Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Lent 1:  Are we lazy or jealous?

            There is an ancient Christian tradition that names seven vices as particularly egregious.  So much so, that they have been labeled the seven deadly sins.  In the tradition these acts of behavior fall within “capital or cardinal” sins.  Let’s just say to obtain the forgiveness of the church more was required than “I’m sorry”.

            Our tradition does not rely so much on categorizing personal sins in this way.  Putting a category of sin on a scale of one to ten, or calling them venial (lesser) or cardinal (one of the big seven), is left pretty much between a person and God’s own self.

            That said, those seven traditional “deadly sins” do offer us a window as we enter this season of Lent.  In the gospel of Mark we have the most succinct version of “the temptation of Jesus”: 

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

            This Lenten season I will post a Blog series that invites us into our own wilderness experience.  There I hope to use the framework of the seven deadly sins as a way for us to name those things in this world that demonize us and those with whom we share this planet.  Evil exists in this world and we have a remarkable tendency to dismiss it, ignore it, or rationalize it.  Yet one of the characteristics of Jesus’ ministry on earth (and his instructions for our discipleship) was to confront evil head on and lift it out of those he met so that they may experience of wholeness of life.  This Lent is an opportunity for us to name the demons so that we too can be about the ministry of freedom and justice.

            Because there are six weeks in Lent and seven classic “deadly sins”, week one will combine two:  sloth and envy.

            Using a generic website, http://www.bibleinfo.com/en/questions/what-are-seven-deadly-sins,  here are working definitions for this week:
            Sloth is an excessive laziness or the failure to act and utilize one’s talents.
            Envy is the intense desire to have an item or experience that someone else possesses. 

            Neither of these vices seem particularly threatening to a 21st Century highly industrialized, highly technological, highly compensated nation such as the United States.  They are more likely to be used as incentives in a capitalistic society to achieve the goals of wealth and well-being.  We have filled our lives with aspirant images.  We have even publically proclaimed that consumerism is the way out of economic downfalls.  We rate our economic success as a nation and as individuals by the amount of things we can buy.   And if we don’t “get-on-board” with that scenario then we are lazy, useless, boring, old-fashioned.  And we certainly are not worth employing in a meaningful way because we would not be willing to put the company’s profit margin as our top life priority.

            How easily character flaws turn into weapons against one another.  And there is the evil we ignore.  They are the first demons of our wilderness journey.  This is where we begin to see how we ourselves are complicit in the evils around us.

            Whether in our homes, our workplaces, or our political setting the evil of “sloth” is working it’s way into  our lives.
·      It happens with our language as we fail to appreciate the hopes and interests of family members who want to pursue their life in one way and we berate them because they do not achieve what we have decided is best for them.
·       It happens in our workplaces when we follow policies and practices that create an excessively stress-filled environment based on productivity and working well beyond any “normal” working day.  Far too many people feel they must be working electronically well into the night because the work policies require instant response.  Far too many people cannot afford to miss work to care for sick children or family members.  And vacation time is a joke.  Failure to work nonstop, or at the decision of the company can cost people their very jobs.
·      It happens in our political sphere as we publically call people lazy as a way to change policy and to remove pieces of a safety net program.  It is even being used against that population known as “Dreamers” on the pretext of justifying deportation.

            Sloth becomes much more than a quaint “seven deadly personal sin” when we realize how often we as a society use it as an excuse to dismiss people so that we don’t have any requirement to use our financial resources to help.  Sloth becomes evil when we use it as a verbal weapon to show our disapproval and disdain for God’s beloved sons and daughters.

            Likewise envy distorts our lives.  It is no wonder that we might come across the demonizing shape of envy as we wander in the wilderness.  You can recognize it as that which stands between us and God (the very definition of sin).  It is the cloud that blots our ability to express gratitude.  It is the negative energy that keeps us from finding any sense of satisfaction in life.  It is the driving force that propels us on the fast track to acquire more of everything no matter the cost.  It is the filter that allows us to evaluate one another in terms of what we have and not who we are. 

