Tuesday, May 26, 2015

If You Have to Ask . . .

It was almost four years into marriage before Ginger and I adopted our first child.  Like many newlyweds making a start in life, we asked ourselves when the moment would be that we could afford children.  It is, of course, one of the silliest questions ever asked, when children become affordable.  Like so many things in life, if you have to ask, you can’t afford it. 
Thirty-two years into the adventure of parenthood, I’m still hoping to hit the sweet spot when my children, now well into adulthood, become affordable.  It turns out that they were never more affordable than in those first days when they were so new and their needs were so simple.  Diapers and baby food are nothing next to car insurance, tuition, and weddings. 
It is so like me as an only child to ask whether there would be enough to go around, having never known a time when there wasn’t.  But having grown up without siblings, I had no first-hand knowledge that more people to be cared for would not necessarily put a strain on the ability to care for those already there.  The question children posed for me went beyond affordability to a more basic question of subsistence, maybe even survival.  As ridiculous as it sounds from my very privileged point-of-view, with more mouths to feed, I worried about whether there would be enough.  The logic seemed simple enough.  The things necessary to sustain life are finite.  More people around means less to go around.  The basic affordability question did not look good. 
By the time we adopted our second child, I was in seminary with no income and Ginger was in a low-paying job at the seminary.  There was a good deal less than when the first one arrived to a lawyer father a year away from partnership and a teacher mom just named one of three teachers of the year in the Atlanta Public Schools well-settled in their first house in the suburbs. 
Here’s the interesting thing.  The question of affordability, to say nothing of whether there would be enough, never entered into the discussion the second time.  We just decided to adopt another child.  We had saved the fees from our previous life, and we just had enough experience to know that there would be enough.  Having one just naturally led to the second. 
It didn’t take balancing the checkbook to know that another baby was affordable because we would find a way for it to be.  So we set up the crib and changing table under the loft bed in our very small apartment and went about growing a family. 
The epistle for this Sunday bears repeating:
So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.  For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.  For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.  (Rom. 8:12-17)
I may have once lived by a spirit of fear, especially the vague fear of whether or not there would be enough.  I still fall into it from time to time.  But welcoming Andrew and Matthew into our home so many years ago has given me a glimpse of the spirit of adoption about which Paul wrote and that  urges my heart to cry, “Abba! Father!” and “Ama!” “Mamma!” 
It’s what I would expect from a God whose nature is to exist not simply as one but whose oneness is based on more than one, and whose very nature leads God to create the other in order to share.  As the old adage puts it, as Paul knew, and as the nature of God undergirds, “If you ask to ask how much, you can’t afford it.”

Monday, May 18, 2015

Broken Heartedness and the Spirit of God

There are two very different themes set for the Day of Pentecost.  One is joy in the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-21), so uninhibited that its witnesses mistook it for inebriation.  The other is broken hearted despair on the night before Jesus died (Jn. 15:26-27; 16:4b-15).  In truth, they go together.  
We do not associate broken hearts with the good news of Easter or with the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, but I think we should.  Broken hearts, if the Gospel is true, are the guarantee both of our resurrection and the life of the Spirit of Christ.  And broken hearts are something we have some experience of when resurrection is something we do not, at least not fully.  If Christ went not up to glory but first he suffered pain, we will not go to glory either without suffering the pain of a broken heart.  There is no other way.
It is into the broken heartedness that Christ promises the Holy Spirit.  It is also into the scene of ecstatic joy that the Holy Spirit descends on the first Pentecost.  In our broken heartedness, the Spirit of God is present.  In our ecstasy, the Spirit of God is present there, too.  And in both, the Spirit calls us forth, forth from our broken heartedness and forth from our joy into the reality that marked Christ’s life, which is love.  Love, with all its attendant risks, with all its possibility of hurt, with all of its possibility of disappointment, with all of its possibility of happiness—with all that the Spirit calls us to be on about the work of Christ in the world, which is to love.  And it is especially to love one another.
If it is in the brokenness of heart that we feel love most acutely, then all of us know something of the fullness of love, even if only a glimpse.  It is our broken heartedness that is the sign of our risen life because our risen life will be dominated by love and our broken heartedness is the sign of our submission to love, of our willingness to risk love, of our surrender to love, which of course, is to surrender to God.  And in that is our only life.  We have seen in that brokenness of heart a glimpse of God’s broken heart for us.  And in that we see the tiniest glimpse of what the love of God has planned for us.  It is that brokenness of heart that allows us to know in our hearts that Christ is risen.  And so shall we be.  And the Spirit is come to call us into that very life.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Love and Leaving

As the Easter season draws to a close, we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension this Thursday, and in most places, Sunday.  We remember that the resurrected Jesus is removed from the disciples and taken up into heaven.  Luke tells it this way.

