Saturday, June 30, 2012

Traveling Light

“Jesus ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics." (Mark 6:8-9)
I’m what you might call a ‘defensive packer.’
I pack for ‘what ifs' --- hoping to be prepared
for any eventuality in terms of weather or occasion.
One or even two pair of shoes might not be the right ones
so at the last minute I can be found sliding in just one more pair.
For that matter, if my journey is by car, I’m not yet always willing to rely on my GPS unit alone.  As often as not I’m printing out a map to my destination as well.
I was among the early buyers of what we then called ‘car phones.’  You may remember them --- they came in a bag and were as large and heavy as a brick. I bought it not because I wanted to stay in touch with family and friends. Rather, the story of a young woman disappearing on the highway just up the road frightened me enough I thought I should have one ‘just in case.’
I’m what you might call a ‘defensive packer.’ So you can probably imagine how I felt some years ago now when I needed to travel several hours away to a meeting.  I'd gotten up early, taken a walk, paid some bills, and gathered the papers I would need for the lunch meeting on my calendar.  I headed out of town with plenty of time to spare, arriving at the restaurant ahead of the others.  I stepped to the counter and ordered my meal.  I reached into my purse for my wallet and discovered it was not in its usual place.   I checked and double-checked all the pockets and sure enough I was not mistaken.  Finally, I looked at the young woman behind the counter and apologized, explaining I seemed to have left my wallet at home.  I took a seat in a nearby booth to wait for my lunch companions. When they arrived they graciously picked up the tab for lunch that day.  I called a colleague who insisted I stop by and she gave me $10 for the road.  When I finally arrived home I found myself ever so grateful as I thought about all that could have happened but did not in that day's journey: things like a flat tire, or being stopped by the police --- circumstances in which one's wallet would certainly have come in handy.

'Traveling light' as Jesus calls his disciples to do today certainly makes no sense, does it?  Especially since it wasn't just an ordinary lunch meeting they were headed out for.  Indeed, especially not given the potential danger Jesus was asking them to walk into.  For, in fact, we've already heard that those who had heard Jesus in the synagogue were more than skeptical about his origins and that in spite of his ability to heal, believing was beyond their grasp.  And yet, Jesus sends his followers out there in a state of utter vulnerability.
Now it is true, of course, that you and I live in a much different time than did Jesus and his disciples.  It is true that perhaps ‘hospitality to the stranger’ played a larger role in that place and time, so it was more likely that their needs would have been met regardless of what they hadn't packed for themselves.  It is also true that Jesus' first disciples didn’t own nearly as much as I do that I like to carry with me wherever I go. 

Even so, Jesus’ words always get me thinking and for that reason I know they still speak.  Indeed, I wonder sometimes just what all of my ‘luggage’ or my 'baggage' gets in the way of me experiencing:
  • As I turn my attention to guard my belongings, how am I less able to reach out with a gesture of kindness to another? 
  • As I rely on my own careful planning for every eventuality, how am I less open to what God may have waiting for me?
  • If I already have everything I need, how am I less able to receive the gifts of those I meet along the way?
So perhaps Jesus' sending the disciples out 'traveling light' makes perfect sense after all.  Maybe this is especially true when we are sent with the Good News as the disciples were --- so that both those who are sent and those who are receiving would more fully be able to receive the gifts of God.
  1. Why do you think Jesus has the disciples 'travel light?
  2. What was absolutely essential for the disciples' journey?
  3. What should we 'leave behind' as we are sent on our journeys of sharing the Good News?
  4. What is essential for us as we are sent with the Good News of Jesus?  For us as individuals?  For our congregations?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

