Sunday, September 18, 2016

Work, Rest, Repeat, (aka. Trust Training)

Every night for the past ten years, beginning around 8 pm and going for the next two or so hours, the boy who lives next door to me practices his saxophone.  Summer evenings with windows open I can hear him anywhere in my house.  But winter too, his saxophone is the sound that surrounds me when my kids have headed off to their rooms and the house is quiet. Over the years he’s gotten better and better, and now he’s heading off to college on a music scholarship.
I am sure he stands in a tuxedo in front of a hushed audience in some grand setting and plays beautiful songs. I never hear those songs. I am not sure I’ve ever heard any whole song from beginning to end. I hear the scales. Up and down, over and over and over again. I hear snippets of things– sliding between tricky notes- replayed, replayed and replayed.  I hear the drills.

Owen recently joined a swim team, and I watched him begin to learn drills. For 90 minutes his first night he swam laps with the other swimmers, while the coach corrected their form. The goal is to learn the patterns of strokes and breathing so well that it will become second nature – they will be able to do it without thinking about it. 

These musicians and swimmers are developing muscle memory.
Muscle memory is a fascinating thing.  Repeating a movement over time creates long-term memory for a task, until it can be done without conscious effort at all.  This amazing thing means we can walk and talk at the same time, we can ride bikes while navigating to our destination or noticing our surroundings, and type emails without having to think about where each letter is and choose every time to push it. 
But it takes repeated practice for a movement to become muscle memory.  When we are first learning something we are awkward and slow, stiff and easily interrupted. It requires intense, or at least focused, concentration.

Have you ever thrown a pot on a wheel? Every point of it has to be broken down for you – how do you center the clay on the wheel to even get started? That’s two or three classes right there. How do you sit? How do you hold your back? Every fine point is consciously taught and learned.  The right amount of pressure, where to put your fingers, the heels of your hands, your elbows and shoulders. But true artists, and the teacher in front of you- drop a blob of clay down on the wheel and deftly push and pull until a beautiful pot emerges.
Muscle memory.

It turns out that our Creator understands how we are wired.

Our texts today come from two places.  
The first is the Sabbath command in the Exodus version of the ten commandments.

If you recall, when the ten commandments were given, the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt for four hundred years.  All they had known, for generations and generations, was slavery.  Someone else dictating their life’s value and purpose. Holding to the stories of your God and faith, your identity behind closed doors and tucked away at home, every day out there, your time was spent making bricks for Pharaoh.  Healthy and strong, you work. Sick or old? You’re expendable.  A baby? – future slave in the making.
Your existence in this society is based on what you produce for the empire.  That is how your hours and value are measured, every hour, day in, day out, for 16 generations.  Talk about muscle memory.
So when God delivers the Israelites out of Egypt, flooding into the wilderness across the red sea, the Pharaoh’s army washed away beneath its waves, when God began leading them to what would be home, the Promised Land, there was some work to do. There were things to unlearn and some new muscle memory to form. 
Slavery they understood. Freedom was a different matter altogether.

The ten commandments –the ten words – are a powerful description of what life looks like with God in charge instead of Pharaoh.  Here is how free people live, God says. I am going to teach you. To lay it out carefully and give you fine tip pointers on each movement because you are going to be practicing this and I want you to get it right and not have to unlearn it again.
You belong to me-  I am your God.
You do not belong to the empire. Your life is not measured by what you produce. I will not be ranking and sorting you by what you can do for me.  I
nstead of constantly seeking to work hard and continue to meet the expectations and approval of those over you, so that your individual lives are valuable enough to preserve, know this: your lives are already infinitely valuable to me. I love you all – young, old, healthy, sick, strong, weak; you are all my children.  
I want to teach you to live from gratitude and love, instead of fear and self protection. So here are the rules you should consciously follow, practice these and you will begin relearning how it’s all supposed to work.

The longest and most unusual commandment among them– the hinge command between the ones that deal with how we relate to God and the ones that deal with how we relate to other people – is this Sabbath command.   Rest. You are to stop everything. Put down all your work, and simply be.  You and your children and your animals and the people just passing through – once a week, you STOP.

I can’t imagine there were stopping days for slaves in Ancient Egypt.  This must have been the strangest and most foreign thing. Don’t work? How will we measure our worth, protect our lives? If we aren’t working, what should we be doing?

