Rev. Aimee Moiso

Rev. Aimee Moiso is a Presbyterian minister currently working as a university chaplain at Santa Clara University. A graduate of Whitworth University, she received her M.Div. from San Francisco Theological Seminary and a master in ecumenical studies from the the Bossey Ecumenical Institute and the University of Geneva, Switzerland.

Grand expectations

Well, in case you have nothing else to do the last two days before Christmas, here's one last gasp of Advent: a sermon poem I wrote for the staff and faculty worship service at Santa Clara University on Dec. 12. Enjoy this proclamation of the gospel ala Dr. Seuss, and Merry Christmas. 

 

“Grand Expectations”

Matthew 1:18-25

Rev. Aimee Moiso

December 12, 2012

Santa Clara University

 

‘Twas the twelfth of December, the year 2012

and all across campus are books to re-shelve,

and papers to file and numbers to tally,

now that our fall quarter has reached its finale.

Our undergrads prob’ly are flat in their beds

with terrors of finals week still in their heads.

And we who remain on the campus will spend

these last days before Christmas prepared for the end.

Yes, it’s coming, you know, and the Mayans did, too,

Twenty-one days in this month, but not twenty-two.

 

Still, if maybe by chance, Mayan lore’s not your thing

and you’re thinking we’ll probably still be here come spring,

this is also the season of Advent, week two,

which means not an end, but beginning and new,

and waiting and hoping and grand expectation –

of new life and new birth and a whole new creation.

 

…And stockings and Santa and reindeer and snow,

a star on the tree and a wreath with a bow.

Everything lovely and smelling of pine

or warm gingerbread or the spice of mulled wine.

And on top of all that, we’re supposed to possess

perfect gifts for our family and friends, which express

that they mean more to us than a pearl without price –

but maybe this tie or a book will suffice?

 

Yes, this is a season of grand expectations,

many of which are resigned obligations

to tradition or duty or just what we do

when this season comes round, ‘cause it’s how we get through.

We also enjoy it: the lights and the food,

the music and parties and holiday mood.

Even though Christmas shopping might fill us with dread,

we do get some joy prepping for what’s ahead.

Expectations are high for this season of cheer –

Both all we must do, and all we hold dear.

 

Expectations were probably on Joseph’s mind some

as he pondered and prepped for his marriage to come.

I’ll bet he was happy to have found a wife,

and that he was headed toward family life.

But he would have also felt anticipation,

of duty, and honor and grand expectation.

We’re told he was righteous, and no doubt he was,

which meant in his context adherence to laws.

Those who were righteous could rightly expect

to be judged by their actions and what they reflect.

So when Joseph discovers that Mary’s expecting,

the choice that’s before him is fraught with respecting

the law, which of him required casting her out –

not just from the marriage, but the village, no doubt –

and to shame her in public, for she’d caused him harm;

his honor’s in question, which raises alarm.

So the fact that he plans to dismiss her hush-hush

shows this Gospel tells more than we see at first blush.

For the one who is righteous in our Scripture here

is bending the law toward compassion, not fear.

And if that weren’t enough, our righteous male lead

is about to hear angels in dreams, who proceed

to convince him that what is expected is not

to maintain his honor and do what he ought.

Instead, he is told, Mary’s not to be blamed

and her pregnancy is not a cause to be shamed.

Despite “how it looks” or the letter of the law,

Joseph’s wife she should be, and without hem and haw.

For this is the doing of God, not of man

and though it’s unorthodox, this is the plan.

What’s righteous becomes what is faithful and true,

despite expectations of what Joseph should do.

 

Scholars will tell us what Matthew is doing

when law-filling righteousness he is eschewing

is setting us up for what Jesus will do

when he teaches “You’ve heard…but now I say to you...”

This story of Joseph – who’s righteous, and yet

follows angels instead of the law that’s preset –

it’s told to make clear that what Jesus expects

is compassion, and care, and a love that respects

not just what is law, but that which is good,

and which goes beyond what we do ‘cause we should.

Sometimes what’s right is not what we expect;

instead, it’s about how much love we reflect.

 

It’s a Christmas-y message, that love should precede

the customs and duties that have been decreed.

It’s a nice little thought in this holiday light

when we’re singing the carols and dinner’s in sight.

But it’s harder in concrete reality check

when doing what’s right means sticking our neck

out of what’s normal or comfortable, or

if it demands that some rules we ignore.

Or, perhaps worst of all is when we must reject

what those around us have come to expect.

Like Joseph, the pressure on us to conform

is plenty to keep us from bucking the norm.

We don’t often get to see angels in dreams

who offer direction about life’s extremes.

 

And it’s hard to discern what is right and what’s good

when we’re also expected to act as we should.

So what do we do when compassion should win

but the duty we feel to our colleagues and kin

makes it hard to see how doing right could prevail,

not to mention the things doing right would entail?

 

So here’s where our story of Joseph today

is more than a Christmas morality play.

Our God knows it’s hard to discern what is right

and the courage for action is often too slight.

Listen up, says the angel in Joseph’s strange dreams,

the child to be born will be more than he seems.

He’ll not be just a king who will lead for a spell;

this is God in the flesh, this is Emmanuel.

Life is hard, and our God does not leave us alone

to figure it out in the dark and unknown,

to be stuck in our ruts and our sin, no, for thus:

this is Emmanuel, here and now, God-with-us.

And Emmanuel in this Christ is the one

who can give us the hope and faith in the long run

in our hearts and our minds and our strength and our soul

that because God is with us, we can be made whole.

And it’s not all on us to discern what to do

because we have each other to help get us through,

and our God of compassion with fearless esprit

has become one of us so that we might be free.

 

In this season, we have a great chance to renew

our hope that there’s more in this life than we knew.

It is hard through the year to know how to do right

how to hold on to love in wee hours of the night.

 

There’s a lot we expect, and’s expected of us

and we’re stubborn and anxious; we struggle and fuss.

