Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Story about Stories

This is a story about stories.  Or maybe it is stories about The Story…
I love stories.  Ever since I learned to read, I could not get enough stories.  I remember getting my first library card and the wonderful world of stories housed in the basement of the Carnegie Library in Bluffton, Indiana.  My mother, somewhat proudly, complained that I would have all five books I was allowed to check out read before she could get me home.  Trips to the library became a weekly event for me, my nose buried in a book as I walked the sixteen blocks home.  My mother would chide me for reading in low light, and send me, book in hand, outdoors for some fresh air and sunshine.

               A good story grabs me.  I empathize with the characters, usually the heroine or hero.  I have been known to argue with the authors:  “Louisa, what on earth are you doing?  Don’t you know that Jo should marry Laurie? (Little Women)”   I live the story and at the end, I emerge abruptly.  The end of a story leaves me questioning, crying for more.  “What happens next?”  Sometimes, if a story particularly engages me, I dwell in it awhile, taking the story past the place the author saw fit to end it.  Often I dream it.  My daughter particularly loves to tease me about my high school immersion into The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I read it so many times that I began to dream about it.  But after the unsettling dream of orcs over-running my high school, I put it on the shelf for a time.  Still, I wish I had never told her the story.  When I laugh at one of her strange dreams, she likes to retort, “At least there weren’t orcs in my school!”

                That is another thing about stories.  We love to tell stories.  Humans are storied beings.  No other creatures tell stories about their pasts (at least, I do not think that is what whale song is, but you never know!).  My family shared stories all the time.   My paternal grandmother would talk about how her father immigrated to the United States with his two sisters.  At my great-grandmother’s viewing, I heard the story again about how she, along with a handful of other faithful believers, established their old-world faith in the New World, building a congregation and eventually a church.  Not all the stories were inspirational.  I was troubled by the story about my great-aunt, who because of an illegitimate child, could only be a half member (whatever that meant!) in the congregation.  And some stories were downright embarrassing.  My aunt loves to tell me the story about how, when I was three and the whole family was at the lakes, I waded in and put my face underwater, and would not come back up.  Everyone started shrieking at me, and finally (I do not understand why this was not the first response) my uncle waded in and grabbed me from the water.  I squirm when she tells the story, and marvel that she never connected that experience to the difficulty she had in later trying to teach me to swim!

                Yes, I love stories.  My early faith was built on stories.  I may not have understood worship at that German-Swiss Anabaptist congregation, with its plain slow singing, lengthy prayers and sermons (which were occasionally in German).  But I thrived on the morning Sunday school and the stories: Old Testament stories about creation, Abraham, Joseph, Ruth, David, Elijah; New Testament stories about Jesus and the birth of the church and the missionary journeys of Paul.  I lived those stories as a maid in Sarah’s tent, or a child at Jesus’ feet or one of Lydia’s many servants. They became part of my story.  Thus storied, I never remember a time as a child where I questioned the existence of God.  God was and is and always will be, and I knew it from the testimony of those ancient people and their experience with God in their lives. 

                JRR Tolkien once said that all stories, real or imagined, were part of the Great Story .  I like that.  As my faith has grown - even during the times where I, as John Ylvisaker aptly puts it, “wandered off to find where demons dwell” – I find stories mark pivotal moments in my faith.  Stories attest to the presence of God in my life.  There is the story of my mother’s death.  That last night, I kept watch at my mother’s bedside while she lay dying.  So clearly I remember the coolness of her fingers, the brightness of the town hall tower clock shining in her window.  Then there was the moment when her labored breathing eased and an incredible look of peace came over her.  Agnostic as I was at that time, I could not deny that at that moment, even if I had not been there, she was not alone.  Jesus walked with her during that final journey.

                 And Jesus walked with me, even as I continued to run from him, in the months after her death.  The two Christian co-workers who took the time to sit with me during lunch breaks as I remembered and grieved silently spoke of Jesus’ abiding presence.  Even the novels by Andrew Greely, which I devoured, screamed “presence” and “grace.”  I stumbled back to the community of believers and finally found home where God was waiting with open arms and Lenten soup suppers to nourish both my body and soul.  

