Friday, October 31, 2008

Much is Given, Much is Required

A few days ago, I saw someone with whom I had developed a friendship several years ago. I remember being so intimidated when I first met her as she walked into the room where we had a joint meeting. This educated, articulate, poised, elegantly dressed, tall, beautiful, wearing pointy-toed high heeled shoes women entered and I thought, "We'll never have anything in common!" Later, I discovered that she had been raised by doting well-to-do adoptive parents who had given her everything possible. Nothing like a set up for a spoiled, self-centered adult who expected the world to jump at her tiniest wish!

But she choose a different path. From her earliest memories, her parents instilled in her the words of Jesus, "To whom much has been given, much is required." As I began to know this fascinating person, I discovered that she intentionally lives from those words. It's didn't take me long to discover that her actions match her beliefs and that this exquisite woman possesses a beautiful soul of genuine humility and that a spirit of generosity radiates off her.

In her humility, she doesn't deny that she is privileged. Humility doesn't lie or pretend something that is not true. Humility acknowledge gifts given and then figures out how to live generously as one so gifted. More, humility recognizes that the gifts will quickly become distorted if they are not given away. Someone who has been given the gift of music in voice or instrument or ability to compose lives with most humility when that gift is used to bring pleasure to others, not when it is hidden under false modestly and never displayed to the glory of God. Someone given the gifts of prosperity, whether material or social or spiritual or emotional or physical gives the greatest glory to God when that prosperity is freely passed onto others.

I suspect it must be hard for her to continue to be a giver. I also bet she is often misunderstood, just as I began this acquaintance by misunderstanding her and assuming she would use her gifts to establish a position of superiority. That misunderstanding is common simply because it is rare to see that kind of humility.

We all have heard the phrase, "the rich get richer." The rich certainly have more possessions and seem to continue to accumulate them. But I wonder just how rich they really are. In our country and culture, we have spent a number of years seeking to consume as much as possible. Consumption--the purchasing of more and more toys, clothes, homes, cars, experiences, drugs, health care--is what actually drives our economy and serves as outward signs of being rich. If the current climate of fear coming from the financial markets integrates more fully into the American psyche, that kind of consumption is going to come to a pretty rapid halt. And when it does, what becomes of a society that has forgotten to live like my friend has? A society that is focused on what it can get for itself rather than what it can give to others simply because we have been given so much?

Every time I am around this friend, I am prompted to look at my own life and see how I can live even more generously. As people of God, we are often taught that we can and must see the face of Jesus in the poor and the impoverished and the suffering of the world. I am in complete agreement with that. Jesus knew suffering and the Scriptures are full of admonitions to care for those left out of societal comfort. I also suggest that it speaks well of us when we recognize that we are rich and privileged--even in the midst of economic crisis--and that others may be blessed when they see Jesus' face in our actions and responses to others. It is a holy and noble calling for everyone.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Zero Tolerance and the Kingdom of Heaven

I recently became involved in a situation in the schools here where a student rightfully deserved disciplinary action for an inappropriate behavior.
Everyone, parents, teachers, administrators, even the student, agreed the behavior was wrong. Everyone agreed that there needed to be connection between action and reaction. But there the agreement ended. The parent and I both felt the context had not been fully taken into account, that the context itself provided significant mitigating factors and that the disciplinary action levied, which was quite severe, failed to take that context into account. The school district disagreed and the disciplinary action went forward. The “zero tolerance” doctrine was invoked and, according to school officials, their hands were tied.

Lord willing, all will recover from this situation. But it won’t be an easy recovery. And, as always, situations like this push me to think about the way verses in the Bible are used and what “zero tolerance” might mean for people who seek to live the “with-God life,” understanding that the prayer, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” is meant to be taken very seriously.

What are some of the standards of behavior that are set before us in the Bible? Frankly, they are pretty darn high. In fact, perfection is actually required. Try reading from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 5. Jesus clearly states that no one gets into the kingdom of heaven unless they are even more righteous than the most righteous people of that day. And then he gives some examples of really righteous living. Try a couple of these on for size:

"You know the next commandment pretty well, too: 'Don't go to bed with another's spouse.' But don't think you've preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices - they also corrupt. "Let's not pretend this is easier than it really is. If you want to live a morally pure life, here's what you have to do: You have to blind your right eye the moment you catch it in a lustful leer. You have to choose to live one-eyed or else be dumped on a moral trash pile. And you have to chop off your right hand the moment you notice it raised threateningly. Better a bloody stump than your entire being discarded for good in the dump.

Now, that is zero tolerance for you. Even a lustful look means get rid of that eye, or a gesture of anger against another person—cut off your hand.