 

But against all odds God will be with us until

God’s grand expectations on earth are fulfilled.

 

May God’s love and compassion thus be our refrain

and visions of angels in dreams still remain

because “God is with us!” we claim once again,

and may all God’s people on earth cry, AMEN.

 

Do you have power?

By luck or providence, I have now experienced my first hurricane.

Last Saturday, I flew to Baltimore for a meeting, which was scheduled to begin Monday, and I arrived early to see dear friends from my Bread for the World days. While I was en route, the meeting to which I was headed was cancelled. By the time I found out and got it together to try to fly back to San Jose ahead of Hurricane Sandy, the on-hold wait time for a Delta Airlines representative was nearly two hours. The next morning, it was six.

After striking out on both the phone and internet trying to get myself home pre-hurricane, I settled into the “batten-down-the-hatches” work of helping my friends prepare for seriously severe weather. We brought in the lawn furniture and potted plants, picked the last of the peppers and raked up leaves, tied down the porch swing, turned the refrigerator to its coldest setting and packed the freezer with bags of ice. We made food contingency plans: what should we cook while the power was on, what could we grill outside or eat cold if the power went off, and what should we preemptively eat so it wouldn’t go to waste in a thaw? (The latter turned out to be bacon, pot stickers, cookie dough and ice cream – though not all in one meal.) We charged our computers and cell phones, found candles and matches, and replenished flashlight batteries. We filled pots and pitchers with tap water and brought up bottled water from the basement.

Sunday evening, we discovered a frightening gap in our plan: we had no peanut butter. So it was off to the grocery store in spitting rain, where we found that the shelves of toilet paper, canned soup and bottled water had been pillaged and plundered - but a few jars of $7 organic peanut butter remained in the natural food section.

And thus we hunkered down for the storm.

I live in earthquake country. Californians are supposed to be ready for The Big One, and to keep emergency food and water, as well as first aid supplies, crucial paperwork and medications, and important keepsakes in a “go” bag, ready at the first sign of a tremor – whenever that might be.

Preparing for a disaster you know is coming, like a hurricane, is a bit different. It’s not theoretical, it’s imminent. It’s unpredictable in its trajectory, but you can see it coming on the satellite photos.

Which means there’s time to think about it.

There’s time to think about whether or not you tried hard enough to get a flight out, and whether the people who did get out had better reasons to go then you did. There’s time to think about whether the tree behind the house might come crashing down on the power lines, or on the roof above your bed. There’s time to think about what would happen if you had a real emergency and the roads were flooded. There’s time to think about what would happen if cell towers went down and you couldn’t call 911. 

And there’s time to think about all the people around you who need electricity more than you, who need doctors more than you, who need to get to work more than you, who are at lower elevation than you, whose roofs weren’t repaired last year like yours, whose windows aren’t double-paned like yours, and whose pantries weren’t already stocked with food long before anyone ever heard of Hurricane Sandy.

Monday morning dawned and we waited for the power to go out. We took bets on what time the lights would flicker and die. We revised the meal plans. We kept our phones and computers plugged in and charged at all times, waiting for that moment when we’d lose internet connection and thus our ability to keep up with every breaking detail of the storm.

As long as there was power, though, we worked. We worked remotely, we worked online, we did work we already had on our laptops, we did work by conference call, and my friends did some organizing and sorting in their house that required, among other things, electric light.

Catholic Relief Services, where both my friends are employed, was closed, along with everything else – including the airport and mass transit systems. At one point, driving was banned in Baltimore altogether, except for emergency vehicles. It rained a lot. And it was windy.

My friends and I talked about playing games. We talked about watching a movie. We talked about reading books by candlelight. We did cook together and enjoy mealtime conversation.

But mostly we worked. As long as there was power, we worked.

Monday came and went, and we didn’t lose power.

By Tuesday morning, the worst was over, and it hadn’t been bad. The storm turned slightly north, and New Jersey and New York took more of a hit than Maryland. We still had power. By Tuesday late afternoon when we walked up the street to a coffee shop, it was barely drizzling.

Of course, my friends and I were never under serious threat; we were in a solid house outside of any flood zone, and we had plenty of food and water, not to mention money, education, insurance, good health and the capacity to take care of ourselves. The only personal concern for us – aside from our concern about others – was that we would lose power.

In fact, as my friends called around to colleagues and family, the conversations often began with, “Do you have power?” After hearing it repeated, the question began to be funny to me, reminding me of the He-Man cartoon of my youth and his signature line, “I have the powwwwer!”

Perhaps it’s funny that we refer to electricity as “power” at all. In this day and age the absence of electricity means an absence of the ability to function normally, to get work done, to communicate, even to feed and warm yourself. So I guess electricity is power, if power is functionality.

My friends and I had power.

But I'm not sure we had freedom.

In a concrete sense, we didn’t have freedom of movement – or at least chose not to exercise it; we didn’t leave the house between our Sunday night peanut butter run and our Tuesday afternoon walk to the coffee shop.

But likewise none of us felt free to abandon our functionality, our doing, even in the midst of a hurricane. As long as we had power, all of us felt responsible to keep up (or catch up) with our work.

This isn’t a critique, just a comment. I know my friends feel good about what they were able to accomplish, and I am certainly glad to be caught up as I head back to work. It was a gift of time, no matter what we did with it, and since we live on opposite sides of the country all of us were grateful to have spent that time together.

Still, it seems ironic now, in retrospect, that our greatest concern was losing power – and yet a loss of power would have granted us some freedom.

If we had lost power, we would have read books, played games by candlelight, cooked chicken on the grill in a raging rainstorm, eaten melting ice cream, and gone to bed early under layers of warm blankets, listening to the sound of rain and wind in the dark. 

