Making it Work…

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Millennial-marriage

Photo credit:  marriage.about.com/od/proposingbeingengaged/

This month, my husband and I celebrated fifteen years of marriage.  Now I know fifteen may not seem like a big deal to some – it is certainly not 25, 50, or even the 64 years that one of the couples at church is celebrating this month.  But having worked with couples in premarital counseling for several years now, having worked with couples who were struggling with the strains marriage can bring, and having talked with couples who have had failed marriages, I know that marriage is not simply a gift.  Marriage is not just something that happens.  Marriage is something you work at, that you choose everyday (even on the days you would rather not), that is constantly tested, and that needs tending and loving care.  While wedding days are lovely, they are only the first day of many days that you will have to return to the commitment you made to make it work.

That being said, marriage is also a tremendous blessing.  It can be the place where you learn about the depths of love; your capacity for forgiveness (in part, because you are forgiven so often); where you can find the most honest, if not brutal, truth; where you can laugh more deeply than you ever have because that person knows what really produces a belly laugh; where you experience affirming, life-giving sexual pleasure; and where you find abiding companionship.  When we got married fifteen years ago, I was not entirely sure how things would go.  My own parents had gotten divorced just three years before our marriage began, and part of me wondered whether marriage could be done successfully.  I am so glad I made the leap anyway because marriage has brought joys (and challenges) that I never could have imagined.

I do not often talk about marriage because I work with a variety of people in all walks of life:  people who want to be married but have not found a partner, people who have lost their spouse to death, people who are divorced or who feel like the marriage is on the brink of failure, people who had abusive spouses, and people, who until very recently, were not allowed to be legally married.  At times, I have considered having a Valentine’s Day reaffirmation of vows celebration, as I have seen in other parishes, but shied away because I did not want anyone to think I was being insensitive to those for whom marriage is difficult.

All of that being said, my hope today is not to highlight how blissfully easy and wonderful marriage is.  Simply put, my hope is to honor how each day of marriage can be both a blessing and a challenge – and to thank God for the strength, wisdom, humility, and grace my husband and I have been given to get this far.  I pray for continued strength, wisdom, humility, and grace, as I pray for each of you on your various journeys in partnered, single, and dating life.  In the marriage liturgy of the Episcopal Church, we offer this petition at weddings.  Today, I leave it for my husband and I and all of you doing the work of marriage:  Grant that all married persons who have witnessed these vows may find their lives strengthened and their loyalties confirmed. Amen.  (BCP, 430)

 

 

Sermon – Luke 12.49-56, P15, YC, August 14, 2016

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I grew up in a house without conflict.  No one ever fought, no one ever yelled, and certainly, no one ever hit.  There may have been disagreements, but they were quickly resolved and our house was restored to peace.  Given that was my experience growing up, I assumed all family handled conflict in hushed, quiet ways.  But then I visited a friend who taught me differently.  I was staying with her family for a few days, and on a car ride to dinner, her mother and father started arguing and were quickly yelling at each other in the front seat.  My eyes bulged and my whole body tensed up.  I immediately thought, “This is the most horrible thing I have ever seen!”  I surreptitiously glanced at my friend to see if she was equally horrified, but she just sat there like it was an everyday occurrence.  But even more strange than the fight was how the family acted later.  There was a bit of quiet after the yelling, but by the time we stopped for dinner, everyone was back to normal.  I, however, could not manage to release the tension in my body, and my mind was racing.  Are they okay?  Is this normal?  Will it happen again?  How do I act now?

I remember after that visit feeling relieved and almost proud.  Clearly my family had the better conflict management system.  Clearly we were more in control of our emotions and cared for each other with tenderness and love.  I let myself believe that lie until my parent’s divorce.  My entire world view about conflict and family and love came apart.  Suddenly my quiet house was not simply quiet.  My quiet house was a conflict avoidant house.  The lack of yelling in my house was not simply a lack of yelling, but was a stuffing of hurt and pain for the sake of pretend peace.  Now, do not get me wrong.  I am not suggested that you all go home and yell at your loved ones.  What I am saying is that no matter what your experience of conflict has been – avoidance, dramatic confrontation, reasoned discussion through disagreement – we have all experienced conflict in our family.

All that is to say that nothing Jesus says about families should be shocking today.  Most of us like the loving, caring, gentle Jesus the best.  We like Jesus being hailed as the Prince of Peace, not hearing Jesus say, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”[i]  That is not the version of Jesus we come to hear about on Sundays.  That is not the version of Jesus we want to read about when our best friend is mad at us, our brother won’t talk to us, or our spouse is thinking about leaving.  That is not the version of Jesus we want the preacher talking about on the Sunday we decided to bring our friend to church.

