Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"For the [Big] Birds"

Have you ever seen The Pixar Short Film "For The Birds"? If not, check it out HERE before reading on.
Lets talk about these birds for a minute. At the beginning, it’s pretty clear these little birds enjoy their space enough to fight over it with one another. They act pretty selfishly, actually, don’t you think? If you looked at that telephone line closely you could see that the line was more than big enough for all the little birds, but they just don’t want to share. Their space gets especially messed up, though, when the big bird hits the scene. They are all squished together and that really makes them angry. Though they weren’t even friends with each other to begin with, they find a common enemy and they turn on him like vultures. They tweet about him, they gossip about the big bird, and they laugh at him. He’s pretty goofy and not like them at all. When he tries to hang out with them, they get rid of him.
I like to call this a “lunch table” situation, otherwish known as the “Forest Gump bus dilemma”. This film really takes me back to school days when that one really awkward, goofy looking kid walks into the lunch room and is trying to find a place to sit, but everyone say “seat’s taken,” or think it. People all over the cafeteria who don’t get along with one another all agree on this – that kid isn’t welcome. We see this at church too, and in the workplace – people just aren’t sure about the new guy, so they talk about him and spread rumors, gossip, not taking into consideration that the very person they’re talking about is, in fact, a human being with feelings like they are. But, no, that doesn’t matter. Those little birds just chatter away, not thinking about the big goofy bird in the room, not making room for him, not befriending him, but separating themselves from him and hurting him with their words and avoidance and exclusivity, and gossip, only thinking of themselves.
Lets consider Galatians 6:1-10:
Brothers and sisters, if a person is caught doing something wrong, you who are spiritual should restore someone like this with a spirit of gentleness. Watch out for yourselves so you won't be tempted also. Carry each other's burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks they are important when they aren't, they're fooling themselves. Each person should test their own work and be happy with doing a good job and not compare themselves with others. Each person will have to carry their own load. Those who are taught the word should share all good things with their teacher. Make no mistake, God is not mocked. A person will harvest what they plant. Those who plant only for their own benefit will harvest devastation from their selfishness, but those who plant for the benefit of the Spirit will harvest eternal life from the Spirit. Let's not get tired of doing good, because in time we'll have a harvest if we don't give up. So then, let's work for the good of all whenever we have an opportunity, and especially for those in the household of faith.”

Well, well… it looks like these birds are dealing with problems similar to those of the church in Galatia. It seems that Paul is reminding the Galatians not to participate in these group shaming activities like bullying and gossip, leaving others out, treating people as if they are less than we are because they look different, speak different, act different, have different customs, etc. It seems those little birds are fooling themselves because they sure seem to think they’re important, that they deserve their space, that they are better than that big goofy bird that's nothing like them.

We deal with problems similar to those of the church of Galatia too. Sometimes we are that big, goofy bird. We come into a new situation and all we desperately want is to be accepted by those around us, and all those around us are doing is excluding us. That hurts. A lot. We have all been there at some point or another. Sometimes we are those little birds. When we’ve gotten settled in our ways it’s easy to stick to the people we know, the other little birds like us, and to ignore those other big birds that don’t fit into what we already know. Those big birds in our lives might not even be people; they might be perspectives that are different than ours that we reject, they might be opportunities we reject, and, yes, they might be people that we make fun of, or ignore, or exclude, or neglect to invite into our group to share space in our lives. We’ve been the big bird, we’ve been the small bird. When life throws us situations that that give us the opportunity to act like those little birds in the film, what are we to do?

1. We are to carry each others’ burdens. That means including the outsider and understanding the outsider so that the outsider becomes the insider; we’re not to add to others’ burdens by excluding them, laughing at them, and forcing them away. That can be really tough when everyone else is making fun and excluding. But we can remember what it's like for us when we've been there, and we can do our best not to exclude. Not only are we to not add to their burden, but we are to gently correct those who are doing so. We are to be examples for others of what justice and equality look like. We are to listen, and understand; we don’t always have to agree, but we are to honor other people.

2. We are to believe that each person is as important as we are. The scripture today reminds us that if we think we’re important when we’re not, we’re fooling ourselves. Everyone has something to offer. Everyone’s voice deserves to be heard. Everyone’s perspective deserves to be valued. Every person deserves to be honored, not humiliated, not excluded, not judged, but loved, understood, and included. Not always agreed with, but heard and accepted.

This is who God calls us to be. This is the type of person Jesus exemplifies – the guy who shares meals with the hated, the guy who calls the poor to be leaders with him, the guy who touches those who are unclean, the guy who forgives the unforgiveable, the guy who accepts those nobody else will accept. If we agree that we are to be like Jesus, which I think we do, then we are to accept, to honor, to include, to understand, to love those who are big, goofy bird that look different than us, sound different than us, think different than us, act different than us. That’s a tall order. It’s not easy.

