Friday, June 20, 2008

Afflict the Comfortable

“Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” That phrase often serves as a succinct job description for those who serve as church pastors. The “comfort the afflicted” part is easy to understand. But the “afflict the comfortable” part carries complex implications. One of which is that most pastors could easily be considered “comfortable” so any affliction we think we are to put upon others should rightly land in our own laps as well.
While the Bible abounds with words of great comfort—Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” being a well-known example—it also abounds with words of admonition and challenge. If we want the words of comfort, we must also receive the words of admonition. And that’s where things get a little sticky.

Some of the most pointed words remind us that we don’t get a “bye” where suffering is concerned if we really want to be followers of Jesus. He told his followers, “The student is not greater than the teacher.” Now, I suspect that a lot of students like to THINK they are greater than their teachers, but they are not. The point: if Jesus could not escape suffering and being called evil and being hated, the students, i.e., those who follow Jesus, shouldn’t expect to find it much easier.

So why did so many people hate Jesus? Because, among other things, Jesus unmasked their hypocrisy, their pretend lives, the times they had taken the easy path of compromise with the pressures of the world around them rather than the hard path of standing up and saying, “No, this is not right. I will not go that direction.” Every culture, every time, every people group presents temptations to give us, to do things that seem to make life easier, to compromise the basics of living as full humans as God created us. In the first century, the temptations were to just get along with the ruling class so their taxes would not get higher and their burdens greater. So what if “getting along” meant a little cheating, a little lying, a little mistreatment of certain people, a little winking at those who just pretended to be religious in order to gain favor and position. What difference would it make if their comfort levels could be increased?

Oh yes, what difference would it make? According to Jesus, it means the difference between life and death, between living in the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of hell. And people really, really didn’t like those words. They are just too hard—and the best way to stop them is to get rid of the person who is bringing them.
As I look around the world today, those similar compromises are all around us. The ones that concern me the most are the compromises we’ve made where children are concerned. It seems that we’ve permitted the media to make decisions about the moral base that our children will build their lives upon—and that, in my opinion, is a very, very shaky base. The hyper-sexualization, the glorification of violence, lack of respect for intellectual attainment, nearly complete disregard for the necessity of building healthy spiritual lives for our children and youth.

Oh yes, we are comfortable. And we may be destroying the next generation in our comfort.

The Gospel of Flowers

I was doing a bit of housecleaning and realized that I needed to discard some flowers that had passed their prime. This lovely grouping had been given to me by some special friends on the day of my long-awaited ordination, June 10, 2008. I had been enjoying them daily each morning as I sat at my dining table and enjoyed breakfast. But, as happens for all live things, decay was setting in. Time for them to land in the compost pile; there to more fully decompose and eventually give life to something else.

This action prompted me to reflect a moment on my ordination. I have often said that I worked for ten years to get to this point, but it is really much, much longer. Really since my first discovery of a life alive to God when I was a student at Rice University—and that is MANY more than ten years ago. There, in the gentle embrace of a small Baptist church, I experienced powerful, redemptive love. We Rice students were their life, their ministry. They gave themselves away for us. They fed us, drove us places, kept us overnight, offered their wisdom and friendship and time and energy for us. All who came through that ministry were touched for life; some of us went into the life of vocational Christian ministry.

About 15 years ago, I contacted that church to let them know the power of their ministry in my life. With great graciousness, they invited me into their pulpit, and I was able to see familiar faces and again sense the power of their love. Just a small, obscure Baptist church, knowing their call: care for those Rice students. They had no idea how all this would turn out. They just knew what they were supposed to do at that point in their lives.

Surely it must have been frustrating to them. I so well remember the choir director working vainly to teach me to sing harmony. I never did catch on, despite multiple private lessons. And our Sunday School teacher, a man of enormous learning (he himself had a Ph.D. in chemistry from Rice University), wondering if he could ever pound into our heads even the basics of Christian faith and how to integrate our faith into our academic and personal lives.

