Shoes

I screamed at God for the starving child until I saw the starving child was God screaming at me.

-Unknown

I am getting more and more angry that responding my thoughts & prayers are with you is becoming a sarcastic joke. I live by two axioms. The first is Anne Lamott’s saying that there are really only three prayers:

  • Help
  • Thanks
  • Wow

The second is what I call “the Donna Schuurman corollary.” Now, Donna is a personal friend and I doubt you’ll find this in any of her published books…. but she says that there is one perfect, end-of-the-rope and it’s fraying prayer…. Shit, God.

I suppose that it would fall under “help,” but just doesn’t have the same impact…. but it helps. It’s the prayer I prayed when Dana and I got a divorce. It’s the prayer I prayed when Argo said, no more. It’s the prayer I prayed minute by minute, hour by hour to get through those first few days of my mother’s death…. although I will say that I found “thanks” and “wow” when I bothered to look.

I will be the first to tell you that I have no idea what happens when I pray on the other end of that connection. In the words of C.S. “Jack” Lewis, I don’t pray because it changes God. I pray because it changes me. You, and only you, have to decide if it really matters whether some celestial being is listening, or whether the function of prayer is to find your own still, small voice, uninterrupted by the noise of the world. In that space, something happens. Does it matter whether it comes from an internal or an external source? I believe it does, but not enough to be rigid about it.

My philosophy 101 class was very interesting. We spent the first half proving that God exists, and the second proving that God doesn’t. Of course, I use “proof” in the geometric sense, not that there is any real evidence one way or the other. Pete Rollins, in an interview with Rob Bell, said something that’s stuck with me for over a year. He said that atheists and theists are one of the great love stories, that each needs the other…. that there is God/Not God, and the truth is in the slash…. but before I ever heard of Pete Rollins, I discovered that religion was not unlike sexuality… a spectrum in which some people stay at the poles their entire lives, and some move freely back and forth.

This is because too much happens in the world for most people to eschew doubt…. and still others in their piety are too ashamed to admit that when the shit hits the fan, they wonder where in the hell God has been, is, will be………………..

I have said it before, and I will say it again. I choose to believe that God is not the Actor. God is the Responder. Where is God as people are being gunned down in the streets, at concert venues, movie theaters, schools… or worse, in a place that has long been identified as sanctuary…. literally and figuratively. When you claim sanctuary, that is the moment that violence is supposed to stop. Because it didn’t happen to me, I can’t even imagine what it must be like to have that feeling ripped away. We of the Religious Left chose to move away from Jonathan Edwards’ now famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, long ago. We do not believe in the hand of God that would drop us, but catch. So if you ask where God is, know that God is weeping with the families of the dead, and supporting the injured in their hour of need. Not only that, if you need to feel angry with God and rail at all the injustices, go right ahead. God is big enough to handle it.

I am tired of seeing “thoughts and prayers” as some people’s choice shitty retort. This is because thoughts and prayers mean two things to me:

  1. We live in a dangerous world with many injustices that will not get fixed overnight without our help. I hold space not only for my own responses, but for the worry and care of first responders. I am not fire, police, military, or diplomat. Prayer is a way to get in touch with the part of me that bleeds for the people in front of and behind the news. As an empath, I feel pain all across the world, and it needs somewhere to go. Every single person I’ve known in those dangerous fields has said not to worry- if something terrible happens, we will have died doing something we trained for because we love what we do. I have found over time that those words bring me little comfort, but my worry is not their problem. Whether or not there is a God, it brings me peace to pray for the lives of the victims and the people in charge of rescuing them and getting them to safety, or getting their bodies back to their families so that they may say a proper goodbye.
  2. Prayer is not always solitary. Once you find the center of your being, your True North, it is time to act. One of the greatest prayers I’ve ever prayed was walking downtown with thousands and thousands of women as we fought for our rights whether anyone was listening or not. I was one of the first “crazy liberals” to march like hell against the Iraq war, before the rest of the country caught up to what we were screaming. I’ve talked to homeless people in my own city, asking them what they need, rather than trying to guess. Prayer is almost nothing without shoe leather, but one has to beget the other. It is the first line of defense against pouring from an empty cup.

Prayer is holding space for the safety and security of the people you love, as well as being able to go deep and figure out what you really think. Some people call that meditation. Some people enter that space while exercising. I am not worried about the semantics, only the function.

I will never be worried about the semantics, unless you (plural) are using it as a euphemism for lazy. Like Jesus, I go into my room to pray and close the door…. but I emerge with my shoes on.

