Sunday, April 22, 2012

Lessons About God From Chewy-the-Dog

In November of 2010 my life changed forever. Previous to that day in the late November, days before Thanksgiving, I had merely tolerated dogs. They were creatures that I was, at times, forced to share temporary living space with, and no more. While I and my sisters were growing up we always had cats, for a short time there were hampsters and rabbits. My grandparents always had dogs and I remember getting attached to them, but no more than a child or youth could when visiting several times a year. Then, Chewy-the-Dog moved into the parsonage in Boothbay Harbor, Maine and suddenly life changed. Suddenly, there was another creature that woke me up in the morning, with a cold nose to my nose. There was another reason to go for a walk through town. There was something else to clean up after.

It’s true that Chewy-the-Dog reminded this bachelor that there is joy in sharing a living space with another living being. I think the best thing that Chewy-the-Dog has taught me, though, is how much God loves each and everyone of us.

Things my dog has taught me about God’s love:

No matter how much I screw up, Chewy is always glad to see me- I, like every other human being, am imperfect. I once told someone that I shoot to get things right about 10% of the time. There are days that I feel like I can’t do anything at all right. My family is disappointed, I managed to overlook a detail that was important to a parishioner, I got a parking ticket. It doesn’t matter what happens, when I walk through the door, Chewy’s tail starts wagging and he comes galloping through the kitchen ready to greet me, exuberantly. On the really tough days, he’s there to lay his head in my lap or sit really close to me on the couch as if to say, “don’t’ll be okay.” His simple actions serve to remind me that no matter where I go or how tough things seem to get, God is there, holding my hand, reminding me that it’s all okay.

Sometimes all you can do is throw a tennis ball- I, like many of my colleagues, work long hours and it is easy to get sucked into working 7 days a week. When Chewy thinks I’ve been working to much he’ll come running with a tennis ball or one of his chew-toys and will get me up to go to the backyard and throw his ball or play with his chew toy. Although he hasn’t learned the art of ‘fetch,’ his version of the game is more ‘fetch then chase,’ which involves me running around the backyard after him, until I’ve wrestled his ball from him, he understands the importance of taking time to stop and rest. It is easy to get sucked into believing that if you put one more hour of work into the day or work for weeks at a time, things in the world will improve. It is true that we are compelled to do God’s work. We are called to emulate the actions of Christ, but even Christ rested. God, on the 7th day of creation rested. We clergy are quick to point out that other professionals sometimes have a ‘savior complex’ but we are slow to realize that we can fall into that trap, too. Working harder and harder, and for what? Kingdom work requires long hours, and hard work but it is not our job to save the world, that’s God’s. It is our job to emulate Christ, to share God’s love and compassion in a world that is aching to know God and invite people into deeper relationships with the God that will save the world.

Even though the kibble never changes, Chewy is always thankful for a full bowl- Twice a day, I pour a cup of the same kibble into Chewy’s bowl. It never fails, when it is time to eat, Chewy is excited to eat what is put before him. When I see him excitedly turn from watching me make dinner, to his bowl and begin devouring the kibble that is just more of the same, it reminds me to be thankful even for the most mundane dish I am preparing. That I should not only be thankful for the wonderful bouillabaisse but also the hard boiled eggs and carrot sticks.

Car rides are the best- It’s not necessarily that we’re going to exciting places. In fact, Chewy-the-Dog and I have the same reaction about going to the doctor, except his reaction is more or less an outward expression of what I feel inside. He doesn’t freak out, because he really doesn’t freak out, but it’s certainly not his favorite place to visit. The exciting part is the journey. It’s the getting into the car and hanging his head out the window. It’s the new smells as we drive along. It’s simply the being with people that love him. As Christians, one of the major tenants of our faith, is that we are going onto perfection, that we someday will love the way God loves, and in some ways we could say that, in that moment ‘we have arrived.’ I certainly look forward to that day, but Chewy reminds me that it is the journey toward perfection that makes up the experience of the destination. The lessons learned on the road that make the difference in our experience. If we don’t live through every part of the journey, how can we appreciate the sweetness of perfection?

Everyday is a new adventure- I am not a morning person. It takes me a little while to get out of bed in the morning. This morning the alarm started going off one hour before I had to get out of bed. Once I am up, I am good to go, but it’s that time between the alarm going off for the first time and placing my feet on the floor that is probably the worst part of my day. Chewy, though, seems to look forward to what the day holds, even though his day usually starts the same way every day. He goes to the backyard, does his business, and then lays in ‘his spot.’ As we move about our day, there are opportunities to share God’s abundance with others. There are opportunities to share God’s peace with others. There are opportunities to be who God is calling you to be in each moment of each day, and that’s something exciting!

