Sunday, August 30, 2009

Some Spring Break

James 1: 17-27
Mark 7: 1-23

Spring break 1996 was coming, and I didn't know what I was going to do. Donna didn't have vacation to burn, and even if she did, we didn't have the scratch to go anywhere much further outside of Dallas than, say, Fort Worth. And if we went that far, we'd not be getting a meal; thank goodness the Kimbell Art Museum was free!

One night at church, I was sitting in a classroom talking with Phil, a friend, and he told me about a trip he was taking. He was going to take a van that he'd arranged to have donated to a mission he was involved in down in Guatemala, a cooperative of Indian widows whose husbands had been "disappeared" (read (assassinated) by the Guatemalan government called Proyecto Ruth y Noemi, or the Ruth and Naomi Project.

Guatemala, as in down south of Mexico. And we'd be driving it down.

Money wouldn't be an issue, most of would be taken care of through donations he had on reserve through his non-profit. I'd have to come up with some meal money, is all.

I was nervous. I'd never done anything like this before. I'd driven long distances. I had even driven all the way across the country solo, but I'd never driven into a foreign country, never mind through one into another. I had to scramble to get my passport done on time, but I did.

And off we went. It took a whole day to get to the Texas-Mexico border at Brownsville, then the second night was spent in Tampico, the third night was in Vera Cruz, the fourth night in San Cristobal de las Casas , and then we rested the fifth night, staying in Palenque which is near San Cristobal, and visiting the Mayan ruins there. Along the way, we were stopped by the Mexican army four times, because two anglos driving an empty van toward Chaipas may be a sign of supporting the rebels there. One guy even tried to steal my driving gloves, but he was a young guy, and seemed to understand that they had been given to me by my Novia, or fiancée. He didn't need to know that I had bought them in the company of a by then ex-girlfriend, now did he?

Then we came to the Mexican-Guatemalan Border. We picked up a Guatemalan border official, who insisted that we be properly inspected at a town an hour away called Quetzaltenango, in the wrong direction from our destination, and he rode with us to that destination.

In Quetzaltenango, the van was impounded, and we were deposited into a ratty hotel that only had hot water between 5-8 in the morning, the toilet was clogged, and you couldn't leave your room after dark for fear of the security dog who would attack anyone in the courtyard, even guests. Diego Chicoj, the director of Ruth y Noemi, had met us at the border, as well as his wife Juana, and had ridden with us and the government official. They were now sitting in the room with us, and we were talking and praying. Around us were every last item out of the inside of the van, even the spare tire. They knew that the van would be looted while it was in impoundment, if we even got the van back.

I was completely a fish out of water--I didn't know the language very well, I could feel Phil's stress and the Chicoj's worry, and I saw Phil hand Diego a pretty big wad of money, and then the Chicoj's left.

As the sun went down, Phil was out in a chair reading his Bible and I was laying in one of the straw mattress beds inside. I had never been in a situation like this before, where I was in a place where the government did not want me here. I was part of an effort to help the native Indians, the Quiche, the descendants of the Mayan, who the government had tried not too many years ago to exterminate. Some Spring Break.

Then Phil starts to laugh, out there in his chair. Back in Texas as he was packing, He'd grabbed a Bible that he didn't normally use, but he was running late. In the front cover of this Bible was the text 1 Peter 1: 6-8. He looked it up, just out of curiosity, and it said:
6In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, 7so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy,

There's a goal and a purpose to the endeavors of the followers of Christ. The goal was to deliver the van to the Ruth and Naomi Project. The purpose, however, was to show the love of Christ. To the dispossessed, to the government, to the Mexican soldiers who stopped us so many times, to the people back in Dallas.
Our faith is not practiced in here. So many people think that by going to church, they fulfill the obligation they owe.

They have it wrong. There is no obligation to go to church. There are no obligations to being a Christian--salvation is available to us no matter what we've done to earn it or not, and stays with us no matter whether we work to tell people about God or not.

But spiritual awakening is sometimes nothing more than realizing that we feel gratitude, love, and joy for all that we have been given. And we want to tell others, to show others.