And normally, I would be right there with you in protest.  I like the Prince of Peace who cares for the poor and downtrodden.  I love the Jesus who tells me not to be afraid and not to worry, especially when the lilies of the field are so well tended by God.  I adore the Jesus who forgives and unites all kinds of people into one.  But all of my protest comes from being someone who used to be pretty conflict avoidant.  That is, until I learned another way.  I will always say that one of the greatest gifts of my time on Long Island was learning how to not only handle conflict, but to really appreciate conflict for all that conflict can do.

For those of you not familiar with the cultural dynamic of Long Island, several things are at play.  First, Long Islanders have a different way of communicating.  They are direct, incisive, and honest.  For a Southerner, their style of communication can feel rude, but over time, said Southerner realizes that all that directness and ability to dive into conflict means you get everything out on the table.  There is no listening for innuendo or passive aggressiveness.  There are no cute phrases that sound nice, but really mean something entirely different.  Instead, you know where people stand, and you go home quite clear about the varying viewpoints.  Of course, that style of communication does not always feel good.  If you have sensitive feelings about criticism, your feelings can and will get hurt.  If you get uncomfortable with heated arguments, you will be challenged to stay calm.  If you prefer niceness over brutal honesty – well, you probably should not live on Long Island.

But here is what I learned and came to love about the beautiful people of Long Island.  They taught me how to listen, even if all I wanted to do was flee the room.  They taught me how to sit through criticism instead of getting defensive.  They taught me how to see conflict not as the ultimate evil, but instead as a critical key to transformation, reconciliation, and restoration.

That is at the heart of Jesus’ message today.  Of course Jesus says that he is going to divide fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and in-laws against one another.  What Jesus is teaching about is a radical reordering of the world.[ii]  We heard that proclamation from his mother’s mouth as she sang out the words of the Magnificat earlier in Luke’s gospel, “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”[iii]  Mary was not just talking about the enemy Rome.  Many of the Israelites themselves were proud, powerful, and rich.  We in the modern world are the proud, powerful, and rich.  And to us, Jesus shouts, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

The good news is that Jesus is not telling us he wants us to fight.  He is not encouraging violence or abuse, or even neglect or pain.  Jesus is simply telling us that his message is going to upset the status quo.  And as people who benefit from the status quo, we are going to have to face our demons and look at our brothers and sisters who are in need and take real stock of ourselves and our lives.  And when we start upsetting the status quo – when we start making women equal to men, when we start treating minorities with dignity and respect, when we start empowering the poor thrive and turn their lives around, we will have friends and family who push back.  We will have people who try to convince us to protect our power rather than share our power.  We will have family who walk away because they cannot face the truth.  All we have to do is look at the church – look at the hundreds of denominations who could not agree on whom could be baptized, what Eucharist means, and whom can be ordained or married.  We are a family divided because Jesus’ love is so revolutionary that we will be divided about how to define his love, how to share his love, and how receive his love.  Jesus does not want us to fight.  But he knows that if we are going to authentically live into the Gospel life, we are going to deal with conflict and we are going to be divided.[iv]

But that is also why Jesus went all the way to the cross.  His death was an effort to transform and redeem our conflict and to help us live fully into the people of peace and love we are invited to be in him.  Jesus knows that we will have to fight.  But he also knows that if we are willing to enter into conflict with an open mind, with listening ears, and a discerning heart, we will become a people who do not avoid conflict, but understand conflict as the purifying fire that burns away the mess of life and leaves behind the fertile ground for creating something new and holy.[v]  So yes, Jesus is still the Prince of Peace, who brings peace upon earth.  But the path there is not a smooth, straight, simple path.  The path there will take us through conflict, tension, and pain.  But the peace that awaits on the other side is more glorious than any community that will sit through passive aggressive avoidance just to maintain a false sense of security.

And just in case you are already feeling weary, wondering where you can muster the strength to survive such a rocky path, our letter to the Hebrews today gives us a clue, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…”[vi]  That group of people you are going to be in conflict with – whether your biological family, or the crazy family you selected as your church home – is the same group of people who have left us an example of how to work our way through conflict.  They have shown us how to survive the race toward peace and reconciliation, reminding us that Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter who gets us there.  We will not get there avoiding conflict.  But we will get there together, holding hands when we disagree, loving each other when we say helpful but painful truths, and rejoicing when we push through to the side of reconciliation, renewal, and rebirth.  Amen.

[i] Luke 12.51.

[ii] Richard P. Carlson, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 361.

[iii] Luke 1.51-53.

[iv] Audrey West, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 360, 362.

