Sunday, November 16, 2014

The general or the prophet

On Friday morning Maisy awoke to discover that her water bottle from her bedside table had tipped and spilled all over a school library book, soaking the cover and causing the pages to ripple.  In terror, she realized she would have to confess this to Ms. Storms, the dreaded school librarian.  All morning long she anguished, tried to find ways out of it, tried to reason her way past the fear, but it clung fiercely. 

Just before it was time to leave for school, when she was still very upset, I went to the basement to retrieve my snow pants, because, naturally, I would need them walking to school on November 13 when the windchill hit -3 degrees. I noticed, while I was there, an extra pair of snowpants that Owen had outgrown the year before. 
When I reached the top of the stairs Maisy mentioned, out of the blue, that her friend Wyatt had been missing recess because he didn’t have any snowpants.

“Maisy!” I said “I just saw that we have an extra pair that is probably just his size!”
Her face lit up and she said, “Oh Mom! Let’s bring them!” 
So I went back and grabbled the snowpants, and she found a bag to put them in and mused over how excited Wyatt would be to get them. 

After a minute or two, she looked at me, a bit shocked, and said, “Mom! I don’t feel scared right now!” And we marveled at how, when she moved momentarily from worry to generosity, from fretting to sharing, her fear lifted and she felt alive.
It didn’t take all the fear away, but I watched her walk to school, her eyes alight, as she deliberately chose to focus on Wyatt and the snowpants instead of Ms. Storms and the library book.  They were both waiting for her when she arrived at school.  She was going to have to face both of them.
But somehow, when the moment came to speak to Ms. Storms, instead of the tentative, terrified and teary girl she had thought she would be, she was calm, and nervous but clear-voiced, as she took my hand and walked steadily to the librarian’s desk, and faced down her fear, knowing that she was more than a book-wrecker; she was a snowpants sharer too.

Last week we talked about living between two different scripts. That these two scripts are all around us, and are certainly all throughout the whole biblical narrative.
In the Dominant Script, we said,
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, 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. That’s the first script.

The other one, 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.

One is the script of fear.  Today we'll call that the voice of the general.
The other is the script of hope.  That one is the voice of the prophet.
One shapes life around the avoidance of pain and the pursuit of personal gain.  The other shapes life around “everyone having what they need” justice, “standing with you” kindness, and “attentive and open” walking humbly with God. (Micah 6:8)

And daily, we are given many, many chances to choose which way we will live, and which message we will believe.  On Friday, my daughter faced that choice head on.

Today we come to a story in our journey with the people of God where things are looking pretty grim.  They are faced with another chance to pick a script, to choose which way they will live and which message they will believe.  Will they listen to the voice of the general of the voice of the prophet?

Great Big terrifying army is right at the doorstep, and it has wiped out everything in its path- literally decimating cities and killing every inhabitant.  Assyria is a force to be reckoned with.  And little Jerusalem seems not to be able to stand a chance.  And now Great Big is taunting, loudly and publicly, the general is roaring, logically and convincingly, inviting all who hear to shift allegiance to the powerful side, because we all know how this is going to go down. And the idea that somehow “god” will save them is ludicrous!  No other “gods” have done any saving of any other people is army has wiped out on their way here.  Call it what you will, Great Big blusters, but when it comes down to it the power is ours, and we will destroy you either way.

But then little tiny is reminded that there is a different narrative.  And it’s not just that they will be somehow, miraculously saved from obliteration.  It’s that, even more than simply avoiding destruction, God has a purpose for them.  A really lovely, hopeful purpose, beyond what either side can see in the moment. The voice of the prophet says God wants little tiny to bless the whole world. To take the very weapons of violence and make them into tools of life-giving community and sustenance for all. 

And even though logic and might is on the side of great big, and even though it looks like little tiny will certainly be crushed, still, little tiny is invited to live defiantly into a different view of the future.  They are invited to move from worry to generosity, from fretting to sharing.  They are called to trust that God will sustain them, and even more, that God will use them to bring life and hope to the world. 

This is a strange text, perhaps, for stewardship Sunday, but I love that it has fallen in our laps today. Because, perhaps it’s actually perfect for stewardship Sunday, when it asks us, Which voice will you listen to? Which script will you live in?
You get this one life. How will you live it?
We get this shot at being this community of followers of Jesus Christ together. 
How will we live it? 
If it’s all gift, given by the generosity and grace of God, inviting us to join Jesus in sharing life with each other in love and hope – how will we play the hand we’ve been dealt? 
How will we spend the years, the days and hours, the resources and relationships that we have? 
What will they be for?

