Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Power of Apology Part II

I preached a sermon in June about the power of apology—not the defense of Christian faith kind of apology but the gut-wrenching admission of fault we all know too well.  At the end of my sermon, I asked the congregation to think of someone or some situation in need of an apology in their lives.  I also asked them to apologize and to report back to me about their experience.

I came into this little experiment with assumptions (as every researcher needs a hypothesis).  Yet as so often happens, the data surprised me.  I thought I’d receive stories about repaired relationships and long-lost friendships renewed.  I thought people would tell me about estranged relatives and re-energized marriages.  These situations may have occurred, but people didn’t tell me about them.  Instead, I received stories of people apologizing to themselves—and not one but multiple stories.  I was floored.  Throughout my sermon writing and delivery, and even as I waited for the responses, this option didn’t even occur to me.  It’s a good reminder the Spirit works between my mouth and the hearer’s ears—and thank God for that.

I received a gorgeous email from a woman who went home that Sunday after worship and took out a JC Penney photo of herself at age two.  I don’t even want to try to summarize her words as they are so heart felt and beautiful.  So here they are as she wrote them:

I talked to that beautiful child. I told her she was beautiful and smart and kind and strong. I told her she didn't deserve some of the things that have happened to her. I told her that her faith was strong and that she was alive because of that faith. I told her that the faith that her parents lovingly taught her would save her life time and time again. I told her how smart she is because she believes that God provides. Then, I told her I was sorry. That she didn't deserve to be treated so harshly by her adult self. Too much blaming. Too much shaming. Things in life happen. Some people go through life fairly uneventfully and some people have a different journey all together. In this beautiful little girl's life, she would have many struggles and she would suffer tremendously. But, she came through it all. I told the little girl that, from now on, she would be treated with the respect that she deserved. Because, as it turns out, she's a pretty great human being. She's not the reason so many bad things happened. They just happen. And, God provides.   

And if that wasn’t enough, she ended her story with this:

I got the sense that she forgave me. Praise God for that gift. I think that it has taken me so long to apologize because I wasn't sure if she would forgive me at all. And, how would I live with that? But, as always, fear is not real. All is well with my soul.

Thank God for the sighs of the Spirit.

I’m reminded of BrenĂ© Brown’s assertion in her book Daring Greatly that our ability to love others directly hinges on our own self-compassion.  Connecting with others requires connecting with ourselves first.  God’s grace gives us the gift of a precious identity—as beloved children of God.  When we can see ourselves as God sees us, it moves us to see those around us in the same way.  Maybe true apology to others can’t happen until we’ve apologized to and accepted ourselves.  The reality is forgiving ourselves may be the hardest forgiving we do.

I received another powerful story from someone struggling to forgive himself for mistakes made in his past.  He regrets some choices he made (don’t we all?) and isn’t sure how to move forward with forgiving himself and letting his regrets go.  Yet his past led to experiences of deep learning.  He learned to walk away from difficult pressures and embrace his own values.  His profound wisdom about what’s truly important in life is now razor-sharp.  Yet forgiving himself is still an ongoing struggle—as it is for so many of us.          

Throughout our lives, God’s grace is sufficient.  Even if we struggle mightily to accept ourselves with all our flaws and mistakes, God’s grace is bigger than any self-doubts we may have.  When our emotions are unreliable and our self-criticism can’t be contained, we are called to trust in an unwavering and dependable God—a God who already knows our deepest shames and hurts.  The gift of the cross and resurrection stands for all, and God embraces us as we are, for Jesus Christ already had the last words with sin—no more.

"For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." Romans 3:22b-24

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Prayers for Reconciliation and Grace

I’ve been struggling to form a post about the recent court case in Florida.  I don’t know the details of what happened between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman that night.  I don’t know what was said in the courtroom that led to the decision of the jury.  I’m keenly aware of my removal from these issues and race is such a fiery topic, I’m afraid to approach it.  Yet as people of faith we need to figure out how to think about and react to a decision that affects our neighbors deeply.  I hear shock and anger from fellow pastors who work with urban congregations.  I know there are parents in my own community who are having conversations over the dinner table with their teenage children—conversations that include warnings about walking alone in their own neighborhoods.  The ripples from Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal will spread for many years to come. 

