Monday, July 25, 2011

Wrestling With God

A rought manuscript of a sermon I gave yesterday (7/24) at Community Lutheran Church in Enfield, NH.  I was preaching predominately on the semi-continuous Old Testament reading from the Revised Common Lectionary, Genesis 29: 15-28.

Sometimes when we hear Biblical stories, especially some from the Old Testament, it can be difficult to relate. These ancient stories of the faith can seem so foreign and in fact occasionally so offensive that we end up shrugging them off, assuming there’s little left for us to learn from them in our contemporary world. Today’s story of Jacob being tricked by his uncle Laban into first marrying Leah before Rachel seems like one of those stories upon first read. The story involves polygamous marriage between cousins, the deceit of a respected uncle and the fact that Leah and Rachel are given to Jacob like simple property without even being asked their opinion… from the perspective of our modernity this story can be troubling, particularly for women. We believe the whole Bible to be divinely inspired however, a work that can somehow still speak to us millennia later, and thus, the story of Leah, Rachel, Jacob and Laban deserves further exploration.

To figure out what this passage is trying to tell us, its helpful back up and look at the story of Jacob’s whole life. Jacob’s story begins with him fighting with his brother Esau in his mother’s womb. As the two siblings grow older, Jacob cheats Esau out of his birthright, and then at his mother Rebekah’s instruction, takes advantage of his father Isaac’s poor eyesight to receive a blessing that was meant for Esau. Fearing that Esau will kill Jacob in retaliation, Jacob’s parents send him away to live with his uncle Laban and marry one of Laban’s daughters. Leah, Rachel, and their two servants eventually end up giving birth to twelve sons who found the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Leah also gives birth to at least one daughter, Dinah.

At the heart of this ancient story is a lesson about how God works through our flawed human nature to fulfill promises. In this case, God works through the deceitful actions of both Jacob and Laban to fulfill a much earlier promise made to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. Over fourteen years of working for his uncle, God sustains Jacob, helping him grow into the wealthy, powerful patriarch he would eventually become. The good news here is twofold really. While God can create goodness out of our flawed humanity, God loves us and remains with us even in the most difficult situations we face. In Jacob’s case he was lucky… all of his years serving Laban only seemed like a few days because of his love for Rachel. There are many times in life however when we are not so lucky… not only do we face difficult situations, but we do suffer… we really suffer. We loose children, get diagnosed with difficult diseases and fear that we won’t be able to feed our families, just to name few possible trials that our part of life. Even though we know God is with us in such difficult situations, sometimes that knowledge simply doesn’t comfort us.

I, like many of us, have faced such a situation… a situation where God’s presence was not comforting or simply could not be felt. A little over three years ago know as I was getting ready to graduate from college and take a dream job working a political campaign up here in New Hampshire, I learned my mother had been diagnosed with late stage lung cancer. Only a couple weeks later I learned that I might have thyroid cancer and that I would have to have surgery. I quickly realized that it wouldn’t be possible to take the dream job I had worked throughout college to get. While I would find out after my surgery a couple months later that my diagnosis was a false positive, my mother died from her cancer the following December. I continued on eventually to work with Thrivent in a job I enjoyed but also knew I wasn’t called to do.

Throughout that difficult year, it was hard to feel God’s presence amidst that suffering… I didn’t have the good fortune that Jacob did. I never blamed God though, and eventually as I began seminary this past fall, I justified the whole ordeal through saying that God called me in that suffering to ordained ministry. I can’t believe that God made me suffer, that God gave my mother lung cancer, but I do believe that something good was created out of that suffering. Much like Jacob, I grew into the person I am today through a difficult situation. Understanding this concept did bring me some comfort, but not completely. It was only this summer, while working as a hospital chaplain at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, that I realized I not only never blamed God, but I never even let myself be angry with my Creator. This summer amidst the suffering of others I also came to know that it was okay to be angry with God for my own suffering… a very difficult lesson to come to terms with.

