Monday, September 30, 2013

Enough is enough

Our self-worth has nothing to do with anything other than we draw breath!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Church Improv

General Association of Ministers in Connecticut
Silver Lake Conference Center, Sharon, CT
Sept. 23, 2013

(Every year since 1709 the clergy of the Missionary Society of Connecticut - now the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ - have gathered for renewal and to conduct business.  This gathering is called, with no sense of poetry, the General Association of Ministers in Connecticut. It is even said that when the Congregational Church was linked with the governance of the state, that it was this body that nominated the governor!

Since its inception, the gathering now includes educators, members in discernment [those considering the ministry as their vocation], and church musicians.  This year I was asked to be on the planning committee and to give the Moderator's address.  The term 'moderator' simply means 'the one on the pointy end of  the ship'.  Anyway, here are the words I shared with my colleagues in ministry.)

Of the almost 22 years that I’ve been ordained in the ministry of the United Church of Christ, 16 of those have been spent in temporary ministry settings so that I could be home with my two daughters. I’ve served as an interim, filled in for colleagues on sabbatical, and offered pulpit supply in 24 churches in the CT Conference, not to mention a small handful in the OH Conference. I’ve had to remain light on my feet, be flexible, and willing. Maybe we ought to pronounce it ‘pulpit supplely’. You might say my ministry here has been a bit of an improvisation.

Our keynoter, Kirk Byron Jones, will be speaking about, among other things, stillness, awareness, and playfulness. Playfulness is something I can really groove with. A couple of years ago I read Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants, in which she recalls her days as a member of the Second City improv theater in Chicago. Did you know that there are rules for doing improvisational comedy? You wouldn’t think so to look at it. There’s no scenery, no props, and no script; it’s just made up as the actors go along.

Even though the Christian faith has a script (holy scriptures—what we call the Bible), some fabulous scenery (the whole of creation and the living of our lives), and a few props (the cross, bread, juice, the waters of baptism), the religious establishment is sometimes accused of making it up as it goes along. Indeed there are some tenets of Christian doctrine that seem as though they were conjured from the human imagination: original sin, the virgin birth, even the resurrection. For hundreds of years there have been rules about what is orthodox belief and what is heresy; rules about what makes a faith community the Church rather than just a social club.

Thankfully, church life has loosened up some over the years. Indeed there are some who would say it has loosened up too much. In the United Church of Christ there are no tests of faith, no creeds we must adhere to. We recognize that everyone is on a journey of faith, that every relationship with God and with the church is unique. Yet there is also an ancient tradition that goes all the way back to Jesus and his disciples, and it is this faith and this community that we strive to emulate.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that Jesus knew the rules of improvisational comedy. Not that he was ever trying to be funny, sometimes I wish he was, but according to the comedy law laid out by Tina Fey, it seems like Jesus lived by these four simple rules. The rules of improv would also make for some interesting by-laws for what it means to be the church.

1. The first rule is to agree, to say yes to whatever is being created. So if your partner says “Freeze, I have a water pistol,” you can’t reply with “No, it’s not. It’s your finger,” because then the scene has come to a stop rather than going forward. This rule reminds us to keep an open mind to what is going on around us. Jesus is God’s big “yes” to creation. “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased.” And Jesus kept echoing that ‘yes’ throughout his ministry: yes to justice, yes to peace, to healing, to the poor and the marginalized, to women and children, to foreigners and strangers, to tax collectors and prostitutes, yes to the incarcerated, yes even to death on a cross and to those who died with him. And then that huge ‘yes’ to life and love on Easter morning.

And so we can experiment in church, we can say yes to what is being created and take a chance, risk looking foolish because we just might be surprised by the Holy Spirit, who is the queen of sacred improv if ever there was one. “Keep an open mind and remain supplely” helps us to be able to respond to the Spirit with a light heart.

2. The second rule to is to add something of your own, to say ‘yes, and’, to agree but to also go on with what has been handed to you. If I say, “Gee, it sure is humid,” and you say, “Yeah…”, then there’s really no where to go. But if you say, “What do you expect from living inside a giant rice cooker?” or “Yeah, it’s so humid even my wrinkles can’t hold out” or “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into the belly of a whale”, then we’ve got somewhere to go. When Jesus says to Thomas ‘put your hand in my side’, Thomas doesn’t say “Eew, yuck! No, thanks!” Rather, he adds his ‘yes, and’, his confession of faith: “My Lord and my God!”

So someone suggests that the youth group hold a car wash to raise money. No, not very original. But what if instead of saying no, we said “Yes, and we’ll all dress up in costume or wear funny hats and take flyers to work, I know someone who could DJ, we could do a cookout too.” “Yes, and” allows the creative energy to flow.

