Sunday, May 26, 2013


Romans 5:1-5
May 26, 2013/Trinity Sunday

            The Ethics course that I taught at the Community College in Iowa was considered a survey course.  What that meant was that I taught a whole variety of ethical theories and perspectives so the students would come out of the course with a broad view of ethics and ethical understandings. 
            One of the perspectives that we touched on, briefly, was Stoicism.  It was taught alongside Aristotelian ethics and Hedonism.  There was an analogy about Stoicism that I made my students learn each semester.  It was that of a dog tied behind a moving cart.  The Stoics worldview was that the universe was the moving cart and humanity the dog.  If the dog resisted the moving cart, or struggled or balked or tried to stay still, the dog would suffer.  If the dog chewed at the rope or tried to go a different way, the dog would suffer.  But if the dog trusted that the cart was moving in the direction it was supposed to and just followed along, then it would be all right.  The cart might take the dog through times of suffering, but resisting the cart made the suffering far worse.  The Stoics believed that following behind the cart without resistance was the best way to, if not avoid, than at least minimize suffering. 
            It's a great analogy.  Unless you're actually in the midst of suffering, then I'm not sure it works so well.  I don't think I would make a good stoic.  I would be the dog who not only resists the rope and the cart but would have to be dragged behind it.  Because let's face it, suffering stinks.  It has been horrendous this past week seeing the suffering in our community and in the community of Moore. 

While it has been heartbreaking watching all of this unfold on television, I can only imagine how awful it has been for those who are on the ground in the midst of it.  Suffering stinks.  It's terrible.  I don't believe that any of us want to suffer, any more than I believe God causes it.  Suffering stinks.
            Paul would have been well acquainted with the Stoics point of view.  You don't expect too much because that might produce hope and "hope disappoints."  You just follow along behind the cart and try not to resist the rope.  But Paul seemed to see suffering differently.  I don't think that he was trying to promote suffering, as this passage has sometimes been interpreted.  When Paul writes about boasting in suffering, I'm not convinced that he meant that as a call to seek out suffering solely for the purpose of building endurance to grow character to embrace hope.  I think, instead, that Paul realized that we are not alone in our suffering.  God is there with us.  As Dr. David Lose wrote this week in his Working Preacher column, Paul's particular lens for seeing the world and seeing suffering in it was shaped by the cross. 
            The real human being, Jesus of Nazareth, suffered.  The divine being, Jesus the Christ, suffered.  When we suffer we are not alone.  God is with us.  God is in the midst of it.  God is made visible in all of the hands and all of the faces that reach out to help after disasters like the ones Oklahomans have suffered this week.  God is in the midst of the quieter suffering that people endure as well.  God is with us in the daily trials and tribulations that we all endure.  God is in the midst of it.
            The difficulty comes in the midst of it.  It seems to me that when we're in the midst of suffering, recognizing God is the hardest thing to do.  Maybe I'm wrong, but I wouldn't be surprised if the people who lost loved ones this past week are struggling to see God in all of this.  If I were one of them, I would be.  So it's up to the rest of us to continue to show them that God is with them through our love for them.  It's up to the rest of us to be the hands of God for them.           
            Today is Trinity Sunday.  If Pentecost is one of my favorite Sundays of the year, then Trinity Sunday is my least favorite.  It's not that I don't appreciate the Trinity; it's that it's not an easily or satisfactorily explainable doctrine.  As I may have said to you all before my dear and wonderful Church History professor, Rebecca Weaver, told us never to fall back on the words, "it's a mystery" when it came to the Trinity.  There are ways to talk about it, ways to make it meaningful if not completely understood.  
            If there is anything that I grasp about the Trinity it is this.  The Trinity is God in relationship. The nature of God is relationship, and that relationship models for us what it means to be in relationship, in community.  I think it is in times like these when we fully reflect that model of relationship.  We reach out, we care, we help, we comfort, we work to restore and rebuild.  I've seen that kind of relationship, that kind of community, at work this past week.  And I know that it will continue in the weeks and months ahead. 
            All of this great, but it doesn't change or minimize the reality that suffering stinks.  And we are in a time where there is great suffering.  Even if the tornadoes hadn't happened, there would still be great suffering all around us; suffering of poverty and abuse and broken relationship.  Suffering stinks.  And we desperately need a word of hope.
            Yet when the present is this difficult, trying to hope for the future seems almost impossible.  So I think that sometimes the way we find hope in the present is by remembering the past.  I told you once that I trust God in memory.  I look back over my life and I see how God has worked.  I didn't always recognize God's presence at the time, but looking back I realize how fully God was with me.  So I trust that memory and I trust that God is with me now, even if I can't see or feel God's presence in the moment.  Perhaps that is how hope works.  We hope for the future because we recognize that God was with us in the past. 
            Think back over your own life.  Think back to the times when you've suffered, hurt, when you felt lost or alone.  Can you see now that God was with you?  Can you see how even in suffering some good came from it?  I will never proclaim that God causes suffering, but looking back I can see how diligently God worked to pull good out of suffering. 
            Writer, pastor, preacher Frederick Buechner wrote these words about hope in a sermon entitled, A Room Called Remember. 
"Then at last we see what hope is and where it comes from, hope as the driving power and outermost edge of faith. Hope stands up to its knees in the past and keeps its eyes on the future. There has never been a time past when God wasn't with us as the strength beyond our strength, the wisdom beyond our wisdom, as whatever it is in our hearts--whether we believe in God or not--that keeps us human enough at least to get by despite everything in our lives that tends to wither the heart and make us less than human."
            "Hope stands up to its knees in the past and keeps its eyes on the future." 
            Paul saw human suffering through the lens of Christ on the cross.  God suffered and God suffered profoundly.  This does not diminish our suffering, but provides us with the assurance that even as we suffer God is with us.  Even as we suffer, we trust that something more, something beyond our present reality, beyond our understanding is coming from our suffering.  Suffering produces endurance.  Endurance produces character.  Character produces hope and hope does not disappoint.  Remember, as best as we can, that God is with us and let us hope.  The past, present and future are Gods and so are we.  Let all God's children say, "Amen."

