Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Enough is Enough

There's lots more to last week's coaching metaphor but in our highly clerical-ized denominational history we are prone to focus too much on leadership and not enough on those models or identities that come from the pews, so to speak.  So let's look at another role: giver.

It's important this time of year in most Christian denominations in America to talk about giving.  Pledge campaigns, drafts of operating budgets, contribution statements all take a turn this time of year.  But the kind of giving I'm thinking of has only a little to do with these fiscal concerns.

Think of Jesus' instructions from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5.  Down in verse 38 and following he says,
"38 ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
This kind of giver has a different appreciation for things and a different appreciation for his or her self. Their giving is not because that they possess great wealth or have been particularly blessed with possessions.  Their "giving" comes from an obedience to God that does not value self or one's possessions as much it values witnessing to the obedience itself. 

Perhaps "obedience" needs some attention.  It means so much more than rule bound adherence to instructions or authority.  Here it means something more like loyalty to or faith in God, or more like reliance on the capacity of God to be God in the way that God has promised to be God. 

Our appreciations for things like obedience, giving or forgiving are often too small and by way of that diminution incapable of expressing the greater truths we are called to proclaim.  If obedience is limited to rule keeping then we reduce God to something less than the source of all love.  If giving means distributing symbolically out of our possessions then we interfere with God's already having provided enough for us all.  If forgiving is limited to a transactional balancing of accounts then we reduce the benefit of God's omnipresence and mercy for all sinners. 

The kind of giver I'm talking about does indeed contribute significantly to a parish budget, makes pledges and keeps them, and gives so that things like outreach never lag but there's more.

Giving as an expression of loyalty and trust in God as described in Matthew 5:38f sees the needs of others first,  even the needs of those with power to sue or demand our services.  But let's be smart and understand what really is needed.  It's not the cloak being carried or one being taken by some legal demand. 

The need is loyalty to God, trust in God, faith.  Otherwise there'd be no demand for the cloak to be carried the first mile.  In a world where we all trust God another cloak would be waiting for them at the end of that mile, carried or not!  In a world of obedience there's no shame when one's face is slapped, instead compassion for the one who is deluded into thinking that their power to slap wins anything of value for them. 

In a world of faithful obedience to the God who is always with us, giving has a value higher than any possession or position.  We should all be that kind of giver. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Hey Coach!

I wrote last week about the role that is each of ours because we are "good news people."  As believers our appreciation for the gospel compels us to be its messengers.  It is our relationship with the goodness of the news itself -- the reign of God is at hand! Christ is risen! Jesus loves me! -- that puts a spring in our step and drives us to run so obviously motivated that any onlooker would be impressed.  

There are roles for each of us to attempt and practice is our lives of faith.  As a priest in a parish or campus setting I've often been instructed by my experiences as a coach.  

I remember how often I'd hear "hey Coach!" and I would almost always answer "hey, Athlete!"  There'd be a little awkward chuckle and then the matter at hand would be attended.  I wasn't being obtuse in my answer but I was in most cases being complimentary.  The coach/athlete relationship is precious and it calls on both to strive for excellence on the other's behalf.  You've heard the saying "to win one for the Gipper."  It clearly indicates that calling to a mutual interest toward a supreme effort.  

Likewise most coaches will honestly and humbly credit the team for its success and as much as possible take the hit for a loss.  Those actions also come out of that relationship and its mutual striving and respect.  

The same applies to my work as rector here at Advent.  I'm the not wisest or the most knowledgable but I have been entrusted with a kind of attentiveness and imagination that yearns to understand the "sport" of faith, to know more about how one can improve one's efforts and how that aspiration calls for keen observation and sharing.  

A good friend from my Fluor Daniel days tells the story of his first coaching job at Charlotte Country Day back in the 80's.  He earned a Master's in Exercise Physiology and found a job teaching P.E. The girl's varsity tennis team needed a coach.  His own athletic past only included casual or recreational experience at tennis but he thought he could at least organize the practices, schedule the buses and keep score, so he said "yes." His girlfriend played college tennis on scholarship and he wisely asked her to "hit the ball" with him and help him learn more about team training and skill work.  

