Sunday, September 14, 2014

To Live Blessed Lives

My children and I have learned something about blessing from ARC Retreat Center.  Each meal there begins with a detailed description of every food item – Today’s lunch is a salad of fresh garden greens and ripe tomatoes picked this morning with a buttermilk herb dressing made with thyme and basil. Here we have homemade rosemary polenta hot out of the oven with the velvety tomato sauce from our cookbook.  And today’s tea and cookie pairing is vanilla rooibos tea with chewy almond cookies!” And everyone oohs and ahs in appreciation, and the whole thing is a kind of blessing, if you think about it.  Then together we share a spoken or sung blessing before we eat, and then another one after we’ve lingered with the flavors and conversation and food to end each meal. 

And when you awaken, before you leave your room for good, you are asked to change your sheets and pray a blessing for the next guest who will be staying there after you. So we make the bed carefully and then place our hands on the quilt and pray for the strangers who will get to come next.  Since they were tiny, everywhere we’ve stayed away from home, my children have asked to do this, even at hotels.  

And when it is time to leave ARC, the staff there gathers in a circle around you and sings, “May the long time sun shine upon you, all love surround you, and the pure light within you, guide you on your way home.” And then they gently lay their hand on your shoulder, and then you are ready to depart. And the blessing – even if it’s at first seems silly or cheesy, you can’t help tearing up a little because it seeps into your soul. The touch, the gift, being seen and sent.  It somehow grounds us again in our humanity.

Last week we heard the story of God and Noah, where God was despairing, angry and brokenhearted at the people who keep turning on one another, insistent on destruction.  And at the very center of that story, and those before it, was God’s persistent and stubborn longing for relationship with these ones created in God’s image, created for God and one another and the world.
And when all was said and done, God promised, no matter what, to never give up on humanity. Part of never giving up on the world is also never letting the world give up on itself – helping us see life as it truly is, as God sees it, instead of through the lens of selfishness and destruction.
So God decides to pick one family, and through that family, to bless all the families of the whole world.  God wants to draw one family so close into God’s heart, to share God’s purpose and God’s vision and God’s love for the world, that others would be drawn in, would be cared for, and enabled to live fully and wholly who they were meant to be.

So we’re introduced to Abram.  And the blessing of Abraham and Sarah.
And in a powerful and far-reaching promise, God plans to create from this family a whole nation that will bless the rest of the world.
But just in case we miss what blessing actually is, let us take note of who God has chosen here: They are barren.  There is no way for them to fulfill this promise. No way for them to create a nation, let alone a single child, no way for them to be a blessing to the whole world.
This blessing has to come from God. God calls them and promises them, I will be with you; I will guide you. I will bless you. And through you all the families of the world will be blessed.

So, leaving everything he knows, all the ties he has, any previous blessings that were his, such as family and clan, Abram obeys, and he and Sarai set out with God’s promise holding them.  The covenant God made with the world that God’s love would never give up on us gets legs in the covenant God makes with Abraham.  God’s love will reach out actively to remind the world of its blessedness, of its purpose and its beauty and all people of their place and their blessedness.  
And God is going to use people to help do this. Now we are being pulled into something. Now there is a charge on us.  The chosen people of God are never merely recipients. We are participants. We are blessed to be a blessing.  God wants to draw us so close into God’s heart, to share God’s purpose and God’s vision and God’s love for the world, that others will be drawn in, will be cared for, will enabled to live fully and wholly who they were meant to be. We get to be the ones who notice and celebrate their true nature, their possibility and their hope and their gifts.

So how do we share in this? How do we receive blessing? How do we bless?

Blessing first acknowledges that everything comes from God– it exists in God’s world and is part of this whole that God has put together. And then blessing sees a thing as it is, in its fullness, the darkness and the light of it, and embraces it.  It holds it up to God’s care, and it enjoins it to be even more fully itself, to live as it was created to live.  Hi there Squirrel! You are beautiful in all your nose-twitching, nut-burying, tree-planting, traffic-dodging squirrely-ness! Keep on squirrelling, making more squirrels and living out your squirrely part in this symphony of life!

Blessing recognizes something and names it as valuable. It thanks God for its place in the whole.  Noticing and speaking truth, recognizing and appreciating, and saying aloud the gifts and benefits, the hopes and intentions of other people and things, this is blessing.

One of my favorite moments of blessing was this last Spring – the Presbyterian Women did a house blessing for Marge.  We began in the living room, gathering all together in her space and speaking aloud the hopes and intentions for the space – people began tentatively, “This room has such lovely light! Look at the view! What comfortable space for gathering!” And then it began, may this room bring people together, may it be a place of laughter and conversation, of quiet thoughts and sunlit reading. 

