Sunday, May 21, 2017

Reflection on John 14:15-21

To who are you a Paraclete?

Yes, you may have read that wrong the first time. I did not ask you, "With who do you act like a parakeet?" Quite frankly, I do not care with whom you act like a parakeet, because I really I do not want to know. Rather, I asked, "To who are you a Paraclete?"

You see, “Paraclete” is the Greek name for the “Holy Spirit,” but it is a rich kind of name with deep meaning. It literally means something to the effect of “the one who walks along side.”

So, as Jesus continues to say his goodbyes to his disciples in the gospel of John, he promises that he will not be gone for long. He promises that he will send the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, the one who will continue to walk along side them, as they seek to live out their lives of Godly love.

So, if you fashion yourself a Disney princess, I invite you to imagine that you have a parakeet that whistles and sings alongside you wherever you go, but for the rest of us, I invite you to imagine that you have the Paraclete walking along with you, because you do.

The same Jesus Christ, who took on flesh and walked with his disciples, is still walking with you through the Paraclete. The same one, who went to the cross to show you just how far God will go to love you, to the point of death, is still with you. The same one who was raised from the dead, the same one who shows you that new beginnings are more powerful than any tragic ending, is the one who is still your friend.

Jesus is still with you through the Paraclete, walking alongside you every step of the way.

God’s love is still with you. You are loved, and because of that, you have love to give. All of this is possible because the Paraclete has not left you abandoned or orphaned. The Holy Spirit is with you. The Paraclete never leaves your side.

And, so, I ask you again, to who are you a Paraclete? Because we are a Paraclete people. We are a people who God has lovingly walked beside, and we are a people who God has tasked to lovingly walk beside others.

But, before we go too far in answering that question, I want you to first think of someone who has been your Paraclete. Who has walked beside you through thick and thin and not abandoned you? Who has guided you away from the cliff’s edge when you were not walking so straight? Who has been a Paraclete to you?

In other words, who has been a devoted friend, just as Jesus has been devoted to you?

Go ahead, hold this person in your mind. Keep them in mind for a moment while you continue to read.

The little girl had an unspeakable act done to her.

Yes, you are guessing right, that is what happened to her.

And, the day came when she was supposed to go to trial, this tender little girl, to face her abuser…to tell her story.

She feared the lights from the TV cameras on the way into the courthouse. She feared his awful face and his looming presence. She feared saying the right thing at the right time. She feared that the world was so great and she was so small.

And, then the motorcycles came. As she looked out the window of her home, an entire gang of motorcycle riders came, brandishing their loud vehicles, hard earned tattoos, tough leather jackets, and sculpted muscles. They had arrived to take her to court.

They had arrived to be the strength that she could not be.

They had arrived to provide the toughness that she could not find within herself.

They had arrived to be the literal, arm-in-arm chain of protection that would surround her when the cameras would try to get too close.

They had arrived to be a literal face of love, strength, and protection to who she could look in the courtroom when she became afraid.

They were a motorcycle group whose sole purpose was (and still is) to be a Paraclete to victims of abuse such as she.

They were there to walk beside her the entire time.

Years later, when as a teen, she fearfully found out that her abuser was being released from prison, she looked out the window that night fearing to see her abuser coming to retaliate.

But, when she looked out the window, she did not see her abuser. Instead, she saw members of her motorcycle gang sitting out at the end of the drive, protecting her from harm.

They were her Paraclete after-all, and they would not let her sit alone in fear.

That is what Paracletes do. They are gifts from the Holy Spirit who walks beside us, advocates for us, and gives us strength in the face of fear. Because of the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are made into a Paraclete people who walk with love beside others.

So, I ask you once again, to who are you a Paraclete. Who do you walk beside? Who do you love through the thick and the thin? Who do you help direct in right paths? To who are you devoted, all the way to death? Who knows that God’s love never ends because you have been there the entire time? To who are you a Paraclete?

Or, maybe I could ask, to who can you be a Paraclete?

Because, people need a Paraclete. The Paraclete is a gift from God. The Paraclete comes to us through the waters of baptism. The Paraclete come to us through acts of love. The Paraclete comes to us in times of peril. People need a Paraclete.

People need a gift who will be there when they struggle to love.

People need a gift who will be there when the truth of the situation is too much to bear.

People need a gift who will be there when they need to face the horrible truth of who they are.

People need someone who will love them anyway.

People need a gift who will be there when they feel forgotten.

People need a gift who will be there in the face of death.

People need the gift of the Paraclete, an advocate, a gift from God by the Holy Spirit that allow people to be certain that God has not forgotten.