Work with university students is so transient—we come, we learn what we can, we graduate, we move away. Never are we contributing members; never can we support the church financially, or with many acts of service. Barely surviving academically, still highly immature socially and emotionally, living financially precarious lives, we turn to them for comfort and support. Just a bunch of takers, really.

Yet for those fellow “takers” that I have remained in contact with, I notice that we have all eventually turned into a bunch of givers. We are living out the pattern set for us—serve where we are planted, give all we’ve got, don’t worry about ensuring the outcome, but know this is the path of real joy. Very much like those flowers now in the compost pile: give away the joy of their color and brightness, represent the love of my friends, and then die in a way to bring even more nourishment and life to others.

The gospel of flowers. The gospel of Jesus.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

My Treasures, His Junk

By the time this article comes out, I will have changed residences.  In the last several weeks, the Krum United Methodist Church has sold the parsonage, the house where the pastor lives, and purchased another one. So, it is time to pack up and move.

For a United Methodist pastor, the act of moving is not unusual.  We have a strong heritage of itinerant ministry, where the pastors go where and when most needed for the good of the larger connection.  John Wesley, that great and visionary man of God, began this practice in order to make sure that  rapidly growing churches had pastors. These were churches full of people who had discovered that the observance of certain methods (it is from these “methods” that the word “Methodist” emerged) of spiritual discipline and practice brought them to a much greater experience of the transformational love of God and a willingness to  bring that transformation to the world around them.  Pastors serving under John Wesley's leadership moved frequently, and did so willingly in order to most effectively serve God and the community of Christians.

Because my husband and I are both United Methodist clergy, we've been particularly prone to moves, and have become pretty good at the packing/unpacking process.  Nonetheless, the same issues surface with each move.  Simply put, here is the oft-repeated scenario:

Christy:  “My beloved, since we are moving again, don't you think this would be a good time to sort out some of your stuff and get rid of things you don't want or use any more?”

The Beloved Spouse:  “No.”

Christy:  “But my sweet one, this is such a good time to go through your things, and toss out all those unnecessary things.”

The Beloved Spouse:  “What unnecessary things?”

Christy:  “Oh my adorable one, you know—all that junk that you have—the papers and stray nails and odd tools and old magazines and all those empty boxes you collect.”

The Beloved Spouse:  “And your junk?”

Christy: “What junk?”

The Beloved Spouse: “Your books and your paintings and all those pots you save just in case you need one for another plant . . .”

Christy, (interrupting):  “My precious one, please, wait just a minute—those things aren't junk—those are beautiful and valuable.”

The Beloved Spouse:  “My stuff is beautiful and valuable to me.”

Christy:  “C'mon—it's just junk.”

The Beloved Spouse:  “Not to me.”

OK, by this point in the conversation, I'm beginning again to catch the picture.  The two of us have very different opinions as to what constitutes “junk.”  It's all in the point of view—my things are treasures, his things are junk.  Except they aren't junk to him.  Nor do my things look like treasures to him.

So, as I often do, I must return to the basic command in the Bible about how to relate to other people:  “love your neighbor as you love yourself.”  I suspect that “husband” and “wife” are included in the term, “neighbor.”  Love my husband as I love myself.  Love my wife as I love myself.  Since I want to make room for my treasures, that means I need to make sure there is room for my husband's junk . . . sorry, for my husband's treasures.  

This is about living the Christian life in the trenches.  While I love the luminous moments of inspiring worship and connection with God, those moments must be informed by the day-to-day interactions of generous, open-handed living.  Those are the things that bring us into the space known as “the kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus often told his followers, “the kingdom of heaven is all about you.”  We find it when we really do love our neighbors as ourselves.

Time to go pack my husband's junk . . . I mean “treasures!”

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Cooperation: Two Way Traffic to Life

Why doesn’t God_______? You fill in the blank—you’ve probably asked the same question. Why doesn’t God heal the sick and stop the tragedies and right the wrongs and turn back evil and make everything nice? Yes, why doesn’t God?

