Sunday, February 23, 2014

Our Hypothermic Hearts and God's Snow Like Wool

Psalm 147

1 Praise the Lord!
How good it is to sing praises to our God;
   for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.
2 The Lord builds up Jerusalem;
   he gathers the outcasts of Israel.
3 He heals the broken-hearted,
   and binds up their wounds.
4 He determines the number of the stars;
   he gives to all of them their names.
5 Great is our Lord, and abundant in power;
   his understanding is beyond measure.
6 The Lord lifts up the downtrodden;
   he casts the wicked to the ground.

7 Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving;
   make melody to our God on the lyre.
8 He covers the heavens with clouds,
   prepares rain for the earth,
   makes grass grow on the hills.
9 He gives to the animals their food,
   and to the young ravens when they cry.
10 His delight is not in the strength of the horse,
   nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner;*
11 but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him,
   in those who hope in his steadfast love.

12 Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem!
   Praise your God, O Zion!
13 For he strengthens the bars of your gates;
   he blesses your children within you.
14 He grants peace* within your borders;
   he fills you with the finest of wheat.
15 He sends out his command to the earth;
   his word runs swiftly.
16 He gives snow like wool;
   he scatters frost like ashes.
17 He hurls down hail like crumbs—
   who can stand before his cold?
18 He sends out his word, and melts them;
   he makes his wind blow, and the waters flow.
19 He declares his word to Jacob,
   his statutes and ordinances to Israel.
20 He has not dealt thus with any other nation;
   they do not know his ordinances.
Praise the Lord!

    Back in the days before I had kids, I was a backpacker. I loved to stuff my internal frame Gregory with a couple Nalgene bottles, instant coffee, and packs of freeze dried lasagna and hit the trail. I could walk forever. It’s so quiet. So serene. You could stare down the passing traveller who’d dare hike your trail and not feel guilty about it. Just me and the trail. The sky. The trees. Climbing up a mountain, crossing ice fields in your shorts.

    My mom would be nervous about this. She always likes to say that her idea of “roughing it” is to spend the night at a Holiday Inn. But it’s pretty safe as long as you know a few rules.

First of all. You can never pack too many socks. You need at least three pairs - one for wearing, one that’s clean and dry, one pair that’s hanging from your zip cords, drying in the sun.
Second, cotton kills. Never hike in cotton. It’ll get wet. And when cotton gets wet, it stays wet, and it gets cold. Wool is always better - if it gets wet, it still insulates, still keeps you warm.
Third, - there’s a reason why the wilderness is beautiful - it’s because it rains - so, always carry rain gear, even if you’re just going on a day hike.

    So of course, on one hike with friends through the Three Sisters Wilderness, out in the beautiful Cascade Mountains of Oregon, I break all of these rules. We were going on a day hike, attempting to scale the middle sister, about a ten mile hike from top to bottom, no problem when you’re not lugging 35 pounds of gear on your back. So I grab a jacket, tie up my boots, stuff a few energy bars in my pockets and snag my water bottle. Ready to hit the trail.

And so we scale the mountain. And it’s beautiful. And we can see for miles. All the way to that cloud in the distance. And then, strangely, that cloud seems a little bigger, a little closer. And then more clouds begin to gather.  And they get thicker. And a heavy drizzle starts to fall. No big deal, but my friends and I decide it’s probably best to start our descent.
    And so down we go. Except the rocks are getting slippery. And I’m beginning to see my breath as we try to pick up our speed. And a blanket of fog starts to settle in. And we don’t remember this particular glacier field on the way up. And those trees don’t look at all familiar.  And wasn’t that valley on the other side of the mountain? And is it just me, or is it suddenly much colder?
    So cold my feet are slipping as we cross the ice-covered hill to get to the other side of the valley.
    So cold I don’t register where we are or where we should be going.
    So cold I’ve stopped shivering.
    So cold I start to think that maybe it just might be best to stop right where we are, halfway down this mountain, and sit, and maybe close my eyes for just a little rest. So cold that - what’s the point of all this anyway?

