A former Lutheran pastor sharing thoughts on faith and life. Please join the conversation! I love your comments!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Rooting ourselves in now

There’s nothing like time spent with family to get one reflecting back on the past. A few weeks ago my family gathered for our second ever joint vacation in Colorado. Family vacations are like beacons of shining light whenever my sister, brother and I look back on our past. While summer on the farm was typically pretty great for us kids, it was a time of heightened stress for my parents. Vacation was a palpable break from that anxiety. A time to step away and just enjoy being together. In my family, vacations also meant motels with swimming pools, a museum to make my dad happy, often a tour of an old, historic mansion, which made my mom happy, and a zoo and an amusement park - that made my siblings and I very happy. It meant a stack of new books to read on the drive, eating in a lot of restaurants, watching the Flintstones in the morning and eating too much junk food, particularly Twizzlers. Now I’m going to guess my siblings and I did more than our fair share of fighting on these trips. Probably we got lost a few times. Maybe my parents fretted over the costs of the tickets. Surely our feet hurt as we stood in endlessly long lines at Worlds of Fun and Six Flags, and I must have begged my parents for all manner of costly trinkets at the zoos and parks. But I don’t remember any of the annoyances or petty grievances. All I remember, all my siblings remember, is how absolutely spectacular our family vacations were. Perfection, really.

So our two Colorado getaways to this point have had some pretty big shoes to fill. Only now it’s a little more complicated. Because we go on these trips along with my husband, sister-in-law and brother-in-law, who have their own unique ideas of family vacation perfection. And I’m not a kid anymore.  I’m a parent and I realize how stressful aspects of family vacation are. And speaking of parents, my parents don’t take charge anymore, a definite mixed blessing. And between us we have six kids, who are as different as the day is long. And my sister, brother and I are no longer completely on the same page as to what makes a great vacation. Still, we come with this idealized remembrance of vacation from our past, and as long as that remains the standard bearer, our present vacations are doomed before they even begin.

And yet, it’s a funny thing. I clearly remember expressing to Todd one evening in Colorado a few weeks ago, my extreme reservations about ever attempting to do a family vacation like this again - exclamation point! But already my memory is at work erasing some of the more intense frustrations of those days, soothing away a few of the stresses, so that when people ask me how our time was in Colorado I answer quite enthusiastically - “It was wonderful!” And I’m being honest, it was wonderful. But I wonder if maybe we would all free ourselves to experience an even greater time together if we worked to approach those precious days with as blank a slate as possible, open to new possibilities, new ways of reaching “perfection”.

I listened to an interesting segment on NPR the other week about “The Greatest Evangelist You’ve Never Heard Of”. His name is David Barton. He is not a trained historian, but he has dedicated much of his life to historical research and based on his research, he claims our country’s founding fathers were deeply devoted Christians who structured our nation upon Christian ideals. Now, many of the evangelical, conservative folk in our country love his message. And Barton has become a fairly well known name in lots of religious and political circles. Marco Rubio, Newt Gingerich and Mike Huckabee are all big fans. But there’s a slight problem with his message. Historians, even quite conservative historians, argue that Barton is attempting to rewrite history, to make it say what he and so many others like him, would like it to say.  Barton’s most recent book is a rather controversial take on the life of Thomas Jefferson. Quoting now from NPR’s article,

“The idea that Jefferson was a civil rights visionary appalls the Rev. Ray McMillian, pastor of Oasis Church in Cincinnati.

'Thomas Jefferson hated African-Americans,' McMillian says. 'He hated the color of our skin. He talked about how inferior we are, in both mind and body.'

McMillian is president of Cincinnati Area Pastors, which is boycotting the publisher of Barton's book, Thomas Nelson Publishers. He says by 'whitewashing' Jefferson — and all the other slaveholding founders, for that matter — Barton is rewriting history to make it palatable for Christians today.

'All in their hearts they're saying, 'If we could just go back there, America would be right,' ' McMillian says. 'Right for who?'

Not for blacks, not for women, not for Native Americans, he says — only for white men.

Besides, historians say, this golden age never existed.

'None of the founders were necessarily interested in promoting a specifically Christian nation,' says historian John Fea at evangelical Messiah College. 'Many of the founders believed in something akin to separating church and state even though they didn't use those terms. And in fact, most of the people in America were not regular churchgoers. So what is that great culture that we're returning to?'"

Growing up, I often heard my grandparent’s generation moaning about how terrible today’s youth were and how society in general was “going to hell in a hand basket.” The baton has now been passed to my parent’s generation and I’ll admit, on occasion, I’ve even heard myself voice similar sentiments. Scary!

I tend to think this is another good example of mind games at work. Kind of like botox, we eliminate all the Jim Crow wrinkles, erase the dark shadows of nuclear threats and are mostly satisfied with our smooth and tightly edited version of the past. But if we really look closely at our “improved” recollections, surely we’ll notice it looks a little too right, too artificially good to be real?

