Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Way of Joy

Joy is the sneaky preview of the Kingdom of God.  
It’s a moment of accepting the gift of being alive, reveling in it, trying it on and feeling its fabric enfold you. It is perspective and gratitude, but not the thoughtful, serious kind, the kind that makes you want to burst out in exuberance and throw yourself at God for a giant bear hug.

Joy is the experience of total alignment and delight that makes you want to erupt into unsophisticated laughter.  We once talked together aboutjoy as “premembering” – remembering the future.  It only comes upon you when you’re right here, fully present, and then suddenly it takes you by surprise, grabs hold and pulls you to the window and says, Look! Look how beautiful it all is! Isn’t it amazing?!  Joy is a brief anchoring in the Big Picture, a sudden, unexpected taste of the real reality.

This Advent, each week we are contrasting the Way of Fear with the Way of God.  The two competing scripts, narratives that vie to direct our lives, that we’ve been witnessing in struggle throughout the whole Old Testament.  So to remind ourselves – the way of fear, we’ve also called the dominant script that we live by in our time, says that:
The powerful matter, the weak do not. Having more makes you better, your worth is earned, others are nothing more than a competition for resources or an obstacle in your way, they should be used to further yourself, or eliminated.  Life begins in self-sufficiency, and you’d better not screw up. You will be judged and ranked, and dismissed if you make mistakes or are no longer productive. There is not enough to go around so take what you can get before someone else does.  God is keeping score; we should be too. 
There is no time to stop or rest or let up for even a moment, or you will get behind, you will lose your place, and just have to “catch up.”  The goal is security at all cost, and almost all of the time the world is dangerous and urgent.  This script shapes life around the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of personal gain. That’s the Way of Fear.

The other Way, the Kingdom of God Script, we said, says that it all begins in gift, and abundance. You are made by God for connection and communion.  You are loved just as you are. You are not meant to be perfect, (there’s no such thing); you are meant to be you. On this journey of life that begins in gift and ends in connection and communion, the people journeying alongside you are neighbor, friend, brother and sister, not threats, rivals or competitors.  You need each other to be whole, and what we have is for sharing. Life doesn’t make sense alone and isolated and against; you are created for relationship with God and with each other, and there is no such thing as one without the other.  The goal is wholeness, connection and joy, and the world and those of us in it, are wired for this. We have everything we need, and would remember that, and live in that if we regularly stopped everything long enough to let God remind us. This script shapes life around “everyonehaving what they need” justice, “standing with you” kindness, and “attentiveand open” walking humbly with God. (Micah 6:8)  This is the way of God – the big picture.

So as we sit here tonight on the brink of Christmas, preparing to welcome God with us, we feel the pull again between these two competing narratives, and it may be helpful to pause  to remember why God came to be with us.
God didn’t come in to punish.  Didn’t come in to rescue certain ones out. Didn’t come in to teach us how we should be in order to be accepted by God.  All of these would put God comfortably in the way of fear.  They’d make sense to us in the way the dominant script says life works.
But, of all the craziness, Jesus says that he came that we might have joy, God’s joy, and that the things that keep us from joy would be stopped.  God’s intention for us is to bring us back in alignment with the creative maker of the world, to sync us up with the one whose joy spilled out and gave life and breath to a universe.  God came in Jesus that we might live fully the real reality, the Kingdom of God, the truth of the Big Picture, life as God means for it to be lived, here and now.

But we resist that.  In our everyday lives, in our communities, in the Church itself. We resist the absurd Way of God in favor of the rational Way of fear. 
There’s a word for resisting the way of God and living in the way of fear: Sin.
Sin is the lie that tells us who we are and who God is and who others are instead of the truth, the barrier between God and us, between ourselves and others, between ourselves and our true selves. 
Sin is what separates us from God. 
Sometimes we join in sin by the overt choices we know we are making, that come from belief in the way of fear- that my desires justify harming another, that my own self-preservation demands dishonesty, that something you have will make me happy or secure so I need to take it for myself.  Sometimes our participation in sin is inadvertent, accidental, or apathetic acceptance that allows the way of fear to dictate our time, money, relationships, and actions.  Going along with what’s easy and wrong instead of seeking what is difficult and right. Trying desperately to earn what is a gift.  Sinning is choosing to live as slaves when God has made us free. 
We are all impacted by sin, and we all sin, all the time. 

