Tuesday, April 22, 2014

To ventures where we cannot see the end...

I love Holden Village.  Living in intentional community is complicated, raw, beautiful and edifying.  The village is not our forever place, this is the mystery of the village -- it is no one’s forever place.  We have said more painful goodbyes than I can really count.  Leave taking is an art form and I have watched others do it with such grace.  Our turn to say goodbye is approaching, our leave taking has begun. (Love letter to Holden to come…)

So, we are preparing to go.  Unlike many of the previous chapters of my life (or pretty much all of the previous chapters) I actually know where we are going and I have known for awhile! Such knowledge feels extravagant and grown up and so unlike our life so far!

I have accepted a call to serve as associate pastor of worship, music and the arts at Westwood Lutheran Church in St. Louis Park, MN.  I am often asked about my dream call, or what I hope for next.  And before this call to Westwood was ever on the radar, I would tell people that I wanted to take my job description here at Holden and plop it in a parish context.  ½ time musician, ½ time pastor, preacher, pastoral care provider – and here it is, the dream come true (I loathe such a frilly phrase, but it is apt!).  I am deeply grateful for this call.

It’s an odd thing to know the next step, to be in one community and way of life and constantly wonder how it compares to the next.  It’s riding a constant wave of now and then, what is and what will be.  The contentment I currently feel is now competing with some fear of the future and excitement of all that will be.

My little brother was just in the village and asked me if I even knew how to be in one place for more than two years.  Obviously, I do not. I have commitment issues in many arenas of life and zip codes is certainly one of them! But just maybe this next move could be our quasi-forever place?  Taking root feels important, allowing something (ministry, family life, school community, friendships) to plant, grow deeply in one direction and brightly in another.

Minnesota, we’ll see you this summer! 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Life & Death scenarios: a week in review

Holy week.  Only a slice of the country will experience an Easter morning, a smaller portion will get in Good Friday, a slight bit seeing Maundy Thursday and mostly monastic or faith communities holding vigil on Saturday.  Here in the village we do not miss a step.  All people in the village, regardless of faith history or experience, will know every single day and all its unique focus and ancient roots.  For church leaders its the busy week of the year, and I've experienced Holy weeks that leave me tired and alone and needing to feed a small child.  Holy week in the village brings us both to the fullness of the resurrection.  I have known the promise of new life that I cannot earn nor destroy.  

Thursday full of big forgiveness, bigger than can possibly be deserved.  When I met my little one after school to say I needed thirty more work minutes, she went home alone.  I arrived a bit later than promised to find she had made my bed, picked up the living room and was washing dishes because she knew “this was a big week for pastors!”.   In evening worship we were remembering that Jesus washing his disciples feet is togetherness, humility and in humility, power.  Listening to water being poured into big, silver bowls as Cindy sings “and the call is to community” – watching villagers have feet washed, and then washing feet.  Watching walls break down and community becoming more and more stunning.  Breaking bread, being called together by Jesus.  Then the haunting of the worship space being robbed of its goods.  Beautiful art, pastor’s stoles, candles and bible all leave and we are left, dark and barren.  The betrayal of love is imminent.

Good Friday gathering in silence, my hand covered in splinters from wresting alone with the large, rugged cross.  I asked for help, and the cross was lighter.  Readers preparing the passion, candles being lit for every bidding prayer – the great prayer that invokes nations and creation and believers and unbelievers and broken ones and corrupt ones and lays it all on the cross.  Prayer around the cross opens as Linda says “waiting for the morning…waiting for the light”.  We linger at the cross awhile longer.

Saturday Vigil, so much! The vigil was inspiriting, but so was the day leading up to it. All around the village people were scurrying about to prepare for their story, birds being made, puppets chattering, fires being built, choirs singing.  The great fire (under a little rain), and then the colossal procession!  The creation story with silk dancing, Noah and the flood and the whole village filling a small basement room to fill the “ark”, watching Ellen dance with the rainbow. The hike up the hill with Issac, watching for the sacrificial lamb. The slow procession to the Red Sea and witnessing the children wage war, Israelites being hunted by Egyptians.  The dining hall and the call to be fed (with hot cross buns!), the library and woman wisdom, main street and the gathering of all God’s nations, the children and adults limping as dry bones and dancing as new creation, the mighty roar of the people hearing Isaiah’s words (twice), the fiery furnace with smoke and light and fire brigade turnouts.  The parade into our worship space, transformed from an empty tomb to an array of flowers and white and Alleluias.  The journey was long, slow, cold and became dark.  The work of God in it is mind-blowing, constant, inspiring, new, ancient, and transformative.  Standing strong in baptismal promises and gathering again at the table of mercy.  Chocolate covered strawberries to ring in the resurrection. This is the night.

