Unkindness

kindnessLately, I’ve been thinking about unkindness. There seems to be a lot of it going around. People are increasingly angry and anxious about many things. Sometimes that anger and anxiety manifests as unkindness and a lack of compassion for others.

Recently I was talking with a young person about the possibility of being a pastor. I had intended it as a casual conversation—“Have you ever thought about becoming a pastor?”—but the young person responded with an immediate and decisive “no.” Knowing this person was a church kid, I asked why not. The response went something like this: “Church people are mean.” I was startled and assured the youth that church people are NOT mean, at least not all the time, but s/he remained unconvinced.

This is not the first time I’ve heard some comments from young people about the meanness of church people. More than one young adult cited their opinion that church people were mean, often using more colorful language that I won’t reproduce here.

So why are church people sometimes so mean?

I think it is because faith—and church, a place where we practice our faith—is close to our hearts. We have many emotions and experiences and memories tied to church: births and baptisms and confirmations and weddings and funerals and of course, week after week of Sunday worship. We are invested in our church on multiple levels. And as in any situation in which we have invested our energy and emotions, we are sensitive about it. So when another person comes along who seems to threaten our comfort or our memories by suggesting a change, we feel threatened. And when people feel threatened, they choose to flee or to fight. And fighting—even church fighting—can get mean.

It should not be so.

Jesus admonishes to us to love one another and show the world who we by our love for one another. “They will know we are Christians by our love” is not just a 70’s folk song. It is the command of Jesus (Jn. 13:35; see also 15:12, 15:17).

This does not mean that church folks cannot disagree. We are, after all, as human as everyone else. But it should mean that when church folks disagree, we do so agreeably—with mutual respect and love.

Ellen DeGeneres closes her talk show each day with the admonition that we should be kind to one another. I think she got that from the Bible.

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

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Misunderstood

MISUNDERSTANDINGI have been thinking about misunderstandings.

Last week, I was sending an email on my iPad using the voice interface. When I said “synod assembly” the voice program wrote “some disassembly.” I had a good laugh and then repeated “synod assembly.” The voice interface typed “sense assembly,” which also made me laugh. The third time, it typed “scented assembly.” Now I wasn’t so amused. After two more “scented assembly’s” I gave up and manually keyed in “synod assembly.” Being misunderstood is quite annoying.

We human beings are prone to misunderstanding one another. We all have our own lenses of experience and knowledge through which we filter what other people say and do. After a person has told us something, we often come to a conclusion about what that person REALLY meant based almost solely on our own lenses. It is rare for any of us to have the patience and willingness to remove our lenses and to listen with an open mind to what another person is saying. (That’s what a good counselor can do, though: listen with an open mind and few preconceived notions so that they can hear another person clearly.)

Further complicating communication is that the person speaking ALSO has his or her own set of lenses and experiences and knowledge through which they are filtering whatever they are saying.

Add to the mix that some people are not as articulate as they might wish and they may struggle to find the right words…and misunderstanding becomes a tour de force in many of our lives.

This is to say nothing of the newer communication methods of emailing, texting, Facebook and other social media where one is reduced to written words on a screen as a means of communicating complex and often personal information. I can certainly attest to being misunderstood and misunderstanding others far more often when using e-communication than I ever have experienced in face-to-face or voice communication.

Therefore, aren’t we fortunate that we have a God who completely understands us. At least it feels fortunate when we WANT God to understand us. However, an understanding God also comprehends our flaws, shortcomings, deceits, and secrets—even the ones we keep from ourselves. God understands us fully and despite that—and because of that—God still loves us. God still forgives us and blesses us and calls us beloved children. Being fully understood is indeed a fortunate thing.

May we learn to listen and understand one another as God does and may we learn to love one another as God loves us.

Ash Wednesday vs. Valentine’s Day

Ash_CrossAsh Wednesday is Valentine’s Day this year. An unusual juxtaposition of two very different holy days.

