Friday, January 28, 2011

Waiting 'til the Last Minute

The Washington Metropolitan area was blanketed with snow on Wednesday. The snow was forecast earlier in the week. Anyone who watched the morning news knew that the snow was scheduled to begin in the late afternoon, starting first with freezing rain or hail. We were warned that the snow would come fast and furious. Unless we were living in a vacuum, we all knew what was coming. We were warned. And yet, somehow, this area was transformed on Wednesday into the worst congestion mess that Washington has experienced since 9/11. A typical, 20-minute commute became a four-hour nightmare. Some individuals spent upwards of eight hours on the George Washington Parkway. A friend of ours got stuck and ended up in a hotel room that night. Hundreds of cars were left abandoned after getting stuck or running out of gas. The area was stopped as every major artery leaving Washington was plugged.

We were all warned. The government announced it was closing two hours early. And yet, many of us did not budge from our office chairs until we saw snow - real flakes falling from the sky. The rain did not get our attention. The freezing rain that followed seemed easy to conquest. We sat, and when we finally decided to get up from our desks and go to our cars, we realized that everyone else had the same idea. There was no getting ahead. It was too late.

We were warned but we failed to heed the warnings. We were told exactly when the snow would start but we decided to wait and not believe it until we could see it.

I'm rather good at waiting until it is too late. I regularly choose to ignore the warnings. I know that my weight is above the recommended range for my height but all the other vital signs point to good health so I'm not really motivated to make any changes. I know that every health professional suggests that adults get at least 30 minutes of exercise each day but I regularly watch days pass without getting in more than a 10 minute walk from the Metro to the church.

We're all rather good at ignoring the warnings - at choosing to believe that we are invincible - that we can conquer anything - until we discover that it's too late.

We find many recommendations and admonitions for how to live in scripture. While some of the Ten Commandments are easy to follow - I've never been tempted to kill anyone - there are other Commandments that I regularly ignore like not coveting my neighbors house or keeping the Sabbath holy. Jesus told me to forgive the person who has hurt me not one time but 70 times seven times and yet I somehow find ways to hold grudges. The writer of Hebrews told me to always extend hospitality to strangers because I might be entertaining an angel unaware and still there are times when my busy schedule affords only a simple "hello" instead of genuine hospitality. I'm told at the end of Matthew that when Jesus comes again that he'll separate the sheep from the goats based upon who has tangibly cared for the least of these. I know I am a goat on more days than I am a sheep - but I don't necessarily change my ways.

What would it look like for me to take each warning seriously? How would my life be different if I lived as though each day were the last day?

What about you? How long did your commute take on Wednesday?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Whole Armor

It seems as though Mrs. Obama has upset many people. It is not because of something she said. Nor is it because of something she did. It is because of something she wore.

Rather than choosing a dress made by an American designer for the State Dinner held last week, Mrs. Obama selected a dress made by a British designer. She has upset all kinds of people in the process, including Oscar de la Renta, according to today's Washington Post. Many people believe that the First Lady of the United States should always choose clothing inspired and created by people living in the United States. What she wears says something. Her choices speak volumes, many believe. Everything she wears is to bring honor and glory to America. She speaks for America - even with the clothing she wears.

As I read the article, I immediately gave thanks that each thing I wear is not scrutinized. I then remembered how I love wearing a robe on Sunday mornings because it prevents people in the congregation from looking at my clothing and then critiquing me for the way a skirt clings to my hips or the appropriateness of a hemline. I love hiding behind a white alb, forcing people to choose to critique something other than my clothing. But, I also believe that her critics are on to something - and that we should take note.

I do not have to choose clothing created by a particular designer. No one has asked me recently where my dress was made or who designed it. And still, what I do matters. As a Christian, I stand for something - someone. My actions, words and my very life are to tell a story. Everything I do and say is to point towards Christ. I am a living testimony.

When I was in college, my roommate would often tape different passages of scripture printed on colored notecards on our mirror in the sorority house. One of verses that appeared often is a passage from Ephesians where Paul writes, "Put on the whole armor of God so that you may stand against the schemes of the devil." My roommate Susan thought this verse would help when we went out on Friday nights only to stumble home later with the armor of God nowhere to be found. Susan knew that our lives were to be different - that we should live as though we were protected by God - as though we were wearing full armor.

I've not found this full armor hanging in my closet. I know well how easy it is to be stripped of this armor while driving down I-395 in rush hour traffic when my mouth sounds anything like that of a preacher. I know that the fruits of the Spirit - love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are not always tangibly present in my life. My actions do not always differentiate me from others around me. There are times when I stand for Christ and other times when my actions would steer people away from Christ.

Mrs. Obama was stunning in her red dress that she wore last week. She has received rave reviews for the glamorous look and fit. The dress is beautiful. Still, many people believe a principle was sidestepped with this choice. Many people would have prefered something entirely different - a dress choice that stood for the country for which she stands - whether she wants to or not.

Our choices matter. You are a testimony.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Crazy, Indeed

The staples held together large pieces of skin in two places on the man's leg as he held his pants up for the cameras to see. The wounds were visible. The marks of a gunman were in clear view for all to see.

