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! 

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.

Samosas and Pi

I listened to a film critic’s debate about whether current cinema has become too easy for us to watch.  Films like The Help or the Shawshank Redemption were criticized as being too sentimental, too satisfying to watch–providing no deep insight into humanity, moving us nowhere.  A few of the critics lamented how movie viewers need to demand to see more challenging movies rather than seeking movies that make us smile.  While they probably aren’t going to win that argument in the marketplace of stories, I felt properly chastised.  When Netflix surfaced a film called Pi, I thought, “okay, I’ll give something that is ‘edgy’ a try.”

More than once I wanted to turn it off.  It seems that when film pushes the boundaries, it invades the psyche.  I was reminded of the time when all freshmen, including me, who took Humanities Core at UC Irvine had to watch A Clockwork Orange.  It was a similarly unpleasant experience.

The premise of the movie, Pi, is that a mathematician (Max Cohen) finds the pattern that describes the ups and down of the stock market.  Because the number of digits matches a number a group of esoteric Jews seek, they believe that this same number is the one that underlies creation itself–or is the pattern that is God.  Max is already subject to migraines, and knowing this pattern increases their frequency and intensity.  Further, within these episodes are harrowing visions.   In the earthly world, the knowledge Max holds sends bad people after him from every direction.  His solution to all of this craziness? <spoiler alert>  Drill a hole in his head.  <end spoiler>  Who wouldn’t want to watch this for 2 hours?

The movie’s intensity made it into my dreams and woke me up in the middle of the night.  I realized what was missing in this man’s search for truth, what was missing in his search to understand the ultimate code of the universe, was relationship.  There is one friendship, but that too is lost in the search for the numerical pattern of the universe.  When a girl knocks on his door bearing Samosas, he slams it shut.

His compulsive need to find a pattern, to know what the pattern means, made me think about that tree in the Garden of Eden, the one God said not to eat from.  It was the tree of knowledge.   The serpent said eating from it would not kill us but would make those who ate of it like God.  Might this movie be a meditation on what it means to disobey God’s garden command?  For it was the human desire to know what it is God knows that took Max out of all relationship and led him into hell.

After the drilling, there is one more scene:  heaven.  Where, on earth, a young girl can give Max complicated arithmetic problems which he solves quickly in his head, in heaven she sits with him on a bench, gives him a math problem, and he smiles and says, “I don’t know.”

The Bible suggests, from the very beginning, that we are not made to know everything but we are made for relationship.  We are made for relationship–with these words I join a chorus of preachers.  But I will differ from many by saying that the Bible isn’t interested in giving you the 10 ways to make your relationships last or in helping you find your life long partner based on 30 bits of scripture.  The fact that such a message means snipping scripture from its context suggests humans are at play.  Remember that the apostle Paul makes clear that, if we can help it, we should not enter into marriage because it will distract us from following Jesus.  The Bible isn’t interested in helping you find your lifelong love.  But the Bible is intent on inviting you into love.

The Garden of Eden warns when we allow our search for anything to get in the way of relationship with God we lose ourselves.  It isn’t that the pursuit of knowledge is bad.  There was much to learn about in the garden, and God was there to be Adam and Eve’s guide.  But when their search for truth overrides their relationships what is left is scary.  The Garden of Eden story seems less frightening than was the movie in that it describes not one who has literally lost his mind, but how the world really is…pain in childbirth, backbreaking work to till the land, and a distance between us and God.  If we’re looking for something more akin to a nightmare we might recall those scenes from the prophets where God is fed up with loving a people who refuse to love. There the enemy is allowed to enter into the people’s homes, to destroy their place of worship, and to send them away.  The language of God’s ire is vivid and abundant.

There are many who draw out that Biblical language and state that they will not believe in any religion with such a God.  They miss the point.  It is exactly because the “chosen people” turned away from relationship with God that God became the one who condemns.  When we turn away from love, from loving, from relationship, we are left, as was Max Cohen, with people, with a God, who just want to use us.  However, when we turn towards love, we experience God’s love.

Relationship is at the heart of faith.  Faith deepens when we choose to love God and love our neighbors.  And faith compels us, when we are struggling, to do the things that allow love to take hold of us.

Practically speaking, from my own experience, this means that when we are feeling low, apart, even attacked, it helps to enter more fully into relationships, to become more vulnerable, and to allow love to act.  It is the opposite of what I want to do when I’m tired, uncertain, or hurting.  My first impulse is to run away, whether it be in imagining a solo road trip or playing on my computer.  I confess, I allow myself a little of both.  But what’s even better…?  Being held tight by my family and holding them tight; sharing some of my life with people I meet at the gym as they share of their lives; allowing the people I meet in church to walk with me and I with them in the ways of faith; writing these messages where I seek to know God’s word for this time and place and reading the writings of others who are engaged in a similar task; reading and watching creative endeavors–some that are satisfying to watch and others which wake me up at night; and prayer.  Some prayers I focus on Jesus, in others I rest in God’s word, sometimes I talk a lot, other times I’m quiet.    None of these are “the way,” but each is an example of how I enter more fully into love at this time of my life.

