Sunday, August 28, 2016

Choosing Life: It All Costs

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Luke 14:25-33

It's not often enough that I make the time to read fiction these days. This is so, in spite of the fact that a well crafted story --- factually true or not --- awakens my imagination and pushes me to measure my own life's choices in ways little else does.

And so it was a couple of weeks ago I spent a few days living alongside the two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle in Kristen Hannah's The Nightingale. Set in Nazi Occupied France during World War II, this remarkable novel is based loosely on the legendary life of one of the two sisters who devoted her life to the work of the underground --- specifically that of rescuing downed British and American pilots. Throughout the story we hear how these two women make hard choices, day after day after day. And on many days? It seemed circumstances created a climate which meant there was not necessarily one good, 'morally pure,' right choice. And yet, they kept moving forward, attempting to 'choose life' in the best way they could.

My life is clean and easy compared to the world I lived in alongside Vianne and Isabelle for a few days. Even so, it surely helps me to dwell in such stories for such as these remind me of the ways in which my choices, too, reflect my values, my hopes, my dreams, --- and hopefully, most of all, my faith.

Indeed, the story I offer now is an old one and is in some ways yet unresolved. And while it is so that it was a large 'choosing' that was mine to make then, it serves as but an example. Without a doubt, we also'choose life or death' in small ways every single day.

This is how it was. I was 20 years old and a sophomore in college where I was majoring in political science. It was in a course which focused on international relations and the power of multinational corporations where my eyes were opened to the sometimes abuses perpetrated by entities whose bottom line is always monetary profit. Now one doesn't have to work hard today to realize that much of what you and I consume is done so 'cheaply' at the expense of impoverished workers the world over. This was news to me then, though. It was but a footnote in a larger textbook which pointed out this sort of abuse by one such corporation in a country in the southern hemisphere. That company also had an operation in my hometown. Indeed, that very company in its local expression in a small town in Northern Illinois helped pay my way through college by giving me a summer job.

I remember still how my heart fell when I put all those pieces together. I remember the internal struggle I had for even though I was hardly out of my teens I sensed that I was somehow complicit in all of this. I wondered then what to do. Was I wrong to build my own future on a foundation which was literally destroying the lives of families not so many hundreds of miles away?

I made a decision then which I still mull over from time to time. At the end of the school year I returned to my home town and went back to work my summer job in the same place I had the year before that and the year before that. I reasoned to myself that my refusing to work there would not have any impact on the decisions of a big company like that. Especially in the low end job I held. I came to the conclusion that I would be better off finishing my education and maybe one day I would be able to make a difference in significant questions like these.

It's not that I was entirely wrong those many years ago. Given the scarcity of options even then for kids like me to work their way through college, perhaps I did not have much of a choice. It's just that now --- these 35 years later? I still haven't found a way to make an impact on these sorts of injustices. I still haven't found a way to "carry my cross" in the way that Jesus calls us to now into this particular matter. Indeed, when it comes to this, those choices which are before me still seem like small ones which likely won't make much of a difference at all.

And maybe it is so that this particular challenge is not what I am called to address even now. Perhaps there are other every day challenges where I am meant to stand alongside and raise my voice and affect change. For it is so, today as always, that there is no scarcity of injustice to be addressed.

Either way, you and I are charged with dong precisely what Jesus calls us to today as we seek to follow him: We are to measure our options. We are to estimate the cost. We are, in the words of Deuteronomy, to wonder and to act day after day on the question of what will lead to life and what will lead to death. We are to do so, always, carrying the cross which is ours to carry.

As I think back on the decision to stay in a job I had questions about some 35 years ago, I realize that at least twice since then I have been able to make a different decision --- actually picking up and leaving work where I felt I had to compromise too much of who I was called to be and what I was called to do. In both cases I came to the painful conclusion that I could not change it so I decided to move on. What was different was that both of those times I actually had other choices. Most importantly, in a way that was profoundly different from when I was a young adult, both times I was surrounded by communities of people who supported me as I discerned my way in attempting to choose "life over death." And yes, both times, I paid a price: in at least one case in dollars and reputation both.