3. The third rule is to make statements. If we ask questions all the time, we put pressure on our partner to come up with all the answers. If we point out all the obstacles, it then becomes up to our partner to solve them. Whatever the difficulty is, we need to be part of the solution rather than add to the problem. People were always asking Jesus questions, expecting him to have the answers. Sometimes he would ask a question in return but he usually would follow it up with not only a statement but a story. A story that left his hearers sometimes in a quandary, that is, having received an answer that sounded more like a mystery. Jesus reminds us that faith is not about what is certain but what is uncertain. Improvising is all about uncertainty and not knowing what is going to happen next. Which sometimes can turn all that vision planning on its head.

4. Finally, there are no mistakes, only opportunities. The disciple Thomas, who always gets a bad rap, wasn’t there the first time Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples: rather than a mistake it was an opportunity for Jesus to teach and to help his friends understand what it means to believe and to be in community with those who may have doubts. Jesus and the disciples could have chastised Thomas for missing out the first time. Instead we have a beautifully improvised scene in which those who doubt are included and we receive the blessing of the words “come to believe”, illustrating that faith and living in community are not a place to arrive at but a journey, a process, an improvisation.

Like any good improvisation, Jesus worked with what he had and created something new. He had fishermen, tax collectors, zealots, a woman healed of her demons, sinners galore, and he made community out of them, community that would not only survive his horrific death, but would proclaim him risen from that death. He had some bread and wine and from them came a meal to whet our appetite for justice and righteousness and to remind us that we do not do this alone. He had a death that looked like a monumental mistake, the biggest failure history had even seen, but was actually a transformational opportunity for rebirth and the galvanization of a movement that has not seen its equal.

But do we leave room for improvisation in our faith communities? I often wonder if our expectations for worship and leadership have gotten a bit out of whack. We want to fill our spirits, what Anne Lamott calls our ‘God-sized hole’, but nothing ever seems to be enough. It feels like we keep upping the ante, increasing our desire for the transcendent experience of God, when the immanent is right in our face.

Worship is often more like a thoroughly-scripted performance, and when it’s not, we get nervous. We strive for perfection, when the Greek word for perfect is better translated as complete, and it is God who completes our improvisation, working with us like a jazz master. If we really want to have an experience of God in our worship, then let us be willing to tell the truth about ourselves and accept one another and ourselves as we are; let us forgive one another as God has already forgiven us; and if we really want to step up our game, let us love our perceived enemy for surely we have been a thorn in someone else’s side. Jesus heals us and sets us free to leave the armor and the weapons and the fa├žade at the door and then abandon them after our worship.

God is the one who completes our improvisation. If we want God to play with us, we have to leave some wiggle room, some room for stillness, some room for playfulness, to just be. Which makes it possible for us to become aware that the love of God has always been shining, just waiting for us to come out and play.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Choosing God

Deut. 30: 15-20; Jeremiah 18: 1-11
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
September 8, 2013

(This was my candidating sermon for the New Ark United Church of Christ in Newark, DE.  They voted unanimously to call me as their next settled pastor.  I begin there on October 15.)

My oldest daughter Andrea has a standard phrase whenever she teases me and pushes my buttons:  “I couldn’t resist, Mom!”  Then I give her ‘the look’, she laughs at me, and so it goes.

One day I realized that she was making a choice, that we both were, and that, if we wanted to, we didn’t have to do the same old thing every time.  She said, “Oh, I couldn’t resist, Mom!”  I replied, “Oh yes you could.  There were two paths in front of you.  One was rather ordinary and plain, the other bright and shiny as a penny and you chose the bright and shiny one, you did!”  And we both laughed.

Every day such choices and possibilities exist before us.  Some feel like old habits and ruts, others like a warm, comfortable piece of clothing, some like that bright, shiny penny, others seem empty of any kind of thrill or joy.  If we take time to think about it, our whole reality is created, moment by moment, by our choices.  What we think, what we feel, what we do.  What our attitude will be, what kind of mood we’re in, whether or not we’ll be hurt or annoyed or just amused by someone’s actions.  And from these choices come a myriad of possibilities that affect not only our reality but others’ as well.

We’re convinced that we’ve been conditioned in some way to respond, to choose the way we always have.  We were raised a certain way, with certain values, a mix of good and bad experiences.  Sometimes it’s hard to see a way through our present situation, to choose another course.  Most of the time, we don’t like knowing that we possess the ability to be co-creators of our reality.  It would mean we would have to take some responsibility for shaping the way things are.

John Calvin, a 16th century theologian and Protestant reformer, believed that before the creation, God predestined the fate of the universe; that some of God’s creation was made for grace and salvation and some of it was not.  Yet humankind was also given free will and the option to reject that saving grace.

In the readings from both Deuteronomy and Jeremiah, God’s people are given a choice, between life and death, good and evil, blessings and curses, listening to God’s messenger or ignoring him at their peril.  It hardly sounds like free will.  Life or death?  That’s a no brainer!  And yet listen to the next verse in the reading from Jeremiah: “But they'll [God’s people] just say, 'Why should we? What's the point? We'll live just the way we've always lived, doom or no doom.”

