Refined

After church service yesterday I went to a play called Silent, a one man 80 minute show depicting a homeless man.    It was remarkable in both its performance and in its refraining from providing the answer.  There was no call for services and no suggestion that “if only we did this or that” homelessness would cease.   There was no hero.  Instead, the show reveals a deeply troubled, wounded, and frightening man trying his best to keep his dignity while living on the streets. 

God will refine us with the refiner’s fire Micah proclaims.  I preached to the church that, not only on the fire of the last day, but in the fires of everyday, we are refined.  The fire we walk into this day Jesus will use.  Jesus will use what may have been intended for ill or for good to release us from the sins that weigh us down.  “Amen,” said the church. 

The play preached that some do not make it through to the other side in this world.  Some remain mad caught in the webs of past and present sin.  There was no “amen.” 

One of the repeated lines in the play was “all they see is the blanket” referring to the blanket he sleeps under.  And, the script emphasized that only one in 600 will look a homeless man in the eye. 

What is striking is that there were many opportunities for people to look the man portrayed in the play in the eye before he became homeless.  Having experienced a deep trauma in his youth, he found no one to walk through the fire with him.  He was left with the obsession, the pain, and the insanity. 

There is likely someone around us who is walking through trouble this day.  I encourage you, Jesus followers, to not leave them alone.  Call, write, or show up on their door step.  Put yourself into the fire with them.  For you can bring Jesus there.  Go, believing that what the fire uses to destroy, Jesus uses to refine.   It will take time, but watch how the person you are with, the one you pray for, over time becomes like gold and silver, glowing with the shine that is their truest God created self.

                      Reverend Heather Miner

                       Pastor of North Long Beach Christian Church

 

For those seeking to help, we have a food pantry in our church office which supplies food for housed families and for those who live on the streets.  Often, Monica and I are able to spend time in prayer with those who come in. 

Food that can be opened and eaten right away (Vienna sausages, peanut butter crackers, etc.) as well as non-perishable good are always needed.  If you prefer to send a check so we might pick up items on sale at the local grocery, send it to North Long Beach Christian Church, 1115 E. Market St., Long Beach CA 90805.  Designate your check “Food Pantry.”  Thanks! 

What are you waiting for?

What are you waiting for?

This rhetorical question is often used to get us moving and doing.  But that’s not the intent today.

Our Psalm proclaims “I will wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope…my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.”

The words make me picture a long cold sleepless night.  Sometimes I have a little taste of it when I camp; when I wake, and it is still dark, and I cannot sleep again.  How I long for the light of morning and the bird’s twittering proclamation that night has become day.  But there’s something else that helps me get through the night.  For a little ways away from me in our tent is my daughter and all I have to do is take her in my arms, share warmth, and all is well.

O Israel, hope in the LORD!   Shouts the Psalmist

For with the Lord there is steadfast love,

And with him is the power to redeem.

Notice–the Psalmist is in relationship with God, with the Lord.  You may know that, while it isn’t the majority of the scholar’s view anymore, the Psalms were, traditionally, ascribed to David.  The same man who was guilty of adultery, the one who took down Saul, the harp playing king of kings was thought to have authored the Psalms because the words sound like what a broken man of faith would sing.  Indeed scholars have simply expanded the authorship to include a larger community of faith.  Not one voice but many.  What is most important is not trying to figure out who wrote what but that these words were spoken in a faith community during worship.  These are the words spoken and sung by the broken people of faith–those who know the worst of life and the worst of themselves and yet dare believe God is near.   The Psalmist knows the love of the Lord.  The community who sings the Psalmist’s song have felt the power of redemption.  In their singing they open their arms wide to the God of love.  In some respect, the wait is over.  Even the words that come out of a long night ring with joyous faith.

Faith is always an invitation to take hold of a love and power that is beyond and yet with us.  We can choose to set our mind to wait, to believe all will be well someday, and then we will know love.  Or we can choose to set our mind to take hold of love already given.  As Victor Frankl, a survivor of the extermination camps of World War II writes, “Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”  (http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/v/viktor_e_frankl.html#35iLDEkBbRxkeaY6.99)

Frankl’s writing comes out his observations that those who survived the camps held to something higher, more powerful than the overwhelming evil of the camp.  They could feel something else at work.

Faith is an invitation to make a choice to believe God is moving among us.  But when we are busy doing, we are often not even conscious of our choice to exclude God.

