Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Ecstasy in an open field

After a week’s wandering in the woods, I break into the open.
The white unfiltered light reveals hard work, dirty hands,
my wretched exhaustion rent raw.
I have nothing to offer but the knots of my shoulders,
stooped back pressed down into the earth,
weary eyes blinking against the violence of pure sky and cloud.
The meadow is covered in golden dandelions,
and each puff of white seed bears in it
lightning, earthquake, and fire.
The field hums my heart-song.
The hammock bands of grass
wrap around my veins and pulse them
like a thousand microscopic defibrillator paddles.
I am jolted into life.
If I lay here long I would be consumed,
my veins aflame, my face aglow,
too long clothed in ecstasy.
Perhaps Moses covered his face
because after forty days before I AM
he could not bear the starkness of the earth,
the dust of the desert, the taste of quail and manna.
Peter, faced with a lightning Christ, wanted to build houses,
to mark and remember that Elijah had appeared again.
But Jesus led them back down the mountain.
Glory is not meant for glory alone.
We were not made to lie face-up, engulfed,
nor terrified and prostrate.
Better rather to rise
and feed a world hungry
for more than bread.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Giving up Lent for Lent

Lent is my favorite church season.

I know this is odd, because Lent is depressing.  But I learned to love Lent in the midst of my own lonely days and nights, as a teenager, when the idea of being isolated and exhausted and hungry for more than bread alone made a lot of sense.  I liked the reality of Lent, in the face of American self-reliance.  Not everything is butterflies and unicorns.  Sometimes you need to take a good hard look at yourself and go, "I'm not entirely sure this is the life God had in mind."

So Lent was my favorite season.  We started every Sunday service with a confession and forgiveness, and the sermons and prayers were about repentance and self-discipline and "returning to the Lord".  We finally got to be honest about all that was ugly and painful and hurt inside ourselves.  That we make mistakes.  That we live in a broken world.  That our best isn’t always what we want it to be.

But Lent has not really been what I longed for, this year.  I felt burnt out on Lent, even before it started.  And for the past eight or so days I have been doing this purposeless self-flagellation that I have not thought of a "good" Lenten discipline and stuck to it.  Which, you know, is exactly why Jesus went into the desert for forty days to struggle with Satan.  "On this, the fortieth day of my fast and exhaustion, as I lie in the desert sand utterly desolate in body and in spirit, my greatest hope is that two thousand years from now people will shame themselves for not giving up chocolate."

I asked God for help, yesterday, because I was feeling bad about my failure to Lent properly, and I got silence, which is sometimes better than an answer.  I've found that I long for an answer to my "Help, help, help" prayers, even though the answer is usually "You do realize that more than half of this problem is you, right?"  I should probably prefer silence.  But I don't, and I got it anyway, yesterday, because sometimes I need to be reminded that I am the least patient person on the planet.

And today one of my favorite professors, who also happens to be one of my favorite spiritual advisors because she is funny and sarcastic and assigns Anne Lamott for preaching class, said, "I gave up Lent for Lent."

This makes perfect sense to me.

I have a new supervisor at my internship church, which is good, because she has experience with leading congregations through the interim process.  But change is hard.  And I am without the company of the women who have been my biggest support system for the past two years -- the seminary colleagues I shared classes and dinners and happy hours with, with whom I laughed and cried and fought and worked out our lives and struggles.  We're scattered to the corners of the nation on internship.  And we really miss each other and the continuity our interwoven lives gave.

And the seminary is, in bold honesty, in shambles.  Last week we learned that faculty will be reduced by about a third over the next three years, and staff will be reduced by 30-35 employees in the next six months.  Our professors are tense, their faces pulled tight at the eyes and mouths.  Those with tenure look at their colleagues without it and wince.  The seminary has been open in teaching us that the institutional church is dying; I think they just did not expect it to be dying today.

And of course in the face of all this I do the "pastor thing," which means my wrists are bound with the sinews of daily prayer -- for friends and congregation members who are sick, who are suffering, who are afraid, who need a new job, who long for new life, who struggle with addiction and disordered eating, who are in recovery, who are hanging on to recovery by a thin black thread.

On Ash Wednesday, our campus pastor Laura said, "We're already living in death and dust.  We don't need to be reminded."  And they marked our foreheads with ash and oil, and proclaimed, "Consider yourself dead to sin and alive in God through Christ Jesus."