It all costs. All of it. And just like two sisters in a novel I read a few weeks back, the choices may never be clean and easy. Even so, those choices are ours to make. Day after day we seek to cast our hope on the side of life. Oh, there will be days when we will side with death for the cost of life may seem just too high. And there will be days when the line between life and death is not entirely clear. On those days --- in all of our days ---- may the gift that the One who promises life also freely grants forgiveness and strength for a new day sustain us then. And may we awaken tomorrow with a heart renewed to try again to choose life. Whatever the cost.
  • What does it mean to you in your life to 'choose life?' Can you think of a time when the choice was not easy? Can you recall a time when you made the wrong choice? How do you find yourself thinking about that today?
  • What difference does a supportive community --- perhaps even members of Christ's church --- make in terms of how you choose? As I indicate above, it has made all the difference to me.
  • What has it cost you to 'choose life?' How has that compared to the cost of 'choosing death?'
  • In my reflections on this scripture in this space three years ago, I offered a number of 'real life' concrete examples of 'estimating the cost.' You can find my thoughts at "Estimating the Cost."

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Rewriting the Guest List

Luke 14:1, 7-14

I took her to lunch a few months ago.

If you have worked in a church setting for any amount of time you may have come to know someone much like her.

I first met her when she called the church office late one afternoon a year or so ago. She was out of gas and stranded. Could I possibly spare a little cash so she could get to the small town she calls home some 20 miles southwest of here?

I jumped in my car and went to find her. When I did, I handed her $20 and asked her to let me know how she was. She took me at my word. And now she stops in frequently. And yes, she is always in need of something for her car breaks down. Or she develops an allergic reaction to her generic prescription and has to pay out of pocket for the non-generic kind. Or she has to make an unexpected trip to see family. It seems it's always something.

Part of what makes her stand out from others in similar circumstances is that she documents her needs so well. More than once she has come in with a pile of receipts showing where her meager disability income has gone and why she's coming up short. And yes, more than once I have helped out --- sometimes with the church's discretionary fund --- just as often when the needs are small out of my own pocket. Other times I have had to say 'no.'

Over the course of the last year I have learned some of her story. She is a college graduate. She is a person of faith. She is a recovering addict:clean for a number of years now. She is on disability from a high school basketball injury to her knee which caught up to her a few years back. No older than me, her gait is unsteady. She is supported by a cane. And this. She is also a poet. Several visits ago she recited to me a beautiful poem about fear and hope restored which she had penned herself.

In many ways we come from vastly different places and our daily challenges don't compare. I wasn't sure if we would find anything to talk about the day I offered to take her to lunch. Indeed, we met at a small diner a few blocks away from the church where too late I realized she might feel a little out of place for her dark skin stood out among the rest of the crowd that noon.  Still, in this place where the server knows what I will order even before I open the menu as I have been there so often, she was treated with kindness.

She ordered more than she could eat --- packaging up the leftovers for dinner later that day. I often take mine home in the same way after lunch out, but more often than not mine spoil in the refrigerator before I think to enjoy them. I'm quite certain this was not the case with her.

We meandered in our conversation some with her trying to get to know as much about me as I had learned about her over the past several months. For my part, I was working on a blog post and took the chance that she might have new insight into the text I was mulling that day. She did, in fact.

It went fine. And yet, there was an awkwardness in our sharing which I had not discerned in our previous conversations. Yes, this was still my 'turf,' if you will. And I was clearly 'in charge' for I was picking up the tab. And yet something happens when we sit across the table from one another. In this case, the 'playing field' was leveled some and she felt freer to ask questions then, if nothing else.

And there is this. Ever since she has been trying to find a time to invite me to her home to fix a meal for me. Unlike those described in Jesus' teaching in Luke, she sees herself as one who could, who 'should' repay me in some way.

