Friday, June 26, 2015

Penultimate Miracles

So, welcome to church.  The gospel story for today is one that is a staple of Sunday School teachers everywhere – as well it should be.  Here in this section of Mark, Jesus is going around the towns healing people, and we get a more detailed view into two of those miraculous healings. 

Jesus is now back on the other side of the lake, back from where we were last week, back among the Jewish people, who practiced religion and observed social custom as Jesus and his disciples were accustomed to.  Now in this culture, the synagogue leaders were pretty top notch in both the religious system and the culture at large.  They had power and prestige and in many ways ran the show in some of these smaller hinterland Jewish towns.  So for one of them to come up and thrown himself at Jesus’ feet and beg Jesus to heal his daughter…it’s a huge act of humility.  It’s those fervent prayers you all know of, because you have prayed them yourselves – “Jesus, I don’t know where else to turn, I need you – now!”

And as Jesus sets off to do as the man asked, to visit and heal this little girl, He is surrounded by hordes of followers, people pressing in on all sides.  Everyone wants a piece of this miracle man, the man who says such strange, intriguing, hopeful things, the man who casts out demons and heals people of their diseases.  So naturally, everyone wants in on the action…they want they and their loved ones to be healed, or at the very least, they want to see these miracles happen.  They want to front row seats to the biggest shows of the season! 
And in this crowd is a woman who has had a sickness for 12 years now.  She’s had some sort of bleeding problem – perhaps what we might diagnose as endometriosis today – that has kept her physically ill, to be sure, but which has also relegated her to the margins of society, unable to enter the religious holy places, cast out from interacting with friends and family, eeew, the kind of person you tell your small children to hold your hand and walk way on the other side of the street from.
She’s breaking all the rules by being here, but there’s something about this man, something that tells her if she can get close enough to touch Him, maybe even just touch the hem of his cloak, she might finally be healed…

But Jesus is no dummy.  This is no ordinary man who you might bump up against in a crowd and he doesn’t really notice because, as the disciples point out, there’s like a thousand people here, everyone’s bumping up against you.  No, this man is God…and when the power of God meets the humble faith of a hurting person, He can’t help but notice, and He can’t help but respond.  As she falls at his feet, confessing the whole thing – how she just wanted to get close to him, and then, when she finally did, well she’s sorry, she knows she’s made Him unclean now, but…she just felt something, and now…all of a sudden... “Yes, I know, go in peace,” Jesus says.  “Your faith has healed you, go and be free of your suffering.”

And he continues on toward Jairus’ house, the synagogue leader, to see about his daughter.  But before he can get his cloak restraightened and his entourage of disciples moving in the right direction, some of Jairus’ associates come up to say, “Don’t bother, it’s too late, she’s already died.”  But Jesus still wants to go.  “Don’t be afraid, Jairus.  Just believe.”  So they set out for the house, and when they get there, Jesus says, “It’s okay, she’s only sleeping.”  He takes the disciples and the girl’s parents, goes into her bedroom, takes her by the hand, and says, “C’mon little girl, get up!”  Immediately, miraculously, she wakes up, climbs out of bed, and begins to walk around the room.  Not like someone who has been gravely ill, but like someone who’s been taking a quick power nap and could really use a snack now.  And Jesus sends her on her way, giving strict orders to the adults there Not. To. Tell. Anyone. 

Now I think, for us, this is the part of the story where it got confusing in Sunday School, and it stays confusing today.  Why wouldn’t you tell people?  Why wouldn’t Jesus want this story to be told?  This “don’t tell anyone” is all over Mark, in fact, Bible scholars have even given it a “name” – it’s called “the Messianic secret.”

