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Life and Death
Common time
July 19, 2015
For Beloved Community
Vernon K. Rempel, 2015

Bible Reading and associated readings:
I Corinthians 15:20-27 excerpts
“For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.”
–J.R.R. Tolkien The Fellowship of the Ring
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
–Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Good morning to you on this day Christians worship, in celebration and memory of the resurrection of Jesus, who by great tradition, was raised from death on the 3rd day – Sunday morning, after being executed by political authorities collaborating with religious leaders, on the previous Friday.

In the beginning, this world and all that was in it, was created good. Then distortion and harm and abuse entered in. The shorthand word for this is “Adam” in Paul’s language. So by Adam came death.

Also in Paul, “Christ” is the actor and principal for life. This other human, this divine-human one, walked on earth, was killed, and was raised in a cosmic demonstration that it is Christ-life, not Adam-death, that is the real way of things. It is a reaffirmation of the goodness of creation, of the divine intention that we are not immersed in a pitched uncertain battle for goodness and life to carry the day. Goodness and life are the very order of God’s days.

But the distortions remain among us. We are fascinated by death, until it makes us sick with obsession. We imagine we can cure death’s effects or at least find some redress or solace or “closure” (worst word!) from death’s effects by answering death with death.

All the talk is about giving murderers what they deserve, with the sense that somehow that allows us to retain and strengthen our civilization.

But Martin Luther King, Jr. saw the fallacy in this reasoning. Violence, no matter who offers it up, no matter if it is the system of the state, or the “righteous” or the “innocent” simply adds violence to violence.

Tolkien essentially asks, “what do you know?” How do you know so much that you know who needs to die?

There is of course redress and cure available to us. It is not a simple path, not the path of revenge or of angry ventilation or even of “closure.” It is a path that calls us into another way of life altogether, the way of “Christ” rather than of “Adam.” This is the way of resurrection.

The way of resurrection deals in life, not in death. The way of resurrection is willing to struggle and experience pain and suffer. But it is because the pathway of resurrection is utterly dedicated to only dealing in the ways of life, rather than becoming distracted by the seductions of death. We are confused, thinking that putting someone to death is doing something. But the way of resurrection knows that only life begets life.

Resurrection is the the solid way, the path of love. In this path, people work hard to love and care for each other in the midst of trauma, tragedy, horror, outrage, and indignity. It cannot come to soon! There is far too much that distorts the face of God’s good earth. But resurrection, not death, is what must come quickly.

Walking the path of resurrection, our hearts may be taught in deep places that the great source and inner reality of all creation and of our own lives is the finer path of life. So we forsake violence. Not because we do not want practical cures for earth’s ills. But because life and love, not violence and death, are the only practical cures. All else is distraction and distortion.

Practices that reflect these understandings include Restorative Justice, Peace Building, Satyagraha, The U.S. Civil Rights Movement, conflict mediation, The Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program, the response by the Dutch to Nazi Germany, the life and teachings of St. Francis, the fact that numerous police departments are seeking non-lethal weapons as a way to address dangerous situations (something even in crime control doesn’t always love lethal solutions). These are practices, practical responses. Some even have implications for how nations make war. One resource for reading more about non-violence responses is Gene Sharp’s trilogy on non-violent response: The Politics of Nonviolent Action.

The world is mad with fascination about death as a solution, whether as visceral satisfaction in answer to outrage, or as a lesson taught by government to citizens, or as simple burning-heart revenge, or as the way of all nations. But Christians are people of life, not death. What will happen when we truly and powerfully live into this faith affirmation?

