Sunday, August 20, 2017

Sin, Salvation, and the All-Encompassing Belongingness of God

If my week had a theme, it might be noticing sin.

This week I’ve been forced to own up to the way I let a relationship go and chose avoidance and dishonesty over facing challenging conversations.  And in coming to terms with it, I have had to see that, compounded by years of silence, honestly dealing with it will cause more hurt, and the only way out of it with integrity is to go ahead and tell the truth anyway.
It’s uncomfortable to see sin, both past and present, in my life, and it feels awful, but also good to see it so I can deal with it.

Sin is when we fail to live consistent with who we are made and called to be – when we violate our belonging to God and one another.  It can be personal and internal – letting go of anger, dealing with pride, or self-judgment, and we’re stuck to wrestle inside ourselves with our failure to live consistent with who we are made and called to be. It an be between us, words and actions that hurt or degrade people, that violate the bond we’re meant to share as human beings and act as though we are against instead of for one another.  But most often, it’s both.

This country has a deep sin, our original sin, the sin of racism, which means first of all categorizing people as fundamentally different by the color of their skin, and then labeling some people better, more human or more worthy, and other people worse, less human and less worthy. Then that belief is built into a whole society’s structures and functions so that consistently, both overtly and subtly, for generations, some people are treated as less than and other people as more than, rooting this lie deep inside all people.

Right now our nation is noticing its sin.  
By virtue of the sin itself some people have always noticed it, because it affects their every waking day and it can never be escaped, and others, because they don’t often feel directly impacted by it, can ignore it and look away for weeks, years, even decades at a time.
But right now we cannot look away. 
And it feels awful to be staring at this thing together, this sin at our core, both past and present, but I imagine for those who among us who have stared at it their whole life, it feels good too, to see so many other faces staring at it at once. 

Right now most of this country is looking at the same ugliness and evil and calling a thing what it is. This is a huge part of God’s salvation.
Calling a thing what it is, naming your own story, your own culpability, your own participation in evil, recognizing and saying aloud the way Sin works in you and through you is the only way to salvation. 
We call it Confession or Repentance. 
It’s what comes before forgiveness, but after the grace of God.

God’s grace always comes first. God’s grace is where it starts. 
We begin in abundance and enough for all, harmony and unity in crazy wild and vibrant diversity, all people sharing together in caring for this gorgeous earth and its creatures, all of us made more human by our shared humanity, learning and growing alongside one another. The Way of God is our beginning and our end. 
Anything that takes us away from that is a lie.

We live the lie every day in our country. 
Whether we feel the sting of it in the moment or not, we participate in that lie. Just to illustrate this lie at work, I live in the neighborhood where Philando Castile was shot. He had been pulled over by police 52 times in 13 years. Want to know how many times I have been pulled over in my 26 years of driving? Four.  I was speeding all four times. Two of them I was let off with a warning. As a white woman, I have always felt safe with the police, confident that they are there to protect me. And if I get in trouble it’s because I deserve it, and they are upholding laws that keep us all safe.

Respect, kindness, mutuality, safety - these should not be a privilege. 
We belong to God and we belong to each other.  
Anything less than that is violence to the image of God.

But here is part of the trap – the way of fear, the sin of division, and devaluing each other is so ingrained, that we operate out of that without thinking, without noticing. 
In longing for justice for all, we could settle for revenge against some.  
And wouldn’t it feel so good to hate haters with a more hate than they hate? 
But choosing which people to hate has never been and will never be the answer. And just trying really hard to be good and right and never mess up or hurt others isn’t the answer either (not least of all because it is impossible).
The answer is facing our sin with honesty, letting the sorrow and horror of it wash over us, stepping into our brokenness alongside each other is the place God can meet us and heal us.  In Jesus Christ God so loved the world that God plunged right in alongside and with us into all of it, calling all people children of God, calling all people back to God.  And taking on all sin and evil and division into his very self, God-with-us let it take his life, and then came back to say love is stronger than death. In Christ's complete connection to God and each other, we find the belonging that sets us free to truly live.

Our Psalm today has a repeated refrain: God’s steadfast love endures forever.
Steadfast love is one of the ways the Hebrew word Hesed is translated. Remember Hesed? It was in the story of Ruth and Naomi that we told years ago, and it is all throughout the bible. It’s translated many ways, love, kindness, lovingkindness, mercy, loyalty, favor, devotion, goodness – it captures something of the inner connection and commitment God has toward us, so for years, we’ve called hesed: belongingness.

