Lent: Day 22

483800_10151280061801787_100771127_n(Note: I’m posting this a day late, but it’s lateness is due to being very sick. Sorry for any inconvenience.)

Friday afternoon I started to lose my voice. I’d been sick for about a day, but now I was having trouble even talking. By Saturday, my voice was all but gone. As much as I tried to force out words, they just wouldn’t come.

When a preacher loses their voice on a Saturday, the first response is panic: “How will I preach?” “What if I can’t?” “Who will?” I realized pretty quickly that, as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t lead Sunday worship. Or, rather, others realized that for me. My wife was the first to tell me I couldn’t, followed by the chair of my deacons. They were also the first to offer to fill in the gaps, and make sure the service still went off without a hitch.
So, this morning, while my congregation was gathering across the street, I slept in. It was the first time I had ever missed preaching for illness. And, it felt really weird. I wanted to go. I wanted to preach the sermon I’d be working over in my head all week. I wanted to do what pastors do.
But sometimes what we think we are supposed to do, and what we can actually do, are not aligned. And yet, somehow, everything works out. And we realize that while we may be valuable, we are not indispensable. Because, in the end, God provides.
The service went on, the sermon was preached, the people worshiped, and the preacher stayed in bed and got better. And somewhere along the way, the Lenten truth came through: we may think we are capable of great things, but in the end we are able to do even greater things in community. Christ knew that. It’s why he surrounded himself with disciples. And, it’s why he asked his disciples to stay committed to one another later on.
When one needs community, others are always there. Sometimes, even when we don’t want to need them. Learning to accept the strength of community is sometimes hard for those of us who are self-sufficient types. But sometimes that community ends up holding us up (or just sending us back to bed) when we need it the most.

Journey Through Lent: Day 11

Quvenzhane Wallis, copyright Brad Balfour

Quvenzhane Wallis, copyright Brad Balfour

Last night I stayed up watching the Oscars with my wife, and following along on Twitter. One of the accounts I follow is from “The Onion”, an online satire site that I had read since the 90’s. Late in the evening, they posted a tweet about Quvenzhané Wallis, the 9 year old actress nominated for Best Actress for her performance in “Beasts of the Southern Wild”. I won’t repeat exactly what they said, but they called her a name that rhymes with what football players have to do on the fourth down after they fail to score.

I’m not a fan of censorship, and I’m not one to jump on “moral decency” bandwagons. But I’m also keenly aware that the word in question only gets applied to women, or to men who are being mocked, typically because they are not seen as “masculine” enough. And, can we agree that a 9 year old is off limits, regardless? It’s bullying, plain and simple, made even worse because it’s an adult targeting a child. Girls shouldn’t have to grow up worrying about whether adults will be calling them sexually derogatory names, even if it is just for a laugh.

And I know “The Onion” thought it was funny. They’re a satire site. They probably thought they were pushing the limits a bit, maybe even poking fun at culture as a whole. But, really, if your job is to be funny, and you have to call a 9 year old the “C” word in order to get a laugh, then you must really be bad at your job.

So, what does this have to do with Lent?

A year or so ago I listened to an interview with one of my favorite spoken word artists and rappers, Dessa, on NPR. She was talking about her work and the language she used saying, “there’s definitely adult language. In fact, when I came in today, you know, I looked at myself in the rearview mirror and I was like, Dessa, no swearing. You know, we’re doing a radio show and you’re not allowed to use the language that you do with your friends. But there are definitely some words that I avoid. And when I work with other artists, I’ll say as much, hey, I don’t want to appear on songs that use the six-letter F word and the C word for women. And the N word, to be honest, is not a word I use. So I’m real conscientious about those, not necessarily because they’re profane but because I think they forward a really regressive world view that I have no interest in participating in.”

And that reframed the conversation for me. It wasn’t about forbidden words or what you do or don’t say in polite company. It was about how our words can be regressive, and how they can contribute to holding the world back. In this case, the words chosen last night were regressive because they negatively influenced the world that a 9 year old African-American girl has to navigate everyday. I don’t want The Onion to be censored because of that. But I do want us to take notice of it, not because it was a “bad word” but because it was a regressive word; a word that sets our world back.