                What other stories could I tell?  How we moved to Lima, Ohio – aka Lost In Middle America - ostensibly for my spouse to accept a promotion, only to discover that God, who works in mysterious (and often secular) ways, had brought us to this place!  How I stumbled on my home congregation, Zion Lutheran, through the Internet (yes, I “googled” Lutheran churches in Lima, and they were the only one with a website), and discovered not only a community in which to grow and thrive, but also a new calling.  How God provided for us through that summer that Tim lost his job and I became the sole bread-winner on a part-time job.  I could tell seminary stories: about the last-minute CPE assignment; about the extremely last minute transfer Tim got the day we, after picking up and leaving everything like Abraham, moved into seminary housing; about the day I despaired of purchasing new jeans for my daughter only to find a donation of several pairs in exactly her size on the seminary free table. 

                I could tell you the story of my journey with my daughter into the world of mental illness.  How even in the devastation of receiving her diagnosis of bi-polar disorder, I realized that God was at work here.  We were blessed to have such an array of services for her – in Lima there are virtually no children’s mental health professionals and absolutely no hospitals.  Then there was the day when I learned that to get her into a needed residential program, we had to give custody to the state.  Crying and fighting with insurance and marshalling the efforts of NAMI and the ombudsman, I was surprised by God’s presence again and again in the most unexpected places.  A pastor from Cincinnati, calling to arrange a supply preacher, noted my distress and asked about it.  She then shared her own journey with her daughter through the difficult world of mental illness and residential placement.  During a phone call with my insurance’s mental health specialist, I pleaded for a way out of the terrible decision we had to make, only to have the insurance guy liken my decision to the story of Solomon and the two women claiming the same infant (1Kings 3:16-27).  Talk about being surprised by grace!  There was the professor who listened to me grieve as only someone who had faced the same decision could.  Or the terrible morning when I cried to God in agony and anger, questioning where God was in the pain and heartache and mess, only to be brought to my knees at the foot of the cross, recognizing that God knew – God was there in the suffering and pain, carrying me.  There was no where I could go where God was not (Psalm 139).

                My stories outline my faith journey.  I learned as a child that God loves us.  My rebellion against that love as a young adult later showed me that God never leaves and there is nothing God will not do to find that one lost sheep.  I learned grace in the community of believers, breathing relief in my soul in learning that, although some communities may condemn members to “half salvation” because of certain sins, there is nothing I could do to make God love me less, and – even better – there is nothing I can do to make God love me more!  My story is one of God’s love and provision, presence and grace.

                Telling and listening to our stories are an integral part of faith.   We tell the Great Story and listen to each other’s stories. And in listening, we discover the places where your story and my story met the Great Story - the places where grace prevails, love abounds and God is present.  God listens to our dreams, hopes, desires and stories.  The witness of the scriptures is a dialog between God and the world.  The Gospel we share is a story of good news.  We imitate God when we listen to each other’s stories and our faith communities flourish when active listening and storytelling is practiced.

              The challenge is to discern the story being told in various places in the congregation’s life.  It is easy to discern the story in worship, Bible studies, small group discussions, and pastoral counseling situations.  It can be harder to hear the stories told in the mundane matters of congregational life – the council meetings, budget discussions, annual congregational meetings, for example.  Beneath the surface in each of these, are stories of faith and life and God – we just need careful listening ears to hear them.

             So we’re going to spend some time telling and listening to stories.  Trying to see how our stories connect with God’s story. This month, we’re going to talk about how our stories and the stories of the world around us give voice to our prayers. During the Lent mid-week worship, we will be studying Psalms of Lament, and Jesus’ lament in Matthew 26:36-46.  Each one of these laments tells a story about faith in times of sorrow and trouble.  

How do the stories in these laments offer prayers for ourselves, our community and the world? 

What are your prayers for the church, the world, and all in need?  

What are your prayers for yourself, family and friends?                                                      

These aren’t rhetorical questions.  I really want to know.  

Let’s talk…

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Yikes! Sodom and Gomorrah, Incest, Deception, and God's Promises - Genesis 18, 19, 20 and 21:1-7

I read today's chapters in Genesis and thought YIKES!

This is some of what I mean when I tell my confirmation students that the Bible is not rated G.  Or even PG-13.

Sometimes - like today - I'm not sure it would get an R.

Today I read about God's judgement on Sodom and Gomorrah.  How the men of Sodom wanted to rape the men (God's messengers, aka angels) staying with Lot.  How Lot offered them his virgin daughters instead.  Not exactly a candidate for father of the year in my book!  The men then trying to break in by force until the angels blinded them.