Our faith is living—it’s meant to be used at times like these.  How do we process societal issues and happenings through the lens of faith?  Undergirding the highly emotional topic of race (and in the Martin case, the death of a young boy) is our common belief in God’s emphasis on community and care for the neediest among us.  How do we as Christians engage Zimmerman and his family after the acquittal—are we going to ostracize them or work to bring them back into community?  How do we engage Martin’s family?  And most importantly—how do we work together to prevent something like this from happening again?  How do we create a world where kids (of any race) are safe as they walk their own streets?  Bishop Mark Hanson of the ELCA posted a tweet on Sunday asking, “Are we now ready to build a world in which George and Trayvon would be contemporaries in Jesus’ Good Samaritan story, not violent enemies?”  And Pastor Rick Warren’s simple tweet on Saturday said it all: “Hurt people hurt people.”

The first step is keeping our eyes open.  As much as we hope and wish race relations are getting better (and in many ways, they are), this case opened up a flood of emotions and reminded us there’s still work to be done.  I'm sharing some articles that are helping me process the events and learn why they're so deeply hurtful for so many.  You may not agree with the assertions made.  It’s eye-opening reading nonetheless and helps us all view the outcome from a different perspective--for faith is also about opening ourselves up to other views.  The loving creator of the universe is big enough to hold you up when you feel your faith is challenged.  It will come out stronger on the other side.

I tried to find articles that weren’t terribly political, but let’s be real—this issue is inherently political.  But I think despite our political differences, the church should be the place where we can talk respectfully about these issues.  I welcome conversation.

Christena Cleveland wrote a helpful piece for The Exchange that challenged me.

Bishop Stacy Sauls lays out some provocative questions.

Greg Carey, professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, thinks about how to hold unity in the church in the aftermath.

Wonderful: An Interview with Leroy Barber.

I’m sad to say I neglected to pray about the situation and its outcomes in church last Sunday.  It’s been on my mind ever since.  Lesson learned.  Here is my prayer:

God of grace, pour your reconciling grace upon us as a community and a nation.  We pray for the loved ones of Trayvon Martin.  We pray for George Zimmerman and his family.  May we find ways to work for justice, peace and safety for all our children.  May our eyes be opened to the plights of our brothers and sisters.  We know your faith and love are strong enough to destroy shame, hatred and evil.  Use us as workers for your kingdom.  Amen.  

Monday, July 15, 2013

Sermon for Annika

Sermon for 7-14-13
Text: Luke 10:25-37

Dear Annika,

Welcome to the world and to the waters of baptism.  Today promises to be a hot summer day and we’re enjoying a stretch of beautiful sunny weather after a long, cold, wet spring.  It's so good to celebrate your baptism today. 

Today’s gospel lesson is a parable of Jesus—a story.  I find it appropriate because so much of life is about story.  Madeleine L’Engle says in her book Walking on Water, “We cannot Name or be Named without language.”  We need language and stories to tell us who we are.  You’ll learn your name, Annika, connects you to your mom, your grandma, and other women in your family who share the middle name Ann.  It’s also a Scandinavian name, which is a nod to your family’s heritage and traditions.  Your middle name, Roselle, connects you to your other grandma, whose middle name is Rose.  So from the start, when your parents named you, they wove you into the ongoing story of their families—as you begin the story of your parents’ expanding family.  No doubt you’ll hear, learn and repeat countless family stories as you grow—stories of vacations and long car trips and hiking in the mountains.  Stories of great-grandparents, recipes passed down for generations and relatives who walked to the beat of their own drums.  Maybe you’ll visit old family cemeteries—full of stories and memories—or places where your parents and grandparents used to live.  All of these stories will become your story, and you’ll learn and claim the language you’re given.