But God’s way keeps inviting us back to the big picture. Into the Way of Joy.  God’s way invites us to live in the real reality- that we are already set free, that we belong to God and not to sin. That we are secure in the promises of God and not in whatever we can make or build or prove.  In Jesus, God came into this world of sin, into this world of separation, God entered right into the way of fear, to share it with us, so that we are not alone in struggling here.

And God breaks open the power of sin, to set us free. 
One day the whole system will be overthrown, and the poor and lowly will be lifted up and the strong will be made weak, because what we believe makes us strong is all a farce anyway.  One day the way of fear will utterly crumble away.  One day all time will be different- measured by delight, instead of deadlines, counted out in laughter and tears instead of accumulated accomplishments. 
One day the real reality that is breaking through all the crumbling parts will be the only way left standing, the word of God that remains when all the rest falls away. So we are invited right now to live the true script, defiantly and joyfully in the face of the dominant one, because it the truth, and the future is breaking in.

So against this backdrop, comes our scripture addressed to a people in exile.  Having lost it all.  They'd succumbed to the Way of Fear, and turned away from God until everything they’d known is gone.  And now, they're just moving on as though that is the final word about them. It’s over. So live in the now. Adjust to exile; let go of what was and what you thought might be.  Accept that you’ve been beaten, and what will define you forever is sin, your separation from God, your choices that led you to here, and the things that made it easy to stay in the way of fear -this is who you are now.

They are bruised reeds. Dimly burning wicks. Done. Not good for much anymore. 

And surely that is what a God who punishes, who only rescues certain ones out, who shows us the way we have to be in order to be accepted by God, would have things be. Surely that is “justice”, at least as the world would define it.  With God comfortably defined in the way of fear, that would make complete sense to them.

But through the prophet in whom God delights, the voice who wont grow weary God speaks to them, and then three times talks of justice – mishpat-justice, that word we discovered means, “everybody has enough and all are cared for.” It promises this justice to a weary and worn out world that has given up. 
And then it invites the weary people to premember.  To find their purpose and their identity as the people defined by God’s way of freedom and hope, telling them they are to be bearers of God’s light, the people who remember the future and embody God’s connection and covenant to a world that is hungry to hear this news. 

The bruised reed and dimly burning wicks bringing hope to the rest of the world? 
Instead of either giving up, or surreptitiously propping themselves up and frantically keeping themselves from flickering out, like they should be?  
The vulnerable bringing good news?
In God’s way the ones who most need to hear the good news become the very best ones to deliver it. We saw that last week as well.  
Not because they’ve got it all figured out, or are so worthy or strong, or have never succumbed to the way of fear, but because they need the light and the freedom of God as much as the next person.

And because it’s not their news they bear:
Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it…
That’s whose news it is.  You can trust in this news. 
And the news is this:
You are mine. I have called you to be a light to the nations. I have given you as a covenant to the people.  You are my gift to the world.  YOU ARE the good news.  Through you I will open the eyes that are blind and set the prisoners free from their dungeons. 
You will be the people who tell the truth about the Big Picture.  You will be the ones who remind the world that we belong to each other, and that all are worthy of love and respect.  You will bring my balm and healing where there is pain and sorrow.  
You will be the ones who bravely share when the way of fear says horde, who say enough when the way of fear demands more, who forgive when the way of fear says punish.  You will be generous with your kindness instead of stingy with your courtesy.  
And I will give you the courage to look past the surface anger or ignorance because you know what fear is like, and you recognize it in all its forms. 
You will be the people who live plugged in, ready for joy’s jolts – delighting in the gift of being alive with and for each other and willing to celebrate the wonder of it.