Enemy of the good

It’s been a pretty long time since I posted my last blog entry. I got a bit distracted by a task I had to do at the beginning of July – one that took up most of my free time in May and June, too – and the remainder of July was absorbed with recovering from that task. I’m not sure what happened to August. And now it’s September, and I’m into a new school year, and a lot of time has passed since I last posted.

Admittedly, part of the problem is that I take a long time to write blog posts because I want them to be good. I resist the idea that I want them to be perfect; I don’t think of myself as a perfectionist, but I am a high-achiever. So it takes me a long time to write posts. Ideas come quickly. The perfect way to package them…that takes time.

And, of course, the perfect can become the enemy of the good. And so sometimes five months pass between posts.

One of the things I’m learning in my 30s is what it means to have the good be good enough. This isn’t a platitude. It’s an honest discovery of my limits – not of my abilities, or my passions, or my desires or my dreams. It’s a discovery of the limits of a mortal life in a broken world.

Even if I have a long life there won’t be enough time in my life to do all the things I want to do, or to fix all the things I want to fix.

More importantly, I’m increasingly aware of the things that simply aren’t going to get fixed in this life. In my 30s, I see that problems are bigger and more complicated than I knew, and life is shorter than I thought. As the Indigo Girls say, “I heard the owl in the night; I realize that some things never are made right.”

It’s a hard truth to swallow. And it can be the enemy of the good. It makes us not want to try. It makes us want to hunker down, self-protect, resist change. Mostly, it destroys our hope.

The task I had to do in July was to moderate a difficult and controversial committee at our denomination’s biennial national meeting. It took a lot out of me. An article I wrote about the experience is forthcoming, and I’ll post a link when it’s published.

Last weekend, I was supposed to give a report on my experience at our local Presbytery meeting, but I couldn’t be there. So I made a video of my remarks. I chose to tell a couple of stories to illustrate the importance of the fact that we need to continue to talk to each other even when we disagree, which was the take-away I got from my experience. That’s a drum I’ll beat for the rest of my life, though it may or may not have any effect on my Presbytery, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), or Christianity in general.

But these days, I’m pretty sure it’s the good I’m called to do, whether or not it will ever be perfect, or even very good.

A desire for perfection may be the enemy of the good. But I think the larger temptation is to give in to the idea that the good isn’t worth working for, or praying for, or speaking for, because the problems are to big, or because life is too short, or because we may never see the fruits of our labor, or because no one else seems to care or even notice.

I say we still need to do the good, because it’s what we can do. It’s what we’re called to do. It’s what we’re made to do.

And anything else just isn’t good enough. 

Give

One of the most wonderful things about my job is getting to go deep – to talk to students about things that they’re dealing with, things they’re challenged by, things that break their hearts, things they’re passionate about. Some weeks, like this one, I seem to be inundated with students wanting to talk about their questions, their problems, their lives. And I love it. 

But it’s also exhausting, especially if my meetings with students are back to back to back. All week, I’ve been at work late, eaten dinner late, gotten to bed late, slept hard, and rolled out of bed to do it again. It’s so rewarding, but it’s also a lot of giving of yourself to others, and by the time I got home last night, I was nearly catatonic.

And so I’ve been looking forward to this weekend, one of my only relatively free weekends at home in the whole of the months of April and May: time to catch up on errands, take care of myself, prepare for upcoming events, clean my apartment, and just relax.

This morning, I enjoyed a leisurely bike ride to meet friends for brunch, and decided to wend my way back home via Trader Joe’s. As I was loading groceries into my bags and hooking them to my bike, I heard a man approach another shopper and ask for help buying groceries. Almost without thinking, I packed faster, trying to look busy and in a hurry. But the man came up to me anyway, asking for three or four grocery items and dog food for his pooch (whose small stature he described by holding his cupped hands together in front of him). When he’d finished his speech, I said, “I’m not able to help you out today, but there are a number of organizations…” Before I could finish my sentence, he interrupted curtly with, “I don’t get around too well.” And with that, the conversation was finished.

I work with a lot of students whose Christian faith is focused most predominantly on a “personal relationship with Jesus.” One of my critiques of this portrayal of faith is that it often seems to ignore – or at least subjugate – the aspects of Jesus’ teaching that emphasize our relationships with each other, economic and social justice, and how we treat people, especially those who are disempowered and oppressed.

As a result, I take every opportunity to lift up to these students passages of Scripture that call us to live lives of generosity, reconciliation and justice. Just yesterday, I had a long conversation with a student about the judgment of the nations in Matthew 25 (or, for my seminary buddies, “the sheep and the goats”), in which we are reminded by Jesus that whenever we offer – or don’t offer - kindness or generosity to someone in need, we are doing so to Christ himself. And a week ago, I gave a student talk in which I specifically highlighted Luke 6:30, in which Jesus says, “Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” This commandment then leads right into the Golden Rule, “Do to others as you would have them do unto you.” 

In the past, I have made the case that even if we don’t give to everyone, we need to struggle with the moral questions, and that God honors our struggle. I think that’s true, to an extent.

But today I wasn’t struggling with a moral question. This man was asking for food. I could have given him groceries from the bags I was packing or walked back into the store and bought him a few things. I certainly had the resources, and it would have taken no more than 10 minutes out of my free weekend.

In short, I knew the right thing to do. The battle was between me being selfish – of time, money, groceries, energy, whatever – and being generous.

And being selfish won out.

I thought about that all the way home, and (obviously), am still pondering it. At one point, I almost rode back to Trader Joe’s to try to find the guy. Once I was home, I started thinking of other things I could do – make a donation to the food bank, for example, or to some other ministry that helps folks like that guy. I will probably do so. But it will be born of guilt rather than generosity.

I could also easily rationalize my behavior: “Look at all the ways in which I already give! This was my day off, and I don’t have to be everything to everyone! God honors that I struggle with the question itself! God forgives me for moments of selfishness, so it’s okay in the end!”

