Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Unexpected Places

Romans 5:1-5

How dare a scripture on endurance and suffering - one of being tempered in a pit of suffering and fire if you will - begin with words of peace and grace and conclude with love and hope? Yesterday, businesses and schools in my Texas hometown were a bit frantic and paranoid over a basic thunderstorm, and rightly so. The disasters of Oklahoma tornadoes earlier this week and the national disasters of the past few months have been more than enough to make anyone wonder where is God in all of this. But isn't that exactly where God is? In our wondering and searching and even shaking of our fists in anger. Isn't that where God is? Right beside us.

But that is so hard to see for the person who lost a loved one, the person who has nothing left, the person who is unemployed and has a family looking to them for support. How do I keep my faith through evil, disaster and the misfortunes of life? Where do I see God outside of my meditations and reading - real life? Where is God in the world?

Oh, I get it, I see God in the face of the teachers who despite their own suffering were willing to sacrifice for others, for the children. First responders live their lives giving this type response. They are the hands of God in our world. and, not to diminsh their bravery and service, but is that enough? When I am down in the muck and surrounded by fear? Where is God in the midst of this?

Do I have to retreat, go away to look for my thin place? A thin place to me is one of those 'whens' or 'wheres' in which we are drawn closer to God, a time or place where we don't have to search but the mystery and awe of faith seems to sparkle just a bit more clearly. The feeling of peace sneaks up on us and washes our souls. As I once read, Kierkegaard was cited as saying  he is drawn to places that beguile and inspire, sedate and stir, places where, for a few blissful moments he can loosen his death grip on life, and can breathe again. Unfortunately, there is not a Fodor's listing of those places. The more we try to manipulate or plan such an experience, the more we seem to fail.

And, often it is not in my retreats or planned relaxation that I most experience thinness. How do we get better at recognizing these thin places more quickly? Do we not see them until well after we have passed through the fire? Do we have to already have the new eyes to see the grace we were experiencing before we can truly appreciate the times when we are more closely in touch with the Holy Spirit?

I associate thin places not with the trial and tribulation but with a bit of Irish brogue and a touch of magic. My fall-back stance on faith is that so much of it is outside of our understanding. I find this comforting personally, but as a pastor I find that it often fails to comfort those who look to me for solace. Perhaps it is a thinness in and of itself that the first response I have is anger with God.  At least it is where I look first?!

In the moment, turning to God in sadness or fear and struggling with the 'why' is a moment of faith. A moment of growth toward a stregthen character. I much prefer the peace and love of a moment appreciating the glory of God in creation on a mountaintop or on the sandy beach of a coastal town. But for me those are places of vacations. Thin places can sometimes be found there. My personal challenge for this week is how to find, or maybe better how to recognize a thin place in the midst of disaster. God is here and in our midst, with us. We are not alone. Sometimes we have help seeing the thin place through the selfless acts of others. Sometimes it just may take a little longer to see how the Holy Spirit is with us now, working through our thickness in love.

Many moments of neighbor reaching out happen in times of disaster or in the aftermath that never would occur in normal circumstances. I don't believe that the disasters were arranged by God for that purpose, but this is the Holy Spirit with us to strengthen us and help to pull down our barriers. We can't create the thin spaces, but we have hope and through grace we know that in love those thin spaces are more abundant than we realize. Our God of wonder and mystery is ever present with us and constantly poking through our thickness to make Herself more known to us. Thanks be to God!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A Special Language

Romans 8:12-17
Acts 2:1-21

The Holy Spirit rightly plays a dominant role in our Pentecost traditions. This advocate that we have been sent is appealing and yet elusive. We are adopted into the family with all of the peace and with all of the strife. This family is not one where everything is promised to be easy. It does bring with it assurances of the peace of the Holy Spirit, but it also comes with the suspicion of drunkenness because we are not living according to the standards and expectations of the world.

These men with flames dancing on their heads speaking about the deeds of Christ so that all are able to understand as if in their native tongue - how are they normal? Wouldn't we look at such a scene today and think - that is one really bizarre family? Why in the world would I want to be adopted into that? Similarly looking at the images that media gives the Christian church today - why in the world would I want to be adopted into that?

What does it mean to be adopted into this family? Family identity is a lesson that we would do well to take from our Jewish brothers and sisters. It means honoring the past by not forgetting the traditions. It means embracing a great, far-reaching family. Sometimes it means being seen as the stranger or the different one. It means standing up for justice even when that isn't necessarily what society agrees with at that given time.

Christian family is a language all its own but one that is open to all. A friend said it well when talking of her travels to her childhood home. The first few days  she said she speaks the language, but about the third day she starts to think in that language too. Then, her grammar, syntax and actions begin to match her words. Our faith is like this. It takes practice to match actions, syntax and thoughts to words. We are blessed by the advocate of the Holly Spirit with us.