In college, my Sociology professor assigned his students to go to a public place and stand.  We weren’t to wait for anyone or anything.  The assignment was to stand for 30 minutes and then write about the experience.

Years later, I remember how out of place I felt at first.  I wasn’t doing what everyone else was doing around me.  I had no purpose and felt uncomfortable with my lack of intent.  But, then, after awhile, I began to see the laughing teenagers pass by; the baby calling for his mother’s attention; the man waiting for his wife outside a store.  I began to see.  And, as I stood there, instead of feeling the frenetic pull I often feel in a Mall, I felt more and more peaceful.  I didn’t need anything from the stores.  I wasn’t waiting for someone outside of a store I had grown tired of.  I wasn’t worried about being lost or left behind.  It was okay to not have a purpose.  It was enough to watch a bit of God’s work in the faces of those who passed by.

The difference between waiting for God and waiting for something less is when we wait for God there are no limits.  We give God permission to work outside of the lines.  In contrast, when we wait for someone or something, we become captive to one idea–like, waiting for a loved one at an airport.  Lots of people pass by before the one we desire appears.  We don’t really see their faces, just the fact that they aren’t the one we are expecting.

When we are waiting for the one, we can become irritated.  Our time, that precious commodity, is being wasted.   We are angry at those who keep us from what we are waiting for.  We feel both the loneliness and fear of being lost.

It is this kind of waiting that is most familiar to all of us and to those who disbelieved the words of Jesus.

When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will not hunger.  Whoever believes in me will never thirst.”  Those who heard him argue saying, “How can he say such a thing?  Is he not Joseph’s boy who grew up in Galilee?”

You can almost see the scripture writer’s smile.

On one level, there is truth to their complaint.  It would be difficult to believe that someone who grew up in your neighborhood is the one sent by God.  It is totally ridiculous.  On another level, the gospel suggests that disbelief and complaint go hand in hand.

You can fill in the larger conversation:  “Jesus can’t be what we are waiting for.   If he is the real thing, let him perform a miracle, like the one God did that day when our ancestors were in the wilderness and God sent manna from heaven.  Let Jesus do something grand like that.”

And Jesus retorts: “Stop your complaining.  Stop looking up to heaven.   I am here.  Besides, that miracle in the wilderness wasn’t so grand.  It didn’t overcome your ancestor’s disbelief.  Those complainers died before they entered into the promises of God.  Look at me.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”

“I am here.”

What are you waiting for?

A young man worried about his soul going to hell because he didn’t go to church except on Christmas and Easter.  Some of his Christian friends had told him that he was doomed.  He, being at the age when the thought of death becomes scary (remember that age in your life…we don’t talk about it much, but it is part of our development), found it hard to sleep at night.

Pause here a moment.  Understand, when we are spiritually alone, it is easy for fear to take hold of us.  On one level, his friend was right.  Church could help bring this young man closer to God and love.  A faith community could love and shape him.  Where the friend went wrong is in deciding for God what God would do.

I asked the young man, What do you know about God?

God is a good being, he replied.

That got me thinking.  How do we know God is good?  How do we know God is the one we should look for in the morning?

There are plenty who would question God’s goodness and love because this side of heaven is not all good and sometimes acts against love.  How do you know God is good?

The Bible tells me so?  The preacher tells me so?

How do you know God is good?

Your Dad?  Your Grandmother?  Your Friend?  Your Sunday School teacher?

How about an experience you had one day.

How many of you here have had an experience of God’s goodness?

If I probed further, if we had time in this short hour to share of these experiences, I trust that many of your stories would be set in a time when you were forced outside of your normal habits and were able to see more clearly.

To wait on the Lord is to seek out the Lord as if God is here.  To take hold of the one we love in the middle of the night and let the Holy One warm our soul.   It is to believe that when Jesus stands in front of his hometown peeps and says “I am the living bread” that Jesus means to give us all we need.  It is to wait, not for someone to arrive, but to see the possibilities in the life that has been given all around us.  It is to stop complaining so God can get to work in us.

Henri Nouwen writes:

A few years ago I met an old professor at the University of Notre Dame, Looking back on his long life of teaching, he said with a funny wrinkle in his eyes: “I have always been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I slowly discovered that my interruptions were my work.”