I think it’s interesting how difficult it is for us to live fully in the present. If we’re not gazing longingly back on a past that will never be again, than we’re straining towards the future, trying to wrestle down tomorrow’s problems and prematurely claim the promises of a time we haven’t yet reached.

One of my mental images for the gospels is a whole crowd of people standing around. Half of the people are turned around staring intensely into the horizon behind them, remembering all the heroes of their past and wondering why the present can’t ever live up to the “good old days” of Moses and Elijah. The other half of the crowd is facing forward, intent on scanning the horizon before them, looking for any trace of the promised Messiah.

Jesus walks into the center of activity. He taps one person on the shoulder and asks, “Hey, what’s going on?” The person replies, “I’m busy trying to keep alive a collective memory of some of the greatest ancestors our people have ever known. Go find someone else to talk to.”

So Jesus strolls to the other side and taps another person on the shoulder. “What are you doing?”, he asks. “I’m looking for the promised Messiah, the deliverer sent from on high who will save us from all our troubles. So in case you haven't noticed, I'm a little busy here....”

Recently, I’ve begun to think we are also missing out on a whole dimension of reality that can only be accessed when we are thoroughly tuned into now. I wonder how often each day we overlook God? And I wonder if our tendency to disconnect from the present is what’s to blame for a kind of societal inertia?

In the 49th chapter of Isaiah, we have a beautiful description of God bringing his children all home. No hunger or thirst. Justice. No more weather extremes. Singing. Then if you skip forward to 2 Corinthians chapter 6, we find Paul referencing this very chapter from Isaiah. He writes, “As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, (now quoting from Isaiah) ‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.’ (and now Paul’s voice again) See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation (italics my own).”

I think Paul is saying to his readers, "You know, this well-known vision from Isaiah is not some old fairytale from the past. Nor is it some unrealized vision of our future. This is a description of salvation to be had now. Now is the acceptable time. Now is the only time." Is the grace of God Paul references perhaps the freedom to root ourselves deep in this present moment and live fully into all the possibilities therein?

You’ve heard the expression, “You can never step into the same river twice.” You can go to the exact same spot at the same river at the same time of day, but in the passage of time, whether it be a second or years, the river will have changed as will have you.

I post my Sunday’s sermon on this blog each Monday. On Sundays when I don’t preach, I’ve tended to go back and post old sermons. However, I’m at a stopping point with that now. I was able to go back about a year and a half into old sermons before I finally reached a point where what I said and how I said it was so
different than how I would do things today, that I would need to completely rewrite my old sermons before I would consider them good enough to post. That’s how much my perspectives, understandings have changed in just a short amount of time.

Of course it’s not possible to fully plumb the depths of each moment. But what if we intentionally worked at disciplining ourselves to root a little deeper into as many of our precious, fleeting now moments as possible?

I have shared before in my posts that I pastor a tiny, country congregation that will be closing its doors in just one year.  Here is the remainder of the message I shared with my church family yesterday.

"I think we have a rather unique opportunity before us. Bergthal Mennonite, in its present form, has one year left. Over the past few months I feel like we have been running into a kind of unyielding wall of malaise. We have been postponing decisions. We have been attending church a little less. Sunday morning worship has been feeling tired. All too often I get the sense that we’re just going through the motions. I wonder if maybe we resemble the gospel picture I just painted. Sometimes we’re looking behind us, wallowing in all our most cherished memories of our past. Sometimes we’re impatiently scanning the horizon before us, ready to shake the dust of Bergthal from our feet and move forward into whatever might lie ahead of us. While this is all completely understandable, it also means we’re missing out on the saving, grace-filled now where God is rooted deeply.

"We have one fall left. One more season to survey the sweep of autumn from our church doors. One more time to bemoan the invasion of the wireworms. One more exultant time of school kit packing. Let us live fully into the changing of this season and drink deeply from this cup of blessing. Let us grab hold of and claim the unique gifts God will bestow on Bergthal, special graces that will flavor our fall.

"We have one winter left. One more time to watch snow settle on the church roof. One more season to savor the anticipation of Advent candles lit. One more sweet Christmas Eve service. Let us live fully into the crisp cold of winter and drink deeply from this cup of blessing. Let us grab hold of and claim the unique gifts God will bestow on Bergthal, special graces that will weave through our winter. 
"We have one spring left. One more time to hopefully fuss over wet carpets. One more time to gather ’round the cross together in grief. One more time to welcome Easter with flowers and hymns of praise. Let us live fully into the changing of this season and drink deeply from this cup of blessing. Let us grab hold of and claim the unique gifts God will bestow on Bergthal, special graces that will saturate our spring.

We have one summer left. One more time to exclaim over the temperature in our sanctuary. One more time to let worship enliven our basement. One last time to worship sheltered by these walls. Let us live fully into the changing of this season and drink deeply from this cup of blessing. Let us grab hold of and claim the unique gifts God will bestow on Bergthal, special graces that will surround our summer."

The only time we ever have is now. The only place we ever encounter God is in the present moment. May we find the courage and strength to embrace a holy multitude of grace-filled now. Amen.

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