Saturday, February 21, 2009

Life Hurts

As I write this, I'm sitting in the waiting room of Methodist Hospital, Dallas.  I've just heard a piece of very difficult news about a treasured colleague and friend.  Shortly, I'll be speaking with her about this, but right now, all I can do is weep.

My distress is obvious, and a woman sitting across from me comes over and puts her arms around me.  "Just cry.  It's OK, let it out."  We talked for a little while.  She speaks of losing a daughter to leukemia and the way they've kept her memory alive by telling stories, so many stories, about her.  She tells me of her husband, successful survivor of two liver transplants, and still in active practice as a pediatrician.  I look at her face and see powerful strength and beauty in the clear eyes, the lines, the hair gone fully gray.  We are the same age.  We have both learned something over the years:  life just hurts.  Life hurts.  There is no escape from pain unless we die, and she and I had both decided that we would live.

A decision to live means that we will indeed embrace the pain of life and find in it reservoirs of courage and strength.  We'll need it.  When those hurts come, we'll need every drop of it.  When the bad news hits, we've got to be able to go deep inside and find our rock to stand firmly upon.  When we do stand firmly upon those rocks of integrity and faith and courage, the blows come, but we're still standing. The blows come like the never ending waves on the ocean shore. Some big, some small, some like huge storms where we've got to hold on with all our strength, some are more gentle, and almost no trouble at all.  But they never, ever stop coming, for if they did, it would mean that life itself stopped. 

So we choose life and when we do, we see the hope and possibilities in those never ending waves.  We must be like the woman in labor who is sure she cannot endure yet another gripping contraction from the powerful muscles in her womb, yet does so because with each more powerful contraction comes the hope that this one indeed will bring forth a new life.  I spoke recently with a friend whose fourth child was born at home while the fury of Hurricane Ike spent itself in her neighborhood.  It was a hard labor, nothing quiet and gentle about it.  Hours of never-ending contractions.  She said she was just hanging onto the end of the bathtub, staring at the drain.  It was all she could focus on as she endured the increasing waves of pain.

As she told me this story, I looked down.  In my arms was nestled the beautiful result of those hours of pain, a gorgeous daughter, peacefully asleep.

Yes, life does hurt.  It never, ever goes quite the way we want it.  We certainly do get respites periodically.  The tide goes out, we bask in the warm sunshine and watch diamonds of light flicker over the waves, and find something close to absolute peace. But those waves are coming back.  It's time to stand up again and get ready to embrace it with courage and dignity.  We may emerge wet and sputtering and bruised and gasping for breath, but we will emerge or we will die.  Stand firm, my friends.  The Lord is with you.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Gray Zone

Some people are just mean. Mean as in nasty, intentionally hurtful to others in words, actions and thoughts.   "Mean" can also describe someone who is stingy with finances, time, love and compassion, but that is not the direction I'm going here. I'm just talking about plain old meanness.  People who appear to live with such a sense of entitlement that they carry no concern about their treatment of others.  Other people, animals, nature:  all these are simply objects to be used and discarded as necessary.

Other words that can describe such people are "wicked" and "evil."  We don't hear or use those words so often any more.  Perhaps we should.  There are times when we must recognize evil for what it is.  Without speaking truth about such things, there can be no way to get back to goodness again.

Recently I viewed a very difficult to watch movie called, "The Gray Zone."  It is set in the time of huge evil:  the Holocaust, that time of horror perpetuated by Nazi Germany and dedicated to the total removal of all those of Jewish descent from the face of the earth.  The movie focuses on the experiences of a crew of Polish Jews who were treated relatively well for several months in exchange for their work in the killing chambers and in the crematoria.  The "Gray Zone" meant, among other things, the fine line they tread in trying to hold onto their lives and integrity while helping thousands to die in the gas chambers and then shoving their lifeless bodies into the fires.  A key subplot in the movie is their discovery of a young girl who was knocked unconscious but not killed in the gas chamber and their decision to rescue her rather than send her alive into the cremation fires.  That decision ultimately hastened their own executions. Just before their death, the two main characters looked at each other and knew that in that one fruitless act (in one of the most awful moments in the film, the young woman ended up being killed by the Nazis anyway), they had nevertheless transformed something evil into a least a moment of goodness and righteousness. 

We all live in some sort of "Gray Zone" of life. Some have just given in to the pull of evil.  They are the mean ones.  They are the ones who ruthlessly kill anyone in their way so they can save their own skins.  Gas chambers and crematoria were just one of countless ways to do this.  Suicide bombers are another. 

