The Ideal Community

Wisdom from Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities:

Almost everyone finds their early days in a community ideal. It all seems perfect. They feel they are surrounded by saints, heroes, or at the least, most exceptional people who are everything they want to be themselves. And then comes the let-down. The greater their idealization of the community at the start, the greater the disenchantment. If people manage to get through this second period, they come to a third phase — that of realism and of true commitment. They no longer see other members of the community as saints or devils, but as people — each with a mixture of good and bad, darkness and light, each growing and each with their own hope. The community is neither heaven nor hell, but planted firmly on earth, and they are ready to walk in it, and with it. They accept the community and the other members as they are; they are confident that together they can grow towards something more beautiful.

From Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, p. 163.

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Divine Hide-and-Seek

From Companions of Christ, pp. 21-22

There is a story of how, at the beginning of time, God decided to hide in the created universe, and God summoned three angels to advice on a suitable hiding place. The first angel suggested that God might hide in the depths of the earth. “A good idea,” said God. “I will indeed hide myself in the earth,b ut it won’t be long before they learn to mine the earth, and they will surely find me too easily. Where else can I hide?”

The second angel suggested the moon as a hiding-place. “An excellent idea,” said God. “I will indeed hide myself in the expanses of space and the sun and moon and stars, but it won’t be long before they discover how to explore space, and they will find me too soon. Where else can I hide?”

So the third angel hit on a very original idea: “Why don’t you hide yourself in their own hearts? They’ll never think to look for you there!” And so God did all three of those things. God hid in the earth and all that it contains. God hid in the vastness of interstellar space. And God hid in the innermost heart of every creature.

And why did God hide at all? Because it is in our search for the God who says “I am who I am”, that we do our growing and becoming, and discovering who we truly and eternally are.

Expectation & Outcome

Text: 2 Kings 5:1-14

Reading the Bible can be intimidating. Many translations use peculiar terms that are difficult even for clergy to define. The depiction of God, humanity, and the world is clearly from another time—specifically thousands of years ago. Then there’s the rampant symbolism, the stories that seem to have no specific purpose, and sayings and teachings that don’t make any sense. We sense an apparent disconnect with our contemporary world. And I haven’t even started on the OT yet!

Our apprehension (I feel) is tragic. Because if we listen for the Holy Spirit as we read and consider the texts and stories of the Bible, we will discover our own story.

 

As foreign as it seems, as archaic and distant from our world as it appears, I believe we each can find a part of ourselves and our faith journey in our OT lesson today.

Were this text made into a movie, it would have to be a western. The opening scene is the classic spaghetti western opening: a stranger comes to town.

That stranger is Naaman, played by Clint Eastwood, who keeps to the shadows. He clearly hides a secret, though no one knows what it could be. Naaman will not allow anyone to get close enough to find out.

He is looking for someone, of course, as we expect from the setup. He carries a letter, which he routinely fingers nervously, and in his bag are many gold coins. Is he a bandit? Where did the money come from? Who is he looking for? Why has he come to town?

Speculation runs rampant in this dusty, has-been mining town as all are simultaneously drawn to and withdrawn from the stranger who stays in the shadows…the stranger who has yet to speak.

After getting a room and some food & drink, the dark stranger Naaman drops in on the Sheriff, played by Henry Fonda. Their eyes meet and something fearful passes between them. Without speaking, Naaman tosses the wrinkled envelope on the Sheriff’s desk. The Sheriff’s eyes widen upon seeing its seal; they flash back to Naaman again. The Sheriff opens the letter and scans the page (though we cannot see what it says). He stiffens, quietly exclaims “O God,” and the scene ends.

 

Flashback montage: some time before.

Naaman is a powerful military man, responsible for many battles and well respected, not to mention wealthy. But Naaman also has an illness, a wound. Time and again we see Naaman traveling to see a different doctor, who prescribes some sort of snake oil or lets some blood, and who takes his money. None of it brings him any healing, and most of it introduces more pain. He travels to and sends for every doctor within a hundred miles or more—all of them are happy to relieve him of his money but none of them bring him any healing relief.

Naaman becomes increasingly desperate, willing to try anything, pay any sum of money. Much to the chagrin of those who respect him, Naaman even begins looking beyond the traditional answers.

Within his household is a young Indian girl, who was captured in one of the conflicts where Naaman fought. This servant girl, who doesn’t even get a name in our movie, suggests that there is a medicine man in her village who could give Naaman the healing he desires.

Naaman obtains a letter from the governor instructing the local authorities to do everything in their power to facilitate Naaman’s healing. Cut scene.