At the end of their having played and talked he asked her for her advice, "Do you think I'll be able to do this?"  She said, "Sure, just don't ever let them see you play!"  Long story short, they won a championship . . . because of the athlete's and by way of my friend's attention, encouragement and mutuality.  

So for me to adopt the role of coach has little to do with being faster than the team's runners or in our case "the best Christian" (whatever that is!).  It has more to do with playing my part in attentiveness and imagination.  There are plenty of other roles that are better framed by the sub-title "team member" than even "athlete."  Just think for a minute how much we can learn by way of our captains, our quarterbacks, our trainers, or our managers.  Lots of roles, all on the team, each a part of the whole.  

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 1 Corinthians 12:7

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Bringing in the good news

Last week I wrote about that sense of living "in the world but not of it."  The nickname I gave this identity was "outsider."  That's a little misleading.  Staying on the outside is not my intent.  It was not Jesus' intent when he recognized that the disciples were "not of this world" in his prayers to God.  (John 17:14). 

His intentions are caught up in the language of his sending them as he says in verse 18, “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”  So 'outsider" speaks less about where I am to stay and more of how I started.  Yes there are still those parts of me that "in but not of" no matter what I do or to where I move.  I know this, and I'm not stopping. 

My work with this faithful people was begun with an perspective that was and still is mine from years of experience in other places, other ministry settings.  But I have been sent from "there" to "here" and I have brought and will continue to bring my learning along.  Nice thing about this spiritual journeying is that everything gets to be paid forward.  Thanks be to God!

The nickname for one who is sent is "apostle."  It comes from the Old English apostol, via ecclesiastical Latin from Greek apostolos ‘messenger,’ from apostellein ‘send forth.’

It implies there is something of value, a message that is being conveyed.  Remember the verse from Isaiah 52:7, "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’"

The messenger's feet are beautiful because of how they are carrying the good news of peace and salvation.  Just like we would detect a "bounce" in someone's step the day after they fell in love.

Not all messengers are welcomed.  True sometimes for the message, as well.  Remember Jesus' instructions about dusting off one's sandals.  We need not be afraid. The heart of the messenger is more closely tied to their commission and message than to their reception. 

There are other nicknames that help me in seeing, knowing, learning, and leading.  I'm more likely to answer to them than I am "outsider" or "apostle" or "messenger."

Call me "coach" and you'll see, . . . next week.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Recent Unpleasantness

There's lots of stirring in the world, our nation, and our parish.  I'll admit to my own part in it.  Some of my part in the stirring seems almost habitual.  As I read and listen to the news and opinions of minds greater than mine I sometimes just automatically pass them along with my own added likes, emojis, comments and replies.  Sometimes I let the "things settle" and then add my part.

This is not news to most Advent-ers.  Seven plus years of service with this community has exposed the content and manner of my thinking to just about everyone.

Some may not be aware that I've always seen myself an outsider of sorts.  I don't blame but I trace this perception back to my childhood as a PK.  Our family lived and moved among people who were less constrained by their roles in the church.  Think of those times when you've said something like "but he's a minister!"

For instance, the ONLY time you would have seen one of Tom and Dodie Brown's kids at the movie theatre on a Sunday afternoon was if they had been invited by a friend to go home with them from church, making sure to be returned for 6:00pm "Training Union" class and 7:00pm Evening Worship.

We NEVER went as a family to the theatre, except on the two or three occasions we were invited for an opening.  I remember when "Ben Hur" came to the Osteen.  It was slick marketing to get a bunch of Anderson's ministers in on the buzz.

But the world for the Browns was always "once removed" from us by way of social constraint, economics or our parents' tastes and sensibilities.  "In the world but not of the world" was how it was.  We knew nothing else.

