From the Newsletter: Easter is for non-believers, too.

womeninchurch

Dear Friends of Second Church,

Holy Week and Easter are a little more than two weeks away — and some of the church’s most powerful services are just ahead. Some are somber and thought-provoking; others are joyful and celebratory; each is distinctive and beautiful.

In particular, Palm Sunday and Easter are often inscribed in people’s memories from childhood, whether they worshipped in impressive city churches with organs three stories tall, small country churches where the flowers came from someone’s garden, or something in between.

Many in our pews for those Sundays remember family gatherings with cherished family members now many years gone,  with church-going serving as just one part of an extended lesson in what it was to belong—to a community and to a family, as well as to God. For some, Easter began weeks ahead of time, when they went downtown to get a new suit or hat, and Easter only ended when the last car pulled out of the driveway, the dishes were put away, and the extra leaves of the dining room table were safely back in their corner of the pantry.

In fact, we know that many who will be with us in the next few weeks may come as very temporary, even one-time-only visitors, coming not so much to “encounter Jesus” or “celebrate the resurrection,” per se, but rather to remember what it felt like to sit next to their beloved grandmother, amid an atmosphere heavy with the scent of lilies and “Shalimar,” and who are joining us now all these years later simply to sing the hymns their grandmother knew and loved.

God bless them. Welcome.

Many of you will also be inviting family to join you who aren’t really sure how they feel about church, or what they might be seen as tacitly endorsing by being there.

Of course, we don’t want it to be that complicated, and we aren’t a “hard sell” kind of place. But that’s easy for us to say. If all they wish to do is come and sit and let their minds wander, God bless them. Welcome.

(And grace and peace to all those who decide, in the end, to stay home.)

Sometimes I worry that we who love churches see our great festivals as a chance for visitors to “get the message” instead of simply feel the love in, among, and through us.

Instead of celebrating God’s love, we’re more concerned with lifting up our own version of churchiness.

Along those lines, we Christians need to do a better job at showing that Worship isn’t something that we have to do (whether in general or according to some particular way) — it’s something that we get to do, and do according to however the Spirit may lead.

It’s not something any of us are born knowing how to do in any particular way. It’s something we come to do, mostly, just by doing it.

But we keep on doing it every week because, in some mysterious way, in doing it we are reminded of what is to belong to someone besides ourselves—most of all, to God.

So is it wrong for us to sit in the pews and remember our grandmother rather than Jesus?

In many ways, it’s a false choice.

Because as Jesus clearly understood, what belonging means for us and asks of us are important to decide. Their are implications — even consequences — to belonging. That is as it should be.

These are the weeks when God showed us most clearly that even death could not stop the power of love, and that in God, there is more than enough love for all of us.

These are the weeks when God showed most clearly that we all belong to Him, no matter what.

Sometimes we find our way to those lessons in a straightforward way, by hearing the Word, singing the old hymns, and praying with especially purposeful focus.

Sometimes it’s by remembering the lives of the saints we have known, who did those things so faithfully that their example still moves us, even in the midst of very different lives.

And so whatever it is that blossoms in someone’s heart and memory at Easter, or whatever it is that tells a passerby to turn the car into the parking lot and come to church, God bless it.

Come. You’re where you belong.

 

See you in church

Sermon: “True Wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1)

badadvice

My parents met Liz for the first time just a few weeks after we had started dating.

They were immediately smitten.

We had all gone out to lunch and then I had to scoot a little bit to get Liz to the train back to New York City, so there had not been my family’s usual time to debrief afterwards.

But when I got home there was already a message from my mother waiting on my answering machine.

“She’s great,” said my mom on the message. No “Hi honey, it’s mom…,” mind you. No warm-up about how nice it had been to see me or how much fun we had all had at the restaurant.

My mom was all business.

“She’s great,” she said. And then she continued, “Your father says don’t mess it up.” Click. The line went dead.

It’s not exactly the nicest advice I’ve ever received…but it is certainly among the best advice I’ve ever received. I have been trying to keep from messing it up for years now. But it was and still is good advice.

Through the years, I have also received my share of bad advice.

Early in my teaching career, I really struggled with the humdrum task of recording grades in my official grade book. The teachers among us may well remember those — the brown spiral bound book with the alternating green and white columns and all those little squares.