What is the relationship between summer abundance and real-life scarcity. There is joy and fear wound up in these words. When might scarcity be a gift, however paradoxical? When does abundance threaten to submerge us with its much-ness into a fragmentation that is a form of scarcity?
Attached is a flyer and a registration form for a summer retreat that I am offering with my fellow facilitator Susan Kaplan. We have worked together for years in different ways, with story-telling and with Courage and Renewal events. She is a counselor, story-teller, and non-violent communication practitioner.
This retreat will be at the Loretto Center on South Wadsworth. You may stay over or commute. It will be a lovely time of sharing and soulful reflection, I think.
If you’re interested in taking in a summer retreat, here it is! And also, stay tuned for information about my 2015 retreat at the Benedictine monastery at Snowmass – December 18 – 21 (Friday evening through Monday morning). Please call me with any questions you may have.
Peace be,
Vern

On a couple of occasions in the course of our preparation for doing work together at our Mennonite national convention in Kansas City, theological language has been used to the effect of “less self” and “more God.” At one time, the statement was something like: “You know when you need to particularly lean in to the Spirit so that you can decrease and God can increase.” At another time, the statement was: “May we deny ourselves so that we might be seen to rise together.”

I understand the good intent of these prayer and reflections. They echo the goodness of gelassenheit (yieldedness) and demut (lowliness or humility) and qualities like considering others, mutual care, and deep compassionate listening.

Nevertheless, I would invite consideration that what is within us, within our “selves” is something of infinite goodness, rather than something essentially in dissonance with the loving way of the Holy Spirit. My sense is that as we listen deeply to our own hearts, our own hidden wholeness (Thomas Merton), that this listening is a powerful and integral part of letting ourselves into the conversation, into community, into great shared love, so that far from denying or decreasing, there is a synchronisticity of love, love that is embedded in our hearts and love that is embedded in all creation. Now the good work is to bring these two loves more into harmony, rather than one decreasing and another increasing. Now the work is to uncover and remove denials, distortions, opacities, that block the inner goodness from full expression. Then love will spring forth from within and be poured into our lives from all creation – inner and outer in synchronicity.

What comes to my heart and mind is that “we contend not against flesh and blood, but rather against the powers and principalities.” My sense is that this means we most accurately and effectively view this conflict (as with all conflicts?) as a matter of spirits in conflict and which spirits we decide to make real or “incarnate” in our actions and bodies.

I think there are powerful dominant spirits of exclusion, sexual repression, control, and so on, constantly seeking for expression in our denomination. They find opportunity through people fearing change from tradition, an unfortunate reading of the Bible, a fear of our own sexualities, a desire to dominate or control someone else or another group, all the toxicity that has been passed down and re-energized from generation to generation among us.

Those of us who find ourselves called and compelled to the soulful task of spiritual and social change regarding sexual oppressions and the beauty of our created bodies will do well to create strategies that invite people to get “separated from their demons”, if you will. It leaves a margin of graciousness and unilateral forgiveness even for the flesh and blood ones who have let such damage into their hearts and lives. One may also realize and confess always the demons of one’s own heart. At the same time, there needs to be utter ferocity and persistence in what Ed Friedman called “walling off and defeating” the toxic spirits of exclusion, denial, domination, etc.

What does this look like in practice? I think again of the Unitarian hymn which sings “We are a gentle, angry people.” I think of the non-violence training exercises for the lunch counter sit-ins of the civil rights movement. I think of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. I think of Frederick Buechner’s words: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” My metaphor for myself is to seek the joyful insistence of water which will find a way across any dry land, through any wall, around any obstacle. Cracks are where the light gets in (Leonard Cohen) and also where the water gets in. I think God is always creating cracks in the old systems.

Let us flow!
Vern

When small is nimble

Common Time

June 21, 2015

For Living Light of Peace

Vernon K. Rempel, 2015


Bible Reading

Micah 5:2

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,

who are one of the little clans of Judah,

from you shall come forth for me

one who is to rule in Israel,

whose origin is from of old,

from ancient days.

 

Greeting

Good morning.

It’s good to be with you.
I’ve known this congregation over the years.

To paraphrase Paul,

I know of your trials,

but also of the love that grows among you.
So it is good to be with you.

