Honest Labels

Who are you? Really. Ponder that for a moment. We all, no doubt, have familiar labels based on our relationships, vocation, accomplishments, hobbies, gender and age. These labels are important to communicating an understanding of who we are, but what about the uncomfortable labels that are part of us as well? Do we live a life such that we are honestly human?

Williams Sloan Coffin once said, "You are all so interested in putting your best foot forward, when it is your other foot that is far more interesting."

If we are honest, we all have 'the other foot,' those labels that represent another part of who we are. Try on a few of these: divorced, addict, depressed, confused, failure, angry, hurtful, prejudiced... you get the idea. How willing are we to let others, particularly those closest to us know the full truth?

Do we allow our children to see us struggle with our limitations? Can they ever learn to deal with failure if they don't see us fail and recover?

"Your children need a model of honesty. If you pretend you have no weaknesses, and cover them under masks and facades, your children will learn to do the same and the game will go on. Begin today to see, and accept, the real you beneath the role." - William Martin

As a former pastor, I recall yielding to a similar fallacy. My belief was that if I allowed too much of my humanity to be known, I would not be accepted, liked, loved by the people I served. The trick was not to look perfect, but rather to look just a little bit human, a slight bit flawed - but not reveal the true depth of brokenness that I felt and believed everyday. Instead, I played the self inflicted game of privacy and loneliness.

It seems to me that when I truly listen to others, when I get the gift of connecting with other people on a deep level, we are all deeply broken and sincerely fearful of our true selves...

What say you?

The call of the Divine to us is one of acceptance and knowing, that no matter how bad we may believe we are, that no matter how misunderstood or broken we may think ourselves to be, we are nonetheless loved. Ours must be a journey of progress, not perfection, of trying and failing and trying again. Ours is a tale of human imperfection and amazing accidental moments of perfection. We are all the labels - those we cherish and those we fear revealing. To further Coffin's metaphor, we need both our best and other foot to walk forward.


Are You Thirsty?

Are You Thirsty?

One past August, I went on a work related trip to Scottsdale Arizona. It is desert there. It is dry, very dry, there. The heat was around 100 degrees (a cool Temperature for that part of the world at that time of the year) and the humidity was about 0, none. We are talking dry.

Some respite could be found at sidewalk restaurants. Pipes are run overhead and sprayers shower mists of water down on sun baked travelers, cooling and soothing. Yet, as I sat there I was amazed. I could see the water. I could feel the cool effect. But, no matter how long I sat under it, I did not get wet. It was fascinating how I could be so close and yet still be dry.

Jesus and the disciples walked in the heat. The dry, hot journey from Judea to Samaria had taken its toll. They arrived, mid day, at Jacobs well. No one was there. Those who had needed water for the day had long since left, hiding from the noon heat. Earlier that day, the well had been busy, as it would that evening, with towns’ folk filling their jugs, skins, and buckets with water for the next day’s needs. The task was no doubt coupled with chatter about the life of family, shop keeping, travelers, and the daily socializing of a thriving community. The well was one of the meeting places, a place of nods and smiles, and a place of conversations and caring that make-up much of what we know of and need of community. The well was a place of refreshment not only of body, but of spirit, community.

Jesus sat at the well alone. His traveling companions had continued into town. Time passed. A woman approached, alone. She, an outcast of the community, chose to arrive when the others where gone. Perhaps she had been forbidden access to the community at the well. Maybe she simple could not withstand the taunts, sneers, or worse, the silence of others as they judged, ridiculed and condemned her. The exchange between them is recorded in John 4: 7-26.

7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)* 10Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ 11The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ 13Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ 15The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’ 
16 Jesus said to her, ‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ 17The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ 19The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you* say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.’ 21Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’ 25The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.’ 26Jesus said to her, ‘I am he,* the one who is speaking to you.’ 

Their conversation reveals two thirsty people: one parched from the desert heat, another from a cracked and broken existence. Jesus’ exchange with the ‘woman at the well’ drives our attention from physical need to spiritual lack. It is amazing how close we can be to refreshment and still be parched. Yet, there is more.

The image of these two can do a wonderful job at reminding us that there are two very real levels of need for the human existence: mission and forgiveness. The woman arrives needing healing for her broken life. Forgiveness and acceptance goes a long way to empowering us to rise from our brokenness. And, if we look a bit further, we find that forgiveness is only part of what heals.

It is interesting to note the exchange upon the disciples’ return.

27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, ‘What do you want?’ or, ‘Why are you speaking with her?’ 28Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah,* can he?’ 30They left the city and were on their way to him. 
31 Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, ‘Rabbi, eat something.’ 32But he said to them, ‘I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ 33So the disciples said to one another, ‘Surely no one has brought him something to eat?’ 34Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35Do you not say, “Four months more, then comes the harvest”? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36The reaper is already receiving* wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, “One sows and another reaps.” 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.’ 

