Saturday, June 30, 2012

Thisness or Thatness

            My Merriam-Webster dictionary app featured quiddity as the word of the day yesterday.

            A homeless man yelled at me yesterday afternoon.

            Being the Facebook junkie that I am, I posted status updates about both of these items on my timeline and interesting discussions ensued. 

Part of my status update about quiddity included its definition.  Essentially it means essence.  It is “whatever makes something the type that it is.”  It can also mean oddity or eccentricity.  Posting this definition brought on other definitions which resulted in my reading the word thisness.  Thanks to my friend, Alisa Wilkins Cortez, for sharing that.  As I understand it, it is our thisness that makes us unique.  It distinguishes us from all others.

So even though I was engaged in a variety of activities yesterday; from finishing the worship bulletin, catching up with my friend and music director, Alice, and contemplating my sermon for tomorrow, part of my brain was turning the word thisness over and over.  I was like a dog worrying a bone.  I was in the midst of that worrying wrestling match when the doorbell for the South downstairs door rang.  Putting thisness on hold for a moment, I ran to the South entrance and opened the door to my homeless man.  He looked old, but I’ve learned not to be fooled by appearances.  Life on the streets is not an anti-aging treatment by any means.  He was grizzled and it was obvious that he had been out in the sun and the heat for quite some time. 

He needed help, of course.  He told me had a bike with a little bike trailer on the back that held all of his worldly possessions.  The bike wasn’t with him as it was parked over by the Salvation Army.  He knew he could check-in at the Salvation Army and spend the night, but there was no way to keep an eye on his bike.  If he lost that, he really would lose everything.  He had been going to all of the churches he could find, hoping that someone would put him up in cheap motel (his words) for the night.  That way he could keep his bike safe.

I didn’t have the means to do that for him.  I suspect that I was one of the few people still left at a church on a Hades hot Friday afternoon.  I came up with as many suggestions for him as I could of places to turn to for assistance.  He asked me to call around to some other churches.  I did.  No luck.  I brought him a cup of cold water and offered to let him keep his bicycle at our church so he could stay at the Salvation Army.  That didn’t appeal to him.  I finally said there was nothing else I could do and apologized.  That’s when he yelled.  It wasn’t a personal rant at me.  It was a rant against life and circumstance, and that in a city the size of Shawnee there were no resources to help him.  Nobody cares about homeless people.  Not the city, not the churches.  With a dismissive gesture he walked away and I went back upstairs to my office. 

Okay, I admit it.  I cried.  Not because I was stung by his anger.  I got it.  He’s homeless, for whatever reason.  It’s hellishly hot outside.  He carries everything he owns in a bike trailer behind his bike.  This woman at a church with a job and a car and a home answers the door and doesn’t help

Nor did I cry because I was hurt he didn’t thank me for trying.  I have many failings, but self-righteousness tends not to be one of them.  I didn’t expect great gobs of gratitude for essentially doing nothing but giving the man a drink of water.  I didn’t help him.  What did he have to be grateful for?

I cried because I felt so useless.  I wanted to help.  But I couldn’t.  I didn’t.  There must have been a chink in my get-a-thick-skin-you-can’t-help-everybody armor because his anger pierced it.  I got over it.  It’s a guarantee that other people will show up at the church door looking for help.  Maybe next time I’ll be able to do more, maybe I won’t.  But they’ll keep coming.  Yet this particular encounter hit me.  Once the tears ceased, I started thinking about thisness again.   I had been focused solely on my thisness.  What makes me unique?  Even as I claim the common ground I share with all other humans just in the fact that we all are human, I also want to know if there is something that makes me particularly, specifically, uniquely me. 

In one of the many musings on my post about quiddity, another friend, Shannon Miller Ward, commented that my thisness must include laughter, fashion sense and storytelling.  I loved that, but I know that other people share those qualities.  So what is my thisness?  I believe it’s there.  I have it.  With all due respect to Buddhism and its idea of no self, I believe others have it too.  That homeless man has his own unique thisness.  My kids do.  The math teacher I feared in fourth grade does.  All you reading this do.  All God’s children have thisness!

Maybe that’s it.  Thisness goes beyond genetics, environment, birth order and Meyers Briggs preferences.  It is more than a personality trait or an odd habit.  It’s more than our circumstances, and it isn’t just a character quirk.  It is something indefinable and inexpressible and more than a little intangible. 