May peace be with you

and on this moment that we share together.

I’m going to offer what I think

is a somewhat obvious meditation this morning:

the power of what is small.

But I hope there may be some

good connection for us this morning,

or at least encouragement.

 

The power of small

Living Light of Peace is a small congregation.

I have started a new congregation in Littleton

which at this time is also

small and very much unformed.
And there are gifts in that.
I think we all know very well

that smallness, particularity, starting with one thing,

is generally a key ingredient in a good story.
Nursery rhymes always play with specific scenarios:

Old mother Hubbard went to her cupboard

Not “an elderly woman went to her cupboard”

That’s measurably less interesting.
We don’t want to know about elderly women

nearly as much as we want to know

Old Mother Hubbard in particular.

The same is true of novels:

Moby Dick begins “Call me Ishmael”

Not a more general

“This is a story about whale hunting.”

Immediately it is personal.

And becomes more and more obsessively personal.
Tolstoy reflects this same interest in the particular,

what is different, rather than what is generally true,

in his famous opening

to Anna Karenina:

“Happy families are all alike;

every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
And then we proceed to have the story

of an unhappy family,

and how it is distinct and different

and therefore interesting.
A story about all the happy families would have been boring:

Day after day they were kind and shared bread.

It is encouraging. But it doesn’t open up a plot.
Big statements just do not touch our hearts

because we are wired to moved

by the particular.
It is always this woman, or this whale hunter,

or this family.

“Be good” is a much less effective exhortation than

“there once was a boy who shared his toys.”

We experience the world as a gathering up

of many small things, of nearly infinite small things.
10,000 killed is a headline,

One mother from Sarajevo,

a bookbinder by trade,

who had lived on her street since childhood

was killed.
That is a story and a tragedy.

The headline is a theoretical tragedy,

but we don’t know how to feel it.

The story is a moment which we can feel deeply.
The point of all this is to say that

the way we experience the world

that matters to us and moves us

is always particular, always singular,

always small.
There are other things that also matter

to make good stories:

timing, word choice, plot development.
But saying one thing and saying it well,

making sure to name the small, the specific,

is essential.
It is speaking on the scale of the heart,

which always listens for the one authentic thing.

 

Bethlehem

And that is really good news for the small:

small church, small budget,

small time frame, small social stature.
So with our Bible text:

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,

who are one of the little clans of Judah,

from you shall come forth for me

one who is to rule in Israel,

whose origin is from of old,

from ancient days.
This passage is wonderful for several reasons.

First is the beautiful name – Bethlehem,

or, as you have possibly heard

in many such meditations:

Beth-lechem or “House of bread”.
Second, there is the poetic affirmation:

“whose origin is from of old,

from ancient days.”

There is a sense that finding

a ruler in Bethlehem is an innovation.

And it is.

But it’s now about something untied from

grand history and story.
This will be about something deeply and wonderfully ancient.
And finally, it is another story of

God’s presence and action with the small.
It is one of the little clans of Judah

As Daniel Simundson writes in New Interpreter’s Bible,

“When God is about to do something great, human estimates of status, size, power, and influence are completely irrelevant.” v7; p570
“O little town of Bethlehem/

how still we see thee lie/

above thy deep and dreamless sleep/

the silent stars go by.”
Small Bethlehem…

You have no idea, in the slumber of your smallness,

but your destiny is about the stars.

The stars are coming into your life.

 

David and Goliath

Malcolm Gladwell, in a 2009 New Yorker article,

talks about David and Goliath.

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/05/11/how-david-beats-goliath
The following is based closely on the New Yorker article:
The story is generally used as an anomaly tale:

against all odds, David won.
But when the political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft

recently looked at every war fought

in the past two hundred years

between strong and weak combatants,
the Goliaths, won in 71.5 per cent of the cases.

