Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Easter Living

We are in the season of Easter. This is time in the church year where we put special emphasis on living the life of those who have seen and celebrated the Resurrection. We’ve gone through the deep sadness of Good Friday. Many attended Holy Week services or took time personally to acknowledge the darkness of human nature that insists on killing the good and celebrating the wicked. On Easter Sunday morning, people thronged into churches all over the world to see visions of light and white and gold and lilies, all signs of victory and renewed hope. Yes, Christ is risen indeed!

Now, we practice living the resurrection life. One of the phrases that Jesus spoke to his disciples was “Let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no.” Just learning to live from that alone can be life-changing. By so doing, we eliminate from our vocabulary the defeatist, “I’ll try . . .” or “maybe I will, but don’t count on it” phrases. When we use such language, we give ourselves all room to wiggle out of commitments and to remain unaccountable.

However, an honestly and freely spoken “yes” or “no” indicates that we know our own minds, can speak faithfully out of our experience, trust that the Spirit of God is working in our lives, and are willing to be held accountable for our words and actions. All these are signs of maturity and the life lived in resurrection grace.

Of course there are times when we truly don’t know whether we should say “yes” or “no” to something. Here’s a good response: “I’ll pray about it and get back with you.” Then, do pray about it and do what God leads you to do. God is not trying to hide wisdom and direction from us. We start from the center of Christian living which is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. That means we already have some pretty good insight where decisions are concerned. The specifics of living that out are different for each person. Those specifics arise from being aware of our talents and gifts, from the resurrection courage to get out of deadening comfort zones and try new things, and from awareness of current commitments and obligations.

So, let’s all be people of the light, making decisions seasoned with prayerful thought, giving a hearty “yes” or a healthy “no” when faced with decisions, and spread the message of grace to each person we see. That’s Easter living!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Life Returns

I have a number of houseplants, probably too many. Each has a history, mostly gifts, some rescues from my mother who habitually kills every plant that comes near her. I bought for myself only two of them to put in an office. One of those was a small ficus tree. I nearly killed it in the office and ended up bringing it home to rejuvenate it. It is now over six feet tall, with large spreading branches.

Most of the year, these plants sit on the east facing patio, soaking in morning sun and providing a gentle green atmosphere for the space. In the cold weather, of course, they have to come in the house. As I said, I probably have too many of them. They overwhelm the rooms of the parsonage. Especially that large, spreading ficus tree which spent the winter brooding over the dining room table.

During the winter months, I hardly water them at all. Too dry is better than too wet, and this year, I took “too dry” to an extreme. Especially for that large, spreading ficus tree. Since I brought it inside in mid-November, I doubt that gave it more than a gallon and a half of water the entire time.

Now, spring is here. It is unlikely that we’ll see another frost. Time to take the plants out. That large, spreading ficus tree is in a good-sized pot now, and I was a little concerned about moving it myself. However, it was extremely light. A winter of little water meant some dried out roots and lowered weight. The plant had been shedding leaves alarmingly for weeks now and dropped several dozen more on the way out the door. The first task at that point was to offer a good long soaking.

That plant really should be dead. Yet, 24 hours after that good soaking, I can see the life coming back into it—it almost seems to be standing straighter. So it is with lawns and trees and shrubs all over the area. As the longer days and spring warmth arrive, those buds and green shoots begin to form. I know it happens every year. Yet, to me, it is a yearly miracle. That which seemed dead, or so close to dying as to look dead, is coming back to life again.

Each year at this time, I feel myself emerging from the winter cocoon as I enjoy the yearly miracle of spring. This yearly renewal of life comes at the time we celebrate Easter, the mark of absolute renewal of life. Easter, when all darkness is swallowed in light, when we know without a doubt that God wins, when death loses its sting and is swallowed up in victory, when perfect good triumphs over anything that would try to destroy it. Easter, when in complete love, God offers to all without preference the joy of entrance in the heavenly places. May each of you experience that new life. Not one person is turned away from this place of love.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

“Church is Boring”

Well, yes it is sometimes. Entered into with a spirit of willingness and openness, time in church can mean that the spirit of God bores a hole all the way into the center of our beings.

Oh—perhaps you didn’t mean THAT kind of “bore” with the phrase “church is boring.” Instead it meant, “I’m not being entertained in church.”

Hmmm—definitely truth there as well. Although some churches do have “entertaining” worship services, the church really isn’t in the entertainment business. It’s in the transformation business. It’s in the reconciliation business. It’s in the forgiveness business.

At the basic level, “church” is a group of people who come together to learn more about God and to encourage each other to grow in holiness. Holiness simply means that we become more and more willing to live as God intended us to live: aware of God’s grace which is given freely yet costs so much, exercising our talents, receiving disappointments and tough times with hopeful hearts, forgiving others, wrapping ourselves and those around us in love, actively seeking the well-being of the created world. The transformative work of holiness is boring indeed. It digs huge holes into most our preconceived notions about what life really is about.

In most churches, people sing songs together because there is something about music that helps us to get beyond ourselves for a while. Some of this music is ancient and unfamiliar and boring but the act of at least trying to sing and hear the words gives them an opportunity to bore into our minds and thoughts.

In most churches, portions of the Bible are read aloud. These readings help us enter the lives of the people who have sought from the beginning of recorded history to find and experience God. As we enter into their lives, we find a place to find direction for our own experiences of God. Sometimes, people fall asleep while the Bible is being read—but those words while boring can so beautifully bore into the soul nonetheless.

