Monday, February 8, 2016

Resisting Temptation

The first Sunday in Lent is coming up.  Right after we smear ashen crosses on each other's foreheads, we tumble into that Sunday morning where Jesus goes to the wilderness and is tempted by the devil.

There are three temptations, which is to say, I suppose, a trinity of them.  I have often tried to crack the code around these three:  turning a stone to bread, going after worldly power and jumping off the pinnacle of the temple.  Are they three temptations unique to Jesus, the Son of God, or does some version of these temptations afflict all of us?  I know that I am not able to turn a stone to bread, no matter how hungry I am, and it is hard to imagine myself jumping off any real height (although you may be more courageous or foolhardy in this regard).  When I think of the word temptation, it is not these three situations that first come to mind.

I am tempted to buy things I do not need, for reasons that I cannot always express.
I am tempted to hold back when God is telling me to go, waiting for one more sign.
I am tempted to waste time, work too hard, worry, hoard, doubt.
I am tempted to remain silent when I should speak.
I am tempted to believe that the bread in my hands is just for me, not to share.
I am tempted to believe that the bread in my hands is only to share, but not for me.

What about you?

I can't help noticing this phrase with which he tempts Jesus twice, "If you are the son of God…"  I notice it because both he and Jesus know he is, in fact, the son of God.  He has just come from the river Jordan, and he is full of the Holy Spirit's power.  How is he going to use it?  For whom?  "If you are the son of God…. just think of the explosion you could cause in the world."

Just think.

Perhaps the question for Jesus is not a matter of his identity.  Perhaps it is more a question of what kind of son will be be?  How will he use his power?  Who will he live for?  What will he care about?  Who will he see?  Will he turn a stone into bread, or will he feed 5,000 people?  Will he rule the world, or will he empty himself?  Will he jump off the pinnacle of the temple, and count on the angels to bear him up?  Or will he raise Lazarus after he has been dead for four days?

Will he save others, or will he save himself?  

At the foot of the cross, those who taunt Jesus say these words, "He saved others; he cannot save himself."  They are making fun of Jesus, but in those words are the truth.  The Messiah is for others, not for himself.  

The temptations are not quite the same for us as they are for Jesus.  We may not be tempted to turn a stone to bread, but we might be tempted to believe that God's good gifts are for us, but not for others.  We may not be tempted to accumulate worldly power, but we might be tempted to believe that we are secure because we have assets, or a roof over our head.  

The temptations are not quite the same for us, but the weapon is the same one:  the power of the Holy Spirit, the water and the Word, the love that has named us, and that promises us the only true bread, the only true power, the only true life.


Sunday, January 31, 2016

Snow Day at the Pre-School

Friday was a Big Day at the pre-school associated with my church.  Even though the temperature was approaching 70 degrees and sunny, it was Winter.   A whole load of snow was delivered to the space between the sanctuary and the playground, where it was piled up in mounds for the children.  There were two bales of hay to serve as artificial hills, there were plenty of brightly-colored plastic sleds, and there there were children in jackets and snow shoes and boots.

It was Snow Day.

Did I mention that it was approaching 70 outside?

I come from a snowy land far north from where I am serving now.  I have to admit that, while watching the children I felt both misty-eyed and surreal.  I could have been wearing shorts.  But in front of me, children were playing in the snow, making snowballs and hitting each other, sliding down the hills millions of times, eating snow (is this universal?),  laughing and even (I thought I imagined) making snow angels.

I wasn't dressed appropriately, but I found myself wanting to get down in the snow and show them how you make a snow angel.

These children never see snow.  They don't get snow in this part of Texas.  At least, if they do, something is Seriously Wrong.   I have heard (but have not yet experienced it) that they get occasional ice storms.  But no snow.

I have been around snow my whole life, but it has been a few years since I experienced the fun of it.  I am not a winter sports aficionado.  I'm not great at ice skating, and I haven't gone sledding for a number of years.  The morning activities took me back to the big sledding hills of my youth, when winter was still fun:  snow forts and big hills and yes, even snow angels.  Now all I can think of is slipping on ice, shoveling out, the perils of driving, the nuisance and the danger.