    And even now, I wonder, can I just take a break from this wandering that is ministry? This wandering that I am so not equipped for. This wandering that is so overwhelming and often so aimless. Can I just stop moving, for just a moment, and close my eyes, and ignore the aching world around me? Can’t I just stop right where I am, in the middle of serving a meal, in the middle of handing out one more pair of socks, in the middle of this sermon, or hearing yet another complaint from yet another needy human. Can’t I, just for one second, stop feeling helpless, stop crying over the life that seems simply unredeemable, just stop right here, right now, and close my eyes, for just a little rest?

Psalm 147 is a song of praise for God’s care for Jerusalem - But God’s care doesn’t come in the ways we always expect. “God’s delight isn’t in the strength of the horse, or the speed of a runner.” “God’s word runs swiftly,” giving “the snow like wool,” “the frost like ashes,” “hail like crumbs.”

    A few weeks ago, during those days of the infamous “polar vortex,” we opened our doors as an emergency overnight shelter for some of our homeless friends who had no where else to go.

My buddy, Andy, was telling me about the frostbite he had on his fingers and toes because he was too stubborn - and too drunk - to get inside the night before. Somebody’d seen him on the side of the road and called the cops, and they’d come and dragged him to the emergency room. Even as he rubbed his sore fingers together, he was still pretty defiant about the whole situation, saying that nobody had any business telling him what to do.

And my friend Carolyn, who is 62 but looks much, much, older, has been homeless since exactly December 21st, wandering the streets, with nowhere to go. The women’s shelters are mainly for the mentally ill or for battered women and women with children, and she’s just a 62 year old woman down on her luck. Before she’d lost her room in a shady halfway house, she was a faith-filled woman who saw the light of Christ wherever she went and said she trusted that God would come through for her. But after six weeks on the streets, she was a completely different person. Shivering. Cynical. Critical. With a frantic, exhausted look in her eyes.

And then there’s mumbling Bill. One Saturday, I found him at his camp, sitting in the dust and the garbage, empty bottles all around him, his hair matted in clumps on his head. He’d been a regular at our community meal on Tuesdays and Thursdays until he got kicked out for foul language and threatening the staff. He’s the guy you’re ashamed to think of when you think of the stereotypes of the homeless. But we still check on him under the 376 underpass every Saturday.

He was drawling on and on about his friend, Randy, whom he hadn’t seen for a few days. Using much more colorful language than I am comfortable using in a “church” setting, he said something to the effect of: “The stupid moron.” “He got in some idiot’s car the other night ‘cause they offered him $100 bucks to use his I.D. And I haven’t seen him since.”  Bill went on and on. He kept repeating himself. Still cussing. Still rambling on about what an idiot Randy had been. How he told him this was a bad idea. How he was nervous he might be dead. How he’d known it was a stupid thing to do, but he did it anyway. How he hadn’t seen him since. How it was a bad, bad idea and Randy knew better and it’s not his fault, and there’s nothing we can do, but man what a moron...
    In his drunken, coarse way, he was really sharing his deep, deep affection and concern for his friend. And what a gift it was for him to share that with us

    Working with the homeless and those on the margins of society is a lot like being lost in the wilderness - never knowing if you’ve made a wrong turn, never knowing when the weather will change, never sure if you’re wasting your time, wandering in circles. 
    But you go out anyway.

    ‘Cause you know that your heart is frozen, and the only way to treat hypothermia doesn’t make any sense at all.
    We’re all a little bit frost-bitten. We’re all suffering from hypothermia. We are stubborn. We are victims of just plain bad luck. We’re people who make poor choices, and we’re friends with people who make poor choices. So often, we think we don’t need each other. So we ignore the person with the cardboard sign on the street. We justify our stinginess, saying that the person who needs it will probably just waste it.  We think we’ve got our own lives under control. We think that this college degree, or this savings account, or these clean clothes, or this “right” choice is what separates us from those who are struggling, those who are suffering. And then we ignore the hurt within our own hearts.
    But we’re all a little bit hypothermic.
    We’re all suffering from hard, cold hearts.
    To treat hypothermia, you need to take off all those layers of wet clothes and stereotypes and expectations.
    To warm up, you need the presence of other humans, their body heat to gently raise your own internal temperature.
    And if you’re stuck in the wilderness, with snow all around, the best thing to do is to dig a hole in the ice and snow and burrow in deep. The snow will actually act as insulation.
    And if you are hypothermic, you know you’re in big trouble if you start to get complacent, comfortable, ready to crumple yourself into a ball and just go to sleep.

