Monday, February 28, 2011

First Goat, a Fable

This is the story of First Goat. First Goat lived long ago in the before the before time. He lived there, just north of south and little east of west, with all the other first animals. There were First Dog, First Horse, First Elephant, First Chicken, and all the others. And they all got along. First Rabbit would go for walks with First Fox without any worries because First Rabbit knew that First Fox had a taste for broccoli and not rabbit stew. Even First Mosquito preferred fruit juice.

The world was new. It was so new not everything had happened. And not everything that had happened had happened completely. Things had not yet stuck in their final place. Sometimes the grass would start out green in the morning but turn to purple around noon. It usually turned green again before night – but even night sometimes came early and sometimes came late.
Sometimes the sun rose in the east, but sometimes it rose in the north. Things were still new. They had not stuck.

Some things were so new they had not happened yet at all. One day, the first rain fell. This surprised the first animals. But, they found it refreshing. They were dry, dusty, and dirty. They needed the first bath. As the rain fell on their noses and on their tongues, they became thirsty. The first puddle formed. The animals gathered around it. First Goat was surprised to see the reflection of the beautiful blue sky. The reflection was so clear, the puddle seemed to contain the whole sky.

Suddenly, First Goat remembered his thirst. Afraid the other animals might drink before he did, he pushed them out of the way, butting and kicking. He began to gulp furiously. But remember – everything had not yet stuck. Would you believe First Goat gulped so fast and so hard that he drank up the sky’s reflection right off the puddle? The glue hadn’t dried yet and it came unstuck. And now First Goat was full of the reflection of the sky.

Being full of sky, First Goat became very, very, very hungry. He began to eat and eat and eat. But he could not get full. After all, how can you fill the sky? He ate grass, he ate bark, he even ate bugs – but you can’t fill the sky with grass and bark and bugs. He even ate the wrapper of the first Twinkie – left on the ground by First Litterbug.

No matter what he ate, nothing could fill the emptiness. He tried distracting himself by singing and dancing and playing games with the other animals. But, he was still hungry and the empty sky inside would rumble and thunder. He tried to keep busy. He worked harder and longer. He built the first patio. Still he was hungry. He still contained the empty reflection of the sky.

And so have been all the goats that have come after First Goat. They still eat anything and everything. They still make noise all the time and keep moving, trying to satisfy the empty sky inside.

Humans are like First Goat. We experience a great emptiness, emptiness as big as the sky. We are full of the reflection, not of the sky, but of God. We are hungry – hungry for God. Like First Goat, we sometimes try desperately to fill that hunger with everything but God. We buy more and more stuff. We try to lose ourselves in work. We try to distract ourselves with play and entertainment. We move from place to place and from relationship to relationship. But we remain empty and restless.

As St. Augustine said, we are made for God and our hearts are restless until they rest in him. Our hearts are empty until they are filled with God. Try as we might to fill it with activity, things, or people, only God can fill our infinite emptiness. Activity, things, and people can distract us, can even numb us enough to forget the deep emptiness inside for a while. But they cannot fill us. They cannot satisfy. God created us for himself and God alone can satisfy us.
- The End -

Monday, February 21, 2011

Becoming People of Prayer

In God’s Companions, Sam Wells, Duke University chaplain, suggests that one thing we hope become is persons congregations whose prayer makes sense.

Wells writes that there are patterns of life that help us become people of prayer. These patterns of life parallel aspects of prayer itself – petition, wonder, confession, gratitude, and silence.

Becoming the kind of person who can make petition to God means becoming incarnate – in other words, we are prodded to discover more about the actual flesh and blood person being prayed for, possibly to get to know them and the particulars of their life, perhaps visit them. It also means acknowledging, in humility, that we are all vulnerable, needy, and unable to rely on ourselves alone. This leads to patience with others when their brokenness or shortcomings are evident.

In a community that knows how to make petition, we learn to make petition of one another, asking “how can I help” and asking for help when we need it. It means embracing our interdependence.

Becoming the kind of person who can wonder at the goodness and mystery of God also means cherishing the splendor of the creation and exulting in our own life as part of creation. It might mean spending time with children for whom the gift of joy and wonder are still fresh.

In a community that knows wonder, we share the wonder and mystery of our own lives – our joys and sorrows, our triumphs and disappointments. It means celebrating together and comforting one another.

Becoming the kind of person who can confess sin to God also means being open to acknowledging patterns in our lives that we would just as soon ignore or deny.

In a community that knows how to confess, members positively seek to discover the ways in which they have wronged one another, never being surprised that misunderstanding, disappointment, and hurt occur, but seeing each instance as a prelude to reconciliation. It means being willing to speak and hear the truth in love.

Becoming the kind of person who can give thanks to God also means paying attention to the goodness in our lives and in the world around us and relishing it. It means understanding our life as a gift to be received rather than a prize to be seized.

