a place in that.
Our calling comes from who God made us to be, and God will give us a sustained and consistent way to join in, a way that wont deplete us and burn us out, but will fill us with purpose and joy, even in the midst of sorrow.  A way that will connect us more deeply with one another and make lasting change. 

Anger and disappointment come from a longing for what we are made for to be experienced – to live and feel the deeply held values that we know in our bones to be true - such as respect, mutuality, kindness, safety, well-being, contribution, belonging, to be heard and seen, etc.  When we stop and sit with this longing, even naming it in specifics, and let God meet us in our grief and our desire for wholeness, then, instead of lashing out in frantic activity, our actions will be guided, focused, joyful, even.  They will be grounded in connection and cooperation, instead of hovering in isolation and haste.  We will participate with hope instead of desperation, because we are not looking for might and triumph, we are not trying to win, or beat our enemies. Instead, we are watching for resurrection out of death, we are finding our humanity alongside each other, and we are joining in God’s ongoing salvation that began before us and will continue after us. 
This yoke is easy and this burden is light.

Jesus says Come to me.  And we are invited to answer,
Yes. OK. I will comeI will lay down my burdens and my pride; I will admit my weariness, and I will welcome your rest. I wont let rest become a last resort, a contingency plan, a life-saving measure. I will come now. I will begin here.
Yours is the way and work I choose.

What will be your ways to say Yes this week?  
A whole day with the phone off, reading and napping by the fire, or wandering unhurried through the woods? 
A three-minute pause each day in your car before heading into work?  
Something creative or crafty, something you enjoy that fills you?
When things are noisy, where is your silence?
Where is your music? Where is your joy?  
Who are the people you look at that remind you that you love, and are loved?  
Where do you go for support?  For reminding?  For relaxation? For respite? 
What will be your Yes this week?

Listen again. These words are for you:

“Are you tired? 
Worn out? 
Weighed down by heaviness? 
Come to me. 
Get away with me and you will recover your life. 
I will show you how to take a real rest. 
Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. 
Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. 
I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. 
Keep company with me and you will learn to live freely and lightly.”

 (Mt. 11:28-30 adapted from The Message)