The belongingness of God is eternal. Nobody is outside of it; nobody gets to put others outside of it. It lasts forever. 
Human beings who have been judged less than and treated as unworthy, they belong to God and belong us.  
Human beings who have grown up sheltered from the suffering of others, benefiting where others don’t, they belong to God and belong to us.  
Human beings who are so filled with hatred and violence they forget their own humanity and purposely dehumanize others, they belong to God and belong to us.  (So then is incumbent on human beings who long for justice and peace not to agree with them and let them off the hook by dismissing them as monsters when they act inhumanely, but instead to call them back to their humanity and hold them accountable it).

The way of fear that says there is only so much belonging to go around – that if we give it to some we must withhold it from others. But the belongingness of God is neverending – eternal – constantly replenishing, spreading and multiplying, claiming us back to the love we came from, the love we are here for, the belongingness we are meant to live into and out of alongside each other.
It doesn’t let us go when we hurt each other, or when we believe the lie about others or about ourselves. Instead it calls us back to confession and repentence, the place where salvation can meet us.

The salvation of God, often called in scripture, the rest of God, is returning to our core, belongingness, being brought back into harmony with God, ourselves and each other, where our souls can be at rest in trust, and we can live consistently with who we are and whose we are. 
Our Psalm today tells of God’s specific salvation, restoration of belongingness, felt right where people needed it most – in their sin and its terrible consequences, in times terror and helplessness, when they were lost or alone, or had reached the end of their capacity to adapt or cope in a crisis.  Each vignette is a story of people who confessed, who recognized their situation – noticed it and cried out to God- And God saved them.

Salvation comes as deliverance from what is holding us captive, wholeness where we are broken, direction where we are lost, and connection where we are severed. It comes as hope in despair and new beginnings after bitter endings.  As this Psalm illustrates, the salvation of God always brings to us just what will heal us – even if it isn’t necessarily what we think it should be – because it is always about restoring us to belongingness in God, and that is not always comfortable, or easy, or fun.  
And it doesn’t mean dead people come back (yet), fortunes are reversed, the world is suddenly fair, or pain we’ve caused can be taken back and erased. But it means the way forward in Christ is deep and true connection to God and each other.  This is where it all began and it’s where it will end up when all is said and done.

So, as brothers and sisters in Christ, the Body of the living Christ here on earth, embodying God’s belongingness in and for the world, we are not to fear the lie that tries to mislead us, or hide us from the pain and suffering of others. 
We are not to fear the lie that says violence is stronger than love, or that hating is ok as long as you direct it at the right people. 
And we are not to fear looking into our own souls and our own actions for the evil and sin that keeps us from belongingness and withholds it from others.

We are to confess them out in the open where salvation can meet them.  
And we are to live the crazy trust that God’s abundant and neverending love and steadfast belongingness is bigger than our sin, wider than our divisions, deeper than our pain and our alienation, and higher than our human goals and aspirations.  

God’s steadfast love is eternal and beyond us, and right here next to us; it embraces and claims us, so we can see each other, listen to each other, confront each other, forgive each other, and thank the Lord for God’s steadfast love, For God’s wonderful works to humankind.

This Psalm was written to be read out, sung out, spoken by a community as a kind of call and response; it was meant to be shared by a diverse gathering of people rejoicing together.  It places them within a bigger story, the eternal belongingness of God throughout history, in the lives of those gone before and yet to come, God redeems and heals and restores. And so it becomes an invitation to honestly recount the stories of their need, and share how God has been faithful in their lives, and to name where they need salvation now, and remember God’s belongingness that holds and heals them even as they are belonging to each other in this act of sharing it all aloud.

So here is what I would share:

Some were forced to acknowledge that their own actions had wounded another.  By avoiding conflict and distress, they’d let dishonesty and division grow.  They felt ashamed and dismayed at the further hurt coming clean would cause.
Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
And God delivered them from their distress:
God helped them look honestly at themselves, and confess to the person,
to see that forgiveness and reconciliation can only emerge when you tell the truth.
Let them thank the Lord for God’s steadfast love,
For God’s wonderful works to humankind.
For God persists in calling us to belonging,
and offers endless opportunities to make things right, even when it feels hard.

Some were watching their country in turmoil,
as deep sin and evil rose up from within and made itself known once again.
Anger, violence, sorrow and distress surrounded them,
And they felt like they were drowning in the noise of arguing and blaming, 
lamenting and shaming, calling to action and name calling,
and they longed for clarity, direction and hope.
Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
And God delivered them from their distress:
God brought them side by side with someone in silence to lift up this nation in prayer. 
God reminded them that forgiveness and salvation can only come after confession and repentance. And God showed them stories of people facing our sin and turning toward each other in belonging.
Let them thank the Lord for God’s steadfast love,
For God’s wonderful works to humankind.
For God brings life out of death, always, and God will never stop, God’s justice will prevail.