He stood outside the home of Randy and Amy Loughner as another person or two placed flowers and balloons on their doorstep. A newscaster inquired, "What are you doing here?"

His response: "I came over to try to forgive them."
He then continued, "I know that sounds crazy" but that is why I am here.

I know that sounds crazy. I know that people are not accustomed to forgiveness. I know that one does not expect to find a victim of a shooting to stand on the steps of the home of the one who shot the gun. One does not expect love and grace to extend from one who knows well the pain of the tragedy. I know you expect hatred and revenge. I know you expect ugliness and mean-spirited conversation.

I know that sounds crazy - but I am here to offer forgiveness.

Yes, that does sound unusual. It sounds a lot like the Gospel.

I'm excited about the next several weeks of preaching. It's Year A in the lectionary cycle which means that we get to spend a lot of time with Matthew - my favorite Gospel. I fell in love with Matthew when a course on Matthew taught by Richard Hays coincided with a course titled, "The Local Church in Mission to God's World" taught by Peter Storey. The two courses were my two favorite courses in seminary. Matthew's words called us to mission and Dr. Storey shared how this mission could be prophetically embodied by the local church. The two courses and the professors who taught them transformed me during that semester.

Matthew calls for a remarkable life - a crazy life - an upside-down life. Starting this week, we get to watch and listen as Jesus calls ordinary fishermen to do extraordinary acts. We then get to journey to the top of a mountain where Jesus preaches the greatest sermon ever proclaimed. We'll hear again words that embody a crazy life - a life where the least-expected people receive a blessing - a life where something is expected from those who call themselves followers of Christ - a life filled with salt and light - a life in which one dares to be different.

As we journey with these texts, it is going to sound crazy. The teaching is going to go across the grain of all we have been taught before. It's going to sound nuts - like a shooting victim offering forgiveness to the home from which the shooter came.

I know it sounds crazy. But you're invited to join us. You're invited to allow the words to transform you. You're invited to live a different kind of life following a different kind of Lord.

I know it sounds crazy - but will you come learn with me and then dare to have the courage to embody this crazy life with me?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

I Believe in Miracles

While I was raised to believe that the glass is always half-full instead of half-empty, there are times when I must admit that it is easier to be a cynic than an optimist. Many days it seems as if the odds are stacked against us, shielding the ray of light from our view. But this week, I have been taught to believe in miracles.

I have been captivated by the ways in which we have seen the movement of God in the news covering the tragedy in Tucson. It was a doctor reporting from the hospital in Tucson that led me to my knees this week, hoping to have faith that defies the odds.

The doctor was telling about how anyone with a gunshot wound like the kind experienced by Congresswoman Giffords has only a 10% survival rate. Nine out of ten victims of a similar tragedy die or remain paralyzed. Only one in ten recovers. Congresswoman Giffords is this one. She is defying all the odds - opening her eyes, sitting on the side of her bed, raising her hands towards the sky. She is a miracle - a tangible expression of hope.

The doctors shared what their eyes had seen. They told about the statistics. They explained how a huge potential for paralysis exists in similar patients. They said that the Congresswoman had already exceeded their expectations. They then shared words that penetrated my heart.

Miracles happen every day.

We are wise to acknowledge miracles.

The physicians are scientists. They know how the body operates. They can identify each of our parts and the many arteries flowing through our limbs. They know what to do in many cases - how to ease a person's pain, how to make the blood flow, how to treat a wound. They do not, however, know how to make a gunshot victim raise her hands or open her eyes. These acts are the work of someone else. These signs of hope do not belong to the field of medicine. It is wise to acknowledge miracles.

Why, then, do we not approach God with more faith? Why do we fail to see God as one who can make a miracle? Why have we forgotten that miracles happen every day?

I know of many people, places and situations that are in need of a miracle. I know people who are losing their homes who need a miracle. I know couples who long to have a child but who are so far infertile who are in need of a miracle. I know patients suffering with cancer who are in need of a miracle. I know marriages that are falling apart that are in need of a miracle. I know a city where innocent people are being shot, where politics is polarizing, where too many people are sleeping outside, where a school system is known for what it is not instead of what it is, where there are so many resources and so much scarcity. I know a city that is in need of a miracle.

God, increase my faith. Let me not forget that you are still in the business of miracles. Reveal to me my part in making miracles happen.

I believe in miracles. Yes, I believe in miracles.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Power of Presence

I remember the first time I saw an iPod Touch. I was amazed at the power of one's touch - the ways in which one's fingers could move things on the screen or make a picture larger. I have since received my own iPhone - a tool I use dozens of times each day. It is my fingers that have the capacity to get the most from this phone - my touch moves whatever I need on the screen. Apple does a beautiful job of showing us the power of touch.

