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 I’m continuing my sermon series on James.  This Sunday we read about the taming of the tongue.  I hope you find these words beneficial.

James 3:1-12—The Judging Tongue

In his letter to these believers of the twelve tribes of Israel scattered among the nations, James doesn’t pull any punches, and today is no different.  He’s pretty direct in these statements about what we say, and in case you think this is just directed to teachers, read the text again; this is directed at all of the brothers and sisters, with an added warning about teachers.

We all know that words can set off landmines in our relationships, or in our political landscape or even our world.  Imagine what happens when someone in our family says that they detest us.  It cuts to our core, because deep down we want to be loved for who we are, and words—no matter how many times we sing that childhood mantra about sticks and stones—words damage us.

James gets this.  He gives great examples about the tongue, and I want you to hear it again in a current day translation.  A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it!  It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.  This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!  My friends, this can’t go on. A spring doesn’t gush fresh water one day and brackish the next, does it? Apple trees don’t bear strawberries, do they? Raspberry bushes don’t bear apples, do they? You’re not going to dip into a polluted mud hole and get a cup of clear, cool water, are you?” (The Message Bible James 3:3-12)

That leaves very little space for wiggle room, and yet we often fall short.  But the question has to be why.  Why do we do this?  Why do we let our tongues run wild?  And why do our tongues often run wild against those we love best?  You can tame wild beasts, James says, but the tongue, you might as well forget it.  It’s a world of evil.

That reference to taming all kinds of animals would have set of alarm bells for those reading James’ letter, because it would remind them of some other verses given much earlier in the biblical narrative.  From the first chapter of Genesis, way back at the very beginning.  “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.  Rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves on the ground.” (Gen 1:27-28)  And so when James talks about taming the animals, those hearing his letter would say, “Aha!  He’s talking about the work given to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.”  Animal taming and domesticating is a breeze, James says, but taming the tongue, give it up.

A while ago I read a fabulous book called Transformational Architecture: Reshaping Our Lives as Narrative by Dr. Ron Martoia.  His main idea is that the Christian story needs to begin where God starts it at Eden, and not where many Christians begin it at the tree of knowledge of good and evil and the fall of humanity.  He suggests that when God created us in God’s image, what we received is three core longings within us, three ways in which we connect: namely with God and something larger than ourselves, with each other and a longing to be loved, and with our future, our hope that things will be better.[1]  And those longings come directly from God, are God’s imprint, the image of God, on us.

Our relationships with each other are key to our lesson from James.  Dr. Martoia tells the story of being in the check-out at a grocery store waiting for his turn, and the woman in front of him had two kids running wild.  We’ve all been there.  The kids were touching everything, knocking over the candy and Mom was oblivious.  What really bothered him was that the kids were running into him as well and were making a scene.  Now Ron’s a former pastor and current ministry consultant and spiritual leader.  And this is what he was saying under his breath: “Are you kidding me?  Control your freakin’ kids.  I need to get you a parenting brochure.  This is a public place not an outdoor playground.  Get some awareness, lady.  These are your kids.”[2]  Those are some horrible things to be thinking, of course.  He writes, “As this frazzled mom paid for her items, she said to the cashier, ‘Thank you for being patient with me.  This has been a hard week. I’m taking care of my dying mother at my house, and my husband left me this week.’”[3]  He was bowled over, of course.  He was grateful he hadn’t spoken the words out loud, but he still felt like an idiot.

It’s that desire to judge that seems to be present in all of us.  Dr. Matoria points out that in the creation account, when God separates things—like light from dark or the land from the sea—everything is good.  Each day ends with that refrain, “And God saw that it was good.”  God sees everything, God knows everything, and what God sees is goodness.  Even when things are different from one another, when God looks at the armadillo and the lion on Day 6, God says its all good.  God revels in seeing that goodness.

And yet at the tree of knowledge of good and evil, of good and not good, Adam and Eve are told that they shouldn’t eat of it.   They are given the right to separate and name—that’s a giraffe over there, and this one is a prairie dog—but are told not to eat of this tree of knowledge of good and evil.  “It appears from the text” Martoia writes, “that they would acquire the ability to make pronouncements that only God, with his perfect and infinite knowledge, would be all to make.  They would presumably be seeking to make the sort of pronouncements that God had made in the refrain of Genesis, namely ‘and it was good.’”[4]  But the problem is when they eat of that fruit, “they immediately begin to judge between good and evil.  And the results of their judging seem to be significantly different from God’s appraisal.” They look down and see their nakedness and are ashamed.[5]  Martoia concludes, “Part of the sickness introduced by Adam and Eve is our incessant desire to judge between good and not good (evil), even though we are incapable of doing so in any ultimate sort of way.”[6]  But that doesn’t stop us.  We let our tongues go wild.

