Sunday, April 24, 2016

On Macedonia and Being Open to God's Vision

Acts 16:9-15

So why do you suppose Paul was so open to receiving and responding to the vision which had him traveling to Macedonia?  What convinced him that this was God's call?

This is how I have come think about this in the last few days:

I had lunch with our local chief of police the other day.

He wanted to share with me his thoughts about a police chaplaincy program which he has been working to implement for some time. He was inviting me to be part of the conversation.

Truth be told, I walked downtown for this lunch feeling heavy-hearted and more than a little overwhelmed. I was pretty certain I was going to be asked to add to an already full calendar and while I knew it would be interesting and important, I did not know how I could possibly do one more thing.

Here is what happened:

Over the course of 45 minutes and a soup and sandwich I learned things about our community which I had not known before. I heard a lot about the needs of people who are often invisible to most of us most of the time. And I heard about the pressures borne by those who are called upon to respond. I heard about the need for help.

Now I have to say that it was not a hard sell conversation at all. It turned into a time of mutual sharing and wondering and the more I listened I began to come to a place where I understood that this conversation might open new doors for our shared ministry in the congregation I serve. I did not yet commit, however. I asked for time to be in conversation with members and leaders with whom I share ministry.

Regardless of what comes next, though, here is one thing I will not soon forget:

As I gathered up my things to leave, the one across the table said this to me,
“Pastor Janet, here is your mission: As you are walking back to church, wonder about what God was saying to you in the last hour. What is it that you are supposed to take from this? What are you meant to learn?”

Too often I am not present enough in my day to ask these sorts of questions:
  • God, how are you speaking now? What are you saying?
  • What do you want me to take with me and what do you want me to leave behind?
  • What am I meant to learn from this?
These are good questions, it seems to me. In their very essence they presume that God is active in the ins and outs and options of our days. And yet, too, too often, I do not pause long enough to listen, long enough to hear. I wonder what would happen if that should change. Indeed, I wonder what I would hear if I were even half as open as Paul was in today's reading from Acts where he receives a vision of a man in Macedonia calling to him and so he and Silas simply go.

This much I do know. I definitely will not receive such visions if I do not open my eyes, my ears, my heart to see and hear God calling.

It took our chief of police to bring this home to me in a way I will not soon forget.

And so I offer this to you now:

We are all too busy. There are a thousand ways we can spend our days, our energies, our efforts. 
Choices abound. In the midst of this abundance of choices, what would it mean if we simply wondered how God is speaking in the midst of all of this?
  • Indeed, might we then find ourselves, like Paul, called to "Macedonia," too? 
  • What do you suppose would happen if we then simply 'set sail' and went? 
  • And what sorts of surprises might be waiting us there? 
  • Who might we meet by the river outside of town who would change the course of mission for the church and for each and all of us?
  • And where and with whom might we discover and receive unexpected hospitality? 
This much I know. Paul was open to seeing the vision God offered him.

I wonder how I might be more open in this way.

I wonder how we all might be more open in this way.

Surely it could be that it starts with the kinds of questions our local chief of police posed the other day.

What do you think?

Sunday, April 17, 2016

If We Have Love For One Another

John 13:31-35

This last Sunday night we spent some time thinking about forgiveness with our confirmation youth. Specifically, we were focusing in on the petition of the Lord's Prayer where we pray,
"Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us."
To bring the learning home, one of the exercises we shared in was that of remaking a video. We viewed this short clip of "Signs of Forgiveness," we handed out cardboard and markers, and we asked them to make their own signs. Then in their small groups they filmed themselves with their signs, emulating what they had seen in the video. Only, of course, what they wrote on their signs was personal for each of them.

It went pretty well. The conversations were meaningful and thoughtful. Yes, some of them took it more seriously than others. To be sure, as you can imagine, some took it so seriously they found they could not fully participate, for their pain was too fresh.

I have to say I was knocked over when I walked in to observe our 7th graders. One had scrawled on his sign,
"You told me I ought to kill myself."
And then he flipped it over,
"But I forgive you." 
And oh, isn't it so that we need to love each other now more than ever?

