Joy Matters – sermon from 5/13/18

Rob Bell, a well-known pastor, author, and speaker tells a story about a time he was sitting in a meeting at the church where he was a pastor. It was a huge church and this was the meeting where the various leaders of the different departments of the church came together to discuss the running of the church.  Important stuff. But it was a very large staff, and so at one of their meetings, a couple of the people said that after those meetings they have to go back and tell everyone else about what happened in the meeting and so it might be good to invite more of the staff to come to the meeting so they could get the information first-hand. This was discussed for a long time and nothing was resolved, so they spent much of the next meeting talking about this, too. And Rob said that his heart began to sink because he realized now they were mostly just having meetings about meetings. So, he went to the person who was in charge of the meeting to talk to him and he said, “You know, I’ve noticed that we’re spending an awful lot of our meeting time lately just talking about the meeting,” and then he said he stopped because he realized with horror that in that moment he was having a meeting about a meeting about a meeting.

He talks about how in the course of all of it, he felt a whispering in his mind saying, “What am I doing here?” He said it was a feeling deep in his bones – that although figuring out all the meeting stuff was important and there were other people who may have been really into that and whom God put on earth to organize and attend meetings about meetings about meetings, he knew that was not his work to do. He had other work that needed to be done, other work that God had given him to do, work that energized him and gave him life and was hard in its own right, and it wasn’t to sit in meetings about meetings about meetings.

As we continue going through Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Paul is talking a lot about humility and service. He says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

This is the kind of verse that is so contrary to our culture today. Most everything in our culture is hyper-focused on developing the self and looking out for number one. In fact, this culture elevates a positive self-image to such a degree that we run the risk of becoming our own false gods. Having a positive self-image is important, but it seems like it can run off the rails pretty quickly, too. For example, during a confirmation class some years ago, I asked a teenage girl to name someone she admired the most and she said herself.

Herself? Is that the message our kids are getting? That they should love themselves so much that they refuse to open their eyes and admire all the varied gifts and beauty of the people around them? To think so much of themselves that they have unwavering certainty that their way of seeing the world, their story, their little plot of land on which they live, their past and their future, is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end? I inwardly did the hugest eye-roll possible and then calmly asked her, “how about someone aside from yourself?”

Oh, trust me, Saint Paul would have done an eye-roll, too. As he sits in jail, writing letters of encouragement to his co-workers in Christ, urging them to put others first, think more highly of everyone before themselves, so much so that they consider themselves slaves to others.

These words about selflessness are powerful – and they can conjure up visions for us – maybe we think of Mother Teresa, serving the poorest of the poor in India. Maybe we think of our mothers, sacrificing their time, their energy, their own interests for the sake of our growth and security. Maybe we think of teachers, who so selflessly give of their energy and love and wisdom to teach our kids.

And probably, if you are at all like me, you feel a little guilty. Because it can feel like there’s no way to measure up to what Paul is asking of us here. The truth is that we don’t want to always think of others first – sometimes we want and need to look out for ourselves. We are fine with thinking highly of others, but we need to value who we are, too, and what we have to contribute to the world. And as far as being a slave to others?  It’s just hard to get behind that one at all.

But it’s good to remember here that the word slave is from the greek word ‘doulos’ – which means slave or servant – and usually by one’s own free will. One has chosen to serve, chosen to give one’s life over in this way. And that makes all the difference, along with something Paul says a bit later in this same letter, “Rejoice in the Lord.”

Yes, this giving over of ourselves, this putting others first, this thinking more highly of others than ourselves, it’s important to who we are as followers of Jesus, but the key is to find a way of doing that that brings us joy, and brings joy to the world through us. Joy matters.