But…we look at stories like these, and at similar stories in our own lives, and think, we’d be telling anyone and everyone!  I mean, how often have you heard that as Christians, we’re supposed to be “telling people what God is doing in our life”?  This is Evangelism 101, right?  Open your mouth, and talk about God’s work!  Often we’re not very good at it, but at least we know we’re supposed to be doing it, right?  And it’s not like we don’t have stories to tell.  I mean, these are some very dramatic miracles that Jesus is performing here in the story today and we should tell about them, but you also all have your own stories from your own life of that time when you thought all hope was lost…when you really did need a miracle…and you got one.  The illness was healed, the relationship somehow managed to get put together, there was enough money in the bank account when basic arithmetic tried to tell you otherwise.  Whatever.  You know what it is in your life, for you and your family.  Yeah, we should tell those stories.

But what about when we don’t get the miracles?  What about when what’s broken can’t be fixed?  When your hopes for healing or reconciliation or resolution or just basic human decency are crushed over and over again?  What about when the story ends with the little girl, or the old woman, or the middle aged man, actually dying?  What about when the flow of blood doesn’t stop?  When throwing yourself at Jesus’ feet doesn’t seem like it’s having any impact?  What about when you feel like society is coming apart at the seams or the fog of depression never ever seems to lift or you just. can’t. catch. a. break.? 

Well even then, we still have a story to tell.  See, this episode of miracles that we read today comes, chronologically, well before the events of Good Friday and Easter.  Long before the cross and the death and the resurrection. 

And I think that part of the reason that Jesus didn’t want the recipients of those miracles to tell the story just yet is because they’re not the main point.  Miracles and healings and stopping the flow of blood and blind men receiving sight and that little girl getting up out of bed and all the others are good and wonderful things.  Praise God for them!  But they still stop short of the ultimate, underlying, full, complete work that Jesus does.  

What is yet to come, for each one of us who trusts in Christ to heal us – just as Jairus, and the woman with flow of blood did – what is yet to come is eternal salvation and the healing of your soul.  What is yet to come, is the place Jesus has prepared for you – so that where He is, you will be also.  What is yet to come, is being with the Lord forever. 

What is yet to come, is “the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And…a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” 

What is yet to come is, “I will make you the everlasting pride and the joy of all generations.  You will drink the milk of nations and be nursed at royal breasts.  Then you will know that I, the Lord, am your Savior, your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.  Instead of bronze I will bring you gold, and silver in place of iron.  Instead of wood I will bring you bronze, and iron in place of stones.  I will make peace your governor and well-being your ruler.  No longer will violence be heard in your land, nor ruin or destruction within your borders, but you will call your walls Salvation and your gates Praise.  The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you, for the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory.  Your sun will never set again, and your moon will wane no more; the Lord will be your everlasting light, and your days of sorrow will end. Then all your people will be righteous and they will possess the land forever.  They are the shoot I have planted, the work of my hands, for the display of my splendor.  The least of you will become a thousand, the smallest a mighty nation.  I am the Lord.” 

Jairus’ daughter, even having been raised out of that bed by Jesus, and Jairus himself, and the woman with the blood – what they all have in common is that still, despite Jesus answering their prayers, and the powerful miracles He worked that day – they all still died, eventually.

But now, what is yet to come is that when you die, you will be raised to everlasting life, just like Christ, because you are connected to Christ in through the power of His own death and resurrection.  

When Jesus tells the people He healed not to tell anyone, the point is not to not spread the Good News.  It's to make sure that we first know what the Good News really, actually is.  It’s been a heck of a week here, hasn’t it?  But whether you are battling your own personal demons, celebrating a miracle, or losing hope in the system – however you feel about the Confederate flag, socialized medicine, or gay marriage – whether you are rich or poor, whether life is looking up or you think everything is falling apart, take this to heart: 

Jesus, in the setting of the gospel story, and in our culture and lives today, has work to do that goes far beyond the passing facts and fads and trends of this world.  So don’t be worried about them, but don’t be enticed by them, either.  Because God is the God of those, to be sure, but even more than that, He is the God of final, eternal, spiritual healing, and the restoration of our souls, and indeed, the whole entire world.  He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega, the Bright Morning Star, God incarnate, God-with-us.  Praise God for miracles, when they come your way.  But know that the only miracle that truly matters, in the final calculation, is the miracle of Easter morning.  So praise Him even more that even though in time all the grass withers and all the flowers fade, the Word of the Lord – Christ Jesus Himself – endures forever. 


