Thursday, November 29, 2012

New Plan

So, as I learned on internship, to blog is to do.  Writing it down helps hold me accountable - in part because it means I have friends reading this who hold me accountable.

And I've decided that the next thing I want to do is take up running.  I've avoided it for so long because, really?  Who wants to do that?  But I want to build more activity in my life, and I want to live abundantly, and so I'm doing things that scare me, that challenge me, that I have believed for too long I can't do.

After my amputation in the 6th grade, my parents told me that it didn't matter, I could do anything I wanted.  And mostly I did.  I still played outside and ran around with my friends and played softball and biked (that one was hard) and hiked Civil War battlefields.  My freshman year of high school I played first base for the freshman team, but really should have been playing JV.

Then we moved.

At my new school, softball tryouts were rough.  We had an awesome team, like Olympic-trial-quality, practically.  My inability (or, more accurately, never having learned how) to "slide" meant I was never in a million years going to make the team.  Then I thought I'd play rec league - and ended up with a coach who hated being stuck with the lame kid and made me play catcher - which I a) hated, and b) really struggled with because of lack of ankle mobility.  But he was convinced that having me behind the plate was where I could do the least damage, and so there I stayed.  I stuck out the season, but quit playing after that.

Since then, I've slowly and surely downgraded my physical activity.  Sure, I did a 5K on internship, and that was awesome.  And this spring I spent lots of time playing catch with friends or against the Bockman wall.  But on the whole, I'm not much of an exerciser.  I've let my disability judge-y coaches determine what I could do.

But no longer.  I'm going to run.  I want to run.  I'm falling back into my isolated-self, Netflix-and-ice-cream bad habits from internship, and I definitely don't want to go there again.  That was a scary, depressing time, and I'd rather not have it back, especially for an indeterminate amount of time.  So I'm starting slow.  I'm doing Cool Running's Couch to 5K, and slowly building up my fitness level.  I don't so much care about time or distance.  This is about me, and doing something that for too long I've believed I couldn't do.

The other attitude adjustment that is helping me, and taking the pressure off so that I can have fun with movement and activity, is adopting a practice called Health At Every Size.  I'm going to have a lot more to say about this, but right now there's this: My whole life, I've been told that I'm fat and that I need to be dedicating all my efforts to weight loss.  I believed that lie for so long, but then I stumbled upon the fantastic Ragen Chastain.  She was the first person in my life to ever challenge that meme.  The first person to point out that if my cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood glucose all indicate health, then it really shouldn't matter what I weigh.  The first one to say, "right now, your eyes are reading this webpage, your fingers are scrolling the mouse, your heart is beating, your lungs are breathing, etc..., so why do you hate your body so much?"  This summer, I spent two whole days reading her entire blog straight through, and it was like a light switch for me.  It truly has taken all the pressure off to live up to anyone's expectations but my own, and God's.  And God says, "I want to you live abundantly".

Which is a great segue into my final point on taking up running - what's been holding me back from movement has been other people telling me that I can't do it, and the belief that if it doesn't impact the scale, then it was worthless.  But as I wrote last spring about my Holy Spirit class, God has been doing some awesome work to free me from the lies, to remind me that no one can harm me, that God, and not anybody else, says who I am and what I'm worth.  This running thing is part of that, I think.  And it feels so, so good to be free.

So here we go - Couch-to-5K in 2 months.

God is good, indeed. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

"I believe in God...

...but I don't go to church.  I just, I absolutely believe in God, I just don't think you have to go to church to believe in God."

...said the grieving son as we met at the funeral home.  His mother had just passed away in a town several hours from mine, but the family was returning to bury her remains next to those of her late husband.  I had never met the family before that day.

The husband assured that they were Lutheran (apparently getting married in a Lutheran church building qualifies one to be Lutheran these days) and that he and his wife had gotten baptized "after the wedding".  Deceased mom apparently never felt the need to have her children baptized, despite telling them stories about how her mother had read her Bible stories at bedtime.