[v] Elizabeth Palmer, “Living By The Word:  August 14, 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time,” Christian Century, July 26, 2016, as found at http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2016-07/august-14-20th-sunday-ordinary-time on August 11, 2016.

[vi] Hebrews 12.1-2a.

On Fragility…

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green-leaves-with-sunlight

Photo credit:  www.extremetech.com/extreme/191233-new-nanoparticles-get-us-closer-to-artificial-photosynthesis-mass-carbon-capture

I have talked before about how, as a priest, the life cycle is ever present in my work [see post here].  Simultaneously celebrating new life and honoring earthly death can sometimes happen within days or hours.  But this week I have been reminded of how sometimes we do not even see or think about that thin space between life and death because, all too often, we have the privilege of not having to think about it.

This week, one of my close friends celebrated the fifth anniversary of the birth and death of her child.  The baby died in utero around twenty weeks.  That event was formative for our entire community of friends.  Suddenly, pregnancy was no longer a happy, idyllic time, when everything always turns out okay.  We all began to see the dark side of pregnancy, and understand how much we take a “normal pregnancy” for granted.  In thinking about baby Ella this week, and the impact she had on so many of us, I find myself humbled by how much her death gave us.

And like any other cyclical week in the priesthood, what news should I learn but of a friend who was surprised to discover she is pregnant after having lost her first pregnancy over a year ago.  I was equally elated and terrified.  Elated, because I knew how much the couple hoped that maybe, just maybe, they might be blessed with a successful pregnancy and birth.  But terrified because they, and I, know how fragile these next thirty-four weeks will be.

So this week, my prayers are with all of those who walk through the journey of life, death, and pregnancy.  I especially lift them up, because all too often, their joy, grief, and anxiety are hidden.  For fear that life will not be viable, many couples elect to keep their pregnancy quiet for as long as possible.  Whether they share or not, the couple faces consequences.  When everyone knows about a pregnancy that is lost, the couple can have to retell the painful story over and over again.  When no one knows about the pregnancy, the couple can feel isolated and alone in their grief, because to share their story, they have to tell you that they were pregnant and are now no longer pregnant.  There are no easy ways forward, and so for those in our midst walking the path of longing to create new life, fearfully growing new life, birthing new life, and mourning lost life, our prayers are with you.  You live in a fragile reality that we honor and hold with love and that we lift to God.  You are not alone.

So Let Your Light Shine…

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Let-Your-Light-Shine-Banner

Photo credit:  embracingbeauty.com/2013/04/20/letting-our-light-shine-by-donating-w-champions-for-kids-mobilizingmillions-cbias/

These last few weeks, I have been visiting outreach ministries that our parish supports.  The ministries have varied widely – from a free health clinic, to a ministry aimed at keeping seniors independent as long as possible, to a multi-service agency that works in a particularly impoverished area of our community.  Visiting the agencies has given me a great deal of perspective on the larger Williamsburg community – the various ways that poverty can impact the lives of our neighbors.  Whether the challenge is housing, health care, food, clothing, transportation, or education, the needs vary wide.  Luckily, there are people who are passionate about each need, and are working hard to make life a little better for our neighbors.

Equally helpful to learning the statistics and needs of each agency has been watching the passion of our parishioners who are involved in the ministries.  At each agency, a parishioner has shared with me why they volunteer, what inspires them, and how important the ministry is to our community.  With each parishioner, I see a certain tenderness toward the clients and a passion about the issue.   The parishioner’s entire demeanor changes when they talk about the ministry – making the case even more compelling than the executive director of the agency can make it.

As I have watched the physical transformation of our parishioners as they tell me about their passion for outreach ministries, I realized that is the same transformation I hope to see when they tell their friends about Hickory Neck.  You see, just like outreach ministries give us a sense of purpose outside of ourselves, church should similarly give us a sense of purpose outside of ourselves.  At church, we find ourselves inspired by worshiping our God.  At church, we find ourselves renewed as we learn and grow in our faith journey.  At church, we find ourselves made whole as we laugh and rejoice together.  At church, we are changed, we change others, and we change our community beyond the church walls.

I saw that same transformation as I interviewed with the Search Committee and Vestry over six months ago.  I saw that transformation in our parishioners this summer when I asked each of you what brings you joy about Hickory Neck.  And today, I imagine each of you might feel that inner transformation, that deep sense of joy, if you were to think about why you love Hickory Neck.  My invitation for all of us in the coming weeks is to take ourselves to that deep, inner sense of meaning, purpose, and joy, and to start inviting your friends and neighbors into that same experience.  If you speak from the heart, letting your light and passion shine through you, I promise you will inspire others more than you know.  Just like I saw the bodily transformation when you talked about your passions for outreach, your neighbors will be equally drawn in by your passion for church.  As we look to kick off the program year, I look forward to hearing how our newcomers were inspired by the Christ light shining in you, and wanted to find out how to capture that same light.