Maybe it’s the place between our soul and the deepest longings of our heart.  Maybe it’s the place where God really dwells.  So often we try to set God up in some rambling heavenly real estate or a celestial crib.  But I wonder if God, however one views God, isn’t really the source of our thisness.  And however idealistic it may seem, if God is the source of our thisness, then shouldn’t we work a little harder at treating one another as if that’s true?  I know, how very aging, flower child, wish I would have been old enough to go to Woodstock wannabe of me.  I guess it’s my thisness rising to the surface. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

These Men

            A story that’s been retold several times in my extended family over the last few weeks is about my two oldest nephews, Benjamin and Jordan.  They are approximately 18 months apart in age and when they were little, they liked to stand inches from each other and yell their names back and forth.  “Benjamin!”  “Jordan!”  And so on.
Benjamin!  Jordan!

            The reason this story, and others, have been repeatedly shared is because both of them are now married.  Benjamin and his bride, Antzi (pronounced Angie), were married in Athens, Greece on June 8th.  Jordan and his bride, Kayleen, were married two weeks later on June 22nd

            I wasn’t able to fly to Athens to attend Benjamin’s nuptials; although I’ve been assured that when I can finally get back there we will have a party to celebrate.  I was able to be present for Jordan’s ceremony however.  I wouldn’t trade that trip to St. Cloud, Minnesota for anything.  Not only was it incredible to witness Jordan and Kayleen publicly commit themselves to one another, their wedding gave me the opportunity to spend time with members of my extended family after several years apart.  Being in their company reminded me of where I come from, the stories, the bonds, the fabric of a family.  Hopefully that venture into the past will shed a little more light on where I’m going in the future. 

            But this blog is about Benjamin and Jordan, not me.  There is a line in the Steve Martin version of the movie “Father of the Bride,” that comes during the wedding ceremony of his daughter Annie.  He has escorted her up the aisle and is anxious about the one line, the one part he has to say in the ceremony.  When the question is asked, “Who gives this woman?” he has to respond, “Her mother and I.”  Then as he sits down, the narration we hear over the action is Martin’s character reflecting on the words, “this woman.” 

            In his mind, his daughter is still the little girl who slid down the bannister and practiced basketball in the driveway.  But now she is this woman.  As I’ve looked at the pictures of Benjamin’s wedding to Antzi and watched Jordan make his promises to Kayleen, I couldn’t help but remember the funny and delightful little boys they were.  Now, it seems in the blink of an eye, they are men; men of integrity and depth, intelligence and wit. 

            This is indicative not only in the incredible, vibrant, intelligent, determined, and brave women they have chosen to spend their lives with, but in how they are both living their lives in their own unique way, on their own terms.  It is apparent in the way both of them chose to be married.  Benjamin, who did not want to be married in a fancy ceremony, said his vows in his Green Lantern t-shirt with a fedora perched jauntily on his head.  Although Jordan and Kayleen dressed more traditionally, their wedding was uniquely them – from the warming of the rings tradition at the beginning to the fact that excerpts from Jordan’s favorite text, Spinoza’s Ethics in Latin, was present at every table at the reception.  It was part of the framed “Reserved” signs, and was cut into little hearts and confetti that decorated each place setting.  It even provided an edible topping on the cupcakes and cake that were served for dessert. 
            These men.  They were funny, sweet little boys and now they have grown into amazing, wonderful men.  It is a distinct privilege to be their aunt.  Now I hope that I can also be their friend.  These men. 
Jordan and Kayleen

All my heartfelt love and best wishes, Benjamin and Antzi, and Jordan and Kayleen.  Your lives are filled with promise and hope.  You are remarkable men married to equally remarkable women.  Auntie Amy
Benjamin and Antzi

Monday, June 18, 2012

ToThe Stars!

Genesis 15:1-6
June 17, 2012
The Installation of the Reverend Matthew Perkins
Cathedral of Hope UCC, Oklahoma City

