Sunday, August 27, 2017

Body Image




There was a sign in front of a car repair place on Augustine Cut-off this week that asked:

How does the moon cut his hair?

“Eclipse” it!

It’s a timely little pun given that last Monday most of the country was obsessed with staring at the sun, “and for a moment, everyone in our nation stopped and looked up in the sky and forgot about hate.”

Well, with one notable exception on the Truman Balcony, folks weren’t staring at the sun as much as they were donning special “eclipse glasses” which protected one’s eyes from the extra harmful rays whilst the moon wandered in front of the sun.

These cheap cardboard and plastic glasses were all the rage and, as mentioned in the weekly email, were basically impossible to buy, beg, borrow, or steal leading up to the big event.

Yet, by Monday at 4:00 p.m., you couldn’t give them away! The good news is that if you save them, and some of you will!, the next total solar eclipse visible from North America is less than seven years away on April 8, 2024!

It doesn't matter how many you have.
It doesn't matter how much you paid for them.
It doesn't matter how long the line was yesterday...
The market is gone. It's a sunk cost. Falling in love with what you have and reminding yourself of what it cost you is no help at all.
The same goes for the value of the assets we invested in, the rare skills we used to possess, the position in the marketplace we worked so hard to get.
New days require new decisions.
Paul conveys a similar thought:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
New days require new decisions, the renewing of your minds.

Understanding what God is calling us to do, what God expects from humanity, what our individual purpose may be is not a “one and done” – it’s an ongoing, albeit frustrating, process. But don’t think God is unique in this challenge – every relationship you have requires a dynamic, fluid, and malleable response. Every serious connection with another person or community requires one to constantly be renewing one’s mind, to be making new decisions. Who we are today is not the person we’ll be tomorrow; life changes us and changes everyone else in our social systems. We are interdependent creatures.

To make that point, Paul compares those social systems to the human body.

Our bodies are composed of parts big and small – some bigger than we’d like and some smaller than we’d like – but every component is vital – each has a job and each relies on the others to keep the system healthy and functioning. For example, we may not pay much attention to any of our 32 teeth until one starts hurting! Then it dominates our every thought! Same is true for most parts of our bodies – while they’re functioning as needed and designed – we barely pay much attention; yet let something go out of whack – and our bodies aren’t working the way they should and we’re on the phone to our docs or in line at Walgreens or googling symptoms! We don’t often tolerate our bodies gone awry!

That said, most of us barely tolerate our bodies – at all!

It amazes me when highly paid and widely adored models or celebrities cite serious body image issues. Stomach not flat enough, only a 6-pack and not an 8-pack, legs too long or short, teeth not straight enough, or ears too big – and you know, the list goes on and on. Not many of us get out of the shower, look in the mirror, and think, “now THIS is God’s intention for humanity!”

Body image issues are, I’d wager, ubiquitous: everyone’s got ‘em! We are harsh critics of our own physical selves and our self-perceived flaws glare back from the mirror and convince us that they are on display for all the world to critique!

The good news is that I think most of us are so self-absorbed that no one is looking at anyone else! The only one who sees your supposed flaws is you!

Funny then that Paul employs the metaphor of a “body”, with all of its image issues, to describe the church!

All of the members have value, each is connected, everyone works to ensure a healthy system. Sure, there are different jobs – prophets, ministers, teachers, preachers, givers, leaders, and those who practice “acts of cheerful compassion!” I want to hang out with them!

Yet – no job is more important than any other and in fact, often it’s the ones perceived as “lowly” that are most crucial.

In my former life, on the High Holy Days of the hotel business: Mother’s Day brunch, New Year’s Eve, Christmas Brunch, etc. – I’d load up my pocket with $20 bills and wander into the dish room and tip the folks operating the machines and scrubbing pots. Inventive and progressive cuisine gets people excited…clean silverware lets them eat it. Behind-the-scenes staff may not be the public face of an organization, but in this case, they were the muscle and sinew that kept it moving.

Of course, Paul prefaced all of this with the terse admonition – don’t be thinking you’re better than the rest – as one of the Tuesday crew is apt to remind us, “get over yourselves!” The flip side of that, however, is equally important: don’t think you’re not good enough or as good as anyone else! Ask anyone who’s ever served on a nominating committee and has heard folks say, “oh – I don’t think I can do that – I’m not experienced or skilled or gifted in that way – ask someone else.” Well, we have a message for you, listen to Paul – “get over yourself!”

