Categories
Uncategorized

Entitlement or Grace?

In the Old Testament book of Jonah we meet the most reluctant prophet ever. He is asked by God launch his ministry by preaching a compelling sermon to his enemies so that they might convert. It’s as if he were asked to do a revival in Baghdad a couple of years after 9-11. Imagine being asked to lead a mission trip to a Taliban training camp, making their lives easier, preaching in hopes that they might repent of their sin. I doubt that many of us would sign up for either destination. Is it possible that we don’t wish for some people to be redeemed? Could it be that we don’t want to share the gifts of our Christian faith with others whom we deem grossly undeserving?

I have various pieces of artwork that feature this familiar tale. They all depict a human form inside the belly of a great fish. We think it’s cute because we know he gets out of that dark, slimy prison. But it’s not a charming children’s story. Jonah, in my estimation, is the least admirable prophet because he drags his heels every step of his missionary journey. His heart is simply not in it. The fact that God would use someone like Jonah is good news to me.  There’s hope!

Jonah and Pinnochio | Christian Funny Pictures - A time to laugh

The story begins with God tapping unsuspecting Jonah with a mission: go to the great city of Nineveh and preach repentence to them. Jonah gives God a thumbs up then jumps on board a ship that goes the opposite direction! This is one gutsy guy! He thinks he can deceive God. He disobeys and thinks he’s going to get away with it. Why is he so against this assignment? It has to do with the destination. The Jews hated the Ninevites.

A little history. The Assyrians were the world superpower in the 8th century BC. Nineveh was the capital city of their empire. They waged war on the Northern Kingdom of the Israelites for three long years, ultimately taking the city. The prophet Nahum gives voice to the hatred toward these violent captors who were ruthless toward the Jews. In his writing Nahum daydreams about these enemies being slaughtered and addresses them directly: “Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims! The crack of whips, the clatter of wheels, galloping horses and jolting chariots! Charging cavalry, flashing swords and glittering spears! Many casualties, piles of dead, bodies without number, people stumbling over the corpses…’I am against you,’ declares the LORD Almighty. ‘I will pelt you with filth, I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle. All who see you will flee from you and say, ‘Nineveh is in ruins—who will mourn for her?’ Where can I find anyone to comfort you?…Nothing can heal you; your wound is fatal. All who hear the news about you clap their hands at your fall, for who has not felt your endless cruelty?’”

Bedtime stories for little Jewish children of Jonah’s generation had to do with bringing their ancient enemies down and Nineveh was on the frontlines of their hatred. So Jonah must have felt like he picked the short straw when directed to bring his enemies into the fold of God’s love. Instead, his nationalistic fervor leads him to sail in the other direction, assuming God’s GPS had limitations. But God’s sonar knew right where this reluctant prophet floated. Jonah was ultimately cast overboard by his crew members when they learned he was messing with God. They didn’t want to do it and even tried to save him as he thrashed in the water. But before they could get to him, a great fish surfaced from the deep and swallowed him whole. Imagine the conversation over dinner in the mess hall after witnessing that! After that biblically significant time of three days, the fish obeys the call of God by vomiting Jonah up onto the shore. Even the fish is more obedient to God than the slimy prophet! Realizing that it was hopeless to escape God’s notice, Jonah finally obeys. But remember, obedience doesn’t always equate with genuine repentance!

In the earlier chapter we read that Jonah walks a full day into the city before uttering the first word of his carefully crafted sermon: “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” That goes down as the shortest fire-and-brimstone sermon on record! He didn’t give an “unless clause”: “…unless you repent of your sin!” Did he delight in preaching it more as a proclamation of truth than an invitation to change?

In spite of his lackluster sermon delivered from a cold heart, the whole city repents, including the King and even the animals! They put on the traditional outfit of penance—sackcloth—and fasted, hoping to win the favor of Jonah’s God. Verse 10 is a triumphant announcement which would have been the perfect ending point of the story: God sees their changed hearts and decides not to smite them. The Ninevites cry out, “Three cheers for Jonah’s God” and thank the reluctant prophet for his successful revival. Yay! Win-win, right?

Not so fast. This is where our reading begins. Jonah’s anger burns when God acts with mercy. He offers the oddest prayer to God. In essence he yells at God saying he knew God would do this. He knew God was a softie and always willing to forgive a remorseful sinner so that’s why he—Jonah—fled in the first place. He didn’t want these enemies-of-the-state to be forgiven and he knew God would extend grace. So he invites God to kill him off right then, right there. If he had to head home with the news that he was responsible for the salvation of Nineveh, he would be utterly rejected by his own people.

I imagine God asking quietly: “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Jonah has a clear understanding of God’s goodness…but wants God’s wrath for these heathens. Even after three days facing his mortality in the belly of a great fish, Jonah’s hatred for his enemies hasn’t abated. In fact, if we review the history of Jonah’s people, the Israelites, our ancestors in the faith, we see that they sin repeatedly, unabashedly and seldom repent of their sin. Yet Jonah thinks that they are entitled to God’s grace whereas his enemies are not. The Ninevites display a remarkable showing of penance and they weren’t even raised to believe in this God! Their confession of sin disgusts Jonah. He simply isn’t having it. “Let ‘em burn”, he rages in his heart.

Princes Lady Diana Free Printable Masks. - Oh My Fiesta! in english

Just over 23 years ago on September 10 I was in the hospital, spending the day with laboring to give birth to my fourth child. For several hours, when the labor was easier, Garrett and I had the TV on. Pretty much every channel was covering the death and recent funeral of Princess Diana. She had been laid to rest four days earlier but the world wasn’t ready to let her go. She was royalty, a sainted hero of her people and the world, who could do no wrong. She was entitled to a mass funeral procession and a memorial service with Elton John singing his now-beloved requiem. We remember her two young boys trailing behind her casket, carrying the sadness of the world on their small shoulders. It was hardly the right TV programming to distract me from my own increasing pain!

Catholic, Charity, Mother, Nun, Teresa

Every now and then there would be a news report about another death, one that happened five days after Princess Diana’s: Mother Theresa. She died in Calcutta where she had poured out her life caring for the desperately poor alongside her Sisters of Mercy. Her death was almost completely eclipsed by the global mourning over Diana. Her funeral mass was a week after the princesses’ lavish memorial. The tiny saint’s body was laid out on a slab of ice to prevent decay. While some world leaders took time out of their busy schedules to pay tribute to Mother Theresa, her funeral followed the ancient order of a mass for the dead in which prayers were made for her soul. God was urged to have mercy upon her and to receive her into eternal keeping. Her funeral, rather that worshiping her, reminded viewers of the universal need for God’s grace. The juxtaposition of these two women in death laid bare our human notion that only certain people are deserving of God’s grace. Too often we assume that we not only have access to that list but have a say-so in shaping it! The sermon I heard as I labored toward welcoming my fourth child into our family was that of entitlement versus grace. Welcome to our conflicted world, baby girl!

Before we turn the page on Jonah and write him off as misguided, we would do well to see how his life mirrors our own. Jonah was all too ready to throw his enemies under the bus. He prays for God’s justice to be meted out toward them. In his small-mindedness, this can only mean annihilation. He cried out to God for rescue from the belly of the great fish. In spite of his disobedience, God dramatically rescued him. Jonah reasoned that he was entitled to God’s good grace. Too often we follow suit. We demand justice when what is needed is God’s mercy. Our myopic prayer is, “Be loving to me—but not to them!” We want to keep our God and the best of God’s gifts for ourselves. We’re often like spoiled children, assuming we are deserving of our parents’ Visa Gold Card to buy the life of our dreams. We are entitled to the best whereas those poor schmucks over there have it coming!

It’s interesting to note that the whole city of Nineveh repents of their sin when a foreign prophet comes in and mumbles a really pathetic sermon. Clearly it wasn’t his words or oratory skills that converted them. So what did? Their hearts were unguarded such that they were able to encounter God—one they had never met before—in spite of the messenger! The “heathens” met and worshiped God whereas Jonah, who had grown up with this God and been rescued a couple of times, sat in a heap of his own pity. He was pouting and unimpressed. If Jonah were our child, sulking because there was no petting zoo at his birthday party, we would want to shake some gratitude out of him! We would probably raise our voices to teach this selfish child a lesson. But I imagine God dealing quietly with Jonah. God asks the prophet a reflective question: Is it right for you to be angry? Jonah’s answer shows he is still inwardly focused: “Yes, angry enough to die.”

Gently building the case away from entitlement, God continues the effort to move the reluctant prophet’s view away from his own self-interest: “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

And that’s where the story ends. Not at the triumphant conclusion of one of the greatest movements in national penance we’ve ever read about. It ends with a quiet confrontation of one of God’s chosen servants about the sin of entitlement and the universal need for grace. Who are our Ninevites? Do we want them to be saved? Or have we already turned our back on them and walked away?