Except it doesn’t feel okay. In my heart, I didn’t really want to help. I didn’t have any actual organization names to give him. I lied to his face; it was clear I could help if I wanted to, and I didn’t want to. His curtness was clearly in response to my shunting off his problems, to my lack of real care for him.

It’s hard to be reminded that you’re not what you want to be. It’s hard to feel like you had the chance to do right by another person, and you didn’t. It’s hard to feel the stab of hypocrisy that twice in two weeks you’ve preached a sermon you didn’t follow yourself when it presented itself in real life in the easiest and most plain way possible, at a moment when you had time and resources to respond. But any way you measure it, his life is a lot harder than mine, and after I finish typing this blog, I will go on with my day knowing I have plenty to eat of pretty much whatever I want.

I write all this not to solicit condolences, or to ask forgiveness, to make amends, to have others tell me it’s okay, I’m okay, things will be okay. I think I need to live in this moment of tension with myself, that man, and God.

But I know I’m not the only one to have had a moment like this. And I think it’s important that we who are leaders in the church sometimes acknowledge our struggles to be faithful – not in the teary, public confessional “Jim Bakker: I was wrong” kind of way, but in a way that reminds us that we’re all on a journey, and that we’re in it together: you, me, the students to whom I minister, and the man at the grocery store to whom I wasn’t willing to give. 

Being thirtysomething

A week ago, I was sitting on the couch of a college friend, drinking wine and talking about life. This is one of my dearest friends in the world – a kindred spirit, a sister. 

When we met in college, we already had much in common: we were eldest daughters, had backgrounds in music, grew up in similar homes in similar neighborhoods in the Pacific Northwest, were the products of public education and progressive churches. We grew up on homemade granola, camping, and car trips to visit the grandparents.

Today, though, our life paths have diverged. She married her college boyfriend and they have two gorgeous, creative and wonderful children. She and her husband went to grad school in different fields. Last fall, they bought a house down the street from her parents, around the corner from her sister’s family. Her daughter attends the same elementary school she did. She and her husband have a happy, honest and thoughtful marriage, and they are in the process of adopting a special needs child from China. She works part time in a challenging and rewarding job with opportunities for future growth, and continues to write and perform music on the side.

By all measures, she is living a fortunate and blessed life.

By contrast, I didn’t marry my college boyfriend. I moved across the country and worked at a non-profit in Washington, DC. I went to graduate school to become a minister. I had opportunities to travel for work, study and pleasure, and within a few years I set foot on all the continents except Antarctica. I lived for a year in Switzerland doing a second masters degree. I have amazing friends who live all around the world and I go abroad at least once almost every year. I work in a job that is interesting, engaging and on the cutting edge of ministry with college students and in interreligious dialogue. My job comes with solid health insurance, great benefits, and two months off in the summer. I have incredible freedom with which I can do things like spontaneously drive to Seattle to see my college friend.

By all measures, I am living a fortunate and blessed life. 

As I sat on my friend’s couch, I told her about my next career plans - to pursue a Ph.D. In addition to being supportive, she told me she was a bit envious that I could just up and do that – move across the country or to the other side of the world to complete a doctorate. It made me smile as I sat in her lovely house, knowing her children were comfortably asleep in the next room and her loving husband was on his way home. Yes, there’s always something to long for, always a story you wish might be yours, always an awareness of what you have and what you lack.

This is not the first time the two of us have had a conversation like this. We’re often comparing notes on the twists and turns of our lives, how we felt led down different paths despite our similar backgrounds, values, convictions. The great blessing of our conversations is that we have uncovered the secret of being in our 30s: we can live vicariously through the stories of the other.

Because neither of us can do it all.

We’re of a generation that told us women can do anything, be anything, and have everything.

But in our 30s, we know the truth that we can’t do anything, be anything, have everything. There are choices, and there are paths, and with them comes joy and regret and surprise and pain.

Each of us is happy with our choices. Each of us loves the life she’s been granted. And each of us feels a bit envious of what she doesn’t have. But it’s not because we feel cheated, or because life has been unfair, or even because we envy each other.

It’s because sometimes it would be nice to live in a world where choices are infinite, opportunities unlimited, time exponential.

That’s not the world in which we live, so every so often we have to grieve what isn’t, or wasn’t, or won’t ever be.

And so we sit on the couch and take stock of what we’ve each received, take joy in being able to share it, and look forward with hope to the promise of the chapters still to come. 

Regrets only

February came and went without any blog activity on my part. Some months are like that, and February was kind of a doozie. We're all busy these days; sometimes the busy is task-oriented, and sometimes it's relationship-oriented. The relationship-oriented busy-ness is my favorite kind, but it's also the most exhausting - in life and in ministry. As I look back on the last month, I'm aware of the great joy and great sorrow so many carry, and I'm glad that I belong to a tradition that believes God knows those joys and sorrows, too. 

And speaking of great joy and great sorrow, Lent started during February. So I'm posting my Ash Wednesday message, now a few weeks old. Later I'll post my sermon from the day before yesterday, which is also focused on Lenten themes. Even though I've had to get my thoughts together to write two Lent sermons, I don't feel like I've put much energy or time into my own Lenten reflection. But sometimes the exercise of helping others reflect becomes the way in which you do so yourself.

I hope your Lenten season has been rich already. 

* * *

“Regrets only”

Isaiah 58:1-122 Corinthians 5:17-21Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Ash Wednesday, 22 February 2012

 

Sometime recently, I got an invitation to some event – a Christmas party, I think – and the RSVP request said “regrets only.”

Because I’m a minister and a theologian and I am inclined to think way too hard about things like this, I started pondering that phrase: regrets only.

In RSVP speak, it’s what you write when you only want people who can’t come to respond. You’re asking to hear from those who are saying, “I regret to inform you that I cannot attend.”

So what if you get an invitation to something you really don’t want to attend? Are you still sending “regrets”? Or what if it were an invitation to something like the wedding of an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend, and the invite asked for “regrets only”? (You might get more than you bargained for.)