    Psalm 147 tells us that the real way to warmth is through the cold.
    The snow is like wool.
    The frost is like ashes.
    The hail is like crumbs.

What a strange juxtaposition of images. Unless you are suffering from hypothermia. Then you know that crawling into the snow is exactly what you need to do to get warm. If you are really cold, you know that where there are ashes, there is warmth. And if you are freezing, where there are crumbs, there is bread.

    God’s cold is warm like wool. God’s cold is evidence that fire and fresh bread are not that far off. If you want to survive hypothermia, you crawl into that cold, you strip off your expectations and your maps and clear directions and you huddle with other people, soaking in their body heat and their wet breath. You go where the water is still moving, because moving water doesn’t freeze.
    None of us can stand before God’s cold. But it is God’s word, that melts us. And like the ruach that hovers over the waters at the beginning of creation, God’s spirit, God’s warming breath, makes the waters flow. 

God’s word - 
God’s word that melts you as you hold the frostbitten hands of a proud, stubborn homeless man.
God’s word that softens you as you look in the frantic eyes of an exhausted woman at her wits’ end.
God’s word that warms you as you listen to the worried ramblings of a drunk, concerned for his best friend.
God’s word that comes to us through the weakness of a man, born in questionable circumstances, killed in the most shameful of ways.

God calls us to go out in the storm, into the snow, and get melted.

Thanks Be to God.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Poopcicles, Being Saved, and Utter Foolishness: A Sermon in Three Parts

Check it out - I have a voice!

 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
"For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

The Preamble:
Ok. Everybody stand back. I’m preaching on Paul today.
Ugh. I have such a love/hate relationship with this guy.  One minute he’s ranting about how women should be silent and have their heads covered in church, and the next, he’s telling us how very much we are unconditionally loved by God. This guy makes me nuts. And yet, here I am, in front of you all, ready to preach on one of Paul’s passages.
Get out the fire extinguishers, ‘cause God might strike me down and take this whole church with me in the process.
And yet, I feel like this passage is so perfect, is so true, and real and good that there really is nothing left to say about it.  All the preachers before me, much more talented, educated, esteemed preachers than myself, have said all there is to say about this passage.  We worship an upside down God with upside down hearts in an upside down world. There. The End.

I feel like that Gillian Welch song, where she sings, “There’s gotta be a song, left to sing/ ‘cause everybody can’t a thought of everything...”  End Scene. Cue Communion. Let’s have lunch.

But you’re here. And I’m here. So we might as well get started. A Sermon in Three Parts.

Act 1: Wherein, if you don’t know what to talk about during a sermon, just grab peoples’ attention by giving them too much information on the state of your house and your pets’ disgusting habits. Hopefully, somehow through this, people will get the point that life is a big mess and were up to our necks in it.

Act 2: Wherein, the preacher tries to explain that even as we are “saved” once and for all, we are still being saved. That life is a process, and even when we don’t feel like it, God is still working in us, still saving us.

Act 3: Where our poor preacher gives up trying to make sense, and hopes that the Holy Spirit is jumping in to clear out the clog the preacher has formed for herself. Where also, she worries that in exhorting you to do something that doesn’t make sense, you will take it the wrong way and do things that aren’t healthy for you. But in the end, she just wants you to embrace the foolishness of the cross.


Ok. Let’s do this. Bring on Act 1. “Our House: The DNA cesspool.”

So I have this dog. She’s almost 13. Selectively deaf, blind, and who groans every time she lays herself down against the couch. Poor Robin. She was such a great dog. Sweet girl. Loved to fetch. Went swimming in Lake Michigan at 8 weeks old. I even credit her with saving my first year of marriage. But as she’s gotten older, her disgusting habits have gotten worse. Yes. It’s that disgusting habit. The one where you don’t have to pick up the backyard after her when she goes out to do her business because she’s already done it for you... She’s the world’s most perfect recycler! And before you all come up to me after the sermon and tell me all the ways we can try to correct this horrible habit, let me tell you, we’ve tried it. For thirteen years we’ve tried it. The vet just says, “Well, it sounds like she’s got some neuroses, and there’s not much that can be done about it. Just be sure to pick up after her.”