And even more mindblowing then this command to stop, is why you should stop. Because God stops. Do you think the Pharaoh stopped? Clocked out for a few hours?  Absolute power and authority is dangerous and requires vigilance.  Heavy is the head that wears the crown, despots sleep with one eye open.

But God is so secure in what God had made, that God steps back, looks at it all, calls it good, and rests. God takes time to enjoy this incredible thing that is life, in all its beauty and intricacy.  And since you are not, in fact, a beast of burden, but rather a being made in God’s own image, you should STOP too. You should rest too. 
You should step down from your throne, away from your desk, out of your driver’s seat, and be in the world. A person, connected to other people.  A creature, alongside all these creatures that live under the sun and sleep under the moon along with you.  
Trusting your place in God and the universe around you is secure, you should enjoy this life you are part of, celebrate it, take it in, and rest.

But here’s what’s so great about God’s process with the Israelites – these people who had to work non-stop and scrape together their existence, who learned to depend on themselves for their well-being because no higher authority in the empire was going to be looking out for them - God said, Don’t hunt, don’t gather or farm. Don’t work for your survival. Instead, every morning, I will provide food for you. Manna– which in Hebrew literally means ‘What is it?” – will fall from heaven while you rest, while you are sleeping safely under my protection – and when you wake, you are to gather only what you need for today. Because there will be more tomorrow.

And they hear what God says, and it sounds really good. 
But then they gather extra anyway, because, who knows what tomorrow brings?  And old habits die hard. But when they wake up they find the extra manna they gathered rotten and smelly and crawling with maggots. So not only is day-old manna inedible, it’s completely pointless to try to plan ahead or store up extras.
They are in TRUST training school. 
Every day. God provides. 
Wake up rested, gather your food for the day, go to bed without a crumb leftover. 
Repeat the next day.

Except there is a fascinating exception to this pattern – Sabbath days. On those days, they are to gather extra the day before and save it up.  On Sabbath days no manna will fall – because God rests, and no manna is to be collected- because the people rest. And the manna from yesterday is enough for today, and it stays fresh and sweet and doesn’t go bad.

And so they start doing this pattern. Trudge through the wilderness. Gather manna for six days. Gather extra the sixth. Rest the seventh. Repeat.

Drills. Practice. Building muscle memory.

I read that when a pianist hears a well-trained piece of music, her fingers are often involuntarily triggered as though they are playing it right now. Her concentration and deliberate choice is bypassed and her body simply responds.
Muscle memory internalizes complex actions, the notes of a song, or movements of a stroke, or pressure of your hands on the clay, and when it does, the practiced musician or swimmer or potter is able to focus on other aspects of the act- the meaning they are trying to convey through their work, the speed and power they are contributing to the race, the beauty and detail they are imparting to their piece.

This is what God is after. 
Just like a saxophone player doesn’t practice scales so he will be really good at scales, God is not teaching them how to rest so that they will be really good at resting.  
Resting teaches them to trust.

If they get good at this pattern, so that it becomes part of them, their attention becomes directed not on survival, production, looking out for themselves, or defending against others. 
Instead they are able to take up the role God has called them to – to be stewards of creation, and bearers of blessing for the world. To know God and be God’s people – caring for each other and the stranger among them, tending the world around them.  
The rest is a way to remember who they belong to, so they can begin to see what their meaning is, where the beauty is, how to join in fully.

But it is going to take drills. So so many drills. 40 years of them, actually.  
Gather manna for six days. Gather extra the sixth. Rest the seventh. Repeat. 
Wander the wilderness guided by a cloud in the day and pillar of fire at night. 
Gather, gather extra, rest, repeat.  
Practice these commandments, these new perimeters God had given you –  which all boil down to these: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Repeat.  
You could spend a lifetime – and may of them did – learning these two things.  But if you are practicing it over and over again, it might become muscle memory. It might change the way you see the world. You might actually, neuroscientists now know, rewire your brain.

When we say we are a congregation that practices Sabbath, it doesn’t just mean that twice a month we meet on Saturdays instead of Sundays.  
That pattern is one drill. 
Like playing scales and swimming laps, it is designed to get something deep into us so we don’t have to think about it, it just is part of us.