I remember the wristbands we wore about twenty years ago: WWJD. What would Jesus do? Do we believe that Jesus has enough love to go around? Or is it a limited commodity that we need to hoard? Entitlement or grace? Jonah’s struggle still confronts us.

Categories
Uncategorized

Crazy Forgiveness

We spent this past summer, as a congregation, in an extended family reunion. Our scripture passages traveled through Genesis, reminding us of the stories of our ancestors in the faith. They were not necessarily the tales that make us beam with pride! However, as with our own family trees, sometimes we find in the raked up pile of dead leaves something of great beauty. The passage from Genesis 50 is one such high point for the family of Abraham and Sarah.

In the Joseph narrative the father plays an ongoing critical role. He has served as the buffer between competitive brothers who have grown into men. Backing up several decades, Joseph faced peril when his father was more than 60 miles away from him and his older brothers were tending the sheep. In this story we jump in where Jacob has died, leaving the scheming older brothers without any protection from the old man. They have reunited with the younger brother they sold into slavery years earlier. They are shocked that Joe is not only alive but now elevated to a position of great authority, second in national command. He is charged with oversight of a national relief program through which folks traveling to Egypt because of a widespread famine would be given food. This is what led to the migration of Joe’s brothers to the country where he had landed in chains years earlier. In their unlikely encounter, foreigners throwing themselves at the mercy of a ruler, Joseph ultimately reveals himself to the brothers. The tables have turned. Joe’s elderly father learns that his son is alive! He is carted endless miles in the company of his guilt-ridden sons for a tender reunion.

In this passage, Jacob has died. The older brothers are terrified because Joe holds the power to do them in. Without the father keeping the peace, why would Joseph treat them with anything but revenge? An eye for an eye, right? So the brothers contrive a deathbed wish of the father who can no longer refute what they say. Dear old dad, they informed young Joe, had pleaded for him to forgive the sins of his older siblings. They are still conniving in an effort to win mercy from their powerful brother. The assumption is that someone who holds power over others will use it to exact justice. Given what they had done to him years earlier, they legitimately had it coming.

Nineteen years ago we kicked off our new program year in our congregation with celebrative worship and Sunday School classes reconvening. People reconnected with each other over coffee, telling tales of their summer adventures. Two days later our Tuesday morning Bible Study class met for the first time. Before class started we had heard about a plane crashing into one of the Twin Towers in New York City. Folks assumed it was a terrible accident. We talked about it in class, prayed for the victims then the students headed home 90 minutes later. During that time three more planes crash landed into buildings and fields, confirming that it was an act of terror. I remember my office administrator and me talking in hushed tones, trying to make sense of the senseless. We didn’t know how to respond to such an assault on our national security. I remember we posted a note on the church doors that read: “The Church is closed due to a national emergency.” Then, like everyone else, we fled for home where we surrounded ourselves with our loved ones and stayed glued to the TV.

19 years later we still ask ourselves what justice looks like. To protect ourselves from further aggression, we put new security measures in place that we still live with today. Think of how different it is to check in for a flight now than it was 20 years ago. We went to war and sought to hold accountable those groups that orchestrated the 9-11 attacks. We hunted down leaders in spider holes and fast asleep in heavily armed quarters. An eye for an eye, our Old Testament lesson proclaims. Our understanding of human justice guided us in our retribution. Did that make us feel better? Safer? Certainly it did, to some extent. But we wrestle with a bigger issue as Christians. What does our love of a forgiving God suggest as the correct response to those who targeted us as enemies and killed more than 3000 of our loved ones? The cost of forgiveness is great. It requires repentance that can only come after a long time of actively seeking to understand each other. Forgiveness in the face of such suffering does not come from our human effort. It can only be found when we submit to the One who instructed us to love our enemies.

Years earlier, without the protection of the father, Joe’s brothers turned their jealousy into an act of terror. They sold him as a human slave to a traveling caravan of merchants. They shook the dust off their feet and headed home to a completely new reality. Their father was never the same again, believing his son was killed by a wild animal. The brothers, who made up the lie to cover their unthinkable crime, lived with guilt and shame. Meanwhile, young Joe suffered at the hands of his captors but ultimately was elevated, by God’s grace, to a position of power. Absent his own family, he established a new community in Egypt. Once his family migrated to Egypt at Joseph’s invitation, Jacob became a father figure not just to his own children. At the time of his death the Egyptian servants mourned his passing just as family would do. Joe hung onto his faith, a man who belonged to two communities.

The brothers assume that justice is meted out with reciprocity. When he weeps at their request for mercy, they fear for their lives. Fulfilling the dream Joseph had decades earlier, they bow down to the one they had sold for a handful of change. In an ironic turn of events, they offer to become his slaves. This, they hope, will pay off the debt which may spare them their lives. But young Joe changes up the narrative. He interrupts the generational cycle of victimization with something the older brothers never saw coming: forgiveness. This is the wildcard that can only be described as crazy! Joe sees something good in these siblings who had tried to get rid of him. He sees their changed hearts. As they weep together, a dozen men grieving the loss of their father and a long-ago loss of innocence, Joseph reminds them of who truly has authority. “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good…”

Charles Colson’s prison ministry takes people into prisons to meet with inmates, to worship with them and get to know them. A group of them visited a large penitentiary where an execution was scheduled for the next day. As usual, every person from the ministry team was accounted for upon entering for the prayer meeting. Afterwards the inmates filed out and Colson’s team was shocked to discover that they were one man short! A frenzied search in the facility located the Christian man sitting in a prisoner’s cell, praying with him. It was the cell of the man who was to be executed. The irate group of missionaries upbraided the man for putting their program at risk. “How could you do this to us?” they yelled. The man answered, “My name is Judge Brewer. I am the judge who sentenced this man. I am here because we both need time to forgive one another.”

In commenting on this text from Genesis, Claudio Carvalhaes states, “For us, as for Joseph and his brothers, forgiveness never comes without weeping.” That’s how we know God is at work. When our own efforts at achieving justice meet with failure, God steps in. When we are unable to forgive someone who has wronged us, the One who instructs us to love our enemies enables us to let go. Our world urges us to ask for the maximum punishment but we discover that we still feel weighted down with sadness after the sentencing. Some people die having carried hatred toward their enemies for decades. Their God-given gifts dried up because they invested their energy into human equations for justice.

The story ends with young Joe proclaiming that God brought good out of their evil. The way its phrased could make it seem like God was the author of the original sibling betrayal years before. This is troubling. Why would God cause significant harm so as to teach a lesson in forgiveness a lifetime later? Timothy Cargal offers an answer that makes more sense of the God I know and serve. He writes, “God is neither directly nor indirectly responsible for the plan to sell Joseph into slavery; rather, God actively engages what they have done so that ultimately it has a redemptive rather than destructive result.”

In this playing field of daily human activity, our interaction is often harmful toward one another. Many times that hurt is unintentional and immediately regretted. But sometimes it is intentional and that kind of malice is deeply damaging. In the midst of our power struggles and insecurities, God is at work. Just as Jesus brought healing and even restoration of life, God redeems our messes into moments of forgiveness. When undeserved mercy is offered, tears flow, hearts are healed, and God is praised.

Categories
Uncategorized

What Manner of Love?

Illusionist David Blaine rose to new heights in his impressive professional life last week. Strapped to 52 helium balloons, he ascended into the sky at the rate of about 500 feet per minute. He ultimately floated more than five miles above the surface of the earth. During this time he communicated with folks watching from below, sharing his awe for the amazing view with his 9-year old daughter, Dessa. He trained for the stunt for two years. He finally detached himself from the balloons and fell toward the Arizona desert before releasing his parachute. He landed upright and jubilant to have conquered yet another seemingly impossible feat. When reunited with his daughter, he hugged her and said, “I did this for you.”

I shook my head when I heard that because it would never cross my mind to show my love for my children in that way. Nor do I think my kids would appreciate me taking on such a daunting experiment for their sake! Of course, Blaine’s profession and very nature is to push his human limits. But I will settle for making a good dinner for my family so that we can sit together and get caught up on life!

By what manner of love are we to care for those around us?

For many parents the past six months have been disappointing. Their graduating seniors have not been able to march to the beat of “Pomp and Circumstance” with their classmates. Open Houses have been cancelled. The freshman dorm experience has been replaced with working on-line to complete the homework professors have assigned. Much anticipated wedding celebrations have been put on hold or greatly changed. First day of school outfits have been the same shorts and t-shirts they wore all summer with school supplies set out near their in-home study area. Parents have been broken-hearted that they couldn’t provide for their children the typical sorts of parties that celebrate their accomplishments. So what manner of love do we owe our children as parents when a pandemic sweeps in?

The Christian mystics say that God’s love has two feet: love of God and love of neighbor. There are so many rules we teach our children so that they will be happy, healthy, law-abiding citizens. But Paul’s writing reiterates the teaching of Jesus. If you love one another, every other law we’ve mandated will be observed. Human law must bow down to the demands of love, not the other way around. Laws become burdensome. One much-needed regulation multiplies into several others as interpretations of situations challenge the original intent. We witness how our laws are not evenly applied. Is it possible that we could ever subject our human laws to this holy standard of Godly love on earth? Or should we just give up on that now and settle for minimal harm in our own neighborhoods?