So yeah. This dog. This is all she can think about now that she is too old and achey to fetch, too tired to paw us for attention. Add to this poor dog, another giant dog, who loves to copy everything old dog does, plus a cat who has some kind of incurable upper-respiratory disease that leaves snot splatters against our walls, a fish that seems to somehow kill every “friend” we try to introduce to him, and three chickens that are currently molting, and you have a perfect storm of pet insanity. Our house is 851 square feet of dog hair, cat snot and pails of wet diapers. Y’all are welcome to visit anytime!

But for some reason, guilt?, commitment?, stubbornness?, we don’t get rid of them. They cause us so much frustration and annoyance and bottles of clorox, and yet they’re still at home, lounging on our carpets and in our bed, waiting for us to come home so they can tackle us for their lunch.

It’s ridiculous. 2 big dogs. A cat. A fish. Three chickens. One tiny house. What a stupid idea.

But tonight, we’ll vacuum up another layer of dog fur.  We’ll let them out one more time.  We’ll yell at Robin, who can’t hear us, to stop eating her poop. We’ll wipe the snot off the basement door.

Makes me wonder how many of us, no matter how hard we try not to, keep returning to our own piles.

Between us, Dan and I have two bachelor’s degrees, six master’s degrees, and a PhD.  Well. I guess you could say that God has destroyed the wisdom of the so-called wise. God has thwarted the discernment of the discerning... ‘Cause here we are yelling curse words out our back door as the cold rushes in, trying to get our dog to stop eating her own poop.

But if God’s not in that, then where is God?

I’m pretty sure that God’s not interested in the ways of what I’ll call “The Super Bowl Christians.” They’re the ones who are “in it to win it” - those who claim that power and money and perfectly executed plays and scoring points wins the day. So often I want God to shoot me some fireworks and bring Madonna to my half-time show, and instead, I get a wall covered in cat snot and a dog who keeps coming back to her own piles of poop.  I get a mess of DNA. A pile of life strategically placed by the back door.

So much life, that sometimes I just want to give it all up. To walk away. To forget it.

Act 2: "You Are Not Just Saved; You Are Being Saved."

But our God works in those piles. God works in ways that often don’t make any sense to our logical brains. Now, to be sure, I’m still waiting to figure out how God is working through the neuroses of my 13 year old chocolate lab, but this passage for today makes me think that somehow, God is.

Why? Because somehow God worked through the cross. The foolishness of a man at his weakest, crucified as a common criminal, hanging among other common criminals, left to rot in the sun.

Because somehow God turned what was once a taco restaurant with $10 enchilada platters into a church that serves free meals every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.
Because somehow we have this place where we can take in the homeless for a night, even though thoughts like “exhaustion,” “liability,” “unpredictability,” and “filth” cross our minds.
Because sometimes I don’t have a very good attitude about feeding my baby in the middle of the night, but I do, usually every two hours.
Because sometimes we show up, serve the food, do the dishes, and grumble about it.
Because God stepped in and used you even though you shouted “Screw You!” (or something more colorful) from the church parking lot, or you yelled “so do you want the frickin’ sandwich or not!?” at the complaining homeless neighbor.
Because you’re here, even though you have serious doubts about all of this church business.
Because God can step in and became a convicted criminal with a death sentence and still save the world because of it.

“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
To those of us who are being saved, who are in the process of being saved, these human attempts become resurrected into something much greater. How do we know that we are not perishing, but are in the process of being saved? Not because we said a Jesus prayer. Not because we followed some rules. Not because we said the right things at the right time. We know we are being saved because God is transforming us. Because God takes these crappy offerings of just showing up, of grumblings, and curses, and resurrects them.

These aren’t things we do in order to be saved. These are things we do because we are saved.

See we are being saved. We are in the process of being saved. It’s not once and for all. It’s every day. Every moment. RIGHT NOW you are being saved. As you sit here, your mind wandering, half listening, or worrying about a sick loved one, or making your grocery list, or thinking about that nap you’ll take this afternoon. Right now.

We know we are being saved because we are given enough grace to just show up. To tolerate one more day. To keep trying. To say “no” or “yes” or “I hope so,” for one more minute.