Chewy, in some ways, has taught me how love and be loved in return. No matter what happens day to day. No matter if every ball I have in the air crashes to the ground or if I get it all right, Chewy-the-dog is there to see me as God sees me--a beloved child who is just trying to get a small piece of life right.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Timing is Everything

When I was a child, every Easter Sunday began the same way. The Easter Bunny would, the night before hide chocolate eggs all over our house. In the morning, upon rising, my two younger sisters and I would race to see who could find the most eggs. The catch was, though, that it was never a fair fight. We wouldn’t wake each other up or we wouldn’t wake our parents, upon waking it was all out Easter egg hunt war and the earliest riser would make out like a bandit, the other two would have to fight out who got what of the left over chocolate. I can remember a few times when they would go out for blood, of course, I maintain innocence in all dirty Easter morning dealings.

In John’s retelling of the Easter story, it is like reading a drama in 3 acts. The first act’s synopsis is an exploration of people’s fear, grief, and loneliness. Mary Magdalene, in the first act, has broken through the terror and trauma of watching her beloved friend die a terrible death. As Mary approaches the tomb, she notices that the stone is rolled away and the body of her dearly beloved friend is no longer in the place it was placed two days earlier. Suddenly, like any of us would do, Mary jumps to conclusions. She does so, though, without walking into the tomb first. Without all of the fact she goes ballistic and rushes off to tell Peter what she saw.

Act two pans open to find Peter and the beloved disciple going to investigate exactly what was going on. Fear and bewilderment take over when they arrive. Peter and the beloved disciple enter the tomb and then Mary joins them. Sobbing, she asks, on behalf of her two friends and herself, where the body was taken. Receiving no answer, she asks the person she is now assuming is the gardener, again where they have taken her friend’s body. In an arresting move the gardener looks at Mary and says, ‘whom are you looking for?’ Just like John the Baptizer asks in the first chapter of the Gospel of John.

In John’s account of what some have identified as the greatest story ever told, another important fact stands out, perhaps above the rest. The story begins in darkness, just as John’s creation story begins in darkness in the opening verses of John, “...All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” (John 1:3)

My father is a great gardener. I inherited his hairline and several of his mannerisms but his green thumb I was not fortunate to inherit. There is nothing he enjoys more, it seems, than coaxing a new, unique seed, to sprout new life, or reviving a plant that looks as though it has soaked up its last bit of water. While to some people the seeds, pits, and plant tops represent good compost fodder, to him, a small grapefruit seed, Avocado pit, or the top of a pineapple, represents new life, the continuing cycle of living. Several years ago, dad took a chance on a tiny grapefruit seed. He salvaged it from the carcass that remained after a devouring of a delicious ruby red grapefruit, properly dried it, and planted it, not knowing if it would ever grow beyond its white exterior. Today, that tiny, lifeless seed is a tree that is marveled about by visitors to my parent’s home. It sits just behind the furniture in their living room and has sparked more than one conversation with visitors.

Poet Linda Gregg wrote:

“There is a hush now while the hills rise up
and God is going to sleep. He trusts the ship
of Heaven to take over the proceed beautifully
as he lies dreaming in the lap of the world.
He knows the owls will guard the sweetness
of the soul in their massive keep of silence,
looking out with eyes open or closed over
the length of Tomales Bay that the herons
conform to, whitely broad in flight, white
and slim in standing. God, who thinks about
poetry all the time, breathes happily as He
repeats to Himself: There are fish in the net,
lots of fish this time in the net of the heart.”

Easter for the Gospel of John, is an invitation to begin again, to be recreated by the Spirit as we move forward. In the previous days we have commemorated the final meal that Christ shared with his Apostles, through foot washing and through breaking bread and drinking wine. We have remembered Christ’s humiliation as he journeyed through Jerusalem’s winding streets, and we remembered Christ’s breathing of his last breath. In essence we were dried, lifeless grapefruit seeds, waiting for someone to see our potential to produce lush, green leaves, and strong, complex root systems with enough care and attention.