We like to separate people into groups that we can then put down easily.  We use phrases intended to harm others (We’re in the political season, insert your own example here from the party you support).  We judge people based on the color of their skin, or their accent, or their status.  Unfortunately, we start young, and many just hope to make it through middle school without getting too many scars inflicted by the verbal attacks.  We certainly know what is good and not good based on what others tell us, or what we pick up from our families or what we see on TV, but ultimately it goes completely against what God has said.  Because God, when God looks around and sees us, when God sees the Democrat and Republican and Independent, and the 80 year old and the 4 year old, and the guy from Africa, and the woman from the Netherlands, God looks at all of us and says, “It is good.”

This judging, this determining of good and not good, it is a fire, a fire from hell, as James puts it.  We destroy one another with our words, which flow right out of our unquenchable desire to judge others. And we do it for no other reason it seems than to make ourselves look good or to feel better about our own choices or to seem bright and witty.  We do it even though we know how much we hate it ourselves when we’re on the receiving end.

 

Which is exactly why we need Christ.  James hits the nail on the head, “No one can tame the tongue,” he writes.  Try as we might not to judge, not to let hurtful words slip out from between our lips, we cannot do it alone.  We need God’s help.  You see, it’s God who purifies the brackish waters within us.  God brings about the change in our lives, often slowly over a long period of time, but it’s God’s work and not something we can magically do by mere will power.

 

It is by inviting Christ into our lives each day, again and again, and allowing Christ to transform us, that we can make strides in the right direction.  It is in being crucified with Christ, as Paul puts it to the Galatians, that we give Jesus the chance to live in us.  By hoisting up that judging nature on the cross, we say again and again how much we want to be the people God always intended us to be.  When we offer ourselves to God’s correction and love, we come closer to the way things were always meant to be, people who see others simply as what they—and what we ourselves are—the image, the icon, of the living God.  Amen.



[1] Ron Martoia, Transformational Architecture.  2009.  I’m gleaning a lot from Dr. Martoia’s book, and will reference pages when I can, but I am certainly indebted to him for parts of this sermon.

[2] Martoia, 119.

[3] Martoia, 119.

[4] Martoia, 122.

[5] Martoia, 122.

[6] Martoia, 123

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Photo Credit: Stock Xchng by leroy

In our tradition, we read from a letter in the New Testament each Sunday (in addition to other readings), and  James is the epistle we’re reading for all of September.  His letter is both wonderful and hard to deal with. I feel that he is writing not to some Jewish believers back in the 1st century, but to us some 20 centuries later.

In the portion of his letter for this week he tells us that we shouldn’t show partiality. That’s dang hard, especially in the current environment here in the US as we get ready for a presidential election.  We like people who agree with us, or who impress us.  And we look down on those who disagree or who don’t have the education we do or whatever.

And when we do this—when we judge others—well, that’s not from God.

This sermon also hits on a few “in-house” things here at St. Mark’s. Good sermons always have a context, or so I learned in seminary. But even though I address the good folks here in Southborough, I think the message is one all of us need to hear.

When you’re done, I’d love to hear your responses. How do you deal with the issue of showing partiality?

Based on James 2:1-17 & Mark 7:24-27

            It’s been a few years for me—okay quite a few—but I still remember what it feels like to walk into a crowded cafeteria with a tray of food all by myself and not see any friends to sit with.  If you’ve ever been the new kid, or gone to a conference by yourself, or if you recall those first few meals at college, you may remember it too. When the scan for a familiar face came up empty, I would look for an open small table.  If I was lucky, I went there, if I wasn’t, I headed to the least crowded long table that had an opening on the end.  I would pull out a book (nowadays, I suspect I’d grab my iPhone) to look busy and shovel in my food.  Inside I’d be feeling as if I somehow didn’t fit in.  (Those childhood insecurities die hard, don’t they?)

It’s tough walking into a place where you think you might not fit in.  But it helps if you look like you belong.  At least then you can hope that people will notice you or be kind or at least not give you the once over and dismiss you with the look of their eyes because you are clearly out of place.

But it’s exactly that kind of thing that James talks about in the bit of his letter that we read today.  It seems some of the early followers of Jesus were doing just that.  “Do you really believe in our Lord,” James asks incredulously, “with these acts of favoritism you show?”  He then creates this scene about a wealthy person and a homeless guy coming into a gathering.  The rich chap looks like he might be able to help the bottom line, or be able to offer an amazing network to connect with.  So the people there fall over themselves to help him, giving him attention and a seat of honor.  But the other guy, the one who looks out of place, who has a bit of b.o., and oozes with insecurity, well he barely gets a chance to say hello before he’s rushed off to the obstructed view seating in the back.

“Have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”

That’s a rhetorical question, of course.  They know they’ve been caught.  And they’re left holding the bag.  Because when a guy shows up in Rolls Royce we notice.  The woman in the Pinto? Not so much.

James continues with this partiality talk, about how when they do it, they are in fact breaking the law; they are sinning.  With their actions, they dishonor the poor.  And when you defame them, you defame God.

But I cannot talk about this without ignoring the elephant in the room.  Jesus, in our passage this morning, calls a woman a dog.  There’s another, much more harsh word we use today that would result in getting your mouth washed out with soap.  Jesus called a woman that.