I think we all get the “body” metaphor at this level: the church, this church, needs everyone, everyone has a place and a gift and a contribution to make and without each and every one of you – church is not complete, healthy, or vibrant.

We get that – and here especially – we love the drive for ever-increasing diversity and inclusion. It’s an edge we thrive on and consider a hallmark.

But what if Paul isn’t talking just about the local congregation? What if Paul is looking far beyond a somewhat cohesive faith community? What if Paul isn’t talking about a like-minded gaggle of Christians on a busy corner in Wilmington?

What if Paul has a bigger view of the church than our myopic vision of our own importance? It’s reasonable to conjecture that Paul is speaking of the entire Christian Church – big “C” Church!

We may assume that the “early church” was of one mind, that the discord and dysfunction between denominations is a modern phenomenon but that’s not at all true! Lots of letters in the Bible are written to get churches in line, to add some consistency. Even the very first churches structured their worship life, governance, teaching, and theology in very different ways. As we know, that often leads to competition, conflict, and even hatred between faith communities, all of which, confess to follow the same God.

Even discounting Westboro Baptist, as they aren’t a church – but a hate group masquerading as one, do we really need Jerry Falwell or Joel Osteen or ultra-conservative mega-churches to be the complete, healthy, and functioning Body of Christ? Does everyone have the right to call themselves “Christian”? Are there some basic standards to which we need to agree and adhere? Standards, of course, that we’d agree with!

One writer posited that the current dysfunction of the Christian church impedes God’s will in the world. The “Body of Christ” is sick, very sick, and the cure just might be a healthy dose and regular regimen of ecumenism.

Ecumenism refers to efforts by Christians of different church traditions to develop closer relationships and better understandings. New decisions for a new day. Renewing of minds. Ecumenism brings hope and possibility to an enterprise fraught with struggle and discord.

Pipe dream? Probably.

But it can be done and in a small way, is happening here.

We partner with a lot of different organizations, some of which are Christian based and some of those of far more conservative than us. Case in point is Urban Promise. The list of ways in which our theology and doctrine diverge is sizable; yet what matters is that both of our organizations are seeking to serve Christ but educating young people in Wilmington who are economically and socially disadvantaged. On that we have no disagreement and we bring facility, access, safety, and volunteers – they bring teachers, kids, and relationship. Together, young people are educated. This month, 100% of the Class of 2017 is entering college.

Understanding what God is calling us to do, what God expects from humanity, what our individual purpose may be is not a “one and done” – it’s an ongoing, albeit frustrating, process.

Yet, every Christian has the same mandate: to love God and to love neighbor. When we focus on that directive and give it our full attention, then, and only then, will the image of the Body of Christ be renewed and transformed.

“And for a moment, everyone in our nation stopped and looked up in the sky and forgot about hate.”

This is a new day awaiting new decisions. No need for special glasses to see that God is calling us to love kindness, to do justice, and to walk humbly with God. That’s God’s intention for humanity – that’s God’s image of the Body of Christ.

Amen.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Against the Wind




Against the wind
We were runnin' against the wind
We were young and strong, we were runnin' against the wind
Bob Seger popularized the phrase. “against the wind,” with his 1980 hit song, which is also the title of his only #1 album, and since then, it has reached ever increasing renown perhaps reaching its zenith with the movie, "Forest Gump," when it was the soundtrack of Forest's cross country run!
I was living to run and running to live
I was runnin’ against the wind…
Hard not connect with those sentiments. We all know what it's like to try to make progress with the wind buffeting our faces -- it pushes against our best efforts and drains us of energy or stamina. It is relentless and impossible to deflect. Any who fly long distances know that headwinds are the reason for delayed flights and missed connections. It seems that no matter how impressive our technology, or advanced our expertise, not even the most sophisticated airliner can thwart the drag of “running against the wind.”

To my mind that's a smug reminder on the part of "Mother Nature": "You can try -- but you'll never control me!"

Controlling chaos is solely in God's realm – and taming turbulence is one of things God does best! Turbulence, in the case of the disciples on the sea, comes in the form of not just running against the wind but battling raging waters as well. The two go hand in hand!

Think about the great creation saga in Genesis 1. The first sentence of the Bible pays heed to God’s dominion over both the wind and water:
In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
A little later, in Genesis 9, God makes a covenant with Noah after the flood wherein God promised never again to let the waters cover the earth but will contain and control them.