On Healing and Wholeness

Mark 5:21-43

It was the Thursday before Father’s day when I stood in a hospital waiting room with a family.
We were waiting to hear from their daughter’s surgeon.  The child is 13 years old. 
The surgeon arrived and delivered the much welcome news that he believed the cancer was contained.  There appeared to be no other involvement.
After he left the import of this good news began to sink in. With a sigh, the child’s dad said aloud, “Now, that’s the best Father’s Day present I could get.”
I told that story in worship the following Sunday.  I spoke of how just as this earthly dad demonstrated the best of what it is to be a dad in how he loved his daughter, he was also, in that moment, pointing to who God is for all the children God so loves.  For even as our Gospel lesson today demonstrates in not only one story, but two, God not only yearns for us to be whole.  In Christ Jesus God makes it so.
Only as I told that story to the beaming faces of a people grateful for such good news, out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of one among us struggling to keep her composure, but weeping all the same.  Even before I was done speaking, I remembered that her daughter --- a grown woman to be sure, but by all measures still young ---  had died of cancer the September before.  Tears simply streamed down this grieving mother's face as she received this story.  I know she was wanting to rejoice with those who found themselves so blessed, but her own still raw struggle and pain overwhelmed her anyway. 
To be sure, in any given congregation on any given Sunday morning we are likely to encounter such a mix of experiences.  And it is into precisely that varied mix that these stories in Mark’s Gospel are spoken.  They fall on the ears of those who like Jairus have been able to celebrate life even after it appeared all was lost.  They fall on the ears of those who like the hemorrhaging woman have cause to rejoice long after every conceivable medical option has been tried.  And to be sure, these stories also fall on the ears of those who have prayed desperately, who have thrown themselves into the presence of Jesus reaching out, even, to 'touch the hem of his robe,"  but for whom the much yearned for healing they hoped for does not come.  Who are tempted to say in the wake of such stories, "Why not me?"
I wonder how it is that we engage these stories among people who come to them with such varied hopes and hurts and struggles and joys.
And so I find myself recalling today a seminary professor who told us to remember that everyone whom Jesus healed did also one day finally die.  Jairus' daughter, if she was so blessed, outlived her father and grew to be a mother and grandmother herself.  The hemorrhaging woman, finally declared 'clean,' was able to return to a full life which had been denied her for twelve years.  No doubt both of them felt a deeper gratitude for God's gifts because of all they had experienced.  But in the end, like all of us, they one day died as well.  
So, to be sure, it cannot be enough to read these stories as simple miracle stories granting cures to earthly diseases. It seems we must dig deeper order to more fully understand their gifts for God's people now.