Sermon – Luke 12.13-21, P13, YC, July 31, 2016

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One of the last things that happens when you graduate from seminary is the staff from the Church Pension Group comes to talk to you about money management.  They help you understand how retirement funds work for clergy, encourage you to make sure you are doing some additional savings and investment planning, and remind you that, like tithing, how you manage your finances is a witness to your congregation for being good stewards.  That lesson is reiterated each year, as the priest is encouraged to be a smart investor through email reminders.  We even go to a wellness conference a few times over the course of our ministry to make sure we are tending to our financial wellness in addition to vocational, spiritual, and bodily wellness.  The lesson to clergy again and again, is to be good stewards of our financial resources.

So imagine my discomfort with the parable from Jesus today.  At first glance, this is a story about smart financial investments.  A man has a bumper crop – the land produces so abundantly he cannot fit the excess crops into his current barns.  Knowing that the land is fickle, maybe even having taken some notes from our ancestor Joseph who prevented a seven-year famine by stockpiling during a seven-year boon, the man decides he will just have to build a bigger barn to hold all the extra crops.  Quite frankly, his actions do not sound that far off from what any investment counselor who might tell us to do – store the excess away so that when a rainy day comes, or even when retirement comes, we can still “eat, drink, and be merry.”  All in all, his logic sounds pretty spot-on to me.

Here is the kicker though:  the day the newly enlarged barn is finished is the same day that the man will die.  All those plans, hopes, and dreams for a secure retirement are gone.  He never gets to enjoy the fruits of his labor.  He never gets to retire in comfort.  He never gets to eat, drink, and be merry.  Our immediate reaction to this tragedy might be to proclaim how life or God is not fair.  But into our disappointment, Jesus says, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

In these last words from Jesus, Jesus takes the wind out of our sails.  Jesus reminds us that being a good steward of our resources means lots of things:  being smart with our money, saving for times of famine, giving to the church, and caring for our neighbor.  But most importantly, being a good steward of our resources is not just about sound financial practices.  Being a good steward of our resources is also managing our relationship with our money – and more specifically, managing our relationship with God in relation to our money.

Now some of you may be thinking, “Here she goes.  She’s going to tell me how I need to give more money to the church to right my relationship with God.”  No need to get too anxious today.  I do not think Jesus is looking for a specific action today – as if to say, “Do not be like the man with the barns.  Give your full ten percent to the church and all will be well.”  No, what Jesus is trying to do is help us see that our relationship with money matters.  Unlike a polite dinner guest, Jesus never shies away from talking about money.  He is constantly warning us about the potential of riches to corrupt our relationship with God.  So the answer to what the rich man should do may not be a clear-cut formula, but we get some obvious clues about what Jesus means about being rich toward God.

Going back to the story is particularly helpful.  The most obvious thing that we see happening in the parable is that the wealthy man has become completely self-absorbed and ego-centric.  Listen again to the words of the parable, “And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”  The list is long:  What should I do?  My crops, my barns, my grain, my goods, my soul.  All the words of the wealthy man are self-referential.[i]  Nowhere does he talk to God.  Nowhere does he talk to his family or a trusted friend.  Nowhere does he consult his property manager, or the local priest.  He never praises God for the abundance.  He never acknowledges that the land has provided.  He never even considers sharing his abundance.  He is self-interested, self-protecting, and self-centered.  And all of that focus on the self comes from a relationship with money and with God that is out of whack.

So how do we avoid the slippery slope that leads to self-centeredness and greed, luring us to constantly redefine how much is “enough”?  What exactly is being rich toward God?  Jesus tells us the answer to our quandary throughout Luke’s gospel.  As one scholar explains, “Being rich toward God entails using one’s resources for the benefit of one’s neighbor in need, as the Samaritan did (10:25-37).  Being rich toward God includes intentionally listening to Jesus’ word, as Mary did (10:38-42).  Being rich toward God consists of prayerfully trusting that God will provide for the needs of life (11:1-13, 12:22-31).  Being rich toward God involves selling possessions and giving alms as a means of establishing a lasting treasure in heaven (12:32-34).”  In other words, “Life and possessions are a gift of God to be used to advance God’s agenda of care and compassion, precisely for those who lack resources to provide for themselves.”[ii]

Last year, while serving on the board of the Episcopal Ministries of Long Island in New York, we were surprised by a bequest of about 1.3 million dollars.  The bequest came from a woman who had seemed to be of little consequence.  Each year she had probably given the charitable group about $25 a year.  We assumed that was about all she could do.  So when the gift came in, we were stunned.  After some prayerful discernment, we elected to put one million into our endowment, to ensure that we could keep helping ministries on Long Island.  But the three hundred thousand would be for us to try new and innovative ministries – and luckily for us, there was already a proposal on the table that we thought we could not afford:  a food truck that would take food around to the homeless in Brooklyn, and maybe even host a social worker and or nurse.  I do not know what sort of life this woman led or how she managed her money.  But even in death, her richness toward God was obvious to us all.