But the good news is that somehow in carrying each others’ burdens, in gently correcting our friends and neighbors in their judgmental actions, in being corrected ourselves, in treating people as if they are as important as we are (because they are)… we will produce great things. We will build great relationships, we will encounter wonderful ideas and fantastic creativity, we will be challenged, we will learn how rewarding it is to love our neighbors. And if we don’t, well, we saw the film, didn’t we? We will get caught "naked as a jay-bird," so to speak. We will never get to know the joy that we’re missing out on, the joy that God wants for all of God’s people. Why would we produce devastation in peoples’ lives when we could produce good instead? Why would we want to live barren, naked lives ourselves when we could live lives full of joy and peace and goodness instead?

Watch out for those big birds, those ideas, and those people, that you exclude, that you ignore, that you judge, that you humiliate. Perhaps it is time for those of us who have received the Holy Spirit to make space in our lives for those people. Perhaps it is time to invite them to sit on the telephone pole with us. Perhaps it is time for us to change the end of the story, to change the end of our story.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Turning “I’m bored” Into Pirate Ships and Meeting God

       I recently had the pleasure of going on a cruise to celebrate my graduation from seminary. It was WONDERFUL in a lot of ways – it gave me a chance to reconnect with the people who were with me, it gave me a chance to rest, it gave me some time to myself, and it gave me a chance to be bored. Now, hear me out. I know you’re probably thinking, “boredom doesn’t sound so great to me.” Especially those of you with kids who frequently torment you with complaints of boredom, or those of us who do everything we possibly can to keep ourselves busy and free of boredom, probably don’t so much appreciate the opportunities that it brings
       But parents, friends, fellow workaholics, and plan enthusiasts, think back to your years as kids. Remember those times when you had long summers off or weekends when you didn’t have anything planned? Remember those times you begged your friends to come over or your parents or siblings to play with you? Remember when they said no? What did you do? Did you go outside and discovered that your back yard was actually a pirate ship? Did you make up a game that didn’t actually keep score of anything but could keep you busy for hours? Did you climb a tree? Did you beat your previous record of how many times you could hop on one foot? Did you draw a picture? Did you journal? What did you do when you were bored?
       I can remember some of my most creative inventions and most memorable stories coming from those “I’m bored” moments. Perhaps boredom is needed. Perhaps boredom is the gateway to creativity, and, consequently, a gateway to God. I’m often reminded that as those people created by God in God’s own image (Genesis), we are made to create as God creates – to create relationships, to create other beings, to create love, to create memories, to create games, to create moments… to create. We meet God in those moments, don't we? We get to see what life is really is when we live as the people God has created us to be.
       Perhaps the enemy isn’t boredom. Perhaps the enemy is being overinvolved. Maybe we are stifling the amazing things we could be doing by filling all of our minutes, and hours, and days with work, and activities, and entertainment. Do we ever just give ourselves a moment to be bored? Do we ever just take a few minutes, a few hours, a few days to let creativity happen? Perhaps we are not giving God an opportunity to use us creatively because we don’t give ourselves a moment to just be. I wonder what my life might look like if I took more time to be bored. Maybe I’ll do just that. Maybe I’ll find my backyard pirate ship again. But may I’ll find an bigger treasure than that.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Rewriting the Rules

"The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made. All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your faithful shall bless you. They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom, and tell of your power, to make known to all people your mighty deeds, and the glorious splendor of your kingdom. Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations. The Lord is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds. The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down." -Psalm 145:8-14 

      How do I love you, God? Let me count the ways. You are gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, you’re good to all, you’re compassionate, everything you made will thank you because you’re so great, and all those who are faithful to you will bless you (they’ll be evidence of how wonderful you are)… and the psalm goes on. But it gets interesting around the last verse we read today, verse fourteen: “The Lord upholds all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down.”
      Many of us have heard something about God at some point or another about God helping us get back on our feet (amIright?). Even praise songs refer to this image of God picking us up off the ground. Maybe you recall singing the song “All in All,” and singing at the top of your lungs, “when I fall down, you pick me up, when I am dry you fill my cup, you are my all in all.” This idea of God picking us up when we fall isn’t new to many of us. But that isn’t exactly what this verse says here, is it? It doesn’t say when I fall down, God picks me back up. Instead it say, when I am falling God holds me up. The psalmist isn’t talking about after we’ve fallen, they're talking about about the very moment when we trip, we stumble, and we begin to fall, and in that moment, God catches us on the way down.
      Parents and kids out there know that kids get lots of bumps and bruises, lots of scrapes, lots of injuries from falling. While I'm not a parent, I'd bet that most parents, if standing close to their child and could stop them from falling when they tripped by grabbing them and steadying them, would do just that. I can remember driving in the car with some friends and their mom when suddenly their mom slammed on the breaks. One of my friends was sitting in the front seat and her mom’s arm immediately swung out in front of her to stop her from going forward too fast (apparently that’s common… my friend called that ninja move the “mom arm”). If we can, we keep the ones we love and those in our care from being harmed before they get too deep into trouble – that is, we try to stop the scraped knees and falling into the front of the cars.
      We’re in God’s care. God does this for us. God holds up those who are falling, those who trip. And lots of things trip us up, don’t they? We walk along doing well, going to church, being kind to people, going to bible study, inviting a friend to church, then BAM! Out of nowhere we trip up on something (maybe calling someone an ugly name). God catches us, and we’re forgiven, but we still remember, and we walk a little less tall than we did before. But we do keep walking and get back on track, we do the right things, say the right things, then BAM! Another tripping spot (maybe a loved one dies and we turn into ourselves and drink just a little too much to try and forget). God catches us, and we are forgiven, but we don’t’ forget. We remember, we carry that weight and the weight of former tripping places, and we bend under that weight just a little bit more. The cycle continues. And when we get tripped up by enough of whatever it is that is our own personal stumbling block enough times, we become ashamed of ourselves for tripping over and over again, whether it’s brought on by circumstance, by choice, or by accident. We’re ashamed, we’re bent over, we’re bowed down. Our shame becomes a part of who we are, even though it’s not who we always were and it’s not who God made us to be.
      This happens to all of us. It’s inescapable because we’re not in total control of our lives; other peoples’ decisions, good and bad, effect us and what happens to us. As much as other people can be blessings in our lives, other people can also be stumbling places in our paths. As much as we can raise others up, we can be tripping points for others too. (1 Corinthians 8:9) Sometimes we're aware of it, and sometimes we're not. For me, this image begs the questions, "where are we causing others to stumble" and "where have we participated in shaming other people?"
      I saw this video (it’s a commercial) on Facebook last week and things just clicked… I thought this is a very real way that we continue to trip and continue to trip up others, maybe in a way we haven’t even considered or realized before.

