Rulebreakers

bison
A bison–picture taken from a safe distance away.

My husband and I returned recently from a vacation in Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone is a fascinating and unusual place and we very much enjoyed the scenery, the wildlife, and the many thermal features of the park (which is a giant volcano).

Everywhere we went inside and outside the park we saw signs and publications that warned tourists about the unpredictability of the wildlife—and that they should stay a good distance away for their own safety. And yet, as we traveled around the park, we witnessed numerous situations in which people were much too close to the bison and elk. In one case, a frustrated park ranger was trying to protect an elk group, but he was being ignored by most of the people. We thought it must be exasperating for the park rangers to spend their days yelling at foolish tourists who put themselves in harm’s way.

Likewise, as we toured the thermal features of the park (hot springs, geysers, mud pots, etc.), there were numerous signs warning sightseers to stay on the path or boardwalk—that stepping into the thermal areas was dangerous and would damage to the feature. Yet we frequently saw footprints in the volcanic sand along boardwalks where people had stepped off and walked close to a hot spring or mud pot, probably to get a picture. Again, it was upsetting to see these footprints and the selfishness and lack of respect for the park the prints represented.

But were we surprised by the foolish and selfish choices some tourists had made? Not really. We human beings often do things that we know are not wise or healthy or helpful. We too often think that the “rules” are meant for others and not for us. We think we know best. And along the way, we risk being hurt and hurting others.

I often wonder what God thinks when we so often ignore God’s “rules.” God’s rules—loving neighbors, forgiving others, doing good—were created for our good. Even the “thou shalt not’s” like not stealing or not murdering or not lying are intended for our good and for the good of society, our families, and our communities.

I am humbled by the frequency with which God has had to forgive me for my foolish and arrogant decisions that have caused harm to myself and others. I am a person of faith and should know better, but still I am prone to sin and thoughtless decisions and am in regular need of God’s mercy. The same may be true of you as well.

As one who has received God’s unmerited mercy on too many occasions to count, I should in turn, be motivated to share that mercy with others, even those who break the rules, even those who behave badly. It is a growing edge for me and probably for us all. But as one rule-breaker to another: it is what we are called to do—to forgive as we have been forgiven.

Unkindness

practice kindness.resizeYou know what I don’t understand? Well, there are many things I don’t understand—like how this magic thing called a computer works or how information flies through the air to my cell phone. But I digress…

Today, in particular, I want to talk about one thing that I do not understand. I do not understand unkindness between Christians.

We all know that there is much unkindness in the world. Bigotry and racism abound and unnecessary rudeness is becoming common place. People often feel free to wear their anger and hatefulness on their sleeves, treating others with disrespect and heartlessness. They post their unkindness on Facebook. They shout it at strangers on public transportation. They ignore the pleas of others to practice acceptance or, at the least, tolerance.

It will not be so among you, says Jesus. (Mt. 20:26-28) Jesus says this in the context of speaking about the misuse of power by one person over another one. He admonishes his disciples that they should not only treat one another with respect, but that they should be willing to serve one another as he came to serve them (us).

Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus set for a procedure for how Christians should deal with other Christians with whom they have a problem. (Mt. 18:15ff). The goal of this procedure is reconciliation between believers. It is not a recipe for excluding others or permission to treat other Christians with unkindness. It is a process by which Christians should seek to reconcile their differences, so that they can continue to be in relationship with one another and with Christ.

Unkindness should not be so among Jesus-followers. I cringe every time I hear a story about one Christian or group of Christians dismissing, disrespecting, or even condemning other Christians who believe differently. This is to say nothing about how Christians often speak of, judge, and condemn those outside the church who are “sinners.”

It will not be so among you, Christ says. Jesus calls Christians to a standard of behavior which mirrors his own. We are called to show mercy and love, forgiveness and gentleness, acceptance and grace, especially toward other Christians. And we are to do this because Jesus said so.

“Practice kindness” has become a phrase that many are using in response to the unkindness they see around them. Christians should be the shining example of kindness. We always should have been. And we still can be so. Because Jesus calls us to be so.