For instance, we hear in Jairus the story of a man who would go to any length to get help for his daughter.  His love compels him even to beg --- a posture no man in his time and place would consider if he felt he had any other choice.  More than that, we hear that Jairus was a leader of the synagogue.  What must it have taken for him to approach Jesus?  What other avenues must he have attempted first before he turned to Jesus.  Indeed, perhaps this story is told to remind us that Jesus receives our deepest hurts and fears and even if he is our 'last resort' still he simply 'goes with us' as he did with Jairus.  Or perhaps, as the story concludes, it is a reminder that God's power is greater than what you and I can imagine.  That in the face of the seemingly impossible, even in the face of our disbelieving laughter, God still works. Sometimes with results we can't even allow ourselves to hope for. 
In the story of the unnamed hemorrhaging woman we also hear of one so desperate she will go to any length to find wholeness.  I intentionally use the word 'wholeness' here because like any physical disease hers was one that isolated in ways you and I can hardly imagine today. And while, to be sure any one of us who has ever struggled with illness or what the world perceives as disability has some idea of what her life must have been, what would be different is in Jesus' day she would have been considered 'unclean' and therefore prohibited from entering the synagogue, the temple. She would not have been allowed to enter the 'holy places' of her time.  We can only begin to imagine how she was treated by her family, her community.  Indeed, we can be certain that her illness had broken more than her body.   And yet we hear that even in her desperation, she does not have the courage to go to Jesus to ask for what she needs.  Rather, she believes if she can just get close enough perhaps some of the goodness Jesus offers will also be hers.  It turned out that this was so.
Only the story doesn't end there.  Rather, it ends with Jesus turning to her and acknowledging the connection they now share.  It ends with Jesus' promise that her healing was not only physical --- but would now extend to all of her life.  And somehow that larger promise is only spoken and received in the relationship formed between them.  When they speak face to face. 
And so perhaps a deeper healing or sense of wholeness is the point of these stories in the end.
For Jairus maybe part of his healing or wholeness was discovered in his loving his daughter so much he would do anything to secure her life.  His wholeness was realized in his willingness to abandon much of what had defined him: his position and his sense of pride, to name a few --- and to turn without shame to Jesus who alone could answer his deepest need.  Perhaps Jairus was on his way to healing already even as he acknowledged and acted on his deep love for his child... Indeed, I wonder if this story is actually more about Jairus than it is about his child.
The no longer hemorrhaging woman realized healing or wholeness not only when the bleeding stopped, but when she finally looked into the face of Jesus.   In that moment she was lifted up from being one who felt she had to sneak up behind Jesus and anonymously receive the gifts of God to one who was recognized by and acknowledged by Jesus himself.  Who was not yet 'named,' but who was called 'Daughter:' one in relationship with Jesus.  To be sure, it seems her healing was not complete until then.  So perhaps this is the gift of this story.  That the healing we are blessed to receive in our physical beings can be, to be sure, the very gift of God --- but still that healing is only temporary.  On the other hand, the healing that comes to us as our relationships with Jesus deepen and grow leads to the sort of wholeness which somehow permeates our entire beings and all of our relationships and lasts far beyond the single earthly lives we have been given.

