Thursday, February 15, 2007

Simple and Steady

On Feb. 9, I had the extreme pleasure to attend a concert down at the Chicory House, which was housed at St. Stephen’s Episcopal in Wilkes Barre. The group was a Canadian folk rock band named Tanglefoot. They were a very entertaining band, full of storytelling and music about Canadian farmers, lumberjacks, deep sea fishermen and Great Lake sailors. There was even a ghost story or two! Oh, and of course, they had a mandolin player.

Two songs in particular struck me as significant, perhaps for lessons I need to learn in my own spiritual practice. One was the story of Maggie, a 61 year old woman who fell into a river while trying to cross it over an old log carrying two heavy buckets of Maple tree sap. She began to build a bridge, and over the course of days, weeks, months, and finally years, she continued to work on it, in her own small simple way. It took her 20 years—she was 81 when she finished it! She lived a full life, I assume, while she was doing this, but she did nonetheless stay focused on this project. It was not a spectacular bridge, in the sense that the Brooklyn or the Golden Gate bridges are, but the significance of the bridge is the story. And the band told us that the bridge is gorgeous in its own way.

The other song was almost a prayer about how to be satisfied with enough to live our lives. It’s called For the Day, and it is about peace of mind. One verse goes as follows:

A little sun, a little rain, A little money now and then
And the knowledge of enough to eat tomorrow
Keep the locust from our fields
Take a portion of the yield
For the folk less blessed by fortune than are we

Lent can be a time of re-evaluation, of fresh perspective. As we enter these days approaching the events of Jesus’ suffering, death and new life, it doesn’t hurt for us to remember that the important stuff comes with effort over long periods of time, and that a simple life unburdened with outsize ambition or greed, which perhaps not popular in our culture, is easier to live and much more in touch with God. If you wonder which is God’s will, between the loud, public and sensational attitude, or the quiet, simple life full of integrity and kindness, remember this—which life permits more opportunity to hear God’s still, small voice?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Starving Ourselves in the Midst of Plenty

6th Sunday After the Epiphany
Jeremiah 17: 5-10
Luke 6: 17-26
Psalm 1

Imagine for a minute, that there is a group of people who are chained together and sitting on the floor. They can’t turn their heads. They are immobile—they can’t move. Behind them is a small hill, and up on top of that are some puppeteers, moving and operating puppets. Behind them is a fire, which casts the puppets onto the wall in front of the chained down people. For the chained down people, their whole reality is whatever is cast as a shadow on the wall. Because it is just a shadow, sometimes they can figure out what it is, and sometimes they can’t. Sometimes the group of chained down people can agree to what it is, and sometimes they can’t.

This is the premise by which an ancient Greek philosopher named Plato begins to discuss perceived reality versus actual reality. It’s how he discusses the ways in which humanity grows in understanding and knowledge. It is also a useful image for us to begin to discuss the Jeremiah passage for today. Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals, and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.

The problem with this is, because of the way we are born to look at the world, It is really hard to see the things of God, and much easier to see the tangible, countable, things of the world. In what we call “the real world”, David gets slain by Goliath. In “the real world”, The Yankees always beat the Devil Rays. But we also know that that doesn’t always happen. And from the perspective of God, strength isn’t muscle, or wealth, or a killer lineup. Strength is in faith.

Being a Christian on this side of the Kingdom, the side where we know the Kingdom is coming, but it hasn’t arrived in the descent of heaven, yet, can be tough. Even though we know we’re justified in the eyes of God, even though we make fits and starts toward the goal of being sanctified in Jesus Christ, we still fall short. It’s just so hard to sometimes believe in something we can’t see, don’t feel, and sometimes doubt. Our salvations? God loving us? Jesus being raised from the dead? We don’t have film, we don’t have the New York Times, we don’t have CNN , we can’t take a blood test that tells us if we are saved. All we rely on is faith, and for some of us, the assurance that the faith has not failed us before.

We aren’t always sure what is of God, and what is of earth. We don’t necessarily know the difference between sacred and profane. So we cling to the things that remind us of God, or what we think we are responsible for, as Christians. But because we are “looking through a glass dimly’, we often attach our certainties to different things.

And so conflict in the church starts.

Don’t get me wrong—I am not saying that we should avoid conflict. First of all, it is impossible, and second of all, conflict done well, with integrity, respect for the opponent and a commitment to the truth, moves a congregation forward.
All of our Scripture passages refer to the need for judgment or discernment. They also are very clear that, as Jeremiah says, “cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord”.

Cursed are those who trust in the world, more than God.

It is a hard thing, all right, to try to figure out what is of God and what is of “flesh”, or “the world”. Being faithful is often a question of discernment, of difficult choices. This church has recently made a difficult decision, and what remains now is to return your thoughts to God again, and ask “What next?” “Where do we go from here?” “Who are we?” Questions of identity, questions of community, questions of integrity. And they are important, because we are all still tied together, sitting on the cave floor, doing the best we can.