You are the ones who I tell, even before it springs forth, that I am doing a new thing.  All around you, new thing is about to spring forth, is already happening, through you, alongside you, between you, and you are the noticers and the joiners, the celebraters and the brave proclaimers in this new thing springing forth.  That is who you are.

So sing out with joy! The very next verses say:
Sing to the Lord a new song,
   his praise from the end of the earth!
Let the sea roar and all that fills it,
   the coastlands and their inhabitants.
Let the desert and its towns lift up their voice,
   the villages that Kedar inhabits;
let the inhabitants of Sela sing for joy,
   let them shout from the tops of the mountains.
 Let them give glory to the Lord,
   and declare his praise in the coastlands.

Joy is powerful, friends. 
Boyount, ridiculous joy grounds us in truth.  
It shatters the false with real, tangible experiences transcendence.  It is light piercing darkness; it is shimmering congruence with the way of God. Joy trumpets out the Way of God, and backs fear into a corner with its overwhelming, unabashed celebration of life and living.  Joy summons us awake and gives us strength to stand in the darkness, within and around us, and courage to step out of sin’s definitions and demands, and embrace the deeper truth and reality of the Kingdom of God that holds us all.

O God.  Make us conduits of your joy! May we welcome your joy, when it erupts within us. Set us free from the things that rob joy.  Deliver us from the way of fear that we might live in the way of Joy.  In ordinary and extraordinary ways, may we bear for the world your light, and embody for each other your invitation to freedom and life. May we love so whole-heartedly that it breaks us open. May we really share in each other, in the lives of those we have been given to, so that we can feel the truth.   And may we watch for and share the good news that your promise is what endures, and your justice and peace will prevail.


Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Way of Hope

Horrible things are happening.
 They’re happening all the time, really, in every place. But sometimes, a people sits up and takes notice of the horrible things and says, no more. And that is happening here right now.  Sometimes the horrible things that are happening get the attention of many people at once, and get under our collective skin – past the worries and the habits and the routines of our day, they get all of our attention at once and we take notice and we say, no more.
And that can be a powerful moment – an important and clarifying moment, when a people takes notice of the horrible things and says together, no more.

And for a moment, when that happens, the veil is lifted and the way of fear is exposed. The way of fear tells me that there are good guys and bad guys and life is a struggle between the two.  The way of fear teaches me that suspicion, distrust, cynicism and tribalism are the best way to deal with those different than myself. 
These years the way of fear tells me that life should be lived in a state of emergency, urgency and threat.  And in this state, it’s ok to react instead of think, it’s ok to dismiss instead of engage, and everyone else is most likely a risk to your own security in some way or another and it’s ok to do whatever it takes to protect yourself. Security, by the way, is what matters most. Security – of my future, my home, our nation, status, property, bank accounts, identity, and reputation.  Achieve and maintain security, no matter the cost. And it costs some way more than others.  The way of fear is usually an airtight status quo that keeps enough of us just content enough, and just scared enough, to stay put and leave everything as is.

But suddenly, in our nation, the false security is punctured, the light is blasting in, and a people is saying, no more, to some of the horrible things.

Nowadays when something important happens, we plug ourselves into the screens and put the sound bites in our ears and feed ourselves on a steady diet of passion and politics and a never-ending stream of input, because we feel like if we are not paying constant, vigilant attention, if we turn our focus away, even for a moment, we are letting down those who are grieving, or missing out on something vital, or somehow not doing our part.  And the urgency is like a drug we can’t get off of, and before we know it we have absorbed the moment of clarity and self-awareness right into way of fear.
Because when we’re giving constant vigilant attention like this, things just seem to get louder and faster and some people get sharper and smarter but more of us eventually get meaner and judgier and more divided and desperate, and confused and hopeless until we weary ourselves of the whole mess and stumble off the merry go round and try to steady ourselves in normal life and feel a little ashamed and also a little relieved because, who can sustain that intensity?