So, "we believe in God, we're just not really church-going people, you know?  I don't think you have to go to church to believe in God."

I nodded non-judgmentally and pressed the conversation further, "Tell me more about your mom," I said, as I suppressed my eye-rolling.

After a few more minutes with the family, I returned home to work on a memorial service/homily for this woman and her family who "believe in God, but don't need to go to church."  And the more I thought about it, the more frustrated I became.  "If you don't need the church," I thought, "then why do you need me, a representative of the church?  Why don't you just do your own funeral?"

And then I remembered a seminary professor who once told me that the purpose of the church is to teach us how to die.  At the time, I didn't really understand her point, but I think I'm beginning to get it.

Anybody can (I didn't say should, just can) baptize.  No stained-glass windows?  Well, a lot of modern churches these days are terribly ugly anyway - get married in a botanical garden if "beautiful setting" is that important to you.  But death?  That's different.  Even people - families - who don't want a funeral "in church", want a pastor to do the funeral home service or graveside committal.  And I suppose that's something in our spirits that cries out for hope, for promises, for someone to tell them, in the face of "the end", that this isn't really the end. I suppose it's something crying out to hear that, although they've forgotten God, God hasn't forgotten them.  And fortunately, we have a God that does that.


It proves that "I believe in God, but I don't need the church" is a complete lie.  Even if the person saying it isn't aware that it's a lie.  Because as a representative of the church, I can offer up prayers about God's merciful arms.  I can strip any semblance of theological sophistication from a homily.  I can pray the Lord's Prayer on my own, and coach the proper response to intercessory prayers.  I can read very basic, very simple, very common Scripture passages - but in the end, I don't know if this family has any idea at all what I'm talking about.

Because the prayers, the liturgy, the language, the Scriptures, the rites, the rituals all "belong", in a sense, to the Church.  Even if the ancient wording is "translated" out of "King James English" and into something more vernacular, it still presumes a familiarity with the faith, with the promises of Christ, with the images of Scripture.

And so, leaving the Holy Spirit out of it for just a moment (we'll get right back to that), it's hard to know what to say.  Because the Church created the rituals - selected the Scriptures, wrote the prayers - for individuals who belong to the Church, who hold to the hope of eternal life promised by Jesus Christ. And it isn't so much that God isn't - or can't be - merciful to those outside the faith.  And none of us knows for sure the state of anyone's heart at the moment of death.  But to do a service, and preach the essentials of the faith - for a group of people thoroughly uninterested in it every other day of their lives - is a nigh-unto-impossible task.

(And yes, who knows but that the pastor in this situation might be there for such a time as this - perhaps the Holy Spirit will indeed use this time of loss and despair to bring a grieving family to himself.  And we should always hold out such hope, trusting that God works as he sees fit, and in his mysterious timing.  We have a big, big God.  But that's not really my point.)

My point is that, for anyone who says, "I believe in God, but I don't need to go to church," the answer is, "Well, actually, yes, yes you do."  Because the Church teaches us how to die.  She teaches us how to die ourselves, and she teaches us how to handle the death of a loved one.  We have prayers and Scriptures and rituals and rites for just this occasion.  But if you don't ever participate in the life of the Church, they will be meaningless (although not powerless) in the face of The Last Enemy.

"Christ loved the Church, giving himself up for her."

But if you and your loved ones have consciously declared that you don't need the Church, then how is the Church to explain her Lover and his promises in your hour of need?

**And yet we proclaim them all the more - we know not what seed will be planted, and while we give no illusion for false hope, we continually announce the good news of Jesus Christ for all who have ears to hear.

But you need the Church.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Preview of This Week's Sermon

By request...try not to throw tomatoes, please!