We moved to the bedroom and gathered around her bed, “For restful sleep!” one person said, we all grunted and nodded and sighed our agreement, for peace and comfort. For dreams and memories and waking refreshed to new days.

a view from the toilet
Then all eleven or so of us crowded ourselves into the otherwise spacious bathroom.  We noted how bathrooms see us as we really are, and how they are an intimate space where we are alone with our thoughts and we care for our bodies, a room of honesty and vulnerability.  These ladies had practical blessings, such as a blessing for not slipping.

The kitchen, for sharing food and welcoming guests, for nourishing our bodies and holding treasures passed down and gifts baked up.  The women amped up as they went, thinking of more blessings, getting into it, and Marge beamed, and the moment itself felt so blessed. 

We ended by gathering in a circle in the living room once again and thanking God for Marge, and for her home, and for the chapter closing and the chapter beginning and for what God had in store for her in this new space, and we gave her a plant, part of the whole Peace plant- a tangible and visual blessing and reminder of her belovedness. And we all left feeling blessed.

Because blessing others blesses us.  Reminding others of their belovedness makes us live out our belovedness.  

Blessing can be as simple as pausing and noticing the noisy world waking up, the birds and and sunrise and crisp morning air and giving thanks. It can be laying a hand quietly on your son’s head as he sleeps, or hugging your friend. It can be speaking out about someone to them- recognizing their strengths, celebrating their humor or their honesty. Or giving a gift for no reason at all.  This week I was blessed over and over again as I recovered from surgery with friends stopping by with a bowl of soup and a piece of chocolate, bringing me a book they enjoyed, giving me a call to see how I was feeling, making a lasagna for my family. 

Barbara Brown Taylor says those who become very practiced at blessing might tell you that
“Pronouncing a blessing puts you as close to God as you can get.  To learn to look with compassion on everything that is…to make the first move toward the other, however many times it takes to get close; to open your arms to what is instead of waiting until it is what it should be, to surrender the justice of your own cause for mercy, to surrender the priority of your own safety for love – this is to land at God’s breast.” 

If that is what blessing is, what is blessing NOT?
The story of Abram and Sarai, who become Abraham and Sarah, can tell us something about What a blessing is NOT.  Because sometime after God makes this promise they begin to doubt the blessing and their own blessedness. Instead of trusting God to fulfill God’s promises to the world through them they get tired of waiting and take the blessing into their own hands and try to make something happen. And so comes Hagar and Ishmael, and the human attempt to earn or produce what God has promised to provide. 
Blessing is NOT something we manufacture or coerce. It’s something we receive and participate in and pass on. 
This scheming on the part of Abraham and Sarah does not disqualify them from blessing, though.  God still blesses them and fulfills God’s promise to bless the world through them and eventually they have Isaac, child of human impossibility and God’s intention.  Because blessing begins with God and not with us.

And “blessed” does not mean “lucky.” It can be the same circumstances, the same good thing happening to you, but to call it lucky focuses on your worthiness or unworthiness to receive this gift.  It compares you to others who do or don’t get good things, and questions their worthiness or unworthiness.  And makes the gift itself arbitrary.  It’s a way of rejecting the gift even as you accept it – wow, that was lucky!  Subtext, it’s a fluke and I shouldn’t count on it!
But Blessed always goes back to the source.  To say something is a blessing is to say, “I accept this gift as a reminder of God’s good intentions for the world and of my belovedness in God.”
My daughter is happy at school, that is a blessing. My test results came back negative, what a blessing! We were able to get together with friends for a such lovely evening! I accept this gift as a reminder of God’s love.

Blessing is not magic.  Blessing does not make something holy – blessing recognizes the holiness that is already there, it reminds us that this place, this person, this opportunity is from God – by existing, it shares in God’s holy purposes, and thus it doesn’t matter what we think of it, whether we think it is worthy or not, God can use everything.  That means that by blessing we give up being able to prejudge what is good or bad for us, Taylor says, “You may say a blessing when you break a bone the same as you do when you win the lottery. The two events may be more alike than you know. Live with either of them very long and you may discover that neither of them is as bad or as good as you first thought it would be.” 
So Blessing makes us pay attention, it says of any experience, What might I miss if I don’t take notice? What can I appreciate that might open me to more?  What might come of this?

And Blessings are NOT something only special, holy people can give. Since blessings begin with God, we are all recipients and sharers of blessing.  Orthodox Jews are to give 100 blessings a day.  And they all begin with Blessed be our Lord God, King of the Universe,
Who gave us this bread to nourish our bodies…
Blessed be our Lord God, King of the Universe,
Who gives us this bright, chilly day in which to live…
Blessed be our Lord God, King of the Universe,
For family and friends gathered here…

That means Blessings are not perfection blackmail.  We don’t withhold Blessing until something achieves the “best” version of itself, we don't wait until someone is free of fault and weakness, or some situation is the way we want it to be before we bless it.  That would imply that blessing is earned; but blessing is gift.
In the same way, we don’t refrain from blessing others until we are somehow holy or complete or in a good place.  You can't earn the right to bless, that too is a gift. We are called to continually receive life as a gift that speaks of God’s good intentions and how much God loves us, and then to continually give that reminder to others.

