Tuesday, February 26, 2013

What is Love?

So, my Sunday sermon, "Animals of the Bible" was pretty well received, for the most part.  Of course the "animals of the Bible" were, for the most part, the fox, the chicks, and the mother hen (although other animals, including my dog Scout, made brief appearances.)

One of my more learned parish members told me afterwards that she took issue with one sentence in my sermon:  when I talked about how much the Mother Hen loves the chicks.  As she told me, she just didn't buy it. It's centuries of evolution that make the hen behave in certain ways toward her chicks.  It's not what we know as "love."  That's way too anthropomorphic.

I gave her the point, and went home, thinking about the mother hen whose evolution has included dying for the sake of the brood, and wondering about the word "love," as we humans know it.

If we think of love as an emotion (and we do), certainly chickens do not "love" their babies, at least not in the way humans do.

But I am not sure that it's helpful, in Biblical terms, anyway, to consider 'love' as primarily an emotion.  I'm not sure if it's even so helpful in human terms, actually.  Is 'love' essentially the ability to feel really warm and connected to someone or something else?  When Jesus says "Love one another as I have loved you," is he talking about how he feels about us, or how we should feel about each other?  Or is it something else?

What is love?

Coincidentally, today I've been reading the children's book The One and Only Ivan.  The book is the story of a gorilla captured when he was just a baby, and living in a cage in a small "circus" located in a mall.  It's a lonely life.  We get to imagine Ivan the gorilla's thoughts and feelings in his cage, and know a little bit about his past.  After he was captured, he lived as a sort of a pet with a man named Mack, who dressed him up and fed him hamburgers and let him live in his house until he got too big to manage.  Then Mack took him to this sad little circus, where he became his keeper.

Later on in the story, some other people come to be concerned about Ivan, and the other animals who live at the Mall.  They finally rescue Ivan, and help to re-introduce him to the kind of life he was born to.  They know a lot about what is good for gorillas, because they've studied and learned about their needs and their lives.  Before Ivan leaves though, Mack gives him a picture of the two of them from when Ivan was small.  "Weren't those good times?"  he reminisces.

I had a sudden realization:  Mack thinks he "loves" Ivan.

What is love?

I don't know how the hen feels about her chicks, just that she feeds them, protects them, sometimes gives her life for them.  And when Jesus asks us to "love one another, as I have loved you," he is bending down to wash their feet.  He is not showing us how to feel, but what to do.  He is not showing us how he feels, but what he is willing to do.  That's how we know he loves us.  That's how we know we love one another.

What is love?

It seems to me that the answer to this question means everything, not just for our faith in God, but our mission in the world.  If it's true, that "they'll know we are Christians by our love," what is love?

Friday, February 22, 2013

Metaphors, Prayer and the Proper Name of God

There was a heated conversation over at an on-line Clergy Group the other day over a benediction suggested in our denomination's resources for Lent.  The wording including "May God our Father bless you and shield you/May Christ our mother shelter you and carry you....".  As you can imagine, several people were against the new wording, and for many reasons.  Others defended the benediction.  Others liked it, just not in a benediction, which has implications for the name of the Trinity.  Some were practical and simply wouldn't use it because it seemed sort of pastorally insensitive to throw words out at people without talking about them.

I'm pretty sure that those who wrote this benediction, as well as the other prayers for this season, were considering the imagery in the different scripture texts we are using, including the gospel reading for this Sunday, when Jesus laments over Jerusalem and compares himself to a mother hen who longs to gather her chicks under her wings in times of danger.  It's poignant and also a little jarring -- and not just because of the 'Jesus as mother hen' imagery.  I find myself haunted by the whole idea of Jesus saying, "I would have liked to.... but you were not willing."  How's that for power?

Interesting that we didn't talk about that in the Clergy Group.

