Sunday, August 16, 2015

To see and be seen

Several of us recently spent a week at a conference at Luther Seminary learning about Non-violent communication. Developed in the 60s by Marshall Rosenburg, NVC operates with the assumption that all people share the same common needs – which are fundamental qualities that contribute to the flourishing of life. This is where we connect and what we all have in common.  Needs are things like air, food, water and rest, and belonging, connection, meaning, contribution, and creativity. 
But most of the time, we don’t hear and speak to each other at the level of our needs – the place where we share life in common. Rather, we get stuck at the place of judgment and blame and interpretation, or at the level of strategies, ways we are seeking to meet our various needs, which often compete. 
But needs never compete.
And so we seek to hear one another there, and see one another there, and let ourselves be seen and heard there, and when we do, we find our humanity upheld, as well as upholding the humanity of the other person – in fact, we find connection.  So Amy, Lisa, Jeanne and I spent the week learning about and practicing communication that seeks to connect at this level, so that all people in the conversation are seen and heard, and their personhood is valued.

And after a week of that, coming back to “normal life” feels kind of like being on a silent retreat and walking out of the shady, birdsong-bathed woods into the neon, traffic packed cacophony of Times Square.  All around us, within us and between us, in person, on social media and TV, at family gatherings and neighborhood get-togethers and at work and in the car, it often feels like a minefield of something that is decidedly NOT this kind of communicating and connecting.  It has felt grating to notice so clearly the near constant competition, whose ideology, project or opinion is better, and whose is stupid. People talking past each other, about each other, over each other, and frantic attempts to be heard, or to be right, or to be loudest.

We’ve been in Romans for the whole summer so far. Just to recap, Paul hasn’t been to Rome, but really wants to go, and he writes to this mixed community of Jewish and Gentile Christians, brand new baby Christians and old established Christians, this enormous brick of a letter, sharing with them everything he believes, and trusts, and knows deep in his being, and all that matters most to him. He’s just spent a few chapters describing what life in the way of God – the freedom of Christ-  is like in practice, and now he’s getting to some nitty-gritty. Specifically here, he is talking about the disagreement over whether to eat meat, some wanting to follow Jewish dietary laws or other ritual observances, and some seeing their Christianity as setting them free from those laws.  )Likewise, in the verses we left out, he references that some think they should celebrate certain festival days and others do not).

And Paul refuses to come down on one side or another, in fact, asking them instead to see and hear one another. Paul is inviting them to look beyond the strategy, and past the judgments and the interpretations to the need, the heart of the matter, and recognize the place where we all connect: 
Oh my word! Every one of us here wants to honor God! 
In fact, that very desire may be the strongest thing we all have in common! 
And we’d like to say, with our 21st century intelligence, that this is not that big a deal, that both choices are ethically fine, nobody is getting hurt, so just don’t judge.  To each his own. 
But that is not what Paul is saying at all.

Because when we today hear that we “shouldn’t judge”, we take it to mean that all opinions are equally valid, all stances are on the same footing.  So don’t judge what people do in their private time, don’t judge who they’re dating, don’t judge what they eat, or wear, or watch, or weigh (even though, inside, we may indeed be judging all of these things).  But we say “don’t judge” because, presumably, it’s all fine as long as it doesn’t hurt someone else.

But, it turns out, if that’s what we believe, then, as a matter of absolute principle, we must judge those things that hurt someone, the things that are not equal in opinion, and the people who believe or practice things that are not fine.  So we should judge the obviously bad stuff, corrupt leaders and abusers and liars and cheats and hypocrites and bigots and once we get going the list keeps on going.

By this measure, something tricky happens – you may believe you “shouldn’t judge”, but the more principled you are, the more you judge, really.  Because the more you know and discover about the pain and inequality and hurt and injustice and evil, the more you need to show that all ways of living and treating others and thinking about life are NOT equal.  There is so much that dehumanizes and undermines, and it’s important to take a stand against these things, right? 