Indeed, Jesus uses the common experience of shared meals to bring his teaching home today. In his first offering he speaks of the centrality of 'humility' to those who would follow him. In his second, he turns all conventions upside down and rewrites the guest list --- promising that in the end,we will be blessed in other than the usual ways.

Now, I don't know about you, but 99% of the time I eat with people I know --- those I have a lot in common with --- co-workers, colleagues, family, friends. These are people who, for the most part, who can and will pick up the tab the next time, if they did not, in fact, do so this time. Part of the surprise in Jesus' words now lies in this: that even more than sitting across the table from someone at the local diner, Jesus says we ought to be inviting "the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind" to something much grander when he speaks of a banquet. Perhaps we still sit with them. Perhaps we don't. Either way? These are to be treated as honored guests. And Jesus promises that in the end, we will be "repaid."

Oh yes, today Jesus makes his point using an experience which people across time and space and culture continue to know well. And I, for one, find myself sitting up and taking notice. Along with you who also listen in on Jesus now, I am wondering what this looks like and what this means for you and me. Is it like a shared lunch with the person who frequently drops by the church office asking for help?  Is that small, small step the direction Jesus would have us move today or is he speaking of something much, much more?

Whatever else is so, when we sit down to a meal together, neither one of us is the same. At least I know I'm not. And beyond simply being the "right thing," in keeping with Jesus' direction now and shy of the 'resurrection of the righteous,' when such as these will be paid in full? Maybe that kind of 'changing' from the inside out is exactly what Jesus intends for us all when we take even the smallest step towards doing and being what he calls us to today. Maybe he intends that in a shared meal we might just see in one another our common humanity. Maybe he yearns for us to offer a prayer of thanksgiving together. Maybe Jesus yearns for a shared meal to be the first step to a more equitable world. Maybe...

  • What do you think is Jesus' intent behind his urging us to 'rewrite' our guest list? What is the difference between lunch at a local diner and the sort of banquet he describes today?
  • With whom do you normally share a meal? When have you sat down to eat with someone from a different social class? 
  • Think of the last meal you shared with another. Does sharing a meal change you, your relationship, your experience of the world? How have you known this to be so?

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Wondering: The Healing of the Bent Over Woman

Luke 13:10-17

It's been more than four years since the name "Dancing with the Word" came to mind as a title for this blog. Although anything but a 'dancer' myself, I have always loved the interplay of words and ideas. This has been especially so as I have learned to exercise such a 'light touch' when it comes to interpreting the Word among God's people. There is a back and forth-ness to dancing, just as it is in our ongoing conversation with the Word. For me, this is how this back and forth conversation often looks;