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. (Eph. 4:31-32)

Here’s Your Sign

SignIf you live in the Norwalk area, you’ve no doubt see the signs around town. You are not alone. You are worthy of love. You are enough. Don’t give up. Your mistakes do not define you. You matter. It’s not too late. Simple black lettering on white backgrounds. Profound messages.

At first, I thought it was a faith-based campaign. Then I wondered if it was an anti-bullying campaign. And then I consulted the great Google Oracle and found out that the signs are part of a suicide prevention campaign. You can read more about it (and order your own signs) at www.dontgiveupsigns.com. There are also pens, pencils, ink stamps, stickers, and buttons.

I’m kind of disappointed that it is NOT a faith-based campaign because the messages are SO Christ-like. It seems like the church is most often associated with negative messages—all those “Thou shalt not’s”—rather than messages of acceptance, peace, joy, and compassion. Since Jesus was the ultimate messenger of acceptance, peace, joy and compassion, I wonder how the church got so off-message.

Jesus came to earth for the primary purpose of demonstrating God’s love for us and all creation.

Jesus came to let us know that we are worthy of love—even those who feel unloved or unlovable.

Jesus came to let us know that we are not alone—he promises to be with us always, so that we face nothing apart from his presence.

Jesus came to let us know that we are enough—not perfect, but enough, because each of us is made in the image of God.

Jesus came to let us know that we should not give up—not on ourselves, not on our enemies, not on the world. God can always guide us and the world into a better place.

Jesus came to let us know that our mistakes (sins) do not define us—although they do help shape us, hopefully in ways that make us more compassionate and merciful towards others.

Jesus came to let us know it’s not too late—never too late to experience the joy and hope of life in Christ.

Jesus came to let us know that we matter. We matter so much that Jesus came to live among us to teach us, forgive us, and show us how to live in the world.

If I were to tweak one sign, it would be the one says You are worthy of love. I would change it to You are loved. God’s love for us is not about our worth. None of us is worthy and yet God loves us anyway. God’s love is unconditional, unmerited, and unending.

I have often said that when we come to believe in the magnitude and magnificence of God’s love for us, we will at last be able to love one another in the same way.

You are loved.

Father Brown

frbrownprimarySpeaking of British television shows (as I did in the previous blog), two of my parishioners suggested that I might like a show called Father Brown. The show is based on a character created by the short stories of G.K. Chesterton, a British author, poet, and lay theologian.

Father Brown is the Roman Catholic parish priest in a small village in The Cotswalds in England in the 1950’s. He walks around town in a black cassock and hat so everyone knows instantly that he’s a priest. He always carries an umbrella and rides a bike everywhere. And he solves murders that the police cannot. Sometimes the police welcome Father Brown’s help, but mostly they wish he would stay away and quit making them look incompetent.

I love the show and watched all seven seasons in just a few months. Aside from the obvious horror of all those murders in such a small village, the series is fun, interesting, and entertaining. Father Brown is a rather bumbling sort of fellow who can’t make tea for himself, but he is gentle, kind, patient, tolerant, humorous, and possesses a keen intelligence. And he’s quite nosy. Plus, he has very good theology. Had there really been such a priest in 1950’s England, he would probably have been defrocked for his progressive viewpoint. Indeed, several times in the show, Father Brown’s bishop threatens to do just that.

As I watched the shows, I found myself thinking what an ideal call Father Brown had. He preached and took care of his congregation, worried a little about the state of his building, and went to a meeting now and then. But he spent most of his time going out and about in his community. He went to fairs, local art exhibits, dinner parties, the pub. He visited people around town, knew most peoples’ names, and was known by everyone, even those who were not Catholic or even Christians. Most everyone liked and respected him, and if they didn’t at the beginning of the episode, they did by the end.

I thought I’d like to have a call like that. Fewer meetings and administrative tasks. Someone else to cook and clean for me. Spending my time being out and about with the community, my parishioners, and attending activities that built relationships with others.

Of course, the world was different back in the 1950’s. There were fewer events in communities, probably fewer church meetings, and an entirely different set of expectations for pastors.

And of course, I am an introvert and while I like the idea of being out and about among people, meeting new folks, etc., the truth is that I’m often not very good at that sort of thing. I like the idea of it very much, but I know the reality would be more challenging than I might think.

