The Mission Field

We are a Mission Church. I had just spoken these words to our accountant who comes in quarterly to help us keep current with taxes and the like. She looked a little confused. Then a young man came into the office. He had the tell-tale number tattoo on the side of his head.

He asked me if he and his friend could go into the sanctuary to pray.

So I opened up the sanctuary to him, his friend and his three year old. A few minutes later, I looked in to make sure all was well and indeed they were earnestly praying. When they finished, they came back to the office to tell us they were done. The young man was flushed, his eyes still wet with tears, as he thanked us for having the only open church in the area that day.

Then a thin man with a red face came in. He was looking for food. He has 2 girls, he said, teenagers. While he was gathering his food we talked awhile. He asked about our church—isn’t this a Samoan church? I had the opportunity to explain that we are 4 churches at one address. Those who meet here reflect and serve our community. One of our faith families is Samoan, another worships out of the African-American tradition, and another is gently Pentecostal. The group I pastor worships out of a tent revivalist tradition called the Christian Church–Disciples of Christ. He made me smile when he said he would visit the Disciple’s Worship one day.

Following him was a middle aged woman whom I’ve gotten to know over the last month. There was something in her eyes that said “I need to talk.” I invited her into my office. Grateful for the tool of Compassionate Communication (thanks to Reverend Terry LePage), I had a tool to give to her so she could start to create peace in the midst of a crazy situation. Of course, the first thing out of her mouth wasn’t “I want peace.” It was, “I need to find a job.”
All of this happened within the span of 3 hours.

And, the accountant, who sat at the computer in the front office watching all the comings and goings understood. We don’t send Missionaries out into the developing world, the mission comes to us. We are blessed to be in this neighborhood where a few words, a prayer, a box of food, an open door, or a cup of tea can make all the difference in someone’s day, and over time, in their life.

Of course, I welcome your gifts, your prayers, and your kind words in support of the work here in North Long Beach. We often are in relationship with people who do not have a larger network of support.

But I also am reminded that a gift of a few words, a prayer, some food, an open door, and a cup of tea can make a difference in the lives of those you encounter in your day to day walk. Go and make disciples…the mission field is closer than you think.

In Christ,

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

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.

Pleasing to God

When the firm ground shifts, praise God.

As I started to prepare for my next preaching assignment (North Long Beach Christian Church, January 22, 10:45), I turned to this week’s lectionary texts–a set of readings used by many Christian churches across denominations.  They struck me with full force.

“If riches increase, do not set your heart on them.” (Psalm 62: 10)

“For the present form of this world is passing away.” (1 Corinthians 7: 31)

And, in describing Jesus’ calling of his disciples, Mark writes:

“As he went a little farther, [Jesus] saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets.  Immediately he called to them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.” (Mark 1: 19-20)

These scriptures remind us that family, riches, and our current work do not last.  God’s mission for us must be large enough to move us beyond our current roles.  “For the present form of this world is passing away.”

Paul’s summation:  “Let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.” (1 Corinthians 7: 29-31)

Stop everything!  Paul shouts.  Seek only to please the Lord.

Stop worrying about finding one who will love you, stop fretting over the possible loss of your job, let go of your anxiety about what you will eat, drink, or wear.  “Follow me,” says Jesus.  Come and please God.

In the word of our culture:  Really?  We look around and see what others have and what we do not.  When someone else has what we most want–what we have spent years faithfully preparing for–how can we not feel jealous and angry?  When we’re losing our job, when we’re graduating from college into a hopeless job market, when we’re losing our home, when we’re betrayed by the one we thought loved us–when what we thought we could count on is no longer, how can we go on believing that God is on our side?

While the Bible expects us to cry out as in the Psalms, the word given to us who are experiencing personal landslides is not an answer to our torment, but an action:  cling to God.  Join with the Psalmist to praise God.

On God rests my deliverance and my honor;  My mighty rock, my refuge is in God (Psalm 62: 7)

And yet, perhaps because they are so often used, these words are too easy, providing a vision of comfort and stillness.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  The word from Mark is not to be still, but to move out with Jesus–to please God.  A more contemporary song of praise–Matt Redman’s “Blessed be the Name,” puts at the end of the song’s crescendo these words:

You give and take away, You give and take away, My heart will choose to say, Blessed be the Lord.