            The challenge as we work our way through these Lenten meditations is to confront the demons and the evils such as sloth and envy, and then figure out how we make the choices to serve God and not them.  How do we look beyond Lent and our life as disciples and continue to deny them power?  How do we look at our civil and religious lives and call out these forces for evil on behalf of those for whom Christ died?

            These Blog meditations are open-ended.  Each person’s journey into the wilderness will be different.  Yet each person, if they are paying attention, will come across each of the classic seven vices.  Each person will be asked to look beyond seeing them as personal failings and instead see them for the destructive force they have on God’s beloved children.  And then, if willing, each person will be called to choose whether to serve the forces of destruction or to serve God, made known in Jesus the Christ, who so loves the world – who so loves us.

Grace and Peace

Rev. Clara

Friday, January 12, 2018

An Inconvenient Conversation

            Here is a question for Americans as well as for those of us who call ourselves Christian:  “What is our response to any categorization of countries largely populated by people of color as being s*---hole countries”?  Do we shake our heads in disbelief?  Do we secretly agree that we would be better off as a nation if immigrants only came from well-developed countries whose racial makeup mirrored northern European nations?  Are we really uncomfortable with this whole discussion?

            This is Martin Luther King’s Weekend.  It is an inconvenient truth that this press release happens to fall on the third weekend of January.  It is much more convenient to look at this federal holiday as the Ski Weekend Getaway. 

            Because I serve as a Christian pastor, I must view these comments about peoples of other nations in light of the gospel I serve.  In Christ we are shown that God’s love extends to all peoples of the world.  In Christ we are shown that we are “members one of another”.  In Christ we are shown how we are to be a “light to the world.”

            I also am American whose ancestors first came to this shore as far back as the 1600s.  I am well aware of the living conditions and persecutions that caused them to risk everything to try to build a life on these shores.  I am also aware as a white woman, that my ancestors had a choice about venturing to this land.  As an American I feel the sense of pride when I see the Statue of Liberty and remember the words of Emma Lazarus that are carved on her.  This is a core American value and this is a value consistent to my Christian faith.

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

            On this Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend let us also remember the words from this American visionary.

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." 
—from ‘Letter from Birmingham, Alabama Jail’, April 16, 1963

            Although this particular quote is related to the specifics of life in 1963 the truth of it transcends date and place.  We are “in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” with people around the world.   John Donne wrote a similar idea in the 1600s with “No man is an island, entire in himself.”  We are connected to one another as human beings.  We have a responsibility for one another.  Our work for justice around the world counts.  Our acts of compassion around the world make a difference.  As we take this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. seriously we are acting out of our national identity and we are responding to our instructions of faith.

            "Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that." 
—from Strength to Love, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr.

            Hate language, exclusionary policies, hubris and arrogance are counterproductive.  What is prized as “American Exceptionalism” includes the idea that others around the world can look to this country as an example of freedom and promise.  In the Gospel of Matthew we hear that we are “the light of the world.”  As this country struggles with issues around race and xenophobia our task is to think about what it means to be God’s light to our world.

            What we cannot do when we hear pronouncements that dismiss people as “less than” because of the color of their skin, the nation of their origin, the sexuality of their being, the economic position of their reality is to ignore those statements as if they do not matter.  The words matter profoundly because each person matters profoundly.  How we respond is a mark of our character.  How we respond is a witness to what we believe. 

            What kind of witness are we going to give about our faith and about the values of American?  Who are we willing to be as a people?  This is a good weekend to reflect on the “Inconvenient Conversation”.  It is a good weekend to begin the longer conversation about race and xenophobia. 

            God in your mercy, forgive us and open our hearts and minds to one another. 

Grace and Peace
Rev. Clara



Monday, November 6, 2017

A Pastor’s Thoughts About A Church Shooting…

            First Charleston, South Carolina – then Antioch, Tennessee – and now First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.  The commonality among these three incidents is hate manifested in gun violence and the church as the target.  The shooting on Sunday, November 5, 2017 rests heavily on all our minds right now.  We have more questions than we have answers.  The dead-end street called “gun regulation” will no doubt continue to be a dead end discussion. 