For many months, your ruling elders have been committed to sitting in the questions of discernment, to seeking and listening and not rushing and not being driven by anxiety or pressure or worry or fear.  And this month Session made a very deliberate choice yet again, to live in trust instead of fear. To be guided by purpose instead of worry.  To recognize that the ministry of this community is God’s and not ours.

But, this only works if God is real and is leading us; it doesn’t work if “God” is just a belief or an idea made of platitudes and doctrine.  Because if God isn’t real, if we say that God is real, but in our hearts God is just an idea, and the Christian life is just about trying to do good things or be good people, then we should probably listen to the voice of the general, that says, You’re tiny, Can you even afford a pastor? You’ve been spending down your endowment forever – at the rate you’ve gone you only have a couple of years left!  The fact that you’re still here is just luck.  There is no future for you.  Why don’t you just give up?  You’re going down eventually anyway.  The Church (capital C) is going down; just look at all the evidence of your irrelevance!  You’ve been beaten, little tiny, it’s time to face the facts! 

But the voice of the prophet, gently asserts that God says to us:
You are mine. I have a purpose for you. You are not just to exist or survive; you are a beacon of hope and a place of sanctuary!  You are given to each other and those around you to share each other’s burdens and joys, and to seek God together. I will provide for you, I always have and I always will.

I am the God of Abraham – remember him? And Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rebekah, Joseph, and murdering, stuttering Moses.  Remember the Egyptian army and the red sea and ‘Be still and God will fight for you’? Remember David? And Solomon? Remember how I’ve said again and again that I don’t want great sacrifice and perfect purity and impressive tributes of glory, but simple justice and loving kindness and attentive humility that seeks me?

Which voice will we trust? 
The general? The powerful voice of might and logic? 
Or the prophet - who says God uses the weak and the broken, calls the unexpected and the unimpressive, works through the less-than-perfect instead of the have it all togethers – (whoever they may be)?

Friends, we have not got it all together.  
We are sometimes a little disorderly, and often noisy, and from time to time we drop the ball.  And we are small, with a lot of old people and a lot of kids, and the people in between are stretched thin, so we don’t look like a convincing, get-it-done kind of crew.  Let’s just say a gambling person may not bet on us.  The general certainly wouldn’t advise it, anyway.

But we are faithful and loyal and attentive, and hopeful, and we have got decades of standing-with-you-ness under our belts—we know how to share each other’s suffering like nobody’s business. And we aren’t afraid of doubt or differences, and we are joyful, and creative and full of life, and we long for life and joy in the communities and people around us. We are seeking and we are hungry and we are broken and blessed.  And when we trust God we keep on finding ourselves blessing others and receiving blessing unforeseen.

If this life is about competition and power, and it requires self-sufficiency and the pursuit of perfection, then what we do here is more than irrelevant; it’s ridiculous.  It’s absurd to invest any time or money or belief or hope into such vulnerable people and such a homemade little operation; there are far stronger more impressive things you could be involved in.  You should listen to the general.

But if this life is about relationship with God and each other, and it requires trust and dependence on God and a little bit of honesty and bravery, then perhaps the very worst position to be in is strong and self-sufficient.  Maybe very farthest we can get from grace is when we believe we have got it all together, or when we’re obsessed with the awareness that we haven’t.

Fear is so powerful. It will define life as a battle and make you want to hoard and hide and hunker. 
But love is more powerful. And when reality breaks in, when the Kingdom of God punctures through our layers of fear and self-protection, we see each other and ourselves as we are: beloved children of God.  Not just book-wreckers but snowpants-sharers too.  Those called to live in defiant resistance to the message of fear, in the joyful generosity and extravagant hope of our calling. Those not too proud to be something God can work with.

So the story goes, King Hezekiah, on getting another taunting threat letter from King Sennacherib, now calmed by the voice of the prophet, is able to go into the sanctuary himself and approach God, and he prays,
God, you alone are God, you made all things. See what this King of Assyria is saying about you and is threatening to do to us?  He’s right, he did destroy all the gods of the other people they’ve conquered, but those “gods” were just made of wood and stone, and were not real. You are real. And you are God. And we are your people. Please save us.

And God does.  The scripture reads that the entire Assyrian army is “struck down in their sleep by an angel of God”, and King Sennacherib, who headed home after receiving a message, is killed in his own town, worshiping in the house of his god, by his own sons. 
And archeologists and historians can’t explain why Jerusalem was not destroyed in the Assyrian rampage that swept through the land, but for some reason Jerusalem survived.  And the people chose to live by the voice of the prophet instead of the general, they were guided by hope instead of fear, and they remembered that they belonged to God, and God had called them to a join in a world-healing purpose beyond themselves and their own survival.