This is what I need, right now.  Not sackcloth and ashes.  Not fasting and mourning.  I have enough of that already.  Not all of us do, perhaps, but I do -- I wake up and wince, even before I remember what season it is.  My heart is heavy enough.  It hates the added weight of Lent.  And I wasn't made for grief.  I wasn't saved for mourning.  I was created for the glory of God, to be fully alive.

This year, this season, maybe just this week, I need to live not in Lent but in the promise of Easter.  I need to be honest about the grief, the pain, the exhaustion, the hunger for bread and yet so much more than bread, everything that is already broken and deserted in my life.  And then I need the promise of Easter, of grief replaced with amazement, with pain turned into joy, with exhaustion now excitement, with hunger satisfied at the table at Emmaus when the risen Christ is revealed in the breaking of the bread.

So tonight I turned up the bass on my car stereo until I could feel it in my heart, and I sang along all the way home.

Enough in me and my life is dead and barren, today.

Today, I'll give up Lent for Lent.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sermon for February 3, 2013: A fire in our bones, for the light of the world



Jeremiah 1:4-10

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations."

Then I said,
"Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy."

But the Lord said to me,
"Do not say, 'I am only a boy';
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord."

Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
"Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant."


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So this week at Bible study, we read this text.  And then Barb Hansen turned to me and said, "So, does God have a plan for each of us?"  And I said, "Well--" and she said, laughing but serious, "Yes or no?!"

This week I've been surrounded by plans.  Normal plans, like the plan for the next semester of school, and plans for my summer, and plans for when I'll get around to doing my taxes.  And in the midst of all that there are plans for Pastor Hollie's arrival and for the next steps in calling a long-term pastor for Light of the World.  So I probably shouldn't have been surprised when Barb asked me "So.  Does God have a plan for each of us?"  And I can't blame her.  Because I'd like to know.  Is there something I was made for?  Does God have a plan for everyone, even before they're born?  Does God have a plan for Light of the World?

Well, yes.  And no.  But yes.  But also no.

I should back up.

Here’s the background on Jeremiah.  We don’t know how old Jeremiah was when he heard the voice of God.  Our guess is between thirteen and seventeen.  So it’s best if, when you think of Jeremiah, you visualize one of our confirmation kids.

So the word of God comes to the teenage Jeremiah and says, "You.  I chose you before you even knew how to breathe.  I made you to be a prophet to my people."  Jeremiah says, “I can’t, I’m too young; I don’t know how to speak for you.”  God says, “Don’t worry about this.  I’ll be with you.  Don’t be afraid.”

And then immediately follows that with:  “You are going to be a destroyer of nations.  You are going to pluck up and pull down; you will destroy and overthrow.”

Well, no wonder Jeremiah said no.

See, being called to be a prophet in Israel is not a good gig.  This is not a multi-million-dollar salary, tour-the-world, meet the President, go on CNN kind of deal.  Prophet is not a desired career path.  A prophet in Israel is the bringer of bad news.  A prophet is the one who stands up against religious leaders and kings, who says, “We’ve forgotten to trust God.  We’ve forgotten to take care of each other.  We’ve lost God’s protection, and we’ve lost the community.  We are in serious, serious danger.”

Sound familiar?  Isaiah was called to the same cry:  “Israel!  Stop.  Stop putting your trust in idols and false gods.  Stop oppressing the alien, and the orphan, and the widow.  Act justly with one another.  Remember what God has done for us.”

And this is painful.  Jeremiah preaches this message for almost forty years, and it's forty years full of pain.  His friends and family turn against him.  The whole nation of Israel sees him as a false prophet.  He is beaten by a priest.  Locked up in the temple stocks.  Threatened with death.  Tossed into a water-tank full of mud and left there to starve.  When he’s rescued, he watches the invading army of Babylon as they kill the king’s sons and destroy the holy city of Jerusalem.  Jeremiah is then taken, against his will, to Egypt, away from his home, away from the promised land, away from almost all the other Israelites.

Being called to be a prophet is painful.  And God knows this.  God’s promise is:  “Do not be afraid, for I am with you, to deliver you.”  Not like a letter in a mailbox but like when we ask, every time we pray:  "Deliver us from evil."  Be with us.  Keep us safe.  Get us through.  God knows that being a prophet is not an easy call.  So when God appears to this teenage boy in Israel and says, “I’ve planned for you to be a prophet for a long time,” it’s no surprise that Jeremiah says, “God, please not me.”