 That is the great conversion in our life: to recognize and believe that the many unexpected events are not just disturbing interruptions of our projects, but the way in which God molds our hearts and prepares us for his return. Our great temptations are boredom and bitterness. When our good plans are interrupted by poor weather, our well-organized careers by illness or bad luck, our peace of mind by inner turmoil, our hope by a constant changing of the guards, and our desire for immortality by real death, we are tempted to give in to a paralyzing boredom or to strike back in destructive bitterness. But when we believe that patience can make our expectations grow, then ‘fate’ can be converted into a vocation, wounds into a call for deeper understanding, and sadness into a birthplace for joy.

– from Out of Solitude by Henri J. Nouwen

What are we waiting for?

I’m sure you have your lists.  I know I have mine.  It has been exactly one year since my last day at Community and there is no sign of a church call; nor a sign of full time work; nor a sign of financial stability.  There is much we all can complain about as the economy saps our confidence in keeping what we have.  There are those among us who are single after all these years who wish for a loving partner to share their lives with.  There are those among us who wish for a more just politic.  There are those here who wish desperately that their son/daughter will come back to a path of love.

Nouwen says,  “Fate can be converted into a vocation, wounds into a call for deeper understanding, and sadness into a birthplace for joy.”

Jesus tells us who does the converting: “Do not complain among yourselves.  No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me….”  (John 6:44)

”unless drawn by the Father who sent me.”

It is God who draws us to Jesus, to healing, to hope, to love present now.  It is God who converts fate into vocation, wounds into deeper understanding, and sadness into a birthplace for joy.  There no stronger image of God breaking into this world than the heaven sent Jesus standing in front of us, saying, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.”

“I am here.”

Today, hear the call:  Let go of the lists, the complaints, the worries, and frenzied acts.  Instead, take hold of the invitation of faith…Wait on God … wait on God

I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 

July 28, 2012

John 6:  35 – 51; Psalm 130

Reverend Heather Miner

Loneliness and Solitude

From the book, The Eternal Now, sermons of Paul Tillich written for college aged young people:  “Our lanugage has wisely sensed two sides of man’s being alone.  It has created the word “loneliness” to express the pain of being alone.  And it has created the word “solitude” to express the glory of being alone.”

On the latter, he writes:

“Sometimes God thrusts us out of the crowd into a solitude we did not desire, but which nonethless takes hold of us.  The prophet Jeremiah says–‘I sit alone, because thy hand was upon me.’  God sometimes lays hands upon us.  He wants us to ask the question of truth that may isolate us from most men, and that can be asked only in solitude.  He wants us to ask the question of justice that may bring us suffering and death, and that can grow in us only in solitude.  He wants us to break through the ordinary ways of man that may bring disrepute and hatred upon us, a breakthrough that can happen only in solitude.  He wants us to penetrate to the boundaries of our being, where the mystery of life appears, and it can only appear in moments of solitude.”

Sounds true to me!

Pastor Heather

Speaking Jesus

Christianity certainly has a rich back story found in the Hebrew scriptures.  But today I’m more interested in the “after story,” what happens when the final scene has ended.  The gospel of John tells the story of Jesus but is written long after Jesus died; long after the resurrection encounters.  Yet, despite John being the latest gospel written, it, alone, is filled with Jesus’ speeches, Jesus’ words.  And, it is the only gospel that we hear Jesus pray for us (John 17).  Here scripture points to a principle of faith.  Only after the church has been around awhile, only when they have dwelled within Christ for some time, can they give Jesus a clear voice.  Only when we have dwelled with Christ for some time can we give Jesus a clear voice.  I suspect this is why the epistle, 1 John, talks so much about abiding, dwelling in Christ.  What I understand from this scripture is that there are times when it is best not to act but simply to abide that we might give Jesus his truest voice.

In Christ,

Heather

An Easter Call

Easter morning—He is Risen!—He is Risen, Indeed!

Sin and Salvation

Jonathan Edwards shouts out

We are sinners in the hands of an angry God

Look what we have done

To ourselves

Our neighbors

Our nation

Our world

Our God

Look at what we haven’t done

For ourselves

Our neighbors

Our nation

Our world

Our God

Should God not be angry when we stand apart, build our own towers, testaments to our own strength?  Should God not be angry when those God loves abandon each other?  Should God not be angry when we abandon our world and ourselves when the tower falls?

We are not made to stand alone!

We were made to stand with…

Salvation is connection.