And still, horrible things are happening.
And we’re not seeing a lot of them. We can only look one place at a time, for crying outloud.  So the refugees streaming from war-torn countries or the still-missing kidnapped girls, or the multiplying ebola victims or the heartbreaking poverty in our own city have their turn as the blip front and center and then fade away again or never even get noticed because it is not possible to hold it all at once. We are simply not capable. How can we be responsible for it all?

And right now, so many people are noticing something that has gone unacknowledged or avoided for a long time, and they’re saying, no more.  And it is so important to take notice.  And praise God for a people saying, no more!
But the truth is, there will be more.  
If not this, something else.  There is always more.
And that is heartbreaking to me.

I wish I could turn on a different channel and soak it in for a few days.  One that tells me the truth.  About the horrible things, yes, but also past the pontificating and solutions– I want to turn on the station that tells me in no uncertain terms, Here is your God!"
That God is here. In the middle of it all. That we are not alone.
That God holds onto the pain and the suffering that I cannot bear, is with those we are not watching, and no one is lost.  I want the channel that reminds me that the people are like grass, you and me, fickle and forgetful, and all that we’ve built up as though it is vital will crumble and blow away.
But that love, connection, shared humanity, and a strong and sure God who, like a nurturing shepherd, carries us in her bosom, remains forever.  Tell me about the Kingdom of God, the Big Picture, the real reality under our fake reality, the truth that every single human life matters, each person is deeply valued and loved and delighted in, where the gifts of each person contribute to the whole and there is nobody overlooked or underfoot – all belong and all are meant to be part of the big picture.

Tell me about how we need each other and how we’re meant to trust each other and how we will help each other and receive help whenever we need it. I want to watch the channel where the stories are about strangers reaching out to others until no one is stranger, about building life together, looking out for the weak and parentless, where nobody is hungry because we all share with each other, and nobody hordes or stockpiles money, or weapons or power or food or the high opinions of others because we all share so freely that it’s is not necessary to vigilantly protect ourselves from others, or at others’ expense.

Tell me about that kind of world. 
Is it coming, God? Is it here?

I catch glimpses of it in the longing of protesters and the rage of rioters  - the need for solidarity, the yearning for your justice and your rightness in the world- we have a deep sense within ourselves of how things are meant to be, how they should be!

But we’re full up with pain and anger and weariness, and opinions of whose fault it is that we’re so far off from that, or who should be the one to get us to it and what kind of steps that would take, and frustration that others don’t share our aim or our agenda or our strategy, or are always telling us what to think or believe or crave or do. 
So we’re either drowning ourselves in consumerism and the false cheer of another chipper Christmas season or we’re drowning ourselves in sorrow and anger and despair over our brokenness.  And right now the passion to change is at a fever pitch, but what happens when it wanes? Oh God! Let’s not let it wane! so we stoke the fires of anger and sadness in order to keep on caring intensely so that change might actually happen.
And either way we’re drowning. 
Either way we are still immersed in the way of fear.  It can feel so hopeless.
And there will be more.

Our text today is the word of God to a people in exile. Their homeland has been destroyed by the Babylonians and they are displaced and disoriented.  Fifty years now, give or take, they’ve either made do scattered who knows where, suffering and struggling, or settled into lives in Babylon. Some are in despair and suffering.  Others are getting comfortable in the empire- while Babylon isn’t their choice, and it isn’t their home, it is where they are living.  And if we’re comfortably living in exile, buying into the security the empire provides, perhaps we’ve lost the pining for the homeland – which is to say, if the kingdom of security and power and self-protection, keeps us just comfortable enough, and just scared enough, that we may stop longing for the upheaval of the Kingdom of God.
So as terrible as it is, when horrible things happening come to our collective attention and we sit up and take notice and say no more, we are at least recognizing things as they truly are, and telling the truth about them, and refusing, momentarily, to be lulled into placated acceptance that this is as good as it gets.