And so next Sunday, along with many of you, I will step into a whole mix of God's people for whom these stories will speak in varied ways.  I will do this, as I do most every week with equal measures of both trepidation and hopefulness.  My prayer will be that the Holy Spirit would work in and through all who speak and all who listen that we might more deeply experience God's healing, God's wholeness, whatever that may mean...  In the hearing of these stories once more and in our lives even more than that...
  1. Does one of these two stories hold more meaning for you than the other?  Why is that?
  2. What particular mix of experiences will these stories fall on in your congregation this Sunday? How will that shape your proclamation?
  3. What do you think of my seminary professor's assertion that all who Jesus healed would one day also die?  Does that cause you think about these stories differently?  Why or why not?
  4. Have you ever known yourself to be not necessarily 'cured' but still healed?  Consider how these stories might speak to that sort of experience.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Who is your John the Baptist?

Luke 1: 57-80

I received word this week that Sister Teresa Ann had died.
We had not been in touch these last several years.  Still, she was an important influence in my life at a difficult time.  In fact, in a much more gentle manner, she served as my ‘John the Baptist,’ clearing the way so that the grace and love of God could reach me.    She did so entirely without judgment, but with kind and pointed questions:  the sort that a wise and faithful spiritual director brings to bear.
As I said, I had been going through a particularly rough stretch.  The details don’t matter so much anymore, but at the time it felt as though I was suffering one defeat after another.  For you see, I had decided it was time for something ‘new’ in my life, but for reasons which were slow in becoming clear to me, the old wasn’t letting go.  The new was taking its time in opening up.
And so month after month I drove out to St. Mary's Benedictine Monastery just outside of Rock Island, Illinois and hour after hour I would sit in her presence and tell my story.  And time after time she would listen to me and pray with me and for me.  Most of those hours are a blur to me now.  But there is one that stands out, for in that hour she was ‘John the Baptist’ in the being of an 80-year-old woman.
I had been describing what was going on and as always she listened with much the same empathy and kindness that a whole host of friends had been showing me for many months.  Only this time I went deeper and exposed some of what was happening beneath my pain and outrage.  As I recall, I spoke words something like this, “I’ve been through hard times before, but in those other times I could place the blame squarely outside myself.” (You know, the sorts of disappointments and hurts that come with loss and grief.)  I went on to say, “This time though?  I’m wondering if somehow this is my fault.  If maybe I’m the one who is doing something wrong.”  She didn’t pause long as she said to me then, “So what if it is?  What if it IS your fault?”
Oh my.  As you can imagine, this was not the sort of question anyone else on my ‘support team’ had dared to articulate.  They had, without a doubt, been exactly what I needed them to be --- they had listened to me, cried with me, and expressed entirely appropriate outrage in my behalf over and over again.  But there was no one among them who could ask that kind of question.  At least not in a way that I would have been able to hear it.
Only, of course, Sister Teresa Ann was not my friend. She was my spiritual director. She was paying attention to the health of my soul and much like a good physician tending to the physical well-being of her patient, she used the best gifts she had at her disposal.  She said what needed to be said so that healing and hope could find its way again.
Now please know Sister Teresa Ann was not necessarily agreeing with my deepest fears. She was not saying I was guilty or at fault… not in the fashion that John the Baptist did later in his prophetic ministry in the wilderness.  She was, however, honoring my question. She was inviting me deeper into my own darkness so that when by the ‘tender mercy of our God the dawn from on high would break upon me, '(Luke 1:78) as Zechariah's song has it, I would recognize it for all that it was: God’s own gift.  And I suppose she was also pointing to what is always true. While the larger circumstances of my life at that point may not have been appropriately named as my 'fault’ --- she knew that, like all of us, I was certainly not without sin on this journey.  If nothing else -- and this was no small thing --- my resilience was wearing thin and I was starting to wonder if God’s tender mercies had abandoned me altogether.   My ‘fault’ may have only been that, that I was no longer trusting.  That I had begun to stop feeling grateful.  That I certainly was not availing myself of the hope that was being offered me. 
Whatever else may have been true, those were words of grace to me that day for with a simple question my stubborn pride was cleared away and God’s own love was able to make its way into my soul again in a way that I could feel it once more.  For I was finally able to rest in the sure and certain truth of my own humanness.  As a result, I was able to take a deeper look at myself to see if perhaps there was something I should own in all of this --- and to name it --- so that I could then more fully receive and experience God’s forgiveness.  I could know God's tender mercy breaking in on me like the dawn from on high.
Sister Teresa Ann was my John the Baptist.  You probably can’t see it when you look at her picture above, but trust me she was.  She named the Truth and asked the hard questions so that I could simply rest in God’s grace again.  You can be certain I will always be grateful. 
It seems strange, of course, to be considering John the Baptist in the warmth of summer.  In fact, I’m certain he wouldn’t have come to mind at all except his day of commemoration falls on this coming Sunday and we are treated to these lessons in the pre-printed bulletins to which our congregation subscribes.  And yet, my need for John's prophetic voice as foretold in Zechariah's song at the time of his birth is not confined to a few weeks every Advent.  How do you find that to be true for you?

  1. Who do you especially give thanks for on your journey of faith?  Were they truth-tellers?
  2. Who has been your "John the Baptist?"  How did their words clear the way so that love of God could be experienced ever more fully?
  3. When have you most needed to experience the "tender mercy of our God?"  How did that mercy make itself known to you?
  4. Have their been unexpected periods in your life which you would describe as like Advent? What made this so?

Saturday, June 9, 2012

On Volunteer Tomatoes and the Kingdom of God...