RCL texts this week are:
So, welcome to church, we’re here to talk about money! :)  I’m sure if there are any visitors out there today, you’re like, “See, this is why I don’t come to church.”  And you’re probably not alone…the sense I get is that nobody really likes talking about money – ever.  There are like, no conversations relating to money that aren’t at least a little awkward – questions from who is buying dinner to how much your new neighbors paid for their house to a businessman giving his customer the bill…  I don’t know anyone who enjoys opening a credit card bill or pulling up their online banking website or figuring out “how much money” to spend on what people at Christmastime.  I don’t know a single person – whether he is destitute and living on the streets, or the richest person in the world, or anywhere in between – I don’t know a single person for whom money is a stress-free subject.  Do you?  No?  Okay…

So, I apologize for making everyone – myself included – a little anxious and uncomfortable today.  But take heart – we’re all anxious and uncomfortable together, it’s not just you. :)  And here’s the other thing – and why I wanted to tackle this today.  The church, in many places, has gotten into the unfortunate habit of only talking about money when the church is asking for money.  We often get trapped in the cycle of saying, ick, money, awkward, but hey, we need a new roof, or a new Sunday School wing or to pay the electric bill, and besides, there are starving children in Africa, so, time to fork it over – God says be good stewards, after all.  And then we all feel guilty, and nobody wants to say, look, I barely managed to pay rent this month, or hey, maybe if the confirmation class would remember to turn out the lights when they leave or…whatever.  Am I right?  

But that’s a really bad habit to get into – first, because one of the things that we believe as Christians is that God cares about and wants to be a part of every aspect of our lives – money included.  And like it or not, money is a huge part of our life.  Take a minute and think about the last day when you did not in any way interact with money – you didn’t pay any bill, go to the coffee shop or grocery store, give your kids allowance, shop online, buy gas, go to the ATM, transfer funds from savings to checking, cash a paycheck, find a five dollar bill in the pocket of your winter coat, anything.  When was the last time you had a day like that?  And if you can think of a day like that, can you think of a whole week?  

So if God cares about us, and every part of our lives, then surely he cares about money, yes?  And second, as Christians, we believe that God gave us the Bible because it is, at its most basic level, information that He wants us to have.  And the Bible, it turns out, talks about money a lot.  Depending on how you define “talking about money”, I’ve seen figures that say anywhere from 800 to 2300 verses about money – wealth, debt, saving, budgeting, etc.  So if the Bible isn’t shy about talking about money, we in the church shouldn’t be either, right?  Besides, most of us know that when we ignore the subject for too long in our own lives – if we never look at bank statements, for example – that’s when things start to fall apart.

So, have I convinced you?  Can we talk a little bit about money now without being too amped up?  Alright, here we go… 

First thing to be aware of is this: poverty and wealth are not, in and of themselves, good or bad.  Your bank account, on the basis of numbers alone, does not represent a moral value.  Being poor, or being rich, is not inherently better, or inherently worse.  In the Bible, there are stories about rich people and poor people whose prayers are answered, whose faith is held up as an example to others, who give generously to God and other people.  There are also stories about rich people and poor people who turn away from God, and who do not follow or believe in Jesus, and who are miserly and stingy.  So…from the perspective of sheer moral value, the playing field is level.

So, what does God care about, then, in relationship to money?  There are three main things – and I’ll mention the first briefly, and then talk a little more about the last two.  First, God cares about how you get the money you do have – whether you are rich or poor, are you obtaining the money you have through fraud or dishonesty?  If you’re a rich business owner, are you overworking and underpaying your employees, so that you’ll have more money for yourself?  Are you charging customers more than the goods or services you provide are worth?  That’s stealing.  If you’re poor, did the five dollars you have to your name come from pickpocketing someone on the bus?  No matter how much you need the money, it’s still stealing. 

Second and third – and I mention these together because they are very closely linked – what do you believe about the money you have, and what do you do with the money you have?  (And let me warn you here – the answers aren’t as straightforward as you think!)  