And that’s the part for me that ties in with Lent. How do we Christians use regressive language? How do we say things that make the world harder for people we should be standing up for in our lives? When a preacher gets in the pulpit and goes off on a tirade against women, they might be using words that no one finds objectionable. It may be perfectly acceptable for coffee hour ofter church. But the language can still be regressive. When a Christian talks about gays and lesbians, they might not use language that causes outrage. But it still can be regressive. When bad theology gets passed off as Gospel, no one might be calling it profane. But it’s still regressive. And being regressive, in my opinion anyway, is worse than saying a word that gets you bleeped out on TV.

And so in Lent, I try to watch my language. Not for four letter words. But for language that is regressive. For language that sets the world back. For language that words against the reign of peace and compassion and justice that Christ taught us was God’s will for us. Our words are our witness, and whether they are camera-ready or not doesn’t matter. But how they change the world for the worse will… and for longer than it takes to say them.

Journey Through Lent: Day 9

Copyright: Story Corps, NPR

Copyright: Story Corps, NPR

I believe that saints continue to live amongst us, recognized or not. There are people of exceptional goodness and mercy and justice whose legacy we often do not understand until they are gone.

No one is asking me to nominate people to sainthood, but if they did, I think my first choice would be a man named Mychal Judge. Father Judge was a Roman Catholic priest, a Franciscan, and a chaplain for the Fire Department of New York. In death he became known to many as one of the first fatalities on 9/11. Father Judge had responded to the scene as a part of his fire chaplain duties. He was struck by falling debris while praying, and died on the scene.

If Father Judge had not died on 9/11, and had not been the focus of so many media reports and stories, the world may not have known much about this Franciscan priest. And that’s particularly sad because what is truly memorable about Father Judge is not the way he died. It’s how he lived. Throughout his life Father Judge was a friend to politicians and to the powerful. And he was also a friend to the poor and the down and out. He began ministering to people with AIDS in the earliest days of the epidemic, and he maintained an active ministry to those in recovery from addictions. He seemed to be a priest for all people; one who was able to see God in all he met.

There’s one story from his life that stays with me in particular during Lent. A fellow Franciscan says Father Judge used to ask him, “You know what I need?” And the other priest would say “no” and listen for a suggestion of what he could get for his friend. He’d ask again, “You know what I really need?” And then he’d say, “Absolutely nothing. I don’t need a thing in the world. Ia am the happiest man on the face of the earth.”

I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that you don’t get to a place where you need nothing of this world’s things without also coming to a place where you can see God in everyone. You can’t empty yourself of all desire for what is material and worldly, without having already been filled with Christ’s love and with compassion for all of God’s children. And you can’t find true happiness unless you seek not possessions, but evidence of God’s grace in the most unexpected places.

To me, that’s what Lent is about. It’s about emptying out the things that don’t matter, and filling them instead with Christ’s love for us and for others. And the saints among us are the ones who do that exceptionally well, and who teach us to do the same. Father Judge’s life is a Lenten lesson for those of us who would seek real, everlasting joy. And his story is one of many. This Lent, find the stories of those who truly exemplified God’s love in all that they did. Chances are, you’ll find Christ isn’t far away.

Journey Through Lent: Day 8

Copyright, Warner Bros.

Copyright, Warner Bros.

I absolutely love Harry Potter. I’ve read all the books, seen all the movies (multiple times), and I continue to be enamored of the stories. I read broadly, from James Joyce to John Irving, but I don’t return again and again to any other books the way I return to Harry Potter.

Which is why the harshest criticism I ever received about one of my sermons is especially memorable to me. One Sunday I talked about Harry Potter briefly in a sermon, and preached about how the books gave examples of some of the best qualities to which Christian believers can aspire: loyalty, courage, fellowship, perseverance, and love. My congregation has more than a few devoted Harry Potter fans, so it was a fitting comparison for them.

But after the sermon, as I shook hands at the door, an out-of-town visitor berated me for including something as “satanic” as Harry Potter. She informed me that JK Rowling, the author, had been educated at the “London School of Satanism” and that “we weren’t supposed to read those”. The “we” meant Christians.  (I assured her that JK Rowling was, in fact, a member of the Church of Scotland, and that Presbyterians were not well-known for their devil-worshipping ways. I also questioned the existence of a London School of Satanism, though I admitted I had heard of the London School of Economics.)