I don’t know why but whenever I opened that book to write down grades, my heart just sank.

And so my grades were recorded on all kinds of other things — the backs of envelopes, a flyer for a new car wash someone had put under one of my windshield wipers…you know, that kind of thing. And all these scraps lived somewhere in the trunk of my car…except for the ones that had become bookmarks for things I was reading or what have you.

I am not saying this did not need to be addressed.

I knew it needed to be addressed.

The question was how.

Finally, someone told me that I just needed to come clean to my department chair.

I remember it vividly. My friend said to me one of those things that people always say, “Come on, what’s the worst that could happen?”

I heard that. The next day, when the bell rang for lunch, I gathered all my scraps of grading and my empty grade book and I went to her classroom to confess.

…So let me just say that God’s house is not really the right place to share the specific words that my department chair selected on this particular occasion.

I am someone who believes that confession is good for the soul, but that was 1998 and this is the first I am sharing this story, so let me just say: while confession is good for the soul, it isn’t always good for the soul right away.

Nobody quite tells you that when they tell you that you ought to go confess something.

I am living proof of that.

Our days are punctuated endlessly by all kinds of challenges, and the advice, both good and bad, that we receive in how best to meet those challenges.

The world is not short of opinions, is it?

Yet the art of discerning true wisdom from among all those opinions is an art that is not easy to master.

II.

Dale Carnegie taught us, famously, “how to win friends and influence people.”

There’s a kind of wisdom in that.

More controversially, the screenwriter Robert Greene has compiled a book called “The 48 Laws of Power.” Does anyone know it? I think I’ve mentioned it before.

The first law is “Never outshine the master.” The second is, “Never put too much trust in friends, and learn how to use enemies.” Law Seven is “Get others to do the work for you, but always take the credit.” Law Ten is, “Infection: Avoid the Unhappy and Unlucky.”

And let’s admit something that is hard to say from the pulpit. There is wisdom in this too.

Those of you who toil faithfully in offices surely know people who operate this way, and the fact is, they often succeed.

Worldly wisdom endures for a reason.

But let’s not forget that, if that’s so, it’s because there is so much that is so fundamentally broken about our world.

Let’s not forget that if all our lives are about is learning to navigate and mitigate that brokenness effectively, we aren’t actually living for much at all.

That’s what the Apostle Paul thought.

And so he believed that the wisdom of the world was something we needed to handle with great care.

He worried that, convincing as it was, that kind of wisdom all too often led away from God.

For one thing, he saw that Scripture warns us about that. At the beginning of his words for us this morning, he quotes Isaiah, writing:

“For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart’” (1 Corinthians 1:19; Isaiah 29:14).

Don’t misunderstand him here. Paul does not hate wisdom, and he does not hate the world.

But he worried that the wisdom of the world, the advice of the world, such as it was, was not enough.

And so what he wants the church to understand is that the wisdom of God turns out to be a very different kind of wisdom.

And because it is, Paul also sees it as no accident that the people who seemed to sense this first are a very different kind of people than the ones the world would be quickest to look to for its own compromised kind of wisdom.

Paul cannot help but note that, when he looks at the church, the people he sees gathered there are not, by and large, the straight A students, or the president of the local bank, or — I’ll date myself — Marcus Welby.

He didn’t see the kind of people that the poet Edward Arlington Robinson once described as “good looking and imperially slim.”

Paul says to the church at Corinth, “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.”

Again, as he sees it, this is no accident. In fact, he suggests, it is actually part of God’s plan.

As he explains: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1: 27-29).

What Paul means is that God wants something much deeper for us…something that success as we usually think of it can’t offer us…something that success as we usually think of it might even make it harder for us to find.

And so God “shames” us in the sense that we have to get over our own way of valuing things, and begin to see the world in terms of how God values things.

Second, this is also shameful because when we begin to be transformed, as our lives begin to look and sound different than they once were, not everyone is going to understand.

He wants to urge anyone in that situation not to give up, not to turn back, not to lose heart.

III.

What does that mean for people like us, who have their foot in both camps, as it were?

I don’t think Paul is trying to tell us we’re bad. I think he’s trying to acknowledge that it’s hard.

This is why the advice we listen to, the success we seek, and the wisdom we follow are so important.