There was a fellow I knew at seminary who, like me, was studying to be a pastor. He was a very good student, he always knew the right answers in class and everybody liked him. We graduated at the same time and lost touch, but years later he found me on Facebook and I was interested to notice he wasn’t a pastor anymore. He was a full-time traveling musician now and leads song-writing conferences and retreats. I asked him a little about his work and he told me a bit about his journey – how he had gone to seminary because his parents wanted him to and because it seemed like the right thing to do. He wanted to serve God. It seemed like a good thing to do, even though he wasn’t ever very excited about it. “Seminary was fine,” he said – “I liked the classwork and our friends and the variety – but once I got into a church it got harder. I felt claustrophobic and like I was playing a part that wasn’t me. I stayed for many years, partly because I had invested so much money in the education and partly because I felt like maybe I was just supposed to suck it up and try harder.” He talked about how the church he grew up in had stressed that you had to think about others first and die to yourself and so he wondered if maybe he was supposed to be miserable. Maybe that was part of learning how to really follow Christ. After all, he thought about people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other martyrs who had suffered and died for the faith – surely he could withstand a bit of unhappiness for the sake of his love of the Lord, right?

He began to get chronic backaches and headaches, various other aches and pains – but figured he was just getting older and that happens. He got used to a low level of despair hanging over him and took comfort that his work may not make him happy, but at least he could be useful.

The only time he felt really joyful in his work was when he was leading music – which he would do often at church or for other events that needed a musician. He wrote music and recorded some songs, always thinking of it as a hobby but nothing more. It wasn’t until one day a woman in his congregation stopped him after church and told him about how she appreciated his ministry of music. He thanked her – others had kindly said this to him before. But then she added, “I wish you could only do that. I mean, it seems like that is when you are happiest.”  And something deep within him said, “Yes.”

Those few words she said shifted something for him that day and he knew what he had to do. He set for himself the goal that within a year he would find a way to let music be his full-time ministry. He said it wasn’t easy, there was no direct route to follow to do what he does now, it took longer than he planned, but he loves his work now because he’s using his best, most life-giving gifts, and he’s joyfully serving God and others. The backaches and headaches went away.

Joy matters. My prayer for all of us is that we find ways to put others first, to serve often and well, but to find ways to do that with joy. Rejoice in the Lord! If you consistently have a slow sense of dread on your way to do something, even if you are good at it, listen to what that dread is telling you. Is it time to find another way to use your gifts or perhaps change up the way you are doing the same old task? Is it time for that season to end so another can begin? Listen not just to all the needs of the world and the advice of those around you, but listen to yourself and the Spirit of God at work within you. Or as the author and theologian Howard Thurman said it, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Listen to Your Life

If there is anything better than a walk in the quiet woods on a warm spring morning, the scent of apple blossoms in the air, and listening to The Samples on my headphones, I do not know what that would be.

I haven’t listened to The Samples for a while – but since about 1991 they have never been far from me. In the mountains of Montana, I fell in love for the first time, and “Feel Us Shaking” was part of the soundtrack of that summer. When I was in West Africa, “Little Silver Ring” and “Everytime” played constantly – as I went running, as I journaled, as I daydreamed. The semester I studied in China during seminary I listened to their live album as I walked from the seminary up on the hill down to the city below. Something about their songs has always filled me full with the perfect amount of longing and hope at the same time.

Today, I was stopped dead in the middle of my walk when “Here and Somewhere Else” by the Samples was playing. It was partly the song itself, but also how it slammed me back in time to when I was listening to that song the most.

I traveled for a couple years with a band. During those two years, I started dating a fellow who I met along the way and we began a long-distance relationship as I kept traveling. I saw him whenever we were in the area where he lived, but mostly I was on the road. He was funny, sweet, and cute. I loved him. Sort of.

Also during that time, I began to spend more time with one of the guys in the band. It started very innocently – talking for hours about music and life. He had a girlfriend, I had a boyfriend. I began to realize over time that I was falling for him, but I never dreamed he would be interested in me.  I kept writing my long letters to my boyfriend back home and telling myself I was happy.

Until the night the boy in the band kissed me…and the truth of what I really felt came spilling out and I couldn’t hold it in anymore. I never wanted him to stop kissing me. I closed my eyes and I didn’t care if I ever saw my boyfriend again. I felt like a terrible person, but sometimes there is just no going back when you realize what you truly want.