                In case you haven’t noticed Matt likes Star Trek.  I realize that there may be people in attendance tonight who don’t know this fact about Matt.  But I assure you that you don’t have to spend a very long time with him to discover this particular interest.  He likes Star Trek.  Let me rephrase that.  He loves Star Trek! 
                Matt probably wouldn’t consider himself an overly hard core Star Trek fan.  But he has attended a Star Trek Convention.  Sorry Matt, I hope you weren’t trying to keep that a secret.  And he does have a lot of Trek paraphernalia around the house.  We have Star Trek drinking glasses, two sets.  A starship Enterprise pizza cutter, and some uniform shirts along with various and sundry Star Trek related items.  And if you’ve visited his office, I know you’ve seen the large amount of Star Trek novels that he has on his shelves.
                I would say that, hard core or not, Matt is a Trekkie and a proud one at that.  You can’t live with a Trekkie for as many years as I have and not learn something about Star Trek and the Star Trek universe.  That includes Gene Roddenberry, the creator and genius behind Star Trek and its many manifestations. 
                Matt and I are not in complete agreement about Star Trek.  While I’m a bigger fan of The Next Generation and Matt’s first love is the original series, we both have a profound respect for Gene Roddenberry and his vision. 
                As I understand Roddenberry’s own story, he didn’t write Star Trek just because he wanted to see things happening in space.  Roddenberry was a pilot and was a proponent of the NASA space program; certainly he loved Science Fiction as a genre.  But Roddenberry wanted to tell stories.  Not just any kind of stories, but stories that had meaning and purpose; stories that not only addressed the fundamental problems and questions of human existence, but also stories of hope.   In essence Star Trek was a series of morality plays. 
                The challenge for Gene Roddenberry was that morality plays don’t always make it as general entertainment.  But set those stories in space, and people might just listen.  In fact they might even learn something without even realizing that the learning is happening. 
                I don’t mean to imply that space was incidental to the stories Roddenberry created.  I think he saw space exploration as a way to overcome the differences that divide us on earth.  The characters were intentionally diverse.  They encountered a multitude of problems and generally resolved them in creative ways.  Sure, in the original series that meant that Kirk kissed a lot of females, some human, some alien, but a captain’s gotta do what a captain’s gotta do 
                The real point I’m making is that Gene Roddenberry looked to the stars, not only as the vehicle for humanity’s stories, but as a way to show the very best that we humans can be. 
                In our passage from Genesis, Abram is also told to look to the stars.  This was not God’s way of creating science fiction.  But it was the beginning of a story, a great story, about God, about humanity and about promise. 
                Abram has a vision from the Lord reassuring him that there is nothing for him to fear.  God said, “I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 
                But Abram takes issue with this.  In spite of the promise that Abram’s descendants would be as many as the dust on the earth, he and Sarai are still childless.  A slave born in his house will be his heir, not his own progeny.  I doubt that Abram saw this as a purely spiritual matter.  Inheritance and the rights of the first born, the continuation of the family line were important factors in that time and context.  Yet those very earthly concerns do not take away from the promise that God then makes. 
                God takes Abram outside and tells him to look to the stars.  Count them, if he is able.  Think about that.  Think about how many stars would have been visible in the night sky above Abram.  There was no artificial lighting to subdue the heavens’ own glow.  There was nothing else to spoil Abram’s view of that starry expanse. I imagine the stars would have seemed to stretch on into endlessness.  Of course there was no way to count them. 
                That, God tells Abram, is how numerous your descendants will be.  They will be as many as the stars.  That is my promise.  Abram believed God.  Abram believed in the promise God made; he trusted in the covenant and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Abram’s faith in God’s promise was recognized.
                Realistically speaking, however, this was crazy talk on God’s part, wasn’t it?  Abram was an old man.  Sarai was an old woman.  They were childless.  Child bearing at their advanced ages was impossible.  Telling Abram that his descendants would number as many as the stars seemed more like a cruel joke than covenant.   But God wasn’t joking.  The stars were an indication of how the story of faith would unfold.  The story that began with Abram and Sarai, and includes all of us gathered here tonight. 
                We are inheritors of that story, that covenant, that promise, are we not?  We may not be actual DNA descendants of Abram and Sarai, but we are spiritual descendants.  We claim the covenant God made with Abram and continued through each generation, until the coming of the Word, God with us.  We claim the promise of Jesus and the new life that we find through his death and resurrection.  We claim the promise that the Holy Spirit continues to blow through our midst bringing change and transformation whether we are ready for it or not. 
                We claim these promises and that’s why we’re here tonight.  Viewed in our more narrow human terms, the promise of God always seems a bit far-fetched, ridiculous even; most likely impossible, definitely improbable.  Yet through the lens of faith, we remember that with God nothing is impossible.  An old woman can bear a baby that will be forefather to the world.  A young woman will bear a child that will save it.
                Through the lens of faith we trust that with God nothing is impossible.
                This church and the church that I serve in Shawnee are, on the surface, very different from one another.  But look beyond appearance and you’ll see two small congregations with the same goal.  We don’t just want to survive.  We want to thrive.  We don’t just hope to grow so we can keep our doors open; we hope to grow so we can reach even further into our communities, into the world at large and share the good news.  We trust that with God nothing is impossible, so we continue to worship in the present and pray for the future.  And we take steps, small steps sure, but we take them trusting that God is with us, past, present and future. 
                Just being the church, any church, large or small, in this day and age is a statement about promise; about faithfulness.  Not our faithfulness, God’s.  The fact that you, a small church, have taken the extraordinary step of calling someone to be your pastor shows your faith.  You trust that even though the realities of being a church in 2012 means the odds are stacked against you, against all of us, calling Matt is the faithful thing to do.  You believe that God’s promises are sure.  You believe that God is faithful.  You believe, even though it sounds a little nuts, that God’s promise to Abram abides today. 
                We are only a few of the descendants Abram saw in the stars that night.  I have no doubt that just as we stand on the shoulders of the faithful who came before us, others will stand on ours.  There will be more.  So like Abram, we look to the stars.  We look for God’s story, our story in the heavens.  We trust that the story continues.  We look to the stars because that is where we find our hope.  Our hope, our faith, our foundation of love lies in the promise of God.  God’s promise is true.  Look to the stars.  Count them if you are able.  The story goes on. Amen.
Look to the stars.  Count them if you are able.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Unrestrained Kingdom