At the cross we stand with

Jesus who believed

God is more than anger

Or vengeance

People are more than sin

Or arrogance

Easter morning dawns

Mary and Peter peek into the

Empty tomb

And are afraid.

Resurrection possibilities

Strewn about in torn cloth.

“Mary,” calls the gardener

Recognizing Jesus’ voice, she cries out, “Rabouni!”

Salvation is connection.

Jesus’ faith  in and Jesus’  love for

God’s faith in and God’s love for

you and me

live on

connect

you and me.

Leave behind Eden

The serpent will never have

The last word.

Leave behind the tower

None of it is yours

Anyway.

Free your hands

Together let us

Take hold of the cup–

The cup of salvation.

Together, let us come into love.

Faith of Jesus

One of the seasons of the Way–the earliest name given to Christianity–is Lent.  The season’s beginning is marked with a worship service known as Ash Wednesday.  As the name suggests, ashes are central to the imagery and the ritual where the sign of the cross, put on the forehead with ashes, is a sign of our mortality.  This is not a service everyone chooses to attend, for the focus is often inward, the worship prayerful, and the leaving in silence.

Yet, worship is a way to make you available to God.  Sometimes it is in the quietness that God can most effectively speak.

My ponderings today come after attending a delightful Ash Wednesday service which, along with the usual scriptures from the Psalms, featured an image of a Phoenix (the mythical bird that becomes flame when it dies and is reborn out of his ashes).  This image of resurrection led me to ponder about the faith of Jesus.

Pastors and theologians often talk about having faith in Jesus.  Jesus is our Savior, the one sent to allow us to become close to God.  In this theological imagining Jesus is a type of Intercessor, one who, like Moses, frees us from the slavery of sin and allows us access to God’s words and ways.

Given this vision, Lent regularly features an honest self examination to see where sin has a hold on us.  Ash Wednesday is an occasion to read a familiar parable of Jesus about the Pharisee and the tax collector in the temple.   Both men come to pray.  The Pharisee prays, “Thank God I’m not like that tax collector over there.”  The tax collector prays, “Forgive me… for I am a sinner.”  In his telling, Jesus makes the hated tax collector the hero, highlighting the humility necessary for one who wishes to truly know God.  Plenty of ink has been spilled on the need for us to admit our sin in order for God to enter in. Continue on with this penitentiary practice for all of Lent and you have an experience that fits within the vision of the Council of Nicea (325 AD) where the Lenten season was established.

But the Bible provides more of a multifaceted voice than did the council that met so long ago.  There is room to re-imagine Lent–these 40 days (not including Sundays)–before Easter as a time when we are called to a faith like Jesus.   This theological imagining leads us not just to the cross but to the resurrection.

Three times in the gospel of Mark, Jesus says something like this…

“The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”  (Mark 9: 31)

In all three times that Jesus talks about dying, the disciples choose to not understand.

In fact, when Jesus first says these words, Peter rebukes him, trying to stop what was to happen.  And Jesus responds, “Get behind me Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mark 8:33)

The final reference to death and resurrection opens up a heated argument between the sons of Zebedee about who gets to sit on Jesus right when Jesus enters “into glory.”  (Mark 10:35)

While the disciples couldn’t hear Jesus, because they were likely so afraid of losing the way they’ve come to experience God, perhaps we can.

Notice when Jesus speaks about his death, he also speaks of his resurrection.

This is the key to having the faith of Jesus.

Jesus never talks about his death without speaking about his resurrection.  We might even speculate that Jesus kept going, kept doing the difficult things, because he believed in the resurrection.

To have the faith of Jesus, then, is to believe that, even when you are living in the ashes of what once was, resurrection is possible.  And, to push it one step further, when you are heading into the fire because it is the way God has called you to go and even your friends sound like the enemy, go anyway, believing God will have the last word.   Lent reminds us to stop playing it safe.  It is time to let go of what we fear losing and instead follow the one voice that gives us life.

Such a faith did not make Jesus superhuman, unaffected by the hostility of those who would send the “King of the Jews”  to the cross.  Jesus still cried out in the Garden of Gethsemane for another way.   Yet, Jesus’ faith allowed these words…”Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”  (Mark 14: 36)

During this Lenten season, those of you who like to mark the season with a offering can still give up  candy and eat fish on Fridays.  But as you do, as those cravings come, use the feeling to allow your vision to go beyond your own failings.  Look up!  Listen.  Listen carefully.