Sunday morning, peeling myself out of bed for a sunrise walk and time of prayer and readings, hearing about the empty tomb from the gospels.  Sunday morning Eucharist, the chance to play the piano while the bishop preached and Susan presided.  What gift.  The energy of children bright and giggly, the tired smiles of cooks, the giddiness of one more Eucharist meal for the week.  Sore forearms and a patient daughter accompanied me from the worship space, finally.  Afternoon cocktails, feast meals of northwest salmon and berries, baguettes that bring the table together to break bread yet again.  Lingering in a circle of laughter, contentment and life abundant. 

Holy week, more than any pastor can prepare for. 

How does one welcome the Divine death and resurrection?  

A new creation, again.   Christ is risen, he is risen indeed.  Alleluia! 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Looking for life.

Lent V
Ezekiel and the Dry Bone (Ezekiel 37)
Raising of Lazerus (John 11:1-45)

These are outrageous stories, not really suitable for the polite nodding of the heads and mumbling of the “Thanks be to God” that just occurred.  We were just told about visions of mass graves getting up and doing a jig and then we just heard the story of a man so dead his body had begun to give off the stench of death and then he got up and lived.  I am not sure the standard response is the most appropriate – it at least deserves a little stunned silence, or tilted head furrowed brow suspicion. 

These two pieces of scripture are outrageous because they give voice to two common experiences in this bodily life we are all living. These stories raise questions that we, as mere mortals who live finite lives, must address again and again.  First, God asks his prophet Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?”  God asks Ezekiel if he can look straight into a grave of dry, dry bones and see life?  Ezekiel pivots the conversation back to the Immortal “Lord God, you only know the answer”.

Then, we move from the vast, anonymous grave into the intimate, beloved home of Jesus’ friends.  Grief stricken Mary, Martha both speak out the other deeply human question, “Lord, if you had been here our brother would not have died.”  This is grief and shock and anger that are inescapable and expected in the face of such loss – O Immortal one… where were you, when I needed you?  Mary and Martha were not the last to speak such a truth of human understanding.  How often do we look and doubt and cry out at the absence of healing when we so desperately prayed and looked to God?

On this last Sunday of Lent we come to the brink, we come to the place where glib answers are inappropriate and trite responses offensive. Depth of questioning is what we find when mortals look into death.  These outrageous stories bring us to the fullness of death and grief.

These are stories about resurrection, which could feel like a glimpse into the Easter story close at hand.  Yet before we dive into resurrection we need to stand firmly with Ezekiel, Mary and Martha – we need to remember what happens before the resurrection for that is what makes it outrageous and miraculous at all.   The new life, or life-again, came from death.  Long, hard, dry and stench filled death.  And that is the physical, as God is speaking to Ezekiel there is more and more death that is described.  Certainly, God understands the fullness of loss and grief in the human experience.

God says that the valley full of dry bones is like the whole house of Israel, without hope and cut off from their home.  It is death of body, death of faith, death of relationship and exile from their land.  The death of Lazarus is not a foreign and unknown man, it is the death of a dear friend, a brother, a man gone too soon. This was a death for the whole community, a smack of injustice and mortality.

It is here that God’s promise of life-again is enacted.  God’s will to bring life is so outrageous and miraculous is comes from these places of deep, despairing death.

We have heard and seen the fullness of death.  So, what of this resurrection? Is it so easily seen and experienced, what do we do with God’s question to Ezekiel,
               “Mortal, can these bones live?”

At Bible and Brew we discussed at length hopelessness, loss, scenes of death and exile both from scripture and from our real life experiences.  And then we went somewhere in between real life experiences and that other place.   Stories went around the circle of white lights, seeing loved ones who have certainly died yet appeared in dreams, in visions, voices of the dead speaking to the living.  By all the perimeters I know I believe our Bible study went in the direction of ghost stories.