Her adamant insistence that we Christians should not read books like Harry Potter series stuck with me, though. Why do some Christians fear the secular things that could draw us closer to understanding Christ? Why are books, movies, and music all suspect? I’ve never liked censorship on principle, but I especially grow frustrated with it when it comes from Christians who are trying to protect the faith.

I majored it two subjects in college: English and religion. And, ironically, I think the first major taught me more about what it means to be a Christian than the second. The same has been true for friends of mine who are film buffs, theatre-goers, and devoted music fans. If we believe that God is the God of all, then surely God can speak to us through more books than just one. Surely glimpses of Christ can be seen on the big screen. And surely God can be praised in music that doesn’t come with the stamp of a Christian record label.

This Lent I find myself returning to Harry Potter. Harry’s self-doubt as he prepared for his final stand against Voldemort is not equivalent in my mind to Christ’s time in the garden of Gethsemane, but it sure sheds a little more light on it for me. And, if that’s true, then why shouldn’t I give thanks for something that helps me draw closer to Christ? This Lent I give thanks for Harry Potter, and for all the books, and music, and films that have helped me draw closer to Christ. And I invite you to seek Christ in all the places you visit this season. (Including the inside of a good book.)

Ash Wednesday: Sermon for February 13, 2013

(Note: this sermon contains pieces of my Ash Wednesday essay “It’s Not About Me” found in Huffington Post and previously on this blog.)

ashwednesdayIf you go to a bookstore, and you look at the religion section, and especially the Christianity section, you’ll see a theme. Yes, there will be Bibles and other holy books, but more often than not, the section will be overrun with books all purporting to do one thing: to make your life better.

I don’t begrudge that. I think that if faith helps you to lead a more meaningful, more joyful, or more peaceful life then that is indeed a great thing. But, I’ve often wondered whether those of us who are both Christians and people of great privilege, and most of us who are Americans are, sometimes start to see our faith as one more element in our “be a better me” plans. Like a diet, or an exercise regimen, or get out of debt quickly program. I sometimes wonder if our faith becomes one more fashionable accessory, a key to a good life for us and us only only.

I think about that a lot during Lent, especially during the time when we are asked to decide what sort of Lenten observance we will take on this year. And, like many of you I think about “giving up” something: meat, or caffeine, or Facebook. And I’m not saying those may not be valuable things to give up for some. Only you can be the authority on what you struggle with the most. But Lent leaves me wondering if “giving up” is what it’s really all about.

When it comes down to it, Jesus only needed two sentences to sum the law up for his followers. First, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength”. And second, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”.

Those of us who try to be disciples of Christ are really good at trying to add our own words or interpretations to his, but in the end Jesus really made it pretty clear. If you want to follow him, and if you want to be a Christian, then your only job is to love.

Love and ashes don’t often go together in our minds. But this time of year, it’s the ashes that remind me of what Jesus tried to teach us about love.

Ash Wednesday comes early this year, and with it comes the beginning of Lent, the season when we disciples turn our hearts towards Christ and seek to reconciled to him. And while the stores start stocking plastic eggs and Easter baskets, we do something that is completely counter-cultural: we go to church, and we smear ashes on our foreheads, and we remind one another that everything we know is only temporary.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

What used to be a heart-stopping reminder for me has instead become a moment of refocusing. In the big scheme of things who we are as individuals is finite, and fleeting. But who we are together, and who we are to God, is what matters, and what truly defines us, even when we are gone.

In Lent we remember the great truth: it’s not all about us.

I was thinking about that this week. Like many of you, I was stunned to hear the news of the Pope’s resignation the other day. I didn’t know Popes could resign! But the more I read about his decision, the more I understood it and respected it. We may not be Catholics, but we can learn a lot from other Christians, and I think we can learn a lot from him too. When it became clear to him that because of health he could no longer function in his role the way the position demands, he stepped aside. He made it not about him. He made it about the church, something bigger than him.

That speaks to me in Lent because each Lent I feel myself called back to community, both human and divine, by that message: it’s not about me. And when that calling comes, so does the reminder of those two commands of Christ: love God, and love others as you love yourself.