            It is the locale of Sunday’s shooting that impels me to comment this Monday morning.  That is because I am hearing all kinds of preventative measure solutions (beyond gun regulation).  Those solutions give me pause.

            First of all I think we need to acknowledge that these families, this church, and this community have a hole in their heart that will never completely heal.  They need our prayers.  They need our words of comfort.  It would be appropriate to sit down and write such words and send them to First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Tx.  You might also send a note off to the Police Department of Sutherland Springs, Tx because this will be a day that will forever be in their memory.  Sometimes the one thing we can do is be “Present” with one another in grief and sorrow.

            One of the first “reactions” I read on Facebook was the reintroduction of the idea that in these dangerous times clergy might consider wearing bullet-proof vests under their robes.  Another posting reminded me that some clergy have been asked what kind of gun do they want to keep in the pulpit in order to defend the parishioners should an attack in the sanctuary. I also have heard legislators comment this morning that churches probably should evaluate their security procedures (and I don’t mean just locking a door).  There are programs being offered to help churches learn how to arm their ushers and greeters. Unfortunately there are also those who feel we need to screen who comes into our sanctuary. 

            I believe we need to hear these ideas through the lens of the Gospel we say we proclaim. 

            First of all regarding those bullet proof vests . . . I will not be getting fitted for one.  I could not in good conscience wear one while everyone in my congregation was unprotected.  I could not in good conscience go to this extreme knowing that a visitor might come to worship and would not be protected.  That’s not to say, I wouldn’t “duck”, but the cost of my call to ministry is to show up and be a part of the worshipping community as together we open ourselves up to the hearing and experiencing the Word of God.

            I am sure church security will be a major point of discussion among churches in our nation.  I have served one church that locked even its front door once worship began – and had someone sitting outside the sanctuary prepared to call the police.  It worked for its purpose, which was to prevent strangers from coming into the building and wandering around the halls and posing a risk to children.  At the same time, the person who was sitting outside could open the door to anyone running a bit late for worship.  Yet even in that scenario, it felt unwelcoming to me.  The question always is present how do we issue an extravagant welcome behind locked doors or armed sentinels or open carry parishioners?

            That question causes us to arrive at the core of who we are and why we are when we talk about “church”.    Let me offer my own faith statements that do and will inform me when I serve a church or when I seek a church home.

            I believe in the emphasis of the United Church of Christ that God is a God of extravagant welcome and we are to extend that welcome within the Body of Christ known as the Church on earth.  That means whoever you are, and wherever you are on your faith journey (including so far from knowing the Love of God in your life you feel completely without hope), you are welcome in church.  That welcome means you are taken for who you are and what you are, not for who or what we church folks would feel comfortable you be.  There is a cost to this as witnessed in Charleston, Antioch, and Sutherland Springs.  It is still our call to be a people of welcome and invitation.

            I believe in the value and importance of community as where we live and grow as disciples of Christ.  Although I know I can (and do) experience the holy at times when I am by myself, it is in coming together with other Christians where I am tested in my faith, where I am encouraged in my faith, and where I know the Holy Spirit is at work knitting all of us together into God’s Holy People.  So for me, I need to gather in worship and service with others.

            I believe love is stronger than hate even when fear and distrust seem to have so much power.  I believe fear can destroy us and indeed that is the intent of sowing fear.  I also believe love is hard work.  We don’t even want to like a lot of folks, let alone love them.  Yet I believe the only way to turn this narrative of hate around is to truly begin to look at one another in our communities with the eyes of faith informed by love.

            I believe that grief is real – and these communities (not just the incidents of church shooting) have huge holes in them because of humankind’s inhumanity to one another.  Yes, individuals committed the acts – but all of us have contributed to the temperament that fuels violence and discord.  Those who grieve will be comforted.  Those who turn their eyes away, or who fuel the flames of fear and distrust or ignore the difficult political ramifications are being called to “repent” – to turn around from such behavior and live the faith we proclaim.