Remember the deliverance story in Exodus when God used a strong wind the separate the waters of the Red Sea:
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided.
Lastly, the Hebrews entered the Promised Land in Joshua 3 and God contained the swollen waters of the Jordan so that the people could cross on dry land.

All of that to make the simple point: God triumphs over water – and to the Hebrews especially, that’s no small feat. Water is unfathomable, is relentless in flood, is all-consuming in deluge. Water was not something for frolicking or refreshment – water was fierce and feared, hence, Jesus’ stroll on the tumult is laden with symbolism beyond the obvious show-stopper of defying physics.

We’ve just left the feeding of the 5,000 – or 20,000 depending on your math – and finally Jesus is getting away. He sent the disciples across the lake and headed up the mountain for some long-awaited solace. While the 12 were fishing in their boat, “the weather started getting rough, and the tiny ship was tossed,” yet they were experienced fishers and this wasn’t their first rodeo. If you listened carefully, they weren’t afraid until they saw Jesus!
But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.
Conquering water, as we’ve already established, was the realm of God and now, here’s Jesus, exercising a peripatetic prerogative heretofore reserved for God alone! No wonder they freaked!

In a fairly meager attempt at calming them, Jesus says,
“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
Chill, homies, just me.

This sound innocuous enough, but in reality, it just freaks them out a little more. Here’s why: That little phrase in the middle? It is I? They’ve heard that before – only it wasn’t about Jesus. Way back when in Exodus, when Moses is up on Sinai at the burning bush and he comes face to face with God – Moses asks a basic question of protocol: what exactly should I call you?
God said to Moses, “I am who I am.”
So…without the linguistic gymnastics, trust me when I tell that when you translate “I am who I am” from Hebrew into Greek, it’s the exact same thing that Jesus says, It is I! Ego Eimi (Or as Kaci translates it: L’eggo my Eggo!) Now, not only has Jesus done something previously reserved for God alone, he’s using the same name – a name that no faithful Jew would speak – and claims the identity as the liberator and redeemer of Israel, the creator of the world, and the victor over chaos.

This epiphany in the storm is drenched in messages of mercy and grace – yet, as we’ve seen so often in the Bible – revelation is never for theatrics or entertainment, never academic or self-indulgent – but always conveys cost and summons. In the “World according to Jesus,” spirituality must take the form of discipleship. (What a great response to folks who claim to be “spiritual” but not “religious!” What form of service, what practice does your spirituality lead you to?)

Peter – it’s always Peter – jumps up and with a slight drizzle of doubt, asks Jesus to invite him on the water, to which Jesus is quick to say, “sure, Peter, c’mon!”

Peter wants to accompany.
He wants out of the safety of the boat, out of his supposed comfort zone.
Steps out – eyes on Jesus – making progress.
But then…he focuses on the elements and sinks and cries out from the waters.
Jesus reaches out, catches him.

Then the smack down:
“You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Oh man, Jesus, really? Did you have to say that? I was loving this story until you dragged me under with Peter.  Nobody has that much faith – give him credit – he stepped out, the only one, the rest have a death grip on the gunnels, mouth agape, sucking in the splashing sea. Give the poor guy some credit. He did more than most – clearly more than us!

I know of few people who don’t wish for more faith. I know I do. Remember the scandal when it was uncovered that Mother Teresa experienced long crises or droughts of faith? Somehow that made my own abundance of doubt livable.

Lord, we believe; help our unbelief.

Ernest Campbell, pastor of the esteemed Riverside Church in NYC in the 1960s and 1970s is quoted as telling the congregation:
"the reason we seem to lack faith in our time is that we are not doing anything that requires it."
Seems as though faith falls into the same category as courage, stamina, fortitude, talent, wisdom, and integrity: we don’t realize how much we have until it’s called upon. As a caveat: we often don’t realize it in the moment. Often, we just do what seems right, or what we have to do, something comes from within that, if we stop to pay attention to it, depletes it.

A couple of folks regaled the group with anecdotes about that phenomena on Tuesday morning. One, an accomplished singer, said that when she performs – she just sings and doesn’t focus on technique or mechanics – for as soon as she does – the sound is impaired. Another person, a former equestrian, said when jumping fences on horseback – one looks up and over – directs one’s eye to where the horse needs to go for as soon as you look at the fence, you stumble.