Valentine’s Day, now an extremely secular holiday, originally marked the day of the martyrdom of St. Valentine. There are several stories about different St. Valentine’s, but the most common one goes like this. During the reign of Emperor Claudius II, Rome was involved in several bloody and unpopular campaigns. Claudius found it tough to get soldiers. He decided that it was because men did not wish to leave their wives and families in order to join the army. So Claudius cancelled all marriages and engagements in Rome. A Roman priest named Valentine defied Claudius’s order and continued to marry couples in secret. When his defiance was discovered, Valentine was brutally beaten and put to death on February 14, about 270 AD. After his death, Valentine was named a saint.

Ash Wednesday is a day focused on confession and mortality. As ashes are imposed on our foreheads, the words “Remember that you dust and to dust you shall return” are spoken. We are reminded that we are mortal and that all things on earth will one day be no more. Hence, we are to put our trust in God, the only One who is eternal. And God, in turn, has promised to be faithful and to show us love and mercy that we can neither comprehend nor deserve.

On further reflection, Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day are not so different. For although Ash Wednesday focuses on our sin and mortality, it also is a day to remember the eternal God who loves us with a love surpasses all human understanding. So we could rightfully say that Ash Wednesday = Love.

That’ll preach.

I have been thinking about death…

Light in the end of the tunnelLately, I have been thinking about death. Last week I presided over the funeral of a father, a mother and a son who died together in a house fire. It was a very sorrowful situation. Yet as I said in my sermon, these were three loving, wonderful people. They cared for others, respected their neighbors, loved their children, took in many foster children, and died being loved by many, many people. Even as they grieve, I said to the family, I hoped they could also find a bit space for rejoicing at the gift of having had such people in their lives.

I have been thinking about death. It is hard to fathom that a person who is utterly unique in history can suddenly cease to exist. The idea that someone who occupied space in the world and in the lives of others and who is irreplaceable can be forever gone. People of faith trust that at the end of this earthly life, the essence of who we are (the soul, the spirit) continues to exist in some sort of eternal life. However, if we believe Jesus, he says that eternal existence is unlike our present existence (cf, Mk. 12:25). We will be “like angels in heaven.” And in spite of millions of attempts to do so, we really have no idea what an “angel” might be like or what the life of one such might be like. The word “angelos” in Greek means “messenger” which is perhaps a rather different idea of angelic existence than may immediately come to mind. So whatever eternal life might be, it is something wholly other, something completely outside our human experience.

Nevertheless, when I speak about deceased loved ones in a funeral sermon, I do so using human imagery because it is what we understand. I talk about the beloved dead doing the same things in heaven that they loved to do on earth and I tell the families that their loved ones are whole and well and restored. And I tell them that they are peace and resting in the arms of God. All these physical descriptors are my poor attempt to offer comfort to a grieving family, but they are also an acknowledgement that we simply do not know the nature of eternity with God.

Here is what we do believe and trust: that what awaits us after death is of God; that God is a God of love and mercy and grace; and that eternal life—whatever that means—will be good, even if we cannot fully comprehend what that goodness might be like.

I have been thinking about death. I confess I’m not looking forward to it with joy, but I do think that when all is said and done, it will be good.

January Thaw

Janthaw4It’s the January thaw. Temps are up, the snow is mostly gone, and the sun is shining. I can see my lawn for the first time in weeks and all the snow and ice are gone from the driveway. If you didn’t plant your bulbs in the fall, you might be able to do so if the temperatures stay above freezing for a few more days.

The January thaw is an interesting metaphor for our lives as people of faith—or just as people. We have “winters” in our lives—times of dormancy or even death. And sometimes in the midst of this dormancy, we can have a period of greenness and hope, a bit of relief from the difficulties of life. We know that those difficulties are not yet over and that the weight of them will descend again, but for today, we can see the possibility of spring and new life and brighter times.

I remember the first Christmas after my mother died in 1989. She had been gone for six months by the time Christmas rolled around. My dad wanted to try to keep everything the same for us kids (even though we were all adults) and insisted on hosting the family at his house at Christmas. Everything looked the same but we all knew someone was missing. We had all been in a time of winter since Mom’s death. Grief was still in our hearts.

Yet I remember that in spite of the grief and emptiness, we still managed to laugh and eat and enjoy each other’s company. It was a different sort of holiday than in the past, but for small bits of time, we forgot that we were in an emotional winter. We found joy and a new memories and hope. Mom was still gone and there would still be times of deep grief and loss for all of us. But for those couple of days, we had a “January thaw.” It was temporary, of course, but it helped us.