In any case, “sending regrets” is something we do when we aren’t able to be present with other people – when we’ll be separated from them. We “send our regrets” when there’s something – be it distance or schedule or a previous obligation – that keeps us from being together.

Beyond RSVP etiquette, it seems the deepest and most profound regrets in our lives are usually about separation, about division, about relationships that have, for one reason or another, been broken. The pain in our lives is so often rooted in what we’ve done to someone else, or what someone else has done to us, or what we haven’t done for or with someone, or what he or she hasn’t done for us.  

It’s no wonder our deepest regrets stem from our relationships; how we relate to others is at the core of what it means to be human. Being separated from each other goes against who we were created to be, and, as any break-up song will tell you, it causes us real pain.

Our alienation from each other can bug us even in common, everyday occurrences. The other day I was driving on 880 and I accidentally cut in front of someone. I simply didn’t see the other car, but fortunately she saw me and swerved, narrowly missing my back bumper. She blared her horn at me, which I totally deserved, and sped off in a huff. But it continued to bother me – not only because I’d been careless, but because I’d caused that other person to have a worse day than she was having before, and there was no way to fix it or apologize. I hadn’t even met her, and it felt like there was something broken in the relationship between us.

Relationships are also core to our faith. Throughout the Bible there’s a recurring theme of making relationships right, namely the one between us and God, and the one between us – you and me, us and them, everyone and everyone.

The scripture we heard from Isaiah and the gospel reading from Matthew are entirely about relationships, and in both of those texts, the relationships between us and God and between us and everyone else are virtually one and the same.

Isaiah tells us that what we can do to love God is to love our neighbors – our offerings to God are empty and meaningless if we ignore the needs of people and the injustices in our communities. We serve and honor God by serving and honoring each other.

In Matthew, Jesus teaches that if you want to pray right, fast right, give right, don’t do it to compete or to look good or to make others jealous, but out of love for God and a desire for the right kind of relationship with others, built on generosity, compassion, humility. That’s why the Lord’s Prayer says, “forgive us our trespasses, our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” – the relationships we have with God and with our neighbors are symbiotic; even synonymous.

In our text from 2 Corinthians, Paul brings it all home: we have already been reconciled to God through Christ. The old has passed away and all has become new. Our relationship to God has been restored and made whole, and we are free from all that came before, all that enslaved us, all that kept us burdened by our sin. Old regrets can be put behind us, and new life can start today. It is here, right in front of us, ready for the taking.

But there’s a little dig in the good news Paul preaches. Paul says all this is from God, who was reconciled to us through Christ…and God has given us the ministry of reconciliation. Paul knows that reconciliation isn’t just between us and God. We who have received reconciliation with God in Christ have a ministry of reconciliation to share, one that goes both ways.

Lent is a season of repentance. We typically think of repentance as a cycle of guilt, regret, confession and forgiveness. We repent by confessing our sin, and we are forgiven by God.

But beyond forgiveness, repentance (in Greek metanoia or turning around, changing your mind), is accepting responsibility for repairing what’s been broken, mending what’s been divided, trying to make right what’s been wrong. Repentance is active, not passive. Repentance means taking seriously that forgiveness in Christ offers and demands new life.

Our texts today are about taking action to live into the new life that’s already been given to us. The new life is here, now, but it begins with restoring, healing and building right relationships with the people around us, just we have already been reconciled to God.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul makes it sound so easy; all those grand words about new creation and the old being finished and gone, like flipping a switch.

But here’s a little secret about Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.

At the time Paul wrote it, he was not reconciled to the Corinthians. In fact, they were in the middle of a huge fight and angry letters were flying back and forth around the Mediterranean. The Corinthians were arguing amongst themselves, and they were mad at Paul and Paul was mad with them. And he was trying desperately to bring things back together.

So when Paul writes “everything in Christ is a new creation, the old is finished and gone” he was also totally aware that the old wasn’t finished and gone, that there were still regrets and pain and brokenness.

And yet he proclaimed in no uncertain terms the reconciliation the whole world and God. And he did so because he knew his own life had already become new – perhaps not perfectly new, but already beginning to be transformed and free.

AND, in the midst of this conflict with the Corinthians, he sought reconciliation with them anyway, because he knew reconciliation had already been accomplished through Christ, and seeking reconciliation was now his ministry, too.

THAT should give us courage.

We, too, are broken proclaimers with lives of regret and a lack of reconciliation with ourselves and our neighbors. There is work to be done, yes.

But in this season of active repentance, we too can proclaim that we are new creations, born of reconciliation. The old is finished and gone. The grace of Christ among us and the power of the Holy Spirit to bring life from ashes means that even now we have freedom from our sin, freedom from our regrets, freedom from our past mistakes, freedom from all that seems wrong about our lives, freedom to live and love with abandon and breathless compassion and hearts full of hope and justice and peace – because we are free, and we are reconciled.

And to us has been given the ministry of reconciliation.

Thanks be to God.

Airport philosophy

Airline travel makes me philosophical. While waiting for a recent flight, I found myself analyzing the shoes people choose to wear on planes. Business travelers often sport shiny oxfords. Practical travelers might wear tennis shoes for comfort, or whatever their largest shoe happens to be – boots, for example – to save room in their suitcase. On the other hand, some practical travelers choose simple shoes that are easy to slip on and off in the security line. Others wear flat flip flops (going to Hawaii or some other warm clime, I imagine), or tottery high heels that click away ahead of their rollie bags.

Just looking at people’s shoes gets me thinking: what happened in that woman’s day that made her choose to wear that particular pair? What was he thinking about as he tied those laces? What does footwear say about personality, values, hopes and dreams, the way people picture themselves?

This is how I get when I fly on planes: philosophical.

