Thursday, March 27, 2014

Owning Our Stories

Recently at our church, we heard the story of a little-known Jewish rabbi meeting a Samaritan woman by a well. Hopefully, this story from the gospel of John is familiar, as Jesus demonstrates how God knows each of us intimately – to good, the bad, and everything else in between. And yet, even knowing all of our stories, God loves us anyway. It’s an extraordinary thing. No wonder the woman jumps up, forgetting her jar, which was the whole reason she had come to the well in the first place, and runs back to her town to share the news of the man who “told me everything I have ever done” (John 4:39).

In worship, we watched a spoken word poet interpret this story who repeated the phrase, “to be known is to be loved and to be loved is to be known.” It’s true for all of us. To take the time to know someone is an act of love. And to love someone truly and honestly takes getting to know them. So how do we recognize and own our stories?

We are unique among all of God’s creation in that human beings are story-making creatures. We use stories to make sense of the world around us and experiences in it. To tell a story is to impart meaning to an event or series of events.

Consider your own life story. If I were to ask you to tell me about yourself, you would pick and choose which things are most important, most clearly definitive about who you are – your hopes, your grounding, your values. You might tell me about where you were born or about your family of origin, since those first few years leave deep imprints on all of us. Or you might start with your work or family, considering your current relationships and commitments the most important part of the story.

Storytelling has been a feature of all cultures in all ages. Through the stories they tell, people connect, establish their identity as a group, and been entertained and taught. Through stories, we pass on the legacy of memories, values, traditions, and beliefs from generation to generation. The stories we tell shape who we are and who we become.

Stories are not just for children, as we retell the stories of Little Red Riding Hood or the Three Little Pigs. If we listen, most of our days are consumed with stories. We tell our friends or family members about our day, we cast plans for the future, we share news about loved ones. But now most of our stories come to us through television, movies, and other forms of media. And if we’re not grounded in our own story, in who we are and are striving to become, then we can easily “be conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2).

So, where do you tell your story? More importantly, what story is the bedrock of your life? Much of the Bible are the stories of God’s ongoing involvement in the lives of God’s people. When we retell these stories, our faith is strengthened. Over time, God’s story of love and redemption in Jesus Christ becomes our story.

Over the season of Lent, our church has been reaffirming its foundational beliefs, those core stories that shape us as Christians and as United Methodists. This Sunday, we’ll take a look at our belief in the guidance of Scripture. The Bible is much more than the flat type on the page. It’s a library, a collection of various literary styles written over time, to capture the story of God’s people. In our encounters with Scripture, we believe it’s possible to hear the voice, see the ways, and receive the guidance of our living God.

We often prefer to bend the text to suit our present limitations, to prove our point, rather than let the story of God’s love for creation speak to us and, ultimately, transform us. Rarely does the Bible cooperate with our search for quick, easy answers or clear, simple ideas of God. Instead we are drawn into the complexity of our mysterious God, where our assumptions are challenged and we are pushed out of our comfort zones. The good news is that a better story awaits. Glory be. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Marks on the Body

A few days ago, I realized that I still had a faint bruise on my left arm from my procedure more than a week earlier. A little closer look let me know that I also had a little mark from the entry point of the IV. This mark was just a little further up my arm than the shiny white scar from where the port was when I gave birth to my first son. Reaching around to the back of my hand, I felt for the small bump that was my souvenir from the days spent in the hospital, losing my second son. I wondered then and I continue to reflect on how these children of mine are leaving their marks on my body.

It’s not just the little scars and bumps from the medical technology, or the more expected and natural stretch and change elsewhere. By changing my body, my children have inexplicably and wondrously changed me down to the core. I’m like the Grinch in the 1966 version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. “And what happened, then? Well, in Whoville they say - that the Grinch's small heart grew three sizes that day.” 