We don't always pay attention and remain aware enough of that part of being in the Christian family. It is the ideal when we are speaking and living the language. It's not easy. Taking the Christian stance and living as the body of Christ puts us in a counter-cultural position. Our suffering may not be as extreme as Christ's but we are not promised freedom from suffering. However, our lives need not be controlled by the fear nor driven by enslavement to earthly expectations.

Rather than a fear or denial of the literal flesh, this is speaking of allowing us to live free from expectations and enslavement to our worldly possessions, human expectations, finances, peer pressure, and idols. Part of speaking this gift of the Christian language is that we will never be alone.We will be encouraged out of our slavery over and over to push us back into living the language to work to free others as well. Always aided and yet pushed by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit in all and through all, by our side as we call Abba! Father!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

All Filled Up?

John 14:15-27

Given all of the options for this week, why do I feel myself pulled back again and again to this lectionary text? Isn't this just a pullout from an exceedingly wordy discourse in John? We seldom hear Jesus go on and on in sermon style. Rather than cutting to the chase or telling a neat parable, that is what these verses of John seem to do. But they contain so many nuggets. The words from this scripture have found their way into many things as words of comfort, frequently in funerals to comfort the bereaved. But while this scripture promises peace and comfort, it goes beyond that as well.

As a mother of two, I remember looking back to when I was pregnant with my second child. How am I going to find enough love, time and energy for another? My heart is surely already filled to bursting with my husband and daughter. Pete and I semed to spend hours just staring into the amazing eyes of our daughter when she was first-born. Will I be able to love another child as much? Amazingly, the human heart seems to have an ever-expanding capability. Larger families are often proof of this - I have a friend with 11 children, and she would gladly welcome more.

I am reminded of the school tale about a jar. The teacher asks the students if the jar is full when she puts as many rocks into it as it can possibly fit. The stuudents' answers are split with some thinking it might hold more. The teacher replies no that the jar is not full and adds some pebbles. She asks again. More students think it is now full, but the teacher pulls out sand. The sands shift between the rocks, filling in the crevices. "Now," the teacher asks, "Is it full?" The class responds that yes the jar is full now. Not quite - the teacher pulls out water and adds it to the jar. The water, gently condenses the sand, trickles between and fills the pockets left . The jar is now full.

What is going to fill the empty space in the disciples lives when Jesus is gone? How are we to exist in this world alone? Jesus offers comfort by saying He will leave us His peace and the the Father will send us the Spirit. The Spirit will teach us and remind us of what Jesus has said. The translation of the Greek parakletos is Advocate or Comforter. This is what the Spirt is for us - both a comforter, challenger and defender.

Think to your favorite teacher - be it in school or a special life lesson. I am reminded of my father teaching my children to fish. He began with the knowledge of equipment needed and how to dress and prepare yourself for a day of fishing. You need proper clothes and sunscreen to protect yourself. You also need a life jacket if you are going to be on the water in a boat fishing. He carefully protected my children.

No - not my family - but cool fishing pic....

You need to be prepared with the fishing pole, the bobber, the hook, and proper bait for the kind of fishing you are going to undertake. He prepared them for their work in the world.

But, then the real lessons begin. How to place the bait on the hook, how to select the right spot to try for a fish, how to cast the line to that spot. And then... the teacher sits by your side - sometimes in silence of accompaniment, sometimes in friendly conversation, sometimes in challenge of task at hand. The work of the task alongside the teaching of patience.

The gift of time and being with us is the closest comparison to how the Holy Spirit is with us for God does not give to us in the ways the world does but in ways beyond our wildest expectations. Sitting with us throughout our life journey, comforting us in times of need, bring peace to a world that seems to overwhelm with tumult and then pushing us to open our hearts to be willing to expand and then expand some more. The Advocate will be a defender when we need protection, but then much like our many teachers will push us out of the comfortable nest to fly and work in this world.

For isn't the best teacher the one who works themselves out of a job. The one who teaches us to serve and work for justice in the world. To be the tools of God - so filled by the Holy Spirit that we do not feel alone, and we serve so that none of the children of God are allowed to feel abandoned and alone. The Advocate is with us forever, we are never alone. The Spirit abides with us and is in us.

This Holy Spirit moves beyond and is more than our imagery of a peaceful dove, beyond and is more than the protector, the vengeance of a roaring flame, expands beyond the giving waters of life to imagery of a breath. A powerful breath that expands us and then expands us again to be more and more filled, never alone but filled with the love and power of the Holy Spirit.