Today’s celebration is not merely of Easter Bunnies and chocolate eggs. It’s not about being the first to witness great events, it’s not about who got to the tomb first, or who was most devoted to Christ while he walked among us, although I am sure there were those arguments among Christ’s closest friends. It is about being born anew when the time is right. When our life experiences align with our faith and our view of the world shifts in such a way that we are convinced of God’s never-ending love for each and everyone of us.

The great Shaw House Easter Egg Hunt that took place when my sisters and I were children became such a competition that we would try to one up each other every year. One year it would be seven o’clock in the morning, the next the earliest riser would rise at six o’clock. When we got to four-thirty in the morning, we figured out that the Easter Bunny did not visit our house until sometime after five o’clock. The miracle, was not the fact that I out smarted my sisters twice, they liked to gang up on their older brother, and often used it to their advantage, the miracle was that there was always enough chocolate for all three of us, and I may or may not have stolen a few of their chocolate eggs from time to time, but don’t tell them. The Easter miracle now before us is that just as God coaxes into being the owls who, for Gregg, watch out over Tomales Bay, we are coaxed by the same God to celebrate the newness of life each day. The miracle of being small, dried up grapefruit seeds and when the Great Gardener places us in soil and waters us we sprout greens shoots that lead to strong root systems and lush green leaves. God is beckoning to each of us, dear friends, inviting us to join Him in life ever-lasting. Inviting us to open ourselves to new possibilities. We must mourn and wail as we have for the last few days; but this day, this great, this miraculous day has brought with it great celebrations. God has conquered death and given us life eternal, will you accept His invitation?

Friday, April 6, 2012

Setting Our Sights on Easter II

In Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” there’s a scene in which Jesus and his buddy Judas happen upon a crowd that has gathered around a woman and they were preparing to stone her to death. The woman, Mary Magdalene, is portrayed as a prostitute. That said, it’s not her profession that she’s been sentenced to die for, it’s for practicing her profession with Roman soldiers AND on the sabbath, if the previous was not bad enough.

In an arresting move, Jesus takes the stones and hands them to Zebedee and says, “go ahead...kill her...” and in the next breath, “but you best be sure that you, yourself are innocent of all sin...” Zebedee drops the stones and, with the others, leaves the scene, leaving Jesus, Judas, and one very terrified Mary behind.

On February 28th, a teen-age boy, visiting his father, walked through the gated community in which his father resides in and was gunned down for carrying skittles and a bottle of iced tea, only guilty of carrying sugary foods which will lead to cavities and bad health.

On March 25, Cindy, a Korean born American, was headed to a wedding. During a routine traffic stop she was detained in Eloy, Arizona, for not carrying the proper papers with her.

After being found guilty of treason, an Arab man, was forced to walk a humiliating walk through the city streets of East Jerusalem, while carrying the mechanism that would lead to his death. His hands staked, first the right and then the left, his feet bound and staked. Through this all, his mother, the woman who gave him life, looking on.

The name which we have given today is quite paradoxical. Good Friday. The name conjures up thoughts of parties, celebrations, festivals. Celebrating goodness. Yet, we remember the heinous murder of our saviour, Jesus Christ. We remember the sentencing, the shameful journey from the court through the winding streets lined with loud vendors to Golgatha. We remember the nailing, one hand and then the other, to each side of the cross, and we remember his prayers for us, “forgive them Father, they know not what they do.” “Into thy hands I commend my Spirit.”

Good Friday is the paradox of our Christian faith. We, on the one hand, join the centuries of mourners that have gone before us, join us now, and will join us in generations to come in remembering the brutal murder of our savior. We remember vividly the stories and live into the reality that God’s only son, our savior, was tried, sentenced to death, humiliated as he walked through the streets of Jerusalem, and died a death that no one should ever have to die on top of a hill, called ‘Skull Hill.” On the other hand we remember the outcome. We know that what humanity intended for evil, God used for good. We are reminded that, despite our sinful nature, in God’s actions in the resurrection, we are redeemed and forgiven.