What is it God would have you do?

 

In Christ,

Heather

If

My daughter’s school assigned her fifth grade class to create a poetry notebook, to contain both poems she wrote and those she found and enjoyed. To further this I read a poetry anthology from my childhood with her, and we came upon Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If—.“ On revisiting this poem for the first time in a long while I began to feel both connection—and unease. The words read, on their face, as sage advice. And, yet, it feels wrong–like it is pointing in a direction that is, in some sense, different from the way God, my life, and my faith has made me. It made me want to figure out just what makes it troublesome. Perhaps that reflection would help me to see and proclaim the truth that guides me.

Here’s the poem: If—

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, not talk too wise;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you have your life to broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with worn out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them:  “Hold on”;

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings—nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fell the forgiving minute
With sixty seconds; worth of distance run—
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Rudyard Kipling

There are, indeed, golden lines here. Pondering which is your favorite will tell you something about you. They are verses to carry, a voice that recognizes what it means to be sane in the midst of brokenness. Wouldn’t we hope that ups and downs and twists and turns wouldn’t take away our purpose or our finely cultivated adult selves? Wouldn’t we like an iron will, an ability to hang on, despite the fatigue?

Henry Morton Stanley, dubbed by those he met on his journeys “The Breaker of Rocks,” had such an iron will. In 1887 he went into Africa seeking Dr. Livingston, and as would befit a man of his nickname, Stanley survived to tell the tale. An extraordinary man to be sure, but what caught my eye was how the authors Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney chose to use his example to explore what helps humans have an iron will. They quote various studies, the last one of which tells how the will is strengthened by a “focus on lofty thoughts.”

Researchers including Kentaro Fujita and Yaacov Trope “found that self-control improved among people who were encouraged to think in high level terms (Why do you maintain good health), and got worse among those who thought in lower-level terms (how do you maintain good health)…. The results showed that a narrow, concrete, here-and-now focus works against self-control, whereas a broad, abstract, long term focus supports it (Smithosonian, December 2011, 86).”

The lofty goal of Rudyard Kipling’s poem is to become a man. The poem suggests when we can gracefully negotiate misfortune and fortune alike, we have arrived at adulthood. I suspect his words are of a piece with the time and culture in which he writes, a place where one could believe in the possibility of humans to overcome the vagaries of our own soul. Unfortunately, at this moment in time adults are often portrayed as a Simpson or Kardashian, whose dirty laundry is put out on the (internet) line for all to see. Far from the humanist vision where adults are able to put away childish pettiness, to be an adult today is to be able to share in the laughter around our own ineptitude.

While Jesus speaks about welcoming the children, Christian theologians have another way to talk about what it means to be human. The answer most often given goes something like this…when we desire and seek to come into relationship with God, when our will is aligned with God’s will, we come into our fullest humanity. To be human is to be in relationship with God. You can’t get any loftier than that!

So Kipling’s focus on what it means to be a Man is akin to a focus on the “how” to maintain good health rather than the “why.” As such it feels awfully heavy, like being told to read the list of exercises one must do every day. It makes me wonder, do I really want to be a Man*

But if to be a Man (or Woman) means to be in relationship with the Creator of all things, the one who imagined and spoke the world into existence, and from clay and breath gave life to humanity, I’m interested. To be able to hear God’s word for me through scripture—and through prayer–is an amazing possibility, an amazing experience. God really can speak to us! To be guided by a divine will that understands and creates possibilities beyond our own psyches sends us out on new journeys–new adventures. Morton was to find Livingston, but Livingston went first because he was sent by God.

Finally, this image of human will holding on is seems to conflict with the motto of those that follow the twelve steps, “to let go and let God.” Their first step is to connect with their higher power, with God as they understand God.

Connect, not with your will, but with the will of God. They may not be identical.

The reason why the poem “If” has resonance is it too talks about surrender, not holding on to what has been lost, or seeking retribution for wrongs done. It acknowledges that much will be broken and we won’t have the perfect tools to fix them, but there will be tools. It preaches that neither triumph nor disaster make you what you are. But the Will… and if it is not mine but thy will be done… if it is God’s will that holds on, that gives us the courage to hold on… if I am surrendering to that which seeks to hold, guide, and love me… then…

Take my life, and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.

And, may we be Man and Woman enough for God.

*Irony (his and mine) intended.