.Mark 4:26-34

This is a great lesson for those of us who are living in farm country at this time of year, for the image Jesus offers now abounds all around us.  Now I have to say that I’m not much of a gardener myself, but friends everywhere are putting their energy into the annual task of sowing seeds and planting seedlings and tending to watering and putting up fences trying to keep out various pests on four legs which would rob them of their much anticipated harvest.
Even so, I do know that such efforts require dedication and sometimes just plain hard work.  I used to watch my dad get the rototiller out every spring and dig up the huge expanse of garden in our back yard where he would spend time most every summer evening.   I also remember it seemed to be a labor of love for him, for he took great pride in the buckets of tomatoes and overgrown zucchini he would give away come August.  I remember, too, the delight he took in the ‘volunteer tomatoes’ which he hadn’t planted but which had miraculously found life via seeds inadvertently left behind from the previous fall’s harvest.  He would laugh, pointing out how they would show up in odd, but expected places, like the compost pile.  It was clear that the fruit of those plants was all the more wondrous for his having nothing to do with their being.
We shared together in a ‘blessing of summer’ last Sunday morning at worship.  Various ones among us brought in symbols of summer.  We had a pair of sandals and a beach towel.  There were a couple of bicycle helmets, some grass clippers, a GPS unit and some sidewalk chalk.  One very hopeful fan brought in a Chicago Cubs t-shirt, for whom no amount of blessing is likely to help this season!  And one of our farmers brought in three bags of seeds:  one of corn, another of beans, and another of wheat.  After worship, I bumped into him following our coffee hour.  He had all three bags in hand.  His eyes were dancing and there was a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth as he said to me, “Now all I have to do is leave these be, right?  Since they’ve been blessed they should just grow all on their own!”  We both laughed then for we knew he wasn’t serious.
And  yet, although that’s not quite what our Gospel lesson would have us do with the ‘Kingdom Seeds’ Jesus speaks of here, it’s pretty close.  And I believe this still speaks even though our practice of farming or gardening differs greatly from how it would have been in Jesus' time.  For even though unlike in the time of Jesus, today one may spend time and other more sophisticated resources tilling the earth, testing the soil, and guarding against weeds and other pests, there is still mystery in how a seed actually grows.  We can control many things.  We may be able to enhance a seed's ability to take root and grow.  But you and I?  No matter how hard we may try, in the end we can't make it happen. 
And, in fact, the parable offered this week has the seed being scattered but after that, until the harvest the farmer’s effort is negligible.  Indeed, the emphasis in Jesus’ image today is on what God does when we’re not looking; on all that happens for which you and I cannot begin to take credit.  To be sure, this parable points to the hope that belongs to us all because of our confidence that God is working even or especially when we're not looking, in ways mysterious and profound.
And so it is I’ve always taken Jesus’ words today as wonderful encouragement to simply do what it is I’m called to do and let the rest go.  For there is much I have no control over.  And thankfully, there is a also great deal in our experience that tells us that God is working even when we can’t yet see it. 
And yet, I confess that I am also still learning to trust that this is so.  I tend, still, to try to carry far too much responsibility for what is and for what could yet be.  I wonder how much more energy I might have to simply do my part if I learned to rely more fully on the hope I've been given...if I learned more surely, along with the farmer in Jesus' parable today, to simply scatter the seed and then truly leave the rest to God?  
  • And I wonder now especially just what this would look like with the children we are called to mentor in faith and in life? 
  • I wonder what this would look like when I get up to preach again in a few days.  Or plan a stewardship series.  Or bless a Vacation Bible School Staff.
  • I wonder what this looks like in a difficult encounter with a co-worker. 
  • I wonder what this would look like in my conversation with a neighbor for whom faith seems to have little value or meaning.  
I wonder what it would look like to simply scatter seeds and then trust God with the rest.

Some questions to ponder...
  1. Why are 'volunteer tomatoes' more delightful than those we plant on purpose?  How does this image live for you in your life of faith? Where have you experienced and rejoiced in 'volunteer tomatoes?'
  2. What would it mean for you to 'scatter the seed' and leave the rest to God?  What are you struggling with in your life today for which this bit of wisdom might just speak?
  3. What are the seeds we are called to scatter?  Does it make sense to equate these seeds simply with God's love?  (John 15:12-17) What does that love look like in the situation you find yourself challenged to respond to today?
  4. Who have been the gardeners in your life who have scattered 'kingdom seeds' which have taken root in you?  How did you experience God making them grow?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Re-Defining Family

Mark 3:20-35

It goes without saying that family is a powerful force…. Today, to be sure, but also in the time of Jesus.

