Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 3, 2016:

Complementary Series

Isaiah 66:10–14

Psalm 66:1–9 (4)

Galatians 6:[1–6] 7–16

Luke 10:1–11, 16–20

Semicontinuous Series

2 Kings 5:1–14

Psalm 30 (2)

Galatians 6:[1–6] 7–16

Luke 10:1–11, 16–20

I've seen many Christians and churches returning to this passage recently, wondering if the early mission of the Church should be our mission.  Should we leave our church buildings and go out into our neighborhoods?  Perhaps we should abandon our church buildings altogether and meet in bars or coffee shops, all the better to meet the inhabitants of our communities. 

But what if Jesus wasn't speaking literally?  I know, I know, we have the book of Acts which shows that the early followers took this passage literally.  But we suspect that the early followers often misinterpreted Jesus.  What if we're being too literal here?

English majors know that when a journey appears in a work of literature, it's often a metaphor for the journey of life.  What if Jesus used this metaphor to show us how to move through our lives? 

There's the message of simplicity, which we get in many of our Gospel texts, along with the reminder not to be too attached to worldly goods and worldly acclaim.  And there's the message of community, the value of having some like-minded friends beside you.

If we interpret this passage metaphorically, we're still not able to escape the evangelism message.  We still need to deliver the good news that God loves us, that the perfection of creation has begun, the Kingdom is breaking through. 

I think of this idea each year as I witness Vacation Bible School.  I see children who aren't interested in church as grown ups offer it, but who LOVE Vacation Bible School.  I know more than one parent who goes from church to church so that the child can repeat the wonderful experience of VBS.  I know children who love VBS so much that they bring their closest friends.

What would happen if we felt about our faith the way that children felt about VBS?  Would it be easier to go out into our communities to tell people what's going on behind our church walls?

More than once, I've said, why can't we make regular church more like VBS, so that people want to come year round?
Here, too, I see a variety of Christians wrestling with these questions.  We will see a variety of answers, as we continue to try to discern how to let our lights shine brightly against the darkness.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Music with Strangers, Music with Friends

Last night, we went to see The Music of Strangers, a movie about Yo Yo Ma's Silk Road project.  I expected it to be a sort of travelogue:  on the road with Yo Yo Ma.  Or perhaps it would be an introduction to new instruments, which it was.  But it was so much more.

The movie focuses on a few of the musicians, and we get enough of their stories to understand their journeys.  On the way home, I commented about how many of them have been impacted by revolutions in their countries.  My spouse pointed out that this experience of disruption, dislocation, and the resulting losses is probably more common than not. 

I was also struck by one comment in the film, "Yo Yo Ma is always working for change, and over half the time, he just happens to have a cello in his hand."  Throughout the film, we see these musicians working to make connections--not just with each other, but with various populations.  Along the way, they take their music to the dispossessed, giving lessons, giving instruments, and trying to bring peace through music.

It was a powerful reminder that we can work for social justice through a variety of venues, across a range of mediums, by doing what we love to do and sharing it with others.

It was the kind of movie that both made me want to go home and practice on an instrument, and at the same time, to abandon all thoughts of playing.  Those musicians were so magnificent.  But again, I remember the words of a yoga teacher who gave me great advice long ago, to stop comparing myself to others because it won't help me perfect a pose or hold my balance.  That advice seems applicable here too.

Throughout the movie, I thought of our fledgling ukulele group at church.  Could we become an agent of transformational change?

I also loved this movie for its depiction of artists practicing their craft.  I like that the movie reminds us that each artist works alone, but the group comes together in certain places to become something greater than the sum of its parts.  The movie focuses mostly on musicians, but there's a fascinating segment on a Chinese group that also makes puppets--they look like delicate paper creations which are operated behind a screen and the shadow is magnified on the screen. 

But it's not all hopeful--the Chinese puppet maker said that no one wants to know how create that art form any more:  it's too intricate, and there's no money in it, especially not for the amount of time that it takes.

The film addresses an important point from many angles:  why create art in the first place?  Do we create art to change the world?  to make money?  to preserve our culture?  to make new culture?

The film did not address the spiritual aspect of making art, at least not overtly.  But spiritual aspects undergirded the whole film.

We went to see the film with friends from church, and I feel lucky to have friends who say, "There's this movie we should see.  Can you come on Monday?"  When I told them how lucky I felt, one of them said, "There aren't many friends who would be interested in this kind of movie."  I'm glad to have some friends who are interested in this kind of documentary, friends who would meet us on a Monday night to have some time together.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Taking Worship to Those Who Cannot Come to Us: The Convalescent Home

Yesterday, a group of people from my church went to a convalescent home in Aventura, about 10 miles away from our church.  This convalescent home had gone for 6 months without anyone coming to lead worship services.  So yesterday at 1:30, 6 people went over to pitch in.

I was not among them, but I got to hear about it during our Sunday night fellowship.  The group had to consider many things I might not have thought about.  For example, I was fairly sure that the worship should be ecumenical, but I hadn't thought about some of the logistics of offering Communion--and I'm not talking about possible theological differences.  Some of the patients had problems swallowing, so communion would have been difficult.