In a community that knows how to give thanks, members will carefully consider those things for which they want or need to thank one another and how best to do so genuinely.

Becoming the kind of person who can be silent before God means understanding time as a gift to be shared rather than a commodity to be saved or spent. It means remembering that our time is not really our own, but God’s. It means learning to be still and to listen. It also means learning to be still long enough to listen to one another – listening (and watching) for revelation.

In a community that knows how to be silent, we make space to be silent together and share the intimacy and vulnerability of letting go of the urgency to always find the right word or the right action and resting in nothing but the grace of God.

May our lives make sense of our prayer and our prayer make sense of our lives.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Little Something for Valentine's Day

"It is the moral duty of lovers, as they certainly at moments know, to plunge with love into each other's life -- bringing power: power to resist temptation, to reject, to affirm, to purify, to pray."
- Charles Williams, The Figure of Beatrice, p. 204

Williams suggests that this duty is the business of Heaven.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

How Big is Your Church?

People sometimes ask me, "How big is your church?" Occasionally I get asked the size of the budget. I rarely get asked questions like:

How faithful is the church you serve?
How generous is your church?
Does it attend to the real problems in the surrounding community?
Does it love and support its children? It’s elderly?
Are strangers welcome?
Are the people there merely nice or do they love with costly, genuine love?
How prayerful is your church?
Does your church worship in spirit and in truth?
Are the members of your church gentle with one another?
Are the members of your church free to be honest? Genuine?
Is there room for brokenness and failure at your church?
Is forgiveness practiced at your church?
Is your church the kind of place that encourages you to believe in God?*

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus offers the Beatitudes, which might also serve as useful standards by which to measure church.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Is this a church that is poor in spirit? Are people encouraged to let go of the illusion of self-sufficiency and to recognize their own neediness? Most especially their need of God, but also their need of one another?

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

Is this a place where mourning happens? Traditionally this has been understood to mean mourning for our own failure and sin. Is this church a place where we are encouraged to mourn our sin individually and corporately? Is repentance practiced? But, is this also a place where people are permitted to mourn the hurt, heartache, hardness of life? Or do we try to slap a smiley face on everything? Is this a place that mourns with those who mourn? Is this a place that mourns the very real suffering in the world around it? Does its mourning provoke action to address the suffering?

"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

Is this a church where meekness is encouraged? Gentleness? Is humility, modeled on the self-emptying love of Jesus Christ, typical here?

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Is this a congregation of people who hunger and thirst for righteousness? Is holiness encouraged and pursued? Is righteousness understood to be about right relationship with God and right relationship with others? Is this a community that knows what the LORD requires: to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”

Is this a church where mercy is practiced and received? Are we patient with one another? Do we bear one another’s burden? Do we bear the burden of one another? Do we practice the art of forgiveness?

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

Does this church encourage and cultivate such devotion to Christ that our hearts are aligned with his and that every decision is made with the intention of being drawn deeper into his heart?

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Is this a church that knows and lives the art of reconciliation? Do its members seek peace? Do they resist the society's indulgence in anger, resentment, and vengeance? Its fascination with "redemptive" violence? Do its members know themselves to be agents of God’s ministry of reconciliation in the world?

"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Though we live in a time and place where real persecution for righteousness' sake is unlikely, are people formed in this church such that they at least seem odd or peculiar to their neighbors because of the way they act, talk, and live? Are members encouraged to go against the flow? To question the status quo? To recognize that what passes for wisdom in this world is often foolishness in the light of God's wisdom?

And is this a church that is engaged with members of the body of Christ who are truly persecuted on Jesus’ account? Does it support and encourage those sister and brothers?

There are lots of ways to assess the health of a church. Most of them have little to do directly with the kinds of things that can be counted, weighed, or measured in the usual sense. Still, a church that is growing in the ways that matter is likely also to grow in the more conventionally measurable ways. Increasing attendance can be nothing more than ecclesial obesity or it can be a sign that the Holy Spirit is moving among the members of a church, birthing new life and drawing new people who desire to be a part of such a community and the resulting love, truth, and joy. A bigger budget doesn’t necessarily indicate spiritual health, but a growing budget can be a reflection a spirit of generosity, commitment, and thanksgiving.

Any church worth its salt of the earth and light of the world ought to be growing in tangible ways precisely because it is growing in the ways that really matter. Let us recommit ourselves to becoming more and more the kind of people and kind of church that can answer "yes" to the above questions. In many ways, the congregation of St. Barnabas does embody many of the above attributes. But, if that is true, we should be inviting everyone we know to come join us and welcome everyone who comes. We really ought not to hide this light under a bushel. But that is next week’s Gospel.

* This list is inspired by a similar one by my friend, the Rev. Steve Ellis, which he wrote for his parish newsletter several years ago.