Mark 4:26-34
June 17, 2012/Father’s Day

            “With what can we compare the kingdom of God?”
            I’m thinking kudzu. 
You heard me correctly.  I said kudzu. 
Kudzu, according to my research and the fact that I grew up surrounded by it, is a plant that is native to Asia.  But it was introduced to the United States in the late 1800’s.  Because the climate and growing conditions in the southeast are ideal for growing kudzu, it was commercially sold and planted in the early 1900’s beginning in Florida.  In the 1920’s young men were given jobs planting kudzu by the sides of highways to control erosion.  In the 1940’s farmers were encouraged to grow fields of it for the same purpose.  It is a pretty vine, lush and green in the summertime.  The vines can even look like sculptures of trees and cabins and other objects.  That’s because, if left unchecked, kudzu creates living sculptures by literally growing over everything in its path:  such as trees and cabins and parked cars and abandoned buildings and road signs.
            Kudzu grows everywhere and it grows fast.  It can grow up to a foot a day in the summertime, growing as much as 60 feet in a year.  I wasn’t kidding when I say it can overrun all things in its path.  It can.  Even in major urban areas like Nashville and Atlanta, kudzu can grow rampant.  You don’t want to leave your car parked too long in the vicinity of kudzu, because you won’t have a car after a while, you’ll have a mobile jungle. 
            I have vivid childhood memories of driving along the highways in the southland and seeing kudzu stretching out like an ocean of green, leafy vines.  You knew when power poles hadn’t been attended to in a while because the kudzu would be steadily making its way up them.    There may have been high hopes for kudzu in its early days here in the states.  But in the 1970’s the USDA declared it a weed.  And while there are people in the South who find lots of creative ways to make kudzu a viable plant, there are many other people who wish that kudzu would never have been introduced to this country at all.  Kudzu came into the country, but the natural elements that may keep it somewhat checked in Japan did not.  So kudzu grows like wildfire, unchecked, unrestrained, overtaking everything it encounters. 
            “With what can we compare the kingdom of God?”  It is like kudzu.  If you found it somewhat shocking that I compared God’s kingdom to kudzu, you will completely understand how the people of first century Palestine felt listening to Jesus’ words about the kingdom and hearing it compared to a mustard seed. 
            The more traditional interpretation of this passage is that from tiny things – like the mustard seed which is almost infinitesimally tiny – big and wonderful things grow.  If we work at our faith, no matter how small it seems, it will grow as well.  And it is also true that even if we do small things, they can make a large impact for the good.  There is nothing wrong with either of these interpretations.  They both add to our understanding of the parable.  But I also think they can be too easy.  And they don’t take into account the shock value that comes with this passage.
            When we’re pulling out our bottles of French’s mustard to put on our hot dogs or hamburgers, or tearing into packets of mustard to drizzle on soft pretzels at baseball games, we probably don’t give too much thought to where that mustard comes from.  It’s an acceptable and much loved condiment in our day and age.  But that wasn’t so true in the first century. 
While mustard would have been used as a spice or a seasoning to some extent in Jesus’ time, it was more often considered a weed.  It would not have been planted in gardens or as a crop because, like kudzu, it would have taken over everything in its path.  If you saw mustard growing, you would more likely see it growing wild along a hillside or in a valley somewhere.  But to plant it or cultivate it in some way would have been unheard of to the people hearing these words.  The mustard seed was a pesky, invasive weed. 
            Yet that’s what Jesus compared the kingdom of God, the realm of God, to – a pesky, invasive weed. 
            It’s not as flattering or even as inspiring of a comparison as we might hope for, is it?  The kingdom of God is a weed that most gardeners wouldn’t want anywhere near their gardens.   Jesus goes onto say that while the mustard seed is one of the tiniest seeds on the earth, it can become a great and flowering shrub with branches that provide shelter for the birds of the air.  They make their nests in its branches, finding shade from the hot sun. 
