From the Newsletter: “Grieving Together”

grieving

The new year is beginning with particular challenges for our community, as we mourn the loss and celebrate the lives of two people who each played an active part in our life together.

This Saturday, we will remember [KG], one of our most active professional singers and a friend to many, who died in her sleep just before Christmas.

On Saturday, January 27th, we will remember [HK], a long-time member who served the church with tremendous dedication and love in a list of roles almost to numerous to mention, not only on the Church Council, but as the Parliamentarian of our Annual Meeting, the Assistant Treasurer in charge of counting the collection on Monday mornings, the Maitre D’ of the Valentine’s Dinner, and the bookkeeper of Act II. For starters.

These wonderful people have been part of our worship and ongoing life as a family of faith, and there is no way that we can speak of them as being “replaced,” even as other committed and talented folks take over the duties they now gently lay down.

So I find myself hoping that, even as our community comes together to offer love and support on these occasions, we’ll find the courage to grieve together, too.

That can be harder for us than we might easily admit.

The emotions of grief are simultaneously powerful and utterly vulnerable, and many of us have learned to keep them locked away. Some people would more readily show you their bank statement than tell you how it feels to go through the bureau of someone they’ve lost.

The world, with its anxiety around grief, can be quick to leave a casserole at the back door and slow to sit over a cup of coffee in the kitchen, just listening.

Many seem to have a sense that we’re entitled to a certain amount of time — a month? a season? maybe a year? — but not one day more, forgetting that each loss takes its own shape, and its own time.

I can’t tell you the number of conversations pastors have with people who say, “I know I should be over this by now, but…,” apologizing for what seems like their self-indulgence around their feelings.

How quickly we forget the shortest verse in all of Scripture: “Jesus wept.”

Maybe it’s the shortest one because there is no more to say — there are no qualifications that need introducing by way of justification or explanation or embarrassed apology.

Even Jesus knew grief. Fully.

What does that mean for the Church?

To me, it means that we are called to be people who know grief, too — who aren’t afraid to let it in, and to dwell among those who feel it, whether it be the sharp edge of first grief or the dull ache and wistful memory of a later stage.

We’re challenged to find the courage to remain in the places that so many in the world are far too afraid to go, affirming that love does not ask us to “move on” or “get over it,” but rather, asks us to find a way to keep on loving, to keep on feeling, even as a new chapter begins.

Let’s be those people.

Let’s be the ones who sit and listen, who aren’t afraid to feel the pull of our own old griefs and our own fear of loss, in order to be in this moment. Fully.

As Jesus was.

Let’s remember that as we do, He comes in the midst of us, teaching us always how to love and live and heal, until we are reunited with Him and all those we love in a place where tears no longer fall.

 

See you in church,

From the Newsletter: Winter Begins

dogwinter

Dear Friends of Second Church,

It seems as if winter is gunning its engines in earnest now.

Soon the boots begin to take over the front hall, and the jaunty little hat that keeps off the chill will be replaced with the Nanook-wear that embarrasses even your adult children, and it will turn out that at some point between last March and now, somebody swiped the good scraper out of your trunk.

No talk of evening events for a few weeks — unless maybe it’s about catching the midnight flight to Bora-Bora.

It really is only a few weeks. Let’s make a pact to remind each other when necessary.

And we all know there really is a lot of beauty in these weeks, too. Let’s not forget that.

Every time I take the dog for a walk in winter, I can feel his delight. He porpoises through every snowbank, tumbles gleefully along the ice, strains at his leash like an Iditarod contender.

I don’t know what it is about winter, in particular, that animates him this way, but it seems as if the familiar, encountered in a stiff wind and coated in snow and ice, surprises him — and it’s his nature to be pleased by surprises.

It’s not so much ours, or anyway, mine. But I am the poorer for that, I know.

Maybe winter is a chance to try again. To feel a fuller creaturely delight in Creation.

Like it or not, we stand at the top of the steep ski jump into another year.

Where are you being called to find a fuller delight these days? What new thing might be seeking to embrace you?

After all these years, how might the most familiar parts of our lives turn out to be full of strange, new magic?

Whatever this winter holds for you and for me, may we always remember that God holds us in the palm of His hand.