But it takes repeated practice for a movement to become muscle memory. So, work-addicted people in a 24-7 culture of competition, pressure and anxiety trying to do “Sabbath”? Oh my word is it hard! When we are first learning something we are awkward and slow, stiff and easily interrupted. It requires intense, or at least focused, concentration.  Chores call out and Facebook beckons, the next urgent distraction and pressing requirement bombard us.  Things encroach and we want to turn aside to them in a second. Over and over we are distracted and drawn into doing- because that is what we are used to doing. We have to actively work at not working.

But over time, it gets easier.  Like the scales. 
But this drill is not merely so we know the drill better. 
We don’t rest because we want to get better at resting- though certainly that will happen too.

We rest because God rests. 
We rest because our lives are centered on a non-anxious creator and lover of the whole universe who made us, and loves us, and calls us, and gives us everything we need to join God in caring for the world and each other.  
Resting teaches us to trust.  
It trains us to orient our being toward the one who loves us.

So when we say we are a congregation that practices Sabbath, we mean:

We belong to God instead of the empire. In other words, our life together is defined by trust instead of anxiety, generosity instead of stockpiling. 
We open our doors to as much of the community as we can fit and say, this space is not ours for us, it’s ours to share and take care of so you can use it and find respite and sanctuary here.  Because we belong to God and all that we have is a gift from God.

We look every month at what money came in, and regardless of what our bills are, we take 10% of that, and then we look around us at the world for people and places bringing life and hope on a shoestring and a prayer, and we mail them that money.
Because we belong to God who provides for our needs and asks us to care for the world.

We invite our children to lead us, and we share with each other when things are hard or messy in our lives, and we try new things even when we might fail, because
Because we belong to God and we have nothing to fear and nothing to prove. 

In live and in death, we belong to God.

Being a congregation that practices Sabbath means Trusting the One to whom we belong. 
It means we are doing the drills so that faith, not fear, becomes second nature, and our attention can be directed to the meaning, and the beauty, and our participation in the big picture.

When the Pharisees, forty eight generations after their ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, ask Jesus, which is the greatest commandment – and Jesus answers, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength,” – he is saying this: practice belonging to God. 
Do the work of remembering – with your thoughts and your body and your feelings and your time and your money and your ambition and your gifts and your everything – that you are not a possession of the empire. 
You are a child of God. Orient your being toward the one who loves you.

It is because the one we belong to loves us that we can rest.  
Rest is practice orienting our being back toward the One who loves us. 
Work, rest, repeat. And let trusting God become muscle memory.


Sunday, September 4, 2016

A message right to you

1 Corinthians 16 (all if it, but especially vs. 13-14)

Last weekend Andy got a bug to clean out the basement storage area, and he plunged right in. I didn’t realize it was happening until I heard the dragging, thumping and banging, and the occasional shout of an unintelligible swear word that comes when something gets pinched or whacked, a sure sign in my house that a construction job of sorts is well under way. By the time I came down to investigate, tubs of baby clothes and Easter baskets, a treestand and a typewriter, empty luggage and over a dozen full boxes of college and grad school notes were pulled out of storage and piled around the playroom, and he was dismantling the shelving piece by piece.  It’s been ten years since those walls have seen the light of day, and there was some work to do to get everything “back up to code.”
 In the midst of the chaos, I poked around in a box or two and found some old journals of mine, which I carried upstairs and spent some time reading this week.

These journals are funny and sad, boring and captivating. There are things I remember differently than I wrote about them and things I didn’t remember at all. I felt strongly about some things that don’t matter to me anymore, and some of my thoughts and beliefs that have changed a lot. There were dilemmas I was in the middle of that found resolution, and prayers written in great longing that I can look back on now and see clear answers to. Mostly, I marveled at how open and transparent I was with God.  Each entry is addressed to God because journaling was, for most of my life, my primary way of praying.  There is celebration and gratitude, anger and frustration, confusion and doubt, seeking, wondering, doing the best I could, failing and learning.  My life unfolding in connection to God.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the Bible is a kind of scrapbook of faith, the story of those who’ve gone before and their unfolding connection to God.  The Psalms are like journals written to God, honest and rejoicing, struggling and angry.  There are and letters and lists, poetry and prose, so many different and diverse individuals and communities and God’s relationship with humanity in the midst of their real life. All of it pointing us to: Who is this God? And what is God up to?