Or as we read in Ezekiel, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (35:26). I would hope that my heart was not so small or hard to start. I remember quite clearly one person who told me I would never make it as a pastor because I was too compassionate. Regardless, what I had for a heart has grown by leaps and bounds with each child.

As Christians, we have an embodied theology – literally that our understanding of God takes place in a body, more precisely in the person and work of Jesus the Christ. Jesus, while fully divine, consented to become fully human, too. He was born as we are, lived as we do, and died as we all will one day. But in Jesus, God had the definitive word on our sad situation. Not content to let us wallow in our sin, God reached out toward us, proving God’s tremendous love toward us.

And I can’t help but wonder at the marks on Jesus’ body - the marks on his body that represent part of God’s labor pains, what God was willing to endure for our sake. I am confident that in the resurrection, Jesus’ body could have become spotless and perfect. Yet we read in the gospel of John, "So the other disciples told [Thomas], 'We have seen the Lord,' But he said to them, 'Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.' A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, 'Peace be with you.' Then he said to Thomas, 'Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe'" (20:25-27).  

God bears the marks of our birth in God’s own body. Thomas is not shamed by Jesus for struggling to believe. Jesus simply gives him what he needs – the ability to reach out and touch his body, even though Thomas doesn’t take him up on it.

I wonder how many times our brothers and sisters around us need just that same offer of reassurance. I see folks all around me who bear the marks of their life on their bodies. It would be easy to judge the unmarried young woman who is great with child or the man who smells of alcohol, stumbling down the sidewalk. But they are already bearing the marks of this life.

What would it mean for us to instead offer them the compassion we bear, the grace we have received, the love of a Savior who offered his all to save us. Imagine what new stories they could begin to embody, if we were only so courageous. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

A little help from my friends

When I was a latch-key kid, I would hurry home from the bus stop, call my mom to reassure her I had made it home, then turn on the TV. One of my favorite shows was about to come on, and I would just have time to feed our dog as the theme song played.
          “What would you do if I sang out tune?
          Would you stand up and walk out on me?
          Lend me your ears and I'll sing you a song
          I will try not to sing out of key, yeah
          Oh, baby I get by with a little help from my friends
          By with a little help from my friends.”

I later learned it was Joe Cocker’s cover of a Beatles’ tune that opened every episode of The Wonder Years. I just remembered loving the story of an ordinary boy with an ordinary family. There were squabbles, friendship, first love, and everything in between. It was life, translated and broadcast in a way that was sometimes more honest than the stuff we get with all the “reality” shows we have now.

This was the song that came to mind this past week as I had a little “procedure” at the hospital, their code word for surgery, just like “minor discomfort” means pain. I had mentioned it to a few people in my church as well as my friends and family. Mostly for their prayer support since my mother was coming to town to take care of me. But what continued to astonish me was the response, “If there’s anything you need, just let us know.”

And they meant it. I could see the sincerity shining from each person who offered food, childcare, lawn care, or just a hand to hold, in addition to their prayers on my behalf. In our American culture, it’s easy to fall for the myth that we’re all supposed to be self-made men and women who pull ourselves up by our boot straps to earn everything we have. That’s just never the case. Yes, hard work can pay off, but there’s also a lot to be said for inherited opportunities such as married, educated parents who chose to have a child or the socioeconomic status of your family of origin. Those things are going to offer opportunities for one child that may not come easily for another.

None of us do life alone. That’s just not how we’re made. God created us for relationship – with God and with each another. The echoes of our American mindset can be seen in our faith when we emphasize the personal relationship with our God over the relationship between a believer and their community of faith. Yes, my relationship with God is important, but God is going to make God’s self known in my life through the hands and feet of my brothers and sisters in Christ. Our spiritual journeys are poorer when we go it alone.

“If there’s anything you need, just let us know.” It can be hard to take up the offers, to admit that we don’t have it all together and figured out, and that we need someone’s help. It can wound our pride. It can make us worry that others will think less of us. It can give us the opportunity to feel vulnerable when we’d rather pretend to have it all under control.

