Thursday
Sep182014

Remembered in an Instant

Recently late one Friday night I was returning from having visited a parishioner at a local hospital. Walking in the upper east side of New York City heading west towards the Lexington Avenue subway I past a fruit vendor, a very common urban scenario. It was a rather large street stand on a corner and was accompanied by a refrigerated produce truck whose trailer door was open. There was a combination of COLD fruit and vegetable smells—not the same as a fresh farm market—rather the scent of refrigerated cold itself, perhaps refrigerant, and maybe even a little whiff of perspiration from the vendor himself. Continuing along, prompted by the overall "aroma," my mind was instantly transported to the Bloomfield Sale Barn and Auction.

The Bloomfield Sale Barn and Auction was a quintessentially rural phenomena that brought together the fullness of business capitalism and social meeting grounds, a market and a place to gather. Thirty, forty years ago, such sale barns and auctions dotted the landscape of northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania serving the agricultural community of small farms. Now with fewer small farms and greater suburban encroachment, many of the sale barns have had to adapt or go out of business; there is less livestock sold, there are more flea markets instead.

But as a little kid on so many occasion while at the livestock auction my family would also walk through the market stands where Amish and English shopped and sold alongside one another: by the meat counter, the cheese section, and the produce. Those were good times. Those are good memories. It’s funny how a particular smell on a Manhattan street corner could instantly—at least in my mind—return me to that place and time.

This occurred a few days before the anniversary of 9/11. As such it made me mindful of the various places we go, people we meet, experiences we experience, and overall just how mysteriously we carry them all. I'm reminded that one can be transported in an instant, by a smell, a sight, a song, a place, and even a day on the calendar. These things can transport us to another time and place, to a significant joy, a lingering sorrow, a real trauma. Or sometimes just to a great heaviness that presents itself seemingly out of the blue.

I reckon this a fact of life. But am I often aware of it as a pastor? Are we readily cognizant of it in the church? And by wondering, not only in the people we function with, but in our own selves as well?

It seems to me however, this dynamic being what it is and the strength of memory itself, this is in part why the scripture as narrative is so powerful. As we encounter our stories and memories we need also see them in the light of the sacred story. I say this not in the sense of immediate healing, be it from trauma or whatever. Nor do I intend here a simple easy answer, that it all ends well at the end. It’s more complicated than that. Rather there is something here about holding the both/and. There is something about association and experience. There is power in remembering. It helps us to know who we are.

“A wandering Aramean was my father…” or “remember when you were slaves in Egypt” are not just quaint biblical story points, but are themselves various memories in our own narratives. And because memories happen in different ways—not only in the words we hear—the sacraments serve also to reinforce our memories, serving to connect us across that time and space.

We begin our Sunday morning worship together with a congregant pouring the water into the baptismal so as to reinforce the notion, “Remember your baptism!” as it relates to our identity as Christ’s disciples. But it also serves to remind us of God’s greater