And so often, we abandon the commandment of God and hold to human traditions. It was the churches who supported the White citizens' councils in the south more than they marched with King. It is in the guise of Christian indignation that so much anti-immigration language is spoken among us now, when it is clear that Jesus, the gospels, Moses, Isaiah and so many other places in the Bible preach hospitality, grace and an obligation to help the stranger and the sojourner. Here's how James says it in today's text:

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Let's be clear--coming here on Sunday mornings isn’t what makes you Christian. It's sometimes not even helpful. Loving people, helping them, feeding them, standing between the bullies and the meek, that's how we know we are Christians. And that's how the world knows.

And that's how God knows.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Keeping Our Feathers in our Pillows

Ephesians 5:15-20

One of the books I have been reading lately is called Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. I'm not that far into it yet, but already there is more information that I knew existed about the ways people speak that hurt each other.

He starts with a story I have heard attributed to at least three different faith traditions; Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist. So it must speak a truth, eh?

It goes like this, in Telushkin's version: A man in a town is going around speaking ill of the Rabbi. He comes to regret his words and actions, and goes to make amends with the Rabbi. The rabbi tells him to go to his house, take a feather pillow, and scatter the feathers in the wind. The man does so, and then returns to the Rabbi and ask if he is forgiven. "Almost", says the Rabbi. "Now, I want you to go and gather all the feathers."

It's funny--so, often, we toss out wisdom and knowledge, we discard it, because it is not "ours"; it doesn't come from an explicitly Christian author, so it must not be worth anything.

And so, in our ignorance, we are forced to relearn the wisdom and knowledge. So it is with what we understand as gossip and slander. There are even Hebrew words for what we do, whole classifications for the ways we speak unkindly or imprudently.

Of course, there are ways to talk about people that lift them up. There are things that you can say about people that as Rabbi Telushkin says are "nondefamatory and true."

Then there are negative and true stories, which are called Lashon Ha Ra, or stories which lower everyone else's esteem of someone, and this would include things like tattling, telling folks about something that someone has done, and everyone then thinking less of that person.

Lastly, there are rumors and outright lies, called Motzi Shem Ra.

It is the will of the Lord that we speak to each other and about each other as if the other is Christ. At a practical level, this means that we speak as little as possible about each other--the innocuousness of a plan and seemingly harmless comment can become a weapon for someone who is not inclined to toward goodwill for the person who is the subject of the conversation. And words can blow around like feathers.

Let's talk about Lashon Ha Ra a bit. These are the statements you can make about someone that are negative truth. Telushkin's example goes like this: Imagine two people donate $100 to a charity. One person may find such a sizable donation difficult to manage, and those who are around that person may find themselves admiring them. Another person who makes a lot more may find their reputations lowering, because it is felt that they could have given more. The problem here is that somehow both people's donations became the subject of discussion. That talking these donation totals around, even though it is true, is not complementary toward the richer person, and is Lashon Ha Ra.

Paul writes in this morning's passage that we should be careful how we live, because the days are evil. We are not to contribute to the evilness of the world, but are to combat it with "making melody to the Lord in our hearts". And that something is true is not a high enough bar to speak it.

Unfortunately, we as human beings also engage in just being mean, and saying things about people that are just outright untrue. We all can recall stories about people we've heard that turned out to just be false, but they were spread around anyway; they may have even been embellished, because they may just be so fun to tell, or because we have political or social problems with the person--an ulterior motive, in other words for the focus of our speech to be lessened. A current public example of this is the insistence by certain people that our current President has actually broken the law by being elected; they believe that he was not born in the US. This is the definition of malicious falsehood, of Motzi Shem Ra.

I could engage in speculation of the reason why people are so focused on it, the ulterior motive that is being exhibited by the perpetuation of this lie, but that would actually be an example of Lashon Ha Ra: true, but not complementary.

It is the will of the Lord that, as we are the people of Christ, we speak to each other, and about each other, as if the other person is Christ. After all, Christ is within each of us. It is the Will of God that we acknowledge this truth.