Most every week I start with the text itself. I read through it once and I read it over again. I pull out a pen and underline what strikes me this time around. I dip into the commentaries, hoping for a new way into the story. Sometimes I go to the original language, but it is so that this is not my best gift. I try hard to set aside whatever conclusions I came to the last time around --- and yes, this can be hardest of all. Sometimes one way of thinking gets cemented in my brain and I have to work hard to be open to new possibilities. Many weeks I find the best way to open myself up to new ways or thinking is to simply start writing down questions about what is before me. In this way, I force myself to 'wonder'at the text. Indeed, my own journey to the sermon almost always begins with questions like those which follow as I have sat still in the story before us now:
  • What was it that caused Jesus to notice the 'bent over woman' in the first place? And why her and not another?
  • Was it a hard choice for him to abandon his teaching and focus on her? Did it cross his mind that he might offend someone by choosing to heal on the Sabbath or was he actually trying to bait those who would oppose him on this?
  • Why does it matter that Jesus does this on the Sabbath? Now surely it is so that any conversation about "Sabbath Keeping" today must necessarily differ greatly from such conversation in the time of Jesus. At least my observation of the culture where I serve leads me to believe that questions about what is appropriate or not on the Sabbath rarely enter our collective or individual conversations. Indeed, many of us could perhaps benefit from a more 'rigid' interpretation of this particular practice. On the other hand? Hardly a 'day off' goes by without interruption of text or phone message causing me again and again to re-evaluate how I will 'keep Sabbath' this time around. What is your experience of this? How have you resolved it?
  • If "Sabbath" is not a "rule" which gets in our way, is it possible that like the leader of the synagogue, we also sometimes hide behind 'other rules' which keep us from faithfully from following Jesus? What are those 'rules' in your experience? Are there ways in which our 'rules' --- both spoken and unspoken --- help keep the status quo? Indeed, are there ways in which our 'rules' keep the privileged, privileged and don't allow a way in for those who are not so privileged?
    • What must it have been like to be the formerly bent over woman  to suddenly find herself standing up straight? I wonder if unused muscles were stiff at first. I wonder it this new/old posture took some getting used to.
    • Certainly I have known people who are similarly physically bent over by arthritis and other ailments. What would it look like to ask them how it is for them? Would I be able to ask what it is they miss the most from the time before their bodies and/or spirits so betrayed them? Would you?
    • I can't help but notice that the woman never actually asked for healing. I find myself wondering if I have ever experienced healing I never even thought to ask for. I wonder if there are parts and pieces in my life and experience which beg for healing but in resignation or despair I have simply stopped asking. I wonder if that was so for her. I wonder if that is so for the people for whom and with whom I bring the Word this week. And I wonder at the utter grace of receiving unasked for, unanticipated healing!
    • I find myself asking whether we have ever experienced this kind of healing in this way: Because this woman's affliction did not allow her to stand up straight, she was not able to see without struggle. How does the healing Jesus brings simply allow or enable one to see the world more clearly? As individuals? As congregations? 
    • Can you think of a time when the 'healing touch of Jesus' actually enabled you to see something you had not seen before? Something wondrous? Some injustice? What was that like? And what happened next?
    • And this as well: What is it about Jesus that he is willing to physically 'touch' those whom were considered 'unclean?' How has Jesus touched me/touched you in my/your most broken places? When have I/have we hesitated to do the same? When have you/when have I done so anyway? What was the result of such risk taking? Oh, I have not forgotten the hospital call I made more than twenty years ago now. The child I went to see had HIV AIDS. My mind told me even then I could not contract this disease by touching his hand. And still my heart leaped back even as my hand reached for him. Unclean? Of course not. Treated that way by the world? Absolutely. Consequences for me? Absolutely none for other than to his immediate family, his diagnosis remained secret even to the grave. Although perhaps it was of some comfort to his family that I did not outwardly flinch even though I was inwardly wary. Either way, I have never forgotten my instinct to pull away and how much that differs from the example Jesus offers now.

    And so I wonder as  you journey to a sermon or just a deeper understanding of the story before us now, what questions would you add to mine? What makes you wonder?

    What new path might your questions take you on as you seek to follow Jesus in your living, in your sharing, in your preaching, if that is your call?

    Finally, how might experiencing this one familiar story in new ways begin to change how you see and interact with the world? What does it mean for you to be "healed" in order to be able to stand up and see? What are you seeing more clearly already?

    Sunday, August 7, 2016

    Running This Race...

    Hebrews 11:29-12:2

    It is an odd, random memory which surfaces at least every four years about now and it came to mind again this week as I watched the opening ceremonies of these 31st Olympic Games. Indeed, I find myself remembering the Summer Olympics when I was 15 years old. No, not anything specific about the games that year, only that they were and that they took place in a time when with so few other options, it seemed the whole world tuned in. This is what comes to mind today:

    I was not yet driving and so my only mode of transportation was the 10 speed bicycle my folks had given me a few years before. I was riding it on a summer's afternoon on South Main Street and pumping as hard as I could. Perhaps it was my energy which impressed the old man who called out from his vantage point on his front porch, for I cannot imagine I was going all that fast. I can still hear his voice shouting at me, wondering if I would try out the next time the Summer Olympics rolled around.