 

See you in church,

2CC Sermon: “Resolve to Pay Attention” (Luke 2: 22-40)

Presentation

I’ve been giving some thought to my New Year’s resolutions over the last few days.

Those of you in the business world are probably aware of the acronym SMART, S-M-A-R-T when it comes to goals. The idea that goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.

So I guess I will need to revise the resolution I wrote that was “Get closer to fluent in Church Latin.”

It may be “smart,” but it’s not all that SMART.

A lot of my goals start out sounding that way.

“Walk more” seems like it’s on the list every year, and it sounds that way.

“Train the dog” is another.

In fact, at one point a couple of days ago, it occurred to me that when it came to my resolutions, maybe I was actually the wrong person to ask.

The fact that my goals weren’t SMART ones was only part of it.

So I asked Liz.

She rolled her eyes. “Where do I begin?” she said.

I instantly regretted asking and had to walk that back. But I felt like my instinct there was a good one.

Because there is a kind of romance to New Year’s resolutions.

Whether we resolve to work toward a particular personal milestone or to develop some sort of new habit — a new way of living — there is a little bit of a love affair in it.

A love affair between us and our dream of whom we still just might become.

That makes resolutions a kind of flirting with the future, and if it is, so be it.

So be it, except that probably not all the matches between 2017 me and 2018 me are particularly good ones. A Max who speaks fluent Church Latin is likely not much of an enhancement.

Maybe if we treated resolutions in the spirit of arranged marriages, set up by people who loved us but were able to be more objective about our little quirks, the whole thing would go better.

Other people probably have a better sense of the working capacity of our willpower, and isn’t that what resolutions are really all about, after all?

So let them decide how many pounds it should be between now and Easter, or how to get organized about getting organized, or what tops the list of the things we’re supposed to learn to say “no” to.

There is no question that the power of our will is enormous. We have a remarkable capacity to grow when we resolve to pay close attention to something and then learn to do so, whether it is something specific and measurable and all the rest, or even something broader.

For example, when we learn to pay close attention to our children, when we enter their worlds as learners, it is amazing what they will show us….it is amazing how they blossom.

But what deserves our attention? We may not actually know.

II.

To me, that’s part of the backstory of this morning’s gospel — the story of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, which we get from Luke.

Luke likely meant the story to emphasize the careful and commendable religiousness of Jesus’ parents. They have dutifully brought their first born to the Temple and have arranged for two turtledoves to be sacrificed in thanksgiving to God, which may or may not have been an actual expectation for families at the time of Jesus.

But it does get right a deeper idea within Judaism, which is that all of life is meant to be lived with an awareness of God. The Temple as the heart of Jewish life was a place to bring your gratitude as well as your shortcomings, and so even if this particular child was from the very first recognized as more than just a child…if what the angel had told the shepherds back on Christmas night was true…well, that did not change the fact that his parents were drawn to the Temple not out of some particular pride, but out of a humble awareness of God. (No word about the partridge in the pear tree.)

Yet the particularity of this child is never far away.

In the story, Luke also means to place Jesus in the arms of two figures who he particularly associated with the Temple — a prophet and a prophetess, Simeon and Anna — two older people of great faithfulness.

Simeon and Anna pick up the refrain from the stable in Bethlehem on the first Christmas, greeting him the infant Jesus much like the shepherds had, with delight and wonder, recognizing the baby — the baby — as the Messiah for whom they have been waiting.

And it’s here that I want to pause and wonder about the backstory to this moment.

Because I think it’s a story that, in its own way, is about attention.

Familiar as we are with the story, well-versed in the poetry of Christmas as we are, we might well forget how strange it would have been to hear someone claim that God had arrived in the form of a baby.

For seven hundred years, the people of Israel had been lifting their eyes to the hills, overwhelmed by the politics of the ancient world into being a perpetually occupied territory, and they had come expect, to wait for the day when they’d look up and see George S. Patton at the top of the ridge.

Have you ever been in a movie theater watching a movie where it seems all is lost, when suddenly the hero shows up, and the audience all around you just erupts?

Well, all the people in the Temple that day when the baby Jesus was brought by his parents would have loved seeing a movie like that. They were itching to erupt with just that kind of joy.

“What’s that Quirinius? Not so fast.”