The Rev. Annette Joseph, an Episcopal Priest and an advocate for the end of violence against women writes:

“the depth of sorrow i feel is the same as the height of joy i feel
in the love i have for this we of community
i face the night sky
praying wind to blow strength
blow love
blow support
your way
my hands reach up
wanting to encircle
broken community
fractured peace
violated lives
and all i bring back is empty air
empty space
empty arms
so i pray again
flinging it away sending words on wind
blowing across and east to you
wishing my arms could hold you all
in a broken heart
the big of joy is now the big of sorrow”

We carry our own crosses, each of us. The crosses of racism, sexism, and nationalism. In this time of great divide we carry the crosses that have been put upon us, given to us to carry. For myself, as a white, middle class, man the crosses that have been thrust upon me are those of racism and sexism. It is easy for me to pass judgement, just as Zebedee did, or live into white privilege, and ignore the responsibility I have to stand in solidarity with my brothers and sisters with differing skin colors than mine, ignoring my responsibility to do the hard Kingdom work that we are all called to do, yet that would not be putting on my cross. That would be casting it aside, giving it to someone else to carry. When I don’t accept that I live in a place of privilege and live into the mainstream sexism that has become acceptable in our culture, I give the cross that is mine to the woman standing beside me. When I don’t work for racial justice, I pass off my cross onto the Latino man, Black woman, or Korean man standing beside me. When I don’t accept the fact that it is men who commit 90% of the domestic violence related crimes, I cast my cross off onto victims of violence. These actions of passing off the cross lead to blaming, blaming the person who is poor, for being poor. Blaming the woman with a black eye, for causing her husband to attack her, and blaming the woman who is continually harassed, for being a woman. As Joseph put it, it leads to, “fractured peace/violated lives.” Yet, just as God used what an oppressive regime intended for evil those many, many years ago, in a salvific act that would change the way that humanity relates to God, so God uses instances of control and hatred for good. Cindy, the Korean born American woman, was released, after advocates were able to help her get her proper paperwork in order. Zebedee walked away with the rest of the gathered mob, there is hope that justice will prevail for Trayvon Martin, and for the countless women who have suffered at the hands of abusers, there is liberation.

We mourn for our savior has breathed his last breath, but hope comes with the dawn, hope comes in the miracle of what God is about to do in Christ. The fulfilling of the prophecy, the leaning into the anxiety of the unknown, leads to the miracle of the empty tomb.

When we take up our crosses and acknowledge the sins of our upbringing and socialization, the crosses of racism, sexism, and violence, we align ourselves with Christ, and heed his calling to follow Him, even to death, for in doing so, we live into eternal life.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Setting Our Sights on Easter

Sunday we began living the ending and beginning of the greatest story ever told. The end, because we know that on Friday, Jesus will be nailed to a cross and left there to die at the hands of oppressive colonizers. The beginning, because what was meant for evil, God used for good. God breathed life back into our Savior’s body and in doing so conquered sin and death.
On Sunday we commemorated Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey. We remembered people lining the streets and laying their palm branches on the ground so that the King of Kings’ donkey would not have to walk on the dusty, dirty road. Thursday night we will remember Jesus gathering with his disciples in a room to share a meal together and so that He could begin to teach them the most difficult lesson that they had to learn. On Friday we will remember Jesus’ trial, humiliation, crucifixion, at the hands of the world. Sunday, we will celebrate an empty tomb.
The story does not change year to year. We sing the same “Hosanna!” We wash feet in the same servant-like way, remembering what Christ did with his disciples, and then we remember Jesus’ passion. Despite never changing, the story remains as powerful as the first time we heard it.
For me, every time I sit down to pull out the message which God is giving us in the narrative we are living, the message gets deeper and deeper. The foundational message is that God conquered sin and death in the resurrection of Christ. The manner and method get richer and richer year after year, though. In John’s Gospel, as in the others, women are the first to visit the tomb on Sunday morning. Women, who held a second class status in occupied Ancient Israel. They were not invited to speak in public, purity laws prohibited them from entering the temple or speaking the religious officials. Despite their second class status, God used them as the first witnesses to the greatest story ever told.
In recent weeks the story of Trayvon Martin, an African-American teen who was shot by a neighborhood watch-person, has pervaded our news. The case has brought front and center the fact that we are still dealing with race issues long after race and ethnicity have been covered under the civil rights act. For some it is shocking to think that a young man could be killed for being racially profiled. For activists, it is another case to use to fuel their justice-centered work. For Christians, it is a reminder that no matter how much trust and esteem we put into the structures and systems we have created, only Christ should have our ultimate allegiance.
If God the Parent were to raise Christ today, the first witnesses would be the Trayvon’s, the silent victims of violence, and the people living in the deepest poverty in the world. It is true that Christ was raised for each and everyone of us, but it is also true that on Sunday morning it took those controlling the power a little longer to figure out what exactly was going on.