Amidst the trials of life, amidst the great sufferings we all face, it is okay to be angry with God and to come to God with that anger. Only a few chapters later in Genesis 32, Jacob actually wrestles with God, and in fact wins. A few of us may have the good fortune to be like Jacob in today’s Old Testament story, facing difficult times joyfully. However, whether due to our own sinful natures, the sin of others, or simply the fragility and mystery of creation, most of us will wrestle with God. Many of us may indeed be wrestling with God right now, filled with anger at our Creator. This one powerful reason for Christian community… God comes to us and comforts us through others… through friends, family, and congregation members, just to name a few. Paul writes in our reading from Romans today, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” When amidst great pain we get angry with our Creator, God understands that anger and indeed feels that pain. In Christ, God was torn apart on the cross to save us from our sins, feeling the pinnacle of human pain. Nothing, even our own rage, is able to separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord. In Christ, God promised to love us and be with us always and God keeps promises… Yes friends, God will do just that.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tell Me About God and Stuff

I had a very humbling experience yesterday during Clinical Pastoral Education that’s worth some reflection.  About a week ago I was called in to work with an older man who was facing very difficult decisions about end of life care… he kept asking me what heaven would be like while trying to figure out whether or not he wanted to be switched over to ‘comfort measures only.’  After a couple days of talking with him, we were able to pinpoint exactly what he was afraid of and work with that fear.  We were also able to get a lawyer to write up a will and I also was fortunate enough to spend some time with the patient’s family.  Late last week the patient was at peace enough with his decision to switch over to ‘comfort measures only’ and I guess I thought the hardest part of my job with that patient was done.  I assumed I would accompany the patient as he approached death over the coming days, working with whatever fears and losses he was facing yet not really facing any specifically new challenges myself.

Boy, was I wrong!  When I stopped in to visit yesterday, the patient was unconscious, but I had a great opportunity to spend some additional time with the patient’s sister in-law and nephew.  The patient’s sister in-law had been a lifelong infrequently attending member of a Baptist church in the area but I soon discovered that the patient’s nephew, a man roughly forty years old, thought he knew very little about God, and even less about Christianity.  He said that he always had questions and always was accepting of other folk’s beliefs, but simply hadn’t been taught much himself… he sort of remembered carving a pumpkin at some church fair as child, and that was the only time he ever participated in any type of organized religion.  The nephew did say though that he was concerned that his twelve year old daughter wouldn’t be brought up with any religion, and that it was hard for him to answer some of the basic human questions she was beginning to ask.  After explaining his situation, he asked abruptly: “Could you tell me about God and stuff?”  He then followed that question up with another: “What do Christians believe?”

Could I tell this guy about ‘God and stuff?’  One would think I should be able to… I am studying to be a pastor and have already gotten through one year of seminary.  I’m fairly comfortable giving sermons, leading adult forums and teaching confirmation classes… of course I should be able to tell him about ‘God and stuff.’  I completely froze though… living in what I assumed to be at least a nominally Christian culture, I had taken it for granted that folks would at least know the very basics.  I then quickly realized it was somewhat difficult for me even to separate out 'the basics' from everything else; what beliefs did I feel a bit more comfortable speaking on behalf of all Christians for?  When discussing preaching and teaching with my colleagues at seminary, it always seemed a given that those we’d be working with would remember at least some simple Bible stories… Noah’s Ark maybe? The Garden of Eden?  At least a rough idea about the Passion?  This poor man, facing the impending death of his beloved uncle, wanted to know about God, and simply didn’t believe he had ever been told anything at all.

For about a minute or so (it seemed to last a whole lot longer) I had no idea what to say.  Eventually I somewhat recovered, and we began by exploring the embedded theology he did have and then finding some related Bible verses.  I gave him some simple resources on what Christianity has to say about loss and I plan to meet with him again later this week… ideally I’ll be able to give him a referral to a church in the area.  I did okay… I think.  Still though, I learned a great lesson yesterday about not being presumptuous.  What a pompous, counter-productive and in the end destructive notion I had to assume that everyone at least ‘knew the basics.’ While Christianity’s place in the majority may be waning, people are still hungry. They’re still really hungry for a stronger sense of community and hungry to understand that which is bigger than themselves.  My experience yesterday helped me consider how many more hungry folks I may have been able to help over the years, if only I hadn’t assumed that everyone still at least ‘knew the basics.’  Wow, I love CPE.