Oh, I tried. See, the boy in the band didn’t want a relationship with me. I realized that even as he was kissing me – so after what amounted to a weekend of making out with the boy in the band, I tried to go back to “normal” and force myself back into contentment with my boyfriend.  I told myself it would be better once we were living in the same city. I told myself that my boyfriend was cute and funny and sweet and what more do I want? But my heart was off somewhere else – nowhere near my boyfriend. I could feel it in my bones. I didn’t want it to be true, but it was. I went for long walks asking myself “why why why!?” Why couldn’t I just be happy with the cute, funny, sweet boyfriend anymore?   The only answer that came to me was the unsettling truth that if I had to choose between the two years I had spent in a real relationship with my boyfriend and that one weekend of kissing the boy in the band, I would take the weekend. No question.

But I never did break up with that boyfriend. I was sure that it wouldn’t be smart to do that. He was sweet and funny and cute, remember? What more did I want? It was silly, it was foolish to want more.

But I did want more.

In retrospect, while I couldn’t bring myself to break up with him, my behavior seemed to show I was trying to get him to break up with me. I told him about making out with the boy in the band. I got super drunk at his brother’s wedding. I moped around depressed and crying – morose about being off the road and away from my band. Within two months of my moving back to the city where he lived, he broke up with me.

And I was sad…but mostly indignant. I remember thinking, “You are breaking up with me? I was never even sure I wanted to be with you and you have the nerve to break up with me? I just spent the last many months trying to talk myself into staying with you, reminding myself over and over that you are sweet and funny and cute and telling myself to ignore the voice in my head telling me that it isn’t enough to just think someone is sweet and funny and cute…and now YOU are breaking up with ME?”

But thank God he did, because I could have spent who knows how long continuing to try to convince myself it was right, it was fine, it was a good enough relationship – even though deep in my heart, I knew I would trade every second with him for the few moments of real passion and head-over-heels joy I felt with that long-lost boy in the band.

I’ve been thinking about how often we settle. In some ways, my Christian upbringing is at the core of it. I was taught to not be too big for my britches, to be thankful for what I’ve got, to look for the good in everything.  I knew my boyfriend was a good person, but what I couldn’t admit was that he wasn’t good for me.

It takes real strength to figure that stuff out. It can be so hard to let go of what is good and hold out for what is great, to believe we deserve the things that really bring us joy and light us up inside.  And it can feel positively scandalous to see this quest as a holy task, but it is! Because it would have been terrible for me to end up with that boyfriend for the long run – he is a great guy and he deserved to be with someone who was thrilled about him all the time, not someone who was spending her life talking herself into being with him.

For months, I ignored the voice in my heart telling me the relationship wasn’t right, that I had to let him go. I treated that still, small voice in my heart like she didn’t really know what she was talking about, what she wanted.

I’ve learned over time, over many years, that when I don’t listen to that voice in my heart, I forsake my deepest self. I forsake what is truest and most holy within me if I don’t pay attention to what my own life is trying to tell me. I spent decades listening first to the advice of others, the best practices of professionals, tradition, mentors, but a while ago I made an important promise – a promise to myself that for the rest of the years I have left, I will listen to me and my heart and wisdom first. I will listen to the way the Holy Spirit is singing in my own life first. I won’t treat myself and the Spirit’s motion as if they don’t matter, or as though they are merely some lesser voices to be crammed in the crevices of bigger, more scheduled, more sensible plans.

No, my Spirit-filled self first.  She matters to me.

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” – Frederick Buechner

 

 

 

Prayer as Ruthless Honesty

It’s a lovely time of year to live in Minnesota. The weather is finally warm enough to be outside, the leaves are coming back on the trees, the school year is winding down and all the activity of summer is dawning.  The fields that stretch behind my house are free of snow and the corn is not yet growing high, so I can go walking there – a nice change from jogging miles on my treadmill every morning.

Yesterday as I walked, I listened to Rob Bell’s podcast, the “Robcast.” I’ve listened to this podcast off and on since he started it because I’ve always enjoyed his books and other projects but lately, I’ve been mainlining these podcasts, one after another.