Yesterday I flew from Louisville to Atlanta to catch a flight back to San Jose. I had a close connection in Atlanta, but not an impossible one. So when I arrived in the A concourse, I looked at the monitors. My San Jose flight was departing from E9. Arg, that meant a train trip to the other end of the airport, four concourses away. I hurried to the train and hopped on, checking those monitors again to make sure I had the gate right. Yup, E9. Boarding.

By the time the train arrived at the E concourse, I was feeling slightly anxious. I had hoped to have a moment to visit the restroom and maybe buy a sandwich. So I bypassed the moving escalator (which was packed with people) and quickly walked up a stopped one – 60 stairs – carrying my little rolling bag. I was out of breath at the top but hurried on, checking the monitors one more time as I rushed by. E9. Boarding.

To my surprise and mild panic, when I got to E9 the monitor at the gate said not San Jose but Santiago. Santiago? And people were deplaning, not boarding. Ack! A rush back to the flight monitors. San Jose. Boarding. B29. B29? How had I made that mistake? I had checked three different monitors! No time for speculation: time to run! Back down the 60-step escalator to the train, and back through all the concourses to B. Then running up the 60-step escalator in the B-concourse (carrying the same rolling bag) and sprinting down the hallway to B29.

The gate was empty. The door was closed. Oh, no. I’ve missed it. I rushed up to the desk, gasping for breath, sweating profusely and holding a stitch in my side.

But I hadn’t missed it. They hadn’t boarded the plane yet – because of the gate change from E9. They were still waiting for the people to arrive from E9, and I was now the first one there. I hadn't misread the monitor. The gate had changed just as I arrived. Whew.

That should have been the end of the story, but it wasn’t.

After the passengers arrived from E9 and we had boarded the plane, we heard an announcement from the cockpit: we were going to have to change planes because there was a mechanical difficulty with the one we had boarded. I then discovered that for all the passengers except me, this was to be the second plane change. The people I’d seen coming off the plane at E9 were these same passengers. Unbelievably, that plane, too, had had mechanical problems that - after everyone had boarded - were not able to be resolved.

The pilot sounded pretty embarrassed.

So we deplaned, most for the second time, and were told we would depart from the gate next door: B27. We planted ourselves there and made ready for the plane we were assured was on its way from the maintenance garage.

A plane may have been on the way from the garage, but it didn’t go to B29. It went to C30. And after some delay, that’s where we were instructed to go. Back down to the train and up again in the C concourse.

By this point, the San Jose passengers were becoming pretty friendly with each other. Our common plight had led to all kinds of casual conversation among us: jokes about airlines and planes, storytelling about other travel snafus, and raised eyebrows, rolled eyes and knowing looks as each new announcement came. Anger and frustration had, for the most part, given way to laughter at the absurdity of the situation. At one point, the monitors actually said our plane had departed. Even the pilots and flight crew joined us in our predicament – chatting with us as we waited, carting their own luggage up and down escalators with us, and shaking their heads in disbelief.

As we loaded what would be our last plane, the mood was positively cordial. Everyone was chatting as if they were old friends. They helped each other load luggage and get settled. All the normal boundaries between strangers, and the distinctions between staff and passengers, seemed to have been dissolved by our camaraderie born of a communal experience.

That’s when my philosophical side really kicked in.

If a twice-delayed flight can do that for a group of strangers, I wondered, why is the fact that we’re all on this spinning ball of rock in the middle of a vast universe in which we are alone and vulnerable and at risk of poisoning our home to the point of destroying ourselves – why isn't that enough to build camaraderie born of communal experience, at least camaraderie enough to keep us from killing each other? 

Passwords

For ease in shopping, nothing beats the internet. In recent months, shopping online saved me what would have been hours of zipping around to different stores to find random items I wanted or needed, including: a particular brand of non-toxic sunscreen, a specific-sized watch battery, an out-of-print book on apparel design, and some hard-to-find sewing notions. Plus, I like to buy used items when I can, and there are more and more places to online these days to connect with that special someone somewhere in the country who wants to get rid of exactly the thing I want to own.

Of course, for every website I use for shopping, banking, paying bills, reserving library books, checking email and sometimes just accessing information, I have to create an account with a username and password.

This makes me crazy.

It makes me crazy in part because creating an account usually means I’m about to get placed on a mailing list (though I’ve become an expert at unchecking the little “receive periodic specials / announcements / newsletters / trumpet fanfares / spam from us” boxes). But mostly it makes me crazy because I’m faced with this dilemma: do I re-use the username and password I most commonly use because it’s the one I’m most likely to remember, or do I make up a new one in order to fool any would-be thieves who try to break into my accounts?

The prospect of this dilemma is enough to cause me, more frequently than I’d like to admit, to abandon whatever enterprise I was undertaking. I just can’t be bothered to choose new passwords for everything I do online.

Recently I was logging into some account or other – perhaps online, or maybe banking by phone – and, for extra security, I was asked to enter the last four digits of my social security number. That day, this extra request caused in me the same feeling I get when prompted to create a new account to complete a mundane transaction – like it was this huge hassle, such an imposition on my time. (My life is so hard.)

Of course, other than moments like that one I don’t think much about my SSN (or other passwords, for that matter).  They’re just keys to open doors or hoops to jump through to get what I need. Minor irritations in my otherwise pretty charmed life.

Not long ago, I was at a seminar on the challenges faced by undocumented immigrants in the United States. A person who spoke at the event talked about the overwhelming stress and anxiety experienced by people living in this country who don’t have an SSN. For so many, especially those who were raised in the United States and who know no other life than this one and are looking for employment or hoping to go to college, the SSN is a password to everything. 

I got that password for one reason only: accident of birth. I was born here, and not somewhere else.

I still think the proliferation of accounts and usernames and passwords is irritating, and they continue to be a source of frustration for me.

But these days I’m trying – without being burdened by guilt and apart from what I believe about the critical need for real immigration reform – to absorb and contemplate the reality of the unfairness of a world that (through no merit of my own) granted me a password to my life. 

