Follow by Email

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

All You Need Is Love

In my reading last night I came across a memorable quote by General Eric Shinseki. The quote was, "If you dislike change, you're going to dislike irrelevance even more." This was a fitting quote considering a conversation I had earlier in the evening with someone frustrated over the Church's failure to be relevant for today's generation.

Thanks to a 2:30 am phone call (a hang up, grrr) I have been wide awake and trying to find ways to amuse myself...namely surfing the web. My random queries soon focused in on General Eric Shinseki as I wondered who he was and what the story was behind that great quote. I learned that General Shinseki is from Hawaii, his family immigrating there from Hiroshima in 1901. He serves in the Army, was wounded in combat in Vietnam and he is the highest ranking Asian American in the history of the United States. He currently is serving as the US Secretary of Veteran Affairs.

My query did not, however, lead me to the circumstances behind the quote that had caught my attention earlier. Instead, I found myself captivated by another of his quotes.

"You must love those you lead before you can be an effective leader. 
You can certainly command without that sense of commitment, 
but you cannot lead without it."


I have no idea if General Shinseki is a man of faith but it would appear from this quote that he knows something about the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Is this not the way of Christ? Was his ministry not based upon building relationships born out of and nurtured in love? My mind is flooded by images: Jesus calling Matthew from his tax collector's booth - Jesus allowing a sinful woman to wash his feet - Jesus at the well offering new life to a woman who had ruined her own - Jesus with the Centurion - Jesus writing in the sand to save a condemned woman - Jesus with the poor - Jesus with the mentally ill - Jesus with the sick - Jesus touching the "untouchables" - Jesus in love...with everyone.

Why do I follow Jesus? Why do I profess faith in a man who, 2000 years ago, proclaimed himself Messiah, savior of the world? I guess we could say, in part, due to his leadership. I am not drawn to Christ by commandments and laws - I am drawn to Christ out of love...a love only realized by understanding that first he loved me. he loved me before I deserved it - he loved me before I loved him back - he loved me when I rebelled - he loved me when I came home - he loved me when I celebrated and he loved me when I wept. It is due to his love that I want to follow where he leads. It is due to his love for me that I now find the desire for his commands and laws. Were it not for love, I would not have followed.

Through my calling to lead a local congregation, as well as my volunteering to mentor local pastor's and serve on Church Transition teams - I find the word "leadership" comes up a lot. We seem to talk endlessly about what leadership looks like in the church. Phrases like "cast a vision" - "create a team" - "establish a mission statement" - "set measurable goals"come up often. I've attended seminar after seminar in how to be a better leader, and don't get me wrong, I'm thankful for the training - I've learned so much. However, none of those things have made me a better follower of Christ.

I went to a conference once on preaching. Our goal was to learn how to be inspiring and relevant in the spoken word. I sat through terrific sermons and lectures on how to do so but I found myself captivated most by one speaker with a simple message...the only inspiration you need is found in loving your God and loving God's people. His premise being modeled after Christ who ate with folks, walked with folks, cried with folks, lived with folks...and listened to folks. This lecturer proclaimed that in hearing the stories of the people, we learn to love them and in loving them as Christ loved - we learn to lead them.

I believe this message translates to all of us as Christians - not just to ministers. General Shinseki's quote seems to be the proof. No matter whether our leadership role is as head of the family or head of a department or head of a corporation or head of a government agency - we can do none of it well without first loving.

1 Corinthians 13:13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Empty Nest...Full Faith

Well, the day finally arrived...and I survived it with only one brief meltdown. I wasn't quite prepared for the deafening silence that follows. One day the house is teeming with noise as three young adults and a forty pound puppy go about the life of summer break and then the next, they pile into their cars and drive away to a new home, a new life, a new journey. Exciting isn't it?

Yes, it is very exciting. However, I'm discovering it comes with a new form of stress. Have I taught them all they need to know to live on their own in an apartment? Have I encouraged them enough on what wonderful people they are so that they will be confident and true to themselves and not give in to peer pressure. Have I instilled in them the ability to make wise decisions...to maintain their faith in a world that will tell them its wrong...to keep God in their lives instead of the worldly things that will be vying for that space?

I took one final look at them as I hugged each one goodbye and walked out the door. There is nothing left to do but let them go. It is only in letting them go that I will find the answers to those questions. It is only in standing on their own that they will be forced to make the decision of what form their faith will take. It is scary for me. I still want to guide and convince...but that time is over, they must stand on their own. When the fear begins to overtake me I find myself comforted by one thought. God is with them just as God is with me. God holds them as tightly, as mercifully, as compassionately, and wonderfully as God did me when I went to college and chose another path from what I was taught by my parents. Through it all, God never left me, although I left God. Out of steadfast and faithful love, God ultimately welcomed me back where I belonged. Thanks be to God.

