Sunday, July 6, 2014

soul-rest, forgiveness, and other things we resist

On Wednesday I picked up a tired and happy kid from camp. They had a wonderful time, swimming, boating, singing, campfiring, bible studying and running around wild with credit at the canteen and nobody to tell them to brush their teeth.  The parents gathered with their dirt-smudged kids in camp t-shirts at the closing worship, and after some goofy camp songs, which the kids sang with gusto, the camp director stood up front to wrap up the week, and he said, “Hey Kids! Camp has been great, hasn’t it? When you leave here, remember this, camp is a mountaintop experience, but what matters is what happens when you get home.  You go home and be good.  Make good choices.  Be a good kid those other 51 weeks of the year. And then come back to us next year. OK?” 

And I felt sick to my stomach.

Because kids at camp experience God.  In the gentle lapping of the water at sunset when the stillness and motion enter your soul and you feel the deep quiet inside where God sometimes speaks.  In the satisfaction of singing at the top of your lungs, and the encouragement and space to ask hard questions and to pray with people who aren’t your parents, and the silly jokes that start to develop with others as friendships blossom, and the creativity of a hut filled with craft supplies and another hour of free time stretching out in front of you, and the unrestrained joy of running and kicking a ball to someone else with nowhere else to be but here, and the freedom and safety and encouragement to simply be a kid.  They experience God.  It’s not hard to declare a blessing and send them home in that awareness.  But it is hard for us. It’s almost impossible. 
We’re nothing if not good at resisting grace and trying to find a way to earn what is a gift.

So instead of lifting up the gift and sending them home in gratitude, we’ll put a heavy burden on kids, lock a yoke on their necks.  Be good. Make good choices.  Make God and your parents proud.  I don’t blame the director too much - he was trying to say something helpful, perhaps even something parents expect him to say.  And thankfully, hopefully, with the fatigue and excitement of reuniting with families, not many were paying attention anyway.  But this is what we do.  We take the gift of God’s love and acceptance and turn it into a commodity to be traded and bartered and held over one another and withheld from ourselves. We begin young, figuring out how the system works and how to work it to our advantage.  So much so what when wisdom personified, grace made flesh, love incarnate walks among us and invites us into life, we point out what he’s doing wrong and refuse to listen. 

Jesus says as much.  To what will I compare this generation? He asks. You are like kids who’ve stopped doing what you love for the joy of it, and now you play baseball with one eye over your shoulder to see whether your parents are pleased or disappointed, and you decide whether the picture you’ve drawn is a good one not by how it made you feel to watch it appear in all its color and brilliance on the paper, but by the response the grown ups give you when you hold it out in anxiety before them.  
In fact, you’re even more jaded than that. You are like the kids who get frustrated that you can’t get other people to react like you want them to- and you’re so caught up with manipulating a response from others with your music and your tears that you’ve forgotten what it was like to laugh in abandon, and lose yourself spinning to a melody, and to weep openly with honest sadness; you’ve forgotten what it was like to simply be children.  You don’t remember how to receive, and you’re too afraid to be real.

Here’s what I’ve experienced from you, Jesus says, You wont listen to what God is bringing to you, no matter how the message comes.  God can’t get through to you.  Who would you listen to? Not John who came before me – you said he was too harsh and strange, and out there with the locusts and honey thing going on, he just didn’t eat enough.
Not me, I eat too much; I turn water to wine and hang out with sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors. You can find a solid reason to reject any messenger or message from God.  Who would you listen to, I wonder? If God could be just exactly what you want, condoning the things you condone and rejecting those you reject, relatable and not too inflammatory, then you’d listen? You’d listen to the sound of your own voice coming back at you and call it God?

Then he goes on to call out all the places he has been, where, as he says a few verses earlier,  ...the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. These places where Jesus has stood among them, offering hope and healing, offering real power in the chance to be made new, and they have not accepted him.  Included in this list is his home town of Capernaum - he pulls no punches, and it’s clear from this rant that he is not concerned with what people think of him, or with playing the game they want him to play. 

Then comes the crux of it. Exasperated he raises his face to the heavens and starts one of those mid- argument prayers. I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants…

So what is it that infants get that the brilliant and learned can’t seem to grasp?  What is it about children, that Jesus says we must become like them to enter the kingdom of heaven?