            So what about those birds?  Biblical scholar and commentator, Matthew Skinner, said that ideally we should read the parable of the sower along with the parable of the mustard seed.  The parable of the sower can be found in the earlier part of chapter four.  In the parable of the sower, the seed that is scattered goes three possible ways.  Some of it falls on good soil, takes root and grows.  Some of it falls on rocky ground where it could not take deep root.  It grows but when the sun comes up, it is scorched.  And some of it falls on the path and is eaten by birds.  In that parable the birds are unwelcome.  They take away the seed and keep it from growing and bearing fruit.
            Yet in the parable of the mustard seed, when the seed becomes a shrub, birds find a home in it.  Those who were previously unwelcome find their place in the shrub the mustard seed becomes – and in the kingdom. 
            With what can we compare the kingdom of God? 
            I think regardless of any comparisons we can make, any analogies we construct, any allegories we can find, the kingdom of God is nothing like we expect. 
            The kingdom of God may seem small, tiny, infinitesimal and insignificant.  But it is not to be counted out, because from such a seemingly tiny thing grows something large and beyond our ability to measure.
            The kingdom of God may not be what we expect and it may not even be what we think we’ll like.  The kingdom of God can be subversive and invasive.  The mustard seed was an invasive weed.  According to Jesus, so is the kingdom. 
            The kingdom of God will provide shelter and a home to people we may not like.  We cannot predict who will be welcome and who won’t.  Because the birds that seemed to destroy the divine seed that was being planted now find places to nest within the kingdom. 
            The kingdom of God is not like anything we can imagine or expect or fully comprehend.  It is unpredictable and it will not be restrained or checked.  It will grow where it grows.  It will show itself in unexpected places and in unpredictable ways. 
            That sounds a little scary, but then again, when is the working of God not a little scary?  The working of God, the coming of God, the realm of God always involves change and change is scary.  It’s frightening.  But change is also transforming.  I think if we take anything away from this passage is that when the kingdom comes transformation happens.  A tiny seed becomes a large sheltering shrub.  What was invasive is transformed into something magnificent.  What was unwelcome finds a home. 
            I think Jesus wanted the disciples and anyone who listened to realize that the kingdom of God would not be conformed to narrow ideas of what people thought it should be.  The kingdom of God is unrestrained.  It takes root in unlikely and unexpected places. 
            I heard an interesting challenge issued this week.  It’s one I’d like for us as a congregation to take on.  The challenge is to spend the rest of the summer collecting pictures of examples of the kingdom. 
            “Hmmm,” you’re saying to yourselves.  “If the kingdom is so unexpected and hard to predict, how will we be able to take pictures of it?” 
That’s the challenge.  We are on task to look, really look, for the ways that the kingdom of God is happening in our midst all the time.  Maybe we see an unexpected act of kindness.  That’s the kingdom.  Perhaps we see a moment of peace in a situation where normally there’s chaos and brutality.  That’s the kingdom. 
            This isn’t necessarily going to be easy and I don’t believe there’s a right or wrong way to approach this task.  What I’m asking and challenging all of us to do, is to be alert to the presence of God’s kingdom in the world – in small ways and large – and take a picture of it and bring that picture to church.  With the prevalence of cameras on our phones, the technology part should be fairly simple.  You see something that looks like a glimpse of the kingdom, take a picture, e-mail it to me or to the church e-mail.  We’ll collect those pictures throughout the rest of the summer and then in the fall, they will be presented to the congregation. 
            With what can we compare the kingdom of God?  Let’s go out and find our answers to that question.  Let us see the unrestrained kingdom alive in our midst.  Let all God’s children say, “Amen!”
What was once a cabin is now a kudzu sculpture!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Some Thoughts On Thinking

This picture has made the rounds on Facebook this past week.  I saw it on a friend's page, shared it on mine, and I've had another friend share it as well.  When I first saw it, it made me laugh and laugh and laugh.  But the more I thought about it, it made me sad. 

What's sad is that this is a real church sign.  Somewhere, someone thought this was an appropriate, important, perhaps even vital message to share.  And I'm fairly certain that many people reading this thought or said aloud, "Yes, exactly!  That's exactly right!" 

