Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Spirit Leading

Psalm 98
John 14:15-18

I want to start this morning with the quote on the front of your bulletin:
The will of God is not arbitrary or autocratic.  It is comparable to the actions of the lead partner in ice-skating.  In ice-skating, as in any form of dance, there must be a leader.  One partner leads, the other follows.  The one who follows is not passive or limp, but eagerly engaged in response.  There is give-and-take, point and counterpoint.  The one who follows exercises a personal will in the dance.  The lead skater does not drag the other across the ice.  Rather, the genius of the dance on ice is that as the one leads, the other follows in full response.  Both are fully engaged.

What does it mean to follow, eagerly engaged in response to the leading of the Holy Spirit?  First it means that we have to stop trying to lead out of our own ego.  I don’t want you to think for a second that I believe that God has everything planned out and that we have to guess what that plan is.  God has given us free will and the freedom to choose our own path in life.  Our freedom is a gift of love.  God’s will is that we return God’s love and love one another as we have been loved.  God wills that we be responsible with our freedom.  That’s where our egos get in our way.  We want to be in charge of our lives and we want to do what pleases us, even when it does not take into account what is most loving to the other.  The spiritual journey is a journey of ego transformation in which we become willing dance partners with God.  How do we do that?
The first step is willingness.  It doesn’t matter whether or not we think we’re ready, or whether we think we know the steps, we simply need to be willing to engage and be taught.  We have to be game.  We have to say “yes” to God.  Then the Spirit takes the lead.  But how on earth do we follow a Spirit that we can’t see or hear or touch?   We listen.  There is not one right way to listen for the Spirit’s leading.  We are created as such unique people that there is no one size fits all in the Spirit’s leading.  The good news is that the Spirit works within our individual unique styles of listening and learning.  It’s up to us to figure out how we listen and learn and to practice listening.  I suggested experimenting with a number of spiritual disciplines over the last year.  Did you try those disciplines?  I teach a class in the doctor of ministry program in the School of Theology and Ministry and assigned those same disciplines to my class.  They had to write about their experiences and share their writing within small groups.  What they wrote was fresh and thoughtful and moving.  And no two experiences were alike.  Some loved walking prayer and walking a labyrinth reminded them that their best prayer times were walking in nature.  Others didn’t remember how to play when play as prayer was the assignment.  Some had been so busy working, had been so serious about their discipleship that they forgot what gave them joy.  Playing was a revelation in their relationship with God.  Some of the most beautiful reflections came from rediscovering God’s delight in laughter and recreation, literally re-creation.  Some found surprising guidance in writing morning pages, even though some needed to adapt those to evening pages.  Writing focused thoughts and emotions and was a great release for those issues that we gnaw on that distract us from our best work.  For some writing was a way to hear the music so that they could respond to the Spirit’s moving.  Most agreed that they were allergic to fixed hour prayer, an allergy that I share.  A few loved that particular prayer tool, but many had to adapt it to fit their ministry and work patterns.  One chaplain learned from a rabbi co-worker to pray every time she washed her hands.  I love that new prayer discipline!  Now every time I wash my hands, I share a quiet time with God and am refreshed and re-engaged in the dance.  There is no perfect, one-size-fits all prayer discipline.  You need to find the one that fits your listening and learning style.
Learning to dance with the Spirit requires our attention and effort.  We need to learn to hear the music and feel the beat, and that only happens when we set aside time to listen to God, whether it’s in quiet time, walking prayer, play, writing, journaling, or any other prayer discipline.  There’s a saying about Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire’s most famous dance partner.  She did everything that Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in heels.  That kind of power and grace takes practice!  And it is made possible by trusting the lead dancer.

The long tradition of faith tells us that the Spirit works holiness in us when we say “yes” to God.  Our goal as Christians is to be holy, which simply means belonging to God.  In our metaphor, holiness means being a great dance partner.  Gertrud Mueller Nelson tells this delightful story about her young daughter’s first steps toward holiness:
Some years ago, I spent an afternoon caught up in a piece of sewing I was doing.  The waste basket near my sewing machine was filled with scraps of fabric cut away from my project.  This basket of discards was a fascination to my daughter Annika, who, at the time, was not yet four years old.  She rooted through the scraps searching out the long bright strips, collected them to herself, and went off.  When I took a moment to check on her, I tracked her whereabouts to the back garden where I found her sitting in the grass with a long pole.  She was affixing the scraps to the top of the pole with great sticky wads of tape.  “I’m making a banner for a procession,” she said.  “I need a procession so that God will come down and dance with us.”  With that she solemnly lifted her banner to flutter in the wind and slowly she began to dance.

