Thinking of Neighbors

Then those servants went to the roads and gathered everyone they found, both evil and good. The wedding party was full of guests. (Matt. 22:10, CEB)

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In his poem “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost penned a line which often gets used out of context: “fences make good neighbors.” This sentiment is held up as an ideal or reason to keep people separate. “You have yours and I have mine, never the twain shall meet,” we think.

We are happy with our fences. We are happy to keep to ourselves. We are happy to hole up in our hovel.  We are happy to keep others out. We are happy to hoard and control the things we have. They are ours. Fences make good neighbors because they keep us and our stuff safe from the prying hands of others.

So why in the heck would Jesus tell this story where the Kingdom of God is compared to a wedding feast where both the evil and good fill up the party? Why are the riff-raff invited? Why are the unseemly allowed to RSVP? Why are the less than desirable included in all the festivities?

Come on, Jesus, have some decency after all. I mean, this is God’s empire full of hope and love we are talking about here. Can it really be “good news” if those whom we deem “unworthy” are included in all the fun? We better put up a fence and keep them out, right?

In the wake of the #metoo movement sweeping social media, I have been thinking about this dividing fence.

Best I can summarize, #metoo is an attempt to bring to light the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault against women. Simple statements of #metoo, let the world know a person has been, or is still, a victim of such action. While statistics show us the prominence, seeing and reading stories hits home.

And I must admit, this is my fault. There have been times in my life where I’ve contributed to a #metoo story. I’ve sexually harassed women, both intentionally and unintentionally. I’ve contributed in what I’ve said and done, and what I’ve left unsaid and undone.

It’s not something I’m proud of, but it is something that’s true. But what is also true is that it is sin. I’ve sinned by degrading the humanity of another. If there is a fence built up, I would be placed on the side of those deemed “unworthy” because of my sin.

But even I am invited to the party, too.marius-sebastian-42828.jpg

If you continue reading Jesus’ story though, we know we can’t stay in the same place. It’s not enough to simply come to the party, we must be transformed. Confession is necessary. Repentance is necessary. Change is necessary.

We must admit when we’ve done wrong, including the ways we’ve contributed to a culture of sexual violence and patriarchal power, and ask for forgiveness. Then, we must work for transformation. We must break down the fence of ignorance so all have access to the green grass of hope and peace.

May it be so this day.

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Unwanted Advice

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. (Phil. 4:4)

When I was a bit younger, I had a bit of a temper. I would yell and scream. I would take my anger out physically, punching doors, walls, even windows. This led to a period of time when my parents took my bedroom door off its hinges and let me live door free. No privacy. Great for a teenager who thought he was more important than he was.

But as I was growing up one thing in particular often set me off. My brother would chide 205820_1011778379367_1752_n.jpgin whenever I was getting a little hot under the collar with a, “Take a chill-pill Will.” If I was a cartoon steam would have shot out my ears, my eyes would have bulged out of their sockets, and my face would have turned beet red (that might have happened anyway).

While he was most assuredly was trying to get under my skin (thanks, bro), the simple reminder to do something was easier said than done. It even made me hoppin’ mad.

This happens when it comes to joy. Paul tells the Philippians, “rejoice in the Lord always.” Easier said than done.

What about when the car breaks down? What about when the account is in the red? What about when the medical bill comes in the mail? What about when he says he doesn’t love you anymore? What about when the system doesn’t bring you justice?

Rejoice? Thanks, Paul, but that’s easier said than done.

Though, knowing what Paul was going through might help alleviate the recoil his reminders produce.

Paul wrote this letter while he was in prison waiting for a capital punishment. He spent his death row time writing a letter to a church and reminded them the necessity of rejoicing in and celebrating what God has done. Paul would probably agree with us, pablo-heimplatz-243278.jpgrejoicing is easier said than done, but just because something is difficult doesn’t mean we don’t do it.

Later on in the letter (the very next verse even), Paul told the Philippians something that still rings true, “The Lord is near.” Hope is available because God is near. Joy is available because Christ is near. Love is available because the Spirit is near.

Sometimes all that is needed is to be reminded. “…again, I will say rejoice.”

May it be so this day.

Can’t be Silent

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21)

I woke up yesterday morning in shock.