As for me, I'm all for a multiplicity of images for God, because there are a multiplicity of images for God in the Bible.  Some of them are comforting, some of them are familiar, some of them are jarring, and some of them are poignant.  All of them point to a God is is more than we can imagine.  Rock is a rock, but God is not a rock.  God is a father, but God is not a father.  Words are not adequate, but we need them anyway.  God is a mother hen, a fortress, a parent with a rebellious child.   ("It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them.  I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love.  I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.  I bent down to them and fed them." Hosea 11:3-4)

One of the arguments against using mother for God is that the Trinity is not simply a metaphor that we use to describe God; it is the Proper name of God.  Well.  I will admit that I believe that there is something irreplaceable about "Father, Son and Holy Spirit", but I still won't go so far as to call it God's proper name.  It's not as much about a proper name as it is about naming a relationship.  And it is more important to know that God is related to us than it is to know God's proper name.  Lots of people call me on the phone.  They all seem to know my proper name (although they don't all pronounce it right).  I often hang up on them.  But if one of my sons calls me, I do not hang up.

When we pray, we use words and images (and names) given to us in the scriptures.  They are all inadequate in some sense, but they are all gifts given by a God who promises to come to us, to hear us, to gather us.  They name a relationship, comforting and jarring and poignant, that God has initiated.

So bring on mother hen, who longs to gather us under her wings.  God who is Father Son and Holy Spirit is like a mother hen, who longs to gather us under her wings.

If only we were willing.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Message of Lent: Don't Give Up. Give Up.

Today was Ash Wednesday.  We had bookend services, one at 8:00 a.m. in the chapel, the other at 7:00 p.m. tonight.  The services were almost entirely the same:  readings, sermon, imposition of ashes, confession, communion.  Just the essentials.

One of the peculiar components of the Ash Wednesday service is something called "Invitation to Lent".  I think it went by a different name in earlier incarnations of the liturgy.  But, essentially, it's an exhortation to us to practice the disciplines of prayer, fasting and giving, self-examination and service during these forty days.  It's an invitation to take up the struggle against sin, to gather all the weapons we can muster to fight temptation in our lives.

Don't give up.

So you said you would give up chocolate for Lent, and you're tempted all the time by the little pieces on your co-workers desk.  So you get up every day and go to a job that you know isn't all that God intended you to do in life, and you're tempted to quit, even though you don't have another job lined up. So you are working to reduce gun violence in your community, but every time you think you have a chance, you have another setback, there is another school shooting.  You wonder some days if your children are going to be all right when they grow up.

Don't give up. Don't give up doing good, even though it's hard, even impossible, and you fail a lot, and that's painful.

That's the message of Lent.

Except when I draw the crosses on people's foreheads, imperfectly, and say to them, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  Remember that you are dust, you are mortal, you are finite, you are going to die someday, and you will leave some things undone.  You will leave many things undone.  You will have to let go of this life, let go of your children, let go of your accomplishments, let go of your hopes.  Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.

Give up.  Let go of something you hold too tightly:  a dream, a person, a possession.  Give up trying to impress people, wearing uncomfortable shoes, worrying about tomorrow.  Give things away, like love, a word, your life.  Serve, not expecting anything in return.  Love without expecting a reward.  Give up trying to save yourself.  Be righteous but know that God doesn't love you because you are righteous.

Give up.

But, don't give up.

The message of Lent.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sneak Preview: A Sermon for Transfiguration

            Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our creator, and from our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen

            Way back when I was in the 5th grade, our family took a vacation out to visit my cousins who had moved to Seattle, Washington.  We didn’t fly, we drove – trekking across country in our rambler and staying in different motels every night.  Vacations were really rare in my family.  Other than long weekends, I only remember a handful of times we went farther than my grandparents’ farm in southwestern Minnesota.  So, this was a really big deal, very exciting.  And what was even rarer than vacations:  Mountains.  In fact, until that summer I had never seen a mountain before.