For well do I remember Junior High. I remember the terror that reigned when a couple 12-year-old girls in my class made it sport to visit me at my locker every day and threaten me with physical harm. Worst of all, I suppose, I remember what it felt like to feel as though I had no friends. Indeed, if anyone else saw this play out day after day, they certainly did not step in. I, for one, never told a single solitary person. I suppose that was the ethos even then.  You simply didn't tell.

This was more than forty years ago. It was more than tough out there then. And without a doubt, I expect it is that much tougher today. And yet, even with all of that, I know I was profoundly fortunate. For while I did not tell, I still had people at home who loved me. And there was a cadre of other caring adults watching out for me in other ways who carried me through until it got easier.

Now, maybe it is just simply harder for kids, for they cannot control who they spend their time with as much as adults sometimes can. And maybe not. Perhaps the suffering we too often inflict on each other is just more subtle than it was when we were in middle school. And maybe not.

Either way, I responded on Sunday night by talking to our kids about bullying. I spoke of my own experience at the hands of a couple of my classmates. Yes, I spoke about taking the long view --- for these decades later it is clear that I more than survived. While it felt like it would never end then, 7th grade did not last forever. More than that, I talked about how they might take care of and look out for and stand with each other out there in the world. And about how one of the ways we do that if we can see no other way is to tell someone who can help. We brainstormed for a moment about who we should tell should it happen to us. Mostly, I simply wondered with them about how we might be called to love each other. Even if we are not especially friends outside of church.

Will they? I have no idea. Indeed, do any of us ever really do this well? I have to say, I don't always know. And yet, I do know it is what Jesus calls us to now. To Love Each Other.

And I know this, too. This calls for more than an impromptu response to a group of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. We need to talk about what it looks like to love each other over and over again. More than that, these are words which need to be backed up by concrete action: demonstrating the kind of patient, enduring love which Jesus calls us to. And which Jesus offered first.

It takes energy, attention, resources and more. And yet it is more than worth it. For from what I hear in today's Gospel, this is all that matters: It is everything. It is what will enable us to keep on and it will be our most enduring witness to the world.

For 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, yes. And for all the rest of us, too. For you know this as well or better than I: too often, congregations, followers of Jesus today, are known for how we do NOT love each other --- for how we inflict pain on one another. And so I wonder now:

What would it look like for God's people to change that? How might we love one another on Sunday mornings and Tuesday afternoons and Thursday mornings?  In the workplace, in our neighborhoods, at school, at the ball field? How can we begin to love each other even better than we have before? Even if we are not especially friends with each other. Even then. Especially then.

I have said this more times than I can count. This world we live in has far too few examples of what love looks like: especially across our differences. Indeed, it matters more than ever that we are given the chance to let the world know who we are in this way: As We Have Love For One Another. This more than anything else will bear witness to who we are. Because of who Jesus was and who Jesus is for us still.

  • It is easy to come up with examples of what loving one another does not look like. Can  you think of concrete examples of what it looks like for followers of Jesus to love one another? How might that preach?
  • While God's people are always called to care for those who are not part of the community, we are also called to care for one another. It is tough out there. What does it look like for us to love each other in the world so that the world might indeed recognize the One we follow?
  • According to Jesus today, it would appear that acts of love bear a stronger witness than 'correct theology' or to use an old cliche, "They won't care how much you know until they know how much you care." Can  you think of times when this has been true, even or especially across theological, political, social, or economic differences? What did that look like?   

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Tell Us Plainly

John 10:22-30

If I'm honest, on some days I can certainly resonate with those who demanded that Jesus 'tell them plainly' who he was. In fact, sometimes I have a hard time fully understanding the people around me, much less those who walked among us thousands of years ago. In fact, this challenge of understanding people and who they are came home to me in a particular way over the last couple of weeks. In this case, these people also lived in the past:

I have been grateful over the last few weeks to have had a little time to dig into a project which has captured my imagination of late. It is history, which I have always loved and this little bit of history has been largely unexplored. And so it is when I get a few hours, I settle in and page through what I have already gathered. Or I take a trip to a museum or the research room of a library which promises to offer a new insight or detail to add to the story I am slowly uncovering about the Soldiers' Widows' Home which was established in Wilmington, Illinois in 1895.

