Sunday, May 31, 2015

"So We Do Not Lose Heart"

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1

"So we do not lose heart."

It is easy to lose heart, of course. The world and our experience of living within it, gives us all sorts of causes and reasons for discouragement. We experience it in our lives, in our communities, large and small, and in our congregations --- this temptation to "lose heart." For when that which we see; that which we have come to rely on; that which has guided and governed our living; yes, that which the world says matters most, begins to erode? It is easy to despair. Yes, it is so that Paul uses the analogy of the human body here and yes it is also so that perhaps we experience this 'eroding' most intimately when this reality comes home to us in this way. Even so. Whenever and wherever there is decay,corruption, or 'wasting away,' it is easy to "lose heart." And while Paul speaks of the reason for our hope in an ultimate sense, there are certainly ways in which we experience steps along the way where that 'eternal weight of glory' makes itself known even now. Only that can be awfully hard to see when the wasting away so often takes center stage.

Indeed, I am attempting to live within these powerful words of Paul even as I find myself considering the state of congregations in the United States in these last days. You would have to be living under a rock if you are engaged in public ministry and somehow missed the recent Pew Report which points to the decline of Christianity in this country and the growth in the number of those who are now unaffiliated --- those we have come to call 'nones.' For that matter, it didn't take a headline which announced these recent findings, for most of us already know too well that this is our reality now.

In fact, it is so that I bemoaned my own experience at a recent gathering of pastors that "this is not the church I was ordained into." And it's not. At the same time, I am coming to recognize that the place we find ourselves now has been coming for some time --- long before I was ever called 'pastor.' For instance, check out Phyllis Tickle's analysis in her The Great Emergence for a concise summary of the state of our culture and its impact on our faith communities. Oh yes, it is so that we are experiencing a great 'wasting away' of what we somehow thought would always be and I, for one, have been right in the middle of complaining and worrying about this reality.

You know what I'm talking about, don't you?
  • That conversation that begins with talking about scheduling an event for youth and realizes that we are in competition with traveling teams, school concerts, summer school --- you name it.  
  • Or that awareness that yet another Saturday will be taken up by a funeral because family lives so far away that this is the only time everyone can get here (or that local people can possibly attend, either, given the fact that hardly anyone is given time off to attend funerals any more.) 
  • Or the oft-repeated conversation where leaders are looking at the numbers and seeing a steady decline in attendance and giving because people have other places to be on Sunday mornings.
  • Or the moment when we recognize that even our active members may find their way to worship only once or twice a month, given other obligations and opportunities.
Oh yes, just like with our aging human bodies, the 'outer nature' of our beloved church is wasting away.  And whether I like it or not, it is not now and most likely will never again be what it once was. At least not in this lifetime.

Now I tell you the truth when I say this. I grieve this, I do.

  • I am blessed to serve an active and thriving congregation, but I am deeply aware that our most generous givers are of a generation which will be gone --- or at least unable to be as generous as they are now --- in twenty years if not sooner
  • I preach every Sunday in a beautiful space which will mark its 100th year since construction next summer. It costs real dollars to keep it in pristine condition --- something we certainly want to do, all the while realizing that those dollars will be harder and harder to come by and surely, one day, most likely will be diverted from other ministries and missions in order to keep up.
  •  Even now, the space is larger than we need --- or at least it doesn't lend itself well to smaller worship gatherings, thus limiting the number and types of worship options we feel we can make.

So yes, I grieve this. None of it is as simple as it was twenty-seven years ago when they first draped a red stole around my shoulders. And I ache to see it go.

And yet, we have before us now this promise which certainly must be so for more than just our human bodies.

  • Indeed, mustn't it also speak to the Body of Christ, the Church?
  • Don't you suppose that God would also have us know and experience this certainty that even as we suffer and struggle in this, God is also doing a new thing? Even within us?
  • Don't you think Paul would tell us all now that we should not 'lose heart?'