The news about the mass shooting in Las Vegas certainly caught me off guard. You never expect to hear reports of scores dead and hundreds injured while drinking your morning coffee. These types of events are becoming all too common, but it still felt like a sucker-punch to the gut. mike-boening-116749.jpg

If you’re like me, I was left reeling with thoughts of, “How can this happen? Who would do such a thing? How am I going to respond? What can I do?”

I just preached on Sunday the need for action, the need to resist the temptation of playing the role of the ostrich: sticking one’s head in the sand, avoiding the hard and difficult, sinking into the background. How do I practice what I preach? How do I respond in a way that is constructive and life-giving?

It’s a day later and those questions are still swirling in my mind, but I can’t be silent.

With the continued onslaught of perpetual violence, it seems even easier to retire into the nihilistic theology which espouses, “it’s a broken world, so there’s nothing we can do about it.” The inclination towards navel-gazing is strong when the problems of the world seem so large.

But we are not called to passive submission to the powers that be. Paul calls us to “overcome evil with good.”

While it shouldn’t take events such as the Massacre of Las Vegas, Sandyhook Elementary,  Virginia Tech, or the Pulse Night Club (all within the past five years) to convince action needs to be taken, we still need to. Silence in the face of such wanton disregard for human life is abhorrent.

We can’t stand by.

It will look different for you than it will for me, but we must do something.  We must put our faith into action. We must live out our prayer for God’s will here on earth as it is in heaven. We must work to overcome evil with good.

May it begin this day.

Obscuring our Vision

If I go forward, [God] is not there;
   or backward, I cannot perceive [God];
on the left, [God] hides, and I cannot behold [God];
  I turn to the right, but I cannot see [God]; (Job 23:8-9, NRSV)

Job (long “o”) had a heck of a time. He lost everything: children, house, livestock. Not only that, but he got some of the worst acne a person could dream up. Destitution is the word one thinks of when you think of Job. Look up “sufferer” in the dictionary and you find a picture of Job.

The thing was, in Job’s eyes, he didn’t deserve any of this. He had been a good man. He’d done what was required of him. He participated in his religious obligations. He showed mercy when needed. He raised a good family. He was the poster child of success. When it was all taken away, he was understandably shaken. He was left wondering where was God? He couldn’t understand where God was in all of his calamity.

Instead of seeing the glorious light, he only perceived the incongruous dark.

About 3 years ago, my now 5-year-old nephew, Henry, and his family were over at my grandmother’s condo for Thanksgiving. Before everyone passed out from too much tryptophan consumption, Henry and my grandmother, Pat, played a rousing game of hide-and-seek.

Henry always wanted to be the one who hid. He hid behind the curtains. He hid under the bed. He hid in the closet. He hid under the table. Anywhere you can think of, Henry tried to hide there. Pat would do the requisite, “Where are you, Henry? I can’t find you? Have you seen Henry? He’s hiding somewhere.”

My favorite part of this hide-and-seek game came when he decided the best place to hide was in the long hallway where there were no real hiding spots at all. caleb-woods-182648.jpg

Henry would run out into the long hallway of the fifth floor and hide by placing his face up against the end of the hall, his eyes closed, hands over his face. He would then exclaim, “Okay! I’m hiding” as if when he closed his eyes no one could see him. He was invisible and the world could no longer find him. The thing was for Henry, not only was he hidden but more importantly it seemed that the world was hidden from him. He couldn’t see my grandmother sneaking up on him to grab him with a loving embrace of “Gotchya!”

Shaking off the Doldrums

Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment… (1 Timothy 6:6, NRSV)

It sneaks up on you. It catches you when you least expect it. If you don’t pay attention, it pops up out of the blue.

It can rob you of enjoying what is going on around you. It can steal your appreciation for what you have. It can hijack any good time you might have otherwise been having.

Boredom. It is a demon which saps the present of any value and transforms us into people we would otherwise ridicule. javier-canada-300092.jpg

Fred Craddock tells the story of a clergyman who was watching the Indianapolis 500. After about two hours of the same cars driving the same way on the same track, boredom transformed this otherwise good Christian into a “degenerate sinner. At first he said, he simply entertained thoughts of ‘what if…?’ and his own imagination thrilled him. But soon his boredom demanded more. A car caught fire. Hoorah! Not until later did he remind himself that he, a Christian minister, had experienced no concern for the driver. But a burning car was not enough; something more dramatic was needed to effect a resurrection from the death of boredom. Voices within him, he admitted, began to call for a smashup. The demon of boredom had totally transformed him” (Craddock  Overhearing the Gospel, 7.)