I love how he is making these podcasts exactly what he wants them to be – sometimes they are a sermon – which is very natural for him since he is a pastor, but sometimes he interviews people, on other occasions, they are just his thoughts which sound more like a motivational speech than anything.  He creates for the sake of creating what he feels led to create and does his best to detach himself from whether or not the outcome will be a “success” – and encourages others to do the same. His words, his way of sharing them, his outlook – and all of it is serving as good medicine for my spirit.

And yesterday, he was talking a bit about prayer. He said, “Prayer is the practice of ruthless honesty of all that is going on inside you.” He referenced a text from Jeremiah when Jeremiah was pouring out his frustration, anger, and praise all in the same prayer…but the prayer didn’t end with praise, it ended with asking God why he had even been born. (Jeremiah 20:7-18)

It reminded me of my dad’s notebooks I have been going through as I’ve been trying to get rid of things. Whether he saw them that way or not, they were prayers. From the sad poems, to the angry, ranting letters to local politicians, to the unpublished memoirs, even the unsent letters he wrote to faceless, nameless women he found in Enquirer personal ads. All of those words he wrote were him pouring out what was going on inside of him. The notebooks were the place he felt he could be honest. They were his prayers.

All of us need a place we can be honest and real about what troubles and excites us, what brings us hope, what we long for. We need to be able to pour out and acknowledge all that collects inside us – to remember that it, and we, matter.

It seems in modern Christianity we think we need to sanitize our prayers. In fact, long ago in confirmation class I used to teach the kids a tidy little acronym to help them remember what a ‘perfect’ prayer looks like: ACTS – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. All those parts are good and important, but prayer can’t be reduced to an acronym. When it is treated that way, we start to think there is a wrong and a right way to pray, that God can only handle some of our words and some of our thoughts presented in only certain ways.

But God can handle our messiness. God can handle our prayers that are all over the place – angry and thankful and pissed off and hopeful all at the same time. We are never ‘too much’ for God. Our emotions, our lives, our mistakes, our longings, our desires, our despair – none of it is too much for God.

“Prayer is the practice of ruthless honesty of all that is going on inside you.” – Rob Bell

 

 

 

Simplifying: not always so simple

Last night, at the end of a long day, I went downstairs to confront the sorting of piles once again. In the traditional Christian story of the Creation, God separated the light from the dark to create day and night. In my current story, I separate pictures from the letters from the notebooks from the concert stubs, from the family history records to create piles upon piles.

I grabbed another notebook of dad’s to look through and decide if there was anything in there I wanted to keep. The one I grabbed was not his usual ranting, sad poetry, or angry letters to be sent later. This one was nearly full of letters he wrote to women in response to classified ads they placed in magazines like The Enquirer. I don’t know if magazines still have these kinds of ads – perhaps it is the early equivalent to Ashley Madison or other dating sites. Anyway, this notebook was plum full of letters my dad wrote. “Dear Ms, I am a divorced, 5’9, 190 lb man living in Minnesota,” (he was none of those things…except living in Minnesota) each of these letters would begin – and then he went on to share his version of woo-ing the intended recipient. Some of it was sharing his dreams of moving south, some of it was piling flattery on some details she may have shared in her description, “you love to cook? That is perfect, because I love to eat!” In some of his letters, he spoke about how his “ex” wife didn’t understand him, didn’t meet his needs, didn’t live up to her “wifely duties.” He ended each letter with expressing how he couldn’t wait to meet and giving our home address and phone number.

These letters were mostly dated around the year I was 16. He would have been 52. ‘

I can’t say the letters upset me all that much. It’s not like I have any illusions he was a perfect man or that his marriage with my mom was without difficulty. I’ve been married long enough to know that sometimes things can happen that drive you bat-crap crazy. Maybe mom and dad had been fighting and one of the ways that he got through it was imagining a different life for a while. I don’t know if he ever sent one of those letters but I do know he never met one of these women. He was a hermit – he never left the house. In fact, he could barely walk down the driveway so he most likely would have had to ask mom to mail those letters.