I know that for me, my earliest memories and my most influential forces involve family.  For instance, I can recall sitting on the basement floor of our house on South 3rd Street.  I was three or four years old and had just bumped my head on a shelf and was willing myself not to cry, because I had never seen my daddy cry.  I wanted to be like him…  (You can be sure that I quit trying to emulate that particular trait a long time ago..)

When I was six I came home from school to find my mother washing windows in the bedroom I shared with my sister.  No doubt she asked me how my day had been.  From there the conversation moved to her own journey and she told me she always wanted to go to a Lutheran College, but hadn’t been able to.  I didn't say it out loud, but I vowed then and there that since she couldn’t, I would. And I did and then some…
Several years ago Time Magazine had a piece regarding the influence of siblings entitled "The New Science of Siblings."  The article points to how the particular mix of our own family configuration shapes us our whole life long and that regardless of how rocky the road has been between us, as we age we migrate towards one another once more. For brothers and sisters share our formative past in a way no one else does.

So while it would surely not be entirely accurate to equate the ‘families’ you and I have experienced with what would have shaped Jesus, I would guess it would still be fair to say that then, as now, it was a powerful force.  In Jesus’ time, to be sure, it was expected that families would live with several generations together so you can be certain the influences felt were compounded by the pressures of more than just what you and I know to be the ‘nuclear family.’  In Jesus’ time, as I understand it, gender roles were more rigid --- and so, at least formally, those influences tended to be especially shaped by the patriarch.  And yet, for all that may be different, it’s not hard to imagine Jesus’ mother, Mary, and his brothers, having heard of what he was up to now, catching up with him and doing all they can to reign him in.  Because they loved him, to be sure, but also to protect him and the family name.

Family is, indeed, a powerful force.  It defines us from our earliest moments.  It shapes our aspirations and gives us what we need to pursue them.  It teaches us how to live with others and influences our expectations of all the relationships we will hold. I have been privileged in recent years to work with groups of pastors as together we take a deeper look at the families that made us who we are.  It’s a wonder to see the courage with which these leaders tell the stories of both the life giving and the painful which mark those ever-important systems.  It is also easy to hear in all of our stories how easily we can become enslaved by all that has been.  And yet, it appears that the 'family' Jesus speaks of now is pointing us in a whole new direction.
Oh, I expect it's easy to hear Jesus’ words today as rejection of the family who were once his entire world. That’s not what’s happening here, though.  Rather, Jesus is expanding the definition of family to a be a web of relationships that opens up places within it for a whole host of others.  Jesus moves our understanding of family as simply a place of genetic origins (which, to be sure, does a great deal of good in terms of protecting and continuing life itself), to an understanding of family being a group of people that is marked instead by the choices we make as he says that “whoever does the will of God is my mother and my brother and my sister.” 

And so I wonder now about the ‘family’ Jesus speaks of now.  I wonder how it is like those other families we know so well with all their power over us.  And I wonder how this new family can be a place where people are never enslaved, but always set free to be all that God calls us to be.  I’m not entirely sure I’ve experienced that ‘family’ in all of its fullness.   For all the truth that most every congregation I've ever been a part of has liked to think of itself as 'family,' more often than not they and I have fallen back into our most basic understandings of 'family.'  We tend to equate it with what we have known instead of what we could know --- what Jesus calls us to now. Sometimes that's not all bad.  Sometimes it's not so good, especially when the going gets tough.  How about you? How have you experienced the 'family' Jesus points us to now?
  • How have you experienced 'family?'  What stories come to mind when you think of how you were and are continuing to be shaped by your family?
  • What is your first reaction to Jesus' words?  Do they make you anxious?  Relieved?  Hopeful?
  • What does it mean to 'do the will of God?'  How does this marker of family differ from others you have experienced?
  • How does the 'family of God' in your congregation emulate Jesus' description here?  If it does not, how might we move closer to this in our experience?
  • If not in a congregation, where and how have you experienced the 'family' Jesus points to now?  How would you describe your experience to someone who has not shared this?