God is good at giving us January thaws—both in nature and in our lives. If we are willing and keep our eyes and hearts open, God can provide a time of relief, renewal and rebirth even in the midst of winter. Yet even if that January thaw does not come for us, we all know that spring will come and that knowledge can sustain us through any loss or calamity.

 

Forgetting to Remember

Memory loss manHave you ever been very clever and then forgot how clever you were? I seem to do it a lot. I do some preliminary work early on a project and then put it aside thinking I will remember I’ve done it when I’m closer to the deadline. Then when I am closer to the deadline, I redo the preliminary work and too late discover my previous preparatory work. I had forgotten how clever I’d been and ended up doing the work twice. I forgot to remember. Bummer.

I haven’t decided if this is a result of doing things out of the usual order or just general forgetfulness. Either way it’s annoying.

Here are some other annoying memory-related things:

  • Going to tell Marty or Michelle something and then forgetting it by the time I walk from my office to theirs.
  • Getting home from a quick stop at the grocery only to discover that I forgot to buy the one thing for which I stopped because I got too caught up in buying other less necessary items.
  • What’s going on with people’s health. They’ve told me previously—sometimes more than once—but by the next time I see them, I have forgotten and either have to make them repeat the information or else I fake it until they say something that triggers my memory.
  • Reordering my prescriptions in a timely fashion. The insurance company tries to help me by offering to automatically re-ordering, but they always want to do it too early, so I opt to order manually and then forget.
  • Not setting the DVR timer for that television show I really wanted to watch. And the program always seems not to be available with the On Demand function.

I could go on.

I can’t even blame this stuff on age, since I’ve done it for decades. My daughter once told me that she thought I began forgetting things after I turned 40. She then reasoned that we must have room for 40 years’ worth of memories in our brains and after that, we have to start making room for new stuff—hence the forgetting. It makes a certain amount of sense—except that I clearly remember forgetting such things as listed above when I was in my 20’s and 30’s.

Still, I think we can all agree that human memory is at best a dicey proposition. We remember some things accurately. Other things we remember through the lens of our own interpretation—usually in a way that favors us. Still other things we do not remember at all, sometimes by choice, sometimes for no apparent reason.

So I am exceedingly grateful that we have a God who does not forget us.  God remembers promises—and keeps them. God remembers us—even when we forget or ignore God. God remembers us with mercy and compassion and love—even when we forget to show the same to others. All of which makes me glad that God’s memory is so much better than mine!

New Year

Happy-New-Year-2018-Background-pictureWell, it’s the new year and even though—as far as I could tell—January 1 felt pretty much like December 31. Yet there is something about a “new year” that is very appealing.

A “new year” suggests that the old stuff is behind us and that we can begin, well, anew. This appeals to us, even though we all know that in 2018 we will have the same health issues, the same bad habits, the same flawed relationships, and the same problems we had in 2017. But a “new year” seems to make us think that things can and will be different in the future—as though we are getting on a plane and flying to an unknown destination where everything is changed and all possibilities exist before us.

It’s a little fiction we tell ourselves in hopes of putting unpleasant stuff behind us and focusing on the positive opportunities that we imagine are awaiting us in the future. The truth is much less romantic. We are, in fact, exactly the same people today that we were on December 31, 2017. The flip of a calendar page changes nothing. I know, I’m a downer, a party-pooper, a drag.

But wait, no! I’m not! The reality is that EVERY day can be a “new year’s day” or simply a “new day.” We need not wait for a flip of the calendar to try something new or heal a broken relationship or kick a bad habit or make a healthier choice. EVERY day is a new day, a new opportunity, a new possibility.

Martin Luther allegedly said that every day is a new chance to act as the baptized—to fulfill our baptismal commitment to follow in the way of Christ. If we fail to do so today, we can repent and try again tomorrow. After all, do we not have a God of endless second chances, a God of resurrection? Do we not have a God who gives us each day a chance to be the person God created us to be? Do we not have a God who promises us new life every day?

And the answer is–ding, ding, ding–yes, we do have such a God! Johnny, tell them what they’ve won!

They have won a New Year, a New Day, a New Life. For the people of God it all boils down to the same thing.