            So I still remember how we spent one whole day driving through Montana, and how, suddenly, my dad said in an excited voice, “Look!  Kids!  There’s a mountain!”  And how we perked up as we saw, off in the distance, the beginning of the majestic Rockies.  We had never seen anything like this before – so we were in awe at the different landscape.  Evidence for the existence of God, right? 

            Has that ever happened to you?  When you’ve seen something, or experienced something for the first time?   For me, it was mountains.  For you, perhaps the ocean, or the giant redwood forest, or a piece of history up close.

            A day later, on the same trip, we were still driving, and my dad said, in an excited voice, again, “Look, kids, there’s a mountain!”  and we all said, “yeah, yeah, yeah.”

            What a difference a day makes.

            Today is the day of “Transfiguration”  -- named after this unusual experience that Peter, James and John had up on – of all places – a mountain.  If you are paying attention, you might notice that, in the gospels, important things happens on mountains.  Jesus gives the sermon on the mount – on a mountain – after his resurrection, he gathers his disciples again to teach them – on a mountain – and today, he takes three of his disciples up on a mountain where he is transformed – transfigured – before their eyes.  His face shines, and his clothes become dazzling white.  Wow.   “Look!  There’s the Messiah!”  It was like they were seeing him for the first time. And though we can imagine the clothes and the face glowing – maybe a little – when you think about the whole world “transfiguration”  -- it’s possible that it can’t even be described.  Something has really, radically changed about Jesus.  what’s another word that’s similar?  ‘meta-morphosis.’  Like the change from caterpillar to butterfly.  “wow!”

            Moses and Elijah were there speaking with him – and if you want to understand the importance of this, imagine a scene where Barack Obama is seen talking to Presidents Washington and Lincoln – something that would make some of us very happy and others of us very disturbed.  Moses and Elijah are lending legitimacy to Jesus’ ministry – they are telling us that this Jesus – he’s the real deal.  And then you have the voice of God, “Listen to him.”  Interesting.  Not ‘look at him’, or even ‘follow him’, but ‘listen to him.’  That’s what the voice says.  And then, it’s so sudden, so brief, that it’s all over.  Peter doesn’t even get a chance to build a memorial.  They’ll never be able to go back and find that spot again.   They were in the presence of God, and they knew it, but only for a moment, and then it was gone.

            So why is this story in the Bible, anyway?  It’s sort of frustrating, because it’s so strange, and so fleeting a moment – when they recognized Jesus, when he was transfigured.  Some people think this story really belongs at the end of the gospel, after the resurrection.  It’s out of place here, in the middle of the gospel.   It seems like it should be a resurrection story, his glory revealed at the resurrection, not before.

            Perhaps it’s sort of like a “sneak preview” – as in the movies, a ‘preview of coming attractions’.  Because when Jeuus and the disciples come back down the mountain, they are going to encounter darkness, and struggle, and failure and perhaps a sneak preview will help them in the middle of it all.  Because, you know,  it’s easy for us  too, as each ordinary day goes along, to start looking at the world, and saying, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah.’   Perhaps it’s sort of like a sneak preview, not just of coming attractions, but of what is present, but most often, unseen.  Maybe it’s meant to keep us going during all the ordinary days, and the days of struggle, and the days when it’s easy to forget what he has told us is true, because it doesn’t look much like it.    “sneak preview.”  Maybe that’s what it is.

            There’s an interesting point in this particular story:  when Peter and James and John see Jesus talking to Moses and Elijah on the mountain, do you know what they are talking about:  his departure in Jerusalem.  And the word for departure in greek is this one, “Exodus.”  They are talking together about his ‘exodus”, the place where he will be transfigured again as he struggles and suffers and dies, the place where everyone will desert him, where he will no longer look like the messiah they expected.  ‘yeah, yeah, yeah.’  And yet he is with them, with us, always. 