When we say the Apostles Creed in worship every Sunday, we start with the first section – “I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”  What does this mean, though?  Martin Luther explains it this way in the Small Catechism: I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them; in addition thereto, clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and homestead, spouse and children, fields, cattle, and all my goods; that He provides me richly and daily with all that I need to support this body and life, protects me from all danger, and guards me and preserves me from all evil; and all this out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all of which I owe it to Him to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him.” 

Yikes, that's a lot.

A little more simply stated is the Lord’s Prayer, when we pray “give us this day our daily bread,” which has a similar meaning as the first part of the Creed: Daily bread is “everything that belongs to the support and wants of the body, such as meat, drink, clothing, shoes, house, homestead, field, cattle, money, goods, a pious spouse, pious children, pious servants, good government, good weather, peace, health, discipline, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like."  And we know, even as we pray this prayer, that “God gives daily bread, even without our prayer; but we pray in this petition that He would lead us to know it, and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.”

So let me ask you a tough question – is this your attitude towards your money and all of the things that money buys?  Do you believe that “I worked for it, I earned it, it’s mine!”  Or do you believe that, yes, you work hard, and you are honest and wise and make good decisions about your money and property, but that, ultimately, what you have comes from God? 

Because what we believe – what we know, our attitude toward – what we have changes how we act.  Think about how you treat dandelions growing in your yard, versus dandelions that your child picked from the yard and brought inside to give you.  

What we believe about what we have changes what we do with what we have.  And the inverse is also true: what we do with what we have reflects what we believe about what we have.  And that’s what this morning’s gospel reading from Mark is getting at.  Sometimes this story is explained as “aaaand, that’s why you should give all your money to church, look at that poor widow, she did it, so should you.”  But this story is not about draining your bank account for the Kingdom.  In fact, if you are down to your last dollar, please don’t put it in the offering plate this morning.  Let us know if that’s your situation, so that the church can help you.  No, this story is more about is “do we believe that all that we have comes from God, and do we trust God to somehow or another provide us with everything that we need?”  

This is Jesus’ point – while it is good that rich people contributed large sums of money, that action says little about their understanding of God, or of their wealth.  They were doing what they knew they were supposed to do, and that is all. (And yes, we should do what we know we’re supposed to do – Jesus isn’t condemning acting out of duty or obligation – notice that he doesn’t say that what the rich people were doing was wrong.)  What he is saying is that the widow, although she gave very little, demonstrated her trust that even what very little she had came from God, and her trust that God would continue to provide for her.  

And that’s what I really want you to take away from this – God can be trusted to provide.  Because this sermon isn’t about trying to guilt you into giving more money to this, that, or the other thing.  The point of this sermon is to remind you that what we do with what we have reflects what we believe about what we have.   

And what I want to promise you – what I desperately hope you believe – is that God can be trusted to provide.  In the Old Testament reading today, the widow trusted what Elijah said – that God would provide, and the flour, and the oil would not run out.  The New Testament reading, from the letter to the Hebrews, says that God can be trusted to provide for our salvation – that’s what Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was – God’s way of providing for our greatest need – for our sins to be forgiven and thereby reconnected to God.  That’s what Psalm 146 says – blessed are those who have the Lord as their hope, because he does provide – He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them— he remains faithful forever.  He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry.  The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous.  The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow.  

God can be trusted to provide. 

If you’re sitting here today, and you are in a state of material and financial comfort – if you have enough or more than enough to live on, then you know that God has provided for you.  If, on the other hand, you’re sitting here today, and like the widow in the gospel story are down to your last two coins, then God has also provided for you.  He has brought you to this church today full of people who love Him and who love you and care about you and are ready to help you.

To all of us – no matter our financial situation – God can be trusted to provide.  He has provided for our salvation, he has and will continue to provide for our daily bread.

So there was a sermon about money for you – that wasn’t so bad, now was it?  Just remember: what we do with what we have reflects what we believe about what we have – and what we believe is that God can provide, God does provide, and God will provide – for all of our needs.