Because if standing up for what you think is right is stupid, then the world needs a lot more stupidity.

If thinking about the people who need help and encouragement means we’re weak, then let’s get an army of wimps together.

If talking about the world as we want and hope it will become is foolish, then let’s be the clown car that leads the parade to the future.

We need to hold on, and hang in, and have faith.

The world has a lot to teach us. It’s a beautiful and complicated place. And we are beautiful and complicated people.

But we’re God’s people, and in the end that’s more than enough.

It’s the only success there is. And it’s free for everyone.

In a world where so much passes for profundity, in a world awash with good and bad advice, we often have to strain to hear the wisdom of God.

But our lives can be lived in ways that turn up the volume.

Paul says, “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Co 1:23).

May each of us be living proof of that bold declaration.

Amen.

Sermon: “Winner take…what?” (Mark 8:31-38)

monopoly2

I haven’t played Monopoly since about 1981, when my friend Chip and I were playing with his younger sister, Meig, and in retaliation for his landing on one her properties with a hotel on it, we made a rule that “mergers” were possible and then immediately colluded to bankrupt her as quickly as possible.

Meig responded by flipping over the board and shouting for their mom, which we richly deserved.

For many, cheating and making up new rules in the middle of the game is just part of playing Monopoly.

Well, it seems that the people at Milton Bradley have been listening.

This week, they announced a new brand extension called the “Monopoly: Cheater’s Edition.”

In addition to the standard game, the Cheater’s Edition comes with fifteen cheat cards with various little scams for players to attempt during the game — taking a little extra money from the bank, moving someone else’s token during your turn.

If you succeed, you apparently get extra cash or a free hotel for one of your properties.

But if you get caught, there are new consequences.

Either you have to pay out money, or instead of being sent to the “go to jail” spot, in what seems like a distinctly reality t.v. kind of twist, now you also get literally handcuffed to the game board itself.

This is all absolutely true.

Say what you will, it’s a very interesting way to try jazzing up Monopoly, which we’ve all been jazzing up on our own since the Great Depression.

When the game debuts, I’m sure there will be any number of thoughtful op-eds and blogs about what it means that breaking the rules is now officially considered part of the game itself.

But I wonder if that’s really the point.

Part of me wonders if the point is not about giving permission to cheat, but rather about introducing formal punishment for those who are caught doing it.

I wonder if the point is actually to enshrine a new kind of vigilance about the rules.

Because whatever thrill there is to be found in cheating at Monopoly, surely it will pale in comparison the thrill of seeing sweet, swift justice being done–oh, the pleasure of seeing your older brother or his friend now a prisoner, their arrogance finally exposed for all to see!

No flipping the game board in frustration ever again — let the truth be proclaimed to the last hotel on Park Place!

Stepping back, we can have such a strange relationship to winning, can’t we?

We can turn almost anything into a contest.

Maybe the game is Monopoly…or maybe the game is showing the world who your older brother really is…but in any case, let the games begin.

A pastor colleague of mine was once doing a graveside committal service in a cemetery out of his usual area, and he happened to pass by a random gravestone, and instead of name on the gravestone or the dates of a life, there were simply these words: “I told you I was sick.”

Pastor Shawn would probably call that the ultimate troll.

But if gestures like that suggest our strange relationship to winning, the deeper truth is that we have an even stranger relationship to living.

A life with winning at its center — with winning as its purpose — can turn out to be strangely misshapen.

We are built for more than just that.

II.

The Book of Ecclesiastes famously talks about the notion of life having seasons, lifting up “a time for every purpose under heaven.”

That points to Scripture’s view that there is something in us that is bigger than the vicissitudes of daily life…that there is something transcendent about our lives in God.

Ecclesiastes takes the view that God is to be found as much in losing as in winning, and that the point of life is to seek what abides, whatever the circumstances may be.

Our Gospel this morning is in that same vein.

As we’ve heard in Mark’s telling, Jesus has begun to speak directly about what will happen in Jerusalem — to tell the story of Good Friday and Easter that are yet to come.

It’s telling that what Peter seems to hear is just the Good Friday part, and he even goes so far as to take Jesus aside and rebuke him.

Peter is not entirely wrong, of course.

The other gospels record that Jesus’ preaching began to grow more foreboding as he got closer to Jerusalem, and that some of those who had been following him began to fall away.