 

We are again standing in the Sheriff’s office, where we left Naaman and the Sheriff, letter still in the Sheriff’s hand. For the first time, Naaman slowly and silently reveals his wounds by removing his hat…his outer garments…his shirt… Standing before the Sheriff, he breaks the silence with his first words of the movie: “Where is he?”

The Sheriff, of course, has no idea where the healer is, though he has an idea of how to get a message to him. Every month or so a few of the tribe’s leaders come into town to trade for supplies. As movie luck would have it, they are due any day now, and the Sheriff promises to point them out to Naaman.

 

Now the next part of our movie involves waiting for the Indians to show up, as well as the predictable confrontation between the locals and the Indians when they do, on account of prejudice and cultural differences. The Sheriff is more interested in keeping the town together than he is in keeping his promise, but when Naaman comes to the aid of the Indians, he earns their respect. They will not permit him to return to the village with them, but they will carry his message to their healer.

 

This segues into a video montage, alternating between panoramic scenes of the West as the Indians ride to their village, and cloistered, dark scenes of Naaman waiting. Upon arriving in their village, the Indians approach the shaman, perhaps played by Iron Eyes Cody, who mysteriously already knows what they are going to tell him. He dispatches a rider to return to Naaman immediately with his message.

 

The rider tells Naaman the Shaman’s words: he must bathe in a muddy tributary nearby where cattle are watered; then he will be healed.

Naaman is furious and lashes out:

Why couldn’t the Shaman be bothered to come himself or allow Naaman to come to him?

Bathe in that filthy, stinking creek? If bathing is needed, there are cleaner, better places to do it.

And where is the ritual? the magic? It has to be more complicated than bathing.

Naaman roughs up the Indian messenger, mutters some unmentionable things under his breath, grabs his bag, hops on his horse, and rides home.

 

Naaman doesn’t speak in the next few scenes, which depict life as normal for Naaman. But he has again experienced the devastation of expectation, of returning from failure to a life filled with pain and empty of healing.

Some of those in his house—perhaps the same Indian girl—try to reason with him. “Why not try it?” they ask. “What’s to lose?”

After a few days and movie moments of soul searching while a heart-wrenching ballad fills the soundtrack, Naaman is again on his horse, riding through the desert, eventually wading through a minefield of cow-pies and mud into a dirty brown, stagnant-looking creek. After submerging himself, he breaks out of the opaque water into the crystalline sunshine, muddy brown clinging to every inch of his skin and he knows, as somehow do we, that he is cleansed…he is redeemed…he is healed.

 

Perhaps this telling is too Hollywood. Perhaps I have taken too much “artistic license.” But I want you to see it anew, fresh. Sometimes we have to have new eyes to recognize what God is showing us.

Like Naaman, we are all hurting. We may not have leprosy in a literal sense, but we are hurting just the same, and we may sense a stigma attached to our pain. There is something that eats away at each of us: greed, lust, envy, revenge, regret for actions, you name it. Like Naaman, we are hurting, and whatever it is, it hurts badly and it will not go away. Like Naaman, we may have exhausted our imagination trying to heal our hurt on our own, to no avail.

Some of us, recognizing that we cannot heal ourselves, eventually go to God in the way that Naaman went to Elisha. And we want “the same kind of quick and glamorous healing that Naaman thought he deserved” (Jones, Feasting on the Word, 340). But usually, like with Naaman, God asks us to do something we resist.

Naaman resists Elisha’s instructions because they didn’t meet his expectations. Naaman has tried too many things to accept easy answers, so he is skeptical of something so simple. Elisha’s advice doesn’t make sense to him—it is in conflict to his own thinking, his own opinions, which would suggest that there are better places to bathe, that there can be nothing special about this river.

And like Naaman, when God does not conform to our expectations, we can get angry. We invest so much in the outcome we expect, that we feel betrayed when God does something unpredictable. And God frequently does something unpredictable.

 

This is a story of hurting and healing. It is also a story of expectation and experience. In this community of faith, both stories are particularly appropriate right now.

This is a painful time for all of us. It is a time of transition, a time when our expectations aren’t panning out, a time when trust seems violated, a time when we have to admit God is doing something unpredictable, a time when we come to terms with our own need for healing.

Our initial response is much like Naaman: We get angry: angry for getting our hopes up, angry for wasting our time, angry for being misled, angry for trying so hard; angry at God, angry at each other, angry at ourselves.

When God seems to turn the tables on us, especially when we are so vulnerable, we resist with everything we have.