I had forgotten the joy.

It was a teachable moment that morning:  for the children who do not have the opportunity see, touch, to taste snow.  But it was a teachable moment for me too, for me who so often forgets to wonder, to see, to taste joy which really is the elixir of life.  I am not talking about happiness, that elusive pursuit, but joy, as in "the joy of the Lord is our strength."

Joy does not deny the reality of storms, or shoveling out, of slipping on ice.  But still joy takes the moment to rip paper from Christmas packages, to dance in church, to taste snow,  to make a snow angel.

The joy of the Lord is our strength, which is why we need children, not relegated off to the side, but in the middle of our lives.

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Rest of the Story

I have wondered, on occasion, about why those-who-organized- lectionary chose to divide the gospel story of Jesus' sermon in Nazareth into two parts, to be read and heard on two separate Sundays.

After all, when a similar story comes up in another lectionary year (in the summer, I believe), we hear the whole thing in one fell swoop.  Jesus goes back to his hometown, preaches a sermon to a crowd who is anticipating Great Things, and it doesn't go well.  We call it "Jesus' Rejection at Nazareth."

But during Epiphany, in Luke's year, we hear the first part of the story, the part where Jesus speaks gracious words, and then, we wait a whole week for the crowd to turn on him.

I have thought, on occasion, that this was clever.  Perhaps it was meant to be sort of suspenseful.  At the end of the gospel reading, Jesus sits down and says, "Today this reading has been fulfilled in your presence."

And?  And?  I mean, it just begs us to answer the question, "What happens next?"

And, like one of those Saturday morning serial dramas, you have to tune in next week, for the whole thing to be resolved, or, more likely, for the plot to thicken even more.

I have thought it clever, what those lectionary-arrangers did, but I wonder if we really feel the anticipation, if we really go through the week wondering, wondering what it means that Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah 61, how much more it means than we can imagine.  Isaiah 61 is not about Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior (and I mean no disrespect to those of you who believe that he is)  Isaiah 61 is about a more cosmic savior than that, one who is not just setting you right with God, but is setting the world right.  The whole world.  Jesus is canceling debt, giving sight to the blind, abundance to the poor.

Starting with us.  That's what the people of Nazareth were thinking.  The Year of the Lord's Favor -- starting with us.  We have a week to nurture that anticipation as well.  And then Jesus tells them that he is starting from the outside and the underside.

But it happens in a moment, an eye blink of time.  There is not a whole week between Jesus' gracious words and that moment when they want to throw him off a cliff.  There is just a moment, a moment to get used to Jesus, who is suddenly telling you that he loves your enemy, too, and he means to give her comfort, all the things you long for.

I am not sure any more that it is so clever, waiting a week to hear the rest of the story.  Let it happen in an eye blink, let our anger rise, let us also want to throw him over a cliff.  Let us reject him.

He will walk away, through the crowds.

But know this, in an eye blink, in a moment:  he will walk away, loving us still.  He will walk away to heal, to put bread in empty hands, to tell riddles, to raise the dead.  He will walk away to die and be raised, loving us, loving us still.

The rest of the story.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Prayer as a Strategy

Last fall, when we had our stewardship emphasis, we had a very strict program that we were supposed to follow.  There were letters that were supposed to go out, and specific sermons to be preached, and temples talks every Sunday.  There was a dinner for leaders and a celebration dinner for the congregation afterwards.  We did all these things.  There was also supposed to be a prayer vigil, which I thought was an awesome idea.

I forgot all about it.

I myself was praying fervently.  I am sure that everyone on the stewardship team was praying fervently.  I am pretty sure many people in the congregation were praying fervently.  And everything did come out all right.  But if I had to do it all again, I would not forget the prayer vigil.

Prayer was part of the stewardship strategy, which sounds like a weird thing to say.  After all, prayer is not magic.  It is not a magic formula for having all of our dreams come true, whether personal, congregational or global.  It's not something we do to get our way.  It's also not for "sounding religious" in front of God or other people.  I think about the prophets, who sometimes told the people that God "hated" their solemn assemblies.