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Hardest Thing

            I saw an ad recently about a new reality television show featuring bad moms.  Besides my ongoing bemusement as to why we need yet one more vapid, insipid and just plain stupid reality show, I also question why we’ve now turned to bad mothering as a source of entertainment.  I tried to forget about this show as soon as I saw the ad, but a quote from one of the moms stuck with me.  She said, “The hardest thing about being a mom is keeping another human being alive.” 
            Damn straight, sister.
            I suspect that this mom’s sentiments are based on a different reality than mine, but her words lived with me this past Monday.  The night before, a tornado struck the northern part of Shawnee, Oklahoma, our home.  Early Sunday evening, as the skies turned threatening, I did what most other people were doing.  I watched the local weather to keep track of the storm that was coming so I could make sure we stayed safe.  I also have a weather channel app on my IPad and my IPhone, again so we can remain safe.  My first instinct when a storm is approaching is to stay put.  We were all home.  We don’t have a storm cellar or a basement where we live, but I figured we would go into our bathroom and wait in the tub if we had to.  As we were doing just that, I got a text from a friend asking me where we were taking shelter.  When I told her the bathtub, she suggested we go to a tornado shelter in town.  We ran for the car and started to make our way to the one where she and her family were staying. 
            The skies were getting darker.  The winds were getting fiercer, and I realized about half a minute into the drive to that particular shelter that we were heading right toward the storm.  When I saw that a fire station was serving as a shelter, I pulled the most audacious U-turn of my driving career, parked the car and we ran.  The hardest part about being a mom is keeping another human being alive. 
            While I stayed relatively calm and cool during our time in the shelter, once it was all over and we could go home, I sat in the car and shook.  I’d gotten really lucky.  I’d kept my kids, these human beings, alive, but what if ? 
            Then Monday came.  As we were still processing what had happened in Shawnee and the damage sustained and souls lost north and west of the main part of town, the skies darkened again.  Once more I turned on local television and saw, live, the EF5 tornado that developed and laid waste to Moore, a bustling town just south of Oklahoma City and west of Shawnee. 
            As the storm dissipated, the first pictures of the devastation in Moore were horrifying.  They didn’t get better.  At Plaza Towers Elementary School, the school where seven children died, reporters on the ground told of frantic, hysterical parents being held back from the rubble so the first responders could do their work.  All any of us who were watching could do was pray and cry and pray some more.  I understood that the hardest job of a mom or a dad or anyone who loves another human being isn’t just keeping that human being alive, it’s realizing that no matter what we do to protect the ones we love sometimes there are forces beyond our control.  Sometimes we can’t keep the ones we love the most safe, well, and too often tragically, alive.  But what parent standing outside of that demolished school wouldn’t have willingly traded places with their child? 
            I think that’s the great beauty and the great cost of love.  When we love someone, we’d rather have something happen to us than to them.  It doesn’t matter the configuration of love – parent for a child, child for a parent, spouse for spouse, teacher for student, neighbor for neighbor – when you love someone, you’d willingly take their place.  The hardest thing about loving is that sometimes you can’t. 
            To the people in our community and in our state who have lost so much in these terrible storms, we can't take your place in your suffering.  But we can walk right beside you.  We can and will love you.  We will do everything in our power to meet your need and your heartache with love, in words and in deeds.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Our Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21
May 19, 2013