Only the cause for our 'not losing heart' cannot be in what was. No, just like I know that at 54 my human body is creaking in ways I could not have imagined at 24 and for all of my working at it that will not ever entirely change --- in the same way, we are not likely to get back what we sometimes think of as 'the glory days' of the church. And yet, could it be that God has something even greater in store? Something even more marvelous than filled pews and overflowing Sunday School Rooms and budgets in the black?  And might it be possible that we may even get a sense of what that will be in our lifetimes?

I can't say for sure, of course.  But we do have this promise before us now urging us to hold on and to not "lose heart." So maybe the call for me --- for all of us --- is to stop our moaning and our worrying and to get out of our heads and our much beloved histories and to look out there and to listen to where and how God may already be preparing for us 'an eternal weight of glory!' Indeed, maybe as I walk away from my discouragement and get out of my office and into the world and into the lives of those people God so loves down the street and around the block and across town -- maybe then I will start to sense my own, our own, 'inner nature' being renewed.

Maybe. At least that's what I sense we're told to do as we are urged to not 'lose heart.' At least that's the only way forward I can see out of the discouragement which creeps up on us as we seek to be and do all that we are called to be and do as the Church. For as I said before, I really don't see the world going back to what it was --- not even to when I was young. And at the same time, I really don't see Jesus giving up on me, on us, or on this world either.

Maybe. For no, I don't have the answers just as I am fairly confident none of us does. But then, neither did Paul when he wrote these words to the church at Corinth so long ago. He could not possibly have imagined then the way the Gospel would take root in places he did not then know even existed. Given this alone, surely it is time for my moaning and worrying to stop.  Indeed, isn't it time that I at least start to try to get on board with where and how God is already 'renewing' you and me and the Church and the world we are called to serve?  Oh yes, I suspect all I have to do is get out there and I will begin to see how God is keeping this promise even now.

  • What in your life, your community, your congregation is most likely to cause you to 'lose heart?'
  • Where and how do you sense God renewing your 'inner nature' day by day?
  • Do Paul's words here speak to the Church today? Why or why not?
  • I have no idea what the future holds for the Church as we consider the myriad changes around us, but I am eager to be in conversation with others about it. Would you be willing to engage with me in this vitally important conversation? If so, message me on Facebook, through this website, or at my email at . Let's find a way to listen together for God and to one another as we sort out where and how God is already 'renewing' for the sake of the world. Please. I would love to hear from you.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Nicodemus and You and Me and a Group of High School Seniors: God's Time

Ecclesiastes 3:1
John 3:1-17

Next Sunday night I will be one of two preachers for our High School Baccalaureate.

By then it will already have been a very long week-end.  

Saturday morning I will officiate at the funeral of a woman who was just my age. It was my deep privilege to walk alongside her these last few years. Along with her family, I grieve that this time has come.

Saturday afternoon I will drive to Wisconsin to celebrate my nephew's High School Graduation. It seems like only yesterday he was climbing everything in sight --- nearly giving his mother a heart attack every time.

Sunday morning we will gather for worship at our usual time.

Sunday afternoon a colleague will be installed as pastor at a neighboring congregation. It happens to be the congregation where I was ordained and where my mother is a member still. Sitting there I will remember pastors who came before in that place and the gifts they brought each one in the time they served. 

And Sunday night I will step to the podium in the DeKalb High School auditorium and try to have something of meaning to say to a group of 17 and 18-year- old's --- many of whom will have been dragged there against their wills by parents who have a deep sense of the sacredness of the passing of time, but which no doubt, as yet will be escaping most of those who were so dragged. (For that matter, since attendance is entirely voluntary, those gathered will likely comprise less than half the graduating class.)

The chosen passage for Sunday night's gathering is Ecclesiastes 3:1 and only the first verse.
"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven." 
For that matter, this is probably the fullest of the verses in that chapter.  You know the rest. It goes on to delineate what those matters are, contrasting one with another verse after verse. Truth be told, I struggle with this chapter because, for instance, it seems to give no greater moral value to peace than to war. Dying stands on an equal footing with being born.  Killing and healing appear to hold equal status. The poet offers no judgment.  He simply lays it out.