If I claim that I have a right to have my own opinion, than it's only fair to say that the people who support this message have a right to theirs.  I don't dispute that.  Yet, even while saying that, I have to admit that their message leaves me undone. 

It seems to me that their point in this is that free thinking is the antithesis to right thinking.  And right thinking, assuming I understand the agenda of this sign, is believing exactly what the church (or whatever organized body claims authority) says it is. 

But I don't think free thinking is the problem.  I think it's actually lack of critical thinking that is the real menace here.  Critical thinking -- a willingness to ask questions, entertain various points of view, and educate oneself on issues -- is in short supply these days.  Critical thinking is apparently something to be feared.  And fear seems to be the real message of this sign.  We fear what's different.  We fear the idea that we might be wrong about something.  We want certainty and guarantees, and when we don't get them, we get scared.  And as sociologist and author Brene Brown says, fear manifests itself as blame. 

I understand that because of my role as minister people see me as another one of organized religion's many minions  But I'm not afraid to say that the church specifically and religion in general is a prime suspect in this culture of fear.  Right thinking, dogma, doctrine, call it what you will, when it comes to fearing beliefs and ideas that are different, we in religion do it well. 

Yet fear chokes love.   Certainty is not faith.  And critical thinking does not seek to destroy.  If I'm seen as Satan's slave, so be it, I'm gonna think so hopefully God will use me.   


Sunday, June 10, 2012

A Blog From the Beach

My title is misleading.  I’m actually not writing this at the beach.  But I did just return from the beach and I spent a lot of time in the water putting thoughts together about this blog, so I think it fits.    

            Now that I live within a day’s drive of the Gulf Coast, I wanted to see the sea.  I love the ocean. I’ve never gotten to be near it or in it or by it nearly as much as I’d like, but that doesn’t change my love of it.  Walks along the shore, watching the waves unceasing assault on the sand, added the words endless and vast to my vocabulary.  So what I’m really trying to say is, “I love the beach!”

            After our first full day seaside, we made our way to a Large Themed Chain Restaurant.  It was overpriced, crowded and loud, but hey, we were on vacation, so why not?  As we were shown to our table, the hostess, Catalina, introduced herself and asked if we had been to this Large Themed Chain Restaurant before.  We replied yes because we’d been to the one in the Mall of America – the mother ship of all things Large, Themed, and Chain.  Catalina informed us, I’m sure on management’s strict orders, that this version in this particular town was the best, so welcome.  She was nice, young and had a lilting accent from a country I couldn’t quite identify. 

            Catalina went on to other customers. We had a good meal, took pictures, and then made our way back to the hotel.  The next morning, a little worse for wear, we started again for the ocean.  On our way out we passed a group of housekeeping staff going through their morning duties.  I try especially hard to be polite and pleasant to housekeeping.  I’ve never been a paid housekeeper but I play one at home, and I know that it can be a really crappy job.  I say that based on cleaning up after my own family.  I can’t imagine cleaning up after strangers.  One member of housekeeping looked familiar.  Glancing at her nametag it read Catalina; the same Catalina from the night before.    

            I always feel somewhat apologetic to the housekeeping staff of whatever hotel I stay in.  I know theirs is an underpaid and unrewarding job.  Plus I know that in spite of my best efforts to keep us neat and organized, our stuff spreads across a hotel room like toxic waste.  I realize we’re not as bad as drunken rockers on a destruction binge, but still.  Yet these two images of Catalina, hostess and housekeeper, stayed with me the rest of the day.  I wondered about her story.  Did she only have to work two jobs to make ends meet?  Or was there a third one thrown into the mix?  Stereotypical scenarios drifted through my mind.  Was she a single mother?  An undocumented worker?  Did she have family in another country dependent on the money she was earning?  Was she also a student?  Paying for college along with rent? 

            That day as I took a break from my body surfing, bobbing along on the waves, I thought about Catalina and all the other people who do the menial jobs of this world.  They make it possible for people like me to eat out and make trips to the beach and not make the beds in a motel room, and drift along in the waves updating my bucket list – see addendum.  Then my thoughts wandered, as they often do when I’m floating (on water, I don’t just float; although that would be cool.)  Thinking about Catalina’s work made me consider my own work.  I realize as a pastor many people think I really only work one hour a week.  I’d like to believe that’s just an overused stereotype, but I know that it’s true more often than not.  But ministry was not my first job.  In fact I started a mental list of all the jobs I’ve had over the course of my life, and I was surprised at their number.    