Now there are lots of avenues one can take to uncover a story, of course. Believe it or not, it is fascinating to read lists of detailed expenditures. Consider, for instance, what 100 lbs of flour would have cost in 1910. And why do you think a home that housed mostly elderly women would have purchased 7 tobacco pipes in 1907? And yet, while these details offer texture to a story, it is the people and their motivations: their hopes and hurts, their failures and dreams which pique my curiosity the most. And, of course, those can be hardest to come by.

Much of my energy, in fact, has focused on uncovering the story of Flo Jamison Miller, who was the matron of the home in the early 1900's:
  • Having read some of her correspondence and a couple of patriotic speeches she gave it is clear that she was educated and very articulate. 
  • By now I know some other things as well. For instance, I know that her father, a Civil War veteran, died when she was 19. Certainly the four years he spent as a soldier shaped his identity and evidently, hers as well.
  •  And later on, her mother had been in her daughter's care until she died shortly after Flo took charge of the home. Oh yes, she had seen the plight of Civil War widows up close. Perhaps this lay behind her passion for her work. 
  • And yet, reading her biennial reports to the State of Illinois, one gets a sense of her frustration in the day to day work which was hers. 
Just last week I discovered this. Flo died in 1940 ---- long after she had stepped down as matron. In 1941, her daughter, Zola, took over the role her mother once held.
  • And I wonder about her and what motivated her to follow in her mother's footsteps.
And yet, it is tricky work, this. For ever detail I uncover I need to remind myself that I live in an entirely different time and place. I am shaped by other loyalties and by other experiences. Oh yes, I have to work hard to guard against thinking that what motivated these women would have any similarity to my own life experience. Oh, it may be the same. And it surely may not. Lots of times I have to 'get myself out of the way' so that I can better understand.

And so we come today to the story of Jesus as he addresses those gathered in the portico of Solomon as they are trying to figure out who he is. And I wonder if they cannot recognize him as Messiah because they are overlaying the story of who he is with their own far too limited understandings and experiences of what love and leadership and sacrifice look like. And indeed, might this also be so for all of us? For while our experiences and imaginations may offer a rough facsimile of God's love for us, my suspicion is that much of the time it may not even come close. Indeed, it seems to me that throughout his ministry, Jesus has been 'telling plainly' who he was, is, and will be, but there are those who simply cannot take it in. Something is clearly in the way. I can't help but wonder if that something is themselves. And on some days, ourselves. On any given day: myself.

And so for us today. You and I do not have the chance to physically stand in the portico of Solomon and ask Jesus face to face to tell us plainly who he is. No, in fact, we stand at twenty times the distance in time and place and experience that I do from the women who sought to care for elderly widows in Wilmington a century ago. And yet,
  • We do have the witnesses of the four Gospel writers who, from different angles and experiences offer us comparable windows into the identity of Jesus. 
  • We have correspondence with the early church which helped them and us still today to get a sense of who Jesus was and is for them and for us. 
  • And we have the witness of the church and its people who have known the truth of God's love which has held tight to them all of their lives --- in much the way Jesus offers when he says that his sheep will never be snatched out of his hand. 
Oh yes, as limited as it may be, we are still those who have received this gift of understanding of who Jesus is and we are those who pass it along through our own stories of how Jesus continues to work in this time and place. And yes, we are those who are called to live as those who hear and know and follow the voice of the Shepherd. For that is finally the point of knowing who Jesus is, isn't it? It is not just to come to some sort of intellectual conclusion. It is, rather knowing him in such a way that who we are and what we do next is somehow different because of it.

And some days? Like those questioning Jesus in the portico of Solomon so long ago, all I have to do is get my own limited, preconceived understandings of love and leadership and sacrifice out of the way so that I can begin to see who Jesus really is. For so far as I can tell? That sort of humility is the beginning of hearing and knowing his voice. That is the beginning of following him. Some days I know I am not there at all. And on other days, it seems like I may just be getting close.