Dirty Harry would have had them lining the streets for a look.

This little baby didn’t get so much as a second glance.

All those people in the Temple that day did not know it, but somehow, within all their suffering, all their longing, many had come to invest their hopes in the kind of Messiah they wanted, and not in the Messiah the prophets had told them to look for.

Their faith was grounded in a kind of faithful living that remembered God from the moment of waking to the moment of sleeping, and in a thousand other places in between.

Its whole logic was about learning to pay attention.

Nevertheless, it turned out that one could be extremely religious and yet oblivious.

Surely that should not shock us.

Luke’s point is just the opposite, though. What he wants us to see is that there in the Temple on that day, there were two who were not oblivious.

There were two, anyway, who had learned what it was to pay attention, who were not distracted by worry, waiting, or just wanting the Messiah of their own dreams to arrive.

Simeon and Anna, these two dear old souls, these old and faithful prophets, received the miracle they had been waiting and longing for.

III.

What is it you and I are waiting and longing for?

Even if we’re not all that into introspection, it’s the time of year when we ask that question.

What path are we on?

As we think about our resolutions for the year ahead, are we strategizing in the shallow water of what we simply want…what we want, well, because we want it?

Or are we truly learning to pay attention to the world, to see its beauty and its pain, to listen for the unspoken truths that the people who love us most are longing so very much to tell us, but don’t know how to tell us?

Do we feel the Spirit tugging on us in the gentle but persistent way she has, tugging us to know God in new ways, and to find new life as we drink, even just sip, from new springs?

God is resolved that the world will become a place of love and life and hope for all people — how are we keeping our focus on that?

Begin there.

I cannot promise that, in the end, your goals will turn out to be SMART ones.

God has a way of broadening our commitments once we get started.

They may not turn out to be SMART.

More importantly, they’ll be wise. And good. And full of heart.

And somewhere, Simeon and Anna will be watching, and smiling down upon you.

Amen.

Christmas Eve 2017

star

A couple of weeks ago, our daughter Grace performed in her first school concert, as a member of the Julian Curtiss Choraleers.

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit my surprise at how good they actually were.

It is amazing what they do — the harmonies they find — with just 45 minutes on Friday afternoons in which to find them.

And though Grace is not in the school band, the band also performed, and I decided that there must be a special place in heaven for Elementary School band teachers, these good souls who believe so deeply in the power of music to make good people.

Only a special kind of person can hear a wrong note blare out of a trombone played with gusto, and warmly praise the gusto.

God bless them for that.

And so there we all were in the school gym, on a Thursday evening in December, with little brothers or sisters on someone’s lap, with some coloring in their “Frozen” coloring books, and others bribed into stillness by the chance to play “Angry Birds” on someone’s iPhone — all so that we grown-ups could have a few moments just to take it in.

Just yesterday, that sweet little kindergartener with the brand new backpack was holding your hand all the way to school, and today she’s one of the big kids, up there singing the harmony to “Dona Nobis Pacem,” or maybe she’s one of the kids sitting in the band, the one in the front row, playing the trombone with gusto.

It didn’t matter which it was.

Because, as happens from time to time in life, the world in all its complexity paused, and there was just this moment of deep tenderness and love.

Christmas is about pausing, too.

It always has been.

To say that the early church was a place of constant squabbling actually understates the anger of its disagreements. The disagreements within the early church were fierce. This was particularly true of the debates around just what was supposed to be meant by the idea of Jesus as both God and human, the understanding of Jesus as God’s Incarnate Word.

But nobody ever disagreed about the mystery and power of that pause on the first Christmas.

The stillness of the nativity scene seems to point to a quiet that blankets — that embraces — all Creation.

It’s a very particular kind of silence if you think about it.

We tend to think of silence as an absence of noise.

And yet this silence is not that.

When we talk about the silence of that night, that moment when all was calm and all was bright, what we’re talking about is not absence but fullness — we’re talking about a fullness that speaks in a way that even words cannot.

It’s about the fullness of people’s hearts, maybe even the fullness of all Creation’s heart.

The silence of Christmas is the kind of silence that descends when the conductor picks up her baton — it is the silence of love, of hope and expectation.