      Sometimes we become ashamed of who we are, we become bent over because the world gives us a set of rules, some written and some understood, and people in the world play by those rules and perpetuate them. We all do, whether we're aware of it or not. This doesn’t just apply to little girls and learning that doing something “like a girl” means they're doing it in a way that's less than. All the time we tell little boys to “be a man,” meaning hold in your anger, your frustration, don’t show your emotions, suck it up. “Be a man” and “like a girl” are only two examples of how rules are set for us and we perpetuated by us, even though they hurt all of us. We become ashamed of who we are. We become bent over, and the weight that we carry gets heavier every time we’re told to be a man or told that we do something like a girl. These sort of rules, these words, can cause us to stumble from the path God has for us, the way that Christ teaches us – walking as a beautiful child of God, the path that Christ sets for us. 
      But the rules can be changed. At least, that’s what this commercial suggests at the end when across the screen it reads, "rewrite the rules." God can show us the way to begin that change, that rewriting of the rules. Not only does God catch us as we stumble each and ever time, but God also helps us to stand up straight again, unashamed of who we are, a forgiven people (over and over and over again). And God helps us to have the strength not to buy in to everything we’re taught in society, but to change, to rewrite what's expected of all of us.
      The rules are there for us, but they are not set in stone. God is constantly catching us as we fall. God doesn’t let us hit the bottom, no matter how often we trip and no matter how bent over and ashamed of ourselves we become. God catches us and helps us to straighten up. Often, God does this through other people even though sometimes other people are the very things that cause us to stumble. It’s complicated, isn’t it? This world we live in, these people we are, and these people we know. People are complicated, situations are complicated, and there are lots of jagged edges on the sidewalk of life that we can trip on. But no matter how rugged our path, God catches us when we trip, we are not allowed to fall all the way, in life or in death. Romans 8:35-39 reminds us of this truth: 

"Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution,  or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, 'For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.' No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." 

We will be never be fully separated from God in Christ. We will never fall all the way. God will not allow it. God calls us to remember that we are beautiful, to not be ashamed of who we are and the places we have tripped up in the past. Instead, God calls us to live as a forgiven people who forgive ourselves and change the rules of life to be this standard – that we love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. (Matthew 22:37-39) We are to live in God’s image, standing up straight, doing what God does for us -- catching others when they stumble. We are to be people through whom God works to straighten others up, to remind others that they are not to be ashamed of who they are because they are beautifully and wonderfully made, like us.
     The question remains, "how can we be those people that God uses to straighten others up?" Stop buying into and reinforcing the messages and rules of the world that men and women are supposed to be one thing or the other, that being “like a girl” is less than being like a boy and being like a boy means “being a man”. It means not giving in to everything that society tells us – we’re not pretty enough, masculine enough, fat enough, thin enough, fast enough, smart enough, creative enough… that we are not enough. We are enough. God made us beautifully so that we might be able to walk upright, unashamed, proud of who we were made to be, and so that we might help others to see God’s magnificent work in themselves. Be aware of how you treat men and women differently, of how you treat each other in general -- people of different colors, people of different incomes, people of different ages, people of different able-ness, people of different orientation, people of different genders, people… we are all people. Treat others and yourself as if you are made fearfully and wonderfully, a beautiful creation made in God’s image. Change the world’s rules so that they do not continue to bend us over and cause us to stumble. God catches us so that we might catch others. God loves us so that we might love others. Let us live as forgiven people who walk tall and straight, who are proud of the human beings we are made to be, who know the grace of God, and who live sharing that grace with the rest of God’s creation. Let's rewrite the rules.