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

My Racist Life

I was born and raised in the United States Army.  According to 2012 statistics, 40.1% of Active Duty personnel identify as racial or ethnic minorities (Black or African American, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, multi-racial, or other/unknown).  My dad is a physical therapist, and so I spent a lot of time around other MEDDAC staff of a variety of races and ethnicities – officers and enlisted, those with high levels of education and those with less.  
My earliest memories are of living in Bremerhaven, Germany, where one of my closest preschool friends was a black boy named Teddy.  His dad was either a surgeon or an anesthesiologist (I can’t quite remember which), and he and my dad were friends.  Often, when Teddy’s dad had to be in the OR, he would invite my dad to come along to watch and learn.  At the time, the base housing complex we lived in had a lot of older kids, and far fewer younger ones.  I was about 4 years old, and Teddy must have been the same.  We stuck together on the playground, against those mean 5th graders who spun the merry-go-round too fast so we would fall off.  

Later, when my sister was born, our Hispanic Latino neighbors who lived across the hall would cheerfully send their small dog over after dinner each night to clean up under her high chair.
My dad played on various softball and volleyball teams growing up, filled with a variety of races and ethnicities – again, representing the broader culture of the U.S. military.  

This was the world I lived in.

At the end of 4th grade, I was diagnosed with bone cancer, and my dad was transferred to a post in Maryland, so that I could be treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.  You meet a lot of people when you spend that much time in the hospital.  The first night we spent there (having been medevac’d in on a cargo plane), we met Jennifer – a six year old black girl who had the same diagnosis as me, and her mother, who was an Army cook.  

In the ensuing weeks, months, and years, I met, interacted with, and was cared for by people of a variety of races and ethnicities.  Black, Asian, Hispanic – doctors, nurses, nurses assistants, orderlies, cleaning staff, cafeteria cooks and cashiers, radiology techs, gift shop and bookmobile volunteers.  Fellow travelers at the hospital and local Ronald McDonald House.  

In 5th grade, I had my first real crush on a boy.  His name was Bryan, and he was an African American kid in my class.  I found him cute and kind, a little more thoughtful than the rest of our male classmates who were, age-appropriately, mostly rather obnoxious.  

As I grew, these sorts of interactions continued.  Even as I finished treatment and my family moved on, I found myself engaging with people of diverse racial backgrounds because of where we lived, where I went to school, and who my dad worked with.  When my parents hosted the occasional party, men and women of all ethnicities hung out at my house – some even spent time with us during the holidays, when they couldn’t take the leave to go home to their families.  

This was all perfectly normal to me.  The only reason that I can now recall these interactions as having any relation at all to race is because I’ve been culling my memories for months.  

All of this is not to suggest by virtue of personal anecdote that I am not racist because I “have black friends” or whatever.  

No.  The point I want to make is that, from early childhood, I interacted with and was comfortable around people of all races and ethnicities.  And now I'm not.

I will freely admit that I am no longer comfortable around blacks, Native Americans, Asians, and other people of color.  Does this make me a racist?  Probably, but then, from what I’ve learned over the last few years in “anti-racism training” and “diversity awareness workshops”, I always was racist, and I always will be.  According to reigning social theory, it is impossible for white people to not be racist, and is impossible for any non-whites to be racist.  Ever.  Anywhere.  In any culture.  Or any location.  I’m not sure if there’s some sort of “racist gene” that is coded into my DNA, that individuals of color lack, but somehow or another, I’ve been educated to understand that I cannot not be a racist.  

Which is bad.  I mean, you’re not supposed to be a racist, right?  But if you’re white (like me), you can’t help it.  So naturally I feel guilty about this.  Now, the guilt is not the biggest issue.  I’ll deal with that, I guess. (Although, for the record, I have yet to hear anyone suggest that the sin of racism is in any way forgiveable by a Holy God. So maybe I won’t deal with it.)