One could argue, of course, that the poet is not necessarily wrong.  But that will not be my charge next  Sunday. Rather, it will be mine to consider time as somehow belonging to God with a group of young people who have little idea yet of the passage of time or its meaning. At least this was so for me so long ago when I sat where they are sitting now. Admittedly, it is not fair to equate their experience with my own. Even so, while there are those whose lives have made them wise beyond their years, I have to believe they will be the exception.

And so in these last days I have found myself thinking about all the ways in which we normally talk about time.
Time flies.
Time's a wastin'!
Time is short.
All the time in the world.
Running out of time.
Spending time.
Serving time.
Wasting time.
Spare time.
Killing time.
In the nick of time.
A stitch in time saves nine.
Just in time.
Time out.
In the fullness of time.
It's high time.
Time stood still.
Time... You finish the sentence...
For the most part, the ways in which the poet in Ecclesiastes and you and I typically think about time is in a linear sense. To put it simply, there is only so much time and there is never enough of it.

I know this is so for our young people in a way I did not know it at their age. They are far busier and under more pressure to do more in less time than I ever was. Even so, all of my life I have been a watcher of time. It is a certain weakness of mine that I sometimes miss what is right in front of me so as not to be late for what comes next.  And on and on.

Indeed, I remember a college friend of mine telling me that she had gone down to the Cedar River in Waverly, Iowa, and thrown her watch into the current. I thought then that this was an act of pure lunacy.  (Part of me still does.) Her act of defiance had a point though. "Time" as a clock or a calendar measures it is limiting. It implies, like the poet seems to, that things cannot happen simultaneously. Time thought of in this way may well be broad, but it is not necessarily deep.

I imagine that Nicodemus thought of time much like the writer of Ecclesiastes did. It is even pointed out to us the time of day it was when he made his night-time journey to visit Jesus.  We are led to believe that Nicodemus was considering what time it was --- perhaps because as a leader of the Jews he did not want to be discovered. More than that, if Nicodemus did think of time as we are all prone to do, this would certainly help explain his astonishment when Jesus speaks to him of being born anew. Nicodemus had by then lived far longer than the young people I will talk to next Sunday night. But they, like him, like all of us, know that there is a natural order to things and that being born happens at the beginning and dying happens at the end and if we are so fortunate there will be a whole lot of other happenings in-between.

Jesus tosses that logic out the window though. Oh yes, we are born and yes, we shall one day die in the ways the world thinks of these things. But if it is all happening under God's own heaven and we know and believe this to be so? This means that there is more to measuring our days in 24 hour segments. This means that time can actually stand still in moments of wonder. In forgiveness rendered and received. In fresh starts and new beginnings and relationships renewed and faith deepened. This means it is never too late. That under the banner of God's love and grace time never runs out -- not if we can be born again at seventeen or seventy or any time in-between or beyond.

So maybe it does all begin and end with this one verse in Ecclesiastes.  Maybe if we understand our birthing and living and dying to all be done under God's Own Heaven. Maybe if we understand that and live like it is so.  Perhaps then every day is full of endless possibility where grace reigns and hope flourishes.  Maybe then every day is new -- as new as it is to those just born. Maybe.

I'm still working on how to bring the power of that home to a group of high school seniors who may or may not be a whole lot like Nicodemus. In the end, maybe this is enough. Simply put, what Jesus was trying to get across to Nicodemus is that all of time and everyone who and everything which inhabits time belongs to God and is loved by God. This means that newness is always possible, even likely. This seems like a good word for a high school graduate to receive as they find themselves closer to the beginning of their time in the way we are accustomed to thinking about time. Surely, it seems like a good word for the rest of us as well  --- wherever it is we find ourselves in time.