            I believe in the community of faith
·      that offers extravagant hospitality,
·      that enters the doors to worship and be changed by the power of God’s Love for them as individuals and for them as a collected body,
·      that has a message about peace, justice, love, reconciliation, forgiveness, transformation, and hope that our world needs to hear and see embodied,
·      that peace making and living are central to our message, and that we become those  who dare to share in Christ’s passion in the spirit of the disciples hearing Jesus speak: Put your sword back into its sheath.  Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?
·      that departs to serve in our communities to the least and the lost, the newcomer and the old timer, the youngest and the oldest, the poor and the wealthy, the native born and the immigrant, all people – because God so loved the world.

Grace and Peace

Rev. Clara

Friday, October 20, 2017

Practice Being in the Presence

            Frequently the news feed on my social media offers articles related to why people are choosing to leave the church along with related articles suggesting options for the institutional church.  It is quite true that the increasing response to the question: “With which religious organization do you identify?” elicits the response “none”.  This response is becoming true even for those more conservative denominations.  It has long been true for those denominations that were once considered “mainline”.  Whether we want to admit it or not we are becoming an increasing secular society.

            That trend poses some problems moving forward.  Where are we finding support for our values?  How do we pass on these humanitarian values that are so often referenced?  Where is the “why” behind the “what”?  Religious institutions (church, synagogue, mosque) have long provided some of that background guidance through belief systems about God and how God envisions our lives in this world.  When you take out God, what fills the void?

            I’m suggesting that we not be so hasty to take God out of the equation of life.  In fact I definitely believe we need the Holy One in our discourse and in our lives.  I also realize that we have placed so much “baggage” on our understandings of God that we have in essence created an image of the divine as being a giant size version of ourselves.  Or we have taken all the images of others throughout history and created an image that feels pretty irrelevant.  We see the increase of private meditation exercises aimed at finding stress relief as the substitute for encountering the Holy One.  Feeling good is becoming the highest value.

            Before you choose the designation “none”, before you give up “searching”, before you become so intransient in your traditional beliefs you have no room to grow in your faith or hear other people’s doubts, I invite you in an ancient practice:  Practice Being in the Presence of God.

            This doesn’t require a theologian’s expertise in all the literature about the nature of God understood intellectually and doctrinally.  All those efforts have value, but at the same time, they try to explain the unfathomable and tame the mysterious.  Rather I am suggesting that as you move through any experience of the day, open yourself to the wondrous.  Consider the wider picture.  See the remarkable interrelatedness of life.

             Example:  washing dishes.  The remnants of the food itself allows the mind to wander to food that was eaten and the sources of production. You might think about to the experience of fellowship and community or  the gratefulness that someone invented a TV dinner that could be ready in a microwave in a short amount of time.  You might consider the cooks or waiters that provided a restaurant experience or a food truck reprieve.  If you are washing the dishes allow yourself to feel the water and realize that water is a precious commodity.  You might even give a thought to situations such as that unfolding in Puerto Rico where clean water is scarce and some are even resorting to contaminated water.  Prayers are always welcome along with thoughts about how you might help.  That train of thought might even open possibilities about clean water everywhere and how the simple things we use as detergents and fertilizers can affect the quality of our water.  This simple example illustrates how practicing the presence of God can work.  Underlying the practice is an assumption (actually a faith declaration but it might not be admitted) that we are not single agents in the universe.  Allowing ourselves to be open to practicing the presence means we begin to see the mystery of our world and the ways we are part of caring for one another.  We begin to see we are custodians of our world.  We begin to see how we fit into the bigger picture.  And here we thought we were just washing dishes after dinner!

            We live in a nation that is becoming more and more isolated in our connections with one another.  We live in a nation that is trying to be spiritual without any Spirit or commitment to God.  We live in a nation that talks more about one another than to one another.  We live in a nation that is turning its back on “Love the Lord Your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength and your neighbor as yourself”.  Sometimes we say we just don’t have time to go to church or to pray.  Instead of giving it up entirely – go wash some dishes or rake some leaves or drive your commute in the presence of God.  You might be surprised to encounter God in some very unexpected places!

Grace and Peace

Rev. Clara