It’s not cognitive knowledge, and it isn’t self-awareness, or grown up self-consciousness.  Power and might are the last thing infants possess, and it’s certainly not the ability to make great choices all the time and never let people down. Infants have no resumes and no capital to spend, they can’t take the entrance exam or schmooze the meet and greet or complete the assignment on time or impress a soul with their vast ability or significant deeds.  
To be an infant is to be helpless and simply you. Infants are known and loved, cared for and belong simply because they are. And they are children of their parents, their identity is from the ones who gave them life. 
They belong not because of what they do or how they do it, not because they play the game so well or because they’re qualified for the position or because they neither preach with brimstone in the dessert nor indulge in lavish meals with sinners and outcasts.  
Infants cry when they’re sad and laugh when they’re happy and it wouldn’t occur to them to imagine you feel anything for them other than unconditional delight and devotion.  
My needs will be met.  
I can rest when I am tired. 
I can eat when I am hungry.  
I can trust.  
I can sleep without fear.  
I am held.

Woe to you, places I have been.  
If you had seen what I was really offering you would have repented. If you had really listened to my invitation, you would received this connection to God that sustains you and makes you whole.  
You would have repented of your oppression of the weak and your self-serving, money-grabbing, approval-seeking game-playing, and all the other things you do to justify yourselves in others eyes and your own.  You would have been set free.  You would have become like a child.  Instead you choose shackles, a heavy burden, and your own destruction. 
Come to me you who are weary and weighed down by many things- I will give you rest. My yoke is easy and my burden is light.  In the love between the Father and the Son, the love between a mother and her infant, you can set down your striving, and be honest about yourself and your need, and you will find rest for your souls. 

Are we able to receive the gift that Jesus is giving? Are we willing to be seen for who we are – even in our weakness and our sin, and let God’s grace enter in?  It means letting go the tools of power over others, and also the ways we dismiss God and the ways God’s message comes to us so we don’t have to hear what God has to say. It means stepping out of the game of self-justification and admitting we are weary; it means welcoming the rest that Jesus brings. 

When all is said and done, what I wish had been said to those tired, happy kids after all the silly camp songs is this, “Hey Kids! Camp has been great, hasn’t it? When you leave here, no matter what happens, remember this – you are children of God.  You belong to God, who knows you and chooses you, and sees you at your best and at your worst, and loves you no matter what.  You’ve gotten a taste of that this week, a reminder.  Don’t forget that other 51 weeks of the year, and come back next year and we will help you remember it again.”


Sunday, June 8, 2014

Hopers and Dreamers

This week a line of kindergartners 68 children long snaked its way up the sidewalk and through our front doors, and down into the basement of this building.  I stood with the door open welcoming them, and they looked up at me with bright curious faces and said Hi!- nearly every single one.  They were here to visit their new school, being renovated across the street, and I was invited to join a small group of them for a tour.  I took my place at the end of the line, and looked ahead at a dozen bobbing dark heads as we crossed the street, a dozen tiny bodies in bright orange and dark navy t-shirts that read on a dozen small backs, “Ask me about my hopes and dreams.”

Our session dreamed some dreams last March. We sat in a room and laid out in front of us everything we could think of that was happening in the life of our congregation. We read and absorbed all the congregations’ shared observations. We had pages and pages of lists on sticky newsprint on the walls and the floor.  We held it all up before God and asked what was next.  We talked and prayed, and then we waited. And waited. And we left the retreat without answers, but a clear sense that we were to keep holding these things and keep waiting.

And I couldn’t help but think of that as I oohed and ahhed the new windows and sanded classroom floors along with my tour-mates, standing in a space of hopes and dreams, and thinking about how all that is happening around in the life of this congregation, including being there with these little ones, was opening up of hope and stepping towards realizing some dreams of our own. 

Hospitality. Jan and I sat on the basement floor eating bagged lunches with them that day and imagined a bit into the future.
What will happen to us in the Fall?  Who will we be then? Because we will be different than we are today.  To them we will be: the church across from my school!  (We are already, I was told by one of the little girls, “The church I went to once for a party.”) Will we be: the church where I wait for my dad to pick me up? The church where I go for help with math? The people that come and read to my class?

