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Bringing Faith and Science Together

blogpic FaithandScienceHow do we talk about our Christian faith in a way that connects with the spiritual but not religious? The scientific mind? The unbeliever? How might we use the normal course of events in church life to open up conversation and connection with people who think and believe differently from us?

Yesterday I officiated at a funeral for a beloved husband and son who died of cancer in his 50’s. He was a scientist—an engineer who worked in the area of national defense, and while raised Catholic, did not believe in God or any ultimate being. I suspected that many who attended his service felt the same way—yet his wife and much of his family are all Christians. In the last part of the funeral, I attempted to blend faith and science together, speaking both to the believer and unbeliever and to bring the truth of both experiences into one narrative. This service did not follow a traditional order of Scripture readings, Sermon, Prayers, but rather wove each of these into three sections that moved people emotionally from grief and lament to thanksgiving for the person’s life, and finally to hope and guidance in moving forward (I’m indebted to my father-in-law, The Rev. G. Daniel Little for this brilliant way of doing funeral and memorial services). What follows is the last section of seeking hope anew. I have changed the names to maintain the privacy of the family (and you can tell from the last line that he loved Star Trek!).

Finally, this afternoon, we come together to receive hope anew, and begin to move forward with the life God has given us. Moving forward is a process, much like life in the rest of the natural world: the moon waxes and wanes, the tide ebbs and flows—we inch forward, then we recede into grief before we can inch forward again.

We would like our life, our emotions, and our growth, to take off and go straight up, like an FA-18, but in truth, moving forward is more like the take-off of a butterfly. A butterfly begins by stretching and fluttering its wings; then later, it flies a little and lands again; then flies a little more and rests again. When it is ready for a longer flight, it never flies in a straight line—it goes up and down, and around and down and up again. Perhaps that’s why the butterfly is the international symbol of grief. It takes time to travel this unpredictable path, yet we still embody beauty, and love, and possibility.

Those are the very qualities that make it hard to say goodbye to John—qualities he had even on his last day. Mary and you, Jane, talked about how hard it would be for his mom to see him in this much pain again. You would normally leave the hospital at 10 or 10:30 pm, but that night, you both were getting set up with pillows and blankets to stay the night with him since the time was near.

But John courteously took his last breath at 10:30 that night, so his mom would no longer suffer from his suffering, and Mary and Jane, you would not have to spend the night in the hospital. It’s a humbling and awe-inspiring realization—to behold what can only be seen after death—that he was loving you, and taking care of all of you through his last breath. Even in pain, he didn’t complain, or engage in self-pity, but always reached out in compassion and love.

Sound familiar? John’s behavior reminds us of someone we talk about often—whose care and compassion and love is evident to his dying breath—Jesus. Similar to the pattern of Jesus’s death and resurrection, we see in John, a sacrifice that is life-giving and expands love.

And isn’t that the very pattern of Creation and the whole cosmos—that all of the stuff of creation is constantly moving through this pattern of dying, recycling, transforming, and creating anew to expand life and love?

We live in an age when science and spirituality are coming together; for the whole pattern of creation is that we end where we began; we are star-dust and to star-dust we shall return. God could have remained an infinite, unfathomable ball of energy and light 13.7 billion years ago, but instead, God’s whole being was broken open and undone to create the universe. God exploded out into trillions of galaxies with billions of stars—a self-sacrificing birth in a continuous and evolutionary process of dying and rising, of recreating life and love anew, of recycling the stuff of creation over and over and over again.

So, we are all connected, no matter where we are in the circle of life or the cycle of grief or the spectrum of belief. I think that’s why, the day after he died, when you couldn’t sleep-in, Mary, some odd things happened:

1. One fire alarm chirped, even though, through John’s technological genius, all of them were connected. If one chirped, they all should have chirped, but it was only one;
2. An FA-18 flew overhead, when you’re corner of St. Louis has never been in the flight-path of any FA-18s. And then,
3. When you looked outside, you didn’t see one butterfly, but 20 butterflies, all carrying beauty, love and possibility in their erratic little flight patterns.

Even after death, John is taking care of you as part of the sacred cycle of creation and recreation that keeps us all connected regardless of what language or faith we use to describe it. John’s spirit is here, and in the great mystery of God, we will all be re-united with him and all of our loved ones, and all of creation.