No, I think these letters were a gasp at life and freedom and excitement for my dad whose real life had already become so severely limited by physical and mental ailments that he was desperate. “Is this all there is? Is that great opportunity never coming to find me up here on this hill where I hide? I’m scared shitless of this gray hair, these wrinkles, this expanding midsection, this unending sickness of spirit and body.”

Was this my dad’s version of a mid-life crisis? Writing letters to imaginary women in the far-off warmer climates where he always wanted to live? Dreaming of himself as taller, thinner, free-er, healthier, just different than he was?

No, these letters don’t upset me. What upsets me is knowing he felt trapped by circumstances – ones that were both within his control and beyond his control. He had all sorts of longings – like all of us do – but he felt powerless to change. He was so infinitely afraid…and unfaced fear eventually turns to anger.

The anger was what we got to see. He may have had all sorts of complex emotions roiling underneath, but what we saw and how we remember him is by the anger.

I tossed the notebook in the garbage.

 

 

Rejoicing in Repurposing

I’ve mentioned in earlier posts how a significant portion of the items I have been releasing into the care of others have been china, dishes, glassware, serving dishes, and vases that I never used. I have two china cabinets – one was my mother’s and the other was a far more beautiful china cabinet that a family was giving away in Texas and they brought it over to us. I like both cabinets for different reasons: My mother’s sat in our living room my whole life while I was growing up and just looking at it brings back memories. Also, if you walk by it quickly, the glass doors make a noise that sounds like 1974 to me.

The other cabinet is a dark wood that looks nice with our other furniture. Plus, the bottom cupboard holds art supplies and some puzzles.

It’s never been the cabinets I wanted to release – just most of the stuff inside. I’m very happy with what I’ve done now. The bit of china that is left has been moved to the dark wood cabinet, and my mom’s cabinet has become the perfect storage place for my office books. Yesterday, Owen and I moved it into my sunroom, unloaded the ugly little bookshelves I had in there (which he was pleased to take for his game room/office) and filled the cabinet with books. The storage area underneath is perfect for old journals and some of the pictures I still need to scan.

So now it feels like mine. Having two cabinets full of tchotchkes was silly and didn’t make sense for this life in which I never use all those fancy dishes –  but using one of those cabinets for the books I use all the time – now that is fine and works for my life.

That’s the point, isn’t it? Not getting rid of everything – but getting rid of what is extra and unneeded, getting rid of the countless things that I might need for “someday,” creating space for what matters.

Words are Heavy

Without a doubt, the most difficult task in my de-cluttering is the boxes of papers, pictures, and letters. Seriously, there are about five large, heavy tubs at least.

Eventually, I want to scan many of the pictures, so they are staying for now – but I’m sifting through the papers and seeing what I still want to keep. I used to write a lot of sad poetry – that’s going. Much of the stuff the kids made when they were teeny tiny is also going – I’ll just keep a few select, favorite creations. I have thrown out a few pictures of people or places that I don’t recognize. Today alone, I filled one garbage bag full with this kind of paper/picture/letter stuff.

It gets tricky when it comes to my mom and dad’s papers and pictures. Dad was really into genealogy and I’ve told myself I might want to read all his findings “someday” – but that means holding on to copious amounts of paperwork in the meantime. Also, all his writings that were never published (and which I can barely read because his handwriting was so terrible) – I can’t quite part with it yet. Especially because from what I’ve read, it seems like many of his spiritual struggles were similar to mine and I feel like if I really take time to read it, I might come to understand him in a way I haven’t before. I would like that. Perhaps I will post some of his writing here – and then I guess technically it WILL be published. That would be a dream come true for my dad.

I think I’ll start right now.  Hold on – I’m going downstairs to get one of his notebooks…

I’m back. I grabbed a notebook from 1969 – he would have been 36 years old. This was the year before I was born. By this time, he had been on disability leave from parish ministry for a while – maybe 5 years. He left full-time ministry because of his various health issues after only three years in the parish.