Prepare Ye

So this isn't exactly a blog post, but since I've been remiss in doing much blogging recently I thought I'd put up my sermon from yesterday. To get in the right frame of mind, you might go to your CD player or iPod and put on the music from Godspell or Handel's Messiah. Got it playing? Good. If you don't have a Bible handy, here are the texts from Mark 1:1-8 and Isaiah 40: 1-11. If you'd rather listen than read, it will be available on the Stone Church website.

"Prepare Ye" - December 4, 2011, Stone Church of Willow Glen

From the moment I first reviewed the Scripture texts to prepare for this sermon, I had Handel’s Messiah playing in my head. Every va-hal-ley shall be exha-halted. Eventually, I just broke down and popped the CD in the player.

If your memory goes back to the 1970s, perhaps these texts remind you of Godspell and “Pre-ee-pare ye the way of the Lord.” I had that in my head for a while, but all I could remember was “Pre-ee-pare ye the way of the Lord” over and over. So I looked up the lyrics. It turns out that is all there is to that song, except for a couple of places where “Everybody now!” is thrown in for emphasis.

This is the second Sunday of Advent, and we’re smack-dab in the middle of the season of preparing for the arrival of Jesus. Today we lit a candle of preparation, we asked God to prepare our hearts to welcome a Savior into our lives, and we heard from Scripture a call to prepare. 

In December it is hard to forget that Christmas preparation is on the agenda; every television ad and store window screams that time’s awasting and we’ve got to get ready.

In response, all over the country today pastors are saying pithy things to their congregations like, “As you prepare for Christmas, don’t forget to prepare for Christ.”

Actually, some churches don’t do much for Advent. One of my students had never heard of it. She grew up in a church that she described as “On Christmas Eve, Jesus is born, BAM, and that’s it.”

Other Christians spend a lot of time all year long thinking about what it means to prepare for Jesus. I found a song this week called, “What would you do if Jesus came to your house?” Part of it goes,

When you saw him comin’ would you meet him at the door, with arms outstretched in welcome to your heavenly visitor? Or would you need to change some things before you let him in, like burn some magazines and put the Bible where they'd been?”

There’s another verse that talks about serving your best food and what you’d talk about over dinner. It’s kind of a Jesus-as-Santa motif, where preparing for Jesus means cleaning up dust bunnies and being on your best behavior to get on Jesus’ “good” list.

This isn’t exactly a wrong idea; in Mark, John the Baptist does call people to repentance, turning around from old ways of being and embracing new life.

But the coming of God begin with good news, not a test. There is nothing to pay and nothing to fear.

Isaiah’s words come to an Israel in exile, wondering if the wilderness will ever lead them home again. To these exiles, Isaiah cries, “Ollie Ollie Oxen Free.” The glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all are free. All are free.

The glory of the Lord is perhaps an abstraction for us, but for Israel this would have been a known entity: throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s glory is understood as the manifestation of God’s presence, God actually being there with them. It’s harder to see God’s presence when you’re in exile; it’s harder to believe God is present when you’ve been ousted from your home into a strange and foreign wilderness. But it is into the wilderness that the good news comes: the glory of the Lord will be revealed. They will see and know God’s presence again.

And that, essentially, is Isaiah’s message to us, too. It is what we are preparing for in Advent: to see the presence of God through the person of Jesus Christ.

* * *

For me, however, this is where all those cute Christian formulas, like “While you’re preparing for Christmas, don’t forget to prepare for Christ” start to break down a little. How do you prepare for the presence of God? Is it like having your house cleaned and inspected? Is it like getting out the best china and fixing a great meal and putting presents under a tree?

Or is it more like having your world turned upside down? Like feeling every overwhelming joy and fear you’ve ever felt all at once? Like being simultaneously embraced and blinded by fantastically bright light? Like standing on a mountain that suddenly drops into a valley, or in a valley that shoots up into the sky without warning?

Preparing for the presence of God should be exhilarating and terrifying, because it means coming to terms with all we are, and were, and could be, and were meant to be, face to face with the One who designed us. Most of us have a hard enough time getting our Christmas cards out before Epiphany, let alone preparing to receive a presence that might topple Mount Diablo and us with it. It’s a lot to take in, a lot to anticipate, a lot to prepare for, a lot to believe.

But says, Isaiah, it’s a promise: the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.

So there you go. Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Everybody now.

* * *

That reminds me. There’s a second half to that promise. The glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people shall see it together. The arrival of the presence of God is something that comes to us together, that brings us together. Not some of us. All people shall see it together.

You know what else? Preparing the way of the Lord is also something we do together.

The first words we hear from Isaiah are, “Comfort, O comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” Those verbs – comfort, speak – are plural. The command is corporate: you all comfort.

Some scholars say that decree is to the heavenly host – that God is calling on all the angels of heaven to spread words of comfort. Perhaps once an angel whispered that into your ear: take comfort, you are free. And if you heard that voice in your ear, maybe it’s your turn now to whisper it to someone else: you are free, come on home. Comfort my people, says God. Speak tenderly to the heart, to prepare the way of the Lord, that all people will see it together.

On Friday, I met a man whose son has a degenerative disease. Our conversation began with some simple questions about Campus Ministry, but I quickly realized the man was asking something else. What he really wanted to know was how to help his son prepare for his early death, which the family knows will come but can’t yet say aloud to each other. And the man wanted to know how he and his wife could possibly prepare themselves to lose a child. He wants to be strong for her. He believes she’s being strong for him. They’re both being strong for their son. And the son is being strong for them. And they are all preparing separately.

***

Advent is a set-aside time in which we take special account of how to prepare for God’s way. But we are all preparing all the time: to love, to change, to fail, to grow, to escape, to create, to believe, to die. And we are all preparing in our own ways to see God’s presence revealed. That promise of God’s presence is for all of us, and we need each other to help us prepare to receive it.