Trying to soften this—something a few commentators attempt, like claiming Jesus spoke with a twinkle in his eye, or that he really meant a playful puppy—doesn’t stand the truth test.  Jesus says that he can’t help her because she isn’t Jewish; thanks for playing, but no.

But this Syrophonecian woman cares much too deeply about her demon possessed daughter.  She’s not going away when a Jewish rabbi throws out a racial slur.  “Yes, Lord,” she responds, “but even the dogs under the table get the children’s scraps.”  And with that Jesus’ eyes are opened.  He looks at her with a new sense of compassion, and awe at being beat by her wit, and he recognizes that this kingdom that he is ushering in cannot be contained.  That there is more than enough to go around.  That even the ones seen as unworthy can share in the goodness of the kingdom.

We see Jesus’ human side in this.  He’s clearly showing some bigotry.  But when it’s pointed out to him, notice that Jesus doesn’t stand his ground and say, “Listen, lady, did you not hear me before?”  Instead he changes his mind.  Jesus hears her.  Maybe he had a tough day at the office, or was just run down, or still needing that break after John the Baptist’s death.  Whatever the reason, Jesus sees he’s in the wrong and corrects his course.  He realizes the beauty of his message even more so than before.  His kingdom is not about scarcity; it’s about abundance.

It’s easy to see the scarcity though.  It’s way too easy to recognize that the best thing to do when you don’t think there’s enough for you and yours is to grab as much as you can and push others away.  Jesus came primarily for the Jews, but his message of repentance, reconciliation and restoration couldn’t be contained for the Jews alone.  Even then that message was so much larger.

We do this in church, of course.  We live thinking there’s not enough.  And so we play favorites and find the people we think will bring us more status or clout or money or whatever and focus all our attention on them.  We dream small dreams because we think we don’t have the people, the bandwidth, the energy to do anything more.

But there’s a better way.  I think what James is getting at in this passage is this: when we focus in on a certain person or individual, we don’t allow ourselves to see the way God can use the other, especially the one deemed too different from us.  To say it plainly, we limit God.  We don’t see the image of God in that other person because of how we view them based on their clothes, or their car, or their education, or their children, or their hairstyle, or the color of their skin, or the choices in their lives.  So we think they are useless to us, and we ignore them.

But God sees them as integral to the kingdom Jesus ushered in; the same kingdom that couldn’t be contained just to the Jews.  God’s kingdom oozes abundance.  More than enough.

I’m seeing this play out here at St. Mark’s.  I’ve heard from some a message of caution or fear or disappointment or frustration that there aren’t enough people here to take active roles in our community right now.  We don’t have enough in the way of readers or chalice bearers.  We lack people to help our youth program, or to sing in our choir, or to serve at the homeless shelter or to organize the library.  When there’s not enough, our anxiety spikes.  Maybe there are hard conversations, or we feel like we’re not being heard.  Some may suggest that people are just too over committed or can’t make the time or don’t want to help out.  With a bit of feeling overwhelmed we might even call someone a name we know we shouldn’t.

But I’m here to tell you there’s more than enough.  It’s not just crumbs falling off the table, it’s a meal.  We need to look beyond those who think like us or share our views or who live in the same neighborhood or have always done the work.  We all can share in the work given to us by God here at St. Mark’s at this time.

Because God doesn’t show partiality.  Oh we might.  We might think that Sunday School is to be taught just by parents, but we have a number of excellent retired teachers in our midst who could help share our faith for an 8 week session.  Or maybe you think you couldn’t teach at all, but if you had the support of someone else with you, you might give it a try.  Or perhaps the thought of dishing up a plate of food in Marlborough or Boston scares you but you feel called to face that fear and recognize that God doesn’t have favorites.  Or maybe you could sing with the choir, or take part in the Christmas Bazaar, or use the gift of meticulousness for God’s glory by signing up for a turn on the altar guild.  Or you might have time to visit a shut in and bring them communion, or help out at the Bargain Box sorting through donated clothing.

I know there is enough talent, enough compassion, enough love for God in this congregation to do the work given to us, and even more.  But not if we show partiality.  Not if we look down at one another.  Or even worse, not if we look down at ourselves.

Which is, I think, one of the biggest challenges today.  We don’t think we are capable, or we think that others don’t want our help, or that we don’t have the same skills that someone else has.  So we bow out, defer, skulk away.  We figure that the group is set and is not in need of others.  Sometimes we might even feel a vibe coming off that a group doesn’t want new people to join—like we’re walking back into a crowded cafeteria alone.  I know this is simply not true.  Every person involved here in some way or another has mentioned how they would love to have more people involved.  People who have been here a long time or those who joined last month.  Adults or kids.  Women or men.  We have the gifts we need and then a lot more.