This too, is a common human experience.  Not ordinary, not commonplace, but common indeed.  It is difficult to parse out dreams from visions and strong memories from sightings.  I wonder what Ezekiel would qualify his surreal visit to the valley of dry bones as?  Whatever the name, these experiences of the thin place between physical life and spiritual life is difficult to draw a firm line down and even more difficult to speak of.

I have had my own strong vision while singing Gilbert Martin’s arrangement of When I Survey the Wondrous Cross with the Minnesota Lutheran Choir. Looking up into the church balcony from my place in the soprano section and seeing my mother as clearly as I see any of you.  This was the same choir piece that was sung at her funeral, so there could be many neurological, emotional, memory-based explanations to my experience.  But I do not wish to hear them, I’ll take my sighting as a powerful moment and experience of life beyond anything I can reason or totally understand.

It was a happy moment, a relieving presence.  Yet, it is not all that God has promised us.  It is not the place for faith to rest.
The sightings and encounters with those we have known and lost are powerful, but they are not the full promise of resurrection spoken of in Ezekiel, nor are they the fullness of restored life given to Lazarus.
Resurrection, life-again is not a ghost story, it is a full, spiritual, relational, bodily promise fulfilled in Jesus’ full death and spiritual, relational, physical rising.  In Jesus’ resurrection we were and will be given the Holy Spirit, the birth of the church and forgiveness so immense it will stitch us, our relationships, our exiled beings back together again.  Skin and sinews on our dry, dry bones, miraculous life over earth’s most massive graves.
God asked Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” And Ezekiel turned to God for the promise of outrageous, miraculous life. 

This is the work of God, to not only restore the physical body – but to return our hearts and our faith again to God.  To be so filled with hope and to be returned our home in God’s love.  This is not our work, nor is this what happens when we dream dreams or see visions or have strong experiences of life and death.  The resurrection promise of God is fullness and resurrection of every aspect of everyone and everything that has died – we will not miss it, we will know it on the last day when our dry bones dance and our dear friends are brought to us again, not figments or memories but fullness of life before our eyes. 

“Mortal, can these bones live?” This could be the great challenge of this life, to stare into deep graves and trust that, with the love of God and the mercy of Jesus Christ, we can speak in faith, “Yes, Lord God, with you they will live.” 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Blind use.

I haven't preached in a few weeks and this text was rough for a tender area of my heart. 

(for this to make any sense at all -- reading the gospel of John, chapter 9 would be helpful)
To the disciples the man was a learning tool, an example they could use when asking Jesus about the root of suffering. 

To the neighbors he was the blind man who had lived and begged on the outskirts of town his whole life, to his neighbors he was a conundrum as a healed person.  Vaguely familiar, but mostly disturbing. 

To the Pharisees he was a liar, trying to advance the agenda of this Jesus man.  He had either had spent a life time lying about his blindness, or was a trouble maker falsifying his healing and exploiting the Sabbath. 

To his parents he was their son, once blind, now full of sight and utterly terrifying for the spectacle created. 

To the religious leaders he is a sinner, not worthy of God’s attention, testifying to an impossible healing, mystifying their faith and therefore too troublesome to remain in the worship place and he is, as he began, driven out.

We never hear his name, we barely get beyond his diagnosis, he is the man born blind living on the margins of society so that everyone else will be comfortable.  And as the man now healed, now freed from his diagnosis he is making all others so uncomfortable he is driven back to the margins, cast out of the center of religious and civil life so that the orderly, rigid way of understanding God and God’s law will be neither disturbed nor challenged. 

The man is the poster child for the issue – be it healing on the Sabbath or following Jesus or obeying God correctly, he is simply the poster child, the object lesson, the statistic without a story.