That is a remarkable fact.
Arreguín-Toft was analyzing conflicts

in which one side was at least ten times as powerful

—in terms of armed might and population—

as its opponent,
and even in those lopsided contests

the underdog won almost a third of the time.

In the Biblical story of David and Goliath,

David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet

and girded himself with a sword:

he prepared to wage

a conventional battle of swords against Goliath.
But then he stopped. “I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it,”

he said (in Robert Alter’s translation),

and picked up those five smooth stones.
What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered,

when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness

and chose an unconventional strategy?

He went back and re-analyzed his data.

In those cases, David’s winning percentage

went from 28.5 to 63.6.
When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win,

Arreguín-Toft concluded,

“even when everything we think we know

about power says they shouldn’t.”
Thinking about a situation differently can make all the difference.

And when you’re small, sometimes

you do have a different perspective

and that is a gift.
***O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,

one of the little clans of Judah,

from you shall come forth

one who is to rule

 

Girl’s basketball

Gladwell offers other examples,

including the girls basketball team from

the Silicon Valley town of Redwood City.
They were a team of small, junior high-age girls

who were not that skilled in basketball,

no good outside shooting,

not much skill in dribbling the ball.

They weren’t tall.
But their coach, one of the fathers,

was Vivek Ranadivé.

He was from India,

and was puzzled about an aspect of the game.
Each time a basket was made,

the now-defending team would run to their

end of the court and wait for the opposing team

to dribble the ball down and try to shoot.
Basically, they let the team have an open floor

until they came near the basket.

He was wondering why the defenders waited.
So for his girls, he developed the strategy

of doing a full-on defense

from the moment the ball was being

tossed in from the side-lines.
The girls would try to prevent the toss,

and then if the toss succeeded,

they would try to prevent the other team

from getting the ball across the half-court line

in the required 10 seconds.
The strategy worked shockingly well.

They didn’t always win.

But this small, relatively unskilled team

won a lot of games.
The only thing was, they had to work hard to do it.

It required stamina to do all that defending.

Asked about practice for this strategy,

he said “They run….”
This adds another element:

Small can work when we’re willing to expend extra effort.

To overcome their odds, the girls

gave lot of extra effort. They ran.
***One of the little clans of Judah,

from you shall come forth

Lawrence of Arabia

A third example is Lawrence of Arabia.

I won’t go into this too much.
Lawrence was supposed to conquer

a sea port.
The gist of the story is that Lawrence realized

that he couldn’t just attack the city from front.

It was too well-defended.

And he didn’t have that many men

and they were ordinary bedouins,

not highly trained soldiers.
So he marched his men across 600 miles

of snake-infested, dry desert.

They then surprised the city from the rear

and won.
This is not a tale of non-violence.

But it is a story of thinking about a problem differently,

and expending extra effort.
The Turks simply did not think that their opponent

would be mad enough to come at them from the desert.
All of these stories involve seeing from the

small point of view, a perspective it is

difficult for the large side to see.

And they involve a lot of effort.

Which is why even small ones

don’t often do it.
Now I should add that in a recent TED talk,

Gladwell notes that possibly Goliath

had a disabling condition called acromegaly

which caused his great height

but also impaired his vision.
And David’s sling, far from being an unlikely weapon,

was actually, wielded with skill,

a highly dangerous projectile weapon.
So David may not have been such an underdog after all.

But the point remains, because Goliath looked

dangerous and unconquerable.
If David had accepted how things appeared

he may never have attempted what he did.
Transcript: http://www.ted.com/talks/malcolm_gladwell_the_unheard_story_of_david_and_goliath/transcript?language=en
***But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,

from you shall come forth

one who is to rule

 

Mesmerized by power

I used to study family systems with rabbi Ed Friedman

He talked about how we need to think

more about soul and less about power.

We tend to be mesmerized by power.

Goliath looks big.

The girls on the other team are taller

and they can shoot.

The port city is well-defended.
I often puzzled about what Friedman meant

about soul vs. power.