We can change the world, but first me must change our minds. About other people, about God’s kingdom, and about the amazing reality of abundance.  “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

We are called to so much more, and so on this day, the first Sunday back in this program year, I’d like to invite you to fill out that form you received.  Even our younger members.  And the ones who have been here more than 40 years.  How can you share yourself in the abundance of the kingdom?  What ideas do you have for us?  In this, our 150th year of worshipping on this piece of land, we can make a difference.  As those called to be members of Christ’s body in this place, we must make a difference.  If we don’t, if we merely pay lip service or come and go without working toward the kingdom, then our faith is dead.  I hope you’ll join alongside me in sharing in the work of Christ.  We can do it, but only together.  Only when we see the abundance of the kingdom and the reality that Christ’s good news is for us all.

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A rabbi once said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?”

Love your enemies.

We don’t do that well in America at all, this supposedly Christian nation.  We hate our enemies. We treat them horrifically; we call them names. We laugh at their missteps, and refuse to listen to them.

This has always been simmering in the background, but really came to the forefront in the 2000 Presidential election, when Gore v. Bush made it to the Supreme Court and people felt that their votes didn’t count. So the best way to address this was to resort to name calling.

I saw on Facebook last week a picture of Hitler talking about Socialized Medicine. A friend of a friend posted it, and tagged my friend. Of course, the implied message was that President Obama had stooped to the depths of Hitler. I’ve heard this before of course. And I saw bumper sticks for Bush/Satan back in 2004 (instead of Bush/Cheney).

Where has the dialogue gone? What about even showing a bit of love?

Many Christians have aligned themselves with the GOP who have quite a few incendiary radio personalities (the left have them too, but I don’t think they are as well known). They listen to the radio and then get worked up themselves and start viciously name calling. There is little if no denouncement of things that cross the line. Some Christians have aligned themselves with the Democrats, and often claim a sense of superiority, looking down on Republicans as unintelligent (and much more).

The problem is that Christians have gotten so used to this that they get downright nasty to those who disagree with them. And when people who do disagree with them (be they Christian or no) talk with them and get heated, well it keeps escalating.

Jesus says we need to love our enemies. Show them respect. Turn the other cheek.

If nothing else we should at least be civil.

When a person claiming to be a Christian equates a President wishing to bring medical care to more people is equated with a man who killed 6 million Jews, well that’s just wrong. When a person claiming to be a Christian says all those living in Red States are ignorant, inbred rednecks who can’t have an intelligent thought, well that’s just wrong too.

If we were a Christian nation, there would be more civility in the public arena. And this won’t change until Christians, and others, begin following the advice of that wise rabbi.

_____________

Photo Credit: Stock Exchange, Sebastian Pothe

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It’s Independence Week here as we celebrate July 4th.  I’ll be celebrating with my family at a local parade and a possible visit to Old Sturbridge Visit (the kids aren’t quite old enough yet to deal with the Boston Pops).

I hear all the time that we are a Christian nation, or that America’s framers were all Christians. I’m not going to argue with either of these, but I want to spend this week thinking about what America would look like if we truly were a Christian nation.  And it’s not what you think. Neither political party has the market cornered on this.

If we were truly a Christian nation, there would be very few poor people in America.

The disparity between the rich and the poor in this country is unbelievable. It’s the largest in the world, actually.  The median US wage was $26,364 (in 2010).  The average couple spends $26,984 on their wedding (also 2010).  You can do that comparison.

And this disparity also impacts education.  The gap in education is growing, and education was seen as the great equalizer.  Students from poor communities—regardless of ethnicity—are generally doing poorly in school.  Parents from wealthier families are investing more in special programs for their kids.  Poorer parents—often single parent homes—struggle to make ends meet, so special opportunities are rare.

Now you may be quick to say, “Yes.  But people can choose to spend their money wherever they want, and that’s why we should have better education standards since teachers aren’t doing their jobs.”  And I would say that we have misplaced values.

The poverty line in the US sits at $23,050 for a family of four.  We had more than 15% of Americans living below the poverty line in 2010.

If we were truly a Christian nation we’d be doing something about this.  First by saying that it’s criminal to claim that the poverty line is at $23k for a family of four.  Second, by recognizing that most people don’t want to be in this position, and want to work hard.  I’m personally surprised by the number of folks who say it’s due to lazy folks looking for a handout from the government.  Yet minimum wage jobs nets you only $15K a year or so. If you work fulltime.  If not, well, then you won’t get any benefits and will make less than that $15K.

We don’t stand up for the poor because we don’t really care. We think they got themselves into this problem and we shouldn’t have to get them out.  Besides God helps those who help themselves.  (Which isn’t in the Bible, by the way.  Ben Franklin said it.  In Poor Richard’s Almanac).

But God says something very different.

Deut. 15:7-8. If there is a poor man among you, one of your brothers, in any of the towns of the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand to your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks.

Ps. 140:12. I know that the Lord maintains the cause of the needy, and executes justice for the poor.

Is 41:17. The afflicted and needy are seeking water, but there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst. I, the LORD, will answer them Myself, as the God of Israel I will not forsake them.

Luke 3:11. And [John the Baptist] would answer and say to them, “Let the man with two tunics share with him who has none, and let him who has food do likewise.”

Mt. 5:42. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.