So we can have a certain amount of sympathy with Peter, I think.

“Jesus, we have some great momentum going here. Let’s not blow it.”

“Jesus, we have to keep our focus on people’s hopes, not their fears.”

Peter is a loyal lieutenant who sees how important it is for this movement to succeed, and he wants to keep Jesus on message.

But on some level, maybe he’s also simply afraid of losing.

In fact, he’s so afraid, that he can’t hear that Jesus is talking about this thing that will happen…this moment in the life of God and the world that is going to blow the doors off.

What is about to happen is beyond those little categories of winning and losing, because God is so utterly beyond those little categories, and so utterly greater than these little games that people play.

Peter isn’t quite ready to hear that. He’s going to have to learn that lesson the hard way.

III.

But for us, maybe it doesn’t have to be quite that hard.

For one thing, I’m very certain God doesn’t want it to be.

If we’re having trouble hearing God, I’ve found that usually it’s not because God isn’t speaking…it’s typically because we’re having trouble really listening.

This morning, I’m particularly wondering if the prospect of winning or losing might be preempting much of our regularly scheduled programming, kind of the way the Olympics preempts so much else.

Do you watch for the medals…for who wins, or for who loses…or do you watch for something else…do you watch the games in another spirit?

Do we spend our time and energy focusing on life’s winning moments…or trying our best to steer clear of life’s losses? Or do we seek to live in a different spirit?

If we’re not careful, we can come to misunderstand what the real victories are — and the losses, too.

That’s what happened to Peter.

And yet wisdom is always eager to teach us, if we are willing to learn.

For the last couple of years, our daughter Grace has been involved with Girl Scouts, in a troop that meets right here at the church.

Part of that, of course, is that she is slowly beginning to gather merit badges for various kinds of things.

And there are times I look at her vest with its various badges, and I wonder, you know, what would it be like if we adults walked around with vests like that?

What would our badges be?

Would we only carry the badges of our victories?

“Hey, I see you got the CEO badge! I know you were really working for that one…way to go!”

“Hey, is that a law school badge?” (Or a “first time parent” badge, or a “speaks fluent Spanish” badge?)

Or would we have badges for the wisdom we gain in other ways?

Shouldn’t there be a badge about caring for an aging parent or spouse…a badge for getting downsized at work, or a badge for divorce?

Isn’t there wisdom in those moments? Isn’t there holiness in those moments?

And if our answer to that is no…or not really…then what does that tell us about whom we’ve become?

IV.

As we prepare our hearts for Easter this year, we’re invited to rejoice God’s victory over death and over all that diminishes human life.

Yet it is the victory of a wisdom that is bigger than winning and losing as we typically think of them.

Because in Good Friday and Easter, God shows us that love is always present, always at work, always poised to make a difference.

Whatever the game is, Easter breaks its every rule.

Because God is never finished with us. God is never out to beat us. And life is not either.

No matter what we may do, no matter what may happen, we are never handcuffed to the board.

And so we are invited to live our lives, learning as we go, and finding God in the midst of all of it, good and bad.

In these weeks of Lent, as we live with Easter particularly in mind, may we ask ourselves what it is for us to win and to lose, and invite ourselves to listen for the God who abides with us and loves us above and beyond any contest, any challenge, and any final score.

Amen.

“Lent and The Gift of Re-vision” (Mark 1:10-15)

vision

Many years ago, before I went to divinity school and was still teaching, a student approached me about becoming the faculty advisor for a new club she was planning on starting.

“It’s called ‘Beginnings,’” she said eagerly.

“Great,” I said. “Beginnings for what?”

“Oh…” she said, “it’s for prayer.” (It was a private school.)

“Good for you,” I said eagerly. I found myself flattered that she had come to me about being the advisor.

“How many people are looking to join so far?” I asked.

“So far just me and my friend, Kat,” she said. “She’ll be Vice President.”

(They were Juniors.)

I agreed to be the club’s advisor. A few days later, posters went up around campus. An announcement was made at Assembly. A shoebox for prayer requests went outside the dining hall.

The next week, we met after school in one of the English classrooms.

My student and her friend, Kat, the Vice President, showed up five minutes early.

“I asked everyone in all my classes and all the girls on my hallway,” said my student.