“A Most Beautiful Thing” is a documentary that is newly released on Peacock, NBC’s streaming service. It tells the story of the first African-American high school crew team from the 1990’s. Many of the young men who got into the boat together came from rival gangs. But, once in their vessel, they strained to the same rhythm and competed for a shared prize. This program gave the young men hope for a different future than the past they had lived. Being on the water gave them a peace they didn’t know before. Several of them reunited and decided to race together again. Arshay Cooper, who continues to transform the lives of Chicago youth through a row team, suggested to his former teammates that they invite several Chicago Police officers to train with them. It was not a popular suggestion at first. But the friends agreed and the cops showed up for the training regimen. They climbed into the boat together to compete at the Chicago sprints rowing event as a public display of unity. When folks can gather safely again, they intend to have a cook-out together with their families.

What manner of love is asked of us as Christians in an increasingly secular world?

In writing to a diverse urban congregation in Rome, Paul impressed upon them the urgency of acting NOW: “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep…” Do we awaken with a sense of urgency? We do when it comes to finding a vaccine that will effectively eradicate the COVID virus that has so disrupted our lives. But do we have a strong sense of mission about what we can do in the present moment even with restrictions that keep us separated? Paul challenges those early believers in Jesus to awaken from their sleep. It’s been nearly six months since we shut down our society to stay safe from an invisible enemy. Huddled in our homes with the news continually streaming, it was easy for us to step away from a sense of responsibility toward others and into a survival mode. As we say goodbye to the summer-that-wasn’t, we’re called to awaken from our Quarantine Slumber and look for new ways to serve as a congregation. After decades of living as the “Me Generation”, a deadly virus has reminded us that we don’t have the control we thought we did. Our values have been exposed as too often self-centered and destabilizing. “Just do it”, an advertising campaign that has made billions, falls flat as a motto when we must wear a mask simply to survive a grocery outing.

In this section of Paul’s letter to the Romans, he offers the good news that we have the real possibility of genuine transformation because of what God has done and is doing for us in Jesus Christ. Though our world seems to have spun out of control, Paul assures us that the very axis on which our lives turn has not changed. God was, is and will always be in control and Christ is particularly near in our time of need. So we reconvene in safe ways as a congregation to reassure our children that faith in Jesus is what will keeps us anchored. The need is greater than ever for our families to relinquish their plans into the loving care of their Creator. Rev. Barbara Lundblad offered these words in a sermon she preached in 2005: “Christianity is not a ‘spiritual’ religion, it is an incarnational religion. It believes that God has a body, that God takes up space, that God will not remain ethereal and vague, distant and detached. In his body, God takes up space, God becomes a fact, an undeniable fact that must be dealt with and encountered, must be either acknowledged and followed, or else ignored and denied.”

And so we acknowledge and follow. In our congregation we make plans to teach our children through zoom Sunday School classes. We registered them for the new year in our parking lot, offering ice cream bars for them and their families. We’ve started back in our sanctuary for worship where they will remain seated with their parents until it’s safe to meet in classrooms again. We affirm that God uses us, uses our bodies, to make an imprint for good in our panicked world.

Paul affirms that love does no harm to a neighbor. Those who read his words in this letter would have remembered Jesus’ teaching about who our neighbor is: the most despised member of another tribe or race, a rival gang, or someone with a different lifestyle. This is who we are to actively love and serve. With the fear and suspicion that dominate our culture we have replaced the Golden Rule with an unwritten plan to keep our distance from others. Don’t do anything to them and, maybe, they won’t do anything to me. Rather than stepping out in risky expressions of caring, we find ourselves safe—and alone. We have felt a profound loneliness in the past months and may have come to finally understand that we are meant to live in community. We need each other. My gifts are meant to be shared with you as I receive what you have to offer to me. Rather than insisting that our personal freedoms supersede those of others, we are learning that we must work together in order to triumph over the sin that divides us.

Paul spells out three pairs of immoral behavior: wild parties, promiscuous hook-ups and conflict within families and faith communities. He puts those on a par with each other. Quarreling and jealousy are as damaging as drinking our lives away, Paul would say. But he reminds us that love can accomplish in us what even the best laws cannot: a transformation of the heart. There is an urgency to use these isolating, fearful times to do some soulful introspection. Am I turning to God with my fears and questions, trusting that I can grow through this time, not merely survive? Am I inviting God to use me so that I can serve as the Body of Christ, leaving my footprints in places that point to His healing love? Or am I holed up and focused on insuring my own safety against an alien world?

Paul uses the imagery of night and day. The time of darkness is coming to a close and a new day is dawning. So put on clothing that will be appropriate for the demands of a new day. What might that look like? It might be rowing gear that puts you into a boat with teammates who look different from you. Yet you strain toward a prize you all can share. It might be teaching your students in zoom classrooms with the same passion you offered in a physical room. It could be putting on a firefighter or police uniform to provide rescue to those who could put your own well-being at risk. It could be wearing a cross necklace so that folks understand that it is your faith that supports you. I hope that for many of you it will be an outfit of love that will be shared with our own church children and youth so that another generation will be taught the manner of Christ-like love that will keep them upright in a continually changing world. So wake up! It’s a new day. The time is now. The call to faithful discipleship is urgent. You needn’t soar to great heights like David Blaine to be the hands and feet of Christ to a hurting world. The law is simple: Love your neighbor as you love yourself.

Categories
Uncategorized

A Prayer

God of grace and mercy, we awaken with a remembrance of the unimaginable horror of this day 19 years ago. We lift up those who continue to grieve deeply the loss of loved ones because of the attacks of 9-11. We pray that your healing power continues to bring them peace. We are saddened by the way the attacks undermined our sense of national security. But we are grateful to remember how this act of terror unified us as a nation. We are thankful for the heroism that shone forth from the ashes of destruction. We pray for that same unity today in our country. We pray that we continue to learn that our security can only be firm if established in You. On this day of remembrance may we turn to the healing grace of Your Son, Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Categories
Uncategorized

The Sea is So Wide

In 2009 our family headed to the East Coast for a tour of different ballparks. The itinerary was set by our newly graduated son, James. It was his family “senior trip.” One side venture was a pilgrimage to my old haunts in Camp Springs, Maryland. My dad was stationed at Bolling Air Force Base when I was in elementary and Jr. High School. We found my house and then, from my distant memory, retraced my steps to my elementary school where I had proudly served as a crossing guard. Finding the Jr. High School proved to be a bit more challenging. I remembered that it was Roger B. Taney Jr. High. We tried to pull it up on our phones but it wasn’t there. Finally, in an on-line article, we learned that the school had been renamed years earlier: Thurgood Marshall Middle School.

This prompted some research on our part. What would lead to a name change, we wondered? The name attached to my childhood school belonged to a Maryland native who served as Chief Justice on the United States Supreme Court from 1836-1864. He was the author of the Dred Scott decision in 1857 that upheld slavery. This then dictated that blacks couldn’t hold U.S. citizenship or vote. Proud of their native son, the school had been named after him in the 1960s.

The Washington Post published an article on March 5, 1993 about the name change. The neighborhood surrounding the school at that time was 83% black. Sheila Jackson, the PTA President for one of the Elementary Schools that fed into the Jr. High, celebrated the name change. She said that she and her husband had determined that they could not, in good conscience, send their four children to a school named after a man who so devalued their race. Tia Joseph, a 13-year old student at the school clearly articulated the power in a name: “I believe almost everyone would want to have a school named in honor of a man who showed himself worthy of such a proud title.”

So the school named for one Maryland Chief Justice was replaced with another: Thurgood Marshall Middle School. Another son of the state, Marshall was the first African-American to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. He was a civil rights activist and founder of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educaitonal Fund. 14-year old Anganette announced to the press that she was looking forward to throwing out her Roger B. Taney school swag to replace it with a name that better represented her. After the school board voted unanimously in favor of the change, they received a 30-second standing ovation then recessed so the audience could celebrate with cookies and punch!

The story from Matthew 14 is featured in three of the four gospels. It follows immediately on the heels of the miraculous feeding of the 5000. Having witnessed Jesus’ supernatural powers, the disciples’ faith is put to the test when a violent storm sweeps in while the 12 of them are alone on the Sea of Galilee. We learn about His power over nature in this story about boating-gone-awry. The disciples don’t recognize Jesus in the storm. He calls out to them, “It is I.” Good Jews that they were, they would have heard the name “Yahweh”, the Hebrew name for God that translated as “I am who I am.” God incarnate was on the seas that day just as God had been present in the burning bush before another man of faith generations earlier.