There are hundreds more.  Literally.  God cares more about the poor than we think.  I’ll gladly list more verses to prove this point. Hebrew Scriptures or New Testament.  It’s all over the place.

And we ignore it because we choose not to care.  If we were a Christian nation, we’d be doing more.  Instead we want to spend more and more (and rack up debt) for ourselves without considering those in any kind of need.  And we do this because we are selfish.

I’m not holier than any of you.  I have struggles here too.  My kids go to great schools because of where I live, and I am glad for that.  I make a terrific wage.  I give away a portion of my income to charities.  And I could certainly be doing more.

This is a real passion for God, but it gets lost in the politics of the day.  Churches would rather build bigger buildings and have more programs than give away more of their money to the needy.  I think churches should work at giving away at least 10% of their pledge income to organizations that reach out to those in need.

We need to fix this.  Either that or stop saying we are a Christian nation.  And we need to help those who aren’t Christians too.  I don’t think Jesus ever once asked to see someone’s attendance record for the local synagogue before he healed them.  He just did.

_______________________

Photo credit: Stock Exchange (MeiTang).

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My son created a card for me on Father’s Day, a class project at his elementary school.  He started with a piece of blue construction paper, and wrote the words “Happy Father’s Day!” on the front.  Inside he pasted in a copied sheet of a white paper that began with “My Dad is the most wonderful dad in the whole world!”  And then it contained lines with intentional blanks.  “He is as handsome as a_____________.”  “He is as strong as a _________________”

My son just finished first grade and can be wonderfully creative.  In this case he wanted to be funny.  I’m as handsome as a Dad.  My strength?  Like a bull’s.  The food I favor above all others garnered this answer, “Well, I do not know.”  He claims that he wouldn’t trade me for a Teddy Graham.

And my favorite activity? iPhone.

When I received this card, I laughed quite a bit until I read that line.  Honestly, that one stung.  It’s accurate, at least in his eyes (okay, it’s accurate in anyone’s eyes).  He didn’t embellish any on that empty line to make me laugh.  He just wrote down the truth.

I can get easily distracted.  Especially after coming home from work.  One of the curses of living where I work is the lack of a commute so I can process the day.  I can walk home in less than a minute.  (I’m not complaining, by the way.  I love that I can pop over for lunch or to grab something I accidently left at home or take some time in the afternoon to meet my kids at the bus.)  When I need a few minutes of downtime, my iPhone is my addiction of choice.

At times I get wrapped up in the social aspects of being online.  Seeing clever updates on Facebook.  Making some of my own.  Reading my favorite news sites for the happenings of the day.  Intently consuming Yahoo’s “Top 10 Foods You Love to Hate” story that earned top billing on their homepage.

But I can tell you, my iPhone isn’t the activity I want my son to remember about me when he gets older.  I want him to cherish the time we spent outdoors together, or reading books, or making a derby car for scouts.  I want him to know me as the one who loves to cook, who oozes passion for writing, who can’t wait to climb the next peak in the White Mountains.  I don’t want him to remember me with my eyes fixed on a smart  phone.

So while I sometimes want to connect with people online or to be up on the latest information, I know it can’t take the place of connecting with my family.  And that’ll mean putting down the phone someplace, maybe even turning it off for a bit, and intentionally building memories.  I’m starting now.  I’ve got next year’s first grade card from my daughter to work towards.

And at least I know I won’t be traded for a Teddy Graham.

What about you?  What’s your distraction of choice?  What do you long to be known for by your kids or spouse or friends?  Are you doing that?  I’d love to hear your comments.

__________________

Stock photo from Stock.Xchng by Horton Group (hortongrou).

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My first foray into the Episcopal Church happened at a place called St. Francis.  I declare upfront, I knew nothing whatsoever about Francis when I arrived there as a 20-something.  Even though I began life as a Roman Catholic, we made the leap into Protestantism—a pentecostal church—while I was in second grade.  Fox’s Book of Saints hadn’t been required reading up till that point of my life.  And my charismatic pastors growing up paid no attention to anything marked as important by the Vatican.

So my introduction came when that Episcopal congregation held a blessing of the animals on the front lawn one October.  I came because it intrigued me to know that a priest would actually bless animals, and also to watch the ensuing chaos of cats and dogs together.  They remained respectfully suspicious without flair ups.  I’d have to wait nearly 20 years to see that by none other than my own beagle, Buster, a rescue that is disrespectfully suspicious of other animals, cat or dog.  But I digress.

I follow Ian Morgan Cron on twitter.  Ian’s also an Episcopal priest who ventured out of Evangelicalism, and wrote a smashing memoir—Jesus, My Father, the CIA and Me, A Memoir of Sorts—that I am still reeling from a good six months after having read it.  One day he offered a signed copy of his first book Chasing Francis for any that would write a review.  I accepted, recognizing I didn’t need to leave a favorable one, but knowing Cron has writing chops and I wouldn’t be disappointed.  I wasn’t.