That’s what happened to Peter: he paid attention to the mechanics, he looked at the fence, he was aware of the waves, he took his eyes off of Jesus and he sank.

As much as we want to read the Bible as our own personal instruction book, remember, it was written to a community, a fact most prominent in Matthew and always when Peter, the rock upon whom Jesus built his church, is concerned.

What are we doing now that requires faith?
What are we doing now that pushes us? Makes us uncomfortable? Scares us?
What are we doing now that is risky? Exciting? Fulfilling?

Maybe you have all kinds of answers, maybe we’re doing, as a church and as individuals, plenty that restores or increases our faith. I hope you do.

Yet, where are those places that the wind is blowing – hard and strong – and we need to go against the wind? Perhaps the most perilous condition for any church is to feel the wind at its back, to be lofty and breezy in its ministry soaring high by complacency and compliance? To be lifted well above the chaos of discrimination and racism and deportation and war-inducing tweets and poverty and loss of dignity for people who don’t fit neatly into a binary world.

Maybe this week we're a drone scanning the skies above Charlottesville. 

Give me the turbulence of the Gospel any day. Face us into the wind, force us to fight against it, threaten our very existence, put our eyes on Jesus, and shove us out the boat. That’s where we belong – and when we look around at all of the obstacles and reason it can’t work and we know we’ll fail – lift our hands to Jesus and pray that we’ll be caught before we sink. That’s faith.

Well those drifter's days are past me now
I've got so much more to think about
Deadlines and commitments
What to leave in, what to leave out 
Against the wind
I'm still runnin' against the wind
I'm older now but still runnin' against the wind
Well I'm older now and still runnin'
Against the wind
Against the wind
Against the wind


Amen.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Myers-Briggs





If I ask, “What’s your Myers-Briggs,” you respond with…

In some circles, it’s not uncommon to hear people introduce themselves, among other characteristics, with a simple, “oh, and I’m an ISTJ.” Often that prompts others to disclose their own 4-letter code and people either give a knowing nod or a raised eye-brow to say, “huh! I wouldn’t have guessed that!”

In the mid-1970s, the mother-daughter team of Isabel Myers and Katharine Cook Briggs created the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) as "they wanted to enable individuals to grow through an understanding and appreciation of individual differences in healthy personalities and to enhance harmony and productivity in diverse groups."

Through answering a series of simple questions, people can discover where they fit on continuums of these 8 different characteristics grouped into opposing pairs:

Favorite world: Do you prefer to focus on the outer world or on your own inner world? This is called Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I).

Information: Do you prefer to focus on the basic information you take in or do you prefer to interpret and add meaning? This is called Sensing (S) or Intuition (N).

Decisions: When making decisions, do you prefer to first look at logic and consistency or first look at the people and special circumstances? This is called Thinking (T) or Feeling (F).

Structure: In dealing with the outside world, do you prefer to get things decided or do you prefer to stay open to new information and options? This is called Judging (J) or Perceiving (P).

Your Personality Type: When you decide on your preference in each category, you have your own personality type, which can be expressed as a code with four letters.

What I love about the MBTI is that it's goal is not simply for a person to self-assign 4 letters to determine a type, but to increase understanding of difference thereby enhancing productivity in diverse groups.

See...that sounds just like what Jesus had hoped for the community he spurred. Speaking of Jesus, what do you think his MBTI might be? 

Given the opening verse this morning, I’d guess our Savior’s first letter to be an “I”!

Remember how the scripture begins?
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.
I don’t think it’s a reach to extrapolate that he needed some time alone to recharge, that the crowds and commotion exhausted him.

As for the other three…quickly put, Jesus may have been an INFP!

Information? N for Intuition. Intuitors like to speak in analogies, and Jesus spoke almost non-stop in analogies (parables) and he was visionary.

Decisions?  Feelers make decisions based on their personal values and how things impact people while Thinkers prefer to make decisions using logical, objective analysis.  Jesus always acted from compassion and justice.

Structure?  Planned and orderly or “go with the flow”?  Jesus seems very “go with the flowt; there was no time table, seemingly no schedule to their days, and there was a lot of wandering.  Also, the loaves and fishes incident smacks of a lack of planning – which makes “J’s” like me itch!

The prospect of running out of food is often the key source of anxiety for anyone who entertains or plans parties. Who hasn’t scanned a menu, or shopping list, or buffet and wondered, “do you think we have enough?”