Yet prayer is necessary, but for different reasons.

I have confessed before and I will confess again that I don't feel like I am in the top ten of pastors who pray.  I pray, and I frequently stumble, and I am not known for long prayers either.  I pray in my own words, and sometimes I pray using the words of prayers written long before I was born.  Sometimes the honest prayers of my own heart are just the thing I need to come before God.  Sometimes, when I use those prayers written a long time ago by someone else, I discover that there were things I needed to pray about, but I didn't even know it.

That's the Holy Spirit for you.

Prayer is necessary, and sometimes we do change God's mind.  But more often, prayer is necessary, because, for one thing, it can change our mind.  When we pray, when we ask God for help, when we confess, when we give thanks, we are first of all acknowledging a power and a source and an imagination much greater than our own.

Prayer is a strategy for confessing the reality of our dead ends and black holes.  It is a strategy for when we see that there are no options left, and it is a strategy for when we are sure we have all the answers, because God is sure to let us know (somehow) that we don't.  Prayer is a strategy for opening us up to God's dreams and plans, to God's imagination.  It is a strategy for listening to God, and acknowledging that God is in the world, in our lives, in the room, even and especially when we don't see God.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Today

Today I took my pad of paper and some big books to a place where I could get a breakfast sandwich and some coffee.  I read and ate and took notes with the big books spread out in front of me.  I read the two parts of Jesus' sermon to his hometown in Nazareth, about how he was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, and picked up the scroll to read.

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor," I read.  I underlined the part about Jesus being filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, and thought about it.

"Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Today.  That's what he said.

Maybe it was just for emphasis.  Today.  Right now.  That is what is most important.  What you do, or don't do today.  Where you are today.

Today I studied and thought about the power of the Holy Spirit, in Jesus, and in us.  I thought about the power of the Holy Spirit that pushes out into the world, that Jesus' mission is now our mission.  I also did laundry. Two loads.  It was time.  I called a couple of people, but, to be honest, there were a couple of people I should have called, but I didn't.  I got a little farther in planning my theme for Lent.  I got an appointment for my car.

Today I went over to the pre--school for a little while.  I saw some of the very little ones out on the playground.  It was a beautiful sunny day.  So I went out to watch them play and to talk to them.  They wanted to show me their jackets, tennis shoes and cowboy boots.  They were sliding down the slide with glee.  Again and again.

The best moment was when a little girl saw me and recognized me.  She started running to me, and threw her arms around my legs.  Today.

Today I put in a casserole for supper, and made some steamed broccoli.  I ate a Cara Cara Orange for the first time.  I talked to a friend on the phone.  I frittered away some time, not paying attention.

Today I studied, and I played and I stood in the sun, and Jesus spoke to me.

I didn't understand what he said, but somehow he gave me hope.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Different Kinds of Grace

I am working in Texas.  My husband is still, for now, working in Minnesota.  But he got to visit for over two weeks at Christmastime, which was a wonderful gift.  We got to take some time off together, and he got to play at Christmas Eve and Sunday after Christmas services.  In fact, on Christmas eve, when we were without organ music for our largest service at 7:00 p.m, we received the gift of piano, guitar, euphonium and flute accompaniment instead.

And it was good.  Gifts were multiplied, more than we knew we had.  Perhaps there are even more, so many that we cannot even imagine.  On Christmas Eve, I glimpsed another kind of grace.

Friday morning my husband was scheduled to return to Minnesota.  But before he left, he made breakfast, while I took the dog out for a walk.  It was a cloudy, gloomy morning, and half-way around our walk, I tripped over a curb or a tree root or something and fell.  It hurt, and I felt stupid and awkward besides.  I limped home, feeling sort of defeated.