Fear has never really worked as a coercive to get us to choose the next right thing.  It’s also given the God of the Hebrew scriptures a really bad, undeserved rap.  Actually, Deuteronomy and Jeremiah were written during and after the Babylonian exile, after the bad choices had been made, after the doom had happened.  God’s people, in retrospect, realized that their stubbornness and their unwillingness to be shaped by God led to their destruction.  And yet God continues to reach out to God’s people, again and again, offering life, blessing and goodness when we would rather die than surrender.

It’s words like surrender, obedience and repentance that make faith leave a bad taste in our mouths.  In the words of the poet William Ernest Henley, we like to think that we are the masters of our fate, the captains of our soul.  We are when it comes to our attitude and our outlook on life; no one can choose that for us unless we give them that power.  But resisting God will do us no good.  Though we may be able to master our moments, God is the master of all space and time and we do indeed ignore that life-giving wisdom at our peril.

God is the master-potter, an artist working with an ever-changing medium called the creation.  God is still discovering how to work with us earthen vessels, still shaping us, still creating us and creating through us.  There are still possibilities untold: everlasting peace, the end of hunger, poverty, violence and oppression, a new heaven and a new earth but also destruction, torment, death, extinction.  What will we choose?  Which path will we take?  What do our choices about how we live speak to the God to whom we still need to surrender?

All it takes is one step: one step toward life, one step toward blessing, one step toward God.  In any twelve step program one does not agree to do all twelve steps—just to begin with the first one.  And that first step is all about surrender, that God knows better than we do how to end the insanity and how to begin to live.  Author and Quaker Parker Palmer wrote that faith is less about taking a big leap and more about taking one more step.  It’s all about doing the next right thing, whatever that may be.

Humanity’s relationship with God is changing, evolving, as it always has been.  In our faith tradition, in the beginning and ever since, God demands loyalty, obedience, and covenants were built upon that foundation.  “I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me.”

With Jesus we are invited to follow, to go, to live as Jesus lived, to pick up our cross and die to ourselves.  In the death of Jesus on the cross, in our baptism and affirmation of it, and whenever we break bread together, we are given the covenant of community, of belonging, of being loyal to each other.

It is said that we are now living or making the transition into the Age of the Spirit.  Not just what astrologers might call the Age of Aquarius, which is typically associated with, among other things, democracy, freedom, humanitarianism, Idealism, modernization, rebellion, nonconformity, veracity, and perseverance.  These qualities are certainly part of the Age of the Holy Spirit as well, but I am speaking of something more.

The Age of the Holy Spirit is one of transcending differences and opposites, an age of oneness, connectedness, relationship, and kinship to all living things through a living Spirit.  In the Age of the Spirit there is no longer “us” and “them” but only “us”.  It is a loyalty that transcends tribe and culture, race, skin color, gender and sexuality, creed and belief.  This Age of the Spirit doesn’t mean that we are chucking God, that we leave behind Jesus.  It means we make room.

NAUCC symbol

All these folks who say (and there are probably some in this room) that they are spiritual but not religious—there is probably a very good reason why they say this.  We all want to feel close to God and to each other, close to the holy, the sacred, close to the Spirit living in me and the Spirit living in you.  Religion is just as much about binding ourselves to each other as it is about faith.  But living in community can be hard work, really hard.  Author Henri Nouwen said that “community is that place where the person you least want to live with always lives.”

The covenant now is still about community but more about belonging, about kinship, about, as Father Greg Boyle would say, “creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it …moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased.”  The covenant of the Holy Spirit is one of vulnerability, authenticity, flexibility and malleability.  It’s about being ready for the Spirit to enter, to speak, to reveal: anytime, anywhere, through anyone or anything.  It’s less about programs and more about being light on our feet.  It’s less about success or failure and more about going where the Spirit leads.  It’s less about belief or unbelief and more about being real and accepting each other as we are. 

What is the next thing toward which the Holy Spirit is calling you, the next step toward God, that you need to take in your life and in your life together (and I'm not talking about whether or not you will call me as your next pastor)?  In what ways do you still resist the Holy Spirit and God’s desire to be in relationship with you?  Though God may not be necessary for a life lived for good, why not live with spiritual companionship that accepts us as we are and yet prods us off ourselves?  What are some habits, some old ruts that need to be replaced with spiritual practices such as service, study, prayer, and giving?

Our choices shape who we are and whose we are.  Will we put ourselves into God’s hands and allow God to mold us and use us or will we resist and grow hard and unmalleable?  When we choose God and God’s community of kinship and compassion, of justice and peace for all and not just some, we are shaped into a vessel that can be used toward that blessed community.  Every time we choose God, God’s blessed community becomes more than a possibility.  It becomes more and more visible, more and more a reality.  And all it takes is just one step, one choice at a time.