  • Why do you suppose the listeners in the story before us do not understand who Jesus is? I have offered on possible explanation above. What do you think?
  • Across all this time and space and experience, how is it possible for us to comprehend the truth of who Jesus was and is? What witness to this truth have you found especially convincing or helpful?
  • What does it mean to you to hear and respond to the Shepherd's Voice? How is this more than an intellectual assent for you?

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Back to Where They Began?

John 21:1-19

At least the disciples have managed to get themselves out from behind locked doors. For as you may recall, when last we met up with them in John's Gospel, that is exactly where they were when they last encountered Jesus. Paralyzing fear can do that to us, of course, and perhaps it is so that the appearance of Jesus not once, but twice, in that closed off room at least loosened the grip of that fear.  And so as we catch up with them today, at least Peter and the rest no longer seem to be held hostage by that sense of terror. In fact, it seems to me that today they have almost allowed themselves to go 'home.' Or at least to a place that felt a whole lot like home --- particularly to those in the group who had been called away from their places on fishing boats just a few years before.

And so it is today as we meet them on the beach by the Sea of Tiberias, I can't help but wonder this:
Why do you suppose it was that Peter announced to his companions that he was going fishing?
Do you suppose it was that he did not know what else to do with himself  in this in-between time as they waited for whatever it was that would come next? Do you suppose that is why Peter returned to what was most familiar before his world had been turned upside down?
Or rather, might we believe that part of Peter actually yearned to go back to when his world was simpler? You know, back before Jesus called him out of his ordinary life and led him on a journey he certainly could not have imagined for himself?
Or was it something else altogether?
In John's telling we are offered no motives, of course, so it is ours to fill in the blanks. And yet, I find it fitting, somehow and certainly in keeping with much of what I know of human nature and experience that this would be Peter's impulse at this time. In times of crisis or uncertainty there is often a tendency to return to what we know the best. Maybe it stems from force of habit. Maybe it is simply comfortable. Or perhaps it is the result of our hope to recapture something we thought was forever lost.

And yet, if this was their hope or intent, it appears this is also so: there really could be no actual going back for the disciples:
  • Not once they had met Jesus in story and meal, in healing and in hope.
  • Not having confronted the worst in themselves even as they witnessed the best God had to give in Christ's suffering and dying.
  • Not once they had glimpsed God's Promise fulfilled on Easter Day.
Indeed, how could they ever really go back? Or at least if they did, how could they go back unchanged by all they had experienced in the last three years, not to mention those last couple of weeks?

Indeed, maybe that is why there would not be a single fish caught that night. Maybe for all of what may have been their inclination to leave those last three years behind them, maybe in the depth of that long night where their nets hung listless from the side of the boat, maybe their hearts really weren't in it at all. And maybe in the quiet murmurs they shared with one another they recognized a common yearning to be part of something more again.

Indeed, we can't know for sure whether the disciples were running from something or running towards something or if they were just passing the time on that fishing boat that night. What we do know is this. Jesus met them there. He came to where they were and he appeared to them in a place which was perhaps familiar --- which maybe felt something like 'home' but could never really be home again ---  and he served them breakfast.  And then singling Peter out, he spoke to them of all that they will be called to now. No longer would they be hauling nets full of fish on shore at dawn --- also meant to feed people --- but they would specifically be called upon to feed those who had also heard a call to something more. And just like the last time Jesus showed up and called them from their old lives to follow him, this call would also take them to places and people they surely could not yet imagine.

And yet, with all of this, this is what I find myself wondering today:
  • Do you suppose the disciples, much like all of us, had to make a definite choice this side of the Resurrection? And do you suppose that long night on the boat helped set the stage for them to decide to continue to follow Jesus into whatever came next?
  • Do you think that maybe they were able to hear the voice of Jesus best in a place they knew so well? I mean, how often do we need to retreat to a place that is safe and sure and free from other distractions so that we, too can hear the voice of God?
  • Do you know what I mean when I say that they couldn't really go back --- at least not unchanged? If so, have you found this to be so in your life?  What new understanding, what experience, what hard earned wisdom has led you to live your life differently --- whether you actually changed physical location or not? And how has this been so in your seeking to follow Jesus?