I love this closing chapter of 1 Corinthians that we have before us today simply because it’s so weird.  We don’t know what to do with it – it’s not in any lectionary; I have never heard any sermons or read any commentaries on 1 Corinthians 16. It’s just so darn ordinary. It’s the end of a letter, Tell so and so I said hi. Be nice to so and so when they come, they can be a little annoying. I keep trying to get so and so to visit but he is being stubborn about it.  I guess he’ll come when he’s good and ready. I really miss you. I am planning to come but want to stay a long time and not just pass through. All these other people say hi and hang in there, they’re praying for you.
It’s so obviously pedestrian that I get a little bit of awe - like finding a baby picture of your grandma, or pictures of ancient artifacts of dinner dishes buried in an Egyptian tomb – it makes me stop suddenly, struck with the awareness that we’re all just ordinary people. They were just living their life.  This chapter of 1 Corinthians says, This really is a letter; these people’s struggles and questions were real, their longings and their mistakes, their hopes and their dreams, their arguments and their bad habits – they were really wanting to follow Christ and live the faith alongside each other. And so they wrote and received letters.

And all that we’ve seen Paul talk to them about in this letter – scolding, encouraging, frustrated and joyful – had an impact in their community-  their actual lives were changed by this letter.

Paul blasting them for dividing themselves over who they first heard the gospel from – Has Christ been divided? Was Paul baptized for you? And admonishing them to be vigilant about rooting out division in all the insidious and subtle ways it creeps in… Someone received those words and felt convicted. Somebody thought, “He’s talking about me! What have I done?”  And then they had to talk about it and forgive each other, and new ways of relating were established because of what he wrote to them.

And when Paul talks about the true wisdom –that we all belong to God and we all belong to each other- that God came in weakness to share suffering and not in might to save the perfect and the powerful, it goes so radically against the world’s wisdom and logic that they needed to keep hearing it again and again and again. I wonder if that portion of the parchment was worn thin, read over and over, passed around and discussed in hushed tones and wonder.

Paul noted how – even perhaps accidentally – their meals together leading up to the Lord’s Supper were not reflecting the true communityof God. They were held in a rich person’s home and rich folks came first and sat in the best spot and ate their fill before the slaves got off work and the poor people made their way on foot.  And even though they said, and believed, they were all in this together, this meal in here looked a lot like the lies out there.  So he said, Don’t you dare sit down to this meal – don’t you lift that bread or cup -  without first seeing your brother and sister alongside you, really seeing them. And really seeing yourself- all of you, sinners in need of forgiveness, and saints sharing in the holy healing work of God.

And then they had to go have a communion together after reading this! They had to suddenly hold off the food until everyone got there. Stop the ones who started eating too soon. Figure out a new place to meet maybe, or a different time of day, that shifted the power dynamics.  Notice where they were sitting, who was being greeted first, and ask themselves if it reflected the kingdom of the world or the kingdom of God? They had to see their sin – their separation from God and each other-  to own it and repent for it, to see each other and try things a different way.

And then, when he talks all about them being all one body, all different – each with gifts just as valuable as each others – and that it is love that makes the whole thing move, what did that feel like to read?  Did it make them look inside at how they had discounted their own contributions, or look around and see for the first time the profound impact of the quiet ones, and the generous ones, and the hidden ones who don’t get noticed but, it turns out, hold the whole place together?
Did they find themselves growing in love for one another, when they realized love isn’t something they can muster or perfect; it can only be received and shared? How did it feel to acknowledge their weakness and celebrate each other’s strengths? How did look to own their blaming, boasting, critiquing and jealousy, and deliberately let love be the true guiding force within everything they did or said?

And then the death part- the part of the letter Paul saves for last – that part about how Jesus’ resurrection means that death no longer has the final say about life –and that death is not, in fact, the end. That the sting of death is sin – it’s power to separate us from God and each other, to degrade and destroy and stunt a hope and a future – that that power is taken up in Christ Jesus and defeated, so that one day there will be no more suffering, and all that is wrong will be made right.  And in the meantime, Christ has died, Christ has been raised, death’s say is temporary, and the conclusion of everything is God’s love.  How was that for them to hear? These people who were struggling to make sense of all this? To let this bizarre claim that Jesus was raised from the dead actually shape them? How did it impact their regular lives – their sleep, their waking hours, their work and their prayer, the way they treated each other, the way they saw their own bodies and futures, when they began to see that the final word over it all is not death, but life? Did it make them braver? More open? Did it give them a new lens to see the world around them - precious to God and being redeemed?