In most churches, people spend some time in prayer. This time helps us to stop just for a while and really concentrate on both talking to God and hearing from God. The action of prayer can be a boringly mysterious experience that sometimes leads us to fall into a holy sleep and sometimes leaves us exhilarated by concentrated attention on the Holy One.

In most churches, there is an opportunity to give money. This teaches us that life is much more than what we have—it is also found in what we give. It becomes a physical act that mirrors a spiritual reality: because we are blessed, we have a responsibility to be a blessing. The boring time when plates are being passed around the gathering will often bore into our wallets as we consider both our willingness and unwillingness to give freely.

In most churches, there is a message or sermon or meditation offered by the pastor or another person who has spent disciplined time learning the ways of God and the words of the Bible. This is done to offer instruction and encouragement. Learning about God is a life-long process, and learning to be a Christian and live like a Christian is also a life-long process. This time of instruction and encouragement offers ideas and hope that a person can take home and ponder and seek to live from. Learning to be a Christian is no different than learning any challenging skill or area of knowledge: it takes discipline and work and good instruction and much, much practice. Yes, sometimes people fall asleep while listening to those frequently boring messages—but they may bore into the soul nonetheless.

In most churches, there are multiple opportunities for service. These opportunities give people a chance to get to know one another and work together and give good away to the people around them. So as we boringly pick up trash and feed the hungry and clothe the naked and visit the prisoner and heal the sick, we find that such acts bore deep within and find a well of gratefulness and renewed energy.

In most churches, there are opportunities to receive what are sometimes called “sacraments”—a word that suggests a special meaning to what is taking place. The most common sacrament is the experience of communion, where we remember in special ways the gift that Jesus gave to us when freely giving himself for all. This is a focused time to be still and simply receive the gift; to be quietly bored and let our minds wander with contemplation of things generally ignored.

In most churches, there is a time to talk about or think about the places where we don’t measure up. The church word for this is “confession,” which means to agree with God about these things. This time is not punitive, but refreshing. It gives needed space to be honest about ourselves and to receive the power from God to start again—as many times as is needed. Confession, honestly practices, is rarely boring and also overwhelmingly boring as light is shed on areas before kept dark and hidden.

In most churches, there is a time to greet people sitting nearby. This time is a reminder that we are all in this together. We are not alone—and there is great comfort in this knowledge. It is a boring routine of shaking hands and saying “hello” and “welcome” except when you are feeling exceptionally lonely and then the boring routine bores new hope and healing into your loneliness.

In most churches, many meals are eaten together. It’s a boring routine of cooking, serving, standing in line to get food, sitting with unfamiliar people, and cleaning up afterward. Those times of communal dining bore warmth into our lives because shared food means shared lives and shared lives mean a community strong enough to withstand any trials coming our way.

Yes, church is boring. Thank you, Jesus, for boring your way into my life and giving to me the words of life.

Friday, March 07, 2008

White As Snow

For those of us who rarely see snow, the sight of the huge flakes gently falling to the ground and covering everything with pristine white fills us with awe. Things formerly nondescript or even ugly to the sight become beautiful, transformed by the layer of fluff. Chain-link fences turn into fine lace, tree limbs bend as though offering their load of snow as a gracious gift, free to the taker. When the snow falls heaviest, sounds are muffled, a deep quiet permeates space and time. Yes, all is exquisitely beautiful, hushed, transformed, shining clean. Children rush out to embrace it; adults leave being “sensible” behind and go out and walk and rejoice in it.

For this moment, the snowfall shows the exquisiteness of the grace of God. When God views us through the eyes of forgiving and redeeming grace, God also sees us as pristine, clean, beautiful, transformed. All darkness has been wiped away, all those times when we’ve chosen the dark, distorted, unholy, non-God ways have disappeared in the moment of grace.

Of course, what happens after the initial beautiful transformation can be challenging: traffic snarls, planes delayed, animals suffering, events cancelled. Here in Texas, the snow will melt quickly, and in days or even hours, the traces of whiteness will disappear. But in much colder climates, the snow stays. And stays. And stays. And another transformation takes place—one not nearly so lovely.

I used to work in Chicago—actually commuted there from Wichita Falls, TX. After flying into O’Hare, a flight often delayed by snowstorms in the winter, I would either take the train and bus (if I were feeling frugal—cost $1.25) or taxi (if I were feeling indulgent—cost $25) to my place of employment in an older and heavily populated section of Chicago. Occasionally, I’d get there just in time to see the pristine white cover everything. However, it was more likely that I’d be there several days after a snowstorm. Things didn’t melt there as they do here. Especially deep into winter, there would be huge piles of snow heaped on edges of the sidewalks, left by the snow plows. It would take only a short time after a snow for those piles of snow to turn dark and ugly, splashed by the spray from cars and buses, melting slightly and then freezing again, eventually turning into rocks of dirty and slippery ice, treacherous to walk on and unpleasing to the sight. Spring weather becomes especially welcome as warmer rains and temperatures melted those disturbing reminders of what had been beautiful snow.

And that also is the nature of life with God. God’s grace does transform us into people of light and goodness. We rejoice in that transformation, but afterward the hard work continues to live as transformed people. We will get splashed by dirty water mixed with gritty sand. Pockets of seemingly impenetrable ice form in our hearts as we cling to habits that harm our souls. Yet spring rains—and for us in the south, warm winter sunshine—will come and melt that ice away.

The natural world has so much to teach us about the nature of God. Unending grace, sustaining us through unending trials, offering moments of exquisite sweetness and hope for the future. Thank You, God.