            Come Holy Spirit, come!  Welcome to my favorite Sunday of the year. Christmas and Easter are great, but Pentecost is the Sunday I prefer.  Certainly there's work involved in getting ready for it.  But that work doesn't carry the same pressure for me that Christmas and Easter do.  It also doesn't require the kind of preparation at home that the other big holidays do.  I don't have to decorate the house for Pentecost or buy Pentecost gifts, dye Pentecost eggs or make Pentecost baskets.  I get to wear red on Pentecost, which is great because it's one of my favorite colors.  This day is known as the birthday of the church, so after worship we get to have cake and cake is good.  On this day we sing some of my favorite hymns about the Spirit and someday I'm going to find a way to recreate a tradition of the church in the Middle Ages.  Churches were often designed with "Spirit holes" in their roofs.  On Pentecost young boys were sent up to the roof and at specific times during the service they would send down rose petals to represent the tongues of flame and then they would release doves to swoop and soar about the sanctuary.  Perhaps the problems with our roof are really just Spirit holes trying to create themselves for our edification?  Perhaps not.
            I really do love Pentecost.   On the surface it just seems like a joyful, fun day in the life of the church.  It's a birthday party for the church in disguise, and who doesn't love a birthday party?  But there's a problem with my thinking.  Where did I get the idea that the coming of the Holy Spirit was fun? 
            Every Sunday that I preach and lead worship, I pray in one way or another for the empowering of the Holy Spirit.  I pray come Holy Spirit, come.  I pray that it moves within us and through us and that it quicken our hearts to love God and tell the story of God's good news.  If the old saying admonishes us to be careful what we wish for, then maybe we should also be careful what we pray for. 
            The Spirit does all of those things.  It emboldens.  It enlivens and empowers and quickens the hearts and minds of those gifted with its power to do whatever it is that God is beckoning them to do.  Think about what happens with the disciples in our story from Acts.  It is Pentecost, fifty days after our Easter and for devout Jews, the Feast of Booths.  They are in a room, sitting, praying, waiting.  Jesus promised them the Holy Spirit, so they wait and pray for it.  But what will happen when the Holy Spirit actually arrives?  They get their answer. 
            Suddenly the house is filled with the rush of a violent wind.  Divided tongues of flame descended, and a tongue rested on each of them.  With that they began to speak languages they'd never spoken before.  Jerusalem was a city of diversity with Jews from many lands living together.  Suddenly they could understand the words these Galileans were speaking in their own languages.  Many were awestruck at this strange and unexpected event.  But others were cynical and suspicious.  They sneered at the disciples and accused them of being drunk. 
            But the suspicions of others were no match for apostles emboldened by the Holy Spirit.  Where before they were timid, afraid and uncertain of their abilities, now they were able to speak, preach, teach and witness to what they knew to be true -- Jesus Christ, their rabbi, their beloved friend was and is the Son of God. 
            Come Holy Spirit, come. 
            It's exciting when the Spirit comes.  It's noisy.  It's chaotic.  It's unsettling.  For the disciples to move from waiting and praying to being caught up in the Spirit's power must have been unsettling.  From that point on, they were no longer waiting, they were on the move.  As William Willimon wrote the first gift of the Spirit was proclamation.  They were gifted with speech.  In the words of the spiritual, that gift “guided their feet.”  They were on the move.  Preaching, teaching, sharing their witness to the good news, telling people this new thing that God is doing.  It must have been exciting.  It must have been unsettling.  It took the disciples to places and people they never expected.  It called them to trust, to act with courage in ways they couldn't have imagined before the coming of the Spirit.  But the Spirit shook off their doubts and strengthened their courage.  Through the coming of the Spirit the Word was proclaimed to the world.  We all stand on the shoulders of these early believers.  It was their witness that opened the door for centuries of believers yet to come.  Come, powerful, exciting Holy Spirit, come.