And, God provides the Paraclete each time. So, I ask one last time, to who is God sending you to be a Paraclete?

Friday, May 19, 2017

Reflection on John 14:1-14

“Lord, we do not even know where you are going. So, how are we supposed to know how to get there?”

You can hear the pleading in Thomas’ voice as Jesus says his goodbyes and, like a kick to the gut, Thomas rejects the idea of his beloved teacher leaving. How would you react if the savoir of the world told you he was going to just take off? How would you react if you were about to lose the God you loved?

I assume that we would react with the same sort of utter denial that a certain person’s older son reacted when losing his girlfriend. One of the times when his girlfriend dumped him (yes, there were more than one “dumping”), he was so blindsided by her leaving that he went into full “stalking because I’m in denial mode.”

He bombarded the girl with phone calls and texts asking what she was going to do now, and how things were going to look between them for now. What does it look like to just be friends now? Can we still dance together?

He provided a life-time’s worth of expressing his love with a never-ending stream of digital presence to this girl who just wanted to be left alone. “What are you doing right now?” “Are you OK? Because, I’m not.” “Where are you going tomorrow?”

OK, so I’m not saying that Thomas started stalking Jesus, but I am saying that he bombards Jesus with very similar, “Where are you going?” and “What are we going to do now that you are gone?” questions. What do you do when God leaves you?

There is something so hollow sounding about that question. It is as if your insides have been stolen, and everything you know to be true have been removed. We have lots of questions when it appears that we have been left behind.

Of course, all of the "What" questions that we ask are just a cover for the real questions. The real questions start with “Why.” “Why are you leaving me?” “Why can’t I come?” “Why would you choose to hurt me?” “Why is this happening?” The disciples are really asking the hidden question of why.

So, that boy I was talking about really wanted to know “why.” Why was she leaving him? Why? Was there something wrong with him? Why? Wasn’t he worth it? Why can’t she love him like he loves her? Why?

Unlike the boy's girlfriend who simply refused to respond to her obsessed stalker, Jesus answers the questions. He does not answer those “why” questions directly though. The disciples yearn to understand why he is leaving, but he does not answer like, “Well, it’s because I need to die on the cross, you see, in order to pay back the debt that you owe God because of your sins and wasted time in life. It’s all an accounting thing. I hope you understand.”

No, Jesus does not even go there. Jesus chooses not to answer those “why” questions directly. That’s why we still wonder about their answers even today.

However, Jesus does answer the disciple's yearning with a promise. He answers your yearning, your loneliness, and your doubt with a promise. It goes something like this: “Don’t worry, I have a place for you.”

Surrounding this whole conversation with the disciples, and surrounding all of our questions, fears, and doubts, Jesus provides a promise like:

“Believe…in me. In my Father's house there are many places where you can live. If that weren’t true, would I promise you that I am leaving so that I can make space for you? Listen, I would only head away to make space for you, because I intend to come back for you, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

And, when we feel distant from God, feel like we do not understand God, and feel that God is light years away from us and our very real concerns, Jesus replies, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father…I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” In other words, Jesus says, “I promise to be right here with you. God is standing right here with you.”

We ask Jesus the question “Why?” but Jesus answers the question of “Who?” “Why do innocent children get hurt?” “Why does death even exist?” “Why can’t you make people come to their senses?” “Why does it feel like I’m alone, trying to answer all of these important questions?” “Why?”

Jesus’ answer to all of those questions is: “Don’t worry, I’m right here. Even when you think I have gone, I’m still right here. You are not alone, wandering in your questions. I’m here.”

And, really, is that not what we truly need? When a certain boy’s girlfriend dumped him, no answer to “Why?” would satisfy, but a hug from a father did. “Don’t worry, I’m right here.”

It is the plea of mothers on Mother’s Day, “Don’t worry about getting me anything, just be here with me.”

Listen to Jesus’ promise to you, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” And, the way, the truth, and the life is with you, dwelling within you. In the same way, you dwell within that way, truth, and life.

You know the love you show the world? That is actually God’s love. It is proof that God is not far away because the scriptures tell us that God is love.

If you have love, you have God.

And, if you are given the gift of love, you are given the precious gift of God's heart. God is not far away after-all. And, if Jesus’ gift to us is his loving presence, then, I guess our gift to others would be our loving presence.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Reflection on John 10:1-10

“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

If you are hungering for some food for the soul, these words, in the least, serve as delicious appetizers.