“I asked everyone on the diving team,” said Kat.

They looked at each other eagerly.

Five minutes went by. Nobody else arrived. The girls said nothing, but they seemed surprised, as if they’d misread their schedule and had ended up going to class at the wrong time.

“Why don’t we get started?” I eventually suggested.

“Maybe we could wait a few more minutes,” said my student. “I mean, if it’s just us, what’s the point?”

“Yeah,” said Kat.

“Maybe we could start by praying for the school in general,” I said.

“Right. Like that they’ll come and be part of ‘Beginnings,’” said my student.

And suddenly I found myself wondering, “What is this actually about?”

That wasn’t going to get much clearer over the months that followed.

I dutifully met with the group every Friday night for a year — it did get a little bigger, I am glad to say.

The shoebox for prayer next to the dining hall was always retrieved, and now and again, it would be opened and there would be one or two requests folded up and folded up and folded up into little paper pills the way kids do, and we prayed those.

That was wonderful.

But so much of the energy of that group seemed squarely directed on growing the group, period.

We prayed a lot just about that.

What would happen if the group grew — what it would then be poised to do, what its work would then become — was never discussed.

More to the point, from what I could see, it was never even dreamed of.

I couldn’t have put it this way then, but looking back at it now, I’d say that they were long on mission but short on vision.

That early moment when the club president had asked, “If it’s just us, what’s the point?” was a question that never ended up getting answered.

II.

Now let me just say, I think that faith has a lot to say about that particular question.

But before we get into that, we need to acknowledge how easy it is for all of us to wander into seasons of life when we, too, are long on mission but short on vision.

And by this, I don’t mean to focus, specifically, on church mission and church vision–though churches enter such seasons, to be sure.

I mean something broader than that. Because, of course, we all enter such seasons.

Personally, professionally, emotionally, this happens to us.

After all, we all have missions — responsibilities we are charged to carry out, things we need to get done. I suspect we’ve all had some sort of vision, too — some hoped for picture of how things might all be…some sense of how it all might come together for us in the end.

We know mission. We know vision. Right?

Knowing them as we do, then, we also know how easily we can get long on vision and short on vision — long in our focus on getting things done, and short on the bigger picture of why we’re doing them in the first place…or why we’re still doing them.

Have you ever found yourself doing something out of sheer habit that made sense whenever you started, but doesn’t make sense, anymore?

You’ve probably heard the story of the woman who made her mother’s recipe for pot roast by dutifully cutting off either end of the roast before putting it in the pan.

And then one day, her new daughter-in-law asked why she did it that way.

“Well,” said the woman, a little defensively, “that’s how my mother always made it, and it was delicious, so….”

So…the daughter-in-law went into the living room. As it happens, Granny was sitting on the couch, watching t.v.

The young woman asked her, “You know, Granny, how did you discover that the secret to pot roast was cutting the ends off before sticking it in the oven.”

“What?” the grandmother said. “No no no. Back when we still lived in the city, we only had a small stove and a small roasting pan, so I always had to cut off the ends to get it in there….”

Sometimes, things turn out to be habit and we didn’t even know it.

We have been going through the motions all along.

And yet, how often do we stop to ask ourselves why we’re doing the things that we’re doing?

How often do we check in with our own vision?

For a lot of us, it’s not all that often.

III.

We’ll save why we don’t for another time.

But it’s for this reason that Lent exists as a season of the church.

Lent exists as a time for us to stop and ask ourselves why we’re doing the things that we’re doing.

It’s about getting off the hamster wheel of our day-to-day lives and reconnecting with the vision of what we truly hope our lives might be like…which is to say, it’s about reconnecting with the vision of who it is God has called us to be.

This morning, we heard Mark’s version of Jesus’ going into the wilderness for 40 days, which is, more or less, the model for Lent.

Mark only gives us two sentences by way of a story. He says:

“…The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] 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” (1:12-13).

It’s not like Luke’s version, which tells us in such close detail about the specific temptations Jesus faces.

I love that version, too, and yet one thing about the way Mark tells it is that maybe the specifics don’t really matter.

Mark’s version allows us to imagine that maybe they aren’t even temptations so much as they are distractions.

Because it’s clear when Jesus gets baptized and a voice comes down from Heaven and says, “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased” — it’s clear that this man is going to have a mission.