Let all who are wise give heed to these things,
And consider the steadfast love of the Lord.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *    *   *

Some helpful articles:
"What I saw in Charlottesville" 
"For Our White Friends Desiring to be Allies"
"How To Make Fun of Nazis" 
"The Power of Non-Violent Action: South Africa and Poland" (High school curriculum)

Sunday, July 16, 2017

On Prayer (and the two only ways to Not-Pray)

This summer we are trying out different ways to pray.  But it occurs to me, that we might want to take a step back and ask, What is prayer?

Perhaps we think it is something only especially religious people can do – or at least, only especially religious people are good at. (Watch how many potlucks and picnics are put on hold until the pastor can get there to pray).  Most of us don’t want to do it in public, that’s for sure.  Maybe prayer is something we feel like we should do before we eat or go to bed, or we find ourselves doing it urgently when things go wrong, often feeling guilty that we don’t do it more when things are going right.

But prayer is nothing more, and nothing less, than communication between God and us.  In that way it is both utterly simple and natural, and also pretty astonishing.  We were made to be connected to our Creator, each other, the world around us.  But that God wants to communicate with us? Wants to hear from us? Wants to tell us things? Amazing!

Prayer can happen anywhere, anytime. In the dead of night when fear grips you, flat on your back on the grass gazing up at a soft, sunset sky, naked in the shower when your mind is roaming, anxiously driving in a snowstorm, sitting in a heart-soaring concert.  Martin Luther famously prayed on the toilet.  Prayer is something we’re made for. 

And it’s not just talking to God with words. It is talking. It is also listening. It is receiving, and resting, and noticing and being quiet, and yelling and crying, laughing and singing, dancing, walking, and sitting very, very still. It’s thoughts in your head or words outloud, or a feeling in your gut, or a warmth in your chest. Think of all the ways a person can communicate without even using words!  Sighing, and body language, laughing, pointing, shaking in anger, weeping in joy. Prayer uses our senses, our bodies and minds and hearts.  It is the substance of our communication with God.

Anyone can pray. Everyone does pray - even if they don’t realize that’s what they’re doing. 
The point is – there is no wrong way to pray – it’s a relationship –hanging out with God in whatever way the two of you happen to be hanging out at the moment.

There are really only two ways to not-pray.
The first is to act like God isn’t here. 
And the second is not to show up yourself. 
If you acknowledge God is here, and if you show up too, you will be praying.

This may be harder than it sounds.  
We have all sorts of handy and habitual ways to ignore God, and all sorts of practiced and thoughtless ways to be less than fully present ourselves.  
In fact, much of what we might think of as prayer is actually Not-praying - it acts as though that God is an idea, concept, or belief, rather than an actual being who encounters us. Or else it's playing a role, going through motions, checking a box, rather than being fully and honestly present.

But in the two prayers we have before us today, we see a beautiful example of both recognizing that God is here, and showing up yourself.
David didn’t hide from God or sugarcoat things.   There is a particular kind of honesty, a kind of trust, to be able to say what you are really feeling and needing, without feeling the need to make the other person think the best of you, or protect their feelings.
David didn’t say, I’ve got this God. no worries. I’m on top of it.  I don’t mean to trouble you. He didn’t keep himself out of the relationship. Make himself seem ok, even when he wasn’t. He didn’t dismiss his discomfort or need; he let it all out.
Out of the depths I cry to you Lord!  Hear my voice! Listen to me! Please!

In both of these Psalms David starts by talking honestly to God, moves into to talking honestly to himself, and ends with talking to the community about God.

God hear me!
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits…
O Israel, hope in the Lord. For with him there is steadfast love...

And then,
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up too high….
But I have calmed and quieted my soul. Like a weaned child.
O Israel hope in the Lord form this time on forevermore!

Yesterday, inside a single day, I shared joy with someone I love who was excited. 
I was unable to take pain away from someone I love who was suffering.
I felt stuck in misunderstanding and sorrow with someone I love.
I felt ashamed and vulnerable about a weakness of mine on full display, and was embraced and unconditionally seen and loved in the midst of it by someone I love.
And I also caused pain and deeply hurt, to someone I love.  All different people.  In one day.  
Lord, if you marked our transgressions, who could stand? 

There is no way to do this perfectly, this living and loving and being in the world.  We will hurt others. We will be hurt. We will wander off, and come home, and do things we regret and do things we celebrate, and the whole big mess of it is something we can bring to God, plop down before him and say, From my depths I cry to you!
Our hope is not in our own ability to love well or live right, it is in God. God’s forgiveness, God’s steadfast love, God’s Spirit working in and through us.

God is here. And God expects us to show up too. 
We are here. And we expect God to show up too.

