Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanks-giving and what it does

The world feels sad and scary just now.  And for some, it may feel like denial or naiveté to deliberately turn to gratitude.  Perhaps we start to believe we are accomplishing something by feeling the weight of the world in every moment, so by stopping to give thanks, it looks like we’re stepping away from our post.

But that couldn’t be further from the truth.  
Gratitude is not trite.  It is not shallow.  It comes out of suffering and survival, and it demands honesty. In fact, grieving opens us to greater gratitude, and gratitude opens us to  deeper grieving; they are both aspects of being alive and paying attention. Gratitude recognizes that life is filled with tragedy, or at the very least anxiety, and it acknowledges our finitude, but at the same time it notices that our very existence is a gift from God; it points us again to that truth. It helps us come awake again.  

Gratitude happens only in the very moment we are in.  “This moment is a gift!” gratitude exclaims, “Life is such a gift!” 

With all the noise, and sorrow, and guns, and advertisements, and fear, and campaigning, we get distracted from the real reality that is here within it all.  Sometimes we stop seeing the presence of God, but God is here.  Sometimes we miss the beauty, and the love, and hope, and the human connection, and forgiveness and compassion, but here it is, leaking into everything through the splits in the seams.  There is no suffering Christ is not sharing, no situation that God is not right here in the midst of, bringing life out of death and light into darkness.

God is God and we are God’s beloved children. Every one.
And one day, when time is no more, there will be only wholeness, abundance and peace, life, wrapped in eternal gratitude. 

The dis-membered world needs people who re-member.  Who notice and celebrate and say Thank You.  And we need it too.

Gratitude brings us back to home base, and plugs us back in to love and hope so we can join in God’s reality around us and between us.  When we allow ourselves to stop in the moment of thank you, for that one moment the real reality of God is breathlessly tangible.

So today when we look across the table at those who we love and wish we could love better, and sit side by side with our joblessness and our cancer, our autism and our anger, our stupid mistakes and unfulfilled goals, and every scary, broken, sad and violent thing happening in the world that presses in on us and feels so heavy and overwhelming, these things are not the biggest or most powerful, or more real thing in the room. Or in the world.

And if you can’t feel it today, that’s ok too. It’s still real. God is still here.  Life is still a gift.  Love still wins, and hope still prevails, and light still shines in the darkness and will not be overcome.  And some other time when you aren’t expecting it, it will tap you the shoulder and flood you with wonder and awe.

So when thanks-giving comes for you – whenever and every time it comes, let it come. Welcome it. Without judgment or hesitation, let it sweep through you and buoy you up in the timeless and eternal promise that tastes like laughter and feels like joy, in its deep-sigh, tear-filled contented stillness.  Let your body practice the truth that your brain sometimes forgets: your heart open and free, remembering, rejoicing, defiant and hopeful and grateful. Give Thanks.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Holy Work of those who don't turn away from Love

This weekend I was remembering when, a few years ago, I traveled to Kansas City to visit my sister’s family.  I stayed in the bedroom of my then 8-year-old nephew, Vincent, amongst legos and bugs pinned to velvet plaques, stars glued to the ceiling and collections of books about dogs.  After he’d oriented me to the important things in his room and left me alone, I realized there was music playing softly. It was a cd with the Sunday school songs I had grown up with: Jesus loves me, I’ve got the joy down in my heart, Jesus loves the little children, Oh, how I love Jesus, and others, on a mellow cd where they were paced, I discovered, to match the beating of a heart.  The cd was set on repeat.

When he came back in I said, “Vincent, that music is so relaxing.”
He said, “Yeah, I think so too.  I like to sleep with it on. Hey! maybe you could too!” 
So when I went to bed that night I did not turn it off.  Throughout the night when I would stir I would catch morsels of music, words that I had grown up hearing, comfortable, familiar, somehow part of me.  They wove themselves in and out of my dreams.  When I awoke, the songs of my childhood and my faith gently called me back to day.

“Keep these words that I am giving you. Recite them to your children.  Talk about them when you are at home and away, when you lie down and when you rise..."

You are my children who I delivered from the land of Egypt. I am your God.  You shall love Yahweh your God. 

It’s all God has ever wanted.  Back and forth this tumultuous relationship goes throughout time – from the beginning when God breathed it all into being and placed the tree of God’s vulnerability among them, Choose me, choose life, I will show you the way to live fully, wholly. And instead they choose not to trust the God who loved them, and to look after themselves and turn against one another. And on and on it goes, rolling through centuries and millennia, God’s relentless love and humanity’s turning away, and God’s absolute refusal to let them go.

There are lots of reasons, I suppose, why people turn away from love.  In this story, they don’t even know yet that they have. 
What is it like to have lost your memory? To have forgotten who you are, what shaped you, where you come from, where you’re going? What is it to be not just one, but a whole people like this? Yesterday disregarded, tomorrow uncertain.  Trapped in eternal present, and unpleasant present, at that.