As so often happens when we are rooted in God’s Words, I saw the gospel of Jesus come crashing into the lives of many this week.  I watched, from a safe distance the playing out of Christian division beginning at World Vision – a Christian ministry based out of Federal Way, WA.  World Vision is a leader in the practice of child sponsorship in third world countries.  A week ago World Vision announced they were changing their hiring policy and now would be hiring people who were in same-sex marriages.  American Christians disagreeing with World Vision’s decision pulled their support of the ministry and it took less than 48 hours for World Vision to lose thousands of child sponsorships.   So, two days after their change in hiring policy World Vision, for the sake of retaining their ministry, rescinded their decision, asked for forgiveness and are now taking calls from those same American Christians asking if they can sponsor their children again.[i]

I lift up this story not in hopes of adding to the division or drama, but rather because I have felt broken hearted over the people who have been treated as objects in a lesson the church is trying to teach itself, the children who are sponsored through World Vision, the people who would like to work for World vision, the policy makers at that ministry and even the critiques on both sides railing against each other in social medias…they are all being treated as the man born blind was treated -- learning tools, conundrums, poster children for an issue, statistics without a story.  So, for the common critique of God’s Word that says it just is not relevant for our lives today – I ask us all to hold these two stories close tonight and hear what Jesus was doing then and what we pray Jesus is still doing today.

Looking at Jesus’ location, words and actions are what take this long story from John’s gospel from irritation to astonishing.   Our gospel reading tonight began with the world “Jesus was walking along…” so we have to back up a few verses to find out where he is at.  It turns out, that at the end of John chapter 8 Jesus himself had been in a debate with the religious leaders.  They did not appreciate his answers and so, like any mature, righteous leader of the synagogue – they threw rocks at Jesus and threw him out. 

It is there, outside of town, bruised that Jesus meets the man born blind.  To Jesus this man is not an object lesson – so our Healer responds to the disciples’ questions not by talking around the man but addressing him directly.  Healing him with the mud of the earth and sending him to the waters.   Jesus did what probably had not been done to this man for years – he was seen, spoken to, touched and healed. 

And then the man encounters his neighbors, his parents, his synagogue and the religious leaders.  Notice that Jesus is in none of those places.  For the bulk of this gospel story Jesus is absent, silent.  It is not until the healed man is driven out of the synagogue that Jesus is there waiting, again, on the margins to receive the healed yet rejected man.

Where is Jesus when religion is kicking people out?
Where is Jesus when communities push people out and keep them down?
Where is Jesus when we are so blinded by our own fear and need to control and understand that we stop seeing one another beyond our diagnosis, beyond our labels, beyond our weaknesses?

I think it is safe to assume that most of us have experiences where we felt like the blind man – labeled, misunderstood and rejected.

And experiences when we have been the community member or the religious person – confused, fearful, and embarrassingly dismissive.

As an ordained leader in a large Christian denomination I realize this gospel story brings us to dangerous grounds – where Jesus kicked out of center of religious institutions that I am squarely in the middle of.  That is certainly the work of Jesus the Healer in this text as he finds his way to the edge of society; healing, loving and acknowledging those who have been kicked out too.

Adults born with disabilities are not an object lesson to discover the root of suffering.
The healing ministry of Jesus Christ is not an agenda to be argued over and picked apart.
The children all over the globe benefiting from sponsorships are not pawns in a debate on doctrine.
And gay marriage is not an issue to bring down the church.

Yet these are all common behaviors of Christianity and they have been true since this gospel text was first inscribed.

Jesus moves to the outcast of society.
Jesus sees and heals and touches.
Jesus gathers again those who are healed and still rejected.

Jesus’ words in this gospel story turn to the man now healed and ask him about his faith and his experiences.  Jesus desires to be known by this man, Jesus is shining as the light of the world and the light of sight for this man.  And this is how  we known Jesus too – not always marked by the behaviors of religious institutions – but by light, by bread and wine, by shared tables and stories, by healing touch and words of acknowledgement.  We know Jesus by forgiveness that knows and heals.

This ministry of Jesus, this is the work of the body of Christ.  After the man born blind was healed he was sent to a pool of water named Silom, which means sent.  And we too, are sent as people who are seen by Jesus and healed by his mercy and we too are sent to live lives that testify to this kind of ministry.  Not the ministry of division and debate and pitting person against person.  But the ministry of healing, of mercy of acknowledgement of another person that does not stop at a label or diagnosis, but a seeing the heart of one another as Christ sees us. 

(we sing...Amazing grace how sweet the sound...)