So tonight, also, once again, the discordant groans of each individual instrument as it seeks to come into tune do finally pause, and on the other side of that pause they are transformed into an orchestra that plays with one voice.

The world can be so out of tune. Each one of us can be so out of tune.

So much is broken in the world and in us.

But tonight, we remember that love has picked up the baton, and as we pause again, in hope and expectation, we remember…we remember that even with our sins, even in our brokenness, we are invited to join the symphony, just the same.

II.

Is that what they all understood to be happening away in that manger, so long ago?

Mary, the young girl wise beyond her years, seems to have known.

The magi, the tenured court astronomers from far away, with nothing worldly to gain from being there, seem to have known.

But the others seem more simply to have found themselves there, shaken out of the darkness by the apparition of this strange comet, a word which (as I learned this week) turns out to mean “long-haired star.”

I also learned that comets come from the far side of Neptune, many of them shaken out of Neptune’s orbit by fluctuations in gravity caused by passing stars and galactic collisions, which is worth knowing only because, although the shepherds were not astronomers, they would have known a thing or two about what it was to be shaken out of orbit, and to have your life set in motion by titanic collisions.

To be a shepherd then was to live a precarious existence in the countryside around Jerusalem.

When it came down to it, the world’s ever-present capacity for disruption and heartbreak would have been familiar to them, indeed.

Yet on this particular night, the comet that began in the shaking of orbits and the crashing of galaxies came not, in turn, to scatter them.

It came to call them home.

And so it is that, just as it was that first Christmas night, women and men with their orbits shaken are invited home.

For all those with their orbits shaken by loss and loneliness, injustice and indifference, violence and vitriol — to all these powers that would shake us — the Lord said “Stop! Enough!” just as the angel looked down and said to the children of earth “Be not afraid!”

Be not afraid…because God has proclaimed a new beginning.

Be not afraid…though the conductor has raised the baton, and you scarcely feel ready to begin.

Be not afraid…for love is not simply the destination. Love is also the way…it is also the road…and as we take our steps along that way…as we learn to walk that road, we travel always with the one who first came to join us on this very night, and who loves us more than we can fathom.

III.

Do you come tonight with a heart already lifted in expectation of God’s new dawn?

Young people, newly in love, often find themselves full of love and hope for everyone and everything because loving and being loved has changed the way they see.

The expectant silence of Christmas is the delighted pause of that kind of love, finally made complete.

Or do you come tonight as a pilgrim, as a shepherd, finding yourself on the move because something has knocked you out of your orbit, and you aren’t entirely sure just where you will come down?

Christmas is the promise that anything that is wrong with us can still turn toward redemption and that anything that is wrong for us can stretch out its hands for healing and for justice.

Sometimes we feel as if the world is not our home.

But no matter what, we have a home in God.

There may be no room at the inn. But there’s room at the manger.

Love still has a place for us.

Christ came to free our “stifled longing” (Soelle) for a different kind of world, or if that seems too much, then first for a different you and me, by way of getting started on that different kind of world.

Tonight, if we listen closely enough we can hear it — can’t you hear it? — the murmur of the angels, come to tell all Creation that in the baby born in Bethlehem, we are finally and forever free.

Freed to love, at last.

Merry Christmas.

From the Newsletter: “Great Expectations”

expectations

Dear Friends of Second Church,

I am in that part of the Christmas season where my best intentions for the season are starting to come undone.

Each year, I resolve to get started early with my wrapping, make time for quiet and prayer, listen to more music (Annie Lennox’s Christmas CD remains my favorite, at least in principle), and let myself really settle into the festivity.

I also have this vision that I’ll have found the perfect gift for each person, and secured it, months ago, leaving me little to do in December except watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” and drink hot chocolate.

Well, once again I’m not quite there yet.

Advent, the season before Christmas, is often described as one of “waiting and expectation.”

But in our world, “expectations” have come to mean something different than they once did. When we talk about “expectations,” we’re often referring to measurement and evaluation in some way. I shudder to think of the offices where Monday morning post-mortems of Christmas will unfold: “So did Christmas meet or exceed your expectations this year?”

If I’m honest, I know that my intentions for the season are, in their own way, about that sort of expectations, too — was I organized enough about the tasks of Christmas this year? Was I tracking who-likes-what closely enough that I was “ready to go” ahead of the predictable bottlenecks?

