Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Hospice Chaplain?

I keep saying that I am not called to be a hospice chaplain. Not that there is anything bad with chaplaincy; I just feel no passion there. So, here I am pastoring a dying church. I was called to help them grow, or at least thrive. But, they don't want to change. After 18 months here and a successful visioning process, it is clear to me that they are happy the way they are. There are a handful of folks who are interested in listening to God's call and follow, but most see God's call as taking care of themselves (in the collective sense). There is nothing wrong with wanting to take care of our older members, but there is more to following Christ than that, IMHO. Folks are not even interested in any sort of small group. Well, they are interested in concept, but not in showing up.

I have 18 months more on my contract as a designated. The easy path for me would be to finish the contract, assume they will call me and then do what they want until I retire (3.5 years hence). But, that feels uncomfortable for me. I feel fairly sure that if I leave, the Presbytery will push to close them. They have a disasterous record in hiring. (Part of the reason is that they say they want to grow, but they don't and so they call folks who come with ideas about growth and then the church doesn't embrace the changes needed and the pastors grow frustrated. They really want someone who will preach on Sunday, use traditional music (think classical with a paid choir), and most important visit all the elderly and go to all the PW events. But, that's not who they call. Had a long conversation with my predecessor who was there for seven years and this is the conclusion we reached. She did all sorts of wonderful things: all the right things and when I bring these up, people get really angry.) There is no endowment, so there is a finite limit on the life of this congregation.

Some organizations must die. I think this is one. I could be wrong.

I'm having trouble sorting out what I need to do. I'm trying to listen, but my own self interest gets in the way. What would I do for two years until I can retire? I need health insurance. I am much too liberal to be called to 90 percent of the churches in this presbytery. I bought a house last year and will lose $$$ if I have to sell in the next 18 months.

I am also battling what seems to be an autoimmune disease and am tired all the time. Sort of like the congregation. They are tired, they say. They have done it all. God has a sense of humor.

Thanks for listening.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For

Text: John 4:5-something or other
When I was growing up there was a song, “I will follow him, where ever he may go; he’ll always be my true love, my true love, my true love. There isn’t an ocean so deep, a mountain so high as can keep me away.” There were lots of other young girl in love songs: all with the same theme that there was a guy out there that would make you happy, complete, fulfilled. All you had to do was find him and then keep him interested and happy and you would be happy. I think this idea has been around for thousands of years. I think it’s what propelled the woman to go to the well in the middle of the day. You see wells were where women and men found husbands and wives. Moses finds his wife at the well. (It does take a little prodding from Zipporah’s father to make that match.) Issac’s servant finds Rebekah at a well. Jacob finds Rachael at a well. And so the woman comes hoping for better luck at the well. She’s had five husbands. We don’t know what happened to her husbands. Perhaps she has been left a widow five times. Because bad things happening to you then was seen as a sign of sin, people may have thought she was a sinner, but the text really doesn’t say that or that she was a sinner. The encounter with Jesus begins the way the other stories of women at the well begin. The man asks for a drink of water. So far, so good. But Jesus tells her that what she is longing for will not satisfy her. What she is looking for will not fulfill her. Before she meets Jesus, she hasn’t found what she is looking for.
U2’s song, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” is a lament. The song begins as if it is a love song. They are looking for a person, the singer. They, too, have climbed the highest mountains looking for you. But, still haven’t found what they are looking for. And then the song shifts and it becomes clear that the singers are looking for God and the realm of God.

I believe in the kingdom come
Then all the colors will bleed into one
Bleed into one
Well yes I’m still running

You broke the bonds and you
Loosed the chains
Carried the cross
Of my shame
Of my shame
You know I believed it

And yet, he still hasn’t found what he’s looking for. Some folks have looked at the words of this song and concluded that the group has lost its faith in God, in Jesus. But, others have seen something else in the song.
It is a lament for the kingdom that has not come yet, the promised realm of God, the time when there will be no difference among peoples, the time when we all will be one. The song is a song of grace, of salvation. And it is a lament for what is here, but still not yet.
I have run across this saying several times in the last few months: “God loves you just the way you are. And, God loves you too much to leave you just the way you are.” This is a statement, in personal terms, of the fact that God’s kingdom is not yet. The kingdom is not here because we are not yet the people God wants us to be.
There is a heresy in Christianity that all we have to do to be saved it to believe in Jesus. So far, so good. The heresy part is that after that we don’t have to do anything differently in our lives. What Presbyterians say is that we are saved by grace alone. We cannot earn our salvation. But, we are called to lead transformed lives, shaped by God and the Gospel in response to God’s grace in saving us: in bearing the shame as U2 would say. Our lives should reflect the grace of God’s salvation.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus gives his followers one commandment, only one: to love one another. That’s all. But, what a challenge that one commandment is. To simply love one another, to love all our brothers and sisters. If we took that commandment seriously, the kingdom would be here. When Paul Johnson, the former secretary of the Treasury went to Africa with Bono, he was amazed at the lack of clean water there. He estimated that it would take about $25 billion to provide clean water. I don’t have his book in front of me, so I may be wrong about the numbers and the details, I think that was for all of Africa. A small amount compared to the budget of the US. And he couldn’t get folks interested in providing that amount of aid. Imagine if we took that commandment seriously, what would Memphis schools look like? First, there would be more money. But, more importantly, the schools would be integrated. Teaching would improve. The lament of U2’s song that the kingdom has not come is not a lament of God’s failure, it is a lament of our failure: our failure to follow Jesus’ commands.
The grace that God gives us in salvation is also the grace we need to lead transformed lives. God’s grace is sufficient. The kingdom is here: we are the ones who must see it and live it. Amen.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Where The Streets Have No Name