But is he going to have a vision?

Not if he doesn’t connect, he won’t. Not unless he finds a way to listen for God — to hear that voice that spoke at his baptism, speaking through all the distractions that were sure to come.

The same is true for us.

And so just as much as Lent is about making time for prayer and Scripture, or for loosening the grip of our petty dependencies and all that famous Lenten stuff, it is most of all about clearing the way for vision.

For a couple with young children, it might begin in recommitting to date night….remembering why the family began, in the first place.

For a busy professional, it might begin in connecting with the person whose life is changed because of something we help make or a service we help provide.

For a senior, it might begin with finding things that still push us, or introduce us to new ideas, new people, new places.

For all of us, acts of kindness and generosity offered without strings and free of charge turn out to replenish us, to surprise us, and to remind us of that greater vision for our lives.

What do you most need to take on or to get rid of in order to connect with the vision that drives you?

This is the question of Lent. And Lent is the season to find out.

All those years ago, those two earnest students could not see beyond the challenge of starting their group.

“If it’s just us, what’s the point?” they asked. There was never an answer big enough to that question.

Lent says that the big answers are out there.

Our challenge is to make space for those answers to unfold.

Like the little paper pills that students gave our group to pray over, we as faithful people need to open the box, and see what we have received.

Lent is when we let God show us what He has, in fact, written not only on someone else’s heart, but on our own.

Amen.

Ash Wednesday Reflection

Ashes

If you’ll indulge me, there is a moment in the second of the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling that I have always found particularly evocative.

If you don’t particularly know the books, they are the stories of a young wizard who is orphaned as a toddler and then raised by non-magical relatives until his tenth birthday, when out of the blue, he is invited to attend a school for witchcraft and wizardry, and he comes to find out who he really is, and to join the world to which he truly belongs.

At the beginning of the second book, he is returning to school for his second year, and he is taken from the train station in a carriage pulled by a magical creature.

It is a not particularly important detail.

Except that it turns out almost all of his classmates, all of whom are also being taken in carriages pulled by one or another of these creatures, can’t actually see the creatures.

To them, for some reason, the creatures are invisible. Harry is perplexed by this, because he sees them very clearly.

But then he discovers that one other student, a girl in his class who has tragically lost her mother, is also able to see the creatures. She explains it to him.

It turns out you cannot see the creatures unless you’ve seen someone die.

It is a small detail in a book for young people, and the book is not about grief or death or God.

But it names something that strikes me as profoundly true, which to put it simply, is that grief shows us things…it opens our eyes to things…that other people cannot see.

Grief uncovers some of the mystery behind how things actually work.

Or say it this way: grief uncovers the mystery behind how some things work.

Grief teaches lessons that we could never otherwise know. So often, people who are grieving say things like, “I never really knew…”

I never really knew how much I relied on him until I had to sort through his desk.

Because of her Scandinavian reserve, I never really knew how much she cared until she was gone.

I never knew how, deep down, we were so very much alike.

Grief teaches us those lessons. And while they’re hard to learn, it’s often knowing them…carrying that sad new wisdom… that seems as if it will be hardest of all to bear, especially when the grief is recent.

So often, when we find ourselves saying, “I never knew,” we are quickly overwhelmed by the regret of wondering what life might have been if we had known.

Would we have said something else, or somehow acted differently?

We suspect that indeed, we would have.

Anyway, we should have.

And this is why we have Ash Wednesday.

We have Ash Wednesday because, deep down, we do know.

Even the smallest of griefs is already pointing to the truth at the foundation of our lives, and yet we forget.

So we have Ash Wednesday in order to remember.

We remember the love that has gotten us this far.

But more than that, we remember that we don’t have forever to make the most of today. There are things we don’t have to end up regretting if we find our courage now…if we find our voice now…if we commit to living in the bright light of the truth now.

We don’t have to wish we’d found a way to say the words we long to say, or to do the things we’re called to do.

So much remains before us if we will just try. But we must start now.

Ash Wednesday is the day when we remember. It is the beginning of a season of reflection and preparation.

It gets us ready for Easter.

But more than that, it is an invitation to live fully at last.

 

AMEN.

From the Newsletter: Giving Up What, Exactly?

lent

Today marks the beginning of Lent, the 40 day period of spiritual preparation and self-discipline that leads to the great celebration of Easter.