Peter was a disciple of Jesus who followed the lead of his master completely! When he realizes that it’s Jesus out on the water he makes a very strange request. In the windswept blur of a terrifying storm, Peter asks for proof that it’s Jesus in a way I certainly would not suggest! He calls out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Somehow I imagine the other disciples saying, “What?? Are you out of your mind?! Peter, no!” But Peter doesn’t just jump into the water on his own power. He’s smart enough to know that he will have to rely completely on Christ if he’s going to do something so impossible. If Jesus calls him, he is willing. If Jesus calls him, Jesus will equip him. Jesus’ response to Peter’s proposal is both simple and terrifying: “Come.”

I admit that my warning antennas go up when I read this story about Peter. As a parent I can hear the challenge to my kid: “If Peter jumped out of a boat, would you?” Peter was that adventurous, impulsive, passionate friend your folks warned you about. “Don’t hang with Petie. He doesn’t have a lick of sense! He doesn’t think before he acts!”

teenage boys sitting on edge of boat
Photo by Denniz Futalan on Pexels.com

Folks have followed the directives of Jesus and done some illogical things. Perhaps you remember the story about John Chau, a 26 year old American who tried to spread the Gospel to natives on the island of North Sentinel? The island residents are members of a tribe that has lived there for 30,000 years. They have a long history of vigorously repelling outsiders from their shores. Young John knew this but felt called by Jesus, in November of 2018, to bring Christianity to them. One of the arrows shot at him on the first day of his visit pierced his Bible. The second day the arrows pierced him and he died.

What does Jesus expect of us? Are we listening? Are we feeling the nudges? Are the stories in the news connecting with us such that we hear Jesus calling out to us, “Come”? Or are we staying in the shallows where we can ensure our own safety? When we were in San Antonio last November we took a boat ride through the scenic canals of that city. Our tour guide had a good sense of humor. He told us about a tourist years ago who had fallen into the water during one of his tours. The man thrashed around in the water and cried out for help. The guide calmly called out to him, “Stand up.” Finally, the panicked man listened to him and…stood up! He was in 2 feet of water that barely covered past his knees. Do we stay in the shallows when Jesus calls to us or are we, like Peter, ready to go deep knowing that it is Christ who will keep us upright?

Senator John Lewis

Senator John Lewis, whose death we grieved as a nation last month, leaves behind a compelling legacy of following Jesus. He was arrested 24 times, protesting peacefully for equal rights for African Americans. He was jailed, beaten with chains, lead pipes, stones and bats. He led the march from Selma to Montgomery, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge with 600 marchers. An ordained pastor, he knelt to pray and was beaten on the head by state troopers who left him for dead. He bore those scars on his skull for the rest of his life. If Jesus called you, would you follow? Would you go where you know you’re not welcome? Would you step into harm’s way to shield another from attack? As a young adult Lewis expressed the need to become involved in “good trouble, necessary trouble” in order to achieve change. He followed that conviction throughout his long life, memorably marching alongside of Martin Luther King, Jr. In a horse-drawn carriage, his body was carried across the same bridge where he was beaten 55 years earlier, an honored statesman. Bold voices are now suggesting that the Edmund Pettus Bridge be renamed in Lewis’ honor. Pettus was a soldier in the Confederate Army and served as an Alabama Senator from 1897-1907. After the Civil War he was politically active in the KKK. Do the citizens of Alabama hang on to that history? Or do they listen to the voices of their people and choose a name that inspires us to follow Lewis’ commitment to good and necessary trouble?

Marion Wright Edelman is the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. She has been an advocate for the well-being of underserved children for decades. She adopted the Breton Fisherman’s prayer for her organization: “Dear God, be good to me. The sea is so wide and my boat is so small.” In her newsletter, Edelman wrote about a theologian friend who sat in a Jiffy Lube waiting room while her car was being serviced. Looking for some reading material, she found a magazine on boating. She read about traffic rules that must be followed in open waters when boats encounter each other. It described two kinds of boats: burdened and privileged. She writes, “The craft with power that can accelerate and push its way through the waves, change direction, and stop on demand is the burdened one. The craft dependent on the forces of nature, wind, tide, and human effort to keep going is the privileged craft. Since powerful boats can forge their way forward under their own power, they are burdened with responsibility to give the right of way to the powerless or privileged vessels dependent on the vagaries of the tide, wind, and weather. “Who wrote this thing?” my friend asked. “Mother Teresa? What’s going on in our land when the New Jersey State Department of Transportation knows that the powerful must give way if the powerless are to make safe harbor and the government of the United States and the church of Jesus Christ and other people of God are having trouble with the concept?”

Dear God, be good to me. The sea is so wide and my boat is so small.

The 12 disciples, hanging on for dear life as their boat pitched in the wind and waves, carried on their frightened shoulders the identity of the early Church and the precarious existence of future believers. When they cried out for rescue they learned that Jesus was there all along. Peter goes down in history as an example of what to do and what not to do. In this terrifying moment, his devotion to Jesus grabs our attention. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Seriously?! And Jesus doesn’t talk him out of it. Jesus doesn’t tell him it’s really shallow and he’ll be alright after all. Jesus doesn’t tell him to suck it up and be a man. Jesus doesn’t baby him and give him the easy way out. It’s a one-word invitation that is somehow heard over the crash of waves in the dark of night: “Come.” And Peter got out of the boat, sights set on his Savior, and walked across the water. Of course, he got freaked out when he saw what Jesus was enabling him to do and he sank. But, for a moment, he grabbed onto the power that comes from following Jesus.

The Church sets sail in choppy waters all the time. The storm was stilled only after Peter stood in there for all of us. He asked Jesus to help him do a hard thing and then he did it. He didn’t hide in the hull of the boat, pretending that the storm wasn’t there. He didn’t give in to despair and decide that the ship was going down. He relied on Jesus and stepped out of the boat and into complete reliance upon  his Savior.

after the storm-clouds and sun

Will Willimon reminds us of the high calling that comes to us as disciples: “So if in the dead of night, or maybe near dawn, you should hear a voice, calling your name, a strange voice calling you to rise up, to sail forth, to risk the storm, to defy the waves, there is a good chance that voice could belong to none other than your very Lord and Savior. Who would dare to call an ordinary, not very spectacularly faithful one like you to such high adventure, to such risk and struggle? I think you know who.” ‘(Pulpit Resource, Vol 33, No. 3. Year A. July, August, September, 2005, p.28.)

 

Categories
Uncategorized

Living the Dream

In Genesis 37 we read a story that centers around a journey. Jacob asks his son to go check on his older brothers who are shepherding the flock far from home. Joseph is born to his father later in life. He is the firstborn of Rachel, the favored wife. Jacob keeps the boy close, letting the older brothers wander more than 50 miles from home to keep the flocks fed. Joseph was a dreamer and his father nurtured that in him. Joseph shares two dreams with his older half-brothers that point to his future power over them. This goes over like a lead balloon. In Joseph’s world, dreams were believed to be God-given. So the idea that this spoiled brat of a brother would rise above them was more than they could take. They reject the dreams and their hatred for Joseph sharpens. As we page through the family album in Genesis, we keep running into family dysfunction.

Shechem was 50 miles away from home. When Joseph couldn’t find his band of brothers there, he was directed to Dothan, a town that is another 14 miles down the road. Can you imagine sending your middle-schooler 65 miles on foot to do a sibling check? Even more impossible is the idea that they would accept the assignment! Joseph dutifully carries out his father’s request that he, when literally translated, would check on the shalom of the older boys. It’s an ironic word to use given the alienation that dominated their family life. Usually shielded by his adoring father, Joseph is way out of his protective reach. As the older brothers see him approach they bitterly refer to him as the “dreamer of dreams”. They cannot speak a peaceful word to him.

We read that the cistern is dry. It cannot preserve life. Likewise the brothers are emotionally running on empty. There is no peace between them and the favored boy. The very sight of him approaching in the full length coat his father had given him makes their blood boil. This sort of outer garment was a symbol of maturity and status yet it was given to the younger boy. It would be like dressing one of the youngest siblings in a suit and tie and making him foreman over his elders. Jacob, the father, is a schemer who had been ruthless in getting what he wanted in life, set Joseph up for failure by unabashedly preferring him. So, with their elderly father 60 miles away, the ten older brothers set out to crush the dream. They move from killing him to selling him as a slave but they cannot come to agreement. Perhaps they knew in their hearts that there is no place for such envy in a family. Eugene Roop, in his commentary, writes, “Despite all of their schemes, the brothers have managed no murder, no profit, no dramatic rescue, and they have no idea where Joseph is.” Joseph, the boy whose name means “Add” is no longer part of the family. The much beloved addition to Jacob’s clan is gone and the brothers fabricate one lie after another to hide their guilt. The hatred of ten sons prevails over the love of a father. The added one is irreplaceable. The family is set on a course of secrecy and sadness from which it will not recover. Generational sin leaves Jacob’s family gutted.