So it is with gratitude that we encounter others, as did Naaman, who help us see through our resistance. The Bible is unclear about who it is that talked Naaman into following through on Elisha’s instructions: perhaps it was his wife, perhaps his best friend, perhaps it was the same Israelite servant girl, as I suggested earlier.

Sometimes the voice of reason that we hear is our spouse, our best friend, our pastor or mentor, a song on the radio, something heard on TV, or even a stranger passed on the street—but whoever it is, they help us see through the artificial barriers we put up.

The voices of reason for Naaman argued from the perspective of results: “You wanted healing, right? If he is promising healing, why not give it a try? Heck, didn’t Elisha guarantee that this would work? What do you have to lose?”

And you know what? It worked. Even though it didn’t happen the way Naaman expected. Even though there wasn’t enough “ritual” to make the “magic” work. Even though there was nothing special about the river. Even though the instructions didn’t make sense. Even though Naaman could think of a hundred ways to do it “better,” it worked.

 

Now I fear I’ve been a bit erratic this morning, so I want to close by condensing all this into a three-point sermon.

At the end of the story, Naaman is throughly cleansed and redeemed. Assuming someone out there wants to be cleansed and redeemed too, I suggest Naaman experiences healing because of three behaviors in which he participated (Carl, Feasting on the Word, 343):

First: Naaman “went to a place he had never been before.” Healing in your life will probably take you places you’ve never been. We should expect this: After all, if we could be healed by going to the places we’ve already been, we would have found it on our own already.

Second: Naaman “listened to subordinates who knew better than he did where he could get the help he really needed.” I don’t think God has ever really liked top-down models of operation and information flow. I usually find God working in a subversive bottom-up kind of way. Be prepared for God to work & speak through people who are less credentialed, less experienced, and less expected.

Third: Naaman “agreed to do what God asked him to do to allow God to cleanse him completely.” Naaman went somewhere unexpected and new, and he listened to unorthodox voices, but Naaman never experienced healing until he agreed to do what God asked of him. We must fully agree to what God fully desires if we want to be fully cleansed. You can’t argue with the math.

I suspect our healing will take us to a place we have never before been. I suspect the journey will require listening to all voices, especially those that we have not actively pursued. And I am confident that God will cleanse us and heal us completely if we agree to do what God asks of us.

The outcome we desire—healing and restoration—can be had; God just may defy our expectations about how that will come about. Just ask Naaman if you want a witness.

God Is the Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage is a funny thing. When you begin, you may not know the destination, you usually do not know the route, and you never know the true purpose.

I went on one today. I didn’t know it when I left; I only heard God inviting me to a journey, to walk for a while.

In my life “walking with God” = “wrestling with God” = prayer. There’s been a lot of darkness in my life lately, so I knew God was challenging me to a wrestling match. I rarely win these things (though I always come out ahead), but I accepted the invitation, grabbed the dog, and headed out the door with no destination, no agenda, no limits.

We wrestled with hurt. We wrestled with betrayal. We wrestled with abandonment. We wrestled with darkness when I so diligently sought light. Back and forth we wrestled.

And then I realized God had a destination in mind–a destination to which I did not want to go, a destination that would expose expose pain, a destination that would be awkward, a destination that may not provide a welcome reception. The destination was the home of a pair of dear friends, whose relationship with me has been stressed of late by external pressures that are not necessarily the fault of either of us.

So God and I wrestled about the destination, all the while God continued to put one foot in front of the other, until I relented. Then we walked in silence.

Eventually the silence was broken by my mind trying to figure out whether anyone would be home, and what I would say if someone was home. God kept calling me a fool, reminding me to trust God and respect the relationship enough to not try to script it.

Apparently no one was home. Having God direct you to a place only to find that place “closed” is a peculiar experience, I assure you. For me, I realized it was to expose “why”: why I would journey there on a pilgrimage at all. The answer, as the answer usually is, is love. I chose to compose an email on their front steps to communicate that love.

And then I began my journey home. Far less seems to be found in the historical record about the return pilgrimage, but it seems perhaps more significant than the “going” pilgrimage.

On the return, I struggle with returning at all. I am, after all, changed by the journey: How do I be a changed “me” in the life I left? What about the challenges of human relationship? What about the uncertainty? What of the darkness I hoped to escape?

All questions without answers. But in the journey, God stills the questions, and reminds me: God is the pilgrimage, not the destination.

The journey continues. Life continues. I return home in darkness, literally. But as I walk up the stairs to the warmth and light of my family, this I know: The journey continues still, and I give thanks.

Open to Heal

This sermon was delivered on 2/5/12, which was both a Communion service and a service honoring our Cub Scout Pack and our Boy Scout Troop.