I can always count on finding myself annoying my wife at 7:15pm when there’s nothing on TV and I’ve scrolled through Twitter already. Bored. I can count on sighing deeply, reminiscing about all I could be doing if I was somewhere else as we enter into hour 3 of our 13-hour car ride. Bored. I can count on mentally going through my fantasy baseball roster as the speaker drones on and on and on at the seminar I’m at. Bored.

We all know what boredom is. I contend the opposite of the vice of boredom is the virtue of contentment. Whereas boredom transforms us into grotesque versions of ourselves who look at other people and things merely in their utility for our entertainment, contentment transforms us into people who look around and express thankfulness for the particular moment.

But that doesn’t make it easy. It’s much easier to be swept up in the voracious ads promising unrelenting entertainment, action, and joy if we just buy this one thing, look this certain way, have this particular home.

Contentment starts when we are able to realize what we have is a gift. Even if we worked hard for it, it’s still a gift. When we can have eyes of gratitude, we are able to live in contentment and hold boredom at bay. It’s a constant struggle, but one we can fight together.

 

Having Grown Up Ears

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called… (Eph. 4:1, NRSV)

My family moved to a new house when I was in the midst of my college years. Jobs and compromise ruled the day, so my parents packed up and moved to Eastern Iowa. Of course, in preparation for the move, we packed up the entire house. This obviously meant going through the house reminiscing.

“Remember when you tripped and fell here…”

“How about all those meals we ate right over there…”

“Gosh, look at that stain, I forgot when you…”

I even managed to clean out from below my bed. I unearthed a whole manner of different things. There were dirty socks. There were fingernail clippings. There were dust bunnies. There was also my “special box” that box where my parents saved all those important things from my child hood: report cards, drawings, medals, book reports. I even found this special book I filled out when growing up.

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There I wrote the most important things about me that year: favorite color, favorite book, favorite food, best friend. It was amazing to look back and see the decisions I was forced to make. In the chicken-scratch like penmanship, I was forced to discern the defining characteristics of my life that year, including what I wanted to be when I grow up.

Some years it was a paleontologist. Others it was a storm chaser. I even thought I wanted to be a lawyer on one occasion. The training ground of this book helped me figure out what I was supposed to do because it trained me in discerning what was important to me and what I was good at, those gifts God gave to me. It helped me discern what my vocation, my calling, was to be.

The preacher Frederick Buechner once wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

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There is a voice which calls us out of ourselves and into the world. We can hear it, or we cannot. We listen, or we don’t. Part of what it means to grow up is to be able to observe the competing voices that demand our attention and discern the intentions behind them. Good thing there’s a place to help you tune out those false narratives, we call that place the Church.

Thanks be to God.

A Cross Shaped Life

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me…” (Matthew 16:24)

Christians are a peculiar people. Peculiar in the sense that Christians do things, live things out, and hope for things to be different than a world hungry for power, glory, and status-quo.

Indeed, at First Christian Church we pray a counter-cultural prayer each week. It may slip by because we do it each week (routine and ritual becomes monotonous and taken for granted,) but even going through the motions, moving our lips, speaking the words, has the power to form us over time. It’s there even if you don’t notice it. Among the lydia-harper-228847.jpgvaried words we pray we say, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…”

What an exceptionally radical statement and action this is for each week we acknowledge things are not as they should be. The peace and wholeness that comes through the reign of God through the Spirit in Christ is not yet. People, left to their own devices, build up structures benefiting few and subjugating many. People, left to their own devices, prey upon each other. People, left to their own devices, hoard resources from one another. People, left to their own devices, war against each other.

I wonder if this is a bit what Jesus was talking about denying ourselves. Deny those parts of ourselves which are self-centered, consumeristic, and violent. Deny those parts of ourselves marred by sin, both societal and personal. Deny what leads to death.

The paradox though, of course, is by denying ourselves we take up something which leads to death, or at least that’s how it appears. A cross was a place of death. Crucifixion was a tool used by an empire to scare the masses. It was a form of execution to stop uprisings. People, left to their own devices, come up with a cross.

Christians recognize this is wrong, so they pray for it to change. They pray for Christ’s coming Kingdom where the first are last and the last are first to be fulfilled. Indeed, Jesus himself taught us to pray like this, but he also calls us to action. allef-vinicius-103543.jpg

Taking up your cross means living a life like Christ’s. It’s a life which some people will frown upon because it goes against cultural norms. This is to be expected. But in giving yourself up for Christ’s cause, you will indeed find life itself.