“[A]s they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’” (Acts 1:9-11)

After 40 days of renewed life with the disciples, Jesus is taken from them.  Almost no sooner had he been restored to them than he was gone again.  It seems to have left the disciples a bit confused.  Their community of love, only just renewed, had again been disrupted.  If I had been among them, I would have remembered what he had said on the night before his death, which happens to have been the gospel for yesterday, and I would have wondered.  “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”  (Jn. 15:9)   How does love go together with leaving?  And the disciples are left looking, perhaps somewhat aimlessly, into heaven.

Somewhere along the line I heard someone share something very important about parenting.  Parents love their children, it was said, not so that their children will love them but so that their children will in turn love their children.  To that, I might add, and love others.

Parents, from whom most of us first learn to love, love us not so that we return the love but so that we pass along the love.  Surely that is how the Father loved Jesus.  It is also how Jesus loved us, so that we might love others in the same way. 

Parents’ love for their children is not about the parents.  It is about the children.  Jesus’ love for his disciples is not about Jesus.  It is about the disciples.  Both are about passing love along. 

So it is important in the story that Jesus be taken from the disciples, even permanently.  The Jesus story is not so much about Jesus loving us as it is about us loving others as we learned to love from him.  The Jesus story is not so much about Jesus as it is about us. And that is so our stories may be not so much about us as about those we loved.  And taught to love by being loved. 

That is why I think this story of Jesus’ departure begins the Book of Acts, the story of the disciples' spreading of love.  It is why the mysterious men from heaven in the story of the Ascension say to the puzzled disciples, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  He will come the same way he left, in love, this time your love.


Monday, May 4, 2015

Say Something Nice Sunday and Beyond: It’s What Friends Do

Mitch Carnell, a Baptist minister friend of mine is on a crusade to promote "Say Something Nice Sunday". He became discouraged as denominational conflicts rage, both among Baptists and ourselves, at the lengths we Christians go to say nasty things to hurt others. He’s right, of course.

Say Something Nice Sunday is planned this year for June 7, and it involves two challenges to promote civility for 30 days:
• To “refrain from saying anything ugly, demeaning or derogatory to anyone in my church, workplace and/or daily activities”
• To “say something nice, uplifting or encouraging to at least one person every day”

“Say Something Nice Sunday” doesn’t’ sound like something Episcopalians would buy into. Too bad. Might we say instead that it has something to do with what we would call respecting the dignity of every human being. And then it begins to hit home.

Of course, we see all around us that “Say Something Nice Sunday” might be just what we need, especially in the lead-up to General Convention, that once-every-three-years event when we have the chance, for good or ill, to be most true to who we are. The initial signs are not too encouraging. Already it is brothers and sisters who see no inhibition in the love ethic to saying the nastiest of things, the snarkiest of things in the name of humor, the most misrepresented things to advance one’s agenda at the expense of someone else, on listservs and blogs, some disciples seeking to cause harm to other disciples. If proclaiming the Good News is part of what it means to be a Christian, the things we say about each other electronically present a picture that would not make one very much want to be a part of it. If I didn’t know us better, it would make me conclude that we are one angry, maybe vicious, group of people.

So my pledge is that the communications efforts of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society on behalf of The Episcopal Church, will take the Say Something Nice Sunday pledge. We begin now. We will go beyond 30 days. We will neither say anything ugly, demeaning, or derogatory nor will we provide a platform for those who do. We will be the gold standard in Christian communication and not substitute the standards of secular politics for the commandment of Jesus, which happens to be the Gospel for this Sunday: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. . . . You are my friends if you do what I command you” (Jn. 15:12-14). I know we’re all human, and maybe it’s best to temper our expectations, even of love. But isn’t the essence of being human according to Jesus to be a friend, even by grace a friend of God?