Many of the patients had suffered strokes, so even having them participate in the prayers might have been problematic--could they speak?  could they make themselves understood?  did that matter?

From what our team could tell, singing was the activity that was best for the patients.  Our musicians who went along are not like my mom, who can play anything in any key without music.  Our musicians needed music, and so they played what they had brought. 

We are likely to go back, so we strategized about how to best care for these patients:  take song requests in advance?  have a worker in the home write down prayers?

And the larger issue:  who will provide these services when we can't?  Right now, we are going once a month, and they invited us to come twice.  During the summer, when many of our members have time off from their public school jobs, we might be able to do that, but once the school year starts, that will begin to feel like too much, unless we rotate teams.

But the larger issue:  why were we the only church who said yes?  Our pastor told us that the convalescent home had tried a scattershot approach to finding someone/a group to lead worship:  calling every church listed in the yellow pages.  Our church was the only one to call back and say yes.  And we're Trinity Lutheran, not All Saints Lutheran--we're at the end of the list.

In my grandmother's smallish South Carolina town, they'd have never had this problem.  Churches would have fought for the opportunity to go to lead worship.  I suspect, however, that as in many issues, South Florida is an early outlier here too.

One of the things we talked about was how to include other area Lutheran churches in this ministry.  Hopefully, as in the past, when one of us leads, some others will follow.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Ukulele Sunday Evenings at the Parsonage

A few years ago, one of our church members got a ukulele for Christmas.  She plays the upright bass, but she had wanted an instrument that was more portable.  She started to teach herself, and then she got hooked up with the ukulele community, and then she played with a small group.  The small group has played at our early Christmas Eve service for several years.

Along the way, other members of our church have gotten ukuleles too, and even more people are interested.  Thus was born our summer ministry of sorts.

For five weeks, we will meet at 6:00 at the parsonage.  We will have 45 minutes of ukulele lessons, followed by a food break, followed by a jam session that include any instruments that people want to bring along.  Last week we had a guitar, a violin, a harmonica, the upright bass, and a mandolin.  Last week was a great time of fellowship and of making all sorts of joyful noises.

We got a grant from Thrivent, which we used to buy some ukuleles to loan to people who want to see if they like the instrument before they commit.  After this series of ukulele Sundays, we will see what ministry might develop:  something with children that grows out of VBS?  Something with a travelling band?

In the past week, I've read several references to music groups that go to people who are dying in the hospital, often to be with them at the moment of death.  That seems like such a joyous way to leave this incarnation of the body.

I've also spent the past week thinking of the Sunday at the parsonage, trying to determine how I would classify it.

Was it worship?  Yes, of a sort.  Was it Word and Sacrament?  Not the way that Lutherans have traditionally understood and celebrated.  But in my non-traditional way of thinking, it was.  We wouldn't have gathered together if we didn't already know each other from church, so our gatherings often take on a sacramental feel.  Last Sunday felt more sacramental than many of our fellowship times.

I wonder what the next 4 weeks will bring--I look forward to finding out.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Esther's Moral Choice and Ours

Tomorrow my church finishes its 3 week consideration of Esther--what an interesting time to be reading her story.

As I think of Esther, I find myself thinking about how humans act when the stakes are high.  Sociologists have been studying human behavior in the face of great catastrophe, and they tell us that most humans will help when people are in terrible trouble.  We've heard stories of the teacher who tries to shield students from bullets, of those during the September 11 attacks who helped the less able-bodied navigate the stairs.  We hear stories of heroes who rush into burning buildings--or in the case of Esther, approach the king unbidden--and we wonder if we could do that.

The danger of the story of Esther is that we read the story, and we say, "Of course, if life is on the line, I, too, would be brave and go before the king."  After all, what choice does Esther have?  If the king has her killed for disobeying the rules and coming to him of her own volition, it will be no worse a fate than waiting to be killed as a Jew.

We assume that we would be brave, if our lives were on the line.  But what if the stakes are not that high?

Are we willing to speak up when a colleague tells an offensive joke?  Are we willing to think about where we spend our hard-earned money and only support those companies that match our values?

I had an interesting series of conversations the other day when my company decided to let a local Chick-Fil-A come to campus to bring box lunches to those who wanted to buy them.  One of my colleagues thought that they shouldn't be allowed on campus at all--the school has an anti-discrimination policy, and Chick-Fil-A has supported some causes that are discriminatory.  One colleague thought that if we didn't want to support the company, that no one was being forced to buy the food.  One colleague wanted us to support more non-chain restaurants, while another thought that supporting a local franchisee was fine.  Some of us thought we should just provide our own lunches.  One colleague wondered why we were having so much conversation about the topic at all.

I said, "One day you're buying from a company that supports causes you don't believe in, and then you're buying clothes made by sweatshop child slaves, and where does it end?  Before you know it, your mortal soul is in danger."

Our choice between ruin and salvation may come in a big challenge like Esther's, one where we recognize the stakes.  But for most of us, the moral choices that we face will have much smaller stakes, and it may be easy to shrug off the seriousness of the choice--or perhaps we won't recognize that we're even making a choice.  But we are.  And once we get off trajectory, it can be very hard to get back on track.