Now it is time to trust God will be the same for my children: faithfully, closely, mercifully, compassionately, wonderfully present...no matter where they are.

Thanks be to God.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

My Night with the Sikh Community

In our white middle class houses of worship we share a certain sense of security. Yes, there is the occasional act of vandalism or theft, the rare encounter with violence, but overall we gather on our Sunday mornings and the thought of someone hating who we are enough to enter our house of worship and perpetrate a hate crime against us is the furtherest thing from our minds. Last Sunday, August 5th, I gathered with my family of faith and we celebrated our normal worship routine without one thought of potential harm.  In Wisconsin a similar gathering was occurring. Families were arriving for worship, food was being prepared, children were laughing, men and women were carrying out their various duties of preparation. They should have been allowed the same freedom from fear that me and my congregation enjoyed that morning...but a 40 year old neo-nazi full of hate destroyed that illusion for all of us as he opened fire on the unsuspecting worshippers of the Sikh community.

Tonight, my husband and I drove to Charlotte to attend an interfaith prayer vigil at the Sikh Gurdwara. I wanted to take a few minutes to try to describe to you what I experienced there. My first reaction upon arrival was one of amazement. In a world that tends to function on knee jerk reactions (and often over-reactions) I would have expected the Gurdwara to be on heightened security. However we arrived to find gates thrown wide open and no security in sight. I had already seen an announcement that in response to the tragedy, the Gurdwara was actually having open houses to invite all people in to experience their culture and worship. They needed the world to know they weren't scared of us as much as we desired to let them know we weren't scared of them.

I will admit I was a little nervous. There were not many cars in the parking lot and I began to fear that we would be two of only a handful of visitors. I wondered what to expect, would it be awkward for us? Would it be awkward for them? I worried that I had forgotten my scarf at home and I knew my head was supposed to be covered...would they let me in? With a bit of anxiety we finally ventured out of the car and entered the temple. As we entered there were perhaps 6 men standing inside, heavily bearded, wearing turbans and standing bare foot. My first worry - was it ok for a woman to enter this way? Should I step back behind Tim and let him lead the way? But before I could move all the men broke into a warm and welcoming smile and greeted us. One gentleman approached and introduced himself by shaking first my hand and then Tim's. He had a brochure for us on what a Sikh was and he explained what needed to happen before we went further into the Gurdwara. There was a women's room to the right and a men's room to the left. We were to go into those rooms and remove our shoes and put on head covers. It was a sign of respect that they enter the temple barefoot and with hair covered. No fear on forgetting the head covers, they provide those for guests.

When we came back out properly attired, we were passed along to another gentleman who explained where they were in the worship process. They were currently reading from their holy book the nightly prayer. We were invited to enter and worship with them. Upon entering the worship area there is a main aisle that leads to the altar, the Sikh's first go down this aisle and kneel at the altar in humility before taking their seat. We were not expected to do this. We were simply asked to take a seat on the floor (all worshippers sit on the floor) - men on the left and women on the right.

The Sikh worship leaders (men and women) were doing an incredible job of interrupting their own flow of worship to explain everything as they went along. Since we didn't know the language they would not only read the words in English first but then put them on powerpoint on the two flat screen TV's at the front of the worship area. We were told the proper way to sit was cross legged or on our knees but that it was disrespectful to sit with our feet pointed toward the altar. They then treated us to presentations on what it meant to be Sikh, what beliefs they hold, and how their regular worship unfolds. I was awed by the beauty and simplicity of it all. I was thrilled with the multitude of ways that our faiths intersect. The Sikh women around me were at ease in my presence and took me under their wing. They explained what to do and let me know that it was fine that I was there to worship with them, even if I were a Christian. They sang a beautiful hymn about God as our creator and they explained that their faith was born out of the belief that all humanity is created equal and should be valued as such.

I found myself caught up in their prayers and even though I couldn't speak the language and had no idea what they were saying, I felt very strongly the presence of God in that place and I prayed my own prayers with them. We were told that after the final prayer we were to stay seated to receive the "prashad" which was described as a type of sweet pudding. It is prepared in a large pot to the side of the altar and kept hot there. It is a mixture of flour, butter and sugar to create a thick pudding. Out of this one pot, all are served. First the children come forward to take napkins to all the worshippers, then prashad is dished out into smaller bowls where men and women servers use their hands to remove a portion of prashad, roll it into a ball and give it to each worshipper. A sweet treat to end the worship experience.