Well, that question isn’t going to be answered in one short column. There are libraries full of books trying to answer that question as people wrestle with the whole issue of evil and nastiness and horror and general yuckiness in a world that is declared “good” by a God who is also declared “Good.”

My own take on it is that God could easily make everything good again, but we’d just mess it up again because people really don’t want to be all that good themselves. There is one point in the Bible where Jesus tells his followers to get busy and get out there and heal the sick and raise the dead and cleanse the lepers and cast out demons. All those things surely sound like turning the world good again. But right after Jesus tells them to get going, he also tells them that some people really aren’t going to be happy about being cleansed and healed and alive and demon-free and are not going to offer any welcome to those coming for such tasks.

Why? Because getting healed and cleansed and being alive and demon free are not one way actions that come only from God to us. We have to cooperate in getting healed and being clean and staying alive and demon free. It’s a two-way street here—traffic has got to flow both ways for it to work.

This spring when I was in France, my son and I wanted to drive into the center of a very old town. To get there we had to pass over a small bridge and go inside what were the original city walls, built to hold off invaders. The street through the city was very, very narrow, and traffic could only flow one way at a time, yet there were entrances on both sides of the town. So the street was always one way, but it changed directions every few minutes. It was the only way it could work. It meant long waits as the stop light on one side of town let in a series of cars. Those cars had to get through the town and out the other side before that light could turn green and let in a few going the other way. A bit cumbersome for this normally rapid moving American, but it worked. Everyone cooperated with the need for two way traffic in a one-way town. Cooperation—it means things go both ways.

I really can’t see any difference between the need for traffic cooperation and the need to cooperate with the Spirit of God. We’re constantly being offered healing, cleansing, life and freedom from our demons. But to be healed means actually receiving the healing—and then living like well people. To be cleansed means getting bathed, and then getting bathed again and again and again, because we all get dirty all the time. To be made alive means leaving behind the things that lead to death and intentionally living in the light the holy call to be fully human. To be free of our demons means we no longer show hospitality to the things which destroy us and those around us, but say “no” to those destructive forces.

It takes two of us, but many just start and stop with “Why doesn’t God ...” and never get to “why don’t I . . .” and then never see that God is doing those things—we’re just not cooperating.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Promiscuous Love

The Bible simply abounds with stories about people who really seem unlovable that God just decides to love anyway. One writer has described this as “God’s promiscuous love,” i.e., a love that seems to show no discernment and gets scattered anywhere, to such a point that it almost seems immoral. I mean, some of those people really, really don’t deserve to be loved.

Well, at least I don’t think they deserve to be loved. Here are a few I can think of quickly off the top of my head.

I’ll start with Cain—he killed his brother and then lied about it. But God just spares him and makes sure that no one else can take retribution on him and sends him on his way. Now, how about Abraham? Twice, this fellow, traveling with the beautiful wife, arrives in a foreign country and is afraid that someone is going to kill him because his wife is so beautiful and the inhabitants will want her for themselves. What does he do? He tells people that she’s his sister, lets her be taken into a different household and be subject to the whims of other men, and is left sitting pretty and safe. What a jerk.

Lot is another great one. This guy is Abe’s nephew, and ends up living in a place that is pretty degraded morally. He has a couple of visitors one night, and the people in the town want to hurt his guests and violate them sexually. Lots offers his unmarried daughters instead to the townsmen so they can violate his daughters instead. He may win the prize for jerkdom.

Now, to be fair, there are also some women who really have no business receiving God’s love. There’s this story about a woman who is considered ritually impure and anything she touches is also considered dirty and impure. She rashly pushes her way through a crowd to touch Jesus’ clothes. Stupid woman—who is she to be so selfish as to want to make Jesus dirty? Why didn’t she just fade into the background like she should have? But Jesus insisted on healing her. Made no sense to anyone around him then.

All this makes me wonder what Jesus would do today with people who have made a total mess of their lives by stupid decisions and immoral behavior and lack of proper respect for the right way to do things. I have this strange sense that God loves them, too. Promiscuous love—that’s what God is about.