Stories will be told about you, too.  Stories of how you’re attached to your mom and don’t like to be far from her for long.  How you like to be held close and nap with your mom and dad.  How you like—demand—to be stimulated and don’t like to sit still, which connects your parents’ story to the story of so many other parents around the world who know what it’s like to walk a baby for hours around the house, bouncing and talking and singing until they’re ready to fall over.  There’s a reason why once you’ve spent a lot of time with a baby, no matter how long it’s been since you’ve held one, you’ll immediately start to bounce once a baby is put into your arms.  The story stays with us and becomes a part of us, and your parents will do this too.

In baptism you receive another story.  This morning you received the waters of baptism, connecting you with the story of our God who walked with God’s people through thick and thin until God’s salvation plan had to expand to the unthinkable.  God's word was spoken over the waters and you were named a child of God.  God’s love was so deep that God came as a baby—like you, Annika—to save the world.  God in Christ endured the cross and gave salvation to all through the resurrection.  And today God continues to save, to give faith and hope and life in the waters of baptism.  So God can write in God’s book of life, “today I baptized Annika.”  You’re now a part of the story of the baptized, those who can say, as Martin Luther did when he felt attacked by the devil, “Stop! I am baptized!”  I am a child of God.  I am loved and precious.  I am adopted and grafted onto the tree of life.  I am part of the story.  I am baptized.

Story will be a big part of your life from now on and will be the way you learn and make sense of life.  L’Engle also says that stories, like music and art, make cosmos (the Greek word for world) out of chaos.  We live in this big, crazy world full of unpredictability and suffering and vulnerability.  We live with so many unanswered questions.  Yet stories help us make sense of the chaos around us.  They give us a framework to live, a way to express ourselves, and a guide to follow.  Stories help us process all we see and hear and witness around us and sense an even bigger world.  We learn and witness the possibilities of God in story.

Your parents will read you books and before they know it, you’ll be reading books to yourself.  You’ll learn about Bible stories.  There’s a reason Sunday School is all about Bible stories.  It’s the place children absorb, learn and make these stories a part of their own story.  Many adults today haven’t heard the stories, and they miss something crucial.  To have Bible stories as part of your life from the beginning—so they become a part of you and your story—is a true gift.  It's why your parents' and sponsors' baptismal promises to you include placing the Scriptures in your hands.

This is why Jesus used stories (parables) so often.  He used them to connect ideas and concepts of God to everyday life.  The familiar story we hear today—about the Good Samaritan—leads us to question how we’re living our everyday lives.  We hear of a man left beaten in the ditch, passed over by a priest and a Levite (a dedicated temple servant).  A Samaritan—someone who was considered outside the realm of a good Jewish neighbor—is the one who tends to the man’s wounds and pays for his stay in an inn while he heals. 

This story leads us to ask questions of ourselves.  What kind of neighbor are we, and who do we consider our neighbor? The lawyer asks Jesus who his neighbor is in order to limit who he is responsible to.  Yet Jesus turns it all around in this parable, when he ends it by asking the lawyer, “Who was the greater neighbor in this story?”  It’s an easy answer.  The Samaritan helped his neighbor in need.

Your baptism today brings you into a greater story—a story of humanity and the Christian faith.  From now on, the gift of baptism will change you.  You won’t be able to walk by a hurting stranger without feeling a pull in your gut or see difficult images on the news without wondering if and how you can help.   You may not always be able to act on it, but you will feel it in your bones, because that's what faith does to us.  God’s gift of faith will shape how you see everyone else in your life.  You’ll see all people as children of God, loved and cherished like you, and this will guide and direct you as you seek to live according to God’s will.  Anyone in need—despite cultural, religious or ethnic distinctions—will be your neighbor.  Jesus’ stories are now your stories, Annika.  Hear them often and well.