Maybe I’m wrong about that. Church politics always makes me wonder. Surely General Convention is not an occasion for such.

Just 30 days. That’s it. Thirty days that happen to include General Convention. Is it too much to ask—to be friends for 30 days, friends of Jesus?


Sunday, April 26, 2015

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

I don’t like this particular saying, no good deed goes unpunished.  It seems profoundly unfair.  And it is.  Maybe it’s not true in general.  It is in this week’s lessons, though.

Peter and John had healed a lame man, someone who had habitually begged from people as they entered the temple.  The powers that be were not pleased. 

The rulers, elders, and scribes, along with the High Priest and the high priestly family, demanded an answer about this.  “By what power and by what name did you do this?” (Acts 4:7)

Peter answered.  “[I]f we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.”  (Verses 9-10)

That rather turned the tables.  We’re used to passing the buck in the face of blame for doing something not so good.  Peter and John, though, pass along the credit rather than the blame.  No one knew quite what to do about that. 

If you’ve got a problem with good deeds, take it up with Jesus.  If you don’t, well, then what’s all the fuss about?

Monday, April 13, 2015

Love and Resurrection (and Fear Again)

The theme of fear continues in the third week of Easter.  Two weeks ago it was Mark.  Last week, John.  Now this week, Luke.  It is a common theme.  The response to the good news of resurrection is fear, or perhaps better understood, Easter is not only about life’s confrontation of death.  It is about love’s confrontation of fear. 
Love is risky business, as the life of Jesus so powerfully reveals.  We know it in our own lives, as well.  Love inherently runs the risk of rejection.  It runs the risk of disappointment.  It runs the risk of pain.  It runs the risk of betrayal.  It runs the risk of loss.  There is just no getting around it.  Risk is simply the cost of love.
And still, love is the one thing that makes life matter.  It is, I believe, the only thing that lasts.  It is, for that reason, the essence of resurrection.  Resurrection is love’s greatest proclamation.
Jesus response to the fearful disciples in this week’s gospel (Lk. 24:26b-38), is not to ignore the fear.  In some ways it is to confirm it.  He does not say, as he sometimes does, do not be afraid.  Instead he shows them his hands and his feet, which bear the wounds of the crucifixion.  The response of Jesus is not to erase the fear, it is to confront it in all of its painful reality.  Love does not make fear go away.  It is, though, what overcomes it.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Fear, Peace, and Safety

The Gospel for the second week of Easter is always the same, John’s account of the evening on the first Easter (Jn. 19:19-31).  And every year I have a hard time getting beyond its opening words:  “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’”   (Jn. 19:19)  Despite all that had happened, the doors were locked out of fear.  Fear, it seems to me, is the great enemy of the resurrection.

It is odd.  Fear ought to be the thing most defeated by Easter.  If Easter defeats death, the source of perhaps our greatest fear, what have we to fear anymore?  Yet, even at the beginning it was not so.

We humans are just fearful creatures.  We know we live in a world with much to fear.  Violence erupts around us in horrifying ways.  Our pursuit of wealth leads us to fear not having enough in the midst of being abundantly provided for.  Pride provokes the fear of being found out to be what we really are.  Fear leads us to choose the tomb, which at least is known, over the resurrection, which pushes us into a world we have never known.

And although Easter ought to be the antidote to all that fear, it is not.  By the evening of Easter Day, we find ourselves again locked behind closed doors.  His own rising to life again notwithstanding and the announcement of his own resurrection notwithstanding, Jesus simply refuses to leave us in our fear, as much as we might hope he would.  Jesus calls us forth from behind the doors, even when we have them most tightly locked up.

To begin with he offers peace.  “Peace be with you,” he said three times in the passage.  Peace.  Peace.  Peace.  But peace does not end there.  The only real solution to our fear is the response to peace.  “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (v. 21).

The sending is related to the peace.  Our peace is not in staying safely tucked away behind the locked doors.  It is in being sent.  It is in getting out there.   We aren’t going to find out it’s safe out there until we take a chance to find out.

Peace be with you indeed.