I’ve been a babysitter, ice cream scooper (This was my first “real” job outside of babysitting and the first one I was fired from.  A sad and strange irony considering my deep and abiding love for all things ice cream), hostess at a large chain restaurant as well as table busser and stocker of the food bar, waitress, office temp, receptionist,  filer of millions of files, survey taker, college radio DJ – don’t laugh, I got a work/study scholarship for this – daycare worker, daycare provider, assistant to a publicist, gopher for a publicist, errand runner for wife of CEO of company where I was assistant to the publicist, publicist, library assistant, professor’s assistant, a filer of even more files, babysitter and nanny extraordinaire, teacher and now preacher. 

            I know that in small ways and large, all of those jobs created the path to where I am now.  It was an odd and twisting path, but a path nonetheless.  I hope that for Catalina, and for so many others, that her jobs will serve as a path as well.  Thanks Catalina for being nice to us at a restaurant and for making our beds and vacuuming the sand we tried hard not to track in, and for cleaning that same sand out of the bottom of the tub.  It was good to be back at the beach.

The following is a brief excerpt from my newly updated bucket list.  There is no order or ranking of preference.

            Learn to surf
            See London, Paris, Rome, Dublin and pretty much any other place in Europe
            Take a walking tour either through Ireland or Spain or both
Write my novel – note I didn’t say publish or find a literary agent or go on a book tour, just write the damn thing and stop worrying about whether it’s good enough.  Just write it!
Get my doctorate of ministry, otherwise known as a D.Min.
Have six-pack abs – hey I know it’s shallow, but it’s my bucket list!
Finally be comfortable in my own skin, six-pack or not, and not worry about the expectations of others.