May the Spirit lead you in a dance that will take your breath away.  Amen.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Secret Agents Planning Goodness

James 5:1-6
Matthew 20:1-16

Brian McLaren frequently refers to Christians as secret agents of the Kingdom of God.   I love that metaphor!  The first time I read that metaphor, I was in!  Sign me up!  Isn’t being a secret agent more fun than being a disciple?  Or an ambassador—that sounds so stodgy.  I can talk to kids and teens about being a secret agent.  So what’s the difference?  There really isn’t any.  The subversiveness of the secret agent metaphor appeals to me.  What we do speaks so much louder than what we say!  Instead of lecturing people, we are about surprising acts of kindness, and mercy, and justice and all other kinds of goodness.  
Let’s start within our families and then take the idea out into the larger world.  If you are a secret agent in your family, how do you go about plotting goodness for the people to whom you are the closest?  Plotting—that suggests that it takes some forethought and planning.  What would it look like to carefully think about making your family life good?  Would you think about how you use your time?  What you eat to maintain or restore health?  How you use your resources?  Wouldn’t it also include asking the other members of your family what “good” looks like to them?  Maybe you’ve heard the old story about the newlyweds who loved each other so much that whenever they ate chicken, they each made sure the other got the best piece.  He always gave her the white meat, and she always made sure he had the dark meat.  It was years before they discovered that she preferred the dark meat, and he liked the white.  We need to ask each other what makes life good.
What about plotting goodness for your neighbors?  When my grandmother baked a pie, she always baked two—one for her family and one for a neighbor.  That is so outside the way I think, and yet that’s what keeps neighborhoods connected.  Maybe your driveway is too long, and your neighbors too far away, but the food bank is a great way to share goodness with local neighbors.
Let’s think bigger.  What can we do to plot goodness for the neighbors that are beyond our driveways?  I’ve had the privilege of being in dynamic discussions this week about active faith in the public square and we talked a lot about racism in racially mixed settings.  The first thing I learned is that we need to ask our neighbors what they need in order for life to be good.  I heard that there need to be jobs that pay a living wage.  There are any number of arguments that deter us from increasing the minimum wage.  The one I hear most often is that small businesses can’t afford it and it would effectively decrease the number of jobs.  Most of us don’t want to pay more for products so that argument holds a lot of sway.  But our history has not borne that out.  If fact, Henry Ford wanted the people who were building his automobiles to be able to afford to buy one, so he raised the pay of his employees.  Sure enough, his cars flew off the assembly line and the middle class was strengthened.  We are watching our jobs leave our shores because American workers are too expensive, but American workers are our neighbors!  What we end up paying as a result of high unemployment and low wages in health care, crime, addiction, policing, and prisons, is significantly greater than the cost of creating a healthy system in which people can take care of themselves and their families.  
Now you may tell me that I’m being too political, but politics is about the real lives of real people—yours and mine and our neighbors.  Markus Barth, the son of the great theologian Karl Barth, wrote during the Cold War that, “to propose in the name of Christianity, neutrality or unconcern on questions of international, racial or economic peace—this amounts to using Christ’s name in vain.”   If we belong to Christ, we cannot remain neutral.  We must care about and the welfare of our neighbors and act to alleviate suffering and injustice.  
I am so grateful that this congregation is already engaged in conversations about issues that impact our neighbors.  We are in the process of discerning how we can be in ministry to and with gender minorities.  And we are getting ready to offer community-building activities for middle school youth.  And we are preparing meals for our homeless neighbors.  And we are part of the Interfaith Council on Homelessness.  And you sit on the boards of the service agencies on Vashon.  You are awesome!  There are days when I think it would be so nice to rest on our laurels.  And yet we have neighbors that need our advocacy.  We have neighbors that need our votes.  We have neighbors that need us to walk alongside them.  Did you know that approximately 10 percent of our Vashon neighbors are Latino?  Our neighbors have stories that need to be heard and real concerns.  I got to hear a lecture this week by the Rev. Spencer Barret, presiding elder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Pacific Northwest.   He told about asking the members of an African American clergy association in Tacoma how many had been pulled over by police when they were driving for no violation.  He said every pastor raised his hand.  Pastor Barret also told us about the time he was serving a church in Kansas.  He had left his garage door open and walked out of his house through the garage to find a police officer with his gun drawn pointing at him asking, “Is this your house?”  Have any of us had an experience like that?  The rest of the week, I listened to similar stories.  We don’t know about our neighbors’ lives and struggles unless we ask.  Can we find ways to listen, to ask, to help, to walk in solidarity?  How can we plot goodness for our neighbors?  

