And so I ask you to please name five things you like about where you are living now... and as your bonus - 1 thing you don't like."
Friday, July 30, 2010
And so I ask you to please name five things you like about where you are living now... and as your bonus - 1 thing you don't like."
Sunday, July 25, 2010
In one-on-one meetings with parishioners, over and over again I have heard folks say, “I just don’t know how to pray. I think I’m doing it wrong. I don’t get the sense that God is listening, so it must be something about how I’m doing it that’s getting in the way.”
Prayer – we worry that it is this big mysterious thing that requires special talents, or that you’re supposed to follow a particular formula for it to truly be effective. And frankly, we Episcopalians fall into that belief quite naturally, because we’ve got a whole book full of some of the most beautifully crafted prayers imaginable that we use in worship and in private prayer – the Book of Common Prayer. Read those prayers, and it’s easy to get the idea that you’ve got to be an A-#1 wordsmith to pray the right way. Just look at the wonderful words of one of the collects for Evening Prayer: “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous, and all for your love’s sake.”
Oh my. It is so beautiful that it brings tears to my eyes whenever I read it.
I don’t know about you, but when I pray, it rarely sounds so exquisite. It’s usually a lot more basic.
The writer Anne Lamott says there are two prayers : “What???!!!!???” and “Thanks!!!”
I think I’d like to modify that list a bit. When I’m talking about prayer with children, I talk about a list that starts with the obvious one that we all use all the time: “Please.” Whether we’re grownups or kids, we use “Please” prayers all the time: please bring me the new game for my Nintendo game system, please bring my friend healing, please help me get that job, please make the repair on my car’s air conditioner not cost too much money. Then, because it’s not polite to just ask for stuff and not respond when we are given something, the next prayer is “Thank you.” And we should use that a lot, because we really have been given so much by our Heavenly Father. Thank you that this awful headache went away. Thank you that I got a little raise. Thank you that my baby slept through the night. Thank you that I didn’t take a drink today. Thank you that I woke up this morning.
“Please” and “thank you” might be enough for some folks, but for others of us, we need to add another one: “Oops.” We need it because we regularly do things that we wish we hadn’t done, say things we wish we hadn’t said, and we need to ask forgiveness. So “oops” is about acknowledging that we have failed in some way, whether it is big or small, and so we ask for God’s forgiveness, even as we should ask forgiveness from the person we have offended or fix the thing we have broken. Oops. I said something hurtful about a friend. Oops. I didn’t do what I promised I would do, because I was feeling lazy. Oops. I need forgiveness.
The last prayer on my list is one that we don’t think of very often, and I suspect that is because we have lost our childlike ability to be amazed at the wonderfulness of God’s creation around us.
That prayer is “Wow!” I say a prayer of wow when I’m out early in the morning and see the delicate lace of a spiderweb in a beam of sunlight, with a drop of dew adorning it like a diamond. I say a prayer of wow when my grandson smiles and says “I is here!” I say a prayer of wow when I see someone who has been terribly ill go home from the hospital with health restored. So many wows around us, if we only keep our eyes open for them.
When we hear the gospel this morning, we hear the disciples asking Jesus the same sort of question we all ask – how should we pray? It’s remarkable to imagine that they would be worried about the right way to pray. They’ve been with Jesus, the master himself. Shouldn’t it come naturally to them? But they, too, have doubts about how they are supposed to pray (not so much of a surprise, since the rules of prayer were so much a part of the old way of the temple), so Jesus gives them a prayer…
…and it’s a prayer that has all the kinds of prayer that I’ve talked about.
“Please…” please bring your kingdom to earth. Please give us the food we need each day. Please keep bad things away. Please show mercy to us.
“Thank you…” thank you for your holiness, for the promise of your kingdom, for your presence among us.
“Oops…” yes, we have sinned, and we acknowledge that, so please forgive us, as we try our best to forgive those who have sinned against us.
“Wow…” you are here, you have brought the promise of your kingdom to us. We see it every day in so many unexpected ways. You are the giver of all gifts, you are the gift.
Such a short prayer, and so much packed into it!
And just in case the apostles are confused about what it all means, Jesus gives them a very concrete example of how it works. If you go and knock on your friend’s door in the middle of the night, he may grumble a bit, but he will probably get up and let you in and give you what you need, particularly if you keep on knocking on his door. He may come down because you’re his friend. He may come down because you’ve been persistent and kept knocking. No matter what the reason, he’ll come down and let you in.
Why? Because you are a friend. You are in relationship with him. He can’t really refuse you, even though he’d rather roll over and go back to sleep. He loves you, even though he may not particularly like you when you wake him up in the middle of the night.
So Jesus says, go ahead. Knock. Keep knocking. Use this prayer, or just use the words of children.