But I think that Gladwell’s insights

offer the clue.
Soul has to do with discovering my capacity

and focusing on that, rather than

letting the apparent size of the problem

define how I’m going to approach it.
What’s my soulfulness? What’s my great gift?

What’s my secret joy that I’d like to bring into the world?
If you prefer, I think this could be called

soul power vs. structural power.

It is two forms of power.
But one plays the usual games of

domination and control.

The other finds the hidden pathways

of the soul,
pathways that probably have more to do

with love and hope and joy

than with domination and control.
***But you, O Bethlehem,

one of the little clans of Judah,

from you…

 

What’s hard about Small?

Now being small can be difficult.

The effort can be exhausting.

The big forces can sit

behind their great walls all day.
And it is too easy for the small

to get stuck in small definitions.
I have a minister friend in Ohio

who told me about their youth group.
He said he asked them to name

three issues that were challenges

for them and that they wanted to talk about.
He said the first two didn’t surprise him:

They were sexuality and God’s plan for their lives,

two very common youth issues.

But the third one was naming.

And the naming issue was this,

in small circles, one thing can happen

and it defines you for the rest of your life.

You get stuck with a name,

a reputation or story.
Ever after, you are:

–Moo-cow Mullins

–Mud road Friesen

–The kid who made the basket for the other team

–The boy who crashed the car on State Road 5 on a sunny day
Overfamiliarity in a small system

can mean not enough

refreshing streams of perspective,

the small town phenomenon.
Take the name Living Light of Peace.

It’s a great name, and an important

attempt to signal a new day for this

good community.
But every time I tell somebody that name

they ask – is that Arvada Mennonite?
It’s hard to change your name, once it goes rolling

That’s of the things I’m paying attention to

in my new congregation.

What’s the early DNA that’s forming?

Because it tends to stick with you.
***O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,

house of bread is your name

 

But what’s so sweet about being small?

But being small can be very sweet.

Such soulfulness, so much flexibility

and chance to just do stuff.
The scale of the organization can be closer

to the initiatives of the heart.
Things can just look different from small seat

instead of from the seat of power,

the low seat of soul

instead of the high seat of control.
The old country song goes

“I’ve got friends in low places”
And sometimes those are the best friends of all.

The friends from Bethlehem,

the ones who see things differently.
May we discover the love of our hearts,

our soulfulness.

May we not be mesmerized by power

but rather inspired by

what brings us joy.
***But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,

from you shall come forth….
Amen.

Sing: Longing for light & We shall overcome

What is the church for…?Common time

June 14, 2015

For University Park United Methodist Church

Vernon K. Rempel, 2015

Bible reading:

Romans 13:8-14 NRSV

 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 

 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 

 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. 

 Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 

 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Paul Kottke and me

Good morning. It is good to be here with you. Since I’m preaching from a letter of the ancient church planter Paul, I might say, to paraphrase Paul, “it is good to be with you. I know your reputation; I have heard of the love and good work that grows among you.”
I do know your reputation, and this place is familiar to me, because I have been here many times, and I know your pastor Paul very well. He and I have worked together in interfaith connections for almost the entire 19 years that I have worked in Denver.
He has brought many people including me into this building over and over to build relationships of trust among the faiths. In this building, we have prayed for peace in the wake of 9-11. We have heard interfaith reflections of reconciliation during the war in Iraq.
Your pastor Paul has demonstrated wholehearted Christianity and at the same time a commitment and desire to learn from and care about and practice deep listening with other faiths.
He has that good leadership combination of persistence and empathy. He creates places where the room gets loud and energized with conversation and then he says “I hate to interrupt….” And then goes ahead anyway. Persistence and empathy.