God’s peace,

Monday, July 18, 2011

On Friedman's 'The Clash of Generations'

I couldn't help but briefly comment on Thomas Friedman's 'The Clash of Generations' piece in the New York Times yesterday.  I often try to shy away from sweeping statements about generational differences, but Friedman isn't listing off subjective notions here, instead simply reflecting history and current sentiments:
Indeed, if there is one sentiment that unites the crises in Europe and America it is a powerful sense of “baby boomers behaving badly” — a powerful sense that the generation that came of age in the last 50 years, my generation, will be remembered most for the incredible bounty and freedom it received from its parents and the incredible debt burden and constraints it left on its kids. 
To be sure, we have a lot to thank the boomers for as well... the furthering of civil rights, strengthening of the environmental movement and of course some really amazing music are just a few of the things achieved by that generation.  On the other hand, there is a growing sense amongst folks my age of being left in a real tough spot by those who came before us.  It doesn't just play out in fiscal policy either (and now I guess I will indulge in a couple generalizations)... I for one think about the hold 1950s/ 60s culture seems to have on our shrinking congregations as well.  With God's help I pray we can move past the ideological hangups of previous generations (somewhat mirroring what needs to happen in the current debt debate in Washington) to find more practical and sustainable ways of living in Christian community.

I realize this is a pretty basic post, full of criticism and generalizations with no real solutions... the things I mention really deserve much deeper discussion.  It's my hope that it'll add just a bit to the ongoing conversation to find such solutions.  I look forward to your comments, please check out the Friedman article in full, and thanks for reading friends!

God's peace,

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Pastors Don't Do Much

Obviously, that’s mostly meant to be a provocative title… of course pastors do all sorts of things. Whether they’re writing sermons, attending church council meetings, visiting the sick or cleaning up the bathroom after a long hard day of Vacation Bible School, pastors are busy with a nearly endless list of tasks on a daily basis. As someone who hopes to be one of those pastors not too many years from now, the more I think about it though, in their best moments at least, pastors don’t do much.

How have I come to such a strange notion? Over the last five weeks I’ve been participating in a Clinical Pastoral Education program at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire. It’s been an absolutely amazing experience. On average, half of my day is taken up by various lectures and group discussions, with the other half devoted to meeting with patients. While I’m learning so much about myself and exploring the essential skills and theory for providing pastoral care, my greatest learning so far has been, once again, that at their best, those providing pastoral care don’t do much. I’ve found in fact that I spend a great deal of my time training myself to say less, to listen more, and simply to be a non-anxious presence for the patients I’m ministering to. Despite my human tendency to want to control a conversation, to always say the right thing at the right time, or to simply to help folks, most of my best patient visits have been when I haven’t said much of anything at all.

I spent some time yesterday thinking back to the times I myself experienced helpful pastoral care throughout my life, and I once again I realized, that in a way, those caring for me didn’t do that much… yet it still meant the world to me. One example is when I was in hospital nearly three years ago while recovering from surgery to remove my thyroid. I was still waiting to hear back whether my thyroid had been cancerous and was also worried about my mother who had recently been diagnosed with lung cancer. I hadn’t formally met the new pastor of my hometown congregation yet, but when he saw my name in the hospital registry he came in to speak with me. The conversation wasn’t all that long, and I did most of the talking, but in many ways that was the day I started moving towards becoming a pastor myself.

This whole phenomenon begs the question, how can doing so little mean so much to a patient, or anyone we talk to for that matter? In answering that question, one ends up arriving at the powerful mystery of how the Spirit is constantly working through all us, whether it’s with a chaplain listening to a patient or a loving parent listening to her or his distressed child. A few years from now when I’m horribly stressed out over trying to find a caterer for my congregation’s silent auction or making sure the annual Rally Day is well attended, hopefully I can look back on CPE and remember that when pastors are at their best, they don’t do much.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Hospitality As Community

Here's a rough manuscript of a sermon I gave on Matthew 10: 40-42 @ Community Lutheran Church in Enfield, NH on 6/26:

‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.’  Jesus’ message to the disciples in our gospel lesson today is a message we hear over and over again.  We hear how we’re supposed to do better: how we’re supposed to better welcome the stranger, clothe the poor and feed the hungry.  This message is so important that we conclude our worship services with the words ‘Go in peace and serve the Lord!”  Simply put, serving our neighbor and practicing hospitality is central to who we are as Christians.  Writing on today’s gospel lesson one Lutheran theologian states, “What would happen if we stopped expecting people to come on their own initiative through our church doors and instead took seriously our calling to bring the gospel to them?”