If I’m not careful, that kind of “expectation” can turn Christmas into little more than an exercise in clearing my desk before a vacation.

Advent is supposed to take us outside of all that — to remind us about a bigger sort of hope and imagination. It’s about Expectation with a capital “E.”

It’s less about practicalities (important as those are) and more about remembering what it feels like to dream.

This seems to have gotten harder for us, and is all the more important for just that reason.

Our gathering, our exchanging gifts, our effort at getting lights on a tree and remembering to water it — all “the things” of Christmas aren’t just another to-do list to get through. They’re invitations to dream again. To say how much we love and feel grateful for one another. To practice caring.

Because the expectations that matter most are not the little performance measures we can come to live by all too easily. The expectations that matter are the ones that give us life and hope — the expectation of an even greater love that is to come, for us and for all people.

 

May we all find our spirits brightened by that kind of expectations in these coming weeks.

 

See you in church,

“After Sutherland Springs: A Reflection”

Sutherland Springs

Yesterday’s tragic church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas has already hit the “refresh” button on any number of rallying cries on all sides of the gun violence debates, especially on social media.

Coming soon to a feed near you–depending on which ones you’ve developed–will be the seemingly inevitable impatience with sending “thoughts and prayers” and not attempting meaningful gun control legislation. Or alternately, there will be the calls to encourage concealed- and open-carry, even in church, under the general heading of “an armed society is a polite society,” or “the only solution to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

“It’s Not Too Soon to Debate Gun Control,” says an editorial in this morning’s New York Times. “If we can’t talk about gun control now, after Sutherland Springs, then we will never talk about it,” says a commentary in today’s Dallas Morning News.

Yet just last month, in the wake of the Las Vegas shootings, the White House called such conversations “premature” when they appeared less than 24 hours after the tragedy. Others will say so again today, if they have not already done so.

There will be statistics. There are always statistics.

Yet soon enough, it will once again be clear that few have changed their minds, even this time, and the debate will go dormant again…until the next incident.

Despite the common sadness and horror we all feel in the face of tragedy, we continue to talk past one another when it comes to responding to gun violence.

It’s time for a different conversation.

We want the court of public opinion to adjudicate whether guns are “the solution” or “part of the problem”.

But it’s not that simple.

Instead, I wonder what might happen if we began a broader conversation on fear.

Christian ethicist Scott Bader-Saye, academic dean of the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, has written about the moral consequences of “disordered and excessive fear.”

He argues that fear “underwrites an ethic of security in which self-preservation consistently trumps other goods, and it fosters a set of shadow virtues–including suspicion, preemption, and control.”

He warns against the dangers of coming to fear not only what we should not, but also as we should not–that being afraid of the wrong things, or becoming consumed by fear to the exclusion of all else, can equally lead us astray.

Fear distorts our perception, leading us to see some threats as bigger than they are, or much closer than they are.

It can also lead us to fear losing things that, actually, aren’t all that worth defending. (Think of the person who refuses to give up a wallet during a mugging, or someone who whips out a gun over a disagreement about a parking space.)

Similarly, for many years now, studies have documented how fear of crime has been far more pervasive than actual crime.

How might that be translating into diminished lives, in which our fear of possible harm, while justified, has become so great that it overshadows our ability to pursue the good?

For example, in my congregation, how many people might be avoiding serving dinner at a nearby men’s shelter because the neighborhood seems too frightening?

In my last church, we had an older woman in good health who was afraid to come to Sunday Worship because of a burglary at her home that had occurred while she was out at church many years before.

How many people say they won’t go into a nearby city, or travel in different parts of the country because it’s too dangerous?

That sounds a lot like where we are.

We all long for security–for a world safe enough for us to cross a deserted parking lot, or to go buy a pack of Skittles after dark without worrying that our lives and our children’s lives might be on the line.

The fear of being in the “wrong place at the wrong time” is real, and yet it looks very different, depending on your social location in America today.

If you put it that way, are guns really “the problem” or “the solution”?

Hardly.

Much as guns are in the mix, the questions go much deeper than the presence or absence of a gun in a given situation.