Who are we to the kids at St. Joe’s? The people who make space for my prayer? The people that listen to me? The people that share books with us, or helped us build our labyrinth where I go when I need to quiet my insides?

Who are we to our neighbors? The folks whose garden I water? The people who helped me with rent? The people who give lemonade and bathroom breaks to the playground building volunteers?

Who are we in the Church? The people who honor and value the gifts of all? The people who seek to follow Jesus alongside others? The people not afraid to risk, and gentle with each other in the bumpy places? The congregation that offers rest, and permission to stop, and a place to explore the gifts of peace and sabbath?  The people who are not afraid of differences and stand with others in honesty and love?

Pentecost is the beginning of the church, yes, but it really is the moment when the Spirit gets out ahead of the disciples, pulling them forward into the future that God desires for them, for the world.  When all the dreams of those who’d gone before and the lessons learned and the prayers prayed and the experiences experienced seem to be pointing to something that isn’t a conclusion or a summary or a regret or even a gratitude. 
It’s a calling.  It’s movement.  It’s motion. 
The Holy Spirit is out ahead of us, pulling us forward into the future that God desires for us. 
We once said of ourselves “God is doing something here that incorporates the past and leads us into the future.”  Pentecost invites us to that future, it compels us to have visions and dream dreams and in the process opens possibilities we never envisioned and dreams we didn’t even know to dream.

What is the Spirit doing ahead of us?  What is the Spirit doing ahead of you?  How are you being called forward into the newness breaking forth in the world? Which is to say, where are the surprising moments that make you feel like you are part of something bigger – even little moments, like walking unexpectedly one lunch time in a line of tiny hopers and dreamers toward their future, wondering how it will change the trajectory of our future?

You know it's the Spirit when you’re blown as if by wind from the places you’re hiding in safety into the place where you risk being known by others. 
You know God is going out in front of you and calling you forward when others are welcomed in whom you wouldn’t seek out.
It’s the Spirit when it’s messy and a little out of your control.
It’s the Spirit when you find yourself living into gifts and using language you didn’t know you had, or maybe that you that you’ve never been brave enough to test out. 
It’s the Spirit when it makes you want to love the world more, and helps you see Jesus there.
When it’s the hope and dreams that move front and center, instead of the fears and worries, that is the Spirit of God.

The disciples didn’t manufacture Pentecost. They didn’t produce it or strategically plan it.  They gathered together in prayer and waited for the power of the Spirit. And when it came it wasn’t what they expected. But they were ready nonetheless.
And the Spirit gave them the languages – all different – to speak the hope and love of God in many different ways to many different people, one message with many voices – Jesus, still meeting people exactly how they need to be met and telling them just what they need to hear to bring them to life. 

And then all together they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

And Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. Living into this blessing that has grabbed hold of them and propelled them forward.

Here’s one thing

you must understand

about this blessing:

it is not

for you alone.
It is stubborn

about this;

do not even try

to lay hold of it

if you are by yourself,

thinking you can carry it

on your own.
To bear this blessing,

you must first take yourself

to a place where everyone

does not look like you

or think like you,

a place where they do not

believe precisely as you believe,

where their thoughts

and ideas and gestures

are not exact echoes

of your own.
Bring your sorrow.
Bring your grief.

Bring your fear.
Bring your weariness,

your pain,
your disgust at how broken

the world is, how fractured,

how fragmented

by its fighting, its wars,

its hungers,
its penchant for power,

its ceaseless repetition

of the history it refuses

to rise above.
I will not tell you

this blessing will fix all that.
But in the place

where you have gathered,




Lay aside your inability

to be surprised,

your resistance to what you

do not understand.
See then whether this blessing

turns to flame on your tongue,

sets you to speaking

what you cannot fathom
or opens your ear

to a language

beyond your imagining

that comes as a knowing

in your bones

a clarity

in your heart

that tells you
this is the reason

we were made,

for this ache

that finally opens us,
for this struggle, this grace

that scorches us

toward one another

and into

the blazing day.

We are a Pentecost people, and this blessing is not for us alone.  We are hopers and dreamers, pulled by scorching grace toward a world filled with people longing to be asked about their hopes and dreams.  We are watchers and listeners, noticers in waiting.  May we be ready for the Spirit to pull us into the future.