That "once removed" perception is still with me, even as I move into my rental on Sandy Creek Rd.  An event in our lives that signifies to many of you that I'm "finally, here."

Do not worry or weep.  I'm thinking that it suits me and always has, to have a distinct place from which to watch and learn, from which to pray and love.  It reads as presumptuous but I'm also thinking that is much of why Jesus kept going off to be alone.

Back to the stirring or maybe we could call it serving, or leading, or pastoring, or teaching.  Whatever we call it, I've never just stirred up a tempest for stirring's sake.  I'm not denying my role but I try to see what I see, try to think what I think, try to feel what I feel, try to pray what I pray from a place that is by experience and calling "once removed" and not enmeshed, as much autonomous as partnered, as much grounded as idealized. "In the world but not of the world."

It helps me to remember that I am just the rector and by that just the one who presides in our vestry's work.  I'm not the only stirrer, not the only one praying. The dust of our "recent unpleasantness" will settle, the stirring will fade, likely to be displaced by another.  None of us need to be "in on it" so much so that we are helplessly or inextricably "of it."

Much of what was true for me as an "outsider" is still true, but I believe I have grown throughout my life from PK to Priest.  I'm looking forward to how we will grow and learn to live with each other in this world that has been so stirred.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Sacramental Forgiveness

Some of you may remember that I wrote extensively back in 2014 and 2015 about the importance and difficulties of practicing sabbath in modern culture.

I compared our practice of Sunday worship to that call to rest at the heart of any good sabbath observance and found the disconnect.  Sunday was "up."  Sabbath was supposed to be "down."

Recalling the places in scripture alone where sabbath principles are expressed shows how central to a life of faith in God a good sabbath practice can be.

We need sabbath, God made sabbath by being the first to take that rest.  Moses' minions yearned for a sabbath and found out the hard way how important a sabbath discipline could be.

There's a presumption of forgiveness in the sabbath practice that we learn from our covenanted ancestors.  By scripting in "time out" to the regular week of night and day, of work and play, of eating and sleeping our tradition is admitting that not everything we do brings the benefits we expect.

Sabbath says "stop."  Isn't that what we say to the tireless type "A," the insistent toddler, the descending addict, the extra-punch bully?  Stop!

Not everything that humans do makes the world a better place, perhaps especially those things we do to leave a mark for ourselves in the script we hope our descendents will recall.

The other informing piece toward forgiveness embedded in the sabbath tradition is at least a version of the truism that "time heals all wounds."  In terms of Israel's exodus to and taking possession of the promised land sabbath meant creation could take care of itself, given a chance.

The earth -- with just one day of rest in seven days of cultivation, harvesting, construction -- could find healing and wholeness all on its own.

That principle can still inform our shared lives as members of the Church of the Advent.  Finding ways to stop our relentless marching to notoriety, success, and righteousness is its own hard work.

But the sabbath principle is principal.  Let's stop.  There's forgiveness and healing "down" there.

Every Sunday even in the rush to accomplish a liturgical feat/feast, to orchestrate and perform an intricate process of presentation, offertory surrender, uplifting consecration, and purposeful dismissal what matters most is that we just stop.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Forgiving God

One aspect of our learning about forgiveness as an expansive function of God’s presence that I have not yet addressed is perhaps the toughest one: our forgiving of God.

So let’s start by telling the truth: every single one of us has had moments in our lives of hurt, disappointment, failure, loss for which we only know to blame God.  True or not we've all felt that way, especially in those moments when we were doing what we thought was our best.  We don’t always blame God but when all other causes are excusable who is left?

It seems like much of this condition has to do our preconceptions about God.  It's interesting that most of our preconceptions box God into roles in many ways unlike what we see in Jesus of Nazareth.

One of the boxes we use for the “blamed God” is puppeteer.  We need help and we pray to God and we expect God to pull some strings for things to get better.  We need to be cautious here because we risk defining away the very freedom that makes love possible and I’m pretty sure love is a thing God wants for us.