Prayer is no more and no less than the spoken or whispered or thought words of relationship, relationship with God and with each other.
That is why Jesus says to the apostles, “Knock, and the door will be opened.” Prayer is the opening of the door to deeper relationship with God. It is not about the elegance of the language. It is not about the form, or about who wrote the words. It is about relationship, about opening the door to the God who dearly loves us and who wants the best for us, and wants us to be the best we can be. God is waiting on the other side of the door.
Knock. He is waiting for you, with grace and generosity and joy.
Ask. God will respond. We may not get exactly what we are asking for, but God WILL respond.
Search. God will find you, and let you find him. If you keep your eyes and ears open, you may find him in the place and in the way you least expect.
What helps you to knock, to ask, to search? Prayer. Simple words. The words that Jesus taught us, or at the moments when words fail us, the simple ones. Please. Thank you. Oops. Wow.
God understands, whatever the words, whatever the form, whatever the language. Spoken aloud or in the silence of our hearts, God knows. Thanks be to God.
Sunday, July 18, 2010
In the place where Jesus stayed
Martha toiled while Mary prayed.
This had Martha slamming doors
Jesus said,"the choice was yours!"
Mary, so demure and sweet,
Seated at the master's feet
Praying with the Holy One,...
(That Martha had got the dishes done.)
Well, I’m not sure that that is what Mary was praying for, but it’s possible! Two sisters, two different ways of approaching the world. And each of us in this room may identify with one sister or the other more strongly.
Okay, I’ll admit it.
I’m a Martha. I’m all about making a list and getting things done and checking them off the list. I just love checking things off a list. Sometimes I’ll even add little things to the list just so I can cross them off. I like the structure of projects that have a start, middle and end, with definable tasks. It feels safe, right?
That’s why this past week has been so interesting.
It was the week of finishing the installation of the new computer in the office, as well as upgrading my own laptop so all the devices could talk to one another. Just the perfect set of projects to make up a list for. And Dell and Microsoft played right into my desire for doing something with a clearly defined beginning, middle and end. They had lists for me to follow.
Now, their lists had to fit into the normal structure of the week here at church. That included preparing the bulletin and announcements, the meetings, including the Vestry meeting, and preparation of the sermon. And I knew that the week would also include visits to see the N family in the hospital, as Z recovers from his injuries. Still, I felt it was all under control.
You know that old saying? The one that goes “You make plans and God laughs?” Well, God laughed. I came into the office on Monday to get Lucy’s new computer up and running. I had done some preliminary work on it last week, but there was more to be done. So this was the first item on the list. But then the phone rang, and another issue needed attention. Some of the processes that needed to occur to get the computer going took much longer than I expected, so I had to leave the computer chugging along, doing its thing, while I went downtown to MCV. I didn’t get home until later in the evening than I had originally planned, but I felt we were well on the way to getting the computer going.
When I came into the office on Tuesday morning, the process of transferring files was done, so it was time to move out the old computer and move in the new one. I had a moment of panic when I thought the printer didn’t have the proper kind of connector for the new computer. Still, after crawling around underneath the desk to get the old computer unhooked and the new one hooked up, I was feeling pretty good about things. Then Lucy tried to get onto her email.
Lucy’s email wasn’t working.
God laughed. A rip-roaring snort.
The glitch turned out to be a relatively minor one, but it required most of Tuesday morning and part of the afternoon for Paul D to untangle it for us.
In the meantime, I was thinking about how the things on my mental list weren’t getting checked off. I was frustrated and annoyed with myself.
God shook his head, slowly, from side to side, and made that little “tsk-tsk” noise.
Now a smart person would stop and say, “This is a good time to stop, and catch my breath, and talk to God.”
But I’m a Martha, with my mental checklists and my calendar and my ridiculous expectations of myself. So I kept pushing along, and got through the issues with Lucy’s computer, and with my own laptop, and prepared for the monthly Vestry meeting to be held on Tuesday night. I felt pretty good about it all. After all, I had checked more items of the list, hadn’t I? And they were all important things, weren’t they? So I plowed ahead. And the phone rang, and it was my eldest stepson, who asked if the family might stop over at our place on their way to the beach. “When?” I asked. “Ummmm…..tonight,” he said. So I took a deep breath, and because I really love my stepson and his wife and family, and because I don’t get to see them nearly as often as I’d like, I said, “Of course!” So between the afternoon’s work and the Vestry meeting, before my Tuesday workout at the gym, I ran home and made beds and straightened up the house, feeling just a teensy bit frazzled, but happily anticipating their arrival. And after the workout I cooked dinner for Doug, gulped down a bit of it, and came over to church for the Vestry meeting.
And God was saying, “Hey, you, over here! I’m still here. Want to talk about it?”