For many people, it is the spiritual equivalent of the big diet before swimsuit season.

To me, that’s a shame for a few reasons.

First, it suggests that getting closer to God is no fun, even if it has great benefits in the long run. It saddens me that there are still people who go to church even though they don’t enjoy it, because they think God does and they’re determined to keep God “happy.” It’s as if they worship a God who never laughs.

Second, it’s a shame because it can make such an idol of self-discipline, which is an all-too-American flaw. The Gospel is so powerful because it offers us a different account of who we are than the world at large does, reminding us always that we are made in the image of God and infinitely precious to God, despite our imperfections. Yes, God invites us to work on those. But that’s as a way of inviting us to find deeper roots in the divine ground. It’s not so we can show our grit — for whom? God? Really?

Finally, it’s a shame because it often ends up “baptizing” things we think we’re inclined to do for entirely non-spiritual reasons. To put it bluntly, the Church did not come up with Lent way back when so that we’d all look fabulous for Easter—thinner, better rested, less boozy in the jowls, or what have you. Lent isn’t God’s solution to help us “conquer stress.” By all means, let’s do those things, and for their own sake. But let’s not say that we’re doing things “for God” when we aren’t. I bet that God isn’t fooled.

So what should we do?

Earlier this week, I saw some wonderful suggestions attributed to Pope Francis (though I couldn’t find it when I looked for it again).  So…the words may not have been his, but I was moved by the invitation to give up a very different set of behaviors than the usual list. Instead, it focused on the deeper behaviors that get in the way of faithful living.

In that spirit, then, here is my list:

What if we tried giving up things like impatience? Sarcasm? Eye-rolling?
What if we tried giving up nit-picking, nagging, sulking, resentment, or self-pity?
What if we tried giving up saying things behind someone’s back, or needing to have the last word?

Lent is a time to focus on what matters most—a time to work on whatever it is that interferes with the joy we experience in loving God and neighbor. The more we do, the more deeply we experience the miracle at the heart of Easter — the more we know that Easter isn’t just an Alleluia we proclaim, but one God invites us to live and encounter again each day.

What do you need to do to accept that invitation? Make that the heart of your Lent this year. And may Lent lead you straight to the heart of God.

 

See you in church,

Sermon: “Invisible Girlfriend” and Love You Can See (Genesis 1&2)

invisible2

This week I learned about a new app for your phone that seems like a curious reflection on our times.

Featured in a story on the podcast “Note To Self,” which is on NPR, the app is called “Invisible Girlfriend.”

If you sign up, for 25 dollars a month, you are invited to fill out a profile for the significant other you desire — that perfect match you dream of, the one who understands you perfectly…that someone you imagine who is the perfect company to your misery, if you will.

And then, with that done, you have access to a phone number, to which you can send text messages whenever you like, as often as you like, with the promise that someone on the other side will always text you back right away, guaranteed.

“Invisible Girlfriend” will always respond always care, always say something positive. No matter what.

Apparently, in 2015, a year into its founding, the app already had as many as 80,000 subscribers.

As the podcast describing it noted, we all need someone to tell or text our stories to, even if they are paid to text us back.

When it was founded, the creators of “Invisible Girlfriend” had another use in mind.

They had imagined all the people who get hounded by their mothers about when they’re going to find someone — boom — “Mom, I have a girlfriend. See? We text back and forth all the time.”

They imagined women getting asked out by someone at work — boom — “I’m so sorry, but I’m already seeing someone.”

When it all started, they had no sense that subscribers might use the app for something approaching actual companionship, however ultimately fictive.

Yet that’s what has happened.

If you send it a text that says, “I love you,” within moments, someone will be sure to write back that they love you, too. Without fail.

Do you know anybody that this might work for?

Because I do.

Or rather, I think that when push comes to shove, so much of what we seek in our relationships is just a sense of being heard. If that’s true, then “Invisible Girlfriend” can pretty much provide that.

Have you ever had something happen…it could have been good or bad…but you just needed to tell someone…and for whatever reason, you end up confiding in a complete stranger?

Throughout my life, I have often turned out to be that stranger, so, if this is something you’ve never done and never would, let me just say, this is something that happens all the time.