What I can’t avoid is the discomfort, the self-consciousness, the self-focus, the incurvatus se - oh look, there's another sin - that now hallmarks all my interactions with people of color.  

If I see someone on the street or in a store, do I look at them (or is that staring? Judging?  Wondering why they are here – in this store, on this planet?)  Do I not look at them (or is that avoiding them? Rejecting? Dehumanizing?)

Do I say hello? If I say hello will it sound sincere?  Will it be interpreted as sincere? Will it look like I’m “trying to not be racist”?  Oh, who am I kidding?  I’m an introvert.  I really don’t say hello to random strangers on the street, ever.  But this person doesn’t know that.  If I don’t say hello, will they think it’s because they are [fill in race here]?  

What about something as complicated as counting the change I receive, rather than tossing it into my wallet?  Or checking over a restaurant bill twice?  If I do that to a clerk or waitress, will they think it’s because I don’t trust them, rather than because that’s just what I do?  God forgive I have to ask a person of color for help – in a classroom, in a store, on the side of the road if my car has broken down.  What if it looks like I think they are all “the help” and exist on this planet to serve me?  If I don’t ask, when I clearly am in need, does the person notice and assume that I don’t want their help? 
And when a person of color initiates a conversation with me – what happens if I, as an introvert, am annoyed by unnecessary small talk?  What if they ask for help that I’m simply unable or unqualified to give? Will they interpret that as animus?  

The list goes on. 

And it makes me sad.  It makes me sad that if I ran into my friend Teddy, who taught me to dip my French fries in mayo, I wouldn’t know how to interact with him.  It makes me sad that the gynecologist can’t send their dog over to vacuum up baby food in my house anymore – because isn’t that just an extension of the Hispanics-as-cleaners stereotype?  It makes me sad that Jennifer, who once displeased her mother and amused all the rest of us when she got so frustrated with her prosthesis that she threw it in a lake, sees me as an oppressor rather than a friend and fellow cancer survivor.  It makes me sad that all those doctors and nurses and other people who cared for me did it not because they enjoyed their careers, but because of some institutionalized power structure that requires people of color to serve whites.  It makes me sad that all those people my parents welcomed into their home over the years apparently viewed my family as patronizing rather than loving. 

It makes me sad that “anti-racism” efforts have made me more racist than I ever was.  

Congrats to those who feel better by this state of affairs.  

Count this unforgiven, unforgiveable racist out. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Dear Millennials

Dear Millennials,

Let me start by telling you something: I am one of you.  My birth year puts me on the earliest edge of our generation.  I am not an old person from a different era, I don’t “not understand” the things that are important to most of us, the culture that we have grown up in, and now live in.  I get the desire for authenticity and community.  I know that we live in a vastly different environment than our parents.  (Mine are still vaguely offended that they have to pay more than 10¢ for a hamburger at McDonalds.) I know that the things that were taken for granted 50 or 100 years ago are now all up for grabs, and we get to (have to?) navigate our lives in a world where every choice is up to us. 

But let me tell you something else: I am the Church.  Yeah, you read that right.  An ordained pastor, called to the ministry of God’s Word and Sacraments.  I got this gig because God dragged me into it, kicking and screaming at times.  And there are days and nights, hours and minutes, weeks and months when I hate it.  

I hate when there are mean people at my church, people who stare too long at crying children, or who criticize volunteers for “doing it wrong.”  I hate that I often have to choose between vapid, shallow 7/11 Jesus-is-my-boyfriend music and Biblically, theologically rich hymns full of words that no one understands.  I hate that many people would rather complain in the parking lot than give 2 hours/month to helping our community function better.  I hate that meetings that should take 45 minutes often take 3 hours.  I hate that sometimes outreach into the community gets questioned because “those people will never come back to church”, and I hate that sometimes we do community outreach that doesn’t seem to bring anyone closer to God.  I hate that sometimes I have to tell people that things they’re doing are wrong, and that at times I have to fundraise for my own salary.  I hate that my congregants are rockstars at saying hi to visitors in worship, but terrible at inviting them to stay for coffee.  I hate that I can’t always see God working.  I hate that I have to work weekends, and that I never ever get to go to church, only to work.  I hate the sheer amount of sin and brokenness and death and destruction in this world, that lands on my doorstep every day.