The challenge of Jesus this week to be rich toward God is not just a challenge for self-centered men of means.  Though we may be tempted to finger-point, Jesus and we know that money has the power to corrupt all of our relationships with God.  And unfortunately, the consequences are not limited to our relationships with God – our ability to live lives rich toward God impacts our neighbors too.  The good news is that we have a community of faith sitting right next to us who can be our support system as we work to turn our hearts and our riches to God.  Now I know we all value being respectful dinner guests, but this time, we are going to need to follow Jesus’ lead.  In order to really turn our hearts and riches toward God, we are going to need to start talking with our friends about the place of money in our lives and in our relationship with God.  We are going to need to talk about our struggles and failures.  And we are going to need to celebrate our victories and successes.  We are basically going to need to become a giant support group for becoming rich toward God.

I once heard about a “congregation who invited families to not buy any unnecessary new thing for six months in order to break the culturally-induced habit of trying to buy happiness.  But they didn’t just invite people to do this, they formed a culture in which they supported each other.  They read and talked about a common book on abundant life, they kept in touch via small groups and email, they shared where they were succeeding and struggling and what they were learning.  In short, the formed a community so that they could stand against the all-too-human and culturally supported belief that if we just had a little more we’d be happy.”[iii]

I do not know what model or what goals are going to work for each of you.  But I do know that just by our very citizenship in this country, we face more temptation toward greed than in probably any other country.  If we are going to follow Jesus, to avoid a life of self-centeredness, and claim a life of being rich toward God, we are going to need each other.  Whether you want to form a small group or just find a trusted friend, this is the important work Jesus invites us into today.  My guess is that building up a community of support that is rich toward God will create much more opportunities to eat, drink, and be merry, than any bigger barn could ever give us.  Amen.

[i] Audrey West, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 312.

[ii] Richard P. Carlson, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 315.

[iii] David Lose, “What Money Can and Can’t Do,” July 29, 2013, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2668 on July 27, 2016.

Putting Paint to Canvas…

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paintbrush

Photo credit:  www.colortheorypainting.com/color-theory-blog/

This past winter, my church at the time held a “Paint Nite,” as a fundraising event.  As someone who has very little artistic skill, I was skeptical that I would come away with anything of worth.  Just sitting in front of the blank canvas seemed daunting.  When we took our first strokes to prepare the canvas for more color, I was convinced I would ruin the whole thing.  But as our teacher for the night slowly guided us through the exercise, breaking down each step of the process, the blank canvas slowly transformed.  First, into blocks of color; then with odd shapes inserted here and there; and finally, a picture emerged.  When I finished for the night, I sat back and thought to myself, “That’s not actually all that bad.”  As I looked around the room, all of our once blank canvases were transformed into unique, yet similar, works of art.

In some ways, that is the work of Hickory Neck this summer.  Committee leaders and Vestry liaisons have been gathering these past couple of months to prepare for our Vestry’s retreat/workday on Saturday.  Each Vestry member is assigned to be a liaison to a ministry area of the church and has been asked to assemble a calendar of the work each ministry area would like to do this year.  The Vestry and clergy will come together on Saturday to put that work together on a blank calendar and see what work of art emerges.

To some, working on calendars for a whole day may sound dull.  But I am convinced that our work this Saturday is important work for the life of the community.  By taking a holistic look at our calendar, we get a sense of our priorities, our strengths, and our challenges.  Instead of each ministry area doing what they do in isolation, we can step back and look at the fuller tapestry of life at Hickory Neck and discern whether the picture our calendar presents is the image we really want.  This is exciting work, full of possibility and potential.

I ask that you hold our Vestry in prayer this weekend as we do this collaborative work.  If you have already spent time working with your Vestry liaison, reflecting on goals and plans, thank you for the work you have already done.  If your ministry area has not yet had a chance to offer your dreams and goals with your Vestry liaison, please reach out to them this week.  This weekend we will be painting a beautiful picture together and I look forward to sharing the masterpiece with each of you as we kickoff our program year in September.  Great things are already happening at Hickory Neck.  Your Vestry and clergy are excited to make that work even better!