Text John 3:1-17

Nicodemus fascinates me. I’m not sure what to make of him. Does he ever really understand? Does he ever really get it? Now, John’s gospel is full of symbolism and metaphor. It is a gospel for a poet, not a scientist. WH Auden said that to be a Christian, one must be a poet. That is, to embrace Christianity is to embrace mystery, to adopt ambiguity. To even begin to understand John’s gospel if that is possible, one must understand the symbols that John uses. John begins his gospel with the words that “in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” John continues by telling us that Jesus is the light of the world. At then end of the passage we have just read, John explains that while the light has come into the world “people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” (John 3:19b-21)
So, the fact that Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the darkness is important. He comes hidden. Next Sunday, we will read about a very different encounter with Jesus. Jesus talks to a woman at noon, when the sun is at its height. Nicodemus begins by saying “we know”. “We know.” He is an important person, a leader among the Pharisees. Here he identifies himself as part of that group. He doesn’t say “I know”, but “we know”. And then, Jesus upsets everything Nicodemus knows, everything Nicodemus is. Jesus tells Nicodemus that Nicodemus must be born from above, born of the Spirit.
When I was putting together this series, I was trying to pair U2 songs with the lectionary passages. Last Sunday was easy: sin and Sunday, Bloody Sunday. This Sunday was more difficult. I kept being drawn to their song, “Where the Streets Have No Name,” but I couldn’t figure out what the song had to do with Nicodemus. And so, I tried other songs, other lectionary texts. I kept coming back to Nicodemus and “Where the Streets Have No Name.” And so, I decided there must be something that my unconscious or perhaps the Spirit is seeing that I am not.
“Where the Streets Have No Name” is an interesting song. It is about a place, heaven, where streets are nameless. I saw a quote from Bono explaining that the song had been birthed when he heard someone describe the streets in Belfast. You could tell what religion someone was and how much money they made by the street they lived on. If you think about it, it is true of almost anywhere I’m familiar with. When I lived in Cleveland, if someone told me he or she lived on Tremont, I knew immediately that probably their family was Russian, that they went to Saint Theodosius Church and that their father had worked in the steel mills. If they said they lived on East 94th, I knew that they were probably African American, went to Antioch Baptist Church and their father had worked in the steel mills. If they said they lived on Union, then their family was Polish, they went to St. Stanislaus and their father worked in the steel mills. If they lived on Murray Hill, their family was Italian, they went to Annunciation Church and their father worked in the steel mills. The suburbs were the same way: certain ethnic and religious groups gravitated to certain suburbs. The Orthodox Jews lived in one neighborhood of Cleveland Heights. Reformed and Conservative Jews lived in different neighborhoods there or in Shaker Heights. I’m sure it’s true in Memphis. I just haven’t lived here long enough to know exactly who lives where. Though, I was looking for some stuff for my trip to Africa last December. I couldn’t find a place to park at the Outdoors store on Poplar and so I drove out to Cordova. As I was paying for my purchases, the clerk asked for my zip code. I told him and he said, “oh, Midtown.” I replied yes. He reached for a bag to put my purchase in and I said, “I don’t need a bag.” He said, “Well, that’s typical for Midtown. People out here are different.”
That’s how “Where the Streets Have No Name” relates to Nicodemus. Part of being born from above, being born from the Spirit is a giving up of our differences, our status. Paul tells us that “in Christ, there is not Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female.” I’ve told you this before, about baptism in the early church: new converts completely undressed and were baptized naked. They emerged from the baptisry and put on new, white garments, that symbolized their new life in Christ. We are new people, we are brothers and sisters, no one of us is better than another.
I want to make one thing clear. The text is clear that being born anew, of the Spirit, is not something that we do. As we had nothing to do with our physical birth, so we have nothing to do with our spiritual births. The verbs are passive: being born is something that is done to us. The Spirit blows where it will.
We can reject this new birth. We can turn away from it. It isn’t clear to me whether Nicodemus ever got it. Most commentators seem to think that he did. Nicodemus appears twice more in John’s gospel. Once he defends Jesus against the Pharisees and then he, with Joseph of Arimethea, take Jesus body and buries it in the tomb. Commentators see in these actions, that Nicodemus has become a follower of Jesus. But, the text is not clear. What could be more symbolic than burying Jesus—laying him back in a dark place? After all, a tomb is about the darkest place one could imagine. And, remember it is that darkness that Jesus overcomes. It is the grave that Jesus has victory over. So, I’m not sure. Was Nicodemus able to accept the Spirit’s action of new birth, of giving up?
What about us? What would it mean if we lived on Streets with No Name? What if there were no Black or White, Conservative or Liberal, Rich or Poor, Male or Female among Christians in Memphis? Could we let go of the things that give us status, that make us different from “those people” whoever they are?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Born Again