This is why I think that if our Lenten discipline is only about us, and what we will allow ourselves, we miss the point. Instead, what if we embraced Lent as an opportunity to show our love for God and others? We spend so much time focused on ourselves and on our own importance, but what if we used these forty days focus on something else? What if we took those days and dedicated each to reminding ourselves that it’s not about us as individuals, but it’s about God, and it’s about all of us together?

This Lent I’m giving myself a challenge. I’m calling it my Lenten “It’s Not About Me” Challenge. Here’s how it works: Each day I want to do at least one thing that either strengthens my connection with God, or shows my love for my neighbor.

That might sound like a lot at first glance, like it’s just creating one more piece of work in our already crammed schedules. But what I’m advocating isn’t about creating additional burdens. It’s about being more conscious of what we are already doing, and using our time in a way that connects us with others and with the Holy other.

When we start doing that, the daily walk turns into an opportunity for prayer. The trip to the grocery store yields a few more cans of soup for the food pantry. The extra hour of sleep on Sunday morning is turned aside for a chance to join your community in worship. And a few extra dollars turn into donation that makes a difference. We don’t have to turn the world on its axis. We simply have to turn our attention outward, and make the small things matter in big ways.

This is my challenge to myself, and no one is obligated to join me. But, I am asking you to consider what you will be doing differently this Lent, and asking how it is that what you choose will show your love of God, and will show your love of neighbor. Not because it will make you a better person, but because it will be a tangible reminder of Christ’s love for others.

I’ve had plenty of blessings in my life, and plenty of grace from God. I hope you have too. And in the end Lent can be a journey of recognizing those blessings, and blessing others. Because it’s not a journey that’s about me, or you. It’s a journey that’s about God. And we are invited. And that’s the best invitation that you can ever receive. Amen.

Hurricanes and Judgement: Thoughts on the One Year Anniversary of Irene

West Dover, Vermont

Tonight I’m watching Hurricane Isaac as it bears down on the Gulf Coast. Seven years after Katrina, Isaac has the potential to re-devastate an area that’s still recovering, and still will be for years.

I’m watching these developments as I read the results of a poll from the Public Religion Research Institute and the Religion News Service which shows that 44% of Americans see an uptick in natural disasters as “evidence of what the Bible calls the ‘end times’.” Narrow that polling body to white Christian evangelicals, and that number increases to 67%.

Right now I’m thinking about those two things as I sit in my living room in southern Vermont. One year ago tonight I sat here and called my congregational leaders and we reviewed the weather forecast and reluctantly decided to cancel church services the next day. By the middle of the next morning, Hurricane Irene had devastated the community where we live.

That night I stood with friends and neighbors and parishioners in a street filled with upended asphalt, twisted metal, and busted glass. I spent two years as a trauma chaplain in a pediatric hospital in Atlanta, but I had never seen devastation like I saw that night. It looked, quite literally, like a bomb had gone off.

The next Sunday I told my congregation that, contrary to what 44% of Americans think, God did not send the flood to our town as a punishment, a warning, or a judgement. I still believe that. Others do not. We’ve had our fair share of bad theology here in Vermont. Missionaries disguised as trauma counselors. Judgmental Christian “leaders” calling us to repent for the sins that caused the flood. Even the Westboro Baptist Church had us in their sights.

What’s sad is that some folks, the ones hardest hit and looking for answers, believe this Gospel of Wrath. Bad theology is often the second wave of trauma. And the Christian leaders who perpetuate these ideas move from natural disaster to natural disaster, tragedy to tragedy, spreading the same rhetoric of judgement. From Vermont to Aurora, Colorado to western wildfires, to Oak Creek, Wisconsin, to midwestern droughts, to every other place you can name where blood was shed or destruction widespread, those voices of warning have followed, jockeying for airtime. They have somehow become the predominant public voices of Christian faith.

It’s really too bad they don’t stay around long in one place. Because if they did, they might actually catch a glimpse of God.

Those of us who stuck around past the news cameras and soundbites saw incredible testaments to the love and grace of God. We saw it as good people took seriously the idea that one should “love their neighbor as themselves” and got to work. Some were Christians. Some weren’t. But all behaved in a way much closer to the way Christ commanded us to live than anyone on TV talking about God’s judgment coming in the form of a hurricane.