I learned last night that there is an even greater power associated with touch. I was completely captivated by a story about Representative Gaby Giffords on ABC news. The physicians were sharing how she had opened her eyes in the presence of her husband and three Congressional colleagues. We were taken to her room where we saw pictures of the Congresswoman's husband holding her hands. On last night's news, Diane Sawyer introduced us to a physician at Duke University who has been studying the power of touch - the power of one's presence. This doctor shared how social isolation in the hospital can be as bad on one's body as smoking. There is something about people being with one who is in need of healing that lowers the patient's adrenaline, allowing the patient to focus on healing whether the patient is aware or not. It does not matter if the person is in a coma, we should keep talking to them, keep assuring them of our presence, keep touching them. It does not matter whether the person is responding to us or not, studies show that our mere presence in a hospital room can make all the difference in the world.

There is power in presence. There are healing elements in our touch. We desperately need to be in community.

One of the common elements of our worship on Sunday mornings is the passing of the peace. At Mount Vernon Place, the passing of the peace often means people getting up from their seats and roaming all over the sanctuary. On some mornings, we have to start playing the piano to get peoples' attention and encourage them to sit down. We love passing the peace. And, I hear about it when we remove this element from our Sunday worship time.

One person shared with me how he gets his week's fill of hugs during the passing of the peace. He shared with me how the ten people who he hugs during these brief moments make all the difference in the world to him. He needs to be touched. He needs to experience the power of community - the presence of people who know and love him.

One of the many abundant gifts the church offers is the power of this touch. There is a priceless community found waiting in our church. We have come to understand how life is not intended to be journeyed alone but rather life is to be experienced with others. When we gather, we see a tangible authenticity that can be hard to find in other places in our city. We work hard to make sure that no one gets out the door without being touched - without being encountered, called by name, and hands embraced in a shake or body held in a hug.

There is something powerful about touch. We all need to be in community. There are healing powers found in being together. Life is not meant to be journeyed alone.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Extravagant Gifts

The little men keep staring at me, decked out in lavish gowns cast in sterling silver. I see them each time I turn the bracelet so that the manger is on top of my wrist, in the prominent place it deserves. I see the three men journeying towards the manger, undoubtedly filled with gratitude that they have finally found the child for whom they have been searching after making the trek from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. My eyes behold their boxes - the chests of gold, frankincense and myrrh. I know the value of gold and how an ounce costs more than a thousand dollars these days. I wander again about the fragrant gifts of frankincense and myrrh and imagine baby Jesus enjoying the scent of the oils used on my head when I get a haircut that begins with a scalp massage. Would Jesus prefer the scent of peppermint over mango or would he go back and forth depending upon his mood?

The little men keep staring at me as they bring their gifts to the manger. This little parade across my wrist beckons me to ponder anew what gifts I am called to bring to Jesus. What extravagant gifts am I invited to offer to Jesus in the New Year no matter the cost or the sacrifice?

We have named this specific day of the wise men's arrival Epiphany. Epiphany is the 12th day of Christmas, January 6. The word comes from a Greek word much like its English counterpart which means "manifestation." The pieces of the puzzle came together on the 12th day as wise men recognized that this child was God's very Son, the one the prophets wrote about long ago. God's Son, the king of the Jews, has finally arrived on the scene. A baby blanket or plush toy are not gifts fit for a king. Kings deserve finer gifts - gifts of gold and costly oils.

But what gifts can we bring? What gifts am I being called to offer?

As I get older I realize the most costly gift I have is the gift of time. The 24 hours in each day and the seven days in each week never seem to be enough. There rarely is enough time to spend with my precious husband, enough time to ponder the passages of scripture before my fingers hit the keyboard, enough time to visit members of the church, enough time to sing praises and bring petitions to God, enough time to express gratitude for Christmas gifts and friendships, enough time for the gym, enough time to volunteer, and the list goes on and on. I am feeling called to offer Jesus more time - more time in prayer, more time in study, more time seeking to bring justice to the needs of the world, and more time seeking to embody mercy in our city.

This past year has also taught me the value of our health. Paul told the people of Corinth that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. We are taught to believe that the third person of the Trinity dwells within us - that the Spirit fills our arms and legs, our hearts and heads, our veins and brains. You would never know that God dwells in me by the way I treat my body. I have too often treated my body as if it will last forever - as if I'll always have the same amount of energy or the same amount of health regardless of what goes into my mouth, how much time I spend doing cardio each week, or how many pounds I pack on each year. I feel called to bring Jesus the gift of a healthy body. I long to treat this structure in which I live, move and have my being as a temple - as they very best home in which Christ's Spirit can dwell.

The little men will stare at me for two more days before I place them in the felt case that goes inside the orange box that will be put inside my middle drawer until next Advent. I'll allow them to march across my wrist for two more days until I decide that the bracelet is not to be worn all year but only during December and early January. The lady who sold it to me informed me that I'll need to polish the bracelet - that it will tarnish after a while. I'll be ready with little cloths to dust the manger and to wipe Jesus' head clean come next Advent. But, all the while I'll be praying that the gifts I long to bring are not put away for a time. Sure, I'll need to polish them throughout the year - confessing the places where I have fallen short, asking God for guidance and direction, praying for strength and discernment - but I pray that this year will be different - that Jesus will see the gifts being brought to him regularly - extravagant, costly gifts.