 We judge those with other beliefs, or we judge those who judge those with other beliefs. Because we’ve come to think that if we don’t, we’re approving of their actions or accepting their behavior.  These days the world gives us two choices- with or against. And if you’re not one you’re the other. So it’s wrong to judge, yes, unless it’s something important and you don’t approve, then you should definitely judge.omeone demeans people it’s ok to demean them.  In our culture, we have made it ok to call some people despicable and despise them. If someone demeans people it’s ok to demean them.  And we don’t even bat an eyelash at this any more. We just accept and perpetuate the cacophonous noise of it – even inside the church.

But this way of treating each other is entrenched and rooted in the way of fear, and has very little at all to do with the Way of God.  What Paul is talking about is something completely different. Remember, all throughout the Book of Romans he is talking about real life, the Kingdom of God reality, life as God created life to be, and is moving everything towards once and for all. 
He is talking about life in freedom – freedom from the rankings, comparisons and verdicts of sin, and the instead life where all are upheld in the belongness of grace, where God gets to be the primary actor and we are the recipients and participants. 
He is talking about living no longer in the illusion created by sin that we are apart and against, instead of truly with and for one another.

So when Paul says not to judge, he’s not talking about the, "it’s is fine as long as nobody gets hurt" mentality.  He is calling us out
One scholar says “The judgment forbidden in Romans 14 and Matthew 7 is the easy, contemptuous dismissal of those who do not believe like us, or vote like us, or live like us. They are fools, we think, and we see no contradiction between our being Christian and our despising of them.” (Mary Hinkle Shore, Working Preacher, 2011)

There is one judge and that is God, and we don’t need to do God’s job for him.  Instead, we can live trusting God to be God, which allows us to be human, vulnerable and open to each other - to act as though we have more in common than we do that separates us. This trust prompts us to look to see that there is a person here, a person whose needs are just like our own, and they are doing what they are doing, however tragic or ineffective it may be, from a desire to meet needs.  And suddenly we are freed to respond in empathy.

The Journal of Psychology says, “Empathy is the experience of understanding another person's condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. Empathy is known to increase prosocial (helping) behaviors. While American culture might be socializing people into becoming more individualistic rather than empathic, research has uncovered the existence of "mirror neurons," which react to emotions expressed by others and then reproduce them.”

In other words, we are actually wired for this. We are meant to share each other’s place. Our brains are meant to connect to other people’s brains –we all share common humanity. We are designed to live in connection with God and each other, but instead we so often live in bondage to isolation and competition and contemptuous dismissal of our sisters and brothers, even in the Church.

Any time we judge and dismiss each other, write each other off, notice ourselves thinking, Thank God I am not like them!, or there is NO WAY THAT person could be a Christian, or even, I am not THAT KIND of Christian….we are doing what Paul is speaking against.  We are taking God’s role as judge instead of leaving that to God, we are dehumanizing and turning into an enemy someone who worships the same God we do, and we are living out of the way of fear instead of the way of God, despising those whom God has loved.

But Paul reminds us that we are free to step out of the battle and into the empathy we were made for. Free to let someone else’s anger or hurtful words or confusing actions move us to compassion and curiosity, instead of disdain and judgment.  Free from the demand to be right, but even, Paul suggests, even free to make different choices that support one another.

So, he explains, if it is hard for someone else that you are eating meat, don’t use it as an opportunity to correct and instruct them. Simply don’t eat meat when you are with them. See them at the level of their intentions and not just their strategy, and honor their honoring of God. Choose to see and stand with them, instead of putting yourself over and against them.

Paul is certainly familiar with being a passionate crusader for an important cause. He used to intentionally persecute followers of Jesus, in order to honor God.  But everything shifted for him when he encountered Jesus, and discovered that the way God comes to us not in power, and right thinking, and crushing those who oppose, but in solidarity, and weakness, and joining. 
When Paul met Jesus everything changed for him.  Jesus said to him from a blinding light, Why are you persecuting me? and then sent Paul in helpless weakness to the very people he had been seeking to wipe out, in order that God might heal him through them.  Paul was transformed by God, through their prayer, their faithful attentiveness and care for each other and for him, and their open welcoming of this violent outsider formerly bent on destroying them.
Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus and then he met Jesus in Damascus, in the Body of Christ who showed him the upside down, inside out Way of God. God comes into this life in vulnerability, and stands with us in our beauty and our brokenness, inviting us to stand with one another in each other's beauty and brokenness – to welcome each other, in, and in spite of, our weaknesses or places of disagreement, because God welcomes us.  Salvation doesn’t come from knowing the right things or even doing the right things, but through the love and grace of God that comes to us in Jesus. 