Each day, we should ask ourselves and each other:  "In what ways am I moving the world towards justice and peace?  In what ways am I cohabitating with evil?"

God calls us to a grand vision of a redeemed creation--in what ways are we making that vision a reality?

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Feast Day of John the Baptist

Some months, I’m in the mood for John the Baptist. I’m ready to go into the wilderness. I’ve got a file of recipes for locusts and wild honey. I’m in a daring mood—I’ll speak truth to the King Herods of the world, even if it means my head on a platter.

But much of the time, when John the Baptist shows up in the lectionary or when we celebrate his feast day on June 24 or when we talk about prophets in general, I’m weary. Most of the time, I'm tired of having prophets like John the Baptist call me part of a brood of vipers or comparing me to shrubbery that refuses to behave.

I know, I know, I have all these faults. Don't threaten me with that ax. I try so hard to bear good fruit, but I'm afraid it isn't enough. I'm surrounded by people who are clearly in a more crabby mood than I am, and I'm trying to be sympathetic, but it's hard. This attempt of mine to transform myself into a compassionate person is taking longer than I thought it would. I see people at work having meltdowns, and my response is to hide under my desk, metaphorically, although there are days that the thought of literally curling up under my desk is almost irresistible. I don't go to them to say, "What can I do to help you through this painful time?"

But let me return to the mission of the prophets. God does not send prophets because we’re all already damned. God sends prophets to call us back to the path we should be travelling.

On this day in June when we celebrate John the Baptist, it’s good to be reminded that I'm not my final, improved version of myself. I still have work to do. And I need to hear that message that the prophets bring us. I'm lazy and inclined to coast, and it's good to know that God has a vision for me that is vaster than any I could dream myself.

It’s also good to remind ourselves of who we are. I like the passages when John the Baptist is questioned about his identity. He says, “I am not the Messiah” (John 1:20). He could have hoodwinked people who were willing to believe he was the Messiah. He could have made a power grab. He could have gotten great wealth and women and audiences with powerful rulers.

Those temptations have led more than one religious leader astray.

But John knows who he is. He is not the Messiah. He has been sent to point the way to salvation, not to provide it.

Likewise, we are not called to be the Messiah, That doesn't mean we’re off the hook in terms of behavior. We can't say, "I am not the Messiah," and stay home on our sofas. We can’t decide to watch reruns of The Simpsons and do nothing about injustice in the world.

No, John the Baptist reminds us that we are called to emulate Jesus. Some days, though, I’d rather emulate somebody else. I’m so tired of working so hard to be a light to this fallen world.

When I feel that way, I need to listen to the words of John the Baptist again. I need to listen to God, who often calls to us from the wilderness. Most of us need to be reminded to listen to that call that God makes. Let the words fill our hearts with hope: "The crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God." (Luke 3: 5-6). Our salvation is at hand: our grieving hearts will be comforted, our anger and irritation will lift, the planet will heal itself as it always does, God will take care of us and everything we need is on its way, even if we’re not ready for deserts and locusts in our dedication.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Forgiving the One Who Kills While Drunk

I have friends who lost a family member in a horrific car crash.  The family member was travelling on his motorcycle at night on the Interstate, when a woman who was driving the wrong way on that Interstate ploughed into him, killing the family member and severely injuring the driver.

Was she drunk?  Of course she was--sober drivers don't get on the Interstate driving the wrong way--it's hard to do.

The story is full of grim irony.  The man killed had been clean and sober for years, and he had helped countless others to that salvation.  And now, he was dead by a drunk driver?  There was much anger and sorrow.  Forgiveness was not readily apparent.

My friend who was the sister-in-law of the motorcyclist moved towards forgiveness more quickly than the rest of the family.  She continued to remind everyone of the victim's quickness to forgive, and to forgive over and over again.  At the beginning, almost everyone else wanted a swift, harsh justice.

The wheels of the legal system move slowly, sometimes unbearably so.  This case was no different, and this case moved more slowly through the legal system because of the severe injuries of the drunk driver.

These delays gave the family members time to move towards forgiveness and a plea deal.  The DUI driver will have to serve some time in jail, and she will never drive again.  She will have to be a speaker about the danger of drunk driving, along with other responsibilities.  She will have a lifetime of random drug tests.  And she must live with her injuries.  She will never be the same.

I have seen the family members on the local news as they talked about their losses.   Knowing that they have moved from anger to a forgiveness has been inspiring.  They have not couched the experience in spiritual terms, not publically, but I cannot help but think of the various spiritual traditions that command forgiveness as a spiritual duty, a spiritual necessity, a spiritual formation.

Forgiveness cannot erase loss, of course.  But it can transform the loss.  Anger can be transformative too, and not always in a bad way.  But anger nursed deep within us is damaging.  To hold that anger for many years is even worse.  Far better to forgive, although it's much harder.

The DUI driver has a much more difficult road ahead.  She is filled with remorse, and she must rebuild a life from shattered shards.  I hope that the fact that she has received some forgiveness will help her too.