Jesus’ parables almost always have surprise endings.  The man who wonders who his neighbor is ends up questioning his own identity and ability to be a neighbor.  The rich man is asked to forget the commandments and give all he has to find salvation.  The one sheep who is lost—despite many other sheep still hanging around—is sought and found.  An all-powerful God becomes a vulnerable baby to save humanity from the powers of sin and death.  This flesh and bones God becomes ultimately vulnerable at the cross, giving his life for ours, and out of this powerlessness comes the power to change the story of history.  Today, the story continues as we baptize babies—those who can’t choose or even accept God’s love—knowing all we need is God’s love to make a baptism work. 

This is your story, Annika.  May it make cosmos out of your chaos and guide and direct you as you grow.  You will always be baptized.  Amen!   


Monday, July 8, 2013

My Daily Books

All I’ve wanted to do lately is read.  I find myself stopping at the library with armloads of books at least once a week—last Friday I realized I may have a problem when I checked out 14 books even though I still had plenty at home.  (Many of those books were for my kids, but still.)  It’s been a chaotic year at our house, and reading has been my escape and therapy (it’s a good activity for introverts).  We’ve been experiencing a lot of changes—many of them very good changes, but disconcerting nonetheless—and books have been my friends through them.

This is my nightstand.  I have more books on the floor (though I didn't take a picture of them as to appear *normal*). 

Every time the weather gets hot and school is out I flash back to wonderful memories spending entire summer days reading all over the house where I grew up.  I read in my bed with a flashlight, in the worn armchairs and the basement couch with books propping up the place where the leg fell off, and in my beloved hammock in our yard.  I remember reading The Hobbit in two days, physically grieving after finishing The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and A Wrinkle in Time, falling in love with Judy Blume, and devouring book after book in The Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley Twins series.  Summer simply makes me want to read.

We also quit cable.  This may also have something to do with my increased time spent at the library. I haven't yet decided if this is a good thing.

I’m so, so fortunate to have a job that allows me to read (and write)—a lot.  Sometimes I still feel like I’m getting away with something when I’m in my office reading through Barbara Brown Taylor sermons or keeping up with Rachel Held Evans' blog.  There’s nothing better than a morning sitting down at my desk with a cup of coffee and one of Eugene Peterson’s books.

I stumbled upon Sarah Bessey’s wonderful 10 Books a Day For a Week series recently, and I realized hey!  I can take all this crazy book obsession and put it on my blog!  I won’t be doing 10 books a day—I need time to read, mind you—but I’ll put up lists as I’m inspired.  Here’s today’s list:

Devotional Books I Read Regularly (Meaning Almost Daily)

The Bible Of course I had to put this first.  A very helpful tool for me is the Moravian Daily Texts.  You can subscribe to them over email and receive Bible verses every day along with a prayer.  It’s a great way to start the day.

Living the Message Eugene Peterson is my pastor.  He always manages to convict, inspire and direct me in unexpected ways.

Bread for the Journey Oh, Henri Nouwen.  His writing is so full of wisdom and gentleness and truth. 

Faith Alone These short devotions are taken from Martin Luther’s writings and sermons.  I’m still amazed at how contemporary many of them feel.

Good Poems Garrison Keillor’s collection makes poetry accessible and oh so real. 

The Cup of Our Life Joyce Rupp is one of my favorite authors and thinkers.  She helps me make sense of life, grief, and change.

Share your favorites with me too!   

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Friday Five: Tuesday Edition

I'm late to play the RevGalBlogPals Friday Five from last week.  So here is my Tuesday edition:

Whoosh!  My calendar is packed.  And June is almost gone!  There's the old saying, "Bad luck comes in threes" but I've decided that "Busy-ness comes in fives!"  So this week we'll take things five-at-a-time.  Tell me:

1.  Five flowers you'd like in a bouquet or in your garden:

Orange roses, number one.  Followed by tulips, begonias, tiger lilies, and hydrangeas.  I don't do much of the flower planting at my house, but I reap the benefits of a husband who enjoys landscaping.