    I can remember rolling my eyes for I was not then nor have I ever been particularly athletic. No, my sister, Martha, inherited those particular genes from our dad. Indeed, I am quite certain the only reason I made the high school volleyball team was because I was willing to work harder than anyone else. In those days, running the stairs in the old gym did not cause the kind of trepidation or downright pain in my left knee that doing so would do now. I shake my head today to marvel at how I took such physical exertion for granted those few short decades ago. In fact, a couple of weeks ago when compelled to run even a short distance at my early morning workout, I found it helped, somehow, to imagine someone chasing me so as not to give up before I reached the "finish line!"

    As these memories come flooding back, I realize that this is so: such recollections of who I used to be or expectations about who I should be now sometimes keep me from entering the 'race' altogether. This is so both as I try to better tend my physical body as I am by now deep into middle age and in other areas of my life and faith as well. I don't know about you but at first as I consider this 'race of faith' we are called to in Hebrews today and when I think about the examples of heroes the writer offers now, I am tempted to give up before I even begin. Indeed, how could my gifts, my participation in this race, compare to that of Gideon or Barak or Samson or the rest?

    And yet, perhaps it is so that while the image before us now is a vivid one --- both of runner and those cheering her on --- we have to remember that the only "winning" that it seems to be pointing to is the act of actually 'finishing" this race, whatever that may mean. At least this is so if we actually pay attention to the remarkable role models offered by the writer of Hebrews today. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to say that any of those named were exactly "winners" in the classic sense all the time:
    Gideon, for instance, was an altogether reluctant warrior. He was not confident in his own ability and he asked for proof that it was even the Lord talking to him at all. (Judges 6-8)
    Barak refused to go to battle without Deborah at his side, and while to my mind there is nothing wrong with that, still that must have been unusual in that time. More than that, for all of his willingness to put his life on the line, he was told up front that in the end the honor would go to another --- and in this case another woman. (Judges 4)
    Samson, for all of his superhuman strength, does not come off as all that bright and as his story comes to a close, he dies making his point. (Judges 16)
    Jephthah, though described as a mighty warrior, essentially traded the life of his only child, his daughter, for a military victory. (Judges 11)
    David was, of course, the 'ideal king' for the nation of Israel, but for all of his remarkable gifts, he committed adultery and arranged for the death of Bathsheba's husband. (2 Samuel 11:1-12:25)
    Samuel, for all of his faithfulness, failed to convince the people that being ruled by a king would surely be their downfall. (1 Samuel 8:10-22)
    And as for Rahab who is mentioned even before this litany of other "heroes of the faith?" For all the good she did, she was still remembered as a prostitute.
    All of these whose stories of 'running this race of faith' are passed along to us are far less than perfect. In fact, some of them stumble and fall in rather remarkable ways. Perhaps it is so that these are named so that all of us --- regardless of our strengths, our weaknesses, our successes, our failures, our moral stature or our moral weakness --- all of us are called by God to simply get in 'the race' and trust that God will take care of what it means to 'win.' And maybe by simply being 'in the race' we are among those who are 'persevering.'.

    Indeed, in a world as full of challenges as the one you and I inhabit, it might be tempting to simply turn in our 'running shoes' and head for home. This would seem to be especially so if we thought it was up to us to vanquish all that which causes the suffering and pain in this world which God's people are called to address.  But no. Along with Rahab and Gideon, Barak and Samson, Jephthah, and David and Samuel and all the rest? You and I are simply called to 'run.' And to keep our eyes on Jesus as we do so, trusting that Jesus will take care of the rest.

    • What gets in the way of your 'entering the race' in all of its fullness? What doubts or fears plague you?  Does it make a difference to you to remember that the 'litany of heroes' offered here also had doubts and fears and failings in addition to their remarkable gifts?
    • When were you last tempted to 'turn in your running shoes' and go home? What kept you 'running?' What keeps you 'running?'
    • In this late summer days when at least some of our attention is focused on the Summer Olympics, are there stories which capture your imagination which might help illustrate what it is to 'run the race?' As for me, I am especially taken by the story of the Olympic Refugee Team. If you haven't heard their story yet, you can find it here. Any one of their individual stories could offer a shining example of perseverance in life and in the sport which has called their name.