Since I’ve not seen many one-eyed/one-handed people who got that way because they really wanted to live righteously—and in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit I’ve still got both my eyes and both of my hands—it is pretty clear that no one really takes these commands literally. Too bad—if we did, it just might end lust and violence, two of the biggest scourges on the earth today. But we don’t, because we cut ourselves a whole bundle of slack. And we really hope that the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ is true, because if it is not, every single one of us is facing an eternity of total separation from a holy God.

But how do grace and forgiveness operate in the face of a real wrongdoing? Is punishment given? Or is it just all swept under the rug because we are forgiven? I think we need to understand that grace does not mean not looking fully at the truth, even when that truth is painful to face. Wrongdoing, injustice, harmful actions and thoughts must be addressed. As they are exposed to the holy light of a loving and graceful God, sorrowful repentance opens the door to being able to receive the forgiveness so freely offered. Yes, there are consequences to sinful behavior. But in the world that seeks real “with-God” living, consequences are meant to bring about reconciliation, not further separation. Those who have experience the freshness of grace bear those consequences as holy scars, knowing that they lead us to greater riches in God’s place.

The most holy among us are not those who have sinned the least—because there just isn’t anyone who can live up to the standards set by Jesus. The most holy among us are those who acknowledge the ever-present nature of sin. They have received with open arms both the forgiveness given by God and the command to go forth as those alive to God and dead (or at least dying!) to sin. It takes guts and courage to do this. To my young friend who is experiencing what I do see as the ridiculous extreme of the zero-tolerance policy, I say: “You can survive this—and come out stronger for the experience. But if you are looking for fairness in life, know you will always, always be disappointed. Look for grace instead—and freely give it away when you get it.”

"We" are Building Flowerbeds

“Hey, my sweetheart, why don't we get the back flower beds finished today?" So while my long-suffering husband graciously begins the heavy work, (I'm a GREAT supervisor), I start dreaming about the beautiful flowers and shrubs I will someday plant. Yes, "we" are building flower beds and slowly transforming the landscape of the parsonage where I live all the time and he lives some of the time when he is able to get free from his own church responsibilities. Parsonage: a place where the parson lives. The "parson" is a somewhat old fashioned word for a clergy person, a pastor of a church. Both of us feel strongly that even though we, as pastors, will never own the places we live, we still have a responsibility to hand them back in better shape than we found them because we are stewards of these houses. So, "we" build flower beds. My husband is indeed a long-suffering man, full of grace and kindness.

Handing something back in better shape than we received it is the basic responsibility of a steward. Human beings are stewards of this created world--we have a responsibility to God to care for creation. A good steward returns to the owner the property in better shape, not worse. Better--not poisoned, not trashed, not desecrated.

This is hard work--being a steward, and not always particularly rewarding. We're going to hand to someone else the fruits of our labor. As far as my husband and I are concerned, this reality is that we don't own this parsonage and never will. This home has been entrusted to me as the pastor of this church, and goes in time to the next pastor. But this is also a good picture of our responsibilities as stewards of the world at large. We don't own the world--all of creation is ultimately in the hands of God. It has been entrusted to us as temporary stewards and will be handed on to our children and grandchildren. What will we hand on to them?

I remember well the first parsonage I ever lived in. I drove up to a house with one of the worst looking yards I had seen. Mostly weeds, a few bedraggled shrubs, tires tracks digging gouges in the yard where a wayward car had missed a turn and skated over the front yard, a west facing patio in the back with no covering, no protection from the blistering summer sun. Five years later, we left a yard full of good grass, flower beds so rich with organic material that they'd grow anything, and a patio covered with green vines that provided protection from the sun on all but the worst days of summer. Did it stay that way?

No--without loving attention, weeds will take over. And they did at that parsonage.

Yes, there is sadness there--so much creative energy down the drain. Makes me wonder how much sadness God must feel when we make choices that leave our world in worse shape for those following us. And then it makes we wonder how much joy God must feel when we choose to be good and faithful stewards to this world and leave it in better shape for those following us. Personally, I'd live to be one who increases joy, not sadness. What about you?

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Silent Treatment

When my Beloved and I first married, I told him that one of the things I most appreciated about him was his willingness to honor my silences. Those were the times when I was very much enjoying just being with him, but had no need to make conversation. The silence itself became communication. It indicated comfort, peace, awareness of one another without the need to know interior thoughts or keep the space between us filled with words and chatter.

This goes both ways, of course. As I wish my silences to be honored, I get to honor his. Naturally, that becomes the more complex task. Because when he chooses silence, my gut reaction is “I’m getting the silent treatment.”