Redman’s lyrics are, to the mindset of many, downright offensive.  They are strong enough to get my attention.  What do you mean God gives and takes away?  Before them comes…

Every blessing you pour out, I turn back to praise; When the darkness closes in, Lord Still I will say…

Blessed be the name of the Lord, Blessed be your name; Blessed be the name of the Lord, Blessed be your glorious name.

When the football player who became a houshold name in the past few months lost his playoff game and entered into the realm of reporters, was he not trying to do just this?

Couched in all the imperfections of a man, we don’t believe it.  It offends.  It is easier to find fault, discount him as being naive and insensitive.  And he may be both.  And, at times, we may be both.  But as the ground beneath our feet moves, it may be better for our souls to let go of the judgment and instead join our voice with one who is trying his best to hold onto his God when the road, for now, has ended.

Let us join with the Psalmist and offend this world’s sensibilities when, having lost something great, we joyfully proclaim God has another way.  Let us shout out that on God rests our honor:  Join in…”My heart will choose to say….”  Let us be prepared to follow Jesus.

Long ago, the sons of Zebedee sat in a fisherman’s boat, mending their nets with their dad looking on.  How small is their world.  How tiny their expectatoins.  Hunched over, their mission, which seemed as essential to them that moment as breathing, is simply to fix their tattered net that it might once again hold fish.  The hired men wait for them to finish.  Their dad, knowing only what he has always done, is fixed in place.

How often do we get caught up in our own net mending?

Praise God who puts an end to that.  Our lives are not meant to be so narrowly defined.

If the ground under our feet is sinking sand, it is time to rise up, leave the mending to those who need the work, and use our gifts–the gifts that no one can take away–to please our God.

Blessed be the name of the Lord, blessed be your glorious name.

In Christ,

Heather

Speak, I am Listening

Last week, a friend of mine unplugged herself from her cell phone, in spite of the fact that she is a “connector” who enjoys being called. Somehow it had become clear to her that it was the week to stop answering the phone; to stop hearing the stories she had heard again and again. Instead, she tuned into the people who were around her–like her preteen daughter who, thankful for her mother’s presence, curled up next to her to read her science book for school.

We unplug that we might be more fully present to those who are near. Yet I don’t believe technology to be the root of our distraction. Those who’ve been with me for awhile know that people who lived in the mid 600s BC—the contemporaries of Jeremiah–surely were distracted, even though they couldn’t conceive of the world wide web.

In looking for the root of our distraction, I found The Practice of Encountering Others, a chapter in Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor’s newest book An Altar in the World, helpful. She tells how the monks of the 4th century who ran to the desert when Christianity became the religion of Rome spent a lot of time alone. Still they would come together to celebrate communion, to share a meal, and to share stories. Taylor points out that they understood that as much as they needed God, they needed one another. Even when they lived in the silent distant wilderness away from all the distractions of the city, the biggest temptation remained.

Explaining why they would come together, Reverend Taylor writes, “At the very least, most of us need someone to tell our stories to. At a deeper level, most of us need someone to help us forget ourselves, a little or a lot. The great wisdom traditions of the world all recognize that the main impediment to living a life of meaning is being self-absorbed.”

Whether we are plugged in or unplugged, answering calls or lounging in silence, alone or with another, the challenge remains to get over ourselves that we might hear the voice of another: a child, a friend, or even God.

Many years ago, I was sharing tea with a wise elderly woman I had met at church. She was strong and independent, having, as a child, traveled to California on a covered wagon (I hasten to remind my own daughter that I was born in California, but I digress). We were talking about the most recent Thanksgiving. She shared that one of her sons reacted with strong emotion to some of the family story-telling. He was frustrated about being remembered for some dumb thing he did when he was a child. It was a story that was often shared. She grinned puckishly and remarked, “I turned to him and said don’t you think it is time you got over that?”