We each have to find the way to engage the serious issues of our day that suits our abilities.  I can’t march.  But I can become better educated by reading and listening.  I can write letters and sign petitions.  I can work with existing agencies and volunteer my time.  I can get to know my neighbors.  And I can vote.  The story of the good Samaritan applies as much to our collective neighbors as it does to individuals.  The Church and “good Christian people” cannot cross the road and pass by on the other side.  The good Samaritan was a secret agent of God’s Kingdom, kneeling down by the side of the injured and paying for his care.  So God is looking for secret agents—are you in?

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Spirit of Solidarity

Philippians 2:1-11
Matthew 23:1-12

I want you to imagine for a minute where God is.  When you pray, where do you sense that God is—at how much of a distance?  Is God in heaven?  Is God in space or beyond space?  Is God generally “up there”—the man upstairs?  When our children were young, we had a 4 year-old neighbor who knew exactly where God was.  When something went missing at his house, he would pray, “God, when you’re looking down here, if you see my brother’s bike, would you tell him where it is?”  I have a friend whose prayers always ask God to look down on us.  My mother, who was a church musician, once told me that she didn’t pray because God has so many more important things to attend to than her needs.  
But for Jesus, God was not the white haired old man on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Jesus taught his disciples to call God “Father” and “Abba, Daddy.”  It is unfortunate that the English translation of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, starts “Our Father, who are in heaven.”  Those words solidly place God in another dimension, away from us, and away from earth.  A better translation of the original Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, is far more intimate and also cosmic, “O Breathing Life, your Name shines everywhere!”  We don’t get closer to God by moving up a hierarchical ladder, by being wealthier, more powerful, more important, or even more religious.  For Jesus, God was immanent, permanently pervading and sustaining the universe, as close as our breath.  God’s Spirit reveals God working from within, being an inherent part not just of us, but of all of creation.  We draw nearer to God not by looking up and beyond, but when we serve those in need.  
However, I get uncomfortable when we talk about serving those in need because our desire to serve so easily turns into charity.  I appreciate the quote on the front of your bulletin by Eduardo Galeano who said, “I don’t believe in charity; I believe in solidarity.  Charity is vertical, so it’s humiliating.  It goes from top to bottom.  Solidarity is horizontal.  It respects the other and learns from the other.  I have a lot to learn from other people.”  When our image of God is hierarchical or vertical, our way of seeing human relationships becomes hierarchical.  I believe that God’s Spirit allows us to see God in one another in such a way that our relationships become mutual.  Instead of reaching a hand down, we can be in this, whatever it is, together.  We can have each other’s backs.
So why don’t we?  On this 4th of July weekend when we are celebrating American independence, why are we just waking up to the racism and violence that permeate our culture?  Why is a country that has been populated by immigrants from the very beginning, not able to solve immigration issues?   Why are we allowing the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer?  Why have we shredded the social safety net so that our veterans, and mentally ill citizens, and women and children have become homeless?  I believe it is because we are so enamored as a society with rising above and getting ahead.  We have little sense of solidarity with our neighbors, unless we can gather with those who are most like us in gated communities.  
Honestly, I don’t have an answer and it makes me sad.  I know how different our country could be if we believed in each other and cared about each other.  I also know that I’m talking to the choir.  I see how you take care of each other.  I tell other people how generous you are.  I know you do everything you can to make a difference in the part of the world in which you have influence.  I wonder if there is something in Galeano’s quote that might help us to be more loving, and perhaps even more effective in our ministry.  The idea of solidarity instead of charity holds so much promise.  
Let me tell you little ways that I see solidarity.  I don’t mean to embarrass anyone, but I want to share what I’ve noticed and hope that it will spread:
  • When Clay Gleb serves communion to children, he squats down to their eye level.
  • Some of you always buy a copy of the paper, Real Change, which homeless people sell.  Dick Vanderpool learned the man’s name who sells on Dick’s route to the Museum where he volunteers and Dick calls him by name and asks how he is.
  • Claire Hallowell will ask you how you’re doing after an illness long after everyone else has forgotten you were ever sick.  
  • When Faye couldn’t attend the Wednesday night study because she was in the community care center, the study came to her.
Jesus taught his disciples to serve one another by getting down on his hands and knees and washing their feet.  He told us that when we do something for the least of these, we do it for him.  God’s Spirit leads us into mutual relationship of respect and service in which we listen for what people need and respond with generosity—and we receive that same care and generosity when we are in need.  In solidarity, we have each other’s backs and treat each other with extraordinary respect.   How can we make that part of our cultural heritage?  How do we get that kind of mutual care and respect back in our public discourse and legislation?  Really, we do have choices and we can make a difference if we pay attention to the leading of God’s Spirit.