            Transfiguration.  Jesus face shines on that mountain, but the point is not just that Jesus’ face shines.  The point is not just that he is transfigured.  The point is, finally, that our faces are shining, because we have been in his presence, and even though, when we look in the mirror, we can’t see it.  The point is that we are being transfigured as we walk with him, not just on the mountain, but every day.  The point is that we are being changed, from one degree of glory into another.

            But, most of the time, you can’t see it.  That’s why the voice from heaven says, “Listen to him.”  Believe him,.  Trust him.  You are made in my image, he says.  I’m here, with you, he says.  I am forming and re-forming you,  working in you and among you. 

            Most of the time, we can’t see it.  But once in awhile we get a glimpse.

            Long ago, one cold day, I was called to a nursing home to visit a woman who was dying.  She was frail and old and small, I remember.  I knew her, a little.  I sat there and I held her hand, and she did not hold my hand back.  I thought I could see her, while I sat by her bed.  And then, a figure came through the door, quickly.  A woman, who came right over to the bed, and leaned over.  It was this woman’s daughter.  And she kissed her mother on the forehead. 

            And I saw.  This was not a dying woman.  This was a beloved and beautiful woman, alive to God.  Transfiguration.

            What a difference a day makes.  Or a moment.  When wine is poured, and bread is broken, and we listen to him, as he says, “this is my body.  This is my blood.”  What a difference a day makes.  It is a sneak preview of the feast on God’s holy mountain, where Jesus, and all of the broken, holy, people, will shine.


Thursday, February 7, 2013

Incomprehensible and Fascinating

When I lived in Japan, I often went to the movies.

I didn't go to Japanese movies; at my most fluent, I don't think I would have understood what was going on.  But there were many popular American movies showing in Japan, in English with Japanese subtitles.  Sometimes there would even be a double-feature, something that I had heard of but not experienced in my corner of the United States.  There were other cultural differences as well:  I remember being surprised -- no, shocked -- to find out sometimes that I would get a ticket to a movie and not be able to find a seat.  It was standing room only for a popular movie some days.

And then there were the previews of coming attractions.  I don't know if it's just because I am an inordinately curious person, but I started to really like to watch the previews of coming attractions.  These WERE actually Japanese movies, in Japanese, and they were full of color and actions and quick shots and sounds (most of which I did not understand), all of which conspired to make me feel that this movie was going to be the most incredibly experience ever.  What it was about, I had no clear idea.  But I really really wanted to find out.

So these movie previews were incomprehensible to me, for a number of reasons.  There wasn't just the language barrier, but there was also the barrier of just getting the snippets of exciting plot, the little flashes of actions, the hard cuts.  But even though (maybe even because) the previews were incomprehensible, they were also fascinating.  Endlessly fascinating.  There were things I possibly could find out here, and also things I would never, ever know.

This week I spent a little time at a conference called "Worship in a Time of Change."  Conveniently the conference was located in the week right before Transfiguration Sunday, an incomprehensible but fascinating story of Jesus' glowing appearance (with Moses and Elijah) on a mountain.  Not that we don't try to comprehend it, even year -- is it a mis-placed resurrection story?  does it have its roots in Hellenistic mystery religions?  or is it something else?  When have you ever seen someone's face glow, and their clothes turn white?  Even if you've had a mountaintop experience or two, I'll be nothing exactly like THIS has happened to you.

One thing I'm starting to realize, as well, is that for many people, worship is incomprehensible.  What is this?  Why do we do it?  What's going on?  My own niece, who is sort of unchurched, but goes with her grandmother on occasion, says, "I like to go, but I don't know what's going on."  Incomprehensible.  And not fully explainable if it is, indeed (as we say), an encounter with God.

If it is indeed (as we say) an encounter with God, we can even not worry too much if there's some incomprehension in there, as long as there is fascination too.  And if, indeed, Surely God is in this Place (as we say), it ought to be fascinating.  Not necessarily in a faces-glowing sort of way, but in an awe-ful sort of way.  For example -- strange, unexplainable things happen here, like the earthiness of tears and possibility of mercy, like hearing the words, "blood of Christ shed for you" and tasting it.  One of the most incomprehensible and fascinating things about faith is how ordinary things can be so holy, and perhaps there should be more ordinary, earthy things in our worship.