We know we are being saved, not because it feels good to stay up all night as a chaperone at an emergency warming shelter, but because we’ve been given just enough grace to show up and do it.
We know we are being saved because even though we’re exhausted and disgruntled with all of humanity, we get to work serving a meal to a bunch of them.
We know we are being saved because even though we get so tired of hearing the same complaint over and over again, we smile, and we listen, and we breathe deep breaths.
We know we are being saved because we don’t throw the dog out the window when she tracks mud through the freshly mopped kitchen.
We know we are being saved because we have just enough of whatever it takes - grace, peace, stubbornness, gratitude - to just show up, even if we don’t have a very good attitude about it.

Being saved doesn’t mean saying the right things.
Being saved doesn’t mean having the right attitude.
Being saved doesn’t mean believing the right list of beliefs.

Being saved means that God can step in and use you even when you don’t feel like it. Even when you feel stuck. Or broken. Or nailed to your own cross.

We know we are being saved because even though sometimes we don’t have a very good attitude about feeding our babies in the middle of the night, or because we want to strangle our dog when she brings in a poopcicle from the back yard, we still show up when they need us. We still open the back door. We still roll out of the warm bed and stumble through the dark hallway to the baby’s room. We still show up for the third night of hosting homeless friends in our makeshift shelter of a church that once served tacos and watered down margaritas.
Even those of us who have given up, who shout out, “God, where are you?” “God, I hate you!” or “God, you’re not even real,” are being saved. Those of you who are determined to take one more breath even while the voices in your head are telling you to just give up, and those of you who are aching for one more hit or one more shot of vodka but are putting it off just one more second, you’re being saved. None of us could do any of that without being saved. I’m convinced of it.

Act 3: "The Cross is foolishness. The Resurrection doesn’t make any sense."

But practice it anyway. Practice it. It won’t be perfect. But keep practicing.
This is our calling. To practice the foolishness of the cross.
Practice resurrection.

Poet John Rybicki has this wonderful poem in which the last line is, “God above, I can’t go on, and thank you for this day.”
What a perfect way to express our relationship with God and with this world. This constant contradiction. This collision of two worlds - the scandal of the cross and the strange surrealness of the resurrection. Grace and humanity. A pile of life that doesn’t make sense. So much impracticality and lunacy.

It doesn’t compute. A man on a cross, in shame, left to rot in the sun, is lifted up to the right hand of the Father so that every knee shall bow and proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord.  It just doesn’t make any sense.

And that is exactly where God calls us. To that place of wearing the crazy-pants. That place of impracticality. That place of hope-filled senselessness.

We practice the foolishness of the cross and the ridiculousness of the resurrection by doing something that doesn’t make sense. Doing something that doesn’t compute.

Do something that defies the world.
- count your profits in hearts changed, not burritos sold.
Have a tea party with your son and some dinosaurs, even though your dissertation is in the next room, waiting to be finished.
Plant a garden in your backyard, even though it will diminish the resale value of your home.
Listen to the ramblings of someone who has a severe mental illness - or to the ramblings of someone who doesn’t.
Give a dollar to the guy on the street with a cardboard sign.
Adopt the old, dumb, poop-eating dog from the shelter
Have a meal with your political opposite.
Buy fabric, cut it up into little tiny squares, and then sew them back together
Write a letter - with a pen, on a piece of paper - to someone in prison, or to your mom.

Take a nap when there’s dishes in the sink.
Do the dishes even if it makes you grumble.


And now for the Epilogue: “God above I can’t go on, and thank you for this day.”

These things don’t save. They don’t. And they won’t.
But this is how we know we are saved - we do these things that are impractical, we show up, we say “yes,” or “I want to,” or “I don’t know, but I’ll be there.”
And that’s the resurrection. That’s the wisdom of the cross. That God gives us enough grace for the day, even when things don’t make sense. Even when it hurts. Even when the days are too short. Or too long. Or too dark.

And in that we boast. We boast in our doubts. We boast in our cuss words. We boast in our follies and in our foibles and in how often we reach the end of our rope. We boast in our humanity. We boast because we know that it’s not about us. We boast because we know that it’s God. God who does the saving. God who flips the things of this world on their heads and makes the lowly the greatest. God who transforms us, sometimes a little too slowly for our tastes, but gives us enough grace for the day.
Enough grace to make a meal out of a piece of bread dipped in grape juice. Enough to feed us, even though we are cussing and doubting and sighing and fearing. “God above, I can’t go on, and thank you for this day.”

This is a mess of a sermon. But I have laundry. So this is what we get.

Thanks be to God.