And in the end, it turned out that Wyatt’s snowpants had come in the mail the day before, so Maisy donated the extra ones to the classroom for the next time someone needed them. 
And along with a lecture about mold’s alarming capacity to destroy libraries and the proper care of books, Ms. Storms showed Maisy great empathy. “I bet you felt really bad, didn’t you?” she asked her.  Maisy nodded, her eyes brimming up. “Well,” said Ms. Storms, “I know that you are a conscientious girl, and that you love books too.  Thank you for telling me what happened. Now I can take care of this book and maybe even save it.”
And Maisy walked away whispering to me, “Mommy, that went way different than I thought it would!”  And she hugged me and bounced off to class.

And I stood there in the elementary school library flooded with gratitude to God for meeting us in these tiny, ordinary encounters that show us what is really real – in the moment that generosity reminded my girl that we are all connected, pulling her from the isolation of fear into the possibility of blessing, in the moment Ms. Storms became a fellow human beings alongside her in this problem instead of a symbol of judgment and condemnation, in the chance to hold my daughter’s hand through something hard and watch her be honest and brave, and in the gentle and exquisite reminder that indeed, God is with us in all of life, and it is all gift.

I know which voice I want to listen to.


Monday, November 10, 2014

Living which script?

There are two stories contending for you and me, what Walter Brueggemann describes as two "competing scripts," we all live within. (1)

One goes like this:
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 managed, controlled, used to further yourself, or eliminated
The one who dies with the most toys wins, life begins in self-sufficiency.
There is not enough to go around so take what you can get before someone else does
God is keeping score, and so should we.
We’ll call that the Dominant Script.

The other one is the truth that God has been seeking to communicate with us in countless ways from the beginning of time, and that is this: It all begins in gift, and abundance.  
You are made for connection and communion. On this journey of life that begins in gift and ends in connection and communion, the people traveling 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.
We’ll call this the Kingdom of God Script

If you listen for the scripts –  you'll hear them everywhere around us. We are constantly being told the Dominant Script is true, and from time to time, experiencing life-giving glimpses of the Kingdom of God Script. 
In fact, it wouldn’t be too far off to say that to be a Christian means to be people who are forced to live in that tension all the time, or even to say that tension lives within us.  
We can’t escape the dominant script of our culture – you can hear it in virtually every news story, every ad, every political message or pressure to succeed, in our fear of death, fear of the other, fear of failure.  We're ranking, comparing, keeping score, silencing those who expose the script or don’t fit it, judging ourselves and others for falling short.  

The reason we need each other as a community, that we worship together and pray with each other, and share each other’s joys and burdens, and confess, and speak out forgiveness, and hear words of hope, and don’t just go about our lives with our personal relationship with God is that we need to hear, taste, touch, feel, see again the other script.  The noise of the dominant script is so loud and surround sound that it threatens to drown out the truth. 
So we get together with others, refusing to be defined by the dominant script, remembering together what is true, and finding together the strength to live out the simple truth in the face of such prevalent lies. To be connected, and encouraged, and empowered go from here watching for and seeking opportunities to live into in the Kingdom of God script instead of the Dominant script, is the reason we are Church.

Jesus exposed the Dominant script everywhere he could, and invited people into the Kingdom of God script every way he could.  But the tension between these two scripts goes way back, and are all stirred into Israel’s dealings with each other from the very beginning.

By the time we get to Micah, Israel has known what is to be defined by God’s love and care, in a relationship of trust and dependence, and they’ve also known what it is to be on top.  They have had beloved leaders like David, and kingdom builders like Solomon, but they’ve also seen the script of self-sufficiency and scorekeeping invade their beloved and wise leadership (and their corrupt and evil leadership too), with pursuit of power, flexing of might, ignoring the weak and impressing the strong.  
And in Micah’s day the twelve tribes of Israel – which were descended from Jacob’s sons – have split into two kingdoms. The Northern Kingdom is ten tribes who broke off after Solomon’s reign; the Southern Kingdom is the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and Micah lived in a rural part of the Southern Kingdom.  As a prophet, Micah blasts the political and religious leaders for operating in the dominant script, seeking power, working for personal self-gain at the expense of the greater good, allowing the poor to be overlooked, failing to maintain true justice. He prophesies in a time where the Asyrian army was conquering throughout the land and was now hovering on the outskirts of Jerusalem in their quest for world domination, (and, indeed, they end up taking Jerusalem as well).

In case you think this current model of leadership will continue, Micah declares in a prophesy we hear again in Advent, you should know that a new leader will come, one as of old, from the boondocks far from the center of power, Bethlehem.  In weakness, not power, in obscurity, not fame.  The leader, who reminds us how things are meant to be from ancient days, does not follow the dominant script, but comes instead in the Kingdom of God.