“Purpose

The air can be stifling. So hot and miserable that it chokes. There’s an absence of that “peace that passes all understanding.”  We may reach for our old escape hatches. We find they are gone.

I felt so alone that I feared each moment. A meaningless moment is hell. To wander aimlessly without purpose is hell. There must be a purpose and a goal.

There’s nothing so stifling as the loss of peace. I lost that peace. I was serving at Tea, South Dakota (as a pastor). The nest became rougher and rougher. Finally, I was forced from the nest. I couldn’t fly – I hid in apartments. I hid from all the world.

But peace escaped me. Again and again, I tried to fly – I couldn’t. Then things became worse. I fell into deep depression. The darkness of night was frightening. I feared life and I feared death. 

How can I explain the inner torture? How can someone understand the inner hell I knew?”

He never spoke about any of this to us. He wrote down his heart. I do that, too.

These last days as I’ve been worrying about health issues, I’ve been pondering that passage from Philippians about “peace that passes all understanding.” I hope my dad eventually found that peace at some point during his earthly life. If he did, I hope he wrote about it so I can find out someday – somewhere in those piles and piles of paper in my basement.

 

 

 

De-cluttering – With a Twist

Sometimes the slightest pivot in circumstance puts things in a whole new light.

Last week, I was happily de-cluttering my house with fervor. It was fun and satisfying to fill up another bag or box with items that were mostly just taking up space. I enjoyed pondering why I kept all these things so long and how much time had passed since I last touched or used this or that.

Then, I started noticing an irritation, a sensation really, in my throat that was unusual and has been lingering for a few weeks now. I don’t want to describe it too much because I’m not looking for any help with diagnosing – but I will say it was troubling enough that I went to the doctor, and she is concerned enough that suddenly I’m having a small battery of tests to determine what is going on.

And I’m freaking out.

I hate to admit it. I would like people to think I am constantly filled with the peace that passes all understanding, but the truth is that I am not. Not always, anyway. In fact, the last few days I’ve been overreacting with fervor. Just ask the kind radiologist who happened to do my ultrasound yesterday. I burst into tears as soon as I walked into his little ultrasound room. He was so nice as he said comforting things and handed me tissues and water. But you see, I kept thinking about how the only other times I had  ultrasounds were because we were expecting a baby – and what if this ultrasound finds something that is terrible and I’m dying and I have to leave my beautiful babies and this beautiful life and…

The ultrasound showed nothing.

So now I am having another kind of test scheduled soon and in the meantime, I’m telling myself to breathe, to stop imagining the worst, to think about what this intense fear I have is all about and what it is trying to tell me.

I think the fear comes partly from the generalized fear that most mothers have of something happening and not being around for our children.

It’s partly because I have spent time with so many sick people over the years, visited them, prayed with them, and seen their quality of life slowly diminish, and sometimes be extinguished. I don’t want that. But then, neither did they. None of us ever know when or if illness will strike.

It’s partly because my own father was sick for so many years and it stripped away all his joy and life in his life. I still grieve how his poor health robbed him, and our family, of so much.

It’s partly because my father-in-law died from a cancer that began as an irritation in his throat…

See, all these things! I may be healthy as can be…or maybe there is something wrong. I’m in the in-between time right now when I don’t yet know. So, staying busy helps and I want to throw myself even deeper into the de-cluttering…

But now when I sort through another tub of papers or clothes, there’s a quiet, but impressively over-dramatic voice in the back of my head whispering, “Well, that’s one less thing for Chad and the kids to take care of when I’m gone.”

You can see how the whole spirit of de-cluttering has shifted in this light.

I’m sure I’m fine…or maybe I’m not…either way, I’m alive now and nothing is bad. I woke up and gave my children breakfast, and helped my long-haired 11-year-old boy comb his thick blonde hair into a pony-tail. I went for a jog and while I did some cleaning I listened to some spectacular mix-tapes I found while going through old boxes. I just ate the perfect hard-boiled egg. I’m infinitely thankful God gave me this day. This gorgeous, one-of-a-kind,  possibility-filled, breath-taking day.