Sermon – Luke 11.1-13, P12, YC, July 24, 2016

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This morning I have a little confession.  When I look at the texts for the upcoming Sunday each week, I rarely am excited about what lessons are presented.  Invariably, Jesus will say or do something controversial or, like today, the Old Testament lesson will say something super provocative that I do not want to think about addressing in the pulpit.  But this week was a bit different.  When I read today’s gospel, and heard the disciples asking Jesus to teach them how to pray, I wanted to cry, Yes, yes, Jesus!  Tell us what to do.  Teach us how to pray.  Because lately, my prayers seem hollow.  Whether I am praying about the nastiness and disrespect within this year’s political campaigns, whether I am praying about the sinfulness of racism in our country, whether I am praying about the way we dehumanize one another enough to think it is okay to shoot each other, or whether I am praying about someone who is not likely to recover from their illness and is facing the reality of mortality – I need Jesus to teach me how to pray.  I need Jesus to teach me how to pray, because I do not feel like my prayers are working.  “Lord, teach us to pray,” the disciples beg with a spirit helplessness, hopelessness, and haplessness that we can all identity with this week.

Into that sense of despair and longing, Jesus does two incredible things.  First, he gives the disciples something simple and tangible – something to cling to in the most desperate of times.  Jesus gives them what we call, “the Lord’s Prayer,” or the “Our Father.”  Luke’s version is not the version of this prayer that we are most familiar with – we know Matthew’s version much more familiarly.  In fact, even Christians who have been away from church most of their adult life can recall this one prayer.  We know the words so well that they become their own prayer beads, each word a talisman that our fingers and souls can cling to when our head and hearts are a jumbly mess.  The Lord’s Prayer is one for the ages – telling us what we know about God, what we hope for about the kingdom, and what we need as we go about our earthly lives.  Surely those words address all that we are facing right now.  Surely, when we have run out of our own words, those are words that we can mutter over and over again.  Surely those are the things we need:  God to reveal God’s self, to right the world, to sustain us, to forgive us and help us forgive others, and to protect us from ourselves and the enemy.  And on days when we do not have words, those are words that we can pray.  Jesus is very practical with his gift of a prayer for the ages.

But then Jesus does a second thing.  After giving the disciples something tangible, then he tries to teach them something much more profound.  He teaches the disciples about what prayer really is.  After giving the disciples the “Our Father,” Jesus does what Jesus always does – he sits them down for a little story.  Basically, an annoyingly persistent friend comes pounding on the door of a neighboring friend, looking for food to give to an unexpected guest. It’s midnight, and the irritated friend tells him to go home – everyone in his house has finally settled in for the night, and there is no way he is getting up.  But the friend “persists, and eventually the poor householder relents, not out of the charities of friendship but simply for the sake of his own peace and quiet.”[i]

The story is not the prettiest, but anyone who has had to put down a toddler for the fortieth time that evening knows how persistent that friend would have to be for the neighbor to risk waking up his children.  Jesus’ conclusion about the story of a persistent friend is, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”  This is where Jesus’ teaching gets tricky though.  Too many of us know that there have been times when we asked and we did not find, it was not given to us, and the door was not opened.  Those words from Jesus can seem empty for those of us who have experienced the opposite.  But Jesus is not describing the economy of prayer: that you insert a request, and, with persistence, you get what you want.  What Jesus is trying to say is that prayer is about relationship.  Like the relationship that we have with the buddy who will get up in the middle of the night, our prayer life with God is a reflection of the relationship with have with God.  Our prayer life is dynamic, involves conflict, necessitates initiative, and is relational.

One of my favorite hymns growing up was “What a friend we have in Jesus.”  The hymn is a sweet, simplistic hymn that basically says that we too often try to shoulder our burdens on our own.  The hymn argues that if we take our sins and grief, our trails and temptations, our weakness and heavy laden burdens, we will find solace in God.  The hymn is comforting, and its simplicity can make us feel good.  But as I thought about that hymn this week and our text today, I realized that the hymn tempts us in the same way that this text does.  The hymn tempts us into concluding that all we have to do is ask, seek, and knock, and everything will be okay.  All we have to do is “take it to the Lord in prayer,” or even say the Lord’s prayer, and everything will be okay.

But I do not think that is what Jesus is saying today.  By talking about how prayer is relational between God and us, how prayer is a practice that resembles the relationship of friends, we can come to understand prayer a little differently.  Like any healthy relationship, our relationship to God in prayer is going to change us.  Our time in prayer with God might lead us to finding, receiving, and having doors opened.  But our time in prayer might also lead us to acting, giving, and knocking doors down.  Jesus says that the sleeping friend gets up because of his friend’s persistence.  That word “persistence” in the Greek is translated alternatively as, “shamelessness.”[ii]  In other words, our prayers to God are to be shameless:  bold, audacious, and unfailingly confident.