Even though the citizens are reprehensible and judgement is looming, Lot and his family can't bear to leave.  They dally and the angels have to drag them out of the city.  Lot's wife can't stand it and looks back, only to be turned to a pillar of salt.

Yeah.  We know this story.

But it gets worse.

Lot takes his daughters and settles way up in the mountains.  They are so remote that there is no one for his daughters to marry,  (Lot's still deficient in parenting responsibility)  So they get dear old dad drunk, and sleep with him to get pregnant.

Abraham has his own failings.  He's afraid that the men of the town of Gerar will find his wife so beautiful that they will kill him to get her.  So he says Sarah is his sister (true, but not the whole truth) the king of Gerar takes her as a wife.

Fortunately God steps in, and Sarah is kept from the king's bed by God's hand.

Mind you, Abraham has already pulled this trick before - with Pharaoh.  Not his finest moment - again.




Then I read the last part of today's reading - Issac is born,  This child is the beginning of the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham - to bless him and make his descendants number the stars and through him to bless the nations.

And I went back and re-read the first bit of today's reading- where the birth of Issac is again promised, this time with a date given. (Abraham and Sarah have only been waiting on God's promise of a son for about 20 years!)

And then it hit me - God keeps God's promises.

God promises....humans do horrible stuff....God keeps God's promises.

Even when we lie and deceive.

Even when we get so focused on ourselves that we ignore the needs of others.

Even when we longingly look back at those less- than-savory things.

Even when we reluctantly heed God's call.

Even when we can't or don't believe that God will actually follow through and do what God promised.

Even when..... (fill in the blank)

Even when we do not keep ours.

Takeaway for today

  • God keeps God's promises

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Remembering and Promises Genesis 7, 8, 9, and 1 Chronicles 1: 8-23

There's a lot of repetition in this story.  Bible scholars say that's because there were two different traditions - Priestly and Jahwistic - that told this story slightly differently.  Instead of telling one story and then the other, like the creation accounts, the writers did a mash-up of the two traditions.  So there's a lot of repetition (and some differing details).

The story of Noah's Ark is pretty well known.  We decorate our nurseries with cute boats and a cuddly old man (and sometimes his wife) and those adorable pairs of baby animals.  And the rainbow.

Let's not forget the rainbow.

It's an odd choice for a children's tale.  All humans (except for 8) drown in the flood.  All the animals (except for those on the ark) die.  Everything is destroyed in a cataclysmic rainstorm.

I bet there was lots of thunder and lightning.  Scary thunder and lightning and dead things floating in the water.

This is not a great bedtime story.

But then we read "God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and livestock with him (8:1)."  God remembered.  And God made the wind blow to dry up the waters.

God remembered.

God re-membered.

God brought everyone on the ark out and re-membered them - made them members again of God's creation.

And God made a covenant -a sacred promise - to never destroy the earth by flood again. And God placed a rainbow in the sky, so God would remember...

That rainbow which delights us is not to remind us of God's promise. No.  It's to remind God of that promise!


No matter how bad things get, God will remember that we are God's children - prone to sin, but dearly loved by God nonetheless.

And that's a pretty good story for bedtime and every time!

Takeaway from today:

  • God loves humankind and all creation - warts and all
  • God promises to always remember us with love

Friday, January 2, 2015

Starting and Starting Over - Genesis 4-6, 1 Chronicles 1:1-4

It doesn't take long for humans to find trouble.  Adam and Eve start a new life outside of the Garden.  They are fruitful - they have sons.

And where there is more than one child - there is sibling rivalry.

Abel was a shepherd and Cain was a farmer.  The time comes to bring an offering to God, Abel's offering is accepted, and Cain's is not.

Why not?  I'm not sure.  But Bible gives us a clue.  While it just says Cain brought an offering, Abel's offering is the best of the firstborn.  Can we extrapolate that Cain's offering was not 'first fruits', not the best of the harvest?

Cain tries to slide by with any old offering.  But God calls him on it.

Instead of repenting (and bringing an acceptable offering), Cain lashes out against Abel, killing him.

It goes down hill from there.  To the point that by the time of Noah, God is ready for a mulligan.  God looks on creation, looks at God's beloved humans - made in God's own image - and it breaks God's heart (Genesis 6:6).

God's heart breaks.