But I was too busy checking things off the list. So we had the Vestry meeting, and then I ran to Martin’s to pick up a couple of things I thought we might need for breakfast, and I came home to finish straightening up, and I sat down on the couch, exhausted, but knowing that I needed to stay awake until Matt and Jenny and the kids got here. And in my mind, I was thinking of the things that we had talked about in the Vestry meeting and what I needed to tend to over the next few days. And I was constructing yet another list.
As I was sitting there on the living room couch, mulling over the list, in all my Martha-like obsession with getting it all done, there was a loud CLAP of thunder. I jumped a bit – after all, it’s been quite some time since we’ve last had that kind of storm around here – and then the rains came. And I knew that Matt and his family would be driving through a storm, tired after getting the little ones all ready for the trip. And I worried, because that’s what mothers do.
And I sat there, and I prayed. Finally, I stopped with the lists and the doing and the fixing, and I just sat there and prayed. “Dear God, keep them safe as they drive down through the storm.”
And God said, “I was wondering when you’d get around to that.”
Here’s the heart of this story in today’s gospel, about the diligent Martha and the dreamy Mary. God waits for us to invite him in. If we are so busy doing and listing and fixing and fussing, we may find we don’t leave ourselves time to welcome God into our hearts.
This is not to say that God requires those Marthas among us to stop doing everything that we are so very good at doing (and which, frankly, we secretly enjoy doing) and do nothing more than pray. The Marys may be called to that, and God bless them for that. It takes a special person to be a Mary, to simply sit and study and pray. But we Marthas, we are called to something different, to the doing and the fixing. But even in the midst of the work, we still must stop and invite God in, talk with God, pray, ponder. We must sit still long enough to hear God’s words and feel God’s presence in the midst of the work.
The lists will still be there. The tasks to be done will still remain. But if we can find a way to reframe them so that they are not merely work, but something that we offer to God, then these tasks are transformed into sacramental work, and they and we are twice blessed.
Whether we are Marthas or Marys, our lives are so full of the things that keep us from talking to God. So let’s not wait for the clap of thunder. Let’s make the time and the space to stop, sit still, and meditate on the one who guides our life and our work and our prayer. We will be twice blessed.
Sunday, July 11, 2010
Is the law your gospel, or is the Gospel your law?
By the time Jesus was born, the religion of the people of Israel was so rules-driven that it seemed that every aspect of the peoples’ lives was defined, restricted, and measured. Food, clothing, worship, household order, everything had some sort of rule associated with it. Jews who wanted to live in a way that they thought was righteous were continually checking to make sure they were in compliance. Rabbis and priests and scribes spent a lot of time explaining the rules, settling arguments about the right way to do things, and enforcing proper practices.
Have things really changed? As much as we complain about them, the fact is we actually like rules. We like to know what our boundaries are, even though we sometimes complain about them. They give our lives order and structure, and that makes us feel safe. And in a world that sometimes feels awfully unsafe, the comfort and control that following a specific set of rules is something we cling to.
That was the case of the Jewish people in Jesus’ time. They were, of course, living under the thumb of the Roman Empire. They were also under the very strict guidance of the religious leaders, who were all about following the rules, thousands of pages of rules. Their intent was good: they thought that all these rules would keep them in good relationship with God. But somewhere along the line, things shifted, and it became clear that the rules became an end unto themselves, that it was no longer about God. The law became the gospel, and it wasn’t good news. But then along came a new rabbi, a teacher from Nazareth, and his teachings seemed different to those who heard him. The talk about the law seemed to go into the background.
And so it was no surprise that it was a lawyer who stood up to question Jesus about his teachings in the Gospel today. After all, aren’t lawyers about the rules and the law and the meticulous parsing of the language to see how the law might apply in a particular situation? Of all the people who might be curious about laws, and about how Jesus interpreted the laws, it would be the lawyer in the room who just couldn’t stop himself from asking the question. In this gospel, it is referred to as a test, as if Jesus was a defendant sitting in front of a jury having to defend himself in the midst of tough questions.
For this lawyer, the law was all. It was the center of his existence. You might even say the law was his gospel, the very thing that guided his life.
Now Jesus was no simpleton. He knew where the lawyer was going in his questioning. So he responded as any good Jewish rabbi would. He asked a question back. “What does the law say?” You can’t do that to a lawyer in a courtroom, but you can certainly do that when conducting teaching about God…it was the common practice to have dialogues and Q&A sessions. Remember when I first began here and we had the Stump the Priest session? I was following an ancient tradition!
So Jesus posed that question to the lawyer – what does the law say? – and the lawyer responded by quoting the law : "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And Jesus said, “Great answer! Follow that law and you will go to heaven!”