In this ancient tragedy the juxtaposition is between dreams and power. In Joseph’s case, the two are irreconcilable. Though they would have believed that their little brother’s dreams were from God, they did not honor them. God is the mover and shaker in this story but only in the background. Without the dreams, the siblings might have managed to co-exist. But the dreams God gives Joseph make for a heap of trouble. To resist them requires endless deception and heartache. Generations later the prophet Jeremiah gives us a peek into the broken heart of Rachel, the mother who had waited so long for this beloved son. Referring to the exiled descendants of Jacob who cried out to God for liberation, Jeremiah links them back to the family matriarch: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

But then we remember that Jacob schemed to take the privileged position that his older twin brother deserved. We remember that Rachel’s father, Laban, tricked Jacob into marrying the elder sister first even though he didn’t ask for her hand in marriage. Imagine the damage that did to the relationship between the sisters because of their daddy’s conniving. Add to the mix unbridled favoritism by the father toward one son who is honored with an extravagant robe. We begin to understand that evil didn’t amorphously jump out to claim the dreaming boy. Generations of scheming overshadowed the dreaming and power was chosen over love.

Walter Brueggeman writes, “Dreams permit the imagining of new political possibilities which immediately threaten the old and call it into question. One side resists. The other strives for it.”

Can we qualify some of our present-day angst as a conflict between differing dreams? Is there only fake news in the political arena today or are we hearing the articulation of a dream that speaks to us at a deep level? Are our hearts stirred in the fight for equality between the races? Are we working together to triumph over a deadly virus that has shut down the world? When a minimum wage employee is shot dead for asking a customer to put on a mask, we know that something profound is happening in our world. Is it the god of individualism that the Corona virus disrespects, indiscriminately claiming victims from all different camps. We will not tolerate that!

Our world is a very different place now than it was six months ago. We felt that as we sat in our sanctuary, six feet apart, wearing masks when we reconvened in our building last Sunday. We long awaited the moment we could meet again face-to-face. But we couldn’t help but feel the wedge between us not just because we couldn’t see each other’s smiles but because of the emotional distance traveled since March. I suspect those who made reservations to be in our sanctuary felt a mix of joy and sadness. Whatever dreams we held onto for our church reunion were no doubt unmet to some degree. Some of us met in the sanctuary with finances challenged, job futures uncertain and increasing depression as we realize our planning for what’s next may amount to nothing. We rejoice that our children are back to school but worry about their emotional well-being. What social skills do they miss when study happens in front of a computer at home and not next to their buddies? When classmates reunite in the school building we worry that an invisible virus being passed from one to another as children wrestle on the playground or share their colored pencils with each other. Our dreams for our kids’ education drift anxiously on eggshells because we know that tomorrow could bring school closures anew.

We listen to the news and find that we envy those who seem to have it better. Those folks already fought the COVID battle and it barely touched them. They probably have immunity now. These folks have the money to hire a tutor for their children so that they can head off to their jobs that still support them. Those folks live in an area that is virtually untouched by the disease. That family has thrived during the quarantine whereas ours has had to face its demons. Our envy may be more subtle than that of the ten murderous older brothers. We make comments that put others down so that we look good. We say kind words but look for a way to get things done our way. When our dreams are crushed and our future so very uncertain, it’s almost impossible to keep bitterness out of the weary creases of each day. Why is their life going so well when mine is in a shambles?

In some ways we gathered in our sanctuary on Sunday as a beaten people. When we closed our doors on March 15 and headed to our homes, we imagined we would open our church doors in a matter of weeks and pick up where we left off. But that dream, along with so many others, was crushed for me with the first news reports of refrigerator trucks lining the streets outside NYC hospitals to hold our dead. So what did we bring with us through our sanitized church doors on the long-awaited day of reunion?

Faith. God wants us to be faithful to the dreams of divine origin, no matter our circumstances. When our journey takes a sharp turn and we find ourselves on a lonesome trail, God asks us to remain true to the dream. It would be easy to become bitter about our changed circumstances. Just listen to the news tonight to meet folks who have countless reasons to be bitter about the hand they’ve been dealt in COVID 19. But the very nature of faith is to hang onto the assurance of God’s presence particularly in the worst of times. The very nature of faith is to reach out to each other lovingly when we don’t know if we will be able to pay our lot rent. The very nature of faith is to offer a word of encouragement to a discouraged child who can’t understand how the easy life they so recently lived seems now as only a distant memory.

Perhaps you remember that Joseph ends up a slave in Egpyt where he languishes in prison for a time. A woman of high standing falsely accused him of lurid advances when, in fact, he turned down her bedroom invitation. Joseph was an ancient Emmit Till who didn’t stand a chance as an enslaved foreigner who had the audacity to hang onto a dream that upheld his dignity. But it is his faith in those God-given dreams that protects him from bitterness. He doesn’t ever allow himself to be written out of the narrative in spite of his brothers’ dastardly deed because he carries within him the belief that God is still at work in his life and may yet redeem his poor circumstances. Joseph remains faithful to God while shivering on the floor of a dank prison because of false allegations. His devotion in hardship is as noteworthy to God as the salvation he offered his people when promoted to stand alongside of Pharoah as a trusted advisor.

Maybe you were able to watch the Broadway show, Hamilton, while locked away in your homes? In the final song Alexander Hamilton’s wife sings, “I put myself back into the narrative.” She had every reason to be bitter about the loss of both a son and a husband to gunshot wounds sustained in duel fights. She could carry with her a desire to avenge her husband’s unfair treatment from peers who envied his sizable talents and sought to bring him down. But she puts herself back in the broken pieces of her narrative by honoring Alexander’s legacy. Her proudest achievement was the establishment of the first private orphanage in NYC to provide a safe haven for children orphaned, just as her husband had been. She sings, “In their eyes I see you, Alexander.”

We arrived in our sacred space having said goodbye to some dreams. But we met because we still believe that God is sovereign in spite of the chaos around us. We left the comfort of our pajamas and the luxury of good coffee in bed because we hang onto the dream that through our worship together we can accomplish much more for Christ than we can do alone. We can become embittered by the legitimately unfair turn of events that have rerouted us. But I suspect we left our homes to worship together because we keep putting ourselves back in the narrative by recommitting, time and again, to living the dream that God has given us.

Categories
Uncategorized

The Pleasant Rule

My parents loved to travel. Spending more than 20 years in the Air Force, they had ample opportunity to see many parts of the world. They translated that passion for new cultures into leading tours to foreign lands. Many of the people who signed on with them were my father’s parishioners. Some were dear friends from an earlier military post. Some started the trip as strangers but they inevitably became good friends.

My parents developed one requirement for their fellow travelers: that they follow The Pleasant Rule. Their expectation was that that folks would be Pleasant with one another. That seems like a low bar but it actually counts for a lot when coexisting with twenty others in the heat of India or the tensions of Soviet Russia. I suspect it’s only after leading a couple of trips that they realized the importance of being Pleasant.

It’s not a word we use much anymore, certainly not for anyone under the age of 40. I’ve heard the expression that someone is Pleasant to the eyes. But their rule did not have to do with physical appearance. The people they traveled with probably packed coordinating outfits with jewelry to match. They were well-kept. Like a prenuptial agreement, my folks urged people to sign on to a mandate that had to do with behavior. Consider an unpleasant look that stems from someone who is frustrated that their preferred hair products were confiscated when they went through security. Imagine the unpleasant look on a travel companion’s face who is frustrated that it takes forever for the group to be seated in a restaurant. The Pleasant Rule forbade an snippy exchange between group members the morning after a late hotel arrival the night before. Breakfast the next morning was something to endure not enjoy.
My parents knew that there are inevitable ups and downs to any travel excursion. When a couple dozen people travel together, you multiply the potential for frustration. So, during the orientation for one of their new trip opportunities, Jim and Katie Chapman articulated the need for folks to be Pleasant sojourners.

pleasant people 1

pleasant people 2

We may not talk about being Pleasant with each other so much today. But a related word comes to mind that connects with us more in our contemporary setting: civility. We have talked much in recent years about the slippery slope of diminished civility toward one another in this country. Leaders, neighbors, co-workers, and even family members lack civility toward one another. Common decency has been replaced with self-absorption. Why can’t others honor my needs first?

eddy haskell

As the countdown to a presidential election accelerates I find myself yearning for words of sincerity. I watch for expressions of compassion. I think of my parents’ rule which, in hindsight, cuts to the quick of the matter: The Pleasant Rule. Imagine how palatable the political campaigning would be if folks in different political camps managed to be genuinely Pleasant with each other. Our stress level as citizens would go down. Even faux Pleasantness is better than the ugly name-calling that has become commonplace. But an understood part of being Pleasant is that it comes from within. To be Pleasant means we consider the comfort level of the person who is with us. It means that we are willing to communicate kindness to someone even when our own life is in upheaval. We see it when rivals agree to disagree, respecting each other for their stance. It is evidenced when we keep company with the most whiny group member for five hours in an airport when our flight keeps getting bumped on an icy day. The Psalmist may not have experienced flight delays but they seemed to understand the gift of people getting along when they didn’t have to: “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1)

The Pleasant Rule doesn’t speak exclusively to groups of people who were brought together for a common journey, far away from what is familiar. It can be the guiding principle around the dinner table. That assumes that we sit down for dinner. That assumes that we put down our phones long enough to look one another in the eyes and talk at a deeper level. One who is Pleasant knows the importance of listening. One who is Pleasant understands that there’s much to be learned from the story of another. Someone following the Pleasant rule would understand that their words of kindness might be the only encouragement someone receives in an otherwise challenging life.