So for us all, eh? How often have we imagined an impending event or an upcoming life decision or a budding relationship would turn out a certain way only to discover that the reality is quite different. People are not predictable, and often what we thought we wanted does not meeting our expectations.

God is always predictable. God always exceed our expectations. Whatever we think we want from God, God always gives more.

This is not to say that we can tell God what we want and then expect things to happen just that way. It does not mean that God protects us from suffering or pain or the consequences of our choices.

It DOES mean that God is always there, always present, always loving, always forgiving, always ready to give us another chance. God can always be counted upon. We cannot say that about any other thing/person/experience in our lives. The reality of God is constant and dependable at all times. It is the only thing that is.

Father Brown I am not. Even if I had a call like his, I wouldn’t be so good at it. His “reality” would never be mine. I do not the same gifts that he does and the expectations of a 21st century pastor are quite different. So I just have focus on being the best pastor I can be with the limited gifts I’ve been given and trust that our dependable, trustworthy God will give me what I need to deal with the rest.

Still, it might be fun to walk around town in a black cassock and hat and see what happens.

The Appeal of Imperfection

BROADCHURCH_EP1_02JPGAbout a year ago, I wrote about how I’ve gotten into the habit of watching British television shows. I’m still doing it. There is something about these shows that is different from American television and those differences are interesting and intriguing to me.

The camera work is often different. Longer shots, more scenery.

Frequently there is less dialog. They seem unafraid of times of silence, of showing the viewer a scene and letting us figure out the meaning.

There is less action, especially in the police shows. More conversations, fewer car chases, virtually no shootings, more ordinary human interactions.

And the people…the actors look…normal. They are not all glamorous models with toned bodies and capped teeth. (Have you ever noticed that in American television, even the homeless and addict characters have perfect white teeth?) Actors in these British shows usually look like us. Some are attractive. Some are not. They can have wrinkled clothes, unfashionable hair, and crooked teeth. And these are the stars of the shows, not just the guest stars.

Of course, the Brits also have their glamorous stars, the picture-perfect folks. There is usually a character or two or three that fit that mold. But they also have characters that look like you or me. I find that appealing. Watching shows where everyone is slim, fit, in fashionable clothes, and sporting perfectly-coiffed hair and perfectly-capped teeth makes me feel a bit inadequate. Which says more about me than anything else.

We’ve all heard the public laments about our American obsession with youth and body image and standards of beauty, so I won’t recite them here. We know that such obsessions are unhealthy and yet it is so easy to fall into the trap of measuring ourselves by the unobtainable and unrealistic images we see on screens.

And yet we also know that people love us just as we are. We may be overweight, under-toned, have out-of-control hair, or be covered in hair, moles, freckles, or psoriasis. But people still love us, just as we are. Yet somehow, we can still find ourselves sucked into the media ideals and we still spend millions and millions on trying to get a bit closer to that ideal.

Good to know that God doesn’t care about such things. Good to know that God’s idea of beauty is about what is in our hearts. And good to know that God’s love and mercy do not depend on us in any way, but are pure gift from the Creator to the created.

Have said all that, I still plan on putting on my make-up tomorrow. God will love me then too.

Meatloaf Says

Meat Loaf
Meatloaf

I haven’t been here much this summer—“here” being on my blog. At the beginning of the summer, I looked at my calendar and saw all these open spaces and thought “Oh, I can get so much done this summer!” One of the things on The List was writing several blogs a month, maybe even having a few in reserve for the fall.

Didn’t happen.

I’m not sure how, but here we are at the end of July, with August knocking on the door. School begins soon. School sports and band camps have begun. The fair is just around the corner. I’m at the place where I should already be knee-deep in planning things for the fall. Somehow, I didn’t get to everything on The List. Again.

I’m sure this happens to all of us. We have these ambitious plans, often predicated on the idea that we are going to have all this free time because (pick one) a) it’s summer; b) the kids have finally moved out; c) I’m retired; d) the calendar has lots of blank squares. But it doesn’t happen quite the way we think and sometimes we just can’t figure out how that’s so—how the time got away from us. And then we feel guilty or disappointed in ourselves. Or at least I do.

