Thursday, February 27, 2014

Running with Spirituality

My first sermon on internship was on Hebrews 12:1.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, (NRSV)

And in this sermon, I talked about how much I hated running.  That I could think of few things worse than having to run for any distance or length of time.

And even though I've made some changes in my life that appear to be "healthier" than what I was doing before, and even though one of those changes has been to start a Couch To 5K program, I still am not a huge fan of running.

I even bought sweet running shoes.  Courtesy of Nike

Now, let me clarify.  I love the feeling I get after I finish running, and there's a sense of accomplishment that accompanies beating my personal records (thank you iPhone for keeping track of those for me).  And I've started to look forward to the run as a way for me to hit that feeling of accomplishment.

But as for the run itself?  

It's painful, sometimes.

I find that I spend most of my time running making sure that I'm breathing and that I don't run into anybody else that's on the track at the local YMCA while I'm panting around in circles.  Or else I'm mentally counting down the seconds (it always feels like more than it should) until the nice lady from my phone is going to tell me that it's time for me to begin running.

So maybe I'm still not there with the "runner's high" that I'm told will come as I run more and more.  For me, the actual run is less exciting for its own sake and more of a discipline.  It's the means to a goal - that is, weight loss and the sense of accomplishment.

And yet, day by day, this is slowly changing.  Each run becomes easier than the last.  Who knows?  Maybe in a few weeks I'll actually be able to think about something besides my breathing when I run.

How I feel about running is also how I feel about spiritual practices.

I'm not the biggest fan.  I find them to be painful at times.  And like someone trying yoga for the first time (which I also plan on doing - crazy), I spend more of my time and energy focusing on the fact that I need to focus than I do on paying attention to God's presence in these times. 

And I have a sneaking suspicion that I'm not alone here.  

Sure, we have a culture full of "spiritual but not religious" people, but if we honestly assessed their spirituality, I think we would find that it's really just finding ways to create that "warm, fuzzy feeling" within themselves.  

Because true spirituality is painful.  It's scary.

And that's because God is scary.  How often does the voice of God have to say, "be not afraid" whenever God needs to speak to someone?  Hint: It's a lot.

And so, to develop and cultivate a practice that opens ourselves up to the fullness and majesty of God is absolutely terrifying.  God is so much more than ourselves, that to open up to God is the equivalent of a brain freeze and a mind-splitting migraine at the same time.  

The kind of painfulness that I feel about halfway through my run when my shins scream, "We quit!"

It might be life-giving at the end of the process.  But not during it.

We just aren't able to fully comprehend or handle the majesty and power of God.  Our brains can't contain all that God knows.  Our hearts burst with amount of love and grace that God is trying to pour through us.

And more often than not, when we open ourselves up to God, we find that God is calling us to go somewhere we aren't going.  To try something new.  To make a change.  And we all know how we feel about change deep down.

Kind of like when I started running, and then realized I had to do all sorts of other strength based exercises too.  And had to make a change in my diet - apparently McDonald's all the time doesn't make for healthy running.  Who knew?

So, often, instead of running to spirituality, we run from true spirituality.

Instead of exercising our heart's capacity to love and our mind's capacity to understand, we keep those muscles from being used.  We allow them to decay - instead focusing in on ourselves.  Basically the opposite of spirituality.

But perhaps, when we lay aside our burdens of sin -t hose personal and cultural demons that keep us from developing a relationship with God, we can truly begin to run.  And maybe we can start enjoying the process of running for its own sake.

We can develop truly spiritual practices that open ourselves up to the Creator of the Universe, and become an outlet for the transformative grace that God continually gives.

And maybe, just maybe, like I may someday discover the joy of running for its own sake, we might develop truly spiritual practices that deepen our religious rituals and lives.  

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Gimme That!

This sermon was delivered to the People of the Lutheran Church of the Nativity on Sunday February 23, 2014.  The texts for the sermon were Ezekiel 47:1-2, 6b-9, 12 and John 7:37-52.