Worship in a time of change should be Incomprehensible and fascinating, because we worship a living God, who does not leave us alone.  Perhaps that's what we are seeking, in a time of change.  A living God, incomprehensible and fascinating, incomprehensibly loving, eternally fascinating, not leaving us alone, speaking words we desperately want to understand.

Maybe.  Maybe the first step to creating a bridge for people to come to worship is to admit that it begins by being incomprehensible.  Not too familiar.  But strange.  And (we hope and pray) fascinating.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Around my Office

Some of my colleagues have been posting some information about their offices, although, most specifically, they've talked about the resources they turn to most often in the daily course of their ministry.  Their answers got me thinking about my office, too, though not exactly in the same way.  Not that the Book of Concord isn't important to me and all that.  But my most cherished, most necessary objects are more eclectic than that.  

1.  Hymnals.  Maybe I'm a closet Anglican.  I have a lot of hymnals, the current crimson one, as well as the green one, the red one I grew up with, the blue supplemental, a lime green contemporary hymnal from the 1970s (groovy, baby), and a couple of old, black sort-of musty smelling hymnals from the Concordia and Augustana traditions.  I also have the Methodist hymnal, an old Gather accompaniment book, and feel that I should get a Presbyterian hymnal, too.

2. Devotional books by Gerhard Frost, a Lutheran pastor and teacher.  I think most of them are way out of print.  But I turn to them often, for stories and poetry.  "Bless My Growing" was the first book I owned, way back in college, when being a pastor was almost (but not quite) the furthest thing from my mind.

3.  A hand-made bowl, with a shiny green bottom.  It was given to me by one of my confirmation students.  It holds my microphone and a few miscellaneous items.  Unfortunately, it is broken; there is a huge chip in it now.  I have the chip, and think I may be able to glue it back someday.  In the meantime, it is still a treasure, not because it is perfect, but because it's a gift.  Reminds me of me.  and everyone else.

4.  A note from a parish member asking whether we could have a blessing of prayer shawls sometime before Lent.  The answer was 'yes.'  We blessed the prayer shawls last week.  Oh, and I also have a couple of prayer shawls in my office as well.  One is purple, and belongs to me.  I used it for a Biblical monologue once on Passion Sunday.  The other one is always around, in case I need to give a prayer shawl to someone.

5.  Though I have Luther's essential writings in my office, I confess that I most often turn to a small hardcover book which just contains The Large Catechism.  I just find the Large Catechism fun to read. I also turn to a little book called "The Freedom of a Christian" (aka "On Christian Liberty").

6.  Children's books migrate in and out of my office.  I think every pastor should read children's books. The three that I know are in my office right now are Because of Winn-Dixie, by Kate DiCamillo, Holes, by Louis Sachar, and The 100 Dresses, by Eleanor Estes.  You should read these books.  I mean it.  There's some deep theology in there.

7.  A really old, small stuffed clown doll.  I say that it is "really old" because it is my age.  It was a gift to me when I was a baby, given by one of my dad's customers.  for the past several years I've been using the doll in confirmation.  They get to name the doll at the beginning of confirmation, and when they say their 'highs' and 'lows' of the week, they pass it around the group.  My group of boys has named this small clown doll with the pink and white outfit -- "Dark Bob."  go figure.

8.  A book called "Holy Conversations."  I bought it a long time ago, just because I was intrigued by the thought that strategic planning could be a spiritual practice.  Now, we are actually reading and using the book, and having holy conversations with one another.

My office is crowded, over-full, actually.  But there it is, the tip of the iceberg, the treasure in earthen vessels.

Come and visit sometime.  There's a teapot in here somewhere, too.