 Just like Paul, our very best attempts to please God can become an idol, standing in place of God, when all the stories we tell ourselves about what God wants from us, and all the work we do to try to change ourselves, or those around us, or the world, take the place of the connection God is already extending to us right now. To live in the freedom of the love of God that sets us free for “righteousness-“ which means true connection to God and each other – "peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Rom. 14:17)

Jesus is Lord, sisters and brothers, even right this moment, and in Christ there are truly no barriers and labels and separations – in Christ we are one, across all our alleged differences and perceived obstacles.  In fact, even the most convincing barrier, the one between life and death itself, does not hinder the Lord of all - in life and in death, we belong to God. 

God is already about the business of reconciliation and healing, of justice and forgiveness, and we are drawn into that activity by virtue of being drawn into that relationship of trust in God through Christ. 

So does this mean just overlooking things we see as hurtful or wrong?  No! Remember? It’s not the “all is fine, so don’t judge” mentality that comes from the way of fear.  Instead this means beginning with our common humanity, seeking to honor the other person, and, as Paul says, pursuing what makes for peace and mutual edification. 
It is treating each other with the gentleness and compassion with which you were made to be treated. 

It is trusting that God is at work there –even if you can’t see it – and in your praying for them asking God to also perhaps show you the places God is at work in you that you also are not able to see.
So it means being honest too - being willing to be seen and heard for who you are, seeking not just to understand why they do what they do but inviting the kind of relationship where you too get to share why you do what you do, but not for the purpose of converting or changing them, or, as Paul says, for quarrelling. 
You are responsible to God for your own convictions, and they are for theirs. 
So any conversation is for the sake of knowing and being known, it is in order to love them better. That is all.  It is God who changes hearts.

And it turns out that if people are seeking to live in that place of trust, where we are defined by God's love that claims us all in Jesus, if what guides us is loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and truly love our neighbor as ourselves, there are some consequences of that.

Like, we remember more often that we all belong to each other. That the labels and barriers we use to separate and compare don’t exist in the Kingdom of God; each person is valued and everyone is upheld.  And we are empowered to be are honest about the ways connection is broken, and to seek to live in wholeness.  We tell the truth about how our own words and actions, and the words and actions of others towards us, sever connection or does not contribute to life.  
And we seek to reestablish connection, rather than to be right or better or good.
 We are set free to welcome each other in our beauty and brokenness, and find healing and growth when that happens. 

And they will know we are Christians by our love. 

"May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." (Rom. 15:5-6)

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Maker's Gift

Our scripture today picks up with a crowd, several hundred of whom had just come from Jesus’ miraculous feeding of 5000 with a one boy’s small lunch.  They had just listened to his teaching and then eaten from these baskets of food that were passed, abundance of food, food that filled them all and then had more leftovers than they knew what to do with, food that had seemingly come out of nowhere – appearing from a small gift and a simple prayer. 
And somehow, shortly after this, Jesus had slipped away. Disappeared. These several hundred were intent on tracking him down. 
Here is what happens when they find him.

Once upon a time there was a creative and adventurous Maker who devised a whole new kind of creature and brought it to life.  The Maker longed to share the most precious parts of the maker’s own self, and so formed these creatures for real connection with their Maker, each other and even all creation.  Each one of these creatures would be completely unique; each one lifting up and drawing out the others in a kind of exquisite harmony, finding and fulfilling their true purpose when they lived in union with their Maker and connection with each other and all creation in love.
They were astounding to behold.  Beautiful and complex, distinct but connected, and capable of seemingly infinitely more beauty, complexity, distinction and connection than they even appeared to contain at first glance.  They were the pinnacle of all this Maker had ever made, and filled the Maker with deep satisfaction and delight.

Because these creatures were designed for full participation with their Maker, they were unlike any other in their capacity to be known and to know joy, and that meant that the most poignant, most powerful, most important thing the Maker had put into these creatures, that which lay at the core of their very beings, the thing that set them apart and filled them with promise and thrilling possibility, was their hunger. 