The people here wasted little time before rebuilding. The next morning they donned masks and bandanas, picked up cleaning buckets and got to work. They cooked meals for the shelter in the high school cafeteria. They gave hours as volunteer firefighters and rescue personnel. They staffed the food pantry in town every day for weeks. And they gave and gave of every resource they had until it hurt.

They didn’t do it for a day. Or a week. Or a month or season. They kept doing it, day after day, no matter what was happening in their own lives. People I knew who had lost almost everything came asking who had it worse, and what they could do for them.

That’s where I saw God this past year. That’s where I saw grace. And that’s where I saw hope.

Tomorrow we will gather at that same place we did last year, at the same time, as the sun goes down here in southern Vermont. But this year the road is repaved, the glass is swept up, and the river has contained itself to its banks once more. We will light candles, and we will offer our memories. But more that that, we will offer our gratitude. Gratitude for strangers, gratitude for one another, gratitude for grace. And more than all of that, we will offer our hope.

I know God will be there tomorrow, because I know that wherever there is hope, there is God. And while the flood “was”, God “is”, and God will be.

God will be there on the Gulf Coast tomorrow too. And God will be there if that storm makes landfall. Not because God wills our destruction, but because God does not abandon us in the storm. And no matter what happens, God will be there in the aftermath.

My hope is that wherever the news cameras flock to next, whether it’s in the wake of the storm or, God forbid, the aftermath of another act of violence, that we will look for testaments to God’s love and grace, and not the destructive voices of those who would use Christ’s name to spread their own judgements.

You know that old song, “They will know we are Christians by our love?” It’s still true. More than ever, and especially in times of destruction or pain. And if you can’t hold the statements of a Christian talking head on TV up to that standard, then don’t allow them to be the only voice out there that is speaking for God. Lives, and hearts, depend on it.

“You Are My Witnesses” – Sermon for April 22, 2012

When you hear the word “witness”, what’s the first thing you think about? For most of us it’s about some sort of a trial. The witness for the prosecution. The witness for the defense. Or maybe someone quoted in a newspaper as the witness to some news-worthy event. Witness is generally just a term for us that means, “someone who saw what happened”.


I had to be a witness once. It wasn’t for a criminal trial or anything that serious. I had stopped to help someone after I saw a fairly minor car accident. No one was hurt, but the two drivers disagreed about who was at fault and the police asked me exactly what happened. I stood there trying to remember every little detail. I didn’t want to give the wrong information and then let the wrong people be at fault.


It’s a hard job. You know that you have the responsibility to tell the truth about what happened, and you want to make sure you’re doing it right.


What’s true for minor traffic accidents is even more true when it comes to our faith. Last week we read one account of what happened when Jesus appeared to his disciples. We read about how he appeared to them and showed his wounds, and they all believed. Except for poor Thomas who showed up late.


That was John’s account. This morning we read Luke’s, who mercifully let’s Thomas off the hook. Instead he talks about how Jesus came and, far from the instant belief the disciples professed last week, they were terrified. They acted like they had seen a ghost. And Jesus asks them, “Why are you frightened?” He reassures them that he is not a ghost and he even has them give him some fish so that he can eat and prove it.


And then, when they’ve started to believe it’s really him, he goes back to doing what he had done the whole time he knew them. He teaches. He tells them why what happened happened, and how his life and death fulfilled the Scriptures. And he tells them that he is the Messiah and is risen, and that now forgiveness should be proclaimed to all.


And then he tells them one last thing: “You are witnesses of these things.”


Now being a witness the way the disciples were asked to be a witness is a little different than the witness I was. The police officer came and I gave the report of what happened, and she asked how they could call me if the case went to trial. I gave my number, but I never heard from them again. That day I got back in my car and went about my way, and I assume it all worked out. I haven’t really thought about it since.


But for the disciples, when Jesus told them that day that they were witnesses, something else happened. They couldn’t walk away. They couldn’t forget. They couldn’t just give their police report and wait for a call to testify that may or may not come. Witnesses couldn’t be passive. They were now a part of the story.