The Song of Solomon says it this way:
My beloved has gone down to his garden,
to the beds of spices,
to pasture his flock in the gardens,
and to gather lilies….
I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine; (6:2-3)

Mary, your beloved has gone down to his garden, and there he will wait for you. For you are John’s beloved and John is your beloved, and death cannot break your bond, nor your connection beyond the grave. John made sure you received this message, not once, not twice, but three times: a chirping smoke detector, an FA-18, and 20 butterflies hanging out in your backyard.

That’s hope. That’s the hope we all need to take the next step, to live one more day, to flutter our wings and take flight, to embrace the beauty, the wonder, the science, the spirit, and the love of this wonderful world, embracing it all with the gusto of Captain Kirk.

 

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Hypocrisy? Re-imagining Church Conflict & Community

blogpic.ConflictCommunityA sermon preached on Matthew 18:15-20 & Ezekiel 33:7-11 at Lutheran Church of the Atonement, Florissant, MO for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost on September 10, 2017

It took me a long time to stop being surprised by sin. I didn’t want to see it in those I loved, in myself and certainly not in my church. I was well into adulthood before the sin and brokenness in Christians stopped surprising me. I have served three congregations as a solo pastor and two of them suffered from significant conflict.

It’s why many people say that they don’t come to church—you’ve probably heard it as often I have in casual conversation in daily life: "the Church is full hypocrites." The Barna Group has done research that bears this out. The #1 reason people don’t go to church is that “it seems irrelevant today, and there are too many moral failings of its leaders—they’re hypocrites.”

When I hear this, part of me wants to say, “welcome to the club!” Of course, we all our hypocrites including those who cite this as their reason for not joining us. There’s not a human being on the planet—not me, not you, not our Bishop, the Pope nor Mother Theresa, who behaves perfectly according to their faith and principals every moment of every day. The Apostle Paul wasn’t kidding when he said, “all sin and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).

But when my husband and I worked in new church development, I was saddened by how many people we talked with who had been hurt by someone in the church—stories from all different denominations, pastors and lay people, members and employees. And it wasn’t just that people had been hurt by the church, but that there was no accountability, no process, no repentance, no effort at healing.

Perhaps if congregations of every stripe read Matthew 18 with more rigor, there would not be so many people who stayed away from churches because of a perceived hypocrisy combined with a lack of effort at repentance and healing.

In our text today, Jesus certainly is NOT surprised by sin, brokenness, and pain in the community of his followers. In fact, Jesus EXPECTS conflict to happen in any and every gathering of 2 or 3 people, even among his followers. Rather than criticizing us for having conflict, Jesus gives us two things that distinguish the Christian community in dealing with disagreements and pain.

The first thing Jesus gives us is a process by which to deal with conflict or hurt when it inevitably happens. Some congregations have even put this passage, Matthew 18, in their Constitution:

The first step is that you speak directly with the person who has hurt you or who’s behavior is harming the community (I would qualify that by saying, "only as long you feel safe doing so"). This also means that it’s not appropriate to go tell everyone else what so-and-so did when you haven’t spoken to that person yourself. If that doesn’t resolve it, then you bring 2-3 people into the conversation. If that doesn’t resolve the issue, then and only then do you go to step three in which you bring the issue into the public before the whole community.

Matthew reads as if you do bring your issue before the whole community, that they will see things your way. But of course, the whole point of the passage is that we might also be found in the wrong and in need of repentance. As followers of Jesus, all of us then, must be willing and open to have our sisters and brothers in Christ admonish or challenge our behavior, as much as we are called to do this for others.

When I arrived at one of the congregations I served, there was a very active couple who were relatively new members. I had a great rapport with the husband, but I could tell his wife did not like me or my style, or my "out there” personality (I admit that when I was younger I was much more “out there” than I am now!). After several months, they each wrote a single-spaced one-page letter to the President of the congregation, which he brought before the Council. It detailed all my faults and shortcomings and excoriated just about everything I did in a cruel fashion.

Were there things that I needed to learn from what they said? Absolutely, but it was hard to hear them because their method was so deeply painful. Of course, I wanted them out of the congregation, and I was surprised to see a couple Council members who were upset over their possible departure. Did they not just read the same letter I did?