At the end of the story of the man who slandered the Rabbi, after he has scattered the feathers to the wind, and the Rabbi now tells him to go gather the feathers back up, he of course says that such a thing is impossible. And the Rabbi says: Precisely. Though I believe you genuinely regret your words, it is as hard to repair the damage they have caused a it is to gather every last feather back up into your pillow.

It is not the will of God that we speak ill of each other, or even that we speak the truth when it is unnecessary. And "each other" includes more than just the people of our own towns or our own church, the people we actually have to live with every day. It means the people of our nation, and of our world. The will of God is that we be wise; the days are evil, why contribute to them? Why not speak well or not at all?

Let's keep our feathers in our pillows, eh?

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Cars in the Parking Lot

There was a crowd of people down at Center Moreland yesterday morning making Welsh Cookies as a fundraiser for Donna's medical costs and our living expenses. This is a rare, terrible, and special place to be, emotionally. Above all, it is humbling.

I wish for everyone the opportunity to feel this kind of love, as we have from every corner of our lives. From churches that I have served where things were bumpy. From churches and synagogues we've attended, served and visited, as well as one's we've never seen. From friends that we have known for decades. From people who just happened to re-string a guitar for us two days ago. I just hope that they can feel it without having to suffer such events as has caused this outpouring for us.

When it happens for you, just know that you will never be able to recipricate all the love you've received. Don't try. The best you can do is express gratitude and let it lift you.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Still Here

Psalm 121
Psalm 130

A sermon is a prepared, edited, and (usually) spoken work of prose or poetry that, ultimately has as one of it's goals the proclamation of an aspect of God. What separates it from a testimony is the preparation. The purpose of both is the same, but a preacher studies the Bible, studies what other people have said about his or her chosen text through the reading of commentaries, and works as a writer of books and articles does in polishing and adjusting what is said until the exact point they want to make is clear.

Folks, today is going to be a testimony day for me. I have been in the presence of God. I did not notice it at the time, I was busy focused elsewhere;
• Focused on the words of doctors;
• Focused on the telemetry screens giving heart rate, intra-cranial pressure, respiration rate and such;
• Focused on signs of movement and of the return of the person I know and love.

It took a conversation with a colleague of mine, a chance meeting when I happened to see her in the parking lot of her church as I drove by, and pulled in, to show me that I was not focused on God because I just knew he was there. I have not focused on the ground much either, or on the air that I breathe. But I know they are there, too.

God has been with me. Has been with Donna, has been with Josiah and my mom. God is with you all too.

We can see the power of God all we want--in an earthquake that moves New Zealand closer to Australia--in a rainstorm that obliterates the view out Donna's hospital room to the degree we can't see the Sheraton 3 blocks away. Seeing God's power is easy.

But I have seen God's grace and love this month, too.
• in the talents and the knowledge of the doctors and nurses who have taken care of Donna so well;
• in the over 11,600 visits to our CaringBridge website by friends and family all over the country, and even a few international entries;
• by the cards and gifts and donations which are such a comfort to me;
• by the love and grace shown to me by Donna's work colleagues, who to a one say that this year's performing Arts' Institute feels different without her there, works a little less well with her not around;
• and lastly, I have seen the face of God through your love and grace and attention to our physical needs. As Sheryl has said, it is time for the congregation to pastor to the pastor.
And through what you have done, what I knew to be true, that the face of God is shown to his people through his other people, has been demonstrated again and again, and again.

I will never believe that it was in God's plan to give Donna a brain tumor. I just do not believe that God is in the business of causing his people pain without their assent, and in the face of Biblical literalism, I say that God does not punish with disease. But God is absolutely in the midst of this trial which has been laid onto us, onto Donna. As I sit with her, encourage her, get mad at her and love her, I hope that I am the face of God for her, and that as her awareness increases, she sees that face in the others around her.

There is a long row to hoe yet. She shows every sign of returning, after a time, to her old self. But soon we will need to begin to attack the brain tumor itself, and her default, her chosen and base attitude is aggressive. We will make it so, in the words of Jean Luc Picard, but it will be harrowing and difficult. God's face will shine even more brightly in the days to come, I have no doubt.

God did not cause this, but God is in the midst of this with us. And because he is still here, we are still here.

This is my testimony.