  • The tasks before me this week have pushed me to tie together two parts of Scripture which normally would not be heard together. Does the way in which I have done so make sense to you? Why or why not?
  • Nicodemus certainly thought of 'time' in a linear sense, just as we all tend to do. What difference does it make that one can be born anew at any point in time? What does that do to your understanding of God's view of time?
  • I still shake my head at my college friend who threw her watch into the Cedar River. While I understand her point, I do not know how I would function without knowing what 'time' it is.  Even so, what might it mean to take off your watch --- to not keep track of time--- in the usual sense for a few hours or a day? Might it be possible that we would be more likely to experience God working 'in time' in a way we might not otherwise --- simply because we would be paying attention to what is right in front of us instead of leaning into what is coming next on the schedule?  What do you think?
  • If you had the chance to speak at a High School Baccalaureate about God's Time --- what would you say?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

These Dry Bones

Ezekiel 37:1-14

I am fortunate, I know, to know so very little of the scene which Ezekiel encountered in the vision before us now. One can only imagine the devastation which must have preceded what resulted in a valley full of dry bones. No, indeed, the closest I can come to comprehending such as this -- at least in its literal sense ---  is by perusing history. In fact, I found myself digging again into what I know about the battle at Gettysburg. How 7,000 died on the doorstep of this small town and how many were hurriedly 'buried' by comrades in graves so shallow that they offered little or no protection from the elements. We know, of course, that their stories don't end there for mothers and dads and wives and fiancees on both sides of the battle had their way when it came to exhuming those bodies and having them buried once more in places far more fitting.

I am fortunate, I know, that I know so little of what is before us now. I have grieved my share of dear ones, yes, and I have stood alongside countless others when called upon to speak words of comfort and promise before coffins were lowered or ashes were scattered. I have to say I could not help but compare the scene which Ezekiel was dropped down into to the orderly rows of gravestones in the cemetery which backs up to my home now. Even those whose loved ones have long since joined them so that no one who remembers them stops any more --- even for them the grass around their headstones is trimmed so that anyone interested can pause to make out their names and the years their lives graced this planet. And yet, while I know little of it first hand, the image Ezekiel shares is not nearly so rare as one might hope. In modern day cases of genocide it happens over and over again that one group so little values the basic humanity of another that their remains are not given the respect one would ordinarily render.

This was surely the case in the time that Ezekiel lived and prophesied. I am told that evidence has been discovered to show that it was typical for conquering armies to simply leave the vanquished to rot where they had fallen. It would have been, of course, the last indignity that could be visited upon them. Indeed, that valley of dry bones which dominated Ezekiel's vision was not something unheard of in that time and place. And yet even this vivid vision stood in for something else.  For those dry bones symbolized all that the people of Israel lost when their national and religious symbols were destroyed, when their leaders were carried off into exile, and when the rest were left to make do in a land torn apart by war. They must have believed themselves, their present, past and future, like those dry bones to be not only dead, but dead beyond any hope.

Surely it is difficult to find any comparable experience in the world I inhabit now. I cast around trying to see if I have ever been that bereft of hope --- at least in any way that matters in an ultimate or permanent sense. Except for maybe this: In one particular long dead place I had not even much thought about being dead until, I am ashamed to say, not so very long ago.

For this is what comes to mind. It is a hard struggle in the world I call home to stir up real connection between people who differ greatly from one another. I watch the news with all of you and again and again I see evidence of our differences and our distance from one another along racial lines all across our country. And yes, this is every bit as true in the community where I live and serve. Oh no, it would not be stretching the truth too far at all to say that even here while, in many cases, we live within mere blocks of one another, our experiences of the world differ profoundly. So much so that I expect we have almost forgotten that it is ours to try to shape a different world. Or at least this has been the case for me.

But let me try to bring this home. I heard on the news the other night that in a nearby city black and white clergy were meeting again for the first time in fifty years. Fifty years. I don't know the details of the disagreement during the Civil Rights Movement which caused them to sever community and connection, but surely after fifty years those bones must have been pretty dry by now. I don't know what stirred them to change. I do know this. Not only there, but also here, it has taken profound devastation for us to notice enough to do something different now. And yes, one could say that like the people of Israel so long ago, we have had to come face to face with our failings, with our propensity to try to do it all on our own, with our too quick willingness to worship something other than God, before we have been willing or able to sense the breath of God blowing among us and through us. And so yes, I have to believe that perhaps it is that very breath of God which also blew on those bones in Ezekiel's vision which is now somehow finding a way to blow through the tension and fear and brokenness -- and yes, death -- which is bringing us all to our knees now.