Getting comfortable in my own skin

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Story of God

Romans 8:12-17
June 3, 2012
Trinity Sunday

            In 1997 I was invited to attend a family reunion on my father’s side, the Busse side.  This was the first family reunion that I had ever been to, and it was going to be the reunion to end all reunions.  This was a reunion of all the descendants of Christian Busse, my great-great-great grandfather.  He was the first Busse to come to this country from Germany.  He was a minister and he started a small Lutheran church in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.  The reunion was centered around this church, the church that my great-great-great grandfather built.  My grandfather, also a minister, was confirmed in that church.  And my great-grandfather, William Frederick Busse – my own father’s namesake – is buried in the old cemetery next to the church.
            Not only was I invited to attend the reunion, I was asked to preach.  That was both an exciting and terrifying honor.  The pulpit in that church was a good Lutheran pulpit, meaning that it had a significant intimidation factor.  It was positioned up and over the congregation.  You had to climb stairs to get into it, and once you were there you could lean out and really stare down the people below you.  I am not a fiery enough preacher and far too confirmed in my Presbyterian ways to want that week after week, but it was fun for just one Sunday. 
            When I stood in that pulpit I realized I was experiencing, actually living out, the idea of standing on the shoulders of the people who have gone before.  I was standing on the shoulders of all the generations of ministers in my family, going right back to Christian Busse himself.  My three times great grandfather stood in that pulpit.  Here I was, standing in it too.
            The current pastor of the church, not a Busse, asked me to help him with the celebration of communion that Sunday.  Just as we have been coming forward to take communion during Eastertide, that was the tradition in this church; everyone came forward to receive it.  Because it was a special weekend with the reunion, every Busse descendant was asked to wear a blue ribbon to distinguish themselves as being a member of this large family.  When it came to family, Christian was prolific.  He had a large family, and all of his children and grandchildren were prolific as well.  The church was packed with Busse’s.  As I stood there offering the bread and cup, it seemed as though a giant wave of blue ribbons were washing toward me.  Blue ribbon after blue ribbon after blue ribbon.  It dawned on me watching all these blue ribbons that this was my family.  Most of those people I met for the first time that day, and most of them I’ll never see again.  But they were, are, my family.  We may be third, fourth, fifth cousins or beyond but we share a common bond, a common ancestor.  We all trace our beginnings back to the same source.
            In our passage from Romans Paul reminds us that as followers of Christ we have another common source, a common parentage.  We have received a spirit of adoption.  “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”
            Through the Spirit, Paul quite literally says that we are adopted.  We have been adopted by God.  We have been adopted into the family of God.  This means that Christ is our brother, and just as he refers to God as Father, as parent, we can also do the same.  Through the leading of the Spirit we have been adopted into an enormous family, but we share an intimate relationship with our adoptive parent.  Scholars say that our adoption means we have changed from being enemies of God or rebels against God to children of God.  It is the Spirit who opens us, opens our hearts.  It is the Spirit who enables us to cry out, “Father” when we pray for God to come near.  It is our close encounter with the Spirit that brings about our adoption into God’s family.
            The funny thing about encounters with the Spirit though, as the story of Pentecost certainly testifies to, is that they never leave you the same.  Being led by the Spirit not only means adoption, it means change, it means transformation.  We are changed.  One of my favorite hymns is My Shepherd Will Supply My Need.  The last verse ends with, “no more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.”  This is the kind of change I think Paul is describing.  This is the kind of change that occurs when we encounter the Spirit. We are not a stranger.  We are not a guest.  We are a child at home.
            Paul begins this particular passage saying that we are debtors.  Not to the flesh but to the Spirit.  Because of the Spirit we are adopted into God’s family.  Going through adoption teaches us a better way to live and be and do.  Being debtors as I understand Paul, means that we know a better way than a life lived for the flesh only.  Living for the flesh is not just about physical things.  Living by the flesh means a life lived merely for ourselves, for our own interests.
            We are transformed by our experience with the Spirit.  Pauline scholar, Paul Achtemeier, wrote that “No one who faces the living God can remain as he or she was before.”  I know that’s true in my experience.  I think the reason we’re here today is because in one way or another, we’ve all experienced that.  We have faced the living God and we are changed because of it.
            Maybe I should have made the title of today’s sermon, “The Living God” rather than “The Story of God.”  I knew I was setting myself up for a daunting task if I used that title, because it would somehow imply that I could wrap up God’s story in one nice, neat little sermon.  That’s not going to happen.  The other challenge for today is the fact that it is Trinity Sunday.  My favorite scholars on issued a challenge for preachers this Sunday to either A)not say anything about the Trinity in today’s sermon, or B)at the very least, don’t try to explain it.  I’m going with option B. 
            There is no real way to explain the Trinity.  I can’t explain it any more than I can the Resurrection.  It is a mystery that defies explanation.  We have analogies, metaphors, to try and help us get a grasp on what it means to worship a triune God.  The desert fathers referred to the Father as being the source of the light. The Son is the light itself, and the Spirit is the warmth that we feel from the light.  Augustine spoke of the Father as the Lover, the Son as the Beloved and the Spirit as the love between the two. 
            Sometimes duties or attributes are ascribed to each member of the trinity.  The Father is the Creator, the Son is the Redeemer and the Spirit is the Sustainer.  But that doesn’t work either because doesn’t Jesus create new life, and doesn’t the presence of God sustain us, and don’t we find redemption in the power of the Spirit? 
How many children’s sermons have I seen where a well-intentioned minister talks about the three properties of water.  It’s liquid, it’s ice, it’s steam.  That’s the Trinity.
            But that’s not the Trinity.  And no matter how good or intelligent or well-reasoned any of these analogies are, none of them quite describe the Trinity, because the Trinity ultimately defies explanation.  As scholar, David Lose, wrote this past week, people who believe they can explain the Trinity are not to be trusted.  So as far as explanation goes, I’m out.
            Yet, “no one who faces the living God can remain as he or she was before.”  Even though I can’t explain it, I do believe that encountering the Trinity is encountering the living God.  It is the story of God.  As best as I can understand it, with my limited perception, the Trinity is about relationship.  And as best as I can understand it, with my limited perception, the story of God has been and continues to be about God reaching out in relationship to us.  We are called to be in relationship with the living God and with one another.  We are adopted into that relationship.  And we are not as we were before. 
            We are not the same as before because we have encountered the living God in the story of God.  The story of God is the story of a living God who embodies relationship and reaches out to us to do the same.  The story of God is in all of the scriptures we have before us today – in the call of Isaiah, when even the heavenly host cry acknowledge that God is far holier, far greater, far bigger than anything we can imagine.  The story of God is in the gospel, where Jesus embodies the love of God.  The story of God is in these verses from Romans where we learn of our adoption as God’s children through the Spirit.  And we are not just children but heirs.  We inherit God’s amazing life and love. 
            Yet the story of God goes beyond even our scriptures.  The story of God is a story about a God who doesn’t sit at a distance from us, in a heavenly pulpit, either aloof or raining down fiery punishment from on high.  The story of God is about a God who loves, without limit, without end.  And out of that love God comes to us in different ways to love us, to be in relationship with us.  The story of God is about community.  It is about relationship.  And that relationship is found in our stories about that story.  It is found here in this place, and it is found beyond these doors.  It is found wherever people encounter the living God.  The Trinity is more than an abstract doctrine.  It is a relationship.  It is an ongoing story of love.  And when we encounter that love, the love of Father, Son and Spirit, we are never the same.  Let all God’s children say, “Amen!”