This past Sunday was the second Sunday in Lent and if you follow the lectionary, we had the opportunity to follow Nicodemus as he comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness to ask questions of this young rabbi. He gets confused and he misunderstands, but he has the audacity to admit that, even as a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews, he has questions. While he may not yet have faith in Jesus, he has faithful curiosity, which is a great start.

Which leads to one of the best, most often quoted scriptures in our Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). It can be hard to hear a familiar verse say anything new, but consider this – God doesn’t ask you if you need anything. God doesn’t ask if you need to be loved. God doesn’t ask if you need to be saved. God loves you, loves everyone, whether you like it or not. And that’s good news.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Stump the Pastor

Our church has a Midweek Miracle each week. It’s our LOGOS program, which offers a variety of activities – crafts, games, stories, dinner – for children and youth for a nominal fee. As a part of LOGOS, I have about 45 minutes with the youth every Wednesday. The previous senior pastor used this time to work on worship leadership skills and rehearse plays with them, but I’m trying a few different things to see what feels best. After all, every time you get together with 15-20 middle and high school students, it’s a different adventure.

We've gone outside to play, despite freezing temperatures, because students this age miss the time to just be, without structure or expectation, and to rejoice in the strength and abilities of their bodies. We've done a guided meditation, which was old hat for some of the senior high students, but a novel experience for many of the middle schoolers. Slowing down, getting in touch with your body, and moving your mind and spirit into an encounter with God is a healthy practice to try. I was delighted when one student showed up late that time and another said, “Ah, man, you missed the fun part!”

Most recently, we played “Stump the Pastor.” I enjoy this tremendously since I want to be open and honest with my church. Honestly, it’s probably not that hard to stump me since I would be the first to say I don’t know everything. But with my trusty friend, Google, and a week’s notice in the form of index cards that the youth wrote their questions on, I was ready to go! So, here’s a sample of the questions that were asked and my responses.

What is rat poison made of? This was definitely a question for Google, since I’m no pest control expert. According to the online expert, most rat poison is made from warfarin, an anticoagulant, or blood thinner, which is also used as a medication for some people. Cyanide is also used in some rat poisons.

Have you ever had a hamster? No to the hamster, but I could tell you a funny story about how I agreed to take care of the class pets over a school holiday break when I was in 1st grade. The pets just happened to be a pair of rats. My mom was not thrilled.

When is anything too much? As Methodists, we’re great believers in moderation. We tend to follow the via media, the middle road, which was a great trend of thought out of the Protestant Reformation, particularly in the Anglican Church, to which we can trace our denominational roots. However, we also recognize that there are times when even a little bit can be too much, such as alcohol at the Lord’s Table for those who struggle with addiction. That is why we use the unfermented juice of the grape, i.e. grape juice.

Why do I matter? You were created by God. You are precious and beloved. Even if it doesn't feel that way sometimes, if things here are rough, God loves you so much that God would die to save you. Psalm 8 says it this way, "When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet."

How are babies made? Oh, goodness. Dear parents, if you haven’t had this talk yet with your child, please do! Otherwise, send them to the theologically grounded but anatomically accurate workshop our church will be hosting soon.

Why do we need to eat? Our bodies need fuel - calories, nutrients, vitamins, etc. - to keep us healthy and strong. Do you know what a calorie is? (Something that makes you fat!) No, not necessarily. A calorie is a measure of energy - like volts. And your body needs energy, so you need a certain number of calories each day. It's when we take in a lot more energy than we use that we have trouble. 

Why do people think God is a man? Back in Bible times the most powerful people tended to be kings, so when they talked about God, it was natural to talk about God as a mighty king. But there are other was of describing God. Jesus describes himself like a mother hen who longs to gather her chicks under her wings (Matthew 23, Luke 13). I also like to read this section from Genesis 1: “Then God said, 'Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

So are all made imago Dei, as in we all look like God, whether we’re male or female, tall or short, young or old. And while, ultimately, I believe God is beyond gender, God also contains the creativity and limitless possibility to know what life is like for all of us. It may not be what we look like on the outside that’s most important, but how we love others that makes us look most like God. 