Jesus concludes his conflict resolution process by saying that if the offending person does not listen to the whole community then, we can treat them as “a Gentile and as a tax collector.” Matthew’s community might have breathed a sigh of relief, like I did, after receiving those letters—at least after doing this three-step process Jesus lays out, we can kick the buggers out!

Well, not so fast. We have to ask the question, “how did Jesus treat Gentiles and Tax collectors?” Well, he hung out with them, he healed them, he called them to repentance, he forgave them, and he kept reaching out to them to bring them into the fold of God’s love!

But the sinful behaviors needed to be changed, and I think this is the hardest part for us in the church. We jump so quickly to Christianity as some milk toast pablum of “being nice” which sometimes allows harmful and hurtful behaviors to go on unchecked. When Jesus engaged with sinners, he wanted the harmful behavior to stop: Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to go and sin more (John 8:1-11); Zacchaeus, the tax collector paid back those whom he had defrauded 4-fold, and he needed to stop cheating (Luke 19:1-10). Even today’s passage in Ezekiel affirms this need for repentance, “As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” But once confronted and amended, the person then must be forgiven and welcomed and restored to community.

A couple of weeks after those awful letters arrived, there was a crisis in the family of the couple who wrote them. Their adult daughter had attempted suicide and she was in the ICU. They had not transferred their membership even though they had stopped coming to church. I was still their pastor. To be honest, I wanted to run screaming in the opposite direction; I knew that I did not have the emotional nor spiritual strength to go to the hospital. I went into the sanctuary and kneeled at the railing. I stayed there and prayed a long time—I told Jesus I didn’t want to go--but Jesus kept me on my knees until I could go to the ICU and make my visit about them and their daughter, and not how deeply they had hurt me.

When I walked into the ICU, they were as surprised to see me as I was to be there. After a prayer, the mom and I went out to the waiting room and she said to me, “I’m so sorry I wrote that letter, I don’t know why I did it or what got into me.” If Jesus hadn’t make me go, I probably never would have received her apology and the healing that resulted.

How many times do we forgive and welcome them? Is three tries enough? In verse 21 of Matthew 18, four verses after our passage today, Peter asks this question of Jesus, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as 7 times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but 77 times." Seven is the number of completeness on the Bible, so in other words, your willingness to forgive needs to be limitless—just as God’s love and forgiveness of YOU is limitless.

And that is the second thing that Jesus gives us when conflict happens—first he gives us a process, then he gives us a promise—the promise of his presence: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.” When the woman who wrote the hurtful letter apologized, it was Jesus’ presence with us who helped me say, “I forgive you.”

Jesus promises us as his followers that he is with us—in the process, in the conflict, in hurt, in pain, in forgiveness, in restoration and in community. When we’re running the business of the church, it’s easy to forget that Jesus is right there in that room, around that table with us. Maybe we should make sure there’s an empty chair at every church meeting as a visual and concrete reminder that Jesus is sitting right there and calling us to love our neighbor as he loves us.

That couple never did come back to church, but I would call them periodically and see how they and their daughter were. During one phone call, they told me that she was doing great and was engaged to be married.

I have a colleague who, when she does her new member class at church—she tells them up front:

We are doing our best to be a loving community for each other. But we’re human and we make mistakes. There will be some point when we hurt or disappoint you—not because we want to, and not because we don’t love you and love Jesus, but because we are human and we’re all sinful. And when that happens, I hope that rather than leaving, you will stick around and talk with me or our church leaders about it. Because being aware of our sins, and asking for and receiving forgiveness is when the really great stuff happens—a deeper sense of belonging, a profound connection to each other, and the power and presence of Jesus Christ is seen and felt and experienced.

A seminary professor at Luther told another story of one such community. One of his students came from the Mennonite tradition. In his congregation, when someone’s behavior needed to be admonished or corrected, they would not have a one-on-one “confrontation”, but rather, they had a “care-frontation”. The offended person would bring sandwiches and have a “care-frontation” with the person that hurt them—so that the wrong-doer would know that they came in love, with a desire to keep them as a loved and growing soul in their church.

This is the kind of community to which Jesus Christ calls us. Not perfect and surprised by sin, but human and broken and accountable and forgiving and reconciling—a place where Jesus’ presence is seen and felt and experienced in one another. That’s what people today want in a church—a community of integrity and grace and care, where harmful behavior is not excoriated and beaten with the stick of judgment, nor allowed to flourish unchecked, but rather, one characterized by Matthew 18 and its instructions for “care-frontation”.