And I hate that I hate these things.  I hate that I hate these things, because they are all a part of my job, and a part of the call that God has placed on me in this moment, in this time and place. 

Because really, I love my job.  I love that it’s my job to say, “At the command of Christ, I forgive you all your sins.”  I love that it is my job to literally put Jesus into people’s hands.  I love that it’s my job to encourage people in their crazy outside-the-box ideas for how to bring the Word of God to others, and for how to care for the people in our community who are most in need.  I love splashing babies and adults with water, and reading the Christmas proclamation, and being in my office when the quilters come over to drop off more fabric and they stop to chat and catch me up on their grandkids’ lives. I love being with the kids in confirmation class when they tell me about a break up, or why they are on the track team even though they hate running  or they suddenly get that the Holy Spirit’s job is to bring them to Jesus.  I love anointing a sick baby and seeing God work powerfully to heal that little one and to strengthen the faith of her parents.  I love draping a funeral pall over a casket and beseeching God to accept this sheep of his own flock, this sinner of his own redeeming.

So despite all of the things that I hate about the Church – the fact that the people don’t always do what I think they should, the Bible doesn’t always say what I wish it would, the words don’t always come out of my mouth the way I intended, our worship services aren’t always as awesome as I want them to be, it’s so easy to get hung up on “how to live” and “what to believe” that we sometimes forget that Jesus is bigger than that, and conversely, it’s so easy to talk about God’s love and grace that we sometimes forget that the only reason we need God’s love and grace is because we are, in fact, sinners – despite all of that, I hang in there with the Church, the body of believers across time and space, and my church, the unique little outpost of the Church that God has called me to at this moment. 

I hang in there because I genuinely believe that Jesus has the power to save.  He has the power to forgive my sins, and the sins of everyone I know, and everyone I don’t know.  He died, and was made alive again, and because he connected me to that when I was baptized, someday I will see him face to face, and all the sadness and junk and imperfection and awfulness of this world will fade away in the light of his glory.  I hang in there because I believe it, even though I emphatically do not understand it, even though sometimes belief feels more like “really flipping hope so” than “staid unshakeable confidence.”  I hang in there because if I don’t, I’m totally out of options.  Nothing else even pretends to offer what Jesus actually does. 

And so I hope that you’ll hang in there too, Millennial.  But I want you to hang in there for the right reasons. 

See, it’s fashionable these days for all the “church people” to freak out about no one coming to church anymore and we’re all dying and no one is in Sunday School and oh no what are we going to do?  And it’s become equally fashionable for us Millennials to assert our specialness and write articles and publish them on the internet about what the Church should do to get us to “come back.”  Pew Research recently released some survey showing that “more people than ever” aren’t Christian and aren’t going to church.  Apparently I’m supposed to be very worked up about this. 

But the thing is, I kind of don’t care if you come back to church.  I kind of don’t care if you’re a Christian.  I’ve belonged to a congregation that had over 12,000 people in worship each weekend. For realz.  And I have belonged to a congregation that had 12 people in worship on Easter Sunday.  Literally.  I’m really not concerned about the survival of the Church – Jesus has promised to protect it – and so I’m really not concerned about the survival of any one congregation.  Whether you come to church or not has very little impact on my ego, or that of my parishioners.  What I care about – what they care about – is that you hear the Word of Jesus, that you join his family in the Sacrament of Baptism, and you come to his dinner table at Holy Communion.  I care that you know God loves you, and forgives you, and is preparing a place for you.  I care that the Holy Spirit opens up a sliver of faith in your soul, faith that changes the way you see yourself, and other people, and the whole world.  I care that you have a place to express joy in the greatest, most amazing moments, and a Person – and people – who will carry your burdens in the saddest, toughest, hardest times.  I care that you know that while you will have troubles in this world, Jesus has overcome the world, and when you’re connected to him, you also overcome the world. 