 Here we find Jesus as the one who speaks of being refreshed by a spiritual food. His life, his very spirit has been enriched by his giving to, his caring for another. “It is in giving that we receive.”

Giving and receiving. By this shower of being we are refreshed. By the touch of godly actions on our lives we are transformed. By touching others with our charity, we are enlivened.

What need brings us here today. Do we sit burdened by the judgments of an ungracious community? Are we taunted by the fire of our broken self-esteem? Do we simply lack that quickening of spirit to bring zest to our lives, our relationships, again? Or, are we compelled by compassion to seek guidance today? Have the images of death, destruction, and chaos from the world around us caused us to arrive here and ask, “What can be done? Is all lost?”  Have you, like me, been so assaulted by the images from the disaster in Asia that you almost fear to turn on the TV, or listen to the radio? What is the death toll in Asia following the tsunamis now? 150,000? Who knows how many will still die from starvation, infection, or disease before the disaster gives way to some new normal way of existence, again?

Perhaps our message of hope here today is the same. The deepest, aching needs of human life are met by God, in Jesus Christ. We meet at the well this day and are offered the gifts of forgiveness and mission to begin the healing of our community, ourselves. It is amazing how close we can be to the refreshment we seek, and still be in such need.

So, the question remains: Are YOU thirsty? Yes?

13Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’


The Church is a Whore - Love Her

A recent post over at Her-menetics deserves a read: Called to Love The Whore.

Karen Swallow Prior does a nice job of admitting the many ways that the Church is deserving of our criticism and disappointment.

"They have studied history and are rightly angry over the racism of the church.
They have witnessed the present and are bewildered by the continued marginalization of some by the church.
They say the church is too shallow, caught up in outward trappings which sacrifice the substance of the gospel.
They have found the church too unwelcoming of hard questions, expressions of doubt, and spiritual struggles.
They have heard the call for war made in the name of the church."

The article goes on to catalog the sins of the Church. Then, in a fashion oddly prophetic, she reminds us that when we are judging others for their sins, we need to allow the same grace we would covert ourselves.

Is the Church a whore of a bride? Has she gone too far for our grace? Is the church a periodically errant servant or a lost organization?


Gasoline, exhaust fumes and the aroma of God

The heat this month is intense and makes mowing the lawn an adventure. I have one of those old fashion push-it-yourself gasoline mowers and the back yard at my home rest on a steep slope down to the stream. My mowing path takes me back and forth along the side of this hill, in and out of the shadow of the hickory trees, and white barked beech trees that tower above.

My weekly yard mowing has always been a time of physical exertion and spiritual awareness. It was in my back yard that the pains of early recovery and the exhaustion of body were met by the simple truth that one step at a time in the right direction will result in success, in time. It was here that my struggle with the 'weeds from hell' formed the framework for my belief that recovery and life is about helping and receiving help. And, it is here that I got a lesson about the aroma of god.

After my hour long journey over hill and weed in the back yard, I turn my sweat drenched body to the sun owned space known as my front yard. Here there is little shade and as my timing usually has it, I arrive here to complete the lawn mowing task in the peak of the day's scorching laughter, the blast furnace of hell!

My routine path takes me back and forth along the length of the now level ground. This day seemed especially oppressive. Perhaps the combination of heat and humidity, or the burden of the thoughts that my mind carried, or an unearthly union of both found me wishing for an end to this chore. Yes, it was an unseemly chore.

My thoughts had drifted to the past. Memories of days, now revisited, filled with personal failure, broken promises, misdirected passions, and self centered choices. I could see again the faces of those I had hurt with my addiction, feel the trauma of their pain, the poison of disappointments filled me. I coughed and felt the burning in my eyes of exhaust tainted sweat, the fumes rancid in my lungs. I tried breathing shallow, but my lungs screamed for air, for relief.

It was then I passed near a brief spindle of shadow, the transparent touch of the lone Magnolia standing in the grass. For a second it offered relief, and then gone, as my path carried me on. My mind wandered again...regret, remorse, heat and gas blasted me. Onward I trudged. Will this never end?

A turn of the mower and back. This pass brought me closer to the fat leafed tree, still bearing the last of its browning blossoms. This pass brought me more shade, and an unexpected scent, the gentle, unmistakable drifting aroma of magnolia blossoms. For a few steps it followed me, the coolness of its shade and the delicate scent...a blend of magical fragrance that brought back memories of laughter at the movies, and climbing thick closely entwined limbs in childhood. The heat returned in a flash and with it the roar of my mower and, yet, my thoughts remained on sweet magnolia memories and faint hopes of new blossoms. My next pass took me beneath her, that towering column of serenity. I stopped, felt the shadows shelter me, the air stir around me cooling my skin, let the drifting scent arrive.

I let the safety stop on the mower go. It fell silent and with it died the last of those haunting images of failure. I stood, forever, letting the aroma of god and the shadow of the spirit heal me. Another part of me, sometime later, finished the mowing. I think I’ll wait here awhile.