Work to Do

For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function,  so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. (Romans 12:4-5, NRSV)

There are days when one’s heart just breaks. I can remember the morning I heard about the Sandyhook Massacre, broken heart. I can remember when the two towers fell, broken heart. I can remember seeing the pictures of the devastation wracked by Hurricane Katrina, broken heart. In the midst of the monsoon that is Hurricane Harvey, my heart is breaking. vlad-busuioc-116873.jpg

Elderly sitting in waist deep water waiting to be rescued. People carrying pets above their head as they wade through the rising river. Tents being pitched on top of roofs because the house is inhabitable. Bed-ridden people worrying about the waters rising to drown them. This is a heart breaking and catastrophic event.

But I also get the feeling of a bit of helplessness. We are hundreds of miles away. We have jobs we need to be at, families we need to stay with, houses that need cleaning, meals to be made, chores to be done. Life for us certainly doesn’t stop even when something like a hurricane hits another part of the country. We see all the help needed and are downtrodden not just because of the devastation, but because we feel like we cannot do anything to help.

We can. You can. Each of us, by the grace of God, are given gifts. They aren’t to be used for bragging, used to show how much better you are than anyone, used to pump your stock up, but used to shine the light of Christ into a shadowy world. Some of us can teach about the importance of disaster prep. Some of us can put Church World Service kits together. Some of us can actually go down to Houston to help long-term recovery. All of us can pray. All of us can give to Week of Compassion, our denomination’s disaster relief WOCLogo.jpgorganization, where 100% of your proceeds go to help rebuild after the waters recede.

Don’t feel helpless, because you are not. Let’s get to work together. Let’s be the hands and feet, indeed the very Body of Christ.

Please pray with me:

God of Noah’s rain and the psalmist’s morning dew; Jesus, our water-walker and storm-stiller; Spirit of mighty wind and word who moves the tides of creation’s seas and the hearts of those drenched in baptismal waters: Protect those in Hurricane Harvey’s path.  Provide comfort to those who suffer loss. Grant safety and courage to those who respond to victims of flood, fire, and injury. Sustain all our hearts with compassion for our neighbors and with hope of days filled with sunshine and gentle breezes.  Amen. (taken from weekofcompassion.org)

Finding What You’re Looking For

While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.”  Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. (Mark 14:22-24)

We were very intentional in crafting our Wedding worship, Hannah and I. We didn’t want it to simply be only about us. We knew joining together in a covenant of marriage was more than promises to each other, it was a promise to God as well. It was a celebration that the grace, hope, and love we shared together were first shared with us. It was a worship of the one who first loved us. And because we knew that, we also knew there was no better way to celebrate than to join with each other and all those who came to celebrate and worship with us than at the Table.

But we also knew it was important to make our way there in song. So we set about 9275_Pew_in_the_Sun.jpgchoosing the right hymn. We didn’t want it to be one of the more somber ones, lest we fall into a morose mood when we should be joyful. We didn’t want it to be too long or too short, lest we fall into the Goldilocks trap. We didn’t want the lyrics to over power the moment and take our attention away from what was going on.

I stumbled upon the hymn “Come, Share the Lord,” and I knew I found it when I read such lyrics as “No one is a stranger here, everyone belongs; finding our forgiveness here, we in turn forgive all wrongs” and “we are now a family of which the Lord is head; though unseen he meets us here in the breaking of the bread.” It perfectly encapsulated the moment.

It’s now my favorite Communion Hymn. I can’t help but well up every time I hear it. But even still, that particular lyric of “no one is a stranger here, everyone belongs” rings loud to me today. It rings loud because everyone is searching for community. Everyone wants to be part of something bigger than themselves. Everyone wants to feel like they belong. And so people join groups which espouse neo-nazism, fascism, or white supremacy because they are given a purpose and an identity.

The Table is our response to this innate urge. There, we are knit together as God’s family, lightstock_75337_small_sara.jpgas Christ’s body. There, we are given the identity of a Child of God. There, we are given the purpose of sharing Christ’s forgiving love with all we meet.

Even more, God’s Table is big enough for everyone. No one is left out. Everyone gets to share in God’s transforming grace. It’s up to us to sing out loud so the world will hear.

May it be so this day.