Chasing Francis, a work of fiction, follows the journey of a mega-church pastor, Chase Falcon, who loses his understanding of faith while preaching one Sunday.  This crisis brewed under the surface for many months, deep questions about pain and loss and God.  Chase always could produce the right answer, little tid-bits of the faith to answer any question that came his way; that is, until his questions got too deep.

After the elder board forces him to take a leave, he travels to Italy to meet up with Kenny, his mom’s first cousin.  Kenny had been a Protestant who became a Catholic.  Not just a run of the mill Catholic, he became a Franciscan priest.  Cron writes, “A conservative Baptist becoming a Catholic is like the pope becoming a Mormon.  The long-haul viability of the cosmos is drawn into question when stuff like this happens.”

Kenny and the other Franciscans Chase meets share the story of Francis, the most beloved of Saints, while he is on this extended pilgrimage.  Chase discovers the stories of Francis’ hagiography, like the one of the town and the wolf and of Francis and the Sultan among many others.  And ultimately Chase rediscovers a faith, much deeper and richer than before.

Cron is a master story-teller.  While we hear of Francis’ life, we also learn of the conflict brewing at Chase’s mega-church and a growing friendship.  The novel reaches its climax with Chase sharing what he has learned in a manifesto for the church.

And for me, as a priest and pastor of a congregation, the novel shines most brightly at that point.  Cron has written a guide about how to be the Church, learning from Francis, a church-planter and remarkable saint.  Ideas about transcendence and community and generosity.  I won’t tell you how the book ends, if the mega-church he started comes alongside their minister or not.  I will only say that Ian Cron has written a fantastic, captivating novel, and it includes a clarion call for the Church of today.

You can buy Chasing Francis online.

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“A good story involves a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.” – Donald Miller

I attended Don Miller’s Storyline Conference this spring.  I read Don’s life-changing book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years while recuperating from the surgical repair of my tibial plateau fracture, and Storyline follows a natural progression from the book.  In short, Don invites participants to intentionally live a better story. But if you’re going to live a good story, then you need to overcome conflict.  Most of us eschew conflict like the plague. (The plague still exists by the way.  When I lived in Colorado, an open space area near us—home to a prairie dog colony—bore signs warning that the cute little dogs had contracted the Bubonic Plague. You could enter at your own risk.  It certainly made you think twice about walking there.  I high-tailed it back to my car.) So if conflict lies in the way of us living a better story, surely we shouldn’t plop back down on the couch and give up.  But most of us do. We’d rather grab a bag of Doritos and watch reality TV on the Food Network than engage in overcoming conflict.  (Okay, I’d rather do that.  Insert your own snack food and TV addictions). I suspect we do this for a few of reasons:

  • We think conflict will go away by itself and when it does we’ll get the story we want.  Why we fall for this magical thinking stumps me, but we do.  Conflicts standing in the way of a better life—like a deeper relationship with your spouse, tackling a fitness program, getting out of debt, planning the trip you’ve always dreamed about, starting your own business — don’t disappear.
  • We push off starting till tomorrow. Maybe we’ve heard Annie sing “Tomorrow” too many times, and never realize that if tomorrow is going to be a brand new day, we really have to start over.  If we live on auto-pilot, tomorrow will be a repeat of today.  And so will tomorrow’s tomorrow.  And before you know it, Christmas comes again.
  • We don’t know where to start.  The curse of our society lies in believing that everything happens quickly and easily.   But accomplishing goals takes work, a number of small steps put together.  Rather than throwing in the towel before we begin, doing one small step today makes tomorrow’s small step a little easier.   You have to live intentionally and begin plugging away.  What is one thing you can do today to move you in the direction of your goal?

I’m trying to put this in practice myself. I love to write, but have had trouble making the time.  I’ve started finding time in the early mornings which means rolling out of bed a bit earlier than normal. I also signed up for a 7 mile road race in August.  It won’t run itself.  I’ve been hitting the roads and the gym to get my body in shape.  It’s not “fun” but I know I’ll love the feeling when I cross that finish line.  The story I want to live involves being a writer and a middle-age man who’s in shape. What about you?  What are some of the conflicts you’d like to overcome so you can live a better story?  How are you living intentionally?  I’d love to read your comments. _________________________

Photo from Stock.xchng by Julie Elliott-Abshire (je1196)
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It’s early and I’m drinking my cup of coffee.  I bought a good sized mug when I traveled to Disney World earlier this year.  An old style Mickey graces the front as a waiter carrying a steaming cup of joe.  Two Lents ago I followed a cleanse, and I gave up caffeine entirely; these days I drink half-caf, and only one cup at that.  I know, that’s pretty weird.  I’m 40-something and trying to learn some new things.

When I traveled to Swaziland the summer following my college graduation, I tried to learn some of the local language, siSwati. It’s a Bantu language similar to Zulu, and most of the tribal populations in and around South Africa have kindred languages (sort of like Portuguese and Spanish).  I didn’t really succeed since most people also spoke English, but I learned a few words.  “Yebo” meant “yes” but also could be used in reply to a greeting.  “Babé” and “Maké” were my host parents, or any other person old enough to be my parent as a term of respect.  “siYabonga” meant “Thank you.”