But let's get closer to home--those are so removed from us.  What about people who drive vehicles with excessive speed and reckless abandon thinking only their agenda counts?  Recently I was waiting for a light to turn green.  Long ago, I learned always to look to the left and right when entering an intersection even with a green light.  On this occasion, upon my quick glance to the right I saw an 18 wheeler speeding toward me.  Had I not looked, I would have undoubtedly been hit and probably killed.  That driver was just in a hurry--no one and nothing else mattered except for him and his need not to wait 90 seconds for the light to cycle green again.  That's entitlement.  That's mean. That's evil.

But that's still "out there."  Let's get even closer.  What about adults who hit one another with fists and words because their anger button gets pushed by the other?  What about parents who scream at their children because those children have gotten in the way of the parents' need for peace and quiet?  What about youth who think it is great fun to isolate and treat with deliberate cruelty classmates who are different from them?  What about religious leaders who threateningly condemn people to hell who don't think or believe the way they do?  What about people who spread untrue rumors about others in order to gain attention and status for themselves and perhaps distract attention from their own misdeeds? 

Personally, I think we've all got mean streaks in us.  Every one of us is more than capable of yelling out "crucify him" if it means saving our own skin. It is the season of Lent, that time of intentionally taking careful stock of our own souls.  Forget about those who are "out there."  Let's find out what is "in here."  Let us be those who will leave meanness behind, no matter what the cost.  Then we are the light of the world as Jesus has called us to be.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Heathy Gardens and A Holy Lent

My yard is full of weeds this late winter week.  I've seen this happen before when we've moved into a different house and started the progress to an organic lawn and garden maintenance program.  Without harsh weed suppressants, the not yet healthy lawn is permeable to every possible weed right now. It's messy and a little frustrating.  I want to just blast it with some magic quick fix product and be done with it.  I also know the cost of doing that.  While it may better in the short run, I'm continuing to contribute to the essential unhealth and unsustainability of the system in the long run.

So, as I take the longer, slower route to creating a vibrant and healthy soil to nourish healthy and beautiful plants.  The underlying health has to be there, though, for the visible beauty of the eventual product to be more than just show.  Too often, I just want the outward "show" without the time and energy necessary for the more hidden health underneath to do its work.

As the Christian season known as "Lent" approaches, I keep coming back to this need for a healthy foundation in order to produce a good outward show.  This 40 day period is set aside as a time for an honest and rigorous examination of our own selves.  It's a time to ask:  "In what ways do I love God and love my neighbor as myself?"  And, "In what ways do I NOT love God and love my neighbor as myself?"  So much like growing a healthy and productive garden, which needs well-nourished soil, we need to check and see what kind of nourishment we ourselves need so our lives show themselves full of productivity. 

What needs to be added?  What needs to be changed?  What habits, attitudes, practices, patterns of thinking and living mean more health and wholeness and which ones means less?  In what ways are we cooperating with God in learning to live as people who have received love and reconnection?  In what ways are we resistant to the movement of the Spirit of God in our lives? 

This six week period, starting February 25 and ending on Easter Sunday, April 12, is an ideal time for that careful self-examination.  The best way to begin it is to attend a Service of Ashes on February 25 (we'll have on at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. at Krum United Methodist Church and many other churches will be holding them as well).  When the ashes are marked upon your forehead or hand, it is a sign that you take seriously the need for careful examination of your mind and soul and heart.  You have taken the first step to a more mindful life, and a better foundation on which to base it.  Out of that springs such beauty!!!! 

Let us all have a holy Lent together.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Cell phones and crying babies

"Is that your cell phone?" I squirmed in embarrassment as a well-known theologian and pastor turned to me in the midst of a presentation in a crowded auditorium on the SMU campus and asked that question. I started to apologize when he interrupted me and said, "In our church, we insist that everyone leave their cell phones on and that babies are never shushed. If we don't have time to listen to crying babies, what do we have time for? If we can't recognize that God may be speaking through us in our cell phone interruptions, perhaps we don't know how God works very well."

He then told about the time he was preaching on the Bible story where some friends of a paralyzed man were trying to carry their friend to Jesus and couldn't get near him. In desperation, they cut a hole through the roof of the house where Jesus was teaching and lowered their sick friend down, hoping for a healing touch. While he was preaching about this story, someones cell phone starting ringing. It stopped and then started again. Finally, the owner of the phone answered it with a loud "hello." Yes, this was definitely a disruption in the worship time. As it turns out, it was his elderly mother telling him that his father was on the way to the hospital with a probable heart attack.

Immediately, this pastor stopped his message, and everyone circled around this man, laid hands on him and prayed for him and his father. The roof had been broken in at that church in downtown Minneapolis. The words of Scripture suddenly became very, very alive. The sermon was in the cell phone.