You’d think someone in his posse would have been a strong “J” and practiced a little “strategery” and made sure they at least had some snacks – and not just the disciples, but how about the entire crowd? No one thought to toss a water bottle and a protein bar in their fanny-pack? It’s the wilderness for goodness sake!

As one commentator put it:
The public, at this point in Jesus’ life, cannot get enough of him and because of their craving for his words, his touch, and his presence, they are now starving in the desert.
Have to ever done that? Got so engrossed in something – a good book, art project, home repair, Game of Thrones binge watch – that you forgot to eat? You look at your watch and realize you skipped lunch? (well…truth be told…neither have I but I hear of such things told!)

Regardless of poor planning, lack of organizers, or the trance-like devotion of his followers – Jesus and his steering committee have a dilemma on their hands! Unforeseen popularity producing staggering need punished by a lack of resources.

Don’t you love the disciples’ solution? They instruct Jesus:
“This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”
Of course they said that – we do it all the time! From panhandlers on an I-95 exit ramp, to never-ending pleas from NPR and your church, to world-wide pandemics and crises of injustice, war, and poverty – we are weary of the needs of others – can’t they just go away and take care of themselves? After all, our resources are limited – we are on a fixed income – and we can’t take care of everyone! We may not live on bread alone; but without bread, we don’t live!
“We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”
To which Jesus says:
“Bring them here to me.”
In essence, show me what you got! You say that you can’t take care their needs because you don’t have enough. OK. Show me!

Ouch!

How many times do we say, “we just can’t afford that,” when in reality we are simply choosing not to spend our money in that way. How many times do we cry “poor” when our balance sheets and account balances display something very different. It’s no secret that very few of us are comfortable talking about our individual wealth and finances. One of the big point of contention in lots of churches, not this one, is whether or not the pastor will know how much the people in the pews give or pledge. You may confide in your pastor with your deepest, darkest sins and secrets – but hands off the checkbook Reverend! “What I give is between me and God!” Uh huh … well … Jesus is saying “show me what you got!”

They bring their measly provisions to him and he in turn tells everyone to sit down, hush up, and chill. “Relax, people, I got this!”
Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
There’s no chit-chat, no discourse, almost no dialogue – but lots and lots of action – action that was spurred by one simple phrase: “he had compassion for them.” Jesus saw the crowds coming toward him, and even in his need for solitude, he had compassion. The needs of the people outweighed his own craving for alone time.

Remember the WWJD craze? What Would Jesus Do? That’s a no-brainer: Act from compassion. That’s what he always does. Full stop.

So, lesson 1 from the Feeding of the 5,000? God is love – act from compassion. Always. Full stop.

The second thing to glean from this story – which, by the way, is the only one to make it into all 4 gospels – is that God entrusted us to care for the people. Jesus didn’t hand out so much as a crumb; the disciples did. They passed the baskets and people shared the food and there was plenty leftover. Lesson 2: To follow Jesus is to express our faith in concrete acts of love, justice, and compassion toward others.

And finally, we’re reminded that when we need it the most, God will give power to work for the good in the world. The disciples were ready to disperse the crowd, send them to Wawa, they had nothing to give – yet – Jesus proved them wrong and continues to prove us wrong whenever we think we’ve run dry.

The biblical account concludes with the Hollywood ending of not only was there enough – there was more than enough – 12 baskets full of leftovers!

But as Paul Harvey used to say, “and now the rest of the story!”

What do you think happened after the people had their impromptu picnic?

Well… they eventually packed up and went home and Jesus went higher up the mountain to finally pray and enjoy some respite.

What would you have done if you were among them? Well…I would have told everyone I knew what happened!

Just like discovering a new restaurant or trying a new recipe or seeing a good movie or reading a good book: you can’t help yourself and you recommend it. There’s something innate that we feel compelled to share good news.

Do the math: 5,000 men, probably an equal number of women, and at least twice as many kids. 20,000 mouths. I don’t care what your Meyers-Briggs is: you’re gonna talk about it. Sharing our experiences of Jesus is all that we do here. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. We share our experiences of Jesus. We are fed and nurtured and renewed by that experience – the only question is, does the miracle stop with us or do we tell someone else because we just can’t help sharing good news?

The miracle on that mountainside isn’t locked in that time and place: that same miracle happens every time we share an experience of Jesus with another person.

It happened just now.

Amen. 
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