Yes, the “silent treatment.” Does anyone not know what that is? It’s that time when someone whom we consider significant in our lives (parent, spouse, child, friend) turns the cold shoulder to us and will not speak or communicate for a period of time. Often that period of time extends until the one on the receiving end of the silence changes behavior in some way or another. That kind of silence is the classic power play—used to manipulate another into changing something or there will be no restoration of communication and connection.

Since all of us need to feel connection with those significant people, the silent treatment can be a way to promote change, but it is not an especially effective way. The change that results is generally given grudgingly, with the “I promise not to do that again” made with fingers crossed behind our backs. Even worse, the anguish experienced in the silent treatment means we may lose our ability to savor silence, whether it comes from God or from those around us.

Noise assaults us everywhere. Sirens, talk radio, road noise, IPOD’s blaring in headpieces, screaming fans at athletic contests, phones ringing without ceasing, people yelling at one another. Not all sounds are bad, of course. I find few more pleasant that that of a toddler’s joyful belly laugh, or a piece of exquisite music exquisitely played, or that of my Beloved calling to me or the voice of one of my friends or relatives on the phone. But even those pleasant sounds can overwhelm us when we chose not to find periods of real silence.

In silence we find the place to do necessary self-examination. When God seems silent, we have the opportunity to discover the real depth of our faith. In silence, we can find the joy of being alone without being lonely. Only those who know the joy in being alone can offer themselves freely to others in companionship, for then companionship becomes a gift, rather than a demand to fill the void of loneliness. In silence, we may actually hear the still, small voice of our God calling us to a place of love and repentance and re-connection. In silence, we may discover with each other a communion that makes verbal communication look crass and cheap in comparison. In silence, we may truly learn to honor one another the way we wish to be honored. In silence, our salvation may come upon us and make us whole.
Daddy's Closet, Sabbath Rest

It’s been over a year since my father died, and my sister and I made multiple attempts to come to my mother’s house so we could go through his clothes and give them away but were never up to the task.

We finally made it this past week and made reasonably quick work of what we needed to do. My dad has been quite the clotheshorse in his day, and still had some nice suits hanging in the back of his closet. As we were going through his things, I was struck again by the contrasts in his life. He had always taken good care of his clothes. Until dementia got to him in the end, everything was always carefully hung up or folded. Good use of shoe trees meant that his shoes tended to last a long time. But the piles of paper that plagued him . . . oh my.

After we finished my father’s closet, my mother invited us to consider tackling what we had privately called her “Fibber McGee” closet. For those too young to know, “Fibber McGee and Molly” was the name of a famous radio show from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. The “closet” was a running gag about an overstuffed closet they periodically opened and then, after being buried by a cascade of stuff, decided that they needed to “clean out one day.”’ Of course, that day never arrived.

For us, the long awaited day had arrived. Bravely, my sister and I ventured in. Bags of clothes long meant to be given away were placed in the garage sale stack. Unidentifiable and broken things headed for the trash. A bag of old photographs now sits on my desk, waiting until I can go through them and see what might be worth keeping. Nothing too hard—we were working rapidly and efficiently.

And then I found stacks and stacks of notebooks, mostly 8 ½ by 5 inches in size, many blank, but others with notes that my mother had made over the years. Lists of things to do, ideas for the Sunday School news column she has written weekly for 40 years now, detailed planning for the house she and my dad built 25 years ago, drafts of letters that she was writing

Paperwork, as some of you know, is my family nemesis. All of us struggle with keeping it under control, deciding what to toss and what to keep. Genetically, I figure I have no hope since both my mother and dad had the same tendencies. And so I opened these notebooks with these snippets of my family’s life, and was immediately mesmerized. Nothing earth-shaking, just bits of memories flooding my brain from the words on the page.

It was with great reluctance that I sent some of those notebooks to the recycling pile, knowing I’ve lost some memories here. But there is no way I can go through all those. And I, who have in one form or another saved the thousands and thousands of pages I’ve written over the years, must realized that no one is going to go through all that as well.

However, I also know that those memories have made me what I am today. It is those memories that drive me to say, “We must bring the children to church so they will have memories of being in a place where they experience the real love of God.” I know how many activities are pulling at each family today. I have a pretty decent understanding of the challenges parents face when saying “yes” to one place and “no” to another. But I have an ongoing concern when the “no” keeps being church for children. There will never again be such a good time to teach them of the power of God’s love and the place to receive the grace and forgiveness that we all need. These kinds of memories leave an inheritance for generations, and I fear they are about to be lost for many. How God must weep over this loss of shared memory. When we gave up resting on the seventh day, we gave up a lot more than any of us realized. It is very sad.