When this is complete everyone is invited to the dining room for langar. This is a free meal for the entire community to enjoy. We entered the dining room, still barefoot and with heads covered. Again, we sit on the floor, this time men and women sit together. When you enter, the children hand out plates, napkins and eating utensils. You then find your seat on the floor and wait. Soon, servers come by and fill your plate with wonderful (and spicy) Indian food. The lady sitting next to me took great joy in explaining to me how the dishes were made. She told me that they do this every Sunday, for breakfast and lunch. She explained again that it was about equality - the same as the sweet pudding. It was very important that they all sit on the floor together - that they all eat the same food from the same pot - no one was better than anyone else. She introduced me to her family and explained that really, they were all family. Whether they were blood related or not, they did not call one another by name - they simply said, "Brother," "Sister," "Aunt," or "Uncle" when referring to elders. She told me of their upcoming celebration of their first Guru and how they will worship around the clock from early Friday morning until Sunday. She told me about her daughter in college and laughed at me trying to eat the spicy stew that made my eyes water. It was a beautiful fellowship together.

After the meal we all went back to the entry and put our shoes back on and went outside for candlelight prayer vigil. Afterward, many of the Sikh's came to thank us for coming and invited us back any time. We had some wonderful conversations and exchanged contact information so we can continue our fellowship in other ways.

I have fumbled through my description of the night with as many details as I can remember, but I cannot as easily convey the feelings and emotions of the night. I was moved by the devotion to equality and peace the Sikh religion is founded upon. I was overjoyed to be able to worship and celebrate our belief in the same God and feel that they were not insulted that I carried my love and commitment to Christ along with me. I loved how the children were free to be children and yet equally important to the elements of worship and fellowship. I was in awe of how this community opened their doors and hearts to strangers just a few days after another stranger had taken 6 lives. Most of all, I came away with a heart full of love and blessing for these new-found brothers and sisters in faith. Yes we have some fundamental differences - but we have far more in common that most would belief.

I am so thankful for my experience tonight and I pray that our Sikh friends will be allowed the same blessing that me and my congregation do - the ability to gather in worship without fear of hatred and violence.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Dying to Live

The view from my office window is changing, ever so slightly, each day. Just prior to my moving in, the wind blew down a rather large pine tree. At first, I thought that the root system must have remained intact as it fell because it still appeared as green as ever. However in the last few days I have noted the signs of the inevitable - entire branches turning brown and drying up while others are losing their vibrant green and fading to a dusty gray.  The old giant is finally dying...slowly...as if she is fighting it with all she has - refusing to acknowledge that indeed, she cannot possible live in this state. It makes me sad to watch, and yet, even I (a closet tree hugging hippy) must acknowledge it is a cycle of life, a rhythm of nature to be respected.

This morning I met with a group of pastors and as so often happens when pastors meet, the topic ultimately turns to death, specifically the death of churches. As I came home I found myself pondering Revelation 3:1-2 "And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: 'I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God."

I am left to wonder: How many of our churches are like this fallen tree outside my window. They know they have fallen away from the root system that nourishes (in my metaphor it would be the Holy Spirit) and yet they have just enough strength to maintain the image of life for a while. Is that what John is talking about in his revelation? I know of many churches who do good things, who work hard to worship and fellowship with one another, who participate in missions when they can...but who haven't felt the fresh breath of God's Holy Spirit blow through their doors in years...decades.

This past Sunday we celebrated Jesus as the Bread of Life - we were reminded that Christ came to bring life to the world, not death. Shouldn't then it make sense that Christ's body, the church, is meant for life, not death? If we would but embrace the life that Christ came to offer and open ourselves to the movement and power of the Holy Spirit, would we not all be fully alive and growing?

I find good news in this Revelation text - the call to WAKE UP and strengthen what remains. Our hope is that we have time to wake up before it is too late and the last of the green is faded away. Our hope is that we will see the first brittle, dried up signs of approaching decay and be motivated to remember that our main objective is to worship a LIVING God - and allow God to infuse into us once again the breath that only God can give...the breath of life.

It all sounds beautiful on the page doesn't it? But the truth is, to live in Christ is to die to self. To give ourselves (and "our" churches) over to the Holy Spirit means we sometimes have to let go of the things "we" want and give in to the call of what God wants. It means learning to stop using phrases like "I think..." and instead say "Let us pray and listen for God's will."

The last few years have been a personal exercise in patience for me ( a normally impatient person) as I have had to learn that as a pastor, sometimes the bulk of my job is sitting and waiting on God to show me the next move. I learned the hard way that while I am perfectly capable of moving on my own - it is rarely a good result when I do. My finest work turns out not to be my work at all - but instead God's work passed through my patient and yielding hands. I am still not great at waiting but God is a patient teacher.

And thanks be to God for being patient with "us" (the church), as we learn that our greatest work is not our work at all - but our yielding to let God work through us to bring life to the world.

Merciful God, may your church wake up and see once again the beauty of her strength - Life in Christ - Breath in Spirit - Love in you. Amen.