Popular culture has dealt with this question especially well in the film “Bruce Almighty,” where Bruce, played by comedian Jim Carey can move the moon but can’t compel his crush, played by Jennifer Anniston to love him.

Another box is that one I characterize as “Santa Claus having a bad day.”  God is portrayed as always watching and keeping accounts of those who are “naughty or nice” and ordering just enough toys or sticks and coal for the Christmas giveaway or judgment day.  The best corrective for this limited view of God is the entire book of Job, ‘nuff said.

Another box is one many use to make sense of those particularly puzzling times when we say things like “only God knows” or “everything happens for a reason.”  Here it is worth it to dig a little and let stand the truth that the only trustworthy picture of God is the one revealed in Jesus and not in some hidden esoterica or Hellenized philosophy.

There are plenty of other boxes but the ones I've listed clearly indicate our struggle to live in a world of hurt and loss even while believing in God.  Each of them, in an attempt to express one aspect of God’s character misses another.  And each makes our forgiving God that much harder.

Letting Jesus be our best picture of God is a game changer for me.  Born humbly to become a compassionate healer, faithful leader and courageous teacher, who died obediently so that our lives could have new meaning and purpose, kind of makes all the extra-biblical descriptions of God seem “clunky” at best and well off the mark.

In Jesus we see the God who saves us first by being with us and who clearly chooses love over control, forgiveness over revenge, presence over power, mercy over punishment.  What’s to forgive? We should be sorry for thinking otherwise.

Admittedly, the hurt and loss of this life don't disappear.  God is still with us, knows everything we know about disappointment, failure and loss then still forgives us and all our bad pictures of him.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Covering of Love

Last week I connected the power of "binding and loosing" that Jesus bestows on Peter and the others of the twelve to an agency that is now ours as ones aroused by the proximity and approach of God's reign.

Binding is more than pronouncing judgement or laying blame.  It is that important first part of truth-telling and recognition.  Loosing is the concluding phase that ultimately works through to saying "you are forgiven."

Operating throughout is an expectation that the binding has adequately identified what matters and has done so in accordance with God's spirit.  Remember how important it is to acknowledge that we can never talk "behind God's back." Remember also Paul's caution to speak the truth in love. (Ephesians 4:15)

This love presumes a God fearing respect and I think also promotes a depth and clarity in our truth telling.  It's not just to soften the blow.  Love can do more and actually helps to create conditions that avoid trivia and pettiness.

Empathy begins the binding as we first listen to the victim's truth to fully understand the who, what, where, when and why of how we have wronged someone.  God is in on this and so both the listener and petitioner can risk the vulnerability necessary to speak the truth love.

The pattern is not just a simple two step of "heart felt" apology and resolute absolution.  It is much more like that three-fold dynamic of regularity, validity and efficacy in all our sacramental practices.

Binding/Regularity sets the stage and follows some rules in order to be reliable, comprehensive and repeatable.  Loosing/Efficacy happens into the future and acknowledges a new/renewed status of both penitent and victim.

Rising out of and covering beyond the overlap of "binding and loosing" is love.  Love encourages depth and clarity in our calling out and naming the wrong.  Love allows for real contrition and a change in behavior.  Love helps sustain reconciliation and moderates our holding each other accountable.

Without love our agency accomplishes little more than changes in the pecking order and entrenchments of power.  With love forgiveness sets us all free.

The sequencing of "binding and loosing" or of "regularity, validity, efficacy" is ours to "suffer" because we are creatures of time and space, yet to inhabit fully that future from whence God approaches us.

Because of who God is, he does not have to suffer such restriction.  God can do whatever God wants. Indeed part of our arousal to the kingdom's nearness is that from it God provides forgiveness before we've even acknowledged our sin.

The order is less important than the acknowledgement and expression of love -- God's love --  that empowers, validates and sustains forgiveness.  Without love it's just not forgiveness.