Jeremiah gives us that, too. Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is in the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. As we go forward as this congregation, together, it is appropriate to ask your fellow community members, “will you be a root for this tree?” Do you support this congregation? The Methodist phrase for this support is fourfold—prayers, presence, gifts AND service. It is appropriate to expect everyone who has pledged to join this church to support it. It is appropriate to expect your leaders do support this community in all four ways. It’s appropriate to expect it of your pastors, and also of all of the other leaders in the church. And when the leaders don’t, it is appropriate for the congregation to expect the problem be corrected.

All of us are poor in spirit, when we count individually. None of us have all the tools to be a congregation by ourselves. An eye can’t function as an ear, a stomach can’t work like a brain. We can’t figure out all the shadows on the wall by ourselves. Even pastors, set aside by the community for the purpose of seeing those shadows more clearly, can’t see 100%. We are still seeing through the glass dimly. We are blessed only as much as we share, as we communicate with you, with our colleagues, with God. But we are each blessed, by God. The people around us are our blessing. We are blessed by the quiet ones, the loving ones, the mean ones, the power thirsty ones, all of them. We are blessed by them all because we are them all, sometimes within just a few minutes of the day.

When Jeremiah wrote to the Israelites, he was calling them both to account and to blessing in the midst of the Babylonians invading their country, and there very Holy city, Jerusalem. He believed that they had fallen away from God, and Babylon’s invasion was the result. And he is able to speak Grace to them in the midst of their country ceasing to exist. The grace is that if they trust in the Lord, the tough times will not be permanent, and they will rise as the people of God again. He’s saying that if they are the people of God now, in the midst of trouble, they will be then, when trouble has passed.

Jesus, speaking to the descendants of the Israelites, now subject to Roman occupation, says to believe in God, trust in God, and you will be blessed. But woe, he says, to those of you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

If we will but turn away from the things of earth, and a mindset of scarcity, this congregation will not go starve ourselves in the midst of plenty. The Israelites lost their country. There is enough here to do the whole enchilada of ministry that we can dream up, and that we are called to do. I do believe that responsibility is good. Stewardship, taking care of God’s kingdom, is good. We are called to be good stewards of resources AND of the ministry God has laid out for us. There is enough here in Shavertown to do it all. But we must all be facing the same way and must all trust each other. We must all forgive each other. We must adjust ourselves to be in line with what God wants and the community expects of us in support. And then we must walk together toward the direction of God, and his Son Jesus Christ. That is in the direction of the things we believe, rather than the things we see. It is in the direction of our faith, not upon our own workings. That is the way to free ourselves from the chains and the cave, and move out into the true sunlight. Shavertown can live again in the sunlight. Let us make sure we stay with God, now that we’re being tested, because God, even in the midst of our trials, is staying with us.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Wheel in the Sky, Keep on Turnin'. . .

. . . don't know where I'll be tomorrow."

Well, as of January 28, it's official. I will be moving this year. The congregation voted to de-fund the Associate Pastor position at the church I serve, to try to be responsible to a projected deficit. It was a close vote, and I can see the reasonableness of both sides, when expressed without personality prejudices. I also freely admit I have a few of those prejudices, myself. I'm human, we all have them.

Through this process, I have seen both the best and the worst of what we are as Christians in the 21st century. I have seen youth act more adult and proactive than their elders. I have seen serious discussions among people of good will, and I have seen craven displays of political wrangling to achieve desired outcomes that have nothing to do with God, the church, or growth in grace.

In other words, I have seen the whole of the body of Christ.

When I was ordained to be an Elder in the United Methodist Church, I pledged to be available to go where I am sent by the Bishop. I give thanks to God that the history of this conference gives consideration to their Elder's family situation, but nonetheless, I could be sent anywhere around the cities of Wilkes Barre or Scranton in PA, or Binghamton or Oneonta in NY. And because of the size of this conference, I am leaving perhaps one of only two or three associate pastor positions left in the conference. The clearer way of saying this is I AM ABOUT TO GET MY OWN CHURCH!

Being an itinerant religious leader in our post-modern time I think lends itself to two images. First, the corporate manager who travels to serve the Corporation best wherever it may be. Second, the wandering wise one/griot/wizard. Guess which one I prefer? A line from JRR Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" has become very important for me, recently, I even have it on a button: "Not All who Wander Are Lost". This is how I choose to see the Methodist itineracy.

While I am sad about the strife that Shavertown has in front of it, I do hope that these past few months have brought close the realization that they need to address deep hurts, hurts that are 30 years old and more. I surely can help lay the ground work for good outcomes, but it has been made very clear that I will not be part of the eventual solution! I also hope they will take on the challenge of bringing outside conflict resolution in to help heal itself. Right now all sides are at the place of "we'd be just fine if THEY would just stop what they're doing." Well, the body of Christ has no THEY. Just WE. My hope is that Shavertown learns that soon.