On its surface, it surely did not seem to be quite so dramatic in the city where I serve. No headlines heralded a change in relationship between clergy. I just happened to be sitting next to a colleague at a hospital chaplain's lunch last December in those days when the events of Ferguson were still fresh in our minds. I leaned over to him and told him we were trying to talk about this, but it did not seem all that helpful to only have a bunch of white people talking to one another. And he invited us to be part of shaping a series of dinners where people in this community are trying to listen to one another more deeply across racial lines.

It has been a faltering start, to be sure. It would surely be easy to just walk away from, or better yet, cover up the dry bones which so reflect what has surely been between us. Only the breath of God somehow keeps on blowing and we keep showing up and trying. And by the time you read this we will have met again --- this time after listening to a panel of moms talk about the different things they say to their children to help them to be safe.

So do these bones have sinews and flesh and life in them again or is that yet to be seen? In some ways it feels as though we are learning to do this for the first time all the while our muscle memory is trying to kick in again.  I can only imagine this was also so in the vision Ezekiel offers now. It was surely so when the people of Israel returned home and tried to make sense of their lives once more in that time and place.

Oh yes, for now it may be so that all I know for sure is this.These bones seemed pretty dead. It could only be something as powerful as God's own breath which could have brought us even this far.

And so this Pentecost Day, I wonder...

  • What in your community, your congregation, your home, has seemed as dead as the dry bones before us now?
  • And how have you experienced the breath of God bringing life again to such unlikely places as these?
  • And how is that we live as those who believe this is even possible? How do we start to move these bones which perhaps have not moved in a very long time? And just where is it we are called to move, even if our steps are faltering and uncertain, so that we, too, might begin to live into the life God intends?

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Not Belonging

John 17:6-19

Jesus speaks to us today of our 'not belonging' to this world.

My guess is that most any one of us who made it to the other side of middle school has some idea of what he is talking about here. At least I know I do. Indeed, I imagine that many of us know so very well what it is to 'not belong' that we may just find it easier to describe and perhaps are a whole lot more familiar with it than its opposite.

Oh my. Even having said that much, I've found myself reliving my 7th grade experience of not belonging. I don't know if we called it 'bullying' yet, but that is surely what I experienced then.

This is how it was. I had spent my grade school years at Lincoln School right up the street from my childhood home in Rochelle.  Now every classroom has a social strata, of course, but I'd never had reason to think about it much as I was so privileged as to be able to take it for granted that I was at the top of it in every measurable way.  In the sixth grade, I was even among the tallest of my peers. (I quit growing soon after that.) At the age of twelve, however, my idyllic existence came to a crashing halt.

This is how I remember it. On my first day in Junior High, I discovered I had been put in a homeroom classroom where I knew only one other person --- a girl named Lori who was in my Sunday School class. Everyone else was a stranger, and it turned out the vast majority of them were from Central School and so they brought a shared history with them. During the first week of class, homerooms elected representatives to student council. Lori nominated me. The other girl nominated was a girl named Tammy. She was from Central School so the other kids knew her. Even so, surprisingly, when the votes were tallied, I came just a few votes shy of beating her. Those votes could not have been for me. Rather they must have been 'against her.' It quickly became evident that inadvertently, I had threatened her 'sense of belonging.' For from then on I had a target on my back. 

For you see, Tammy and her best friend made it their hobby for the rest of the school year to put me in my place. Day after day they would slam me into my locker, call me terrible names, and threaten to beat me up on my way home from school. Typical for a middle school student, I didn't 'tell.' I just endured. I put my head down, avoided them when I could, and when I couldn't, I simply tried not to react. At the same time, having been so targeted by Tammy and her friend, no one else in my homeroom would have anything to do with me. To do so would have been to invite her cruelty to rain down on them. 