Sometimes, strangers are easier to tell — more reliable about giving us the response we’re hoping for than the people who are closest to us.

To put it mildly, to be close to someone is a complicated thing.

In the days before Liz and I met, I was in a relationship that was finally entering its terminal phase. One day I had some small piece of good news — I don’t even remember what it was, but something along the lines of a compliment from my boss — and I realized that small as it was, I couldn’t tell my girlfriend about it because she would only pooh-pooh it, or somehow try to take it away.

An “Invisible Girlfriend” would have been a lot kinder to me than that.

O.k., so it’s not love, exactly.

But it’s a fair approximation of the language of affection, and sometimes maybe a little affection is really all we need.

                                                                                 II.

Of course, we’re talking about this today because, with Valentine’s Day coming later this week, we’re about to see a vivid display of what our culture thinks love is, or what it ought to be.

Affection really isn’t enough as far as Valentine’s Day is concerned.

That may be true.

But love as Valentine’s Day would have it looks a particular kind of way, and I’m not sure it’s much closer to the real thing than “Invisible Girlfriend” is.

Amid all the doilies, chocolates, tissue paper hearts and candlelight suppers for two with strolling violinists, you can see why people can start feeling strange.

The philosopher Jacob Needleman once observed that, “bluntly stated, what we often demand of others is that they be devoured by their feelings for us. We feel safe only when the other is obsessed by us. When the obvious signs of obsession are absent, we begin to worry” (The Wisdom of Love, 42).

Hallmark and Godiva and McArdles’s are counting on that worry.

But I think they count on us to perform the little rituals of affirming the banked embers of our passion, when so often, it’s the little gestures of affection that would say much more.

 III.

It’s in Genesis 2 that God seems to point to marriage — at least, the ancients seemed to think so.

Having created the Universe, God sees the man putzing around the Garden of Eden and concludes, “It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helper as his partner.”

God starts with the animal kingdom — animals of the field and birds of the air. It’s not enough.

Scripture says, “The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.”

And then God creates Eve.

The man says, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh…” and the story goes on to say, “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (2:24).

But I’ve always liked the account of Creation in Genesis 1 even more, and it describes humankind created together, after all other things had been brought into being.

In Genesis 1, it reports, “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1: 27).

This speaks to me a lot more than the notion of “clinging” or of “becoming one flesh” ever could.

Because it says that each of us…women and men, all of us, in any combination, joined in whatever ways we may be…joined according to whatever traditions might emerge, or joined just by being in each other’s lives…whatever that is…each of us is marked by something truly remarkable: we are made in the image of God.

Whatever else we might share, we share that.

And yet the point of that is not to say that really we are all the same.

It is to say that God finds expression — that God’s own likeness — is to be found in all the things that make each one of us unique.

Each of us expresses something about who God is — we each show something about God’s very self.

It’s our little quirks that probably say the most about the “God part” of us.

Our smile. Our posture. The fact that we might be adults, but we still find cartoons hilarious. The way we always end up blinking by accident whenever anybody with a camera says “Cheese!”

And deeper things. Our special expressions of tenderness. The things that make us cry. The songs we choose when we sing in the shower.

It all touches the divine image.

What that means for love is pretty significant.

It suggests that love is knowing these relentless particularities about another person, about learning how we notice and encounter and, in some sense, share them with other people — how we learn to trade them with other people.

You take my awful cooking and I’ll take your inexplicable fondness for beige.

You know that it’s on the water that I feel most free; I know that our daughter gets her eyes from your grandmother.

That’s what it is to have our lives comingled. It is to be anchored by those things. Even to see God in those things.

   IV.

What the symbols of Valentine’s Day and the app makers of “Invisible Girlfriend” end up getting wrong about love is just this.

They seem to suggest that love is something generic…something obvious…something that affirms us by suggesting that the other is devoured by their need for us–always available, always at the ready to tell us just what we want, and to promise that they see us exactly however it is we most hope to be seen.

Genesis suggests that love is something altogether different.

Genesis proposes that love is found in the powerfully specific…in the good, the bad and the ugly about us, in the things that are just undeniably us, for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.

To those who love as God loves, those are the parts of us that are nothing short of holy.

May you find ways to notice and to celebrate those things in the people you love the most this week. And may God bless you in the celebrating.

Amen.