When some of don’t feel like the words of comfort are for us, when our hearts are so full of ache that we can’t prepare for anything else, we prepare together by repeating to each other words of comfort: your sin is forgiven, your term is complete. When some of us can’t hear or see the presence of God, when we can’t remember why preparing is worth anything, we remind one another: the grass withers and the flower fades, but word of our God stands forever. When some of us are too afraid to prepare, when preparation makes us too vulnerable, we prepare together saying: do not fear, God will gather the lambs, God will hold the sheep close, God will make a way in the wilderness. When some of us have seen the glory of God, have beheld God’s presence, we prepare together through the strong voices of those who can call from the mountain, “God is here. Make a path in the wilderness, and bring the people home.”

Isaiah’s word to us is a promise: The glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people shall see it together.

So go. Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Everybody now.

 

Ultimate frisbee with Jesus

Just about the only sport I ever learned to play well was ultimate frisbee. I did play on the junior high girls’ basketball B-team, but – let’s be honest – that was really more slapstick than sport. So it was something of a surprise to find out in college that I could both throw and catch a frisbee, occasionally while running.

Interestingly, when I first heard that I needed to have a personal relationship with Jesus – a concept I also learned in college – ultimate frisbee with Jesus was the image that came to mind. After all, frisbee was something I did with people with whom I had personal relationships, people who could chase down my errant throws and join me afterwards for a cup of coffee and instant replay of our best displays of athleticism. So “personal relationship with Jesus” evoked for me a lively vision of the Messiah hiking up his robes and deftly tossing the frisbee among the campus pine trees. 

Basically, the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus completely confused me.

Many of my college friends seemed to have this “personal relationship,” which, from what I gathered, meant they felt like Jesus was tangibly present to them, speaking to them, walking beside them, making them feel better about bad stuff that happened, cheering them on, etc., the way a real live human friend would. Feeling pressured to have one myself, I asked a lot of people about their personal relationships with Jesus, hoping to get pointers. Because I didn’t have what they seemed to have, I often felt like my faith was inadequate and incomplete, and I couldn't sing any of the prolific praise songs about Jesus’ familiar presence without feeling uncomfortable and disingenuous.

Now, almost two decades later, I still wouldn’t characterize my experience of God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit as a “personal relationship,” at least not in the way most people who use that phrase seem to mean it. As during college, I can’t wrap my brain around how relationship with Jesus is like a relationship with my actual friends whom I see in daily life and who have actual human bodies and voices and personalities. Truthfully, in many ways Jesus is more mysterious to me now than he was when I first heard about the “personal relationship” I was supposed to have with him.

By now, though, I have made my peace with the fact that I don’t get “personal relationship” language about Jesus. It’s just not my thing, and I’m cool with it. I follow Jesus, I call myself a disciple of Jesus, I believe in Jesus. And I occasionally play frisbee (and more often drink coffee) with actual, living and breathing human friends who show me who Jesus is through their love and care.

Earlier this week, I read an article in The Christian Century entitled “A friend in Jesus?” that got me thinking about the  “personal relationship” question again. (The article is here, but you can only read it if you’re a CC subscriber. For a similar article by the same author, John Suk, click here. The article was adapted from his book, Not Sure: A Pastor’s Journey from Faith to Doubt, published by Eerdmans.) The article makes a case that the language of a “personal relationship with Jesus” – largely a construction of American culture’s emphasis on feeling and experience as marks of religious piety – may be a sign of our inability to find deeper meaning amid the distractions of material plenty. Says Suk:

Our society is individualistic and competitive at home, at work and in the public square… Our society is also a materialistic one, full of cars and furniture and boats and clothes and toys… we are waifs when it comes to meaning… we look for it in endless miles of shopping mall corridors or computer game avatars. Since we have eternity set in our hearts, we want an epiphany: we want to experience God. And I suspect that that longing is enough for a lot of people to mistake just about any intuition or good thought or warm fuzziness as being Jesus. The bottom line is that the huge emphasis that contemporary evangelicals put on a great personal experience of and with Jesus has little or nothing to do with scripture and everything to do with taking from our culture what it thinks happiness is all about.

Suk isn’t against religious experience, but, he says, “I want to make sure that it is connected to our tradition’s deepest wells rather than to individual and subjective interpretations of feelings that are characteristic not of faith, but of our culture’s inability to delve deep or long.”

As I read through the article, I was of two minds; the first was to feel slightly protective of my friends who do use “personal relationship” language and are deeply intelligent, thinking Christians. But my second mind felt vindicated. At last, here was someone who, all these years later, was articulating reasons for my discomfort with a personal relationship with Jesus.

Suk made a lot of points that resonated with me, but high among them was this: faith is the language of belief without seeing, belief without experiencing, belief despite the evidence. I’m a minister for Christ’s sake, and I can count on one hand the number of times in my whole life I’ve felt God right in front of me, fully present and personal – and those times are moments of incredibly unexpected and inexplicable mystery, profound awe, and often fear at the hugeness of What There Is beyond the little world I inhabit. By contrast, my tangible, day-to-day experiences of ordinary transcendence are generally in encounters with other people, flashes of insight and wisdom and grounding humility, and a hungry sense that things much bigger than me might just be active for the good.

One of the reasons John Suk penned this article is the same reason I’m writing this blog entry: language of personal relationship with Jesus can be confusing, and it can cause doubt and frustration when people don’t experience Jesus the way others seem to – especially when they feel pressured to. There’s nothing wrong with feeling like Jesus is with you every moment offering comfort and concern and correction and direction. But there’s also nothing wrong with not feeling like Jesus is with you every moment. It’s okay – and even biblical – to feel like God might more often be distant than next door. It’s okay – and biblical – to feel like your relationship with God is probably the weirdest and most unpredictable one you’ve got, and with feeling like you go long stretches between really experiencing things that are extraordinarily divine. And it’s okay – and biblical – to not really see or understand God’s action in the world, but believe in it anyway. That’s what faith is for.

After all, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).  

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