But the lawyer had a follow-up question – don’t they always? – that was a loaded one. “Okay, so who is my neighbor?”
Now imagine you’re living in a place where you aren’t treated very well by the authorities, where there are groups who follow other religions living nearby, and things aren’t always too peaceable between you, where you’ve been pushed around by other people since the beginning, and you can get a picture of what a dangerous question that is. “Who is my neighbor?” Is it the person who lives nearby who always plays loud music at night on the weekends? Is it the kid who throws his trash on my front lawn as he walks to the corner? Is it the homeless guy who stands at the foot of the Laburnum off-ramp every day with his little sign begging for money, even though he seems to have the resources to have a cell phone and an iPod? Is it the woman who has bumper stickers expressing opinions that I think are vile?
“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer asks, and Jesus responds.
Jesus tells him a little story, a parable that is very familiar to us. It’s the story of the good Samaritan. Now when we hear the word “Samaritan,” we think of someone who is helpful and good and sweet. Our understanding of that name is based on this story. But it’s not quite as simple as that. By building his answer to that dangerous question around a Samaritan, Jesus is actually doing something even more dangerous, something quite radical.
Look first at the set-up. He first talks about those who pass by the person in the ditch, the priest and the Levite. Now when we hear of what they did, we immediately think badly of them – they’re the ones who didn’t help. Simple, right? Well, perhaps not.
Start out with the setting. The road between Jerusalem and Jericho is a dangerous one. There are robbers and cut-throats on it. It isn’t a surprise to anyone hearing this story from Jesus’ lips that something bad happened to the man in the ditch – they’d probably say he was stupid to be traveling that road alone. And when the priest and then the Levite see him there, what would go through their minds?
If this fellow was actually dead, they couldn’t touch him without becoming ritually impure, thus making it impossible to conduct religious services. That was the law. They might also have thought that this was a trap on this dangerous road, and that if they went over to help him, he might leap up to attack them. And if they had a mission to carry out, perhaps going to Jericho to carry out some sort of religious ritual, the wisest choice, and the one that would keep them in compliance with the law, would be to pass the injured man by. For them the law was their gospel.
But then along comes this other person, this Samaritan. The very word Samaritan would signal to the listeners that this was someone they all hated and thought was dirty and stupid and not good. But we don’t hear it that way, because to us, the word ‘Samaritan’ is something very different.
So to get that same sense today that Jesus’ original audience would have, let’s do a little exercise.
Close your eyes. Imagine a person who is the one person you would NOT like to help you if you are in trouble. The New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine says, “Is there anyone, from any group, about whom we’d rather die than acknowledge ‘she offered help’, or ‘he showed compassion?’ More, is there any group whose members might rather die than help us? If so, then we know how to find the modern equivalent for the Samaritan.”
A Samaritan, to a Jew in Jesus’ time, was hated, thought to be unclean, certainly not a follower of the Law. Our modern day equivalent might be a member of Al Qaeda, or a person who humiliated you at work, or the woman who had an affair with your husband, or the mother of the child who beat up your little one in the schoolyard and laughed when you complained. The one person whom you would never want to take help from, accept a favor from, have to say thank you to.
Now imagine that person coming over to you, as you lay there in that ditch, beaten up, unable to gather the strength to sit up…imagine that person coming to lend you a hand.
You’re a Jew and this dirty unclean Samaritan whom you have always been taught to despise comes over and pulls you up out of the ditch. His very touch is anathema, yet you have no choice but to accept his help. And he doesn’t just pull you out of the ditch, even though you are his sworn enemy, he cares for you, carries you to an inn where you can recover, uses his own money to pay for it, because your wallet is long gone.
Can you accept the gift of help from someone whom you cannot imagine being your friend? Can you imagine that person’s humanity and compassion?
That’s the outrageous message that Jesus offers in this parable. It’s not just helping out someone who is hurt. It’s about a relationship with someone who is so not a part of your world that it turns the old rules upside down. It’s about the law taking a back seat to the Gospel of love and respect and caring and compassion.
Jesus is saying this: no longer is the law the gospel. The Gospel is the law. The simplicity of the Gospel mandate trumps the hundreds of little rules that had tied people up in knots trying to keep in compliance, the little rules that distracted us from who and what God is and what God expects from us.
The simple rules.
Love God, love your neighbor, whomever he or she may be. The one who looks different from you. The one who sounds different than you. The one who believes differently than you. At the heart of it, we are all children of God, made in his image. It’s time we made the Gospel our law and treat all God’s children that way.
Imagine yourself in the ditch. Imagine the person you least expect to reach out her hand to you. Will you grasp that hand? Will you hug her in gratitude? Will you see Christ in her eyes, and will she see him in yours? Get up out of the ditch, and make the Gospel your law.
 Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2006), 148-149