This has been a wild week in the world.  We’ve seen protests in Ukraine and Venezuela, where people on both sides of the protests involving the government’s use of power have gotten violent.  We’ve seen over the past few weeks the divisiveness that is present in Russia surrounding the Olympics, as the whole world is tuned in, as Russia struggles with their “anti-gay” laws, with people on both sides of the issue giving their support from around the world.  And we see in America today, how almost any conversation can be split up in to two camps by mentioning, equal marriage rights, gun control, or - the current hot topic for many people, universal health care.
And when we look out and see all the divisions that happen in our world, it’s easy for us to think that this is something new.  That our world is more divided today than it ever has been.  But that’s not true.  As anyone who has ever witnessed sibling rivarly can tell you, there will always be division.  One sibling is going to think that the other one is getting special treatment, and the other sibling is going to think the same thing.
I can remember when my brother and I got our first XBOX to share.  We were told that we had to split the time on it equally, or else we wouldn’t get to play it anymore.  We had a timer set up, so that each person would only get thirty minutes at a time with the XBOX.  And yet, even with the timer, we managed to squeeze some extra time out of the games whenever we were “supposed” to turn it over to the other brother.  So, for my brother’s birthday, he got his own XBOX, as my parents attempted to create some equality between the two of us.  Instead of fighting over time with the system, then my brother and I would fight over which games we wanted to play.  Never mind that we had enough that he and I could have played for weeks without having to talk to each other.  Instead, when things were made equal, we still found something to argue about and fight over.  
And this isn’t just for humans either.  My dog, Oliver, will pretty much refuse to play with toys.  He’s just not interested.  He might gnaw on one every now and then, but for the most part, he couldn’t care less about getting a new bone or a new toy.  Except when my parents bring their dog down for the weekend.  Then Oliver gets really defensive about his toys.  He has to have all the bones and all the toys.  He’ll snap at the other dog if she comes close to “his” things.  And so, we end up giving each of the dogs their own rawhide chew.  And without fail, they spend more time trying to get the other one’s bone than they do actually chewing on it.  
And we can look back in history and see that this isn’t something new under the sun.  Pretty much since Cain and Abel, we’ve had sibling rivalry.  And with it, the idea that there’s not enough to go around.  The idea that one person has to have, at the expense of the other.  We saw it with Jacob and Esau, with Moses and Aaron, and we even see it with those listening to Jesus this morning.  
Jesus has just preached a message about grace and life coming from God.  A life, that comes from God (the sanctuary in our first reading this morning), that’s coming out of the believer’s heart.  And there is so much grace and life coming out from God that it can go into all the world, providing life for everyone.  And there’s really no stipulation on who can have this life, just anyone who comes to Jesus because they are thirsty.  Anyone who thinks that there’s something better in this world, that this can’t be all there is, will be able to be transformed into an outlet for God’s love and grace that bring life.
And even in the midst of this radical message that there is more than enough, that life for all the world will come to the whole world, people still need to be right, at the expense of someone else being wrong.  It’s like when my brother and I each had our own XBOX, and we still needed to find something to fight about, that the other couldn’t have.  
So we see all sorts of divisions crop up around Jesus’ words around equality.  Some say he’s just a dreamer, looking to the way things are supposed to be.  Some say that he’s truly the one that is going to bring life and light and water to all the world.  And others, most others, actually say that he’s just a wacko that doesn’t know how the real world works.  I can hear them saying to themselves, “What does some backcountry boy know about how the world works?  Doesn’t he know there isn’t really enough to go around?  Doesn’t he know that even if there were, people wouldn’t willingly share what they have with those who don’t?”
Aren’t those words we’ve heard or maybe even said ourselves?  When we hear messages like this one, where Jesus talks about life-giving waters for all the world, don’t we say, that’s real nice Jesus, but that’s not how the world actually works.  We need competition to survive and thrive.  Because otherwise people who are lazy will just take advantage of the system.  Or we get angry, and say, “I worked hard for what I have.  Yeah, I know I don’t need all of it, but I earned it.  I’m not going to give it away to someone who doesn’t deserve it.”  Even in the message of plenty, we still think there’s not enough.
Even in this message of life, we create divisions.  I had a professor in college who once said, “Where two or more are gathered in Jesus’ name, there will be at least six different opinions about what it all means.”  It’s true though.  Anytime we hear God’s word, we each come up with our opinions about what it all means.  And that’s a good thing.  Just like a river has to have two banks for it to be a river - to contain it, and allow it to bring life to the plants on either side, so too must God’s word allow for divisions.  Otherwise, we would find ourselves trapped believing that there’s only one answer, and we’ve got it.  And then, we might find ourselves using God to justify whatever it is that we’re already doing, instead of listening to see where God is calling us to act.
The problem with our divisions is that we have a hard time celebrating them.  Instead we enter into competition with them, we “need” to be right.  Like I “needed” to have the game my brother was playing.  It doesn’t really matter to my faith if I’m right and you’re wrong.  And if I start thinking that maybe you’re right too, then I might challenge and cause my faith to grow.  And maybe you can learn from me.  And in our conversation, life will flourish and God will show up.  God shows up in those “six or more opinions about what it all means” because God can be glimpsed in all of them.  God is simply present in the other person, and I cannot see how unless I stop trying to fight them.  
And when I do, God has an amazing way of showing up to bring about grace and life.  Like when several years ago, during a riot in Egypt, Muslims stood around a Christian church and protected it from being burned down.  Or later, when Christians stood around a group of Muslims so that they could pray in peace.  Or even in the Ukraine this week, where priests stood in between the protestors and the police, so that there could be a moment of peace against the protest.
These are powerful moments where living water, coming from God, flows out of these hearts of these believers.   They are moments of grace and beauty for all peoples.  They are chances where we get to see what Jesus is talking about when he talks about the Kingdom of God.  They are moments where we find the water inviting and welcoming, and we want to jump in.  They are moments where our hearts can be transformed, and we too can allow our hearts to open up let the life-giving water of God flow out of our hearts.  And we continually ask God to pour grace through us, so that we can bring life to those in need.  Amen.