Is there anything worse than being twelve and thirteen and to 'not belong' by having no friends? It passed, of course. High school mixed it all up again and I was able to find my place once more. Even so. I learned something about 'not belonging' early on.

Jesus speaks to us today of the truth that while we are sent into the world, we do not belong to the world. And it is so, of course. While there is a great deal to love and celebrate in this life now, it can be a dangerous place, perhaps especially for those who do not belong --- and yes, dangerous in ways we do desperately need protection from. For some of us, those dangers will not be as obvious or as external as mine were when I was twelve. They won't necessarily take the form of others who want nothing more than to make our lives miserable. At the same time, we recognize that this is still the case for far too many.  Even so, for many of us, our biggest threats may live inside our hearts and minds. In fact, perhaps the largest danger I face is the yearning inside of me 'to belong.' And my willingness to do whatever it takes 'to belong' somewhere in this life now.

For the fact of the matter is, those who follow Jesus do not belong. In a world where material wealth is of highest value, where the 'strong' still prevail, and where people are too often treated as objects to be used and not 'images of God' to be respected and honored, we do not belong. In a time and place when we still too often measure by race and class, no, you and I do not belong. And no, in a world, where children still too often find themselves unsafe in places where safety should be guaranteed, we do not belong.

It is so that I have not since felt the sting of 'not belonging' like I did when I was twelve. I do not know what would have become of me if I did not have other places where my sense of 'belonging' was more sure. At home most of all, but also at church, and among precious extended family and friends who watched over me. Those places of belonging helped me to endure the other. And while those places of 'belonging' were also less than perfect, perhaps we do well to seek them out as best we can so that as we are sent into the world, we can live more fully as those who 'do not belong' to the world. Indeed, at their best those places of belonging serve as a reflection of the certain truth that we do belong to God.

So yes, as for now, with Jesus' words today, you and I are called to embrace our 'not belonging.' It is what sets us apart for something more. It can be, for instance, that very discomfort of 'not belonging' which gives rise to voices which speak for those who are not honored or who are simply unsafe in this world now. No, I would not go back to the 7th grade for anything in the world. At the same time, I cannot think of a better way to learn what it is to 'not belong' in a way that much of the world continues to know first hand. And I wouldn't give that back for anything either.

  • When Jesus says we do not belong to the world, what do you think he is getting at? Specifically, what does it mean to 'not belong' as a follower of Jesus?
  • What experience do you have of 'not belonging' What has that taught you about belonging or not? How does it inform your voice?
  • How does one fully live in and love this world and those who inhabit it even while we do not belong to it? Is it possible that not belonging makes us better at loving?  Why or why not?

Sunday, May 3, 2015

"I Have Called You Friends..."

John 15:9-17

I got thinking about friends in these last days. Certainly because Jesus speaks of his disciples as 'friends' in this week's Gospel. Maybe because last week I got to spend precious time with a couple of friends who live so far from where I do. But also because of a five minute conversation I shared on an airplane Friday afternoon.

Here is how it was. I wasn't sitting next to her at first. Rather I had snagged the aisle seat in the row in front of her. I had been late in checking in online with Southwest, so I was way down the line in boarding. I expected to land in whatever seat was available, but instead there were still seats near the back. I always prefer the aisle seat. Not because I am tall... you who know me know that my height doesn't really require it. To be honest, I always ask for the aisle seat because I don't like to be trapped in unwanted conversation. I'm just enough of an introvert, you see. Sitting on the aisle gives me an easy escape.

Only there I was all settled into my aisle seat near the back of the plane. Others were still boarding. A couple who was clearly together caught my eye. On an impulse, I offered them my seat so they could travel next to one another. When I looked around I realized that all that was left was the middle seat right behind me. I climbed in over the man on the aisle, opened my book, plugged my ear-buds into my phone and settled in to read and listen to some favorite music.