2.  Five books you want to read (or re-read):

VB6 by Mark Bittman
I'm just beginning to discover Frederick Buechner (I know, I'm behind the times) so his books/sermons/essays are at the top of my list.
The Brothers Karamozav by Dostoyevsky.  I've picked up this book numerous times but just can't get through it.  Someday.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is currently on my nightstand.
Notorious Nineteen by Janet Evanovich (and yes, I've read all 18 other Stephanie Plum novels)

3.  Five places you want to visit:

Washington, DC
Iona, Scotland
New Zealand

4.  Five people you'd invite for coffee/tea/beer and pizza:

My Mom
Barack Obama
Eugene Peterson
Amy Poehler and/or Tina Fey
Madeleine L'Engle

5.  Five chores or tasks you'd gladly give to someone else:

Again, thanks to my husband for:
Doing bills and tracking tax information
Cleaning the gutters

I would also gladly hand over:
Washing dishes
Cleaning the bathrooms
Picking up socks everywhere. in. my. house.

Bonus: A five ingredient recipe!

I hate to hand this over as it's my go-to potluck/party recipe, but here it is (I'm counting the two sugars as one):

Grape Salad

4 lbs. grapes
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
8 oz. sour cream 
1/2 cup sugar

Stir together the sour cream, cream cheese and sugar (and a little vanilla, if you want) in a big bowl.  Stir in grapes. 

Sprinkle on:
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup chopped pecans

Let sit overnight in the fridge.  The brown sugar and pecans will form a crust that is irresistible to most (if not all) people.

Bring to a party and watch it disappear.  Prepare by bringing copies of the recipe with you.  You will be asked.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Do Something

Sometimes I get so caught up in the business of being church I forget the Spirit actually moves in this place.  I read articles about how God is acting outside the church and we need to escape our walls but sometimes I see God moving right here, in this building, in this congregation.  I get so outward-focused (rightfully so, in many instances) I fail to see God’s presence in worship and in committee meetings that take place in our library or around the big table with some questionable chairs surrounding it in the Conference Room.  I forget the prayers in this place actually do something.

One evening I sat with a group of people who told me how special it is to be alone in a church building.  One man talked of prayer vigils in a former congregation when he’d sit alone in the sanctuary at two in the morning full of prayers as he tried to stay awake.  Another woman talked of practicing the organ in the quiet of her childhood church on Saturday evenings when she was in high school.  I realized I take it for granted when I practice my sermons in the empty sanctuary as the afternoon sun slants over the pews.  I don’t always notice when I come in early on Sundays and walk through the stream of colors lighting up the floor from the sun shining through the stained glass windows.  God is outside this building—but God is in it too.

I experienced a lot of prayer last week and I didn’t do much of the praying.  Someone reminded me our fancy Lutheran scripted prayers can take the wind out of Spirit-filled prayer.  The beautifully written words are wonderful and have their place—but not at the expense of spontaneous prayer (as writer Anne Lamott says, there are three essential prayers: Help, Thanks and Wow).  I don’t want to snuff out in-the-moment prayer.  At a church small group gathering, I heard heart-felt tear-filled prayers prayed around a friend newly diagnosed with cancer.  I sat with a group of people hell-bent on moving this congregation to a new place—sometimes birth is easier—praying that God would be present in this discernment.  I was lifted by the honest prayer around me as we all spoke to God filled with hope that God really hears us.  Faith tells us this is so.

I found myself held up by the prayers around me.  These prayers did something to me.  As a pastor, I’m almost always the one to pray out loud.  I don’t mind it.  But when someone offers to pray for me or pray instead of me, I’m able to step back a moment and experience the power of prayer.  It’s so good to remember prayer has nothing to do with education or experience or age or faith.  The powerful prayers of children are a testament to its all-inclusive nature.  The prayers of last week lifted me, gave me hope and inspired me to keep moving ahead knowing this church—this little building—does something to bring about the Kingdom of God. And maybe I need to start letting others pray for me (and instead of me) much more often.