Out of fear of a virus, we’ve been holed away for months. We have begun to come out of our caves and mix with others. If we are the fortunate ones who have job security, comfortable homes, and healthy relationships, we have had the luxury of being able to focus on our own needs. It’s easy to be content in our own carefully controlled environment. Then we walk out into the world where tensions run high. Just ask people who work for minimum-wage at stores where they’ve had to ask people to wear masks. Those interactions have not been… Pleasant.

The Corona Virus has reminded us that we are all in this together. While we certainly are not hopping on airplanes to travel to foreign countries, we are sojourners who recognize that we need each other. We understand that others are counting on our care. Whether we have been on the receiving end of someone’s goodwill or served others sacrificially, we are walking on the face of this earth as common pilgrims. We are strangers thrown together by circumstance, geography, and family ties. Just as we no longer go anywhere without a mask, we need to carry The Pleasant Rule with us into these new settings.  We smile at complete strangers underneath uncomfortable masks because we care.

masked garrett and laurie

 

The Pleasant Rule surfaces from a deep love for all people, those whose suitcases are filled with Tommy Bahama gear and those who have practical shoes and a walking stick. In the church we are called to model that deep love and respect for one another. As our church gathered anew after 23 weeks of being physically apart on Sundays, we rejoiced at being together. The natural expressions of hugs and handshakes, sharing coffee and conversation are not allowed presently. Singing and Sunday School are on hold. I grieve these losses too! But we have this great opportunity to look each other in the eyes, even if the rest of the face is covered, and speak words of encouragement. We may have to repeat our words because masks muffle our message! The easy reaction is to be irritated. But we must commit to gentleness, kindness, and compassion. We covenant together to live by The Pleasant Rule as we face fires, double hurricanes, earthquakes and an unprecedented pandemic. We may not be as perfect as Ward and June Cleaver appeared to be! But the one thing we can control in the chaos that seems to have broken loose is the way we treat others. Let’s choose to be…Pleasant!

Categories
Uncategorized

Getting it Right

I wonder if Esau’s face haunted Jacob in his dreams? All these years after he tricked his elderly father into giving him his brother’s blessing, I imagine Jacob still relived the moment Esau discovered the betrayal of his twin brother. Why would a brother do this to another? Jacob has added two wives and eleven sons since then. After enduring years of manipulation by his father-in-law, Jacob is fleeing again. But this time it is toward home, the place that calls out to him. Inevitably this means an encounter with the one he had deceived. So he develops a plan. Jacob sends waves of servants ahead of him and his family. They are herding cattle that will be presented to his brother in hopes of appeasing his wrath. After setting up this lavish scheme of emotional bribery, almost to himself Jacob says, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterwards I shall see his face; perhaps he will accept me.”

I wonder if Esau’s face robbed Jacob of sleep after all these years.

The night before the encounter Jacob sends his beloved wives and children across the stream and sleeps alone in a very dark place. The mood to the story is heavy. Jacob knows that he is deserving of Esau’s harsh retaliation. He seems to realize that no one else can pay the price for his sin. So he assumes the posture of a penitent and lowly servant before a more powerful master. Like a dog who crouches submissively when afraid, the younger twin hopes for mercy from the elder.

This is another Genesis story that really shouldn’t be read at bedtime. Whatever assumptions you have that this tale from our ancestral tree wraps up neatly, cast those aside and listen closely!

Jacob wrestles with God

Jacob has learned that his brother is coming out to greet him—with 400 men! Whatever anxiety plagued Jacob as he set out on this journey is now ratcheted up to code red. He lays down his weary head across the stream from all he holds dear hoping to trick his tensed body into sleep. He needs to be ready for the fraternal encounter the next day. But, that very night, Jacob faces off against a fiercely strong competitor. In this nocturnal struggle his enemy is faceless and relentless. But the story boasts of Jacob’s strength. He holds his own throughout the night. As the first light of dawn stretches toward this tumbling mass of entwined sweaty bodies, the antagonist asks for mercy. Jacob, ever the schemer, wants to manipulate this powerful enemy by asking for a blessing. At a standstill with their fighting skills, they have to resort to speech.

My guilty confession is that I watch Big Brother in the summer. In the cool of the basement my kids and I watch as exhausted competitors hang off moving platforms, while being pelted with cold water and tipped at impossible angles. Who will stay up longest? Who gains the upper hand for the next week? Quite often there are two left clinging to their tilting, slippery world, exhausted but tenacious. They want the agony to be over so they start to talk. They make deals. They offer promises they may or may not keep. When they’ve met their match and no one seems to pull off a win based on brawn, the opponents use their words to end the fight.

wrestling with God 3

Jacob refuses to let go unless the stranger blesses him. As the man’s face begins to appear in the morning light, he asks Jacob for his name. It means “schemer”. He had certainly lived into that title! Jacob then asks the stranger for his name. This will allow him to keep the advantage. In the ancient world, to know someone’s name is to have power over them. The man is not willing to give this but he offers a blessing to the one who had tricked his way into his father’s blessing decades before. This time it’s a gift and it comes with a new name: Israel. The Master Manipulator will leave this wrestling match against a faceless opponent with the name Israel which means God rules or protects or preserves. With this name a new future stretches before Jacob that was not possible before. Some of God’s power has rubbed off on the younger twin and the axis on which his family’s future turns has shifted. When daylight finally appears, the stranger is gone… and so is the Schemer. The man with the new name called that place Peniel, which means “The face of God.”

But there’s one important detail about how this nightmare ends. Before resorting to verbal bargaining, the powerful stranger brought a sudden end to the encounter by showing off his strength. He touched Jacob’s hip and that was enough to knock it out of joint. Remember when you learned as a child that your dad had been letting you win? Jacob realized that this was no ordinary human being. When bestowing a new name on this lifelong manipulator, the stranger helped Jacob understand how significant the struggle had been: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Jacob limps away from the place he had chosen for a bed but turned into a wrestling mat. His identity is changed in the nick of time before he will face the brother he had robbed and deceived years before. Finally Jacob fought for the right reason: to be blessed. Nearly overwhelmed in the fight, he limps toward his brother, humbled. Pastor and writer Frederick Buechner calls this “the magnificent defeat.” The egotistical scrapper who always gained the advantage met God and everything changed. The limp would forever remind him of the night when he faced his demons and, by God’s grace, was forgiven. It was a fresh start for him, his children and all who would follow. In this defeat, a nation would be blessed.

Jacob with a limp

And, by the way, when he met up with Esau, groveling with fear, the elder twin grabbed onto the younger and they wept into each other’s necks. All is forgiven, as only brothers can do.

We shake our heads at Jacob’s character as if it is foreign to us. But Buechner points out that the Jacob’s of the world can thrive! Scheming—in legal ways—can serve you well! He writes, “…what does it all get him? I know what you expect the preacher to say: that it gets him nothing. But even preachers must be honest. I think it can get him a good deal, this policy of dishonesty where necessary. It can get him the invitation or the promotion. It can get him the job. It can get him the pat on the back and the admiring wink that mean so much. And these, in large measure, are what we mean by happiness. Do not underestimate them.” This time Jacob got it right! He fought with all his might to preserve his life in order to be blessed by the only proper Authority. He admitted defeat. Buechner states, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief is the best any of us can do really, but thank God it is enough.”

I love this story! The wrestling mat is emblematic for me of where we encounter God. No sooner do we think we’ve got all the answers to life and God shows up to challenge us. With each magnificent defeat, our life goes a needed direction and we are humbled anew. I remember meeting with other clergy to plan a high school baccalaureate service. What passage would we use to congratulate the seniors on their accomplishments and send them out into the world ready to live their faith? Some suggested “God is love” or “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” or a host of other passages. But this story was the one I promoted. Many of us were baptized into the faith, coached into Christianity by the example of our protective parents. They fend off our enemies, put band aids on our knees and hearts when we get hurt and say prayers with us at bedtime. When the time comes to own the faith for ourselves, outside the influence of our parents’ home, the journey can get down and dirty. Remember the prodigal son who self-righteously heads off with his father’s money to make his mark in the world? That’s us. Each of us. Until we experience the magnificent defeat that comes when God knocks some sense into us and we cry out, “Thank you!”