Amen.
#prayingonthespaces

 

Sermon for Proper 10, Year A: Seeds and Stems

Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

Sperm is often called “seed,” especially in the Bible. Therefore, every single one of us starts out as a seed, and when, joined with an egg, takes root in the womb and stems outward. A lot of our personality is created when seeds become stems  and stems become branches and branches become the mature tree… a new person, ready to take on the world.

But have you ever stopped to wonder how the DNA handed down to you affects the type of roots you create? What kind of seed you might be? Do you consistently seek out people who you deem “in the same garden?”

The types of seeds that Jesus is talking about directly relate to personalities in people, and he says so directly when he’s explaining what he just said. This is because often, when Jesus uses an analogy while preaching, and even in just talking to his disciples, what he receives is a series of dumb looks.

This is not unusual even today, because without repetitive explanation, people get lost in their own minds and now have no idea what you’re saying. The best preaching advice I’ve ever gotten is, “first, you tell them. Next, you tell them again. Then you tell them again.” Of course, you use different illustrations, but they’re all the same point.

When people are firmly planted in their pews, completely tracking with you, they may not get the idea of repetition. People who are not often need it. As a preacher, I am competing with the personal stories that come up for the people listening, what to have for lunch, and, especially in Portland, a sunny day.

It’s the difference between how the seeds are planted, and what kind of personalities they create.

We can even expand past the personal to the local church. Are you invested with deep roots, or did your mother make you come? It’s at this point that we have to ask ourselves “are we the 30, the 60, or the 100-fold kind of church?”

What kind of church ARE we?

Are we so shallow in our commitment that a bird could swallow us up? That it would take so little to make us disband? We have nourished the bird, but have failed ourselves in a “give a man a fish” kind of way. We’ve sustained, for a moment, one being… and walked away. The gospel competes with the world, and loses… badly.

Have we planted ourselves on rocky soil, reaching for the sun? The best analogy I can think for this kind of church are those that initially are so gung ho that they over-commit, and six or 12 months later, leave, never to return… because it’s just so much work. Few can let go and listen because the running tab of things to do is so long, particularly for “the Marthas…” who place very little importance on the phrase don’t just do something, sit there.

Initial excitement in its exuberance is a wonderful thing, but it has to be watered carefully, as not to burn or drown. There is generally little room to add new crops, because people are already so mired between committees and choirs and teaching Sunday School and laying out vestments and ALL THE THINGS that new shoots spring up, and there’s no one with enough sunlight left to tend to them. The gospel just gets in the way of the running to-do list with no respite.

Churches with deep roots are not only self-sustaining, but have the ability to minister to others… and it’s a difference you can both see and feel. Deep roots mean there’s a group of people for each single thing, so that no one group has to do everything. The same 30 or 60 people are not the entire church, but just the choir or just a couple of committees. If you’ve ever been to a really small church, you know that there are at least ten people who are on every committee and in the choir, and have to say “no more.” Not out of malice, out of exhaustion. There are churches with deep roots who have the ability to create a committee just to shake new people’s hands as they come in the door, and that is their only function. There is enough room between rows, enough nutrients for everyone, that the seeds become stems and the stems become branches and the branches become the mature tree. The gospel is not working at us, but through us. We are able to welcome the stranger, give to the poor, fight racial inequality and GLBTQI rights… we have the ability to widen the net, teaching others to fish as we go.

Which invariably leads to the question of what kind of world we want to be.

For a lot of people, it’s starting to feel like being a 100-fold seed in a 30-fold world. But here’s the catch… it’s not a 30-fold seed world. Perception is not reality. There are enough people to do everything, enough people to be able to pick which causes to support, which battles to fight… and which governments need resistance. Resistance is not futile, it’s its own kind of protest.

Hundred-fold people create hundred-fold churches which give the individual a chance to grow into a community. So many people can and will get involved, but are overwhelmed when it comes to how to “jump in.” They are the hope and the future as to how a 30-fold seed can find its way from feeding one being to all of them.

This is where you are issued an invitation, in turn to give one. In my own life, I have never once had success with inviting someone to come with me to church. I have had success with showing them who I am and to whom I belong. For instance, I’ve invited friends to march with me in the Pride parade along with my church group…. or go to a political rally. Wide-eyed, they look at me as if to say, your church does THAT?

Of course. In a church with deep roots, the plants grow toward the sky, because the deeper the support system, the easier it is to say…

Jesus Has Left the Building.

Amen.
#prayingonthespaces