Hunger meant that they could eat and feel satisfied.  It meant that they could hear music and be inspired.  It meant they could experience something and celebrate it, that they could understand and could share, and that they would seek to understand more deeply and share more fully. 

It meant that they imagined there was more, and they craved it.  More hope, more beauty, more joy, a deeper connection with each other and the world. 
Hunger taught them what they needed and who they were.  It was their gauge, their compass, their consciousness, meant to lead them always to fuller participation and connection with their Maker and each other.

So no matter how different they seemed from one another, they all had the same hunger within – hunger for food, for movement, and belonging, hunger for meaning, for self-expression, and connection, hunger for beauty, for love and wholeness. 
They did what they did, they were who they were, from their hunger. 

And every time that they were satisfied, every time they felt full, whole or complete, every time they truly connected to another, each time they contributed something meaningful to the world, every moment of loveliness, delight, or true rest, they were connected to their Maker, joining in creativity and adventure, fully alive, fully who they were created to be. 

And this pleased their Maker greatly.

But after some time, they began to realize that their hunger meant they were never completely satisfied, at least not permanently.   And they began to discover that once they had eaten, it was only a matter of time before they would need to eat again.  They saw that once they had tasted joy, it wore off and they longed more deeply for another sip. 

And they had started to see that their hunger meant that they had to rely on each other - a hunger for connection cannot be met alone, a hunger for belonging only works if there is someone to belong to.  A hunger for expression and contribution may compel one to write a powerful story, paint a breathtaking landscape, or play a spirit-soaring melody, but if nobody else read, saw or heard what they did they couldn’t be fully satisfied.  And so sometimes, often, their hunger went unfilled.

Before long, their hunger, their greatest gift, began to make them miserable.  Sadness and anger filled them in all the places and ways their hunger grew, unsatisfied, untended, unnoticed.  They blamed each other for failing to fill them, and they scorned their Maker for this massive design flaw.  After a time, they began to detest the very gift that was made to show them who they were.

They resented their hunger, they despised their hunger, they saw it as a burden, a chore, a humiliating liability. 
So they starved themselves and called it noble. 
They denied themselves and called it strong.   
They confused their hunger for weakness and devised all sorts of clever and complicated strategies to overcome it, which of course, they couldn’t, so they hungered for more ways to ignore and eliminate their hunger, to avoid ever having to face it. 
They horded food and turned their back on the hunger of others. 
They made industries and economies that exploited the hunger inside of others, persuading, convincing that their magic item or special serum, perfect pill or tantalizing trip could stop hunger forever, could cap the incessant ache. 
They pitied those whose hunger was more obvious, less hidden: the young, the old, the hopelessly artistic or mentally troubled. 
They made hunger the enemy, and all the while it throbbed inside of them, starved and neglected.  And this struggle left them perpetually anxious, weary and afraid.

And this grieved their Maker greatly.

When we come upon Jesus in our story today we find him found out by a ravenous crowd.  They had eaten their fill of the bread, and they wanted more.  But more than a free meal, they wanted something this experience had stirred in them, something at their core, something that touched the place of their deepest longing, deepest hope, deepest fears.  They were hungry.  And so they followed him and found him. 

“So,” Jesus says, “you do all this work to track me down for a meal that doesn’t satisfy, when you could eat the bread that will satisfy you for all eternity?” 
“How can we get this?” they want to know.  “What should we do?” 
“Believe in me,” he answers them. “Trust in me.”
But they are suspicious, doubting, and afraid to hear.
“Why should we believe?” They ask. “Give us a sign! Moses gave the people manna in the wilderness, so they trusted in him, what sign will you give us to trust in you?” 
And Jesus answers, “This bread that Moses gave wasn’t something he did, it was from God.  And God gives bread from heaven for the life of the world.”

And now their hunger is really awakened.  Now they can feel themselves craving, longing, seeking, and they sense that most dangerous and glorious of hungers come alive – hope: and so they cry, “Sir, Give us this bread always!”