Maybe we should talk about what it is like to be that sort of vulnerable space, rather than focusing immediately on the narrower question of whether or not a gun should be there, too.

Those who roll their eyes at the old slogan “Guns don’t kill. People kill” are missing an opportunity to ask what it is about our world that makes some of us scared enough or angry enough to contemplate killing if need be.

Those who carry guns are missing an opportunity to hear especially what those from traditionally “targeted” communities in America go through not only today, but literally since 1492.

What if instead of being focused on guns, we tried to engage in real conversation about privilege in America–what it feels like to be losing it, and to be denied it altogether?

If that’s too big, there are other questions to ask.

As Bader-Saye might ask: who are the “shadow virtues” of suspicion, preemption, and control training us to become?

Is that really who we want to be?

I don’t think it is.

But until we find enough common ground to begin talking, that’s exactly what we’re going to become.

From the Newsletter: “A Reformation Faith”

luther

Dear Friends of Second Church,

This coming Sunday, we will mark Reformation Sunday at our 10:30 Worship Service — which will include a musical celebration with harpsichord, brass, strings, a boy soloist…in short, the works.

It is sure to be a great tribute on a day close to the 500th anniversary of when it is said that Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the cathedral door in Wittenberg, Saxony (the actual day is October 31st).

There are those who wonder if it happened exactly that way, with all the drama of Spielberg movie, and I admit that I don’t know.

But it’s clear that a very different way of “being the Church” emerged as a result.

Luther focused and then broadened a conversation about how we encounter God, how we understand God’s will for us, and what the world should look like in light of our faith.

Over the last 500 years, that conversation has continued, and what’s proven to be its most enduring feature are its perennial questions, rather than many of its specific answers. Those often turn out to be the testimonies of a particular place and time, with much to teach us, but also much we must respectfully, but courageously reinterpret.

To do as Luther did has proven more important for us than to think precisely as Luther thought.

The composer Gustav Mahler once said, “Tradition is not guarding the ashes, but fanning the flames.”

Along those lines, the thing about a Reformation faith is that each generation — and in a very real sense each person — is challenged to remake it anew. We have to fan those flames once again. We have to look for God in our midst and ask what God is doing now, in this place.

What are the urgent concerns of this moment, and how is it that the light of the Gospel and the love of God in Jesus Christ can transform them? What does God need the Church to see, which the world, in its brokenness, cannot? And what does that ask of us in the Church, and of all of us as the Church?

There is not one simple answer. How could there be?

Truly, it is no surprise that passionate debate has always been a part of Reformation faith.

Yet clearly, it’s not a passive way of being faithful. It never has been.

Moreover, it must not be.

That’s one of the Reformation’s most important and enduring insights.

Passivity creeps in all too easily.

The great sociologist Max Weber talked about “the routinization of charisma,” his phrase for how the great energy and insight of a movement’s founder gets translated into (and slowly depleted by) the often mundane work of maintaining an institution.

Even the Church.  Even the Reformers’ churches.

The Reformers and those who came afterwards loved building institutions.

Indeed, those institutions have given us a lot to be thankful for.

The challenge of wrestling with God’s Word demanded that the first Reformers push for Bibles that people could read in their own languages. Then they saw the need to push for the broad, basic literacy that ensured the people could read for themselves. In this country, you can trace the migration of the Puritans and their descendants by following the founding of colleges across the American West.

But at a deeper level, those achievements came back to that fundamental commitment to wrestling.

Much has changed over the last 500 years. Some even say that we are at the very beginning of the next Great Reformation in Christian history, as the institution of the Church changes yet again to meet life circumstances and new social expectations that have shifted dramatically, especially in the last 50 years.

That commitment to wrestling has not changed.

From where I sit, the most vibrantly faithful, joyful, and committed of our own members today are those who live out that commitment, and the people who visit us and end up staying are those who are seeking a nurturing place to do that, too.

This tells me that, whatever the next 500 years will bring, the women and men whose lives are shaped by a Reformation faith across the generations will always share something much more fundamental than anything that might divide them.

I hope you’ll join us this Sunday to celebrate the last 500 years, and the next 500 years, and to engage for yourself in the deep wrestling that is the enduring heart of our faith.

 

See you in church,