In a questionnaire recently circulated on Facebook as a way to help people get to know one another, this question is asked, "What is your favorite sound?" Mine? It is the sound of children whispering and talking and squirming and coloring and playing and even crying as the adults in the congregation quiet themselves for a time of prayer. I always tell the adults that these are their prayers and must not be shushed or squelched. I had not thought before of adding the various ring tones of cell phones to the mix. But it makes sense. Many of us have special ringtones for the people we hear from the most. So what if my husband were to phone and the sounds of "My Guy" entered the sanctuary, or my sister and "The Flight of the Bumblebee" raced forth? Would it be awkward? Yes. Would it upset the usual routine? You'd better believe it. Would I be embarrassed? Probably.But the movement of God into our lives is rarely convenient or managed and can indeed be embarrassing.

We just don't have the privilege of controlling when God decides to becoming more manifestly present, although most of us try. We tell God that we'll offer a few minutes on Sunday, and perhaps in a short time of daily prayer, but that is enough, thank you. We effectively say to God, "Don't show up in a business meeting and ask me to turn the other cheek--it's my job to be ruthless there." Or, "Don't wander in when I'm angry with my children and insist that they are valuable to you and that I control my temper." Or, "Don't You dare intervene when I'm looking at my finances and tell me that I'm supposed to give some of this way--I don't have enough for myself." Or "How dare You permit my loved one or me to suffer like this? What kind of a God are You that asks for me to learn endurance through sorrow?"

No, we want God to just show up on our schedule in a simple, non-threatening way and pat us on the back and keep us all well and happy and wealthy. Thank goodness God does not work on our schedule or on our demands! Let's all learn to celebrate the crying babies and the cell phones and discover new possibilities of the holy transforming our lives.

Geezers and Youth

I sat in the seminar room watching the young and articulate woman across from me explain how she was serving as pastor to a church in what is called the "emergent" stream of Christianity. This young, energetic, vitally alive woman described how they meet in rented facilities on Sunday evenings, all go out to dinner together afterward, and then hit a pub or bar in the area and often have conversations that take them into the next day. How alive! Such energy flowing through her! Such lack of child-care responsibilities!

I looked around the room at the other seminar participants. A couple of those there, in this case all United Methodist clergy, were near the age of the presenter. Most of us were considerably older, and had many years of experience, both in church life and in life-life. I would guess from the vantage point of the presenter, we were a bunch of old geezers, too stuck, too set in our ways, to uninformed to possibly understand how her generation feels and wants to "do church."

Let's see--I grew up in the generation that said, "never trust anyone over 30." At least we said that until we ourselves turned 30--somehow that phrase just magically disappeared then. And I also remember being sure that my generation had discovered Jesus in a way that no other generation before us could possibly have done. Clearly, we were the ones divinely appointed to actually save the world. Those going before us simply had no clue, were too old, too stuck, too set in their ways to possibly understand our we felt and how we wanted to "do church."

With age does come some wisdom, thank goodness. I finally learned that I knew what I knew and believed what I believed because, and only because, others had gone before me. Those others had also sought to discover Jesus, and it was on their shoulders that I stood, not terribly firmly, to be sure, but stood nonetheless. I have also learned that those coming after me must have a voice, and a strong one, if the church is to stay alive and do its subversive work of transforming the world.

While the world around us changes radically, human nature does not fundamentally change. We still need to be connected to one another in God-honoring and mutually accountable community. We still need to learn to worship a holy God and recognize how dramatically each of us falls short of the ideal so we can live together in tolerance, forbearance and forgiveness as we work out our salvation together. This young pastor's primary way to stay in touch with her church members is gmail chat. I'm still using old-fashioned email (I preached a sermon a few years ago on the topic, "Email is for Old People") and snail mail, although we're slowly moving over to Facebook connections. No matter what the method, we still need to connect.

She and her community worship and celebrate the sacraments of baptism and holy communion in rented facilities that may change every few years. My community has been worshipping and celebrating the sacraments in the same location for 80 years now--although that will soon change. Nonetheless, when we do move one mile down the street, we have every expectation of another 80 years in that location.

Her community places a high value on confrontation and fluidity. My community places a high value on mission and nurturing children so they will grow into mature and godly adults.

We both base our life and authority on the revealed word of God, although we may offer radically differing interpretations of the Bible.

With all these differences, we do indeed worship the same God. So I say to her, and to all of this next generation coming forth: I thank God for you. Thank you for your energy and your arrogance and your ability to articulate your faith and your courage and your willingness to live lives of powerful sacrifice because you do indeed love Jesus. Come, stand on my shoulders just as I stood on the shoulders of others. Let me help you as I also hand off the reigns to you, because you are indeed the hope of the world. May your voices be heard . . . for the church will not move forward without you.