I'm working with Nicodemus this afternoon. Musing on being born anew, from above. Then musing on being born the first time. We have absolutely nothing to do with being born the first time. Nothing at all. So, I wonder. If the circumstances of my conception had been slightly different--a different day, would I have been born? Am I purely random? What about my son? What if I'd not married his father? Just wondering--or wasting time I should be using writing a sermon.

It's my son's birthday today, too.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sunday, Bloody Sunday Sermon

Many of you know that I had planned to fly into Nairobi on January 2. I managed to change our plane reservations at the last minute to avoid Kenya, flying into Uganda instead. But, still, we were close to the senseless violence and murder there. I read and continue to read of the horror occurring in Kenya now: the innocent people: men, women and children, who have been murdered in the riots and tribal violence in the country. People being burned alive in churches; people being pulled from cars and killed if they are from the wrong tribe.
We drove from Uganda into Rwanda on our third day. A few miles after we crossed the border, our driver pointed out a memorial to the genocide there. A few miles later, he pointed out another. As I watched young Rwandans walking toward the Ugandan border, I wondered if their parents had fled the country along this road. We had the day before passed a now vacant refugee camp for those fleeing violence in Congo. I was horrified when I learned about the favorite ploy of the Congolese: they entered a village and cut off both hands of those they thought opposed them. As I considered this tactic, it seemed to me worse than killing someone. It left the person helpless, dependent on others for everything in life. No only did it take the mutilated person away from production, it took the person who had to care for the victim away from productive work. I could not imagine a more horrific tactic of war. I later learned that the Congolese had learned this from the Belgian colonists.
Horrors are not limited to Africa. We can remember the killing fields of Cambodia after Pol Pot came to power; the brutality of Stalinist Russia; the Holocaust; ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, the tortures, rapes, murders and disappearances in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile. In our own country, we have seen slavery and the wholesale relocation and genocide of Native Americans.
U2’s song Sunday, Bloody Sunday marks their horror at the murder of Irish men, women and children in 1972 by British troops. While some said that the song idealized the IRA, Bono and the band has repeatedly said that it is not a rebel song. In fact, Bono had strong words for Irish Americans who idealized the IRA and their violence in Northern Ireland. Since the song’s introduction, it has morphed into a hymn against violence anywhere. The band played the song in war-torn Sarajevo, and then in Australia they played the song after the Bali bombings saying “this is now your song, too.”
The song reflects our horror at the violence caused by difference. At one concert, Bono pointed out his headband which carried the words “coexist” with the “c” in the shape of a Muslim crescent, the “x” as a Star of David and the “t” as a cross. It is easy, though, to point our fingers at others; to express horror at the actions of others. Sometimes even when the actions are those of our own government: supporting vicious dictators like Somoza in Nicaragua, right wing militaries in El Salvador, we can still feel self-righteous because we are pointing our fingers at others.
John Calvin, the Reformation theologian whose thought forms the basis of our Presbyterianism, looked into the human heart and saw the totality of evil and blackness there. He believed in the total depravity of humanity: our total helplessness before evil. He looked to the text we read this morning, the text we often refer to as telling the story of the fall of humanity, as the basis for our depravity. Because Adam and Eve sinned, we are helpless before Satan and sin. There is simply nothing we can do to help ourselves. We are trapped. Wet are utterly corrupted by sin.
There is a modern tendency to think of Calvin’s theology as “quaint” particularly with regard to total depravity. We clothe sin with other more acceptable names. We talk about self-esteem and blame lack of self-esteem for some things. We talk about addictions. We talk about psychological reasons for our behavior. We minimize our own behavior. It’s not really cheating on our taxes, on our spouses. It’s just a little lie. But, if we are honest with ourselves, if we look with clarity into our own hearts, we can see the depth of our sin. We are self-centered. We care about ourselves, our family, our friends. We think ourselves better than others. We worry; we do not trust God. We want to be in control; we do not trust God. If we are truly honest with ourselves, we know that we are utterly helpless before sin. We are trapped.
And yet, there is hope. I don’t know why the lectionary doesn’t include the whole story of Adam and Eve in the garden. The text leaves off with them making clothes for themselves to hide their nakedness. In the next scene, God finds them, hiding from him and the awful story of their misdeeds spills out. God, like a mother finding cookie crumbs on the floor from the forbidden cookies, knows immediately what has happened. Adam and Eve, like little children immediately blame someone else. And God punishes their disobedience, sending them from the Garden of Eden. Now, that’s where the story generally stops, but there is more. Just before God sends them from the Garden of Eden, God makes clothes from animal skins for them. For me, that is one of the most amazing things in the Bible. I picture God sitting down on the ground, cross-legged, with animal skins on God’s lap, sewing clothes for Adam and Eve. It is such a touching demonstration of God’s love. Even when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and God had to punish them, God still loved them and showed God’s love by making clothes to protect them, to keep them warm.
God continued to show God’s love for humanity. God sent Jesus to live among us, to share God’s love with us, to remind us how God wants us to live with each other. We are sinners and yet God continues to love us. It is through God’s grace that we are able to rise above our sinfulness. God’s endless grace.
Lent is an important, though neglected season for most Protestant Christians. When I was growing up, it was a season for Catholics who gave up meat for the six and a half weeks of Lent. I thought it strange. Had I had an adult vocabulary, I would have said “quaint.” More and more Protestants are reclaiming this season. We are beginning to understand that without an understanding of the depth and breadth of our own sinful natures, we cannot fully appreciate the gift of God’s grace and love and our salvation through Jesus Christ. You see, if we believe that we are basically good people, then we deserve God’s love. It is only through understanding our undeserving that we can be overwhelmed by God’s grace.
It is only through God’s grace and love that we can escape the bonds of sin. In our sinfulness, we are like addicts. Like those who begin AA or related programs, we must first admit our helplessness before our addiction, our sin. Then we can begin to see how God’s grace and love works through us and through others.
The band U2 and its members are psalmists and prophets, I believe. Their work echoes the laments of the psalms: their cries at injustice, their cries of “how long?” echo the cries of the psalmist. They are also prophets: they point to the injustices of our world; to the hypocrisy of the religious who look to their comfort first. U2 and Bono have opened the eyes of the leaders of the world to the plight of Africa: to the hunger and illness there. They have opened the eyes of ordinary people to God’s love and grace. They have chosen to open their lives and struggles to follow Christ to the eyes of the world. They have chosen to struggle honestly with where God is, with their questions, with their faith and with their lives and to show us how they attempt to live as authentic Christians. May we, in this season of Lent, take seriously our own lives as authentic Christians, through God’s love and grace. Amen.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Fragility and randomness