When we show up in the world with these values and behaviors, people out there will know what kind of community we are in here. Our story doesn’t end at hypocrisy—that’s where the really good stuff begins! For amid our human failings, we are a church where the process, the promise, the presence and the power of Jesus Christ is alive and active in every one of us and where two or three are gathered in his name. Amen

Photo Source: http://www.kcisradio.com/2017/04/05/matthew-1820/

 

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Less Stuff, More Abundance

blogpic LessStuffIt’s been a long time since I’ve had to sell a house. I was dreading it, but as with most challenges, it has brought it's own gift. We have cleared out bookshelves and knick-knacks, we’ve thinned the contents of closets, cupboards, and countertops, we’ve moved out old furniture, and we’ve donated multiple bags of clothing and carloads of stuff. We’ve painted and polished, scrubbed and shined, touched up and replaced. We have passed on treasures we hope others can use. Our house now looks and feels spacious—so spacious that someone else can walk through our home and imagine it as theirs, holding their very own stuff. I hope so. I pray every day for God to send a family here who will love living here as much as we have.

I think of this prayer in the morning, when I must take extra time to make sure the sinks are clean, the garbage is empty, the counters are clear, the dishes are washed, the mailed is managed, and all the flotsam and jetsam that can accumulate during the previous day is tucked away. Some days it feels like a hassle, especially if I’m running late for work. Yet other days, I affirm that I am not doing this as a short-term stint, but as a new daily habit. How would my life feel if I always kept such a spare and orderly home, where cleaning up and putting away was done for me and my peace, rather than to “stage” my home for sale?

I have come to relish coming home to a pristine home that remains beautiful and picked up and cleared of extra stuff. The spaciousness around me opens up a spaciousness within me. I have more energy for tasks in the evening, I can focus longer at work, time seems more readily available, my to-do list feels a little less daunting.

It’s become so clear why simplicity, sparseness and releasing attachments to stuff are necessarily part of a deepening spiritual path. A spare environment can lead us to an abundant inner posture as distractions, busy-ness, detail-management, worldly desires, and other agendas fade away—there is no junk around to remind us of all that the world wants us to be and do. I can look inside for what needs to be done. I can ask God what I might do with this offering of time and space. I can connect with those I love. I can more readily ease my way into the peace that allows my body to relax and rest. I can give thanks. I can be.

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Charlottesville and Houston

blogpic CharlottesvilleandHoustonWhile Noah-sized rain and floods ravage southern Texas and Louisiana, I continue to ponder the events in Charlottesville. I expressed my dismay and concern to a friend who is African American. I asked her how she was doing with all this ugly, explicit racism and its tacit approval by the POTUS. She said, “I prefer it this way. I want to know who my enemies are.” I responded, “Yeah, well, at least you know what you’re dealing with”—and I immediately caught myself and corrected what I said to—“but you’ve always known what you’re dealing with.” She said, “yes, but now YOU know what we’re dealing with.”

Indeed. What she said keeps replaying in my head. “Now YOU know what we’re dealing with.” And not only me—but most definitely me—and all light-skinned people, now really know the attitudes and the hatred and the fear that infects our national psyche and affects so many of our citizens. We can no longer deny what people of color have always been and continue dealing with in this country.

Perhaps this truth is what I call a “backdoor blessing”—something positive that God can bring out of something so awful. Denial of deep-seated racism is harder now when the ugly chants and angry violence of white supremacists litter our media. It adds necessary credence to the cry that Black Lives Matter—a movement that is not a passing fad, but a clarion call to rid our structures and hearts from the injustice, harm, and death that results from empowered bigotry.

Disasters like Hurricane Harvey, equalize us all and drive home the truth that we are in this together. We must invest in one another’s well-being and not just our own, or this planet will not survive. Our basic needs are the same—food, water, safety, shelter, family, love, purpose and meaning. Much of this is being washed away for our brothers and sisters in the Gulf Coast; in times of crisis, it doesn’t matter the color of the hand that helps us. From Houston, the white supremacists of a couple weeks ago look even more ignorant and ridiculous—about as ridiculous as a white woman telling her African American friend that at least now she knows what she’s dealing with.

Photo: From www.thepoliticus.com and @HCOTexas

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