Text: Psalm 147:1-11, 20c

It happened when I was about nine.

So many years have passed that you can hardly see the mark it left…but there it is on my wrist (I still see it): a small, squiggly line with three cross hashes.

We frequently visited my great-grandmother, as she could not care for herself and my mother was her closest relative. My mom would do her shopping, clean her house, wash her laundry (she had an old-timey washer with a crank to wring out the fabric), and do most anything that was needed. And she would always bring us around, since there was no where else for us to go.

When our incessant boredom or complaining was too much, my mom would send us down into the basement or outside into the yard to play.

The basement was an amazing place to be. In our own house, the so-called “basement” was literally just dug out of the earth and was no fit place for children to play. Great-grandma’s house, however, had a full basement with a concrete floor. There was a huge loop we could run—the entire length and width of the house—and we spent countless hours playing hide-and-seek or searching for hidden treasure.

Outside was even better. My great-grandmother’s house was on a huge lot that provided ample space to live out the infinite possibilities of a child’s imagination: grass to roll around in, space to run, trees to climb, buildings to hide behind… It truly was our playground.

But the best part of it all is that she had a dog. Actually she had a series of dogs, but all of them were miniature schnauzers that she named Pepper, which makes it difficult for me to remember which dog was which.

I wanted a dog so bad that I didn’t even care that this miniature schnauzer hardly counted as a dog. At my great-grandmother’s house, I could pretend Pepper was my dog, walking him around the house, the basement, the yard. I prized myself on what a good dog “owner” I was, making sure he went out at regular intervals, feeding him when he was hungry, brushing him, and making sure he had clean water.

And this…[pointing at wrist]…this is Pepper’s fault.

Here I was being a good dog “owner.” Pepper came to the storm door the way he did when he needed out to do his business.

I listened. I got his collar and leash, hooked him up, and let him out of the door.

Now there were—as you no doubt expect—there were complications.

Pepper was excited—as usual—and wasn’t listening, knotting his leash around my legs.

Then there was the sudden appearance of the mailman, which refocused Pepper’s attention with remarkable speed.

And the day was brilliantly beautiful…by which I mean the sun was so bright that I was temporarily blinded after my emergence from the cave that was the basement.

So I am trying to untangle myself. I am trying to control this dog. I can’t see anything. And I realize: the storm door is still open. In a moment’s time, this is what my mind tells me:

Leaving the door open is bad, and bad kids don’t get to walk the dog.

An open door might allow parents to hear the raucous we are making, to see my struggling, and to decide that I can’t handle a dog.

If I want to ever have a dog in my life, I have to prove I can do it. I have to close this door.

So as calmly as possible—given the circumstances and what was at stake—while trying to wrestle this dog and defend my honor as a dog-walker—I reached behind me and closed the door.

EXCEPT……in that split second that my mind was conspiring against me, the door had already closed without my noticing it.

And so, as I reached back to close the door, instead of pushing against the aluminum door frame, I managed to push my hand through the door, specifically through the plate glass window pane.

It didn’t even hurt. But it sure did bleed. I was ashamed; I messed up really bad, and ended up proving my incompetence about the dog. I was so stupid; I had lost control. All I could think of was: “Boy am I in big trouble.”

So I tried to hide my woundedness. I shoved the dog back indoors, and I ran away from the house, eventually hiding on the floor in the Ford full-size van my parents drove at the time.

I don’t know how long I huddled there. I just held my arm, watched the blood dripping off my elbow, and cried softly; hoping—praying—that no one would find me.

But—thank God—someone eventually did. My older sister, Michele, opened the door to the van. I don’t remember anymore whether she was looking for me (probably not) or it was happenstance, but I was unable to convince her to keep my secret. Amid my pleas, she ran and told my mom, who rushed out to the van, scooped me up in her arms, wrapped up my cuts tightly, and drove me to our family doctor, who sewed me up in his office.

When I think about this experience now, I can’t help but think how silly my shame really was. I was genuinely hurt, and not going to my mom right away could have actually cost me my life. On top of that, how did I think I could hide this kind of wound from my parents forever? It’s not as if I could wear long sleeves to cover the cuts, assuming they ever stopped bleeding on their own.

No, these were deep wounds that would not heal on their own, yet I feared a punishment that never came more than I feared the danger the wounds posed to my life.

How many of us today are similarly wounded? How many times have we been injured by life, only to try and hide our woundedness from God and each other?

Are we ashamed we were so vulnerable?
Are we ashamed we were so stupid?
Are we ashamed we were not in control enough to avoid being wounded?