The Biblical word for witnesses, the word in the original Greek, is “martureo”. It’s the same word that we know today as “martyr”. Originally to be a “martyr” was to be a “witness”. And through the centuries we’ve come to associate the word with dying for a cause, usually dying for the faith.


There’s a reason for that. So many of the early Christians, including many of these disciples, ended up dying for their witness, literally dying for their belief. And so when we hear martyr now we think of someone who paid the ultimate price.


But this isn’t about being killed for your belief. Thankfully we live in a country where we have freedom of belief and no one is going to kill us for being Christians. But that doesn’t mean this isn’t still hard. Because this is about you or I dying. Not in the literal sense. But it is about a death of another kind. This is about dying to our own selfishness, our own passiveness, our own pursuit for lives of comfort instead of lives of meaning. This is about dying to the worse parts of ourselves and instead finding life in Christ.


This is about choosing to live your life as a witness. Not the kind of witness who can go home and forget about it after the police report is filed, but the kind of witness that the disciples were called to be. The kind that not only sees what happened, not only tells what happened, but who is so transformed by what happened that they can’t help but become a new person because of it. They can’t help but act like a person who has seen this risen Lord. And their lives and actions reflect it.


When you think of witnesses to Christ, who do you think of? Are they the early disciples? Are they figures from church history like Martin Luther? Are they Christians from the last hundred years who have done great things like Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King?


Those are all witnesses to the risen Christ. No doubt. But they aren’t the only ones.


You don’t have to get front page headlines to be a good witness to Christ. In fact, in most cases those might work against you. Instead, you just have to do this: you have to live your life in such a way that others look at you and see God’s grace and love at work  in you.


You don’t have to do something great in the sense of feeding a nation or winning civil rights or starting the Protestant Reformation. You just need to do the small things with a great love for Christ.


Your purpose in life, in everything you do, is to remember Christ’s call to the disciples, and to you: you are witnesses. You are the ones who tell the story of Christ’s grace and love.


That’s true in the way you raise your kids, and the way you love your family. That’s true in the way you work, and the way you volunteer. That’s true in how you treat your neighbors. That’s true in the way you decide to use the things God has given you. How you use your talents. How you spend your money. How you share your excess. That’s true in every choice that you make.


It’s going to look different for each of us. Growing up I’d hear about classmates of mine in more fundamentalist churches who would go “witnessing for Christ” door to door. They’d knock on doors and try to convert whoever answered, usually by preaching fire and brimstone That wasn’t the kind of witness I wanted to be.


Later I come to understand that being a witness to Christ seldom involved words, but always involved actions. I understood that being a witness to Christ meant living into the greatest commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.


It means that in this world that so often feels like Good Friday, I’m supposed to witness to Easter with my life. I’m supposed to witness that the destruction and hate and fear of the world do not win, and that God has created new life where there was no hope, and grace where there was none.


That’s my calling. And that’s yours too. Because that’s the calling, that’s the job, of every Christian.


The other night the deacons met and we talked about how we could be witnesses to Christ’s resurrection in our community. We talked about how we want to be a church that exists not just for ourselves, but for everyone here in the valley, whether they worship with us or not. We talked about mission. Mission is at the heart of every church and those that do it well usually thrive spiritually. No church has ever thrived by focusing only inwardly. And they shouldn’t because those aren’t churches. Those aren’t communities of witnesses to Christ.


The good news is we have a heart for mission here. We financially support the food pantry, Habitat for Humanity, and others. We donate books to Kurn Hattin. We open our doors to 12 Step Groups and youth activities. We volunteer our time locally. We do a lot.


And we can do more. The other night we talked about what it would look like to offer a free meal here at the church once a month or so. A meal that would feed our community both in body and spirit. One that would fill both those who don’t have quite enough to eat and those who feel isolated. One where we would join our neighbors at the table as well. I think it’s a great idea. And I think there are probably dozens more just like it.


We are about to enter this visioning process. One of the core areas we will be looking at is mission, and how to do it well. And really, mission is about telling the story. It’s about Christ appearing to us and telling us to spread the news with our lives.


As Christ said, “you are my witnesses”. That’s true for us all. And that is good news, because when we put our hands and voices together, Christ’s love can be heard and felt through this whole valley. I’m ready. Witnesses, are you? Amen.