I feel hopeful when I see people saying no more – when I see outcries for justice. Not because I have any faith in people’s good intentions, or collective voice, or any other human-centered strategy to fix what is so broken within and around us.
I feel hopeful because it is points to real reality, where we all belong to each other and we will stand side by side and not let others be dehumanized. 
I feel hopeful because it is people briefly wanting to be who we were created to be, living out of our true image-of-God-ness.
And while I know we’re definitely going to blow it a few minutes later and make an enemy out of someone else or ourselves, in this moment, I am reminded that justice will prevail, that death doesn’t win, that love is stronger than evil, and that God is at work, in and through you and me and ordinary people everywhere. God, who comes with might and draws us in gently, is the real sovereign, the real authority, the maker of the Big Picture, and the rest of it will fade and wither like grass. 

I once asked a Benedictine Monk about evil. Real, terrible evil that afflicts people and causes genuine suffering and terror.  What is the best way to fight it? I wondered. 
He looked at me and said simply, there are two ways to fight evil. One is go directly after evil. Study it, pursue it, go after it, become adept at recognizing it and dedicate yourself to eradicating it. That is one way to fight evil.  The other way is to go directly after God. Immerse yourself in love and kindness, prayer and gratitude, search for points of connection and glimpses of redemption and opportunities to forgive and spend time with our maker. 
Seek first the Kingdom of God.  The Big Picture.  Be drawn into God’s way of life.  The way of hope, and draw others along with you.

Comfort my defeated people, God says. Tell them I see them.  And they’ve paid way more in suffering than they ever deserved for whatever they’ve done. Speak tenderly, though, they’ve been through a lot.  And they’re pretty hard on themselves. Gently, let them know they are free. Lead them into the way of hope.

With all the glaring non-stop light of our televisions and smart phones and breaking news and speeding traffic and artificial trees and neon sales and florescent malls, Advent speaks tenderly and offers Comfort. Truth. Honesty. Hope. 
Advent is the time of sitting in the darkness.  Sitting in the darkness but not in the fear.  Sitting in the honesty of what’s really within us and between us and around us, and trusting that God is with us here in this darkness. And when Advent begins like it did for us this year, when a floodlight is shone onto our streets and into our souls and reveals ugliness and pain, suffering and struggle, the darkness of Advent is a gift.
Advent is the night shift nurse after the painful surgery, the quiet, turned-down sheets of healing sleep.  There is nothing here in the darkness that isn’t out there in the light – the wounds remain and the recovery continues.  But here, in the shelter of Advent, waiting for God, we can talk about the hard things and the sad things and the confusing and frustrating things, and we don’t have to be afraid.  And where fear is put to rest, hope is born.

In this text, the comforted ones, those who needs tenderness and care and a gentle word of hope, are also the ones told to get to the highest mountain and declare that God is here.  The broken ones are called the herald of good news. 

Our only security is in the promise of God.  Everything else will crumble and disappear.  
The future that is coming, even now breaking in, it’s God’s future. It is not our own.
It is not our job to make it come; it is our privilege to welcome it each day.
It is not our responsibility to bring it about; it is our invitation to join in as it unfolds.
There will be more.
Horrible things will happen.  There will be more evil and pain and suffering than we can bear. And God sees and holds it all. More than we ever could.
But there will also be more love and peace and joy than we can begin to fathom.  And we are called to live fully and joyfully, to weep with those who weep, and dance with those who dance, and to live in the real reality, trusting in and pining for the Kingdom of God, and inviting each other, even now, to live into the day when the way of fear will be no more, and God’s way of hope will be all in all.  

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
 and all people shall see it together. 

So get you up to a high mountain, 
O herald of good tidings; 
lift up your voice with strength, 
O herald of good tidings, 
lift it up, do not fear; 
say to a weary and wary world, 
"Here is your God!"