And a couple of times he has worn a red sport coat. Have you seen this jacket? It is an unequaled mark of ecclesial authority! Put on the red jacket and lead for peace among the faiths.
And now I know you are in a time of grief and memory and change as your pastor Paul moves on. And this is good, of course, that you are grieving. It means there has been love. And that’s what I want to share about this morning: that what we do together in a place like this is not church, it is love.
It is the amazing and healing love of Christ. We do not so much come together to do church, we meet for the sake of a deep amazement of love.

Romans 13

Bible readers tend to think of Romans 13 as the passage about why we should pay our taxes; Why we should respect authority…. Paul evidently had some reason to worry. Things were getting disorderly, even rowdy in the new churches.
And it’s his own fault, so to speak. He released all these mighty energies with statements like Galatians 3:27, 28:

“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Or Colossians 3:8-17:

“You… have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”
(Read this quickly, as a rapid chorus of love)

And he continues:

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.”
Wow! On and on about it. The goodness! The love! Paul was effusive in his expressions of love. And so people were feeling their Christian oats! This love in Christ is so amazing that even the hated and feared barbarians and Scythians are getting the good news. Even the uncircumcised outsiders. Even the circumcised elder brother-types. Even the women who didn’t enter into that old belonging ritual. And Scythians who were just dangerous. And slaves who were so poor so bereft of dignity.
So Paul might say in Romans 13, let’s remember not to just go crazy. But wow – the energies of love that he released!
I have a friend who was talking about going to church with his grandson. They were getting ready, and talking about what they were going to do. In the middle of their preparations, the child had a question: “But grandpa, what is church for?” What is what church for? It is a good question, a good question to engage deeply.
Because in running church, in doing church, in our programs, and board meetings, and documents and understandings that is the bell-ringing question we do well to ask: What is church for?
In this day, we speak about the survival of the church, about budgets and attendance numbers and social and political impact. We wonder and fret about the public image of the church, and about own own contentiousness around whatever is the issue of the day.
And so it is good to rest for a moment, and to ask “What is church for?” To ask with child-like curiosity and openness: “But grandpa, what is church for?”
Church is, of course, for love the holy love of Christ. But how often does church become church for church? How often do we worry about institutional survival instead of wholehearted commitment to mission? How often do we worry about protecting what we have instead of giving ourselves in open sharing of abundant love? How often do we ask questions of fear, instead of questions of love? We get very Romans 13 with each other about taxes and authority, about money and structure.
But it is in that same Romans 13 passage that Paul writes:

–Owe no one anything except love one another

–lay aside the works of darkness

–make no provision for the flesh
In our organizations and institutions we often spend all day owing all kinds of things besides love? We fret over institutional survival. Money becomes scarce. The loaves and fishes of God’s abundance disappear from among us. Instead of love, we fearfully lecture each other about loss of membership, about affordability, about who can participate.
That, I think, is what Paul would call the works of darkness. That is fearfully attempting to make provision for the flesh, instead of putting on the Lord Jesus Christ, instead of letting love fulfill the law.
I’m of course not advocating fiscal irresponsibility. But how often does money-talk or institution survival-talk get in the way of living with risk and great joy into our good projects and missions? How often does it all get in the way of loving each other?
You know how in computer screens you can have a small window open maybe at the bottom of the screen for something you’re trying to keep track of while you do your work on the big screen? The small screen is keeping track, but the big screen is the love, the project, the reason we have gotten up in the morning. Let the small screen be institutional structure; but always let the big screen be love.

(I heard this small screen/big screen analogy in a sermon by Ted Haggard, now pastor of the new Saint James Church in Colorado Springs)
Brian McLaren put it well a couple of weeks ago at the Festival of Homiletics. He asked: “What if we actually believed that we had good news necessary to save the world rather than a proprietary product for which we need to protect our profit share?”
I would pray that we in the church would not be obsessed with keeping track but would rather be extravagantly astonished by God’s love…. Owe no one anything except love one another.