            So that's Pentecost.  The day when the Holy Spirit came and gifted those first disciples with speech and power and the world was changed, amen. 
Except the story doesn't end there.  Pentecost isn't over.  If we think of Pentecost in terms of one day when the Holy Spirit swooped in and changed everything, and this is our annual remembrance and celebration of it, then I'm wrong, it is over.  But if Pentecost is the name we give to the coming of the Holy Spirit, then it is far from finished.
            All we have to do is search through Acts to see that it is true.  There is more than one Pentecost in Acts.  They may not have occurred as this one did, but they are no less unsettling and exciting.  Saul's conversion on the road to Damascus and the story around it is a Pentecost story.  Not only is it a Pentecost for Saul who became Paul, it is for all the other players in the story.  Those who had to care for him, guide him, this man who persecuted them.  This man whom they knew had spent a great deal of time and effort up until that moment on the Damascus road wanting them dead.  His conversion was Pentecost.  Come Holy Spirit, come.
            Phillip encountering the Ethiopian eunuch is a story of Pentecost.  The Spirit placed Phillip there to meet this man, interpret for him, baptize him, and just as suddenly Phillip is whisked away again.  Come Holy Spirit, come. 
            These are just a few examples of Pentecost.  Consider the history of the church.  The Reformation, that was a Pentecost.  The first and second Great Awakenings, those were Pentecosts.  What about the Civil Rights Movement?  That was a movement of faith by people of faith.  Pentecost. 
            Think about our own lives.  When has Pentecost occurred?  When has the Spirit descended on us, moving us, emboldening us to do or proclaim what we didn't think we could? I suspect that it wouldn't take much reflection to look back over the course of our own lives and see the moments of Pentecost in them. 
            And here we are today.  Praying for the Spirit to come as we do every Sunday.  It seems that we've been sitting and waiting and praying for a long time now.  We want our Pentecost to happen, we want the Spirit to come.   But if the stories of scripture teach us anything, they teach us that when the Spirit does come, nothing is the same.  People are changed.  Ideas are changed.  The world is changed.  The Spirit disturbs and disrupts and calls us to do what we think we can't.  But we do it anyway. 
Remember, the first gift of the Spirit was speech.  It was proclamation.  The disciples had a story to tell.  The people were hungry for that story, so the Spirit made it possible for them to hear it.
            We have a story to tell.  We have good news to proclaim.  There are people all around us who are hungry for that story.  They need to hear it as much as they need air to breathe.  And we need to tell it.  We have good news to proclaim.  So as we wait and pray, let us pray on this day of Pentecost that our Pentecost will be upon us.  Let us pray that we will be empowered and emboldened and disturbed by the coming of the Spirit.  Let us pray for that wild, unsettling, exciting Spirit to soon be in our midst.  Let us pray for our Pentecost to arrive.  We have a story to tell.  Our feet are itching to move.  Come Holy Spirit, come.  Let all God's children say, "Amen."

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Along the Path


pool newly made from
morning rain, murky brown, burnt
umber, it halts my onward march
I stop to consider my way round

brush and bush lay right
hectic stream lays left
both lead somewhere
playing for time to make my choice

I crouch before it
wondering if I dipped
fingers into its stillness
would I be rebaptized

into ancient creation
layer upon layer of life
brewing, bubbling 
in this sudden fen

God's breath still moves
across the waters
pulling from chaos
this sacred pause

Presbyterian CREDO, May 2013