And beyond all this, the letter is filled with so many more particularities that we didn’t get into this summer- real world problems and questions these people struggled with, and in response to them all Paul keeps hammering home these truths –You belong to God and to each other, everyone is valuable, quit finding ways to separate yourselves from each other and from God, that is sin. The love of God endures forever and it claims you – you can live bravely instead of fearfully, you can use your gifts to contribute to the well-being of everyone, you can seek God, and be honest about your weakness and your need for forgiveness, you can celebrate with each other and grieve with each other because God’s love holds you, and now defines you, and you can trust in this love, because it will never ever end.

Imagine receiving that message by courier, and cracking it open! And not just in generalities, but in the very situations you had found yourself mired in! The very places you were doubting God’s love, breaking connection with each other, struggling to understand, wishing you were seen. Imagine what a gift, and a challenge, these words would be!

Right now this little diverse community, in all our quirks and oddities, is gathered here, and we come with all different burdens and worries, or own questions, struggles and situations.

We’re in the midst of transitions – and even good change is almost always both hopeful and fearful. We are so excited to be soon officially acknowledging Lisa’s calling as a pastor to this congregation, believing that by her sermons and visits, her teaching and her care, God will keep leading us to love each other more and seek Christ in all things. 
But also lots of people around the country have been waiting for Lisa to be ordained for a really long time, and suddenly, for a short time, a lot of attention will be on our little congregation. And I feel protective, a bit, of the gift that it is to be in this Jesus-following thing with each other, and the faithfulness with which we try to share each others’ burdens and joys, and seek God together. And I don’t want that to be overshadowed or swallowed by other people’s perceptions and noise.

Along with this, after eight years, my job is changing a bit to include writing. And some people here might feel anxious that it means I wont be as available, or that my focus or attention will drift away from this community. And I feel anxious that people feel anxious about that. Because I love this church, and I love being your pastor, and I am completely committed to you.  
And at the same time I feel both grateful, and nervous, that this calling to write about what God is doing in our lives, in my life, is being recognized by session as part of the ministry God is doing here. And in the middle of all that anxiety and hope, as one person said, “We will have to trust God and trust each other.”

And we all have questions we would ask Paul if we could. 
We wrestle with our voice and our role as Christians, and frankly, humans, in the midst of a vitriolic election season. 
We struggle with how to parent our kids or support our grandkids in a break-neck paced world with competing voices everywhere. 
We’re faced with our own mortality and weakness in half a dozen different ways. 
We see violence and hatred around us, and fear seems like a more effective, or at least more prevalent, response than love.

Change is scary and life is hard, and it all makes us sometimes doubt what we trust in, and fall back on the wisdom of the world, the always available way of fear: hunker down and divide, compare and rank, hide your real self for fear of judgment, judge others, count your money, horde your resources, build up your boundaries, and let suspicion and apprehension speak louder than faith, hope and love.

I wish Paul’s letter was written right to us. That we could read it addressed right to our own circumstances…
But that’s the power of scripture, beloveds, because it is
We believe the Holy Spirit speaks right to us, through these words written in a letter long ago to an ordinary group of people who were learning how to live in the freedom of Christ.  What God wants us to know and trust and see and change comes to us through their experience, because we too are an ordinary group of people learning how to live in the freedom of Christ. God was with them. God is with us. These words are to them. These words are to us.

So after all these weeks we’ve lived with the messages of this book, watching how they interact with our lives, helping us ask, Who is this God, and what is God up to? In our world, in our hearts, in our homes, in our relationships and our questions, I love that in this last, rambling chapter, Paul leaves this nugget:

Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.

And so I will hold that in front of us today. Sisters and brothers:
Keep alert: Stay open, pay attention.
Stand firm in your faith: hold to what you know to be true.
Don’t back away from your trust in God.
Be courageous: Give it all you’ve got. Speak up, reach out.
Be strong: resolute, tenacious and steadfast.
And let all you do be done in love. Everything. Every word spoken, every action taken.  Love is meant to be what holds us together and propels us forward, it is the lifeblood of it all.

I am thankful to the Corinthians for all their screw-ups. I am thankful they had the courage to write and ask their questions. And that they really longed to love each other, and that they really sought to turn their whole lives toward God. Because their experience of God and life together shapes our experience of God and life together.

And I am thankful for the people in this room. I am thankful for all of our own questions and struggles, and our longing to love well and our seeking to turn our whole lives towards God. Because your experience of God and life shape my experience of God and life.
And so it continues.