Her bluntness, shaped by her generation, gets at a truth. He was still reacting to the criticism and embarrassment he felt when he was a small boy. While that boy remains part of him, he is so much more than that.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite Sunday School stories from 1 Samuel, chapter 3. Scripture tells how the young Samuel heard his name called in the middle of the night when all was quiet. Samuel assumed it was the voice of his teacher, Eli, with whom he had been all his life. He ran to Eli, woke him, and said, “here I am.” Eli told him to go back to bed; he hadn’t called. This happened again, and the third time Samuel awakened Eli, it finally occurred to Eli that if he was to get any sleep, he had to give the boy appropriate directions. He told him, when the voice called again, he was to say, “Here I am, your servant is listening.” Samuel did as he was instructed, and instead of running to the one who always told him what to do, who he was, and what he was to become, he listened to the voice of God.

It is always tempting to go back into the familiar patterns of our past, to seek guidance where we once found it, whether in the role we’ve been in for 20 years like my friend, in the power of our own mind as did the monks, or from a parent/mentor whose approval we still seek. The selves of our past seduce us into our own arms.

Verity A. Jones, writing about the power of social networks, reminds us: “We are created by God to be in relationships, in networks of people and ideas of all kinds.” She goes on to suggest “we should consider the prospect that exposure to networks of people and ideas that educate, encourage, correct, influence, shape, and depend upon us is an essential element of what it means to be fully human…” (Reflections, Living Theologically in a Networked World).

As we enter into the season of shared meals and celebrations, it seems appropriate to remember that it can be a sacred act to enter into conversations with people. If we learn to listen well, we can move beyond our self made sanctuaries to experience more of God. Our arms, those that would wrap us up in a pose of self protection, can learn to instead reach upward in a posture of thanksgiving and trust. We can awake from the slumber of our own limited dreams and learn from Eli to say, “Speak, O Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

Heather

A Wandering Aramean was My Ancestor

Change is difficult, especially when it means leaving behind close relationships, financial security, and cherished plans.

Last week I spoke with a “new church start” pastor, Reverend David Shirey, who hails from the Midwest.  He had followed God’s leading to Arizona, where his startup church, after 8 years of devotion, has 150 members.  “God has a way of putting me just outside of my comfort zone,” he reflected.   “That’s where all the growth happens.”

In that same gathering, the words from Deuteronomy were read:  A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…. (26: 5).  These words, part of the law literature, are given by Moses to the people to say when they bring the first fruit of their harvest to the temple priest.

Here is what follows:  he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.  When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors, the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.  The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

It is a ritual of remembering a journey began by Abraham of Haram, the one who went when God said “go.”  When their ancestors were enslaved and cried out, God battled so that they could leave–so that they could journey to a new land.  It is believed Deuteronomy is written down just before Jerusalem falls and the people are again driven out.   Now, with the Assyrians at their doorstep, the people who are soon to be displaced from their homes remember that they are, at their core, a journeying people.

Part of our heritage is a story of those who journeyed with God.  That means, at times, that we find ourselves leaving behind what feels secure and comfortable.   It is never easy.  Sometimes it feels more like a terrible mistake than a courageous choice.  We have to remember that we are not alone.   Remember all the complaints of those who had been brought out of Egypt, how they wanted to go back to the slavery they knew rather than face the unknown freedom.   But also remember, each time they sought their old ways, they’d run into the hurt of a disappointed God.  When they instead looked forward, the Red Sea could part before them.

Look forward, but also know that sometimes the promised land seems lacking in milk and honey.  I think of this pastor, as gifted in speaking as anyone.  His great success is not a megachurch in a temperate paradise, but a small church in the middle of the desert.  Perhaps he is tempted, every now and then, to look at what could have been had he stayed where he knew everyone.   And, I suspect, even the young among us onder what could have happened if not for this or that.   God knows how we get bound up in the “If only” game.  So in scripture, we are given this creed–not a set of beliefs, but a story of a journey we are asked to claim as our own.

Give thanks, but don’t get too comfortable.  God may have other plans for you in other lands.  Growth happens when we allow God to move us out of our comfort zone.

Heather