Three examples

Three examples of this. Three examples of the challenge to keep the mission, the love out in front.
The first is very brief and simple? It is from the book Systemantics, which remarks that the Boy Scouts of America. It notes that the BSA – Boy Scouts of America, was formed to promote camping. But now it may instead promote scouting.
Now, the Boy Scouts of America is an amazing movement, and has brought much joy and purpose into many young lives. But that is the question, isn’t it, as organizations grow? Are we promoting camping or scouting? Are we doing our mission, or are we doing our organization? 
Owe no one anything except love one another.
The question is, how do we keep our good missions from becoming organizations that then tend to obsess about internal order, control, survival.
Is this not even the case with the church a movement by Jesus Christ to create communities of transforming love. But how often are we doing church instead of the transforming love of Jesus Christ?

A Mennonite story!

The second story is of the Mennonite created Maple City Medical Center. The purpose of the center was to provide medical care to all in a neighborhood with many low and middle income folks. Their idea was that medical care is best provided by creating community, not just by have a medical professional meeting people in an exam room.
In this vein, they successfully created a bi-lingual pregnancy circle where women came together – with a medical professional, yes, but the focus was more on the women’s interaction and resource sharing than on an instructional moment from the medical professional.
Success! But then they realized a strange thing. They realized that their board meetings were being conducted in a traditional Anglo model of creating an agenda and working through it. This orderliness and agenda focus was simply sterile for the non-white board members and soon the board drifted from multi-racial participation to becoming Anglos-only.
So, they looked at what was working. They looked at the pregnancy circle,

which was warm and vibrant and inclusive. The circle was living the mission of the center whereas the board was not. And so they changed the board meetings into a time of shared food and conversation.
And it worked! The board meetings were so transformed that one board member remarked: “This is the most civilized part of my life. At work I’m in the jungle. Here we listen.” How many board members can say that about their boards? How many boards pattern themselves after their mission rather than after some other more abstract form for how boards should be run?
Well, that’s really something. that’s really something, isn’t it? A wonder, a sweetness in the very middle of good work. Pregnant woman no longer isolated, caring for each other, finding each other in their hearts? And mirabile dictu, a program board as a place of joyful and encouraging gathering based on the circle of pregnant women!
Owe no one anything except love one another. Make no provision for the flesh owe no one anything except love. Or as the founder of the center, James Nelson Gingerich puts it: “Do we believe in Jesus’ power to free us institutionally from our bondage to the fear of death? Do we focus on institutional survival, or can we trust our organizations’ future to God’s provision and protection and instead focus on seeking God’s reign and its justice?” (Joanna Shenk, Widening the Circle p119)

A Methodist origin tale

And finally, a third story from your own great tradition, the Methodist origin tale: My “heart strangely warmed” at Aldersgate. Here is John Wesley,

Anglican divine, Oxford fellow, returning from a disappointing mission

to Savannah in the United States. He meets with Moravians, and his heart is deeply moved. Strangely warmed.
Now, many people feel a lot of things. But Wesley translates this into formation of accountability formation circles, circles of conversation and investment. And soon, there are actions on behalf of the poor, workers, prison reform, abolition of slavery, that inner experience translated into outer structural change. And of my goodness, the beauty and power of the Methodist hymn-singing tradition. Something we Mennonites very much appreciate.
Thomas Merton, Elizabeth O’Connor, Parker Palmer and others have noted that when something deep and genuine happens in our hearts it then naturally flows into outer expression. We don’t have to force ourselves or get busy, or squeeze something into an already full schedule.
Rather, we flow in loving action out of the fullness of our hearts. That is what seems to have happened to John Wesley. Out of the fullness of his heart he now moves into the world. Wikipedia says that Wesley “held that in this life, Christians could achieve a state where the love of God ‘reigned supreme in their hearts’, giving them outward holiness.”
Well, that’s really something that’s really something, isn’t it? A wonder, a sweetness in the very middle of good work. A disappointed Anglican divine finding his heart transported as if the sun rose and warmed and open, a heart which was waiting for the heat of something greater to arrive.
Lay aside the works of darkness, of scarcity and nothing changing, of merely keeping calm and carrying on, as the British say. A warmed heart, in the middle of Oxford College in England – and therefore, so much changed for so many.
Owe no one anything except love one another.