As we think about our prayerful relationship with God, I was struck by a reflection by David Lose.  He asks, “How might we act differently this week if our prayers were offered to God confidently, trusting that God will respond so much more generously than any earthly parent?”   Perhaps [we] wouldn’t just sit back and wait for God to answer but would start moving, get to work, actually start living into the reality of what [we have] prayed for.  So rather than pray for someone who is lonely, maybe [we’d] go visit.  Rather than pray for an end to violence, maybe [we’d] campaign against the legality of military-grade semi-automatic weapons, or protest when police use unnecessary force, or go visit the police station to tell officers that [we are] grateful for their service and pray for their safety.[iii]  In other words, what if a prayerful relationship with God is not passive, but is active and challenging?

The good news is that despite all the heaviness of the news lately, and despite all the examples of intolerance and degradation, there are also examples percolating of goodness – the fruits of shameless prayer with our God.  In Dallas, I saw protestors hugging counter-protestors.  In Kansas, I saw police officers and Black Lives Matter protestors not only holding a block party together, but also making time during the party for a real, raw question-and-answer period.  In Cleveland, I saw protestors holding hands with a police officer and offering a prayer before the day’s events began.  Now, I am not saying that shameless praying with God is going to be easy or even lead to the open doors we want or think we need.  Anyone who has long-term friendships knows that friendship is hard.  But what I am saying is that prayer is powerful and when tended to, can lead to transformation.  So if you do not know where to start this week, start with the Lord’s Prayer.  If you are too frustrated or jaded to say those words, then just show up at God’s door.  As with any good relationship, showing up is half the battle.  Wherever you are in your prayer life, know that our God is a God who will answer – and will use us for goodness.  Amen.

[i] Stephanie Frey, “On God’s Case,” Christian Century, vol. 121, no. 14, July 13, 2004, 17.

[ii] James A. Wallace, C.SS.R., “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 291.

[iii] David J. Lose, “Pentecost 10C:  Shameless Prayer,” July 19, 2016, as found at http://www.davidlose.net/2016/07/pentecost-10-c-shameless-prayer/ on July 20, 2016.

Is this me?

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Changing room

Photo credit:  www.womansday.com/style/fashion/a6531/dressing-room-tips/

Those of you who know me well know that I am not a fashionista.  Though I manage to look pulled-together, that comes with a lot of help – mostly from my patient, much more fashionable husband.  I am constantly asking if things match, if certain shoes go with a particular outfit, or if certain accessories are right.  Over the years, my husband has learned to push me out of my comfort zone (as much as I will allow).  But in trying new looks or styles, invariably the question arises, “Is this me?”

As I have gotten older, I have begun to realize that I am the only one who can answer that question, “Is this me?”  Sometimes the answer is an obvious, “No!”  If I do not like the message the outfit sends, or if I know I will be fidgeting from discomfort, then I will never be confident in the look.  But sometimes the answer is, “It could be – if you want it to be.”  An outfit that obviously fits into your comfort zone does not need analyzing.  It is safe.  But one that is neither safely in the comfort zone nor way out of the comfort zone is in that sweet spot where you have to decide how bold and creative you want to be.  Because sometimes those new shoes bring out something adventurous in you.  Sometimes that new dress makes you a bit more self-assured.  And sometimes that accessory pulls out something inside of you that you did not realize was there.

That question, “Is this me?” is the same question Hickory Neck has been asking in these last months.  We have been through a pretty tremendous transition in leadership and identity.  When I started in April, many of you wondered what having a female rector with young children would look like.  Holding on to the memories of our two most recent rectors, and looking at this new rector, many of us wondered, “Is this me?”  And, then, just this past Sunday, we tried on something else – a Curate.  Now, Hickory Neck has been a two-clergy parish for many years in its past.  But the financial strain of transition and the uncertainty about identity has caused many to wonder if being a two-clergy parish is who we are now.

As our new curate has been settling into his office, I have been thinking that sometimes, the only way to answer the question, “Is this me?” is to just go for it.  Part of the equation will necessitate us being bold enough to live into a new identity under new leadership.  Like with a bold new outfit, we have to put our minds to living fully into the path we have chosen for our future.  But the other part of the equation is remembering how, like putting on a bold new outfit, sometimes our confidence will rise in spite of ourselves.  Just by living into our new identity, our sense of adventure, creativity, and confidence will grow.  Change is hard, and I know many of us this week may be wondering, “Is this me?”  For those of you asking that question, I encourage you to trust that God is at work for goodness among us – pushing us into that sweet spot where tremendous ministry can happen.  I don’t know about you, but I am pretty excited to live into our new look!