Thankfully, I suspect none of us are as extreme as Max.  When someone knocks on the door with Samosas we are going to, at the very least, open the door.  But still, the question remains…how will you move closer, be more intimate, love more deeply God and neighbor?  What are the habits you already have or one you might add into your life which allow you to remain open to love?  Within your list, there is your garden where you walk with God.

In Christ,  Heather

Far and Wide

In seminary at Yale Divinity School I was awed to find myself in a vast landscape–that of the Christian witness spoken through the centuries.  My perspective, having grown up in the Southern California United Church of Christ, was limited by comparison.  I realized I had only seen faith from one small corner of scholarship in this time and place.  There were more voices to hear, endless voices of faith and ways of understanding God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.  Add to that the Jewish traditions that are woven into scripture, and the totality of the Judeo-Christian witness reaches back to the days of creation.  This faith tradition is varied and beautiful, reaching far and wide, inviting us into a relationship with the living Creator, God’s self.

The vastness of the Judeo-Christian faith starkly contrasts with the image of the temple, the day Jesus arrived, as described in the gospel of John.

“In the temple Jesus found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.”  (2: 14)

Entering into the space where people came to meet God, Jesus is accosted by the sights and sounds of animals being sold for sacrifice to atone for sin.

In the claustrophobic chaos, the faithful find their way to the stalls in order to buy the appropriate animal as described in Jewish law.  Imagine the sounds, the smells, and the difficulty of holding an animal long enough to carry it to the priest for the altar.  How easy it would be to lose the intent, to lose God’s larger story, in the business of what must be done.

Recall, the Jewish people have come to the Jerusalem temple to celebrate the Passover, the day when God freed Israel from Egyptian bondage.  They remembered a day of blood and horror and salvation.  The night before Passover, each family of Israel was to sacrifice a lamb and put the lamb’s blood on their door.  God passed over the households that had this sign, inflicting the last plague on the rest of Egypt, killing their first born sons.  Only this last plague turned Pharaoh’s head long enough to allow Israel to leave his service and enter into a new life with God.

Israel, the freed people, enters into the wilderness, a vast landscape which opened them to experiences of God they had never before known.  Beautiful experiences, as when they saw God as a pillar of cloud and fire.  Frightening experiences, like a snake rising up from the desert floor.  After a generation had passed away, the new generation led by Joshua, entered, with God, into the land God promised.  God’s presence there is marked by the Jerusalem temple.

Having come to the temple, the symbol of God’s promise and presence, the crowd enters in thinking about what must be done to atone for sin. How small is their view as the din of animal noises and seller’s voices echo off the high walls of the courtyard.  Is this really the freedom that God envisioned long ago when blood was shed in Egypt?

Jesus gets angry…very angry.

“Making a whip of cords, [Jesus] drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.  He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.  He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (2:15 – 17)

I’m sure Jesus’ actions confused the temple leaders of the day.  They were only doing what was expected.  Maybe the root of that which would debilitate the churches of this day is similar.  It is all too easy to get into a business that, in its essentials, is quite similar to selling sin offerings: we do what has always been done in order to placate what someone has said is the Holy Way instead of seeking to invite all people into God’s grace.

Jesus was angry because the temple had created a way for people to placate the Holy One instead of opening the doors to a relationship with His Father and our Father.

Church practices are rarely questioned, indeed, just as in Jesus’ time, there is always a scripture to point to defend them.  Every such practice can be justified through tradition…and will continue to be as long as we are trading in our earthly temples.

Would that Jesus enter in, whip in hand, to tell us to get out.  Stop selling your doves here, your narrow way to peace with God.  This is my Father’s house.

In Christianity, we come to know God through Jesus.  When Jesus saw the faithful confined to buying sin offerings, he overturned the tables.  Given this, is it not possible that God is unhappy with tradition bound rules even if they can be justified by a small portion of scripture?  Isn’t possible that, even now, God continues to overturn the tables of our limited understanding that we might better know God’s way?

When Jesus saw that the temple, the place where one could come to enter into God’s presence, had as its first and foremost concern making people act according to tradition, he told them to get out.

Then, he pointed to himself as the temple which would be destroyed and in 3 days raised up.

Of course, the temple faithful had no idea of that which he spoke.  For it required leaving behind expectations in order to imagine God in a new form, one who would not kill, but would die to set us free.

May we allow God to make us free to enter a faith which is varied and beautiful, which reaches far and wide, and invites us into a relationship with the living God.

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.