For me, I think this stems from an often-unrecognized belief that my value lies in how much I get done. The more I accomplish, the more valuable I feel. The less I accomplish, the less valuable I feel. Sometimes, I am just too tired to finish The List and then I feel guilty because not everything got checked off. When I do get The List done, I usually feel vindicated and worthy. Even though I know it’s not healthy to measure my worth by the things that I do, I think it’s a way of thinking to which we are all prone.

But I think I’ve learned something valuable in the past few years that make this way of thinking a little less stressful and less self-critical.

I make The List shorter.

I’m more likely to accomplish the things on The List if there are fewer entries. If I can have the satisfaction of checking off all the things on The List, then I won’t feel guilty because other things didn’t get checked off. It’s a bit of a cheat, perhaps, but it’s working for me.

I had a short list for this summer. The blog was one of three things. I’ve accomplished the other two—or am in the process of doing so.  The blog didn’t get checked off The List. I’ve decided I’ll just transfer it to the fall List.

In the meantime, I’ll try to feel satisfied that I got two things done. To quote the famous poet Meatloaf: Two out of three ain’t bad.

 

 

Careful What You Wear

live dangerouslySeen on the T-shirt of a heavy equipment operator: “Live Dangerously.”

Umm…is that really the sort of attitude that we want to see in someone who operates heavy equipment for a living? Maybe if it said “Work Safely, Live Dangerously,” it would be more reassuring.

Human beings have always worn clothing that makes a statement about who they are and their status in the world. Artsy people often wear colorful or unusual clothing. Shy people tend to wear conservative or plain clothing. People who seek the approval of others often wear what those around them are wearing. Non-conformists tend to wear things that set them apart from the crowd.

No other clothing makes a statement more clearly than a T-shirt. T-shirt statements can range from advertisements to clever sayings to favorite teams to a company name to crudities. In a local store, I once stood in line behind a man whose T-shirt said something exceedingly vulgar about women. I wanted to say to him: Is this what you think about your mother or sister or girlfriend? After he walked off with his purchases the female cashier and I looked at each other and the cashier said, “What is wrong with him?” I responded with the line about his mother, sister or girlfriend, and then I wished that I had said it to him instead of to the cashier.

I’ve seen T-shirts that declare one’s faith in Christ, in beer, in the military, in America. I’ve seen shirts that encourage bad behavior, good behavior, love for the neighbor, hatred of the neighbor, respect for others, intolerance of anyone who is different. It seems to me that sometimes people use T-shirts to say things that they otherwise might not speak out loud and thus make sure that other people—even strangers—know exactly how they feel about an issue.

The man wearing the T-shirt with the exceedingly vulgar statement about women revealed something about who he was—and it was an ugly revelation. I wonder if he knew this (probably) and if he cared (probably not). I find that very sad.

I find it sad that this man felt this way about women—even if only a little bit. I felt sad that he thought that wearing such a shirt was appropriate or acceptable. I felt sad that he didn’t care what others thought about him because of his T-shirt. And I felt sad that he was obviously such a miserable, hate-filled individual. I’m glad I don’t have to live in his head.

But I also felt angry. I felt angry that he thought he could wear such a horrible T-shirt and that the rest of us were just supposed to put up with it. I felt angry that he thought of women in this way. And I felt angry that I didn’t have the courage to call him on his behavior.

We are living in a time when many people seem to think that hateful, bigoted, misogynistic rhetoric is acceptable. The level of intolerance in the world is growing daily, and while some opine that this is the last gasp of a dying culture of intolerance, I fear that it may well be a resurgence of the “bad old days” when women were treated as second class citizens, minorities were oppressed, and the poor were treated with contempt. I pray I am wrong, but when a man thinks that it is acceptable to wear a T-shirt to a public store declaring that all women should be raped, I fear for the future of the planet.

I don’t wear T-shirts much anymore. It’s my age, I suppose. The only T-shirts I do wear are quiet witnesses to my faith in a God whose goal is peace, harmony, love, and mercy–for all.

And the next time I see the man with the vulgar T-shirt, I will say something. In the meantime, I can only pray that broken, hateful hearts like his might be mended by the compassion of a God who sees us all as worthy of being loved.