After breakfast, and after taking my husband to the airport, and after stopping in to the church to take care of a few things for Sunday, I took myself to urgent care to check on my ankle, which ached.  It was just a precaution, I told myself.  I was pretty sure it was just a sprain, but I wanted to make sure that I made the right treatments.  They insisted on taking X-rays, though, and told me that I did, indeed, have the tiniest little fracture:  a bone chip, they said.  I have a CD of the X-rays, if I want to see for myself.

When I explained to the doctor what happened, I again felt that sense of being stupid and awkward.  I tripped over a curb.  Or maybe it was a tree root.  It wasn't like I was doing extreme sports or anything very interesting.  I couldn't blame it on ice, or my dog.  I just tripped.  How could that happen?  I sighed.

The doctor smiled.  "Happens all the time," he said.

And I felt another kind of grace, the grace of being allowed to be human.  It is not the same as the grace  of discovering unknown gifts, and it is not the same as the grace of being forgiven (the one I know the most about).  

Sometimes I am guilty of making grace too narrow.  I think of the amazing grace that saved a wretch like me.  But grace is not just the word of forgiveness in my wretchedness.  Grace is in the myriad of gifts that surprise me when I think I do not have enough.  Grace is in beauty that surprises, stars more numerous that I can count, many voices coming together.  Grace is being surprised by abundance.  

And Grace is this as well:  being allowed to be human, make mistakes, fall down, limp along.  

It happens all the time. 

Monday, January 4, 2016

Breathing Deeply in the New Year

A while back, I was at a confirmation retreat.  Actually, it was a long while back, and it is possible that it may have been the same confirmation retreat where I was anxious about a community meeting I was leading in a couple of weeks.  My memory is fuzzy about that point.

Be that as it may, I was at a confirmation retreat.  It was spring (the Easter season), and during the free time (I use the term loosely), I was thinking about this community meeting, and worrying about it, and I was thinking about Easter sermons, and what I would preach about.  I was thinking about resurrection stories.  

While I was thinking and worrying and pondering, one of the other adult volunteers was doing a couple of easy yoga moves, and encouraging me to take a break and do a couple of them with her.  I had been thinking about learning yoga for awhile, although I had never really gotten around to it.   I heard that it helped with anxiety, which can't be a bad thing. 

So I reluctantly got up and practiced one of the easy moves with her, which to me seemed like the kind of a lunge you would do if you were fencing.  She looked at me and said something like, "The secret of yoga is breathing," but for some reason in my memory the words became, "The secret of life is breathing".

I have remembered these words.

Of course, if you want to stay alive, all you have to do is keep breathing.  It is as simple as that.  It struck me as both ludicrous and profound at the same time.  The secret of life is breathing.

But of course she meant more than just breathing.  She meant that the way you breathe is important too, that it is important to breathe deeply and intentionally and with a certain kind of support.

That is the secret of life:  to breathe deeply and intentionally and with a certain kind of support.

And there is something else too, something from one of those resurrection stories that was reading, those resurrection stories that I know by heart, if I take time to remember them.  There is one in particular where Jesus meets his disciples and says, "Peace be with you," and then he breathes on them the Holy Spirit.  And in the scripture it doesn't say this, but I would imagine that they would breathe deeply too, breathe deeply the Holy Spirit that he gave to them, to take in the life and peace and reconciliation that he gave.

When I am anxious, here in this new place, in this new call, when I don't know what to do next, when I don't yet know what is the next right thing to do, sometimes I remember to breathe deeply.  And you know what?  

It helps.  It is the secret of life:  to breathe deeply and intentionally and with a certain kind of support.  Maybe that is why singing helps too, even though it sometimes makes me cry.  It is a kind of prayer, and it forces me to breathe deeply, and intentionally and with a certain kind of support.

Yesterday, on vacation, we visited a church.  The last song they sang was "Love divine, all Loves Excelling."  I was breathing deeply through the words and the music and the promise the Holy Spirit that had been given to me.  I was breathing deeply and for a moment again I thought I can do the impossible things, I can take the next step, because it is not me but the Holy Spirit in me.

It is the next right thing.  It is my New Year's Resolution.  It is the secret of life.

Breathing, and living, and trusting -- deeply.