Then we come to the second part of our reading – in which there is an imaginary courtroom set up, with the earth and mountains standing as witness and jury, and a grieved, sorrow-filled God demanding an answer from God’s people:

Listen to me! How have I offended you? Remember-  I am the God who delivered you from slavery? I love you, I have guided and saved and protected you. See how I love you? How could you abandon my way?

And, because we write God into the dominant script, making God in our own image, the people answer,

What do you want from me, God? What would satisfy you? How can I get you off my back? What will shut you up, please your ego, appease your anger? Give you the glory you must be craving? Do you want rivers of oil? Ten thousand? My own kid, would that be enough?

 But God is not like us. So Micah tells them,
God has already shown you what is good. What you were born for, how it is all supposed to work. What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?

Let’s spend a minute with this response. It’s fuller and more profound than we can tell at first glance, and it gently reminds the people again of the real script. 
We’re going to hear a little bit of Hebrew!

What does the Lord require?
Require is darah. It is not like a test requirement or a harsh expectation. It has undertones of affection – it is like a child requiring her mother’s love and flowers requiring sunshine; it has a sense of interdependence in it.  It’s a seeking, and in the Old Testament is used both for how lovers need, seek, long for, one another, and for how a careful shepherd seeks a frightened lost sheep. 

What does the Lord require of us? Doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.  One scholar explains, “God seeks them, yearns for them, and frankly needs them from us as intimate partners in God’s adventure down here.” (2) 

On Tuesday I stood in the voting booth looking at the names of judges, which usually is a complete guessing game. But this year, I knew a bit more about the candidates.  I found an online guide with interviews with the judges so you could see what they stand for. And, based on those answers, it seems that God’s requirement of doing justice and loving mercy should be in contrast. One judge articulated very well a commitment to justice, fairness, punishment for offenders and firmly sticking to laws, another expressed a more compassionate sense of mercy, understanding, recognition of the humanity of those who stand before the bench.  
Which one should prevail?
Here, in God’s alternative script, they are not in contrast at all, they are woven together, interdependent and essential to one another.

Doing justice.  Mishpat.  Mishpat is not about punishing evil and rewarding good. It is not about fairness. It means ensuring that everyone has what they need.  
Do that kind of justice – caring for the neediest among you, it’s active, not passive. It’s in daily choices of resisting competition and seeking equity, of lifting up other instead of serving only ourselves.  Of noticing those being left out or struggling, and reaching out to bring them to the proper place, alongside each other.  
God is not asserting that those with power be fair, God is “inviting all of us to be sharers, to build a deeper, richer kind of community.” (2) 

Loving Mercy/Kindness– Hesed. There isn’t even a word that comes close to this in English.  It’s "loving-kindness," compassion, with a fiercely loyal commitment to stand by each other no matter what.  It’s a word used all the time for God’s covenant relationship with us, and is, in fact, the very fabric of our life together in the Kingdom of God.  Standing-with-you.
And we are to love it- to wake up thinking about it, and watch for it throughout the day, and revel in it, write songs about it and, let it invade us and shape us, this standing-with-you-ness.

And finally, Walking Humbly with God – hatzn’a.  This is a really rare word in ancient Hebrew, so rare that scholars are not completely not sure what it means.  It could be translated something like, attentively, wisely, carefully, or with humility.  It’s to move about our lives in the simple truth about ourselves and God – honesty about who is we are and who God is. 
So just in case we want to import the words “Justice” and “kindness” into our dominant script, and judge ourselves by how well we’re doing justice or loving kindness, measure others by their failure to do either one, compete, rank, score points with God or others, or even guage how humble we might be at the moment, we are reminded that we’re called to be honest and attentive, human alongside other humans, broken, struggling and imperfect, with a God who loves us with a hesed kind of love, and who is calling us always and ever into a mishphat, hesed, hatzn'a kind of life in the world. And we are to focus on that God, instead of always measuring our own or others’ worthiness.

I want to take a few minutes and listen together as Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest, describes the reality God is calling the people back to, and give us a chance to contemplate how Micah’s words might call us back as well. Listen, as he speaks, for the contrast between the dominant script’s version of things and the Kingdom of God mishphat-justice, hesed-standing-with-you-ness, and hatzn'a-attentive humility.








God of justice that knows no end
Kindness that knows no bounds
 And humility that knows no pride,
Stir within us the desire to know you deeply
Follow you fearlessly,
And live our lives as a prayer to you.
Amen. (2)

 (1)  Check our Walter Brueggemann's piece "Scripts" on The Work of the People.
(2) Thanks to James C. Howell's book, What Does the Lord Require? Doing Justice, Loving Kindness, Walking Humbly.  
(3) Prayer by Kathy Wolf Reed.