But God insists that Jeremiah is called.  When God says, “I consecrated you,” the root of “consecrate” is kadosh.  It means “set apart, to make holy.”  It’s the word for the seventh day of the week, in the story of creation:  So God blessed the seventh day and kadoshed it -- made it holy.”  It’s the same word when God calls to Moses from the burning bush:  “Take off your sandals, for the place where you stand is kadosh -- it’s holy ground.”  It’s set apart; it’s chosen.

And this is where the words of the Bible and the tradition of the Lutheran church can look like they’re butting heads.  See, Martin Luther was pretty insistent that everyone had a calling.  The Catholic Church, in the 16th century, only talked about a calling when they talked about priests and monks.  People who were “set apart” from the rest of the regular world.  But Luther thought that maybe, just maybe, talking about this Jesus thing isn’t just for Sundays, and maybe it isn't just for pastors.  Maybe it’s for every part of our lives.  This call to preach the word of God, to talk about forgiveness and grace and love -- maybe that is for everyone, all the time.

Which is a beautiful idea, until you get down into the details.  Maybe it’s too easy for Martin Luther, and for me, to stand up as pastors and say:  “Everyone’s called!  Go and preach!”  Martin Luther was a priest for the rest of his life.  I’m preparing to be a pastor.  The idea that our whole life is a calling doesn’t seem so strange.  But what about when you’re a teacher, or a nurse, or a consultant, or an HR rep, or a postal worker, or a stay-at-home mom, or a retiree?  See, Luther wanted to get away from the idea that the only time our lives are holy is when we’re doing something for the church.  But if we say “Everything’s a calling!” then this amazing idea that we’re all called, no matter what, can start to feel watered down.

So we go back to Jeremiah.  Because here is a guy who did not want to be called.  In chapter 20 he turns to God and says, “You know what?  I didn’t ask for this.  I didn’t want this.  You’re the one who got me into this mess.  I spend my days shouting ‘See the hatred!  See the violence and destruction!’  And everyone laughs at me and hates me.”

Jeremiah did not want everything he did to be a call.  He wanted out of this mess.

But then he says, “But if I say, ‘I will not mention God, or speak any more in the Lord’s name,’ then in me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones.  I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”  Jeremiah says:  “I can’t not do this.  Trying to hold it in makes me feel like my heart and my blood are in flames.  It is physically painful to keep my mouth shut.”

Jeremiah’s life isn’t only about preaching the word of God.  It’s about doing what he’s called to do.  About being what he has been made to be.  About forgetting what is easy or simple or financially sound or cost-effective and doing what makes him feel alive.  It’s what fulfills him.  It’s what satisfies a need, what quenches a thirst.

And see what he is called to do:  to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.  This fire in his bones isn’t just for him.  What is going to fulfill his hunger is something that will change everyone else.  He’s called to stand up against religious and political powers, shouting, “Stop the oppression!  Stop the hatred!  Stop the confidence in yourselves!  Remember God, and remember one another.”  He is called to tear up everything that is already dead, to clear away the weeds in peoples’ hearts and minds that keep good seeds from growing.  He is called to say, over and over, “Don’t you see how this is killing you?” in the hope that the whole nation or even just one person might turn away from worshipping money and power and success, from pride in their own abilities or a hidden shame about their own failings, from everything that keeps us from love of God and love of neighbor.  Jeremiah’s heart burns because he sees the pain his people are in, and he wants to--he is made to tear it down and plant something new.

This is what he’s made for.  This has been God’s plan from the beginning of his life -- that Jeremiah is to be a prophet to the nations.  He can't not do it.  He's called to this, chosen for it, set apart to be holy.  But he's not called to something just for himself.  He's called and fulfilled and set on fire for something that is meant for all the people.

See, God has a plan for Jeremiah, but God also has a plan for Israel.  It's in chapter 29:  "I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord.  Plans to prosper you, and not to harm you; plans to give you a hope and a future.  Then when you call for me and come to me and pray to me, I will hear you.  When you search for me, you will find me.  And I will restore everything you've lost, and gather you from all the places you've been driven, and I will bring you home."

This is God's plan, not just for Jeremiah but for everyone.  Plans for growth, not for pain.  Plans for hope, for a future.  Plans to be known and heard and found and brought back home.  It’s not an itinerary, or a manual, or even a map.  It’s a promise.  It's a promise from the very mouth of God that no matter who we are or what has happened, God wants you.  God wants you home.  God wants you to feel that fire in our bones, that excitement, that passion.  God wants to give you something so deeply satisfying that it feeds all of your life.  God wants to call you, to give you purpose, to give you hope, to give you a future.  And not just you, not just Jeremiah, but every single one of God's beloved children.  God has a plan, but it's not a step-by-step guideline or a PowerPoint presentation.  It's a hope that someday everyone will have God's word written on their hearts, like a tattoo on every vein, so that each heartbeat is a cry for mercy and justice and love.