Levi baptism

Levi baptism hand on face

Last Sunday I had the profound privilege of baptizing my young grandson into the faith and family of Jesus Christ. We had planned a baptism for March 22. It was to be in the 145-year old church sanctuary with the prayerful support of our church family. But COVID showed up and we no longer met in person for worship. So we waited…and waited. Finally it made sense to baptize him in Clear Bottom Lake, a family-owned setting that means the world to Levi’s parents and the rest of the family. Levi baptism with Lisa and MatthewImmediate family members gathered at a safe distance from each other, filled with joy at such a great occasion. Levi’s mom spent time swimming in those waters as a girl. Levi’s father proposed to his mom on a deck that overlooks the lake. At the family cottage they had a rehearsal dinner the night before their wedding, when sweet Levi was only a dream. There was a grand baby shower in which blue confetti exploded out of balloons to announce that a boy would be joining the family. Church members were among the guests as gifts were bestowed on the parents-to-be, preparing them for this beloved son. So this was the perfect setting for his baptism. Levi baptism singingMy husband sang while my son strummed the guitar. Parents and family members made vows to teach this little boy the ways of the faith so that he would know he was never alone when he faced with the inevitable struggles in life. We videotaped the ceremony and included it in our on-line worship service yesterday so that our church family could take ownership of this life entrusted into their congregational care, even if in non-traditional ways!

As little Levi moves through school, into college, a career and lifelong relationships, hanging onto faith in our increasingly secular world will be a challenge. The readily available gods will be technology, money, relationships that meet his personal needs, success at work and self-promotion, at the least. So God meets us in the dark of night, when our defenses are down, and we engage with each other on the wrestling mat. Ultimately, when we’ve fought for as long as we possibly can to hang onto our false gods, we give up. We ask for God’s blessing and we know that we finally get it right. This is the relationship for which we were created. All our yearnings point toward God. When we finally understand the sacrifice God made for us in Jesus, we no longer regret the limp we have from so many divine encounters.

The nutshell of the Gospel is offered in this story. It comes from the older twin who had given Jacob his birthright one day because he was famished. He came in from a hard day’s work and Jacob was cooking a fragrant soup. Esau told Jacob he could have his birthright if Jacob would pour him a bowl of that soup. Esau was duped by Jacob a couple of times when his priorities were misplaced. So it makes me wonder if Esau, perhaps, didn’t have the character needed to be at the helm of the nation of believers God was shaping. And maybe Esau recognized that over time and traded in bitter resentment toward his conniving brother for peaceful contentment. When the brothers met up after years of separation, Esau, the deceived, embraced the deceiver. Esau doesn’t mete out just punishment, as Jacob knew he deserved. Esau extends grace.

And because of the magnificent defeat Jacob suffered the night before, he was able to receive it.

Levi baptism Garrett and me

For you, for me, for my tiny grandson, Levi, newly baptized into this crazy family called Church, I pray that we will get it right each time we stand at a crossroads and ask not for money or fame or power or beauty—but blessing. A blessing from God.

Levi baptism me kissing him!

Categories
Uncategorized

Orange Sherbet

I opened the door to the church fridge to retrieve the leftovers I had grabbed for my lunch that day. They were in a sour cream container that was too useful for me to throw away. As I reached for it I scanned what else was in this community cooler. There wasn’t much. At some point each summer I take it upon myself to pitch whatever food items have been left in our basement kitchen from earlier potlucks or coffee hours. It’s funny what people leave behind, as if those of us on the staff scrounge for food in fits of hunger. I remember a plate of jello with whipped topping that sat there for weeks after a funeral luncheon. (My kids always helped out when there was leftover funeral cake however!) During this August lunch hour, I looked to see what needed to be pitched. Not much. We’ve been out of the building since March 15. No worship. No classes. No pastoral care appointments. No on-site board meetings. I found a stick of butter that was unfit to be smeared on toast. There was a half-empty jar of salsa in the back of the top shelf that I dumped. I discovered a couple of two-liters of fizz-less pop that I poured down the drain and an opened bag of corn chips. In the freezer there was a half-used plastic carton of orange sherbet. I’m sure it was used to top a bowl of punch served at one of our coffee hours. It’s stunning that folks willingly take on the responsibility of providing refreshments for hungry parishioners whose minds start drifting to the treat table during the singing of the last hymn. I opened the lid and the sherbet was gummy. When I scooped it into the industrial sink in the church basement, it sat unnaturally glued together. I hope whoever left it there wasn’t planning on using it months later! I did leave an opened bag of Pecan Sandies in the freezer, thinking someone might come back for that when a COVID vaccination makes us all feel safe. There’s also a big bag of broccoli in the freezer that must be part of a planned supper for our guests when we get back into housing homeless families in our church post-quarantine.

The broccoli and pecan sandies remain. But the orange sherbet and various other odd items abandoned in a communal kitchen are gone. Time to move on. There will be no food occasions in our church in the near future.

Remember when we gathered around a long table in the church parlor to eat cookies and drink decaf coffee? No masks. No tongs. No individually wrapped snacks. Can you recall walking forward during communion to pull a piece of bread off the communal loaf, sharing in the Body of Christ together? Remember when we hugged a friend in the sanctuary after worship because some part of the service set off memories of a difficult loss? Remember baked potato bar luncheons when the donation basket overflowed to support an out-of-state youth mission trip? Packed in vans our teens traveled to some small town where their lives would overlap in transformative ways with residents there. Busy youth parents donated desserts for the fundraiser luncheon, adding one more thing to their endless to-do list. Any kid raised in the church knows the joy of unlimited access to the dessert table. Parents are too busy chatting with friends to notice that you’ve devoured two cookies and three pieces of cake. Grubby hands reach for food they can barely see from their lowly vantage point. But they’ve learned that anything they get will be good.

There will be no “food ministries” in our foreseeable future. If we can’t get closer than six feet from each other, we certainly can’t help ourselves to the same plate of cookies. My Tuesday morning Bible Study class is on indefinite hiatus as we keep ourselves safely apart. On the first Tuesday of the month a couple of class members brought treats to celebrate the birthdays of those who were born in that month. It was an excuse to party before cracking open our Bibles. The average age in that class is over seventy so a couple dozen individuals will have to commit to homeschooled Bible lessons. Will we ever all be together in the church basement again, leaving strange leftover items in our community cooler?

We are planning to reconvene in our sanctuary for worship on August 23. Of course, anything could change between now and then. In these past few months we’ve learned the painful lesson countless times that we cannot plan ahead. Just ask any couple whose wedding was scheduled for Spring, 2020! Against this new backdrop of uncertainty, we have readied our sanctuary to receive the faithful. They will be invited to sit in spaces designated by strips of painter’s tape on the back of our wooden pews. Masks will be part of our Sunday Best in the months ahead. Parishioners will follow traffic patterns taped onto the carpet. Doing all things in an orderly fashion, at a distance from each other, will presumably keep us safe. But many will not come back. I am curious to witness how many folks will stand for the temperature check at the door (100.4 degrees or lower). Who will tolerate the discomfort of donning a mask in worship and leaving distance between themselves and their beloved friend with whom they used to share a pew? For now we will not sing together, a cherished part of each service. The choir director and I will remain removed from our people in the front of the church. I am presently looking for the perfect plastic shield that keeps any exclamatory spray to myself. We have self-contained communion elements ready to put out on the first Sundays of the month so that no one has to take bread or juice from somebody else’s hands. Will we ever pull a piece of fresh bread off from the loaf again, trusting that the hands that have done that before us are clean?

“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure heart…They will receive blessing from the Lord…”

What have I missed? The fact that children will stay in the pews with their parents instead of being dismissed midway through the service for Sunday School classes. Babies and toddlers will stay in the sanctuary rather than play with a capable nursery attendant whose job is on hold due to the virus. A woodworker in our congregation is crafting an offering box on a pedestal into which the faithful can deposit their tithes so that we don’t have to pass plates…and germs.

Oh yeah. No coffee hour at the end of the service. Folks will process out the red doors of our 145 year old sanctuary at the end of the service. In an orderly manner they will make their way to their cars. Outside they can have their own virtual coffee hour by “tailgating” with the faith community. We will not break bread or cookies together for awhile. We will not float scoops of orange sherbet in a lovingly prepared punch so that children head home wearing an orange mustache. No leftovers will accumulate in our refrigerator. No treats will be left for the Tuesday morning Bible Study class. For now the kitchen is closed, the lower level is roped off and the classrooms sit empty.

So why bother? A lot of us have become accustomed to worship in our pajamas with a good cup of coffee in hand. Why take a risk when the sermon can be heard while driving to the cottage?

We take a shower and leave the comfort of home because we have met Jesus when we have been together for worship. We have discovered during the quarantine that the Church is a gathering of the faithful and we miss each other terribly. We have felt the presence of the Spirit when we lift up our prayers together. In the sacrament of communion we have heard the answer to our fervent prayers. As the light danced through the stained glass windows, we knew that we were going to be alright. We can remember the moment when the words of the scripture lesson redirected our path. In a time of loss it was the words to familiar hymns that gave us the greatest comfort.