The Power of Love…

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Love_Sign_VA

Photo credit:  blog.claibornehouse.net/2011/06/yes-virginia-we-are-for-lovers.html

Last week, two very opposite realities collided for me.  On the one hand, I was processing all sorts of anger, grief, frustration, and hopelessness.  In the course of one week, two more African-American men were killed at the hands of police officers, and five police officers were killed in retaliation.  Though each case was different, all I could see was blood and death and racism.  By the end of the week, I was despairing, wondering how we could pull our act together to be able to have open, honest, vulnerable conversations about our own participation in the sin of racism without turning to violence and degradation.

On the other hand, as the reports from Dallas were filling TV screens, I was on my way to a weekend getaway – a vacation planned long ago with some dear friends.  The following days involved sun, sand, food, art, yoga, laughter, and joy.  Part of me felt guilty for having so much fun, but part of my soul really needed that time away.  It was cleansing and restorative, and in some ways, could not be better timed.

As I made my way home on Monday, I found myself listening to and seeing stories of reconciliation:  Protestors and counter-protestors hugging; a Police Chief being raw and real about how hard being a police officer is; a surgeon, who worked tirelessly on the same police officers that he, as a black male, fears in daily life.  As I drove home, I passed a rest area that had a simple sign:  LOVE.  I have always loved Virginia’s slogan, “Virginia is for Lovers,” but never have I appreciated how deeply that lesson could go.  Virginia has made a claim on love – the same claim that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ asks us to claim every day.

And in case I did not receive the message clearly enough, I am blessed with two children who have the capacity to show unbounded love.  Hugs, kisses, giggles, and gentle pats on my face were the tangible reminders of what love can do out in the world.  How each of us makes a claim on love will vary.  But traveling through an airport, seeing all the world’s people crammed into one place is a great way to see how broadly and widely we will need to love if we take up the mantle of Christ.  The good news is that the Spirit is already working to empower us to be agents of love.  Our work is to let the Holy Spirit work on us.

The Sound of Silence…

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The-Sound-of-Silence

Photo credit:  advisoranalyst.com/glablog/s015/05/27/jeff-miller-the-sound-of-silence.html

In almost every parish I have served, there has been an 8:00 am, Rite I, spoken service.  The crowd usually is not that large.  Because the service is spoken, it tends to be very quiet and to be the shortest service of the day.  Those who are attracted to the service usually like the language (We use “thee” and “thou” language and the service has a more penitential tone.)  Others like the brevity of the service – appreciating both going to church and having the rest of the day free.  While others like the service because it feels more contemplative and centering.

Though the service is always pretty quiet in whatever Episcopal Church you choose, what I have noticed about the 8:00 am crowd at Hickory Neck is that they tend to be not just prompt, but early.  Every Sunday, at least five minutes before the service begins, everyone is seated and is silent.  Up until this past Sunday, I found the practice unsettling.  On Sundays, I am usually amped up, and ready to jump into liturgical leadership.  As an extrovert, I am chatty, and am used to some lighthearted conversation before the service starts.  So the silence immediately before the service feels discordant with my pent-up energy.

But this past Sunday, I remembered a complaint long ago from a fellow parishioner at the Cathedral where I became an Episcopalian.  She used to complain that the beginning of the service was not meant to be happy hour – she was irritated by the chatter all around her when all she wanted to do was kneel on the prayer cushion in front of her and enjoy a moment of silence before the service began.  Even the bulletin had a comment at the beginning that reminded people that we should respect others’ desire to begin our worship in quiet contemplation and centering prayer.  Though I appreciated the guidance, I never really “got” it – until this past Sunday.

The beauty of five minutes of silence before worship is that you can let go of all the stuff on your to-do list.  The beauty of the five minutes of silence before worship is that you can let go of the pain, worry, anger, or stress that is ever present and present yourself humbly before worship.  The beauty of the five minutes of silence before worship is that you can listen to God instead of talk to God.  As a celebrant, I do not know that I will ever be able to use those last five minutes to center myself (I tend to arrive much earlier at church to find that centering time).  But as one who facilitates worship, I have found myself greatly appreciating the gift of those five minutes for our parishioners.  I could use a good five minutes today to just listen.  In the noise of mass gun violence, terrorism, racism, poverty, and suffering, I am a bit out of things to say to God.  Instead I would rather kneel in silence today and give humanity’s and my own brokenness and sinfulness to God.  What might you offer to God today in that silence?  What do you imagine you might hear in that silence?

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