And God has compassion on creation, on humans.  God charts a new course.

It takes washing the world with a flood.  And it takes the obedience of Noah and his family.

Which we'll read about tomorrow.

Takeaways from today's reading:

  • God always encourages us to be our best, to do our best.
  • Humans have a tendency to do just the minimum to get by.
  • God has such love for us and all creation, that God's heart breaks for us.
  • In the face of human sin, God chooses to find a way to bring us back.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Let's start at the very beginning.... Genesis chapters 1-3

Let’s start at the very beginning.  That’s a very good place to start….[i]
The ancient Hebrews would agree.  The beginning of their Scriptures begins with Genesis – a Hebrew word meaning “origin” or “beginning.”  To make sense of their story, of their relationship with God, they needed to start at the beginning.
We need to start at the beginning too.  Humans have always tried to explain where everything comes from.  There are lots of stories of how the earth began - ancient myths, the Biblical accounts, scientific explanation.
I was in 3rd grade when I first heard about the theory of evolution.  In the 60's they weren’t teaching evolution explicitly to 3rd graders, but my Sunday school teacher was extremely upset that we might believe this evil theory instead of believing what the Bible clearly said – that the earth was created in six days and on the seventh day, God took a nap.
I didn’t really understand all the fuss.  I was wise enough in 3rd grade to know that God could do anything, and could do it any way God wanted to.  I figured that since the Bible also clearly said “that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day (2 Peter 3:8),” whether each day in Genesis chapter one was a 24 hour day, or thousands of years wasn’t really important.  After all, God could have created the world in 6 seconds if God choose to.  I wasn’t so sure about the whole humans-evolved-from-a-monkey stuff, but I figured that probably wasn’t important either.  I knew that God created me and loved me. That was all I needed to know.  God could explain the rest all when I got to heaven. 
Ah, the faith of a child!
Fast forward about 30 years.  I was on the confirmation teaching team at Zion Lutheran in Lima Ohio.  I was talking to our new pastor before the first class in our Bible year.  Of course we were studying Genesis.  I casually mentioned that I had no problem with evolution (citing the above reasoning) – after all the order God created the world matched the order evolution stated. 
Not so, said Pastor Kent.  There are two accounts of creation – Genesis 1:1-2:4a and Genesis 2:4b-25.  And the order things were created in those two stories is different.
It was? 
How had I never noticed it before? 
I had to check it out.  I made a chart – and sure enough, the order of creation IS different in the two biblical accounts of creation!  Go ahead – check it out.  I’ll wait…

So - which account is true?  
They both are! 

I teach my confirmation students that the Bible is not about the ‘how,’ it’s about the “Who” (thanks Pastor Kent!).  Put another way, it’s not a book of science – it’s a Book of Faith.  Those ancient Hebrews,when explaining how everything came to be, told two different stories of the beginning.  Both were important statements of faith to them.  Both said something vital about God, and us, and the world. 
The first account tells us something about God.  God is the Creator – of heaven, of earth, of water and land, plants and animals and humans –everything that is seen and unseen.[ii]  The second account tells us something about God and us.  We were created to be in relationship with God – and through God in relationship with each other and all creation.  These two stories set the stage for the rest of the Bible.

There’s one more story in today’s reading:  The Fall.  Serpent tempts woman, woman gives fruit (The Bible never says it’s an apple!) to man. Humans covet God’s wisdom - relationship with God is broken.  God asks what happened, man blames woman, woman blames serpent – relationship with each other and creation is broken.  Sin enters the world.
The last time I preached on this, I noticed something.  God says they can eat from every tree in the garden but one - The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  But there’s another big, capital letter tree in the garden – The Tree of Life.  Adam and Eve can eat from that tree, but they don’t.  They choose the fruit that brings death. 
Why didn’t they eat from the Tree of Life? 
Does this story teach us that God gives things that lead to life, but humans so often choose those things that lead to death?

Looking around our world, I’d have to say yes.

Take-aways for today:
  • ·     God made everything.
  • ·     Everything God made is good
  • ·     God made humans to be in relationship to God
  • ·     Left to our own devices, humans will choose death over life
  • ·     Sin is broken relationship with God, which also breaks our relationship with each other and creation

How will God redeem this beautiful mess?

[i] Opening lines from “Do-Re-Mi” from the Sound of Music.
[ii] From the First Article of the Nicene Creed