So what, then, was it like for them when those scrolls were opened?  What was it like to hear a story that was true about you and you never knew it? What was it like, after more than a lifetime of ruthless, unpredictable and oppressive authority, lawless self-preservation, fear and corruption, to being gathered one day in the square, by your young king and told that when cleaning out and repairing the temple this was found:  the law, the ten commandments, the history. The word of God. 

What was it like to hear the words aloud that your ancestors wrote, a message from God in their voice, guiding their lives and it was supposed to guide yours too, but you’ve never even heard of it before?  Like learning your own middle name for the first time.  Discovering you’re adopted, or that you’ve got a whole family of people you never knew, or that you’re incognito royalty.  It’s the Aboriginal lost children of Australia stolen from their people and raised in white homes hearing their language for the first time. It’s a dug up time capsule not only introducing your ancestors but blowing misconceptions about your own identity out of the water.  It’s an opening of your own past that completely alters the present and rewrites the future.

I picture stillness over the crowd, barely a breeze, rapt attention and dead silence, not a throat-clear among them, as the words are read:

My people, here is who you are! And here is how I designed life to work best, together and not just alone, for others and not just yourself, giving and not just taking, sharing and not hoarding, resting and not just toil. Each one treasured, all together belonging.  Forgiven, free.  Here’s the relationship you were meant for – with me, with each other.  You belong to me. I have chosen you for a special purpose in the world – I will care for you and you will live within my care so that you can care for others.
And the crowd holds its collective breath as these words sink deep into their souls.

And the most painful and poignant part of all of it, I imagine, is standing there listening when the words are read, Whatever happens, my children, Do not forget this!
 In fact, rehearse it, Teach it to your children, talk about it when you’re awake and dream it when you’re asleep, Discuss it over dinner, leave post-its lying around, tuck it in your purse and have it in your pocket and Literally stick it to your own forehead so you don’t forget.  It’s that important.

And you’re standing there hearing this as the third generation of people who’ve completely forgotten.  You’ve never told it to your children and you never heard it from your parents.  You’ve never discussed it over dinner let alone carried it with you in your pocket or plastered it to your forehead. You’re hearing it for the very first time. 
All the ways it could have been. 
All you’ve done that you can’t undo.  All you would’ve done differently had you known. Hope and shame comingled. 
Joy and sorrow welling up and spilling over.
All together you stand there remembering what you never knew.

Huldah the prophetess knew.
She recognized the scriptures when they brought it to her.  She told them what these words were and she told them what God was waiting to say when they finally looked up and noticed God again. 
How did she know?  How could she be the one-  she, and not even the priest - who could speak with confidence when the people were finally ready to hear again the truth of their situation?  How did she alone remember?

She was not alone. The prophets, who pointed out all the heartbreaking ways things were not as should be, and who energized the people with the promise of a future different than the pain of the present, these prophets did not exist in a vacuum.

 They came from communities, tiny remnants of people who remembered the story, who were raised with it as part of their lives when everyone else forgot.  They listened to the songs as they fell asleep; they heard the tales over dinner and rehearsed the lessons in the fields or the streets.  They prayed to Yahweh, and shared life with the living God when everyone else had left God long before for lifeless idols of their own making.

Even when the whole people had forgotten, even when perhaps nearly all the copies of the book of the law had been lost or destroyed, even when the kings of Judah was behaving worse than the worst of their enemies, and the cruelty and suffering was unending, there were some who remembered. Some who kept the memory alive for the rest of them.

It is said Huldah, and her relative Jeremiah the prophet, were decedents of Rahab and Joshua – Rahab, the prostitute who helped the Israelite spies into the Promised Land, and Joshua, who fought the battle of Jericho, Rahab who is mentioned in the geneology of Jesus, and Joshua who stood shoulder to shoulder with the other children of God on the verge of the promised land, as these children now stood, all together, listening to the words of God spoken out to them, never forget.
 And they didn’t. For centuries the offspring of Rahab and Joshua nurtured the message, passed it on in the milk to their children, whispered it in prayers, breathing it in at their waking to the sun and exhaling it every night as they scrambled into bed – Yahweh is our God. Love him only.  Yahweh who delivered our grandparents out of slavery – calls to us still. Each and every day. This is whose we are. This is who we are. We are children of the living God.  Never forget.

And so this they become keepers of the truth that the rest of the world has forgotten. They let it fill their bones, their dreams, their blood and heartbeat.  They live their lives, and teach their children to live, awake, and from them come prophets, who can answer the questions when they are finally raised again.

All around us is a world that has forgotten. Even when we momentarily remember, every single day we ourselves keep forgetting.  Whose we are. Who we are. 