That's what Jeremiah longed for -- not for God's word but for a way to change people's lives.  And that's how you can know your call.  When your passion and hope becomes a gift to someone else.  When your story becomes a source for another's healing.  And that can happen anywhere, any time.  You don't have to be a prophet, or a pastor, or anything -- not anything except the light of Christ that God has lit up in you.  You will know your call when the fire in your bones becomes a light by which others can see.  That fire isn't just to keep you warm.  It's to light up the world.

And if you don’t have that -- let’s find it.  Let's talk it over.  Let's fight it out.  Let's pluck up and tear down everything that keeps you from joy.  Let's burn a fire in your bones till whatever holds you back is ashes and dust.  And then let's plant something new.  Something that will feed you, and then feed others.  Something that will give you purpose and strength and hope.  Let's be a community that does that for each other.

Because God wants nothing less for you than a fire in your bones that becomes a light to the world.

Amen.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

"Came to believe that only a Power higher than ourselves..."

I went to Al-Anon today.

I went a few times, with my mom, when I was a teenager and my dad's alcohol abuse was really disruptive.  Going to Al-Anon, I discovered, was a way to make him stop drinking, at least for a few weeks.  If you know anything about AA or the Steps you are laughing right now, because the entire purpose of Al-Anon is to teach friends and family members of alcoholics that they cannot control the drinking, and I was essentially using Al-Anon to try to do just that.

I didn't really stick with Al-Anon after the first few visits, but the purposes of AA stayed on my radar throughout college.  When I learned about the Lutheran understanding of grace, of God coming down to us, of our complete and utter inability to do anything but cling back to God when God is already holding on to us -- that rang true with what I'd heard in Al-Anon.

I'd been scouting around for some sort of emotional support group for most of 2012.  I have a fantastic network of people who love and support me.  But I knew I needed a situation where I could deal with my brokenness and my anxiety on a regular basis.

But just recently we had a conflict situation at church -- nothing big, but there was a miscommunication about money that I couldn't stop thinking about even once it was resolved.  And someone else who was in on the situation mentioned that she'd used her Al-Anon learnings to let go of trying to control and fix everything.  I'd been thinking about this problem, and this problem alone, for about 30 waking hours straight.  I wanted to let go, too.

So I went home and looked up Al-Anon meetings nearby.  There's a ton in the Twin Cities area.  And I went to a beginner meeting this morning.  The beginner meetings are designed to go along with regular home groups, and attendees are encouraged to go to at least six beginner meetings.  They talk through the first three Steps and some of the other main parts of Al-Anon.

Today we focused on the second Step:
Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
And we were supposed to go around the room and briefly share what this meant to us (or pass, if we wanted to.)

Easy peasy, right?  I spend my entire life talking about a Higher Power.  The hard part would be sharing only briefly.

Except I panicked.

I didn't want to share that I do the Jesus thing.  Not everyone in Al-Anon is religious.  In fact some people avoid AA and other 12-step groups precisely because they think (or have experienced!) people using the Higher Power language to evangelize their own personal religion.  This wasn't at all what I experienced, and I was terrified of ruining it.  I was terrified of dredging up everyone's issues with a hypocritical church and a wrathful or apathetic God and every other piece of baggage that institutional Christianity heaps on people.

And I didn't want to share that I'm training to be a pastor.  I didn't want to look weak.  I didn't want people to think "Of course, another pastor with psychological problems."  I didn't want to be some confirmation that we're all codependents who look for other broken people and adopt them.

So when my turn came, I stammered through something that I think lacked meaning or coherence.  I don't mind for everyone else because other people shared really great and helpful stuff -- but, for me, to be so very afraid to share anything whatsoever about my actual faith is terrifying.  I should be able to do this, and easily.  And I couldn't, because I was so afraid of what people might think.

Which, of course, is the whole point of step Two.  This is not about me.  This is not about me controlling what other people hear or think or believe about me.  This is about God, and about being raw and honest and vulnerable about what God does to get me through the day.

I don't actually know how to talk about that in a roomful of strangers.

But I guess I'll find out, because I'm going back next week.