Each congregation will decide when to reopen their building and how to prepare for the return of their membership. Each disciple will carefully decide when they are able to rejoin their church family in person, even if at a distance. There is risk. There will continue to be risk. Whatever assumptions we had that we would slip back into a familiar style of worship after a couple months of quarantine have been dispelled. So, like generations of believers before us, we must let go of what no longer works and allow the Spirit to lead us in new paths. Fortunately, we know that the form of our worship is not what makes it real. Citrus punch with sherbet melting on the surface is not required for a good Sabbath. It’s the blessed encounter with the One who seeks us out whether we are watching worship with our pillow propping us up or sitting in a marked pew with our mask firmly in place. We have learned a few things in this pandemic. One of them is that nothing can separate us from the love of God!

Categories
Uncategorized

Domestic Disaster

So let’s just say, right out the gate, that we feel sorry for Leah. An unknown relative shows up at your family doorstep, penniless. Your dad fawns all over him and, in the end, your family life is never the same again. The relational carnage cannot be quantified. To start with, the Hebrew text that introduces Leah is “uncertain.” In other words, Biblical linguists have examined this adjective about Leah and they have several different possible translations that they offer with a disclaimer. It’s about Leah’s eyes–you know, the windows into the soul? Depending on the translation, this oldest daughter’s eyes were weak, lovely, tender, dull, or delicate. In contrast, the description of the younger sister, Rachel, ranges from beautiful with a lovely figure to beautiful of form and face. We can only imagine that Leah, the elder, had lived in the shadow of her sister’s natural good looks for what seemed like a lifetime.

But this story from Genesis 29 has a sense of cosmic justice to it. Jacob, the schemer, gets scammed! When he met his Uncle Laban, he met his match in duplicity. And that’s saying a lot because Jacob got straight As at every level of his Masterful Manipulation coursework! The story began with warm feelings and heartfelt embracing. Jacob arrived at his mother’s homestead, the endpoint to his pilgrimage. When Laban learns that Jacob is his long-lost sister’s boy, he welcomes him home. After a month of making himself useful on his uncle’s land, Laban asks Jacob to set his terms. It’s probably not the answer Laban expected. Instead of bargaining for a suitable hourly wage with benefits, Jacob professes his love for the younger daughter, Rachel. He offers seven years of labor in exchange for her hand in marriage. This sounds generous but you have to understand that there was always an expectation of a dowry for a bride. That’s just the way things were done in that era. And Jacob, who fled from his own family compound, arrived penniless. He would merit his bride through hard work. The passage tells us that those seven years seemed as a few days to the smitten suitor. Living in the same family compound, anticipating a sweet wedding day, Jacob is floating on air while going about his daily chores.

Here’s my warning: This is the high point of the story. It only goes downhill from this Hallmark movie scene!

After the seven years are up Jacob reminds his uncle that he’s done his time and asks for the marriage date to be set. Seven years, a biblical time frame that represents perfection and completeness, have passed. Yet Leah, the eldest daughter with the weak, tender, delicate, dull eyes, is still unattached. In a culture when women were married off in their teen years, this tells us something. Poor Leah hadn’t attracted even one serious suitor in spite of her father’s significant assets. If, for no other reason, it seems some guy would have sought her out as a bride to get a piece of her daddy’s real estate somewhere down the line. But not one person showed up to court poor Leah.

Laban pulled together a misteh, the Hebrew word that means a gathering of the male elders of the community. They had their version of a bachelor party the day of the wedding.  Let’s just state the obvious: this is not a good idea! It is altogether probable that Jacob, when he finally found his way to the altar, was not fully in his right senses. He pledged his love and fidelity to the heavily veiled bride and they made their way to the bridal suite. As the morning light filtered through their windows in silvery streaks, the Bible lets us in on a surprise: “In the morning, behold it was Leah!” There’s an exclamation point in this biblical statement. Meanwhile Rachel was probably in her own tent, eating the new Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor, “Cancelled Wedding Cake.” (It’s true—look for it in your grocer’s frozen dairy case!) Furious, Jacob stepped over the rose petals on the floor of the honeymoon suite and stormed over to his new father-in-law. He demanded an explanation for how he ended up with the doe-eyed daughter rather than the one of his dreams!? Laban reminded Jacob that Leah was the elder and, it was their custom to always marry off the daughters in the proper birth order. Leah needed to be married off before Rachel would be available. That’s just the way things were done in their town. Jacob is outraged. The Deceiver has been deceived! I think of God’s challenge to the reluctant prophet, Jonah, when he pouted over the salvation of his enemies. God quietly asked Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry?”

Do you do well to be angry, Jacob? You can’t mess with birth order, favored child of your conniving mother! What you pulled off in your own family tent won’t work here! Jacob’s selfishness had blown up his relationship between him and his only brother. But now he has destroyed the harmony in another home where two sisters will never share secrets and swap outfits again. Jacob was forced to take things as they were presented to him. He couldn’t trick his way out of Laban’s deception. So his new father-in-law, who clearly had the upper hand, bargained for Jacob to work for him another seven years to pay the dowry for his second daughter, Rachel. That’s just the way things were done then! But, by the way (he whispered to Jacob behind the barn), you don’t have to wait the full seven years to gain her hand in marriage-wink, wink. Give Leah your full attention as a new husband should for one week. Then next weekend, we’ll throw another party and you can marry the gal you adore! That’s just the way things were done then!

Like I said in my disclaimer at the beginning of this sermon, I feel sorry for Leah with the weak, fragile, lovely, now crying eyes!

As in any dysfunctional family where domestic disaster is generationally perpetuated, everyone became a victim with this wedding night trickery. There were no winners. Looking in on this story we see that being the ones who were considered “blessed”, namely Jacob-the-chosen-man-of-God, and Leah, the mother-of-many-strapping-sons, were not singing a happy tune. The story ends with the affirmation that “Jacob…loved Rachel more than Leah.” Leah may have gotten a husband thanks to her father’s sneakiness but she knew that she would never figure into her new husband’s daydreams, no matter how many heirs she bore him. Rachel ultimately got Jacob and his undivided adoration but she inherited a rift between her and her sister. She found it hard to trust her father as she once did. And, like so many of our foremothers in the Bible, she was barren. That’s about the worst sentence for any wife in those days as bearing children was the sure way to please your husband and family. That’s just the way things were done then! There were victims in every part of this domestic equation and everyone discovered that planning for their future was an exercise in futility!

I wonder how it has been for each of you in your family settings during these challenging days of COVID? Even in the most loving households, it’s difficult to stay upbeat when our world is falling apart. For some spouses this quarantine has reminded them of how much they enjoy time together. However other couples have fallen into increasingly distant silence because the emotional drift that started a decade ago went untreated. For some older siblings, the extra time together has allowed them to have difficult but needed conversations about how they hurt each other in their younger years and to ask for forgiveness. Others learned early into the quarantine to lock other family members out of their rooms and lives. What generational curses that we carry from our ancestors have cropped up as we sat across from each other for yet another Corona virus meal? Which alienated family member surfaced in this time of isolation, looking for healing or money or both?

We are reminded in this story that life in a family can be rough, even for those God chooses and uses. God understood the selfishness in Jacob that needed to be curbed. So Laban became the perfect father-in-law to give the Schemer a taste of his own medicine. To deepen his own spiritual life, Jacob needed to confront his own sin. Expanding our orbit in the world challenges our myopia. When we see a spoiled child who is assured by her parents that she is the princess, we know that her first year in school is going to be a painful lesson. She will be dethroned and put on an even playing field with her peers. The bully is going to be tutored in fair play when he spends time on the playground. God is at work in the domestic disasters where our families reside and Jacob offers us a few lessons. Even when we’re tricked by others, we need to stick to our part of the bargain. Our own integrity matters all the more when the other side has unfairly changed the rules. Inviting pity for our victimization or obsessing over our payback scheme will blind us to the fact that God is near and holds the perfect plan for us and for our least-favorite family member! To recognize this is to open ourselves up to Godly changes through confession, repentance and acceptance of God’s grace. This is not easy! But, when we do this, we can readily forgive others and extend that same gift of unmerited grace.

So what’s ahead for Jacob’s family as we leave this part of his story? Do the sisters make peace with each other? With their deceptive daddy? Does Jacob ever see his own parents again? Does he make peace with his twin brother at some point in his adult life? What we recognize as truth in his family is true in our own: God is at work in all that happens to us and our kinfolk. God chooses and uses us, smoothing our rough edges and magnifying our gifts. God loves us and calls us to work sacrificially toward loving the family rebel, the oddball, the one who left the fold in a huff years ago. As with Jacob’s clan, there will be reunions and rifts, grudges and grace, generational curses and gifts that are passed forward to us. And our job is to sift through all of this and decide what serves God’s purposes for our lives best and what needs to be left behind. We are called to no less than was Jacob: to live with our imperfections in such a way that we will be a means of blessing for those around us and for generations who follow.