Cheesehead in Paradise (I can never make the links work, just google her) talks about the last snow storm and decides snow is better than tornadoes and earthquakes. I am shocked by the loss of life in the tornadoes two days ago. I've never been afraid of storms, at least not since I was a little girl and my dad took me out on my grandmother's front porch to watch the grandeur of the storm raging at that time. The storm had my grandmother and aunt buried under their covers. Dad wanted to make sure I didn't grow up to be frightened of storms. But, Tuesday night I was concerned. The storm that came through in the early evening was strong. Winds blew, I could hear huge hailstones (though I didn't see any), lightening flashed. The sirens wailed. (I thought it was a home alarm going off when the electricity went off.) What really scared me though was the forecast for later that evening. The forecast was for even more severe weather. I tried to figure out if I should sleep on the floor of my closet (my basement is not a good place to sleep).

Ash Wednesday. We are dust, and to dust we will return. One parishioner is facing cancer and her husband has Parkinsons. I go for a biopsy on Monday, probably not cancer, but nonetheless. . . Life is short; we are mortal.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Last night. Well, yesterday when I got home from the docs, there was a message on my machine from a session member. Did I want her help in calling folks if we canceled the session meeting for last night. I called her and asked if she thought we should cancel the meeting. She said that lots of schools were closed and churches canceling events. So, thinking these folks are really weather wimps, I said sure, cancel the meeting. I've lived through blizzards in Cleveland and Michigan. Folks here think 45 degrees is cold.

So, about 5:30 the storm started moving through. Wind, hail, the electricity went off. A tornado touched down about 14 miles from my house. My prayers are with those who lost family and friends in the storm.

I kept hearing alarms going off. I thought folks' house alarms were going off because the electricity was cut off. It was tornado warning sirens.

So, Memphians aren't weather wimps after all.