But I learned something else about that one.  “Thank you” always took the plural form, the “si” at the beginning of the word.  Even if I said thank you to my Maké for making me breakfast, if I said thanks in the singular, she corrected me.  “Not ngiyabonga, but siyabonga,” she would say.  Always plural.  Always.

It took time but I discovered why.  If you said thanks for something, the Swazis realized there couldn’t be only one person involved.  The breakfast from Maké?  She cooked the toast, to be sure.  But someone else sold the bread to her at the market.  And that person probably made it.  But she bought the flour from another person entirely (never mind the other ingredients).  Someone delivered that flour, and another person placed it in the sack.  Surely someone worked the mill to grind that flour up, and the flour didn’t just magically walk into the mill.  Someone need to pluck the grain either by hand or operating a machine, and someone needed to sow that seed. The farmer got that seed from somewhere or someone.  And on it goes.

siYabonga.  Thank you.  All of you.  For the breakfast of toast and butter.

I learned gratitude there in Swaziland.  I often forget, of course.  I get lost in the culture of consumerism that penetrates nearly every aspect of my life and tells me I’m the most important and that I should do things for myself.  I sometimes give a half-hearted thanks to Melissa when she hands me something if I’m lost in thought, barely thanking her let alone a whole host of others.

But today, as I drink my half-caf in a mug bought in Florida, I remember.  Thank you.  Every single one of you that had a hand in bringing the coffee and the mug and the milk and the splenda to my home.  Wherever you are, whatever you do.  May this day be filled with blessing.  I am grateful for this mug and the coffee it holds.  siYabonga.

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I read a long quotation yesterday in my sermon from Archbishop Oscar Romero.  It was the only part of my sermon written out—I preached without a text—but I wanted to share it with you.

You can read more about Oscar Romero online.

Here’s what I read:

“It helps now and then, to step back and take the long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about: We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capability.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”

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Sometimes as a preacher I have no idea where a text will take me. Parts of some texts are very familiar, and so there isn’t really anything new to say about them.  Or maybe we just focus in on the parts that we like that are familiar.

But today when we read Mark 3:20-35 I was caught by Jesus’ family and the scribes going after him.  It’s an interesting side note to the bigger stuff going on—Jesus’ line about a kingdom divided against itself.  But it’s pretty significant.  His family wanted to quiet him down.

And so I followed that trail downward and it got me to this sermon about the second half of life (from Richard Rohr) and other thoughts.

My sermon from today.

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In the denomination I grew up in—a church that believed heavily in a radical conversion experiences much like the Apostle Paul’s on the road to Damascus—would sometimes tell us that family members might not approve of our conversions and call us weirdoes or “Jesus freaks” or “Holy Rollers.”  If they did, we were to hold onto that as a badge of honor.  And maybe we needed to let go of those family members and their concerns in order to be more focused on Jesus anyway.  We’d be reminded of Jesus saying that to follow him you needed to leave mother and father and sister and brother.

Nowadays when something like that happens—when an individual finds a church and pushes away their family members because they don’t share the same beliefs—I might have serious doubts about the church or the individual.  Partly because I think the gospel has a lot to say about community and relationships and how we are to deepen those connections, and partly because I still carry some baggage from that time in my life.

But then I encounter a text like the one we read this morning, and I can’t help but remember those times.  Before the part we just read, Jesus had entered a boat to stop the crowd from crushing him, and he left them on the shore.  When he made landfall, he went into the hills to officially call the Twelve, and then he made his way to this house.  Mark tells us that the crowd has been tracking him and finds him again.   And, we’re informed, Jesus family is getting worried.  They hear about all the commotion he is causing, and they try to get control, because others are talking about him.  “He’s crazy!” they hear.  “He isn’t the same Jesus we remember when we were growing up.  He’s gone mad.”  I guess they say this because he’s been healing people, and a great deluge of folks from all over—as far away from Jerusalem—are making the journey up to Galilee to hear his teachings and to be healed by him.  His mother and brothers hear about this and try to make it go away.  Maybe they’ve been hearing snide comments at the marketplace, “Is it really true what I’ve heard about your Jesus?  Is he really pretending to be a rabbi?  It’s too bad; he was such a nice boy.”  So they want to put an end to it.

And then the scribes jump on Jesus too.  “He’s possessed!” they claim, trying to make Jesus look ridiculous or evil.  They want the people to stop following him.  A smear campaign seems the best chance to do away with this one that they don’t understand.  Jesus is getting too popular and pushing much too hard on the acceptable norms, so they resort to flinging mud.

This isn’t the comfy sort of Christianity that we like to promote, is it?  It’s easier to overlook this, to see these interactions as flukes in our Gospel stories.  But Jesus is coming into conflict with his family and the religious authorities, and he is our example and forerunner, the very one we base our life on.