If you could live anywhere, where would you like to live? Anywhere would be fine with me as long as I was with my family and near my friends. I only have one of those right now, and it's ok, but I'd love to have both.

What are your thoughts on tattoos? Here are some very practical things to consider: 1) it's permanent - even if you get it "removed" the skin will never be the same as it was before; 2) be very careful what you choose to put on your body and where, especially considering a future career; 3) be mindful of gravity and the effects of gaining or losing weight on body art. With all that said, I think tattoos are a unique and often beautiful way of expressing yourself. And it gives others the opportunity to know or ask about your story that they may not have otherwise.

Have you ever had a bad hair day? Umm...are you looking at me? Of course! 

They had a lot more questions and I do, too. When have you been stumped? Do you have a place to ask your questions? 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Up Side of Down

Is there an up side of down? I was returning to Krum from a clergy meeting and listening to NPR when I heard a report from an author who was making just this claim. Between the winter membership drive invitations, Megan McArdle made various points on while failure is so essential to human growth and well-being. It sounds counter-intuitive, but as I listened, I understood.

When we fail, we have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes we made. When things come easily to us, we actually may not learn as much. It’s the difference between seeing the results of our attempts as the outcome of hard work and effort or natural ability.

My husband is a saxophonist and currently teaches students from middle school to undergraduate. We have had many conversations about effort versus talent. From his perspective, he would gladly take the student willing to try and try hard rather than one who coasts on native ability. It’s a lesson that translates well beyond music. We all run out of talent at some point, whatever we are attempting, and it’s then that our effort must kick in.

Or worse, suffering and tragedy come through no doing of our own and we must be resilient. And resilience is built through failing, dusting ourselves off, and trying again. I’ve reminded myself of this lesson as I watch my son grow. It’s tempting to hover over him, to use my strength, resilience, and maturity to shield him from all harm. My hands instinctively rose to catch him whenever he was learning to walk and would stumble. While some measure of safety is important, I must allow him to try, to fail, and to learn. It’s the way that all of us become resilient individuals.

Resilience is about more than being strong. It’s the difference between the oak and the willow trees, if you’ve heard that old story. The two trees are standing on the bank of a river and the oak is bragging to the willow about how beautiful and strong it is, how its branches reach up to the sky, and its roots hold deep within the earth. The willow agrees, its branches sagging with sadness, brushing the face of the river. That night, a powerful storm comes with ripping winds. The willow’s branches are tossed by the wind, but its supple frame bends. The oak is not so lucky. With a mighty crack, the rigid oak breaks before the storm. That’s not to say that the willow is unscathed, but it survives because of its resiliency.

It can be the same way for us. Last year was an incomparably hard year for me and my family. I lost my grandfather, my baby, and my father in just a matter of months. While I was bruised and battered by the waves of loss and grief, I also recognized something profound. My spirit was like a weeble-wobble, those little toys that may sway and teeter, but don’t fall down. And eventually, by God’s grace, I began to be righted.

Especially in the loss of our baby, I recognized the healing capacity of our wounded places. My grief, and my willingness to be open about our story, gave others the permission to share their stories of pain. I heard so many stories from men and women who had finally found a safe place to share and be heard. While I don’t believe God causes the pain and brokenness we experience in our lives, I do believe God redeems it.

Christ is the exemplar of this redemptive power of God through the cross and resurrection. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds [we] have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). In Jesus’ woundedness for our sake, we are offered grace upon grace. God can transform our wounds, our failures, our weakness into avenues of grace for ourselves and others. May we find that grace and claim it, wherever we find ourselves in this season.