We so much need community

What is church for? We all need genuine loving community so badly that if we weren’t distracted with lesser things, with small-screen things, we would seek it with all our might wholeheartedly, without reservation, as lovers seek each other in the night, as ships long at sea struggle mightily for the shore, as those who have once heard a beautiful song find it ringing in their hearts as they listen for it again and again.
What is church for? 
Here in Colorado, in our high-altitude semi-arid environment, we often realize late in the day that we haven’t been drinking enough water. I call this the five o’clock realization. We suddenly realize our thirst, our need for water after hours of distraction from this most basic of needs. It is not good for our health! 
As it is with water in Colorado, so it is with community. We reach the five o’clock times of our lives times of community-thirst. Times of loss of spouse or friends, eras of physical or mental illness, sudden change or loss of job, times of discouragement, transition from thick classroom community of school to the relatively scattered world of work.
Or that other kind of loneliness when we have a joy to share and no one with whom to share it: The gorgeous sunset, the cat video! What’s better than watching a funny cat video? Showing someone else a funny cat video. There’s your Internet version of community!
We reach five o’clock in our lives and we may realize I haven’t been having enough community. Where are my 5-year friends my ten-year, my 25-year friends? I have a couple of friends from attending Mennonite camps in 8th grade who are still blessing my life. Only my 35-year marriage compares to the strength and resilience of those relationships.
From a fullness of the heart, from great wholeheartedness, will flow our great shared projects that matter and make the world a better place.
Again, to paraphrase Paul, I have heard of your reputation, of that love that grows so richly among you. All we can do the best thing we can do is bear witness to it live into it day after day. That is what church is for, that is why we gather.
Owe no one anything except love one another. Thanks be to God.

I am so sad and horrified by the shooting in Charleston. May peace and healing be among those who are most directly affected, family members, friends, loved ones. I open my heart toward them.

In these stories, there is the impulse to separate ourselves into various roles: church people, victims, shooter, townspeople, mayor, innocent bystanders, readers of the news. But what if we are all in this together? What if what matters most for all people as we are touched by this story is that this is our shared story? What if we ask questions of connection, rather than separation?

If we are all in this together, then we take action, take steps in the direction of honoring and grieving the lives lost both in this tragedy and in events like it that are close to us. How do we renew our connection to loss and tragedy that happens from the heart of race, class, or religion? How do we let this become more our responsibility. How do we say about such moments: “this is my department, my life?”

Perhaps an even more difficult task is to reframe the story to say that the shooter’s story is also our story. We may want to say “not me” about the horrifying ideation and action that could lead to such brutality. And yet, we might ask how our shared culture creates “inflammations” that can lead to a “cancer” like this, if you will. Consider several questions.

–What are our latent and active attitudes about race that in some way touch all our lives?

–We have a culture that appears to deeply believe that killing people is a solution to various problems of national safety, crime, personal safety. How might that culture enter into this event?

–What about guns, the common coin of killing technology? How do we feel about guns? How do we use them, or keep them in readiness for use?

–What are our commitments to treating mental illness and offering care and resources for those who have mental illness?

–How do we create community in our neighborhoods and towns so that people are daily formed and shaped by abundant relational connections rather than by isolation?

–There is always a strong element of personal responsibility in such horrifying events. How do we all take personal responsibility in our lives for our daily living, relationships, connections, outcomes? What all is exactly “my department?”

I think there is a lot of “we” in all these questions. What do you think? How are we all in this together? I think such sad and horrifying moments as this can be a time when, in our trauma and grief, we can seek to plumb the depths of our shared humanity and seek to find ways to walk forward with each other.

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