"To bless means to say good things. We have to bless one another constantly. Parents need to bless their children, children their parents, [spouses their partners], friends their friends. In our society, so full of curses, we must fill each place we enter with our blessings. We forget so quickly that we are God's beloved children and allow the many curses of our world to darken our hearts. Therefore we have to be reminded of our belovedness and remind others of theirs. Whether the blessing is given in words or with gestures, in a solemn or an informal way, our lives need to be blessed lives."

Sisters and brothers, What would it be like to live blessed lives?  
What would happen to us if we started blessing all the time?  
What would happen to the world?
I wonder, this week, what blessings will you receive? I wonder, how will you bless?

To never, ever give up

Genesis 6:16-22, 9:8-15 (and the stuff in between)

In case this summer’s blockbuster film didn’t make it clear enough, Let me say this right off the bat: Noah and the Ark is NOT a children’s story. This is a really disturbing story of God destroying the whole entire world and everything in it, but saving one guy and his family to start over.  What on earth are we supposed to do with this thing?

We have a choice to make. And we are going to be faced with this choice a lot as we begin journeying through scriptures from the Old Testament through the New in these next few months, so it’s important to face it now.  It seems to me our options are these:

11-    We could simply ignore it. We could stay with the stories we like, the ones that paint God in a nice way and let human beings off easy, and leave these kinds of texts in some category called, “Old Covenant” or “God’s judgment – it’s not like that anymore.” And then not really have to deal with them at all.  This would likely mean leaving out an awful lot of our bible.

22-    We could clean it up a bit.  We can water it down and pretty it up, and make it complete with cartoon morals and benign promises.  This is often how we deal with the hard texts in the church, we make them into oversimplified object lessons that don’t have to speak into our lives or disturb us.

Option three is way riskier, and requires some trust on our part. 

33-    We could let it in.  You should only choose option three if you are willing to be changed, and if you are willing to do some doubting and wrestling, and if you’re willing be met by God. 

Option three suggests that if, indeed, we believe that the bible, the whole bible, speaks truth to about who God is and what God is up to, if, indeed, we believe the bible matters, to our faith as followers of Jesus, then we need to face these hard texts head on and expect God to meet us in the reading. 
We need to let God’s relationship with those gone before, captured in these stories, speak to us, and say something about God’s relationship to us today as we live out our stories.

I will tell you that if you choose option three, you’re in for a ride. Because sometimes the hardest and most terrible texts turn out to be the most surprising, the most transformative, because the Spirit speaks through them in ways you cannot imagine at first glance. If, upon reading a story in scripture, you are tempted to turn and run, you are invited to stick with it and seek the promise, because the God about whom these scriptures give witness, is right there with you as you read. 

So let’s go for it with the Noah story, shall we? Let’s choose option three – we’re going to open ourselves to this story and all that is hard in it, and we’re not going to pretty it up and we’re not going to skip over it. Instead we are going to engage it and expect God to meet us. 

So I’ll just plunge in with the discomfort by asking, Is God is so upset about how terribly violent the world has gotten, that God, in terrible violence washes the whole thing away?

And if God was so upset about evil way back when, why does God seem all but silent about it today? Were the people back then really worse than ISIS beheading children?  Hitler’s concentration camps? How bad is so bad that God starts over?

And is it so bad that all of creation has to go too?  God just gives up on everything?

And what made Noah so saveable and everyone else so damnable? Because just in case we begin to think Noah is some a perfect person or his time on the Ark made him appreciate how the new world is going to be different than the old one, the story of the Ark is immediately followed by a bizarre incident starring Noah, and involving alcohol, nudity, humiliation and disproportionate rage.  So why this one flawed guy and his family, and not anyone else?

It helps sometimes, to locate who is the protagonist of the story; who is this story about?  For this moment, I want you to imagine not that you are Noah, or the other people, or the narrator painting the flood and animal scenes in vivid color.  I want you to imagine before you hear this story that you are God.  Because this story is not really about Noah.  It’s not about the evil people or the animals or the storm.  This is a story about God.

So it begins when you, God, in love and imagination form a whole world, and fill it with beauty, with animals and birds, with fish and insects, with seasons and rhythms and all things work together in harmony, benefiting each other and contributing to the whole.  A spectacular, ever changing work of interactive art.  And people! You make creatures in your own image, and you invite them use their creativity, to contribute, and build, and share in your love and care for the world, and know one another and know you.

This is a story about a relationship between God and humanity.  That is where this story begins. 