For, it is in Jesus that we find life. It is in Jesus, where life is not offered up for a limited time only, so act fast before supplies run out. In Jesus, abundant life does not spoil in the refrigerator when the power is out. In Jesus, life is not a goal to figure out on your own.

In Jesus, life is abundant. In Jesus, life has companionship. In Jesus, life is truly life, not a cheap, off the shelf, it only costs a dollar, knock-off.

There once was a man who was starving for some real life. He had been born blind since birth, and he starved to see the beauty of the world. He starved to see others around him. In fact, he starved to even have others around him, period.

He was hungry for life, but was found alone, in the darkness.

Then Jesus came, cracked open his prison of darkness, and gave him life.

The man rejoiced in his sight, but others did not. Those around him questioned and made accusations concerning his new life. Who had done this? By what authority was he healed? Was he really blind I the first place?

The once blind man had thought that those around him would provide green pastures and safety within the gate, but they did not. Even the man’s own parents failed to defend the man and his new life of sight.

The once blind man thought that he had found life, but all he found was a new sort of blindness…a new sort of darkness.

It is the sort of darkness that comes when those who pretend to care do not. It is the sort of darkness that comes when abundant life is less than abundant, and is actually conditional. It is the sort of darkness that comes from thieves who promise life, but can only provide a cheap toy.

The once blind man is thrown out of his community for nothing more than being healed, and he is alone once again. He had been forgotten, again.

Well, not quite. Jesus did not forget. The good shepherd came back for his once blind sheep, and his sheep recognized Jesus’ voice and followed.

You do not forget the voice that heals. You do not forget the voice that loves. In Jesus, the blind man both found his life when he was healed, and found it abundantly when collected once again by Jesus.

Jesus gives us this promise, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

It is true! You have life. You have been found by Jesus, forgiven and healed of the things from the past, been welcomed into the gates of the sheepfold, and are now watched over by your shepherd.

You know his voice. His voice speaks of love and forgiveness. And, when he leads in ways of love and forgiveness, you follow. You share in that love and forgiveness, and you share that love and forgiveness.

You know to whom you belong. You have been found by the good shepherd. You have life, and you have it abundantly.

Except, the thief would have you think otherwise. He crawls into the sheepfold, through the slats in the fence, and promises you another sort of life. He says things like:

“Wouldn’t life be better if you spent less money on helping others and rather spent it on yourself. You deserve it. You have worked hard for it. It is yours, not theirs. Go ahead, buy, buy, buy your happiness.”

Once, in the search for happiness during a down time in my life, I bought an electric screw driver…you know, one of those electric wands that can twist in screws and fix stuff around the house. It was billed as a tool to quickly fix anything that goes wrong around the home so that you can just go back to enjoying life.

Would that not be nice, to just buy a quick fix that can clear the stresses of home repair and just let you go back to enjoying life?

The only problem with this quick fix was that, at the time, I did not own a home. I was sold the solution to a problem I did not have! I was in college, living in a dorm, with a full maintenance staff. I had no problem that an electric screw driving wand could fix.

Plus, the thing was only powerful enough to twist a screw back into the hinge on a pair of reading glasses. But, it did not have a bit small enough to do even that! Good thing I listened to the thief who sold me that piece of junk by calling me at 7:00 in the morning. Good thing I spent the equivalent of 6 or 7 good meals on that lifesaving device!

There are other thieves of course. Social media promises companionship anywhere you may find yourself. With social media, you will no longer be alone. That is fine. It is actually very good is some cases. For those who are confined in their homes, social media is a life-saver that offers a way to have friends beyond your confining walls.

The only problem is that social media promises the same sort of life to those who already have beloved people literally right next to them. The online life seems like real life, but it can actually be a prison, blocking us from those who stand next to us who need our love, and who need to love us in return.

Jobs can be thieves. They need not, of course. Work is one way that we can love our neighbor. The reformer, Martin Luther, once said, 'The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes.” So, yes, we show love to our neighbor by offering quality work.

But, work can also be a thief, promising abundant life with just a few more hours devoted and a little more blood shed for the greater cause of the job, but offering no time to actually enjoy that life. At worst, a job can become a distraction that whisks us away from those who need us the most.

I suppose that in a world where hard work promises blessings of cars, great houses, great food, wondrous toys, and abundant life, Jesus’ vision of abundant life seems a little less grand.

I assure you that it is not.

A life that is given the gift of forgiveness (and the freedom that comes with that gift), and a life that rests of the shoulders of love is truly abundant. You do not have to be well off to know the treasure of those gifts.