I wait for the Lord. More than those who watch for the morning.  
More than the father by the sick child’s bedside, counting down the hours. The worker on the night shift, the clock inching slowly by.  The sailor in the terrible storm, the traveler on a long flight, the child away from home overnight for the first time.

I’ve watched for the morning.  When Owen was brand new, I had the midnight to 5 am shift.  And sometimes I was awake for the bulk of it, bouncing, feeding, burping, comforting. And Oh, did I watch for the first sign of the sun peeking over the horizon, the light in the room to begin to shift.  For the hope that would meet me like I was crawling onto shore, I made it, I made it through the night, and it was going to be ok.

To wait for the Lord more than that... With all fervent desperation and staunch commitment to see it through.  There is trust there.  That like the morning sunrise, God will come. God will answer me. I will hang on.

This is what prayer does: It waits for God.
Wait.  Don’t rush to the next distraction. Don’t cave to the easy solution. Wait for the Lord. Sit in the discomfort. Feel how frustrated you really are. Cry out from your depths.
God will show up.  Prayer trusts God to show up.

And then – the other side of it – show up yourself. 
A weaned child, David calls his soul. A weaned child is no longer nursing, completely dependent on mom.  A weaned child is one who crawled down off mom’s lap and walked off on their own, felt the world, been knocked about, done things they regret, learned things they love, and then, in his metaphor, comes back to climb into mom’s lap and rest in her arms, to find comfort and peace. My soul is like the weaned child that is with me. 
 My soul had been bruised and battered, has explored, and made mistakes, and learned some things, and tried out life, and I bring it back to myself and hold it close and calm it. Shh. It’s ok. You’re ok.

My friend Jamie taught me to put my hand on my cheek, and say, Oh honey.  It is a way of summoning my soul back to myself when I am upset or overwhelmed. I feel my eyes well up often when I do it. I feel the empathy of seeing my own soul with compassion, as God sees it, welcoming it back, battered and bruised, to the love and care that God is extending to me. I may have been hiding because I didn’t feel worthy, or fleeing because I thought I’d be found out in my shame, or too busy and distracted to pay any attention, or racing too fast to catch up.  This move, Oh honey, brings me back to myself. It brings me back to God.

Tend to your heart. Discover your need for forgiveness. Accept it with gratitude.  Lower your eyes, set down your ego, coax your wild and weary soul back into your own embrace. Let yourself feel your scattered pieces come together and hold them, right here before God. Right here, and nowhere else.

Here I am Lord.  All of me. Right here. Seeing myself clearly, reigned in and ready. Waiting for the source of hope to meet me.

Around here we call that space where we wait for God and where we tend our souls, “Sabbath,” and we keep saying, forgetting, and remembering this: When we stop, God will meet us.  When we stop, God will meet us.

After a time, waiting for God and tending your soul, it happens.  There is a kind of thing that gently overtakes you.  A wonder, or gratitude, or confidence, or peace: a recognition of transcendence – that the Holy, wholly other than you, is actually here, can be trusted, sees you and loves you. And perhaps the feeling bubbles up as it did for David, the urge to announce it, O Israel! Hope in the Lord!  God cares about us! God will not let us go! Steadfast love! The power to redeem! God can be trusted until the end of time!

So far this summer, we’ve recognized God and shown up ourselves - with journaling, with movement, and on Saturday with clay.
Sometimes our heads get in the way. We overthink things, we try to make everything into words, we analyze and justify, and find it hard to quiet our souls and wait before the Lord.  On Saturday a lump of clay helped us out with that.
We worked it with our hands and saw what happened. For some, an image came to mind and they tried to shape the clay that way, for others, the shape changed as they went and it was more about the process. The clay became things we wanted to tell God, or things God might be telling us, or just a chance to play together.

You each got some playdoh when you came in. For the next couple of minutes, I invite you to work with it.  Don’t worry about how it looks, about artistic skill or anything like that, and don’t worry about what anyone else is dong with theirs.
Maybe for you it’s just a quiet stress relief to squeeze it, a moment that helps your mind quiet and be still.  Whatever it is, for the next couple of minutes, we are going to hold the playdoh in our palm and hold our heart open to God, and see what happens.  God is here, and we will be here too.
Let us pray.

*          *          *          *          *
O Lord, our hearts are not lifted up, our eyes are not raised too high;
We do not occupy ourselves with things too great and too marvelous for us.
But we have calmed and quieted our souls, like weaned children with their mothers;
   our souls are like the weaned children that are with us. 

O children of God, hope in the Lord, from this time on and for evermore.

Sin, Salvation, and the All-Encompassing Belongingness of God

If my week had a theme, it might be noticing sin. This week I’ve been forced to own up to the way I let a relationship go and c...