She’s right of course.  Practicing hospitality is central to who we are, and despite our best efforts, its something we can always do more of.  Our lesson from Roman’s today agrees with this notion… Paul is explains that just because we’re saved by God’s grace that doesn’t mean we can just sit back and relax, doing whatever we want… BY NO MEANS he exclaims.  Rather, because we’re saved by God’s grace, out of love for God we are to recognize the face of Christ in our neighbors, going out to serve them and welcoming them into our community.

You’ve heard this all before though… and sometimes it can be a hard sort of message to hear.  When we’re busy getting through school, supporting our families or simply working through what life throws at us, hearing that we need to do more to welcome our neighbor can be a difficult message to swallow.  There’s good news though friends… what I’ve spoken of so far is only half of what Jesus is telling us in the gospel lesson today.  Hospitality, especially Christian hospitality, isn’t just something we do for another person… it’s a relationship.  Sometimes we’re like the disciples in this gospel lesson, but more often than not we’re like the little ones… desperately in need of a cup of cold water.  While we are commanded to better the lives of others and serve them as Christ its important to recognize how others may be doing God’s work in our own lives as well.  So often in a bid to stay in control, save face or maintain a safe distance from others we end up refusing the very help and comfort that we pray for.

I’m not saying we should just get lazy and expect others to do our work for us… self-reliance is a great quality on one level and something folks from New Hampshire are of course admirably known for. Rather, I’m speaking of the little things.  I touched on one good example of such things in the children’s moment this morning… I can remember almost every day when I would come home from school my mother would ask me how my day was.  At best I’d begrudgingly mutter, “Good.” back to my mom before running off to turn on MTV or to chat it up on the Internet... sometimes I’d simply ignore her.  She was practicing true hospitality though… she genuinely wanted to know how I was doing and instead of spending quality time talking with my mom I pushed her away… almost every day I missed an opportunity to experience community, to share in a sacred moment.

It doesn’t change when we grow up either… church coffee hours are a great example of this.  Who here in the congregation today has sort of been having a bad day, or maybe even had a bad week?  I know I’ve had a pretty rough one… I’m downright exhausted.  In the midst of having some baked goods, planning for a committee meeting or trying to get our kids out the door, how often at coffee hour do we genuinely tell our friends and neighbors that we’ve had a rough week when they ask us how we’re doing?  Sometimes of course people are in fact just saying hello when they ask us how we’re doing, but often they genuinely mean it… how often do we shrug off such hospitality… how often do we miss invitations to sacred moments where God’s love can be experienced in true community?

The really good news in the midst of all this is that despite our tendency to push each other
way, there are still moments when God’s saving love shines through and is experienced as we serve each other in community… at a place named Community Lutheran Church it makes sense that such moments seem to happen pretty regularly.  I was up here to help out with the Easter Vigil service and a few days later after returning to seminary I took part in a conference with a well over a hundred pastors.  The question, “When’s the last time you experienced God’s love?” came up for discussion and after a brief silence I sprung up and told the whole room about a little church I was at in New Hampshire where almost everyone in the congregation seemed to take some sort of role in the Easter Vigil service.  Whether serving as an acolyte, singing in the choir, or helping plan for Easter breakfast the next morning everyone was contributing and appreciating each other’s contributions, and I for one was very touched by the experience.

I think it’s often in moments like those, when people are serving in community, committing acts of genuine hospitality and accepting the hospitable actions of others, that we most profoundly experience the good news of God’s saving love for us.  It’s in those moments when love can conquer our fears and when we can step outside of our anxieties and loneliness, feeling the embrace of God’s love.