A friend of mine encouraged me to read Richard Rohr’s outstanding book called Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.  Rohr, a Franciscan priest and frequent retreat leader, argues that many in our westernized culture never make it out of the first half of their lives, the part focused on identity and vocation and building a healthy ego.  He goes further by saying that many churches and clergy never get beyond this much either; sermons focus on calling and identity and making people feel good about themselves.  Additionally, because we often do such a poor job in the first half of our lives—maybe we had parents who never experienced the second half of life themselves, or we didn’t even know it existed, or possibly the circumstances of our lives left us in a state of arrested development—we often try to do it over again later in life.

Rohr’s main premise is that the second half of life can only begin through a major falling, a significant life change like a death or divorce, or a traumatic experience or failure.  When this happens—and he reminds us that we cannot make it happen, it just does, and it will—we have the opportunity to see that all of our life experiences leading up to this point was just introduction, it was only background.  The journey of forming, identity, vocation and whatnot was simply to create a container for the real story we have yet to embark upon.  The first half was necessary, of course, we couldn’t journey into the second half of life otherwise, and it must be done well.  But if we want to discover our true calling, the stuff that we were really sent here for, then we must enter into the second half of life even though we won’t want to.

He writes, “Sooner or later, if you are on any classic ‘spiritual schedule,’ some event, person, death, idea or relationship will enter your life that you simply cannot deal with using your present skill set, your acquired knowledge, or your strong willpower.  Spiritually speaking, you will be, you must be, led to the edge of your own private resources.  … [Y]ou will and you must ‘lose’ at something.  This is the only way that Life-Fate-God-Grace-Mystery can get you to change, let go of your egocentric preoccupations, and go on the further and larger journey.  I wish I could say this was not true, but it is darn near absolute in the spiritual literature of the world.”[1]

These are hard words, but I know them to be true in my own life.  I mentioned to you a couple of weeks ago the difficulty I experienced in Colorado at the church I served there.  I didn’t give specifics because on one level it is not entirely my own story to tell, and on another I am always suspicious of clergy or leaders who badmouth some other community or person in order to make themselves look good.  But I can say with certainty that in that place far from home, I faced and experienced tremendous loss.  Had I known now what was to happen, I would have not gone willingly.  But God had other things in mind, and in fact Melissa and I felt with utmost certainty that God wanted us to go.  The call to leave New England and move across the country was unmistakably clear.

I said to Melissa earlier this week that what I faced there was the most difficult experience of my life.  Even harder than burying both of my parents.

As a priest I hear stories from people when they experience the great falling that Rohr talks about.  An ending of a relationship, a traumatic encounter, a significant problem with a child or a debilitating illness.  My inclination is to wish them out of it, or take away their pain or try to make things better.  But I can’t, really.  I can pray, which I do, but I can’t do much else other than to say that I hope they know God can redeem this situation.  But it means them reaching their limits—recognizing that they don’t have power to get through on their own.   Eventually God can use this experience and help them move toward the deeper calling in life that God has always had for them.

Because that’s what is really going in in this passage from Mark.  Notice Jesus’ response to all of these attacks on his character: he talks about how he isn’t from Beelzebul at all.  Rather he came to tie up the strong man, Satan himself, so that he could plunder Satan’s home.  Jesus is telling those scribes and family members what he’s really called to do.  The beginning part there in Nazareth, well that was all introduction and first half of life stuff.  It was necessary, to be sure; Jesus needed a strong family home and strong sense of himself.  But he wasn’t called to be a carpenter.  He was called to something much, much bigger.  And he needed to leave home for that.  And have a major event like his 40 days of fasting and being tempted by the devil.

We are called to so much more too.  But you won’t often hear about that in our society that wants to keep us happy so we keep living our lives as consumers.  And it’s hard to explain to family members and those we love who knew us back in our youth, especially when we seem to change course, or experience a major fall.  They don’t know how to respond, so they try to restrain us and bring us back to our senses.

Yet Jesus gives us unexpected hope.  Mark tells us that he’s in that house, and his mother and brothers have finally arrived, supposedly to come and take him away.  They send word in to him to let them know that they are here for him.  “Who are my mother and brothers?” he asks.  And then looking at those around him, the ones desperate enough to follow him and seek his touch and to hear his stories and press in on him, he says, “They’re right here.  These are my mother and my brothers.  Whenever anyone does God’s will, they are my mother and brother and sister.”

God’s will.  These folks are doing the will of God in leaving their own homes to follow Jesus.  They are participating in God’s desire for their lives when they strike out and chase and push forward and soak it all in.  They themselves are well on their way to the second half of the spiritual life.  We can be too, if only we see in our misgivings and uncertainty and loss and failing the abiding redemption of God who yearns to have us embark on the true calling of our lives.   Jesus wants this for us.  He wants for us to truly engage in God’s will for our lives.  Can we do it no matter the cost?  Can we be among those he called brothers and sisters and mothers? Will we trust that when we are at our utter end, that God will be with us and give us the strength to go forward?


[1] Richard Rohr. Falling Upward. Jossey Bass, 2011.  Pg 65-66.

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