When did we begin thinking it was a lack of faith to experience pain? to be wounded? to need healing?

Didn’t Jesus once defend his association with the outcasts and downtrodden of life by stating, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matt 9:12; Lk 5:31).

I don’t know about you, but I need a doctor. I’ve been beaten up and scarred by life in this world. Some cuts and bruises are the results of my own choices; others I received as a victim.

These words in Psalm 147 cry out to me because they tell me that:

The LORD binds up my wounds…
God builds up…
God gathers…
God heals…

I want my wounds bound up. I want built up. I want gathered. I want healed.

But then I remember my shame. I’m a Christian; I’m a pastor. I’m not supposed to get hurt; I’m supposed to be strong. I’m not supposed to sin; I’m not supposed to fail. How can this world wreck such havoc on my life when I’m supposed to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God?

And my shame…my fear of human judgment…keeps me from bathing in the healing waters provided by my God.

It’s bad enough living with infected wounds when healing can be had But it too often seems that the only way to distract the gaze of others from the blood dripping on the floor seems to be to participate in this “perfect Christian” myth. To contribute to the very cycle that keeps us hurting instead of healed.

And I suspect some of you can identify with me here.

We read passages like Psalm 147 and we think, “Gee, isn’t it grand that God does these things for those poor souls who are damaged?” All the while we pull our sleeves down and turn away, hoping no one notices the seeping cuts we have ourselves experienced.

It seems too often, when we read the Bible and we encounter statements like “The LORD builds up Jerusalem,” we forget that Jerusalem needs building up, that it had been broken down on some level. We forget:

In every text where God gathers, people have been displaced.
In every text where God heals, people have been wounded.
In every text where God binds up wounds, people have been cut deeply.
In every text where God lifts up, people have been downtrodden.
In every text where there is singing, people have been mourning.
In every text where there is thanksgiving, people have been lamenting.
In every text where there is rain and green grass, there has been famine.

Remember, there is a time before the blessing that we often miss. The path that leads “beside still waters” must first meander through the “valley of the shadow of death.”

God often has to expose our woundedness in order to bring us healing. We must come face-to-face with our mortality. We must look at ourselves in the mirror and see truly that we are displaced, wounded, deeply cut, downtrodden, in mourning and lamenting, and experiencing famine.

We must come to terms with our very real need for gathering and healing and lifting up and singing and thanksgiving, and rain and pasture.

We fear vulnerability because we blame vulnerability for our woundedness, but vulnerability is also required if healing is to be had.

Our God does not honor and respect strength: “His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the legs of a man” (Ps 147:10)

Instead, our God honors and respects weakness: “those who fear him,” “those who hope in his steadfast love” (Ps 147:11). God is most interested in those who know they need God.

And it is in these—those who admit their wounds and search for a physician—that God is able to bring about the greatest healing, the greatest transformation, the greatest wholeness.

Some of you may be more deeply wounded than am I. And I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you Scouts had scars that put my little squiggle to shame—and isn’t it funny how much we like to show scars and tell the stories of how we received them?

Somehow our wounds become badges of honor once the bleeding has stopped, the cuts are closed, the scabs have fallen off, and all that remains is a little ridge.

When we have survived—we have overcome—we show and share, perhaps thinking that overcoming such adversity convinces others of our strength.

But it was not strong of me to hide my wounds from my mother. And it is not strong of us to hide our wounds from God and each other, especially when those wounds pose a very real threat to our spiritual, emotional, physical, and relational well-being.

Do not forget, there is balm in Gilead (Jer 8:22). There is a Physician, who heals the sick and wounded. Don’t worry about insurance—this Physician works with your HMO, PPO, MA, PCIP, and even if you’re SOL.

And that shame…that embarrassment…that expectation that you will be judged…… It comes from the one who wants to see your wounds infected, not healed. That deceiver wants you to be:

destroyed, not built up…
…displaced, not gathered…
…wounded, not healed…
…cut deeply, not bound up…
…downtrodden, not lifted up…
…mourning, not singing…
…lamenting, not thanksgiving…
…living with famine, not rain and pasture.

There might be one or two present who have been hiding their wounds so long, they will pretend like I don’t know what I’m talking about. Know I am praying for you.

The only question—the only key to experiencing the healing you desire—is whether you are open to healing. Will you admit your woundedness to God? Will you let go of the deception of being “strong”? of being able to heal yourself?

Jesus—the one who was wounded for your sake—stands at the ready, first-aid kit in hand, simply waiting. Are you open to healing?