But if you don’t, it’s no skin off my nose.  If Jesus isn’t really what you want or need right now, then church isn’t for you.  If you’re looking for a place where you can help people or feel connected or get a little dose of inspiration for your week, then you should definitely join the Kiwanis Club or volunteer at Habitat for Humanity or watch more TED talks online.  In that case, church probably is not what you’re looking for, and you shouldn’t feel any obligation to go.  You’re free to stop obsessing about what the Church needs to do to get you to come back, and you don’t need to tell us all what we’re doing wrong.  You do your thing, and we’ll do ours.  This pastor said so, and when my congregation wonders why you’re not here, I’ll tell them the same thing.  We’re Millennials, so let’s be genuine and authentic about what we really want, right? 

But if you are intrigued by the person of Jesus, if you need a place to hear that the stuff you screw up day in and day out is forgiven and done away with, if you’d like to be able to believe that there’s more to life than just what you can see, if you want to touch the veil between heaven and earth, then come to church. 

It won’t be perfect.  The people there are going to mess up and say the wrong things and do the wrong things and sing dumb songs and use words you don’t understand.  The pastor might say too much about who he or she thinks you should vote for, or might not be as gentle in tackling tough issues as you’d like, or might shy away from saying some hard things.  Someone might look at you like you’re not sure why you’re there, or they might kneel too much or wave their hands in the air too much or the coffee might (probably will) be gross.  The people might ignore you, or they might smother you.  The pastor might have 4 other people tugging on his or her sleeve, and can’t welcome you in quite the way you’d like, or you might have to sit closer to the front than you’d like, or you might feel like you’re dressed wrong. 

And maybe it’s not the right church for you.  Maybe you really can’t handle feeling pushed into politics, or Elizabethan English, or like Jesus is supposed to be your boyfriend.  Maybe you are the only person under the age of 50, or the only one who’s not married, or 8:00 am really is too early for you.  Maybe the pastor honestly is kind of weird, or there are some totally unhealthy dynamics going on that just make that particular congregation not a good place right now.  That’s okay.  Those things happen. So it's a good thing that there's more than one church in most neighborhoods.

But remember that you’re not perfect either.  You’ve messed up and said and done the wrong things and used words other people didn’t understand to make yourself look good.  You’ve said rotten crap online to perfect strangers, and been too quick to judge somebody else’s situation, and not said something when you probably should have.  You’ve danced weirdly in the rain and expected that people just naturally did certain things and then mocked them when they didn’t.  You’ve ignored people who made you uncomfortable and made a fool of yourself with someone who you were sure was going to be your new BFF.  You’ve struggled to manage the expectations of everyone in your life, and other people have had to feel awkward and uncomfortable so you wouldn’t be inconvenienced.  

Being human is hard.  The strange social dances we do as we get to know new people and new situations are always awkward.  When have you ever been in any group setting where everything was 100% exactly what you wanted?  School?  Family? Parties?  Work?  Sports teams?  Of course not. The fact that we’re in church doesn’t make us less human.  But it does mean that God is with us, holding our hands, forgiving us and encouraging us to forgive others, slowly smoothing out the rough edges that each of us has.  

So as you church-shop, if you decide that church is important to you, remember what you’re looking for: Jesus.  Find a place that connects you to Jesus, and where you can be…okay, even if it’s not perfect.  Don’t define yourself by broad generational characteristics, let Jesus define you as a unique person who He loves.  Come hang out with the rest of us sinners, gathered around the Lamb who was slain for the forgiveness of our sins.  When you’re ready, we’ll be here.  Until then –

Peace, Love, and Jesus,

A Millennial Pastor