And shortly after creation sin enters in-  dividing creature from creator, spreading suspicion and judgment, distrust and self-centeredness throughout them like cancer, severing the connection between God and these precious creatures God has breathed life into.

Before the Noah story we’ve got Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel and the Tower of Babel. And things keep on getting worse.  The evil and violence breed and fester and people become more and more oriented toward destruction, and the relationship is horribly broken.
And this brokenness affects, God.

The grief of a parent over her child destroying himself and rejecting her and any love or help she seeks to give him, standing on the sidelines where he has thrust her watching the inevitable destruction he is hurtling himself towards can not begin to touch the grief within God’s own heart over what is unfolding in this creation God poured God’s soul into, and the fracture between God and these ones God has planned to share life with who have utterly turned their backs on God and devoted themselves to the violent tearing down of one another at all cost.

So, I wonder if at some point, amidst the grief and the anger, God doesn’t take it on Godself: this is God’s own failure as much as it is theirs.  God made it, and clearly they are unable to pull themselves out of the death spiral, so God’s going to fix it.  Wipe it out and start over.

So God reverses creation.  In language paralleling the creation story, the dome of the sky that separated the waters collapses and the deep that was pushed out by land wells up again and everything is returned to the chaos from which it was liberated and created.

Except God can’t quite do it.  Can’t quite obliterate all of it.  It was so beautiful. so good and God loves it so much. Perhaps it could be good again? Perhaps it can be saved?  So God chooses this one little family out of everyone else to save, to begin again.  And a sample of every kind of animal as well; maybe it wont be an utter loss.

 And then God rages and weeps and releases all of the wrath and sadness and anger, and creation is violently dismantled and returned to nearly the nothingness from which it first emerged, except for this boat, bobbing on top of it all, this odd little remnant of hope. 

It’s a tragic and horrifying scene, a heartwrenching scene:

21And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings; 22everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died.
23He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark.
24And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred and fifty days.

Then after this purging and cleansing, the time of recreation begins:

But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided; 2the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, 3and the waters gradually receded from the earth.

And finally the ark comes to rest and the inhabitants pour out into a brand new world.

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10and with every living creature that is with you… that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’
12God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth….16When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’

And here’s where perhaps, after all, this may be an astounding story, a deeply and beautifully true story:
Because God began the story seeing no other way but to write it all off and begin fresh. 
But when all is said and done, and everything is dead and gone, and the earth goes back to its watery formless state, something happens inside God. 

By the time the water recedes and the naked and fresh earth is exposed, and it is ready to begin again, God is in a different place altogether.  You might say God has gotten some clarity and made some decisions. 

God realizes that, over and over again, humanity is going to choose death instead of life, choose hatred instead of love, choose to cut off from one another and from God, instead of live in the connection that God created us all for.  And even flooding the whole earth hasn’t washed away sin from the hearts of humanity. 

But even seeing that, despite all of that, God hangs God’s bow in the sky, the weapon of a warrior God puts down, and pledges to all creation never to wipe out the whole earth again. 

the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind… nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. 
22 As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.’  16When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it God said, and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’

God begins here, with Noah, to live in a covenant with humanity, a kind of indestructible commitment to us that culminates in plunging right into this world with us, alongside us in utter solidarity and taking into Godself the darkest and most broken parts of us, in a relentless resolve to share life with us, and tenaciously work towards restoring us to the wholeness we were created for. 

Rev. Nathan Nettleton says it beautifully:
This story is telling us that God neither gives up on us, nor clings to the right to wipe us out if we get too out of hand or the pain we cause becomes too great for God to bear.
It tells us that God voluntarily gives up some freedoms; voluntarily accepts some new restrictions on what God can and can’t do. God signs away the right to simply treat us as we deserve; to dish out punishments that are simply direct and proportional consequences to the crimes.
God swears off such options, and makes an irrevocable commitment to wildly disproportionate generosity and mercy.
And God does this with open eyes, knowing that such a commitment means signing on for continual betrayal and heartbreak, continual grief and frustration and pain.
But that is a price God is prepared to pay. God makes a personal commitment to be open to the pain, to enter into the pain, to absorb the pain, and to go on loving without limit.

This story is a gift to us.

It asks us questions, like,
How, in our own lives, do we choose death over life?
And where might we, like God, need to grieve, and even rage, over the violence we do to each other and creation?
This story gives us promises, like
the astounding glimpse into the heart of our creator, who declares that every time a violent storm subsides, and the sky opens up in the startling hush of a rainbow, God will see it and pause, and will take it in as a reminder to go on loving us without limit. 

And this story gives us invitations,
by beckoning us to watch for the signs of God’s presence, it invites us to celebrate the astonishing beauty and precariousness of living, and all life, to be open to the pain of sharing life with others, to bear the world’s sorrow and reveal the world’s hope, and to seek to trust in the promises of our wildly generous and faithful God, who never ever gives up on us, no matter what.