Forty-five minutes later our plane landed in Raleigh. I wasn't getting off, but everyone else was. Up to that point, I had shared no conversation with the woman by the window other than to tap her arm to see if she wanted a soft drink when the flight attendant couldn't get her to raise her eyes from the magazine which seemed to have her undivided attention. Only as the rest of the passengers shifted in their seats, anxious to get on to various destinations, she looked at me sheepishly as she pulled a grocery bag out from under the seat in front of her. She offered then that her sister had asked for the kind of hot dog buns which split on the top. She's turning sixty on Monday and it's all she wants. With just a couple of sentences spoken, I picked up on the sharp edge of her New England accent: one shared by family as my dad had roots in Massachusetts. Before we knew it we were sharing all sorts of details about our lives. In five minutes time I learned that her mother just turned 80 and lives with her younger sister and her husband. That her dad had died the year before. During his last years in a nursing home her mother visited him every day. I heard about her disdain for winter (and it has been a tough one in Massachusetts), but their grandchildren are there and they won't be quick to move away from them. I learned that she has her great-grandmother's very extensive shell collection in her home... and that on a first visit last summer, a grand-niece of her husband's thought her name should be "Shelly" instead of Chris. And she wasn't the only one talking.  It was an utterly easy and unexpectedly rich conversation I shared with a stranger that afternoon. And I found I couldn't help but wonder if given the chance to really get to know one another, if we might just be 'friends.'

So it is that I find myself wondering at what makes some people friends and leaves others as mere acquaintances. What is it, do you think? Common values? A shared sense of humor? Just plain history? Is it a similar world view? Is it just that you find yourself sharing a common time and place and it is merely convenient? Or is it some combination of any or all of these?

Today Jesus calls his disciples 'friends.' At least in John's telling now, his criteria for what makes a friend a friend is three-fold. Jesus' friends are those who love one another. His friends are not merely servants (although we do serve him) because he has pulled us up to a level on par with his own. He does not leave us in the dark. Rather, he shares what it is he knows from the Father. And, finally to be Jesus' friend means that he chose us to be this. Indeed, he chose us long before we chose him.

And so I think again of those I call friend. If I'm honest, my first criteria is not whether they love others, but whether they love me and I can find it in myself to love them in return. At the same time, it is so that I only call 'friends' those whom I trust to share what is dearest to my heart, what is truest in my understanding --- as Jesus did with his friends. As for the choosing? I know it is so that we choose our friends, but more often than not I seem to have come upon them by accident. Like that woman in the window seat on Friday afternoon.

Only maybe it is no accident. Oh, it is not so that I believe God sits on a royal throne pulling strings so that I will encounter one person and not another. Not at all. Rather, I can't help but wonder if a small kind gesture (and it really was small. I'm only 5.3", after all) somehow opened me up to receiving kindness in turn. In this case a woman who told me the dearest parts of her life story in five minutes. One who I most likely will never see again, but who got me to thinking about friends. And who knows what sharing happened between the two I gave up my seat for? I do know that the woman caught my eye again as they inched their way to the aisle and though I could not say for sure, it seemed to me her eyes were full as she thanked me for my kindness.

It was such a small thing, my impulse to give up my seat for another. And yet, it is something I would not ordinarily do. In fact, I can't remember ever doing so before. It is such a small thing, but maybe such small things can be  the beginning of loving one another as Jesus calls us to today. For who knows what fruit even such small things may bear? This much I do know. Loving others, even strangers, in small ways, potentially makes all of our lives richer. Which I would imagine was Jesus' intent all along when he spoke the words passed on today. So just wonder with me what would happen if our small gestures grew into larger ones. Just imagine what could happen if we did start actually 'laying down our lives for one another' as Jesus did. Truly. Just imagine that.
  • Jesus calls his disciples 'friends.'  What do you think he means when he offers this? How does Jesus' definition of friendship here compare to your own?
  • What does it mean to love one another? How much do you think the small gestures matter? How might they lead to the sort of true sacrificial love Jesus points us to today?