And Jesus answers them, “I AM the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

And not to be a downer, but the story doesn’t end happily right here.  This conversation goes on much further and much longer.  Much more back and forth, argument, challenge, frustration, even disappointment.  At one point, in fact, crowds aside, his own disciples themselves were saying, “This is really difficult teaching! Who can accept this?”
And finally this long exchange ends with many who had been following him turning away in exasperation and giving up on him.
When this happens, he turns and asks the twelve disciples, those closest to him in all the world, “What about you? Will you also go away?”
And Peter answers on behalf of all of them, “Lord, where in the world are we going to go? You have the words of eternal life.”

I can’t help feeling a bit of camaraderie with the crowds.  I would be frustrated too.  What is he talking about?  We have real hunger and want real food, real hope, real life – what could you possibly mean, Jesus, that you ARE the food, the hope, the life?   

Jesus awakened their hunger while also reminding them that the hunger itself is from God.  He sent them back into the longing, the search, the joy that comes when fulfillment is tasted, the promise it speaks to about the day when all will be filled. 
And this is a scary place to live.  These are not easy words to let in.  By opening yourself to joy you open yourself to pain, by acknowledging the hunger you also recognize that for all the times it is filled, there are plenty of other times when it isn’t.  And not fleeing the hunger, but noticing what it has to tell you is a poignant place to live.   A raw, honest, and sometimes difficult place to live.  But it is where Jesus is found.  And it is where the invitation from Jesus resides.

“Believe in the one whom God has sent.” he said. 
What would it be like to do that, to believe in him?  To trust in him?  What would such trust or faith look like?  What would it be like to really live in this place?  And I guess the question is, really, what would it look like not to fear the hunger?  Not to scramble to keep it at bay, not to worry about the next meal, the next disappointment, the next rejection, the next failure? 
What would it look like to live fully?


When the creatures were utterly lost in their fear, their sadness, their fatigue and their constant worry, the Maker did something quite unexpected and unprecedented, something quite extraordinary.  The Maker transformed and became one of them, filled, just as they were, with deep and pervasive hunger. Hunger that longed for more than it discovered, and craved more than it saw.  Hunger that recognized joy, hope and connection and yearned for it all the more fervently. 
And then the Maker stood among them and said,
“My creatures, my beautiful hungerers, listen to my voice!  I made you with this hunger inside you and it is good!  I made you to recognize love and hope, and meaning and to long for it.  I made you to know and to appreciate wholeness and life even in its absence, and maybe then all the more, to want to be part of it, to crave to know it always. 
I made you this way, and one day you will be completely satisfied and there will be no more need for hunger – for hunger itself will be transformed into fullness, and you will each be fully part of that immeasurable and never-ending abundance.  It is in me, and you are in me.  But even now, today, you are in me, and I am the bread of life.
So don’t be afraid!  Embrace your hunger and let it lead you.  Because when you do, you reconnect with me and each other.  You remember that fulfillment is real, and you live like what you long for is true! 
Join hope and share love in the world and don’t be afraid to miss it, or lose it, or break it. Let your hunger tell you who you are, and what you are part of when you let yourself be. 
Trust me.  This hunger is a gift.”

And the creatures listened for a moment.  And then, one by one, they mostly turned and walked away, shaking their heads in disbelief and despair.  And some got so angry that they determined to silence this voice once and for all, or so they thought, by killing this one who spoke such disturbing things, who made them face their hunger, who threatened their empires of evasion. 

But that didn’t stop any of it, or hinder the Maker in the least, and it certainly didn’t silence the hunger that lived in them and called to them.  And while mostly the creatures walked away, turned their backs, or tried to silence the Maker, a few actually heard the words that the Maker said and felt them stir the hunger inside them into a churning passion.   

They watched the words awaken their hunger and they let it happen. 
And for those the longing that gripped them grew and flourished.  And the hunger inside them connected them to others, and opened them to their Maker.  Their hunger filled them with promise and thrilling possibility.  And when it wasn’t fulfilled, when disappointment came and fear rose up, they held onto the hunger as an aching honesty that terror and sadness would not prevail.  
The longing itself reminded them of this.

And every time that they were satisfied, every time they felt full, whole or complete, every time they truly connected to another, each time they contributed something meaningful to the world, every moment of beauty, joy, or true rest, they were connected to their Maker, joining in creativity and adventure, fully alive, fully who they were created to be. 

And this pleased their Maker greatly.