My grandmother once told me that her family did not have much growing up, but they did not even notice. They had people who loved them, and they their neighbors in return, and that was more than enough. Jesus provided her family the food that filled their souls.

Jesus is your shepherd, and you are his sheep. He leads you out to eat the grass that is sufficient for the day. He leads you in ways of love. He leads you to others who also know the ways of love. He provides you with life, and provides it abundantly. Listen for his voice, he is calling.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Reflection on Luke 24:13-35

The story ends with the two disciples running out, hearts blazing, because they had experienced the risen Lord in the reading of scripture and the breaking of the bread.

The end of the "Road to Emmaus" story is every pastor’s dream! If only someone would be so inspired as to actually run out of the church, not because of boredom or complete lack of comprehension of what was being preached, but because they were so inspired that they just had to share!

Actually, I think that it is probably every church goers dream also, that they might be able to go to church and actually get something so inspiring out of the worship that they just have to run out and tell. When people's hearts burn with the Spirit rather than acid reflux, pastors and parishioners alike are overjoyed.

The only problem is, of course, that you cannot manufacture happiness. It is hard for pastors to write the perfect sermon every week, or for the parishioner to craft the perfect story about how God touched their lives. No person living is able to manufacture the kind of joy-filled, spirit-burning heart that you have yearned to have.

Some people are convinced that beer is manufactured happiness in a bottle. Unfortunately, we all know that beer’s story arc does not always go from sadness, to joy, and continuing with joy (as is the case with the disciple’s story). Rather, beer's story arc too often goes, from sadness, to joy, and landing in anger.

There is not a brew master who can concoct the disciple’s happiness. Their happiness is pure. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is a concoction of resurrection and new life. Burning hearts running down the road is what happens when you think you have lost God for good, and then discover that God has been walking with you the whole time.

But, let us not get ahead of ourselves. I inadvertently started this reflection at the end of the story, but the real truth…the real meat of the story is in the beginning. The real meat of the story is found in the dust of the road where the disciple’s walk. It is found in that tear stained dust as their heart grieve the loss of their teacher and friend, Jesus. The real meat of the story is found in these four short but heart wrenching words, “But we had hoped…”

“But we had hoped…” So much is said in these four words. They speak to the reality of dreams that were, and are no more. They drip of despair and lost love. They reveal the reality of hopes being raised high and left to free-fall, with nowhere to land. They speak of hopes that are dead. There is nothing more tragic than a dead future.

“But we had hoped…”

Earnest Hemingway was once challenged to write a six word story. As legend has it, he penned on a napkin, “For sale; baby shoes, never used.” These short stories reveal the gaping hole left in life when hopes go unfulfilled and die.

There is something beautiful about these short stories, not because I enjoy the suffering of others, but because I find great value in being able to express the truth.

There is not any value in glossing over the pain. There is not any value in rushing to the end of the story.

That is why the best advice I can give someone who cares for someone in grief is to teach them that helping the grief stricken is 98% listening and 2% not saying something stupid. Believe me, I have had my share of living in the 2% of saying something stupid. And the stupid part usually comes out of my mouth when I am uncomfortable with the person's situation, and so I decide to skip all of the pain for them and go to the end of the story. "Things will be OK," I carelessly declare.

I do not always listen to my own advice.

But, when we do follow the advice of listening instead of talking, the person who is in pain never feels like their concerns have been brushed away.

It is OK to grieve the future that will never be. It is OK to come into the presence of Jesus with a story of lost hope. It is OK is come into the presence of Jesus with eyes so filled with tears that we do not even recognize who he is. It is OK to be broken.

I would like to think that church, the body of Christ, is the safe place to bring these short stories of dashed hopes.

“For sale; baby shoes, never used.”

“Monitor reveals a mass, again.”

“Half of the bed is empty.”

“Her ring; found in the trash.”

“My child walked away, for good.”

“The letter came, not the job.”

“His whiskey bottle is empty, again.”

“My family hurt instead of helped.”

When those stories of pain are allowed to come into the presence of God, they start to mix with God’s story. Just as red and yellow mix to become orange, our stories mix with God’s story to become something new. Sure, particles of the red pain are still in there, but they are suspended in a sea of Christ’s bright yellow, and what comes out in the end is a color that burns orange with beauty.

You cannot manufacture that sort of transformation, but, it is what happens when you mix stories of pain with the word of God; mix stories of pain with the waters of grace; and mix stories of pain with the breaking of the bread. Somehow, in some way you discover Christ is there, walking with you, at the table with you, never forgetting you, always with you. He was there the entire time.

“When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?" That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, "The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!" Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”