There are those who would like us all to be ruled by fear.  Unspeakable violence and total disregard for human life and dignity, is their weapon of choice. 
And there are also those who use subtle lies to prey on biases that make us mistrust each other and close ourselves off into camps of us and them. And so we perpetuate stereotpyes, and swallow falsehoods, and believe that we ourselves are never, ever good enough, but we are so much better than them, whichever them we chose to despise most at the moment.

And the forgetting continues. Because hate makes us feel powerful, and security is an irresistible attraction, and strength is so much more enticing than weakness. 
There are lots of reasons people turn away from love.

But now, I am going to tell you something true about yourself and about us, and I want you to receive it, to take it in: 
You are part of those who don’t turn away from love.  
One day all the world will know again the love of God, will live in love, and peace, and justice, forgiveness and generosity, and for now, and we are part of the people who keep that reality alive, who live and breathe and have our being the One who is love.

We help each other watch for God, and follow God, and see the world as belonging to God. We rehearse the real reality by remembering the faithfulness of God in the past, and telling the stories that have shaped our journey as individuals, as communities, as the church, as God’s people, in scripture, in our lives.  We hold that memory together, on behalf if the world. It is our holy work.

In fact, prophets are grown here.  
Look around the room, together, we are prophet.

So that means that we must grieve together that things are not as they should be. 
We must lament in honesty together; talk about what separates people from each other.  We look open-eyed and open-hearted at injustice and brokenness and suffering and horror. 
Because here is the kingdom of God-  we grieve when someone else is grieving. We stand in solidarity with someone else’s suffering. It is what makes us who we are.  Instead of denial or anxiety or avoidance, we openly name death in all its forms and we mourn it.  And not because we’re somehow exempt from it, but because we participate; even in our own lives we’re part of what shouldn’t be.  
So grieving together, on behalf of the world, is our holy work.

But we also practice hope. 
We live out of promises yet to be kept, we find strength from God’s future to treat each other as God sees us, we find courage to live unafraid to reach out to others, to see and be seen, to listen and be heard.  We recognize all people as children of God and treat them that way, because one day these glimpses we see will be realized in all fullness.
We are resurrection people that understand that death is not the end, that hatred and violence and despair may seem so strong and so eternal, but there is a greater reality still, and love has the final word.  
And so hoping together, on behalf of the whole, beautiful and broken world, is also our holy work.

And to do this we need language and imagery that we share, words and metaphors that defines us and describes reality for us.  So we wrestle through difficult things and we welcome stories and perspectives and insights and questions, because they help us practice the real reality. And we use song and art and prayer and laughter and beauty and broken bread and spilled wine and cooked meals and long conversations and quiet moments and all different learning styles and all different gifts gathered in this quirky, beloved community.  We gather together in order to become fluent in our ability to communicate the deep and important things God is stirring up all around us.  
Because this kind of dialogue together, on behalf of the famished and word-weary world, is our holy work as well.

Because the world has forgotten; its memory is short.
And we are here in our own weakness and brokenness, not afraid to feel the pain of love, to remind the world who it really is:  Created by God, each one loved by her creator. All together made for life and love.  In astonishing diversity made for harmony and wholeness.  We live out this Kingdom of God reality in defiance of despair, and on behalf of a world that has forgotten, but we also live it out in sure anticipation. 
We wait. Like the prophets of old.  Because we know it’s coming.

It’s not happily ever after for the children of God in our story today.  
In just 40 or so years, Babylon will take over the land and destroy the temple that Josiah is working so hard to restore.  The children of God will be scattered.  Hard things are coming.
But right now, the people are suddenly remembering who they are.  They are back in the arms of their God – reconnected to their source.  They have turned back toward love, and all over again, they are being set free.  
And when they wake up to who they are, to whose they are, it changes how they experience everything: all that they’ve been through and all that they are in now, and everything that is to come.  
They will need this change to see them through the days to come.

Advent is coming. 
The time of darkness where we wait for the light of Jesus that comes into the world. 
The time of longing and honesty, where we hold grief and hope on behalf of us all.  
Advent is holy work, brothers and sisters.  
And in these coming weeks the world will make it seem like sorrow can be quenched with shiny wrapping paper and cheap gifts, like distraction is the same as hope. 
But there is a truth that goes deeper and reaches back further, through struggle and pain, past amnesia and unknowing, a love beyond all denying and turning away and forgetting, that plunges into death and roars joyfully back into life again, that stretches strong from the beginning of everything out past all eternity, that comes in the form of weakness and simplicity as a tiny infant, seemingly helpless in a great big world.
And even in this moment, this love holds you.
I am the Lord your God. 
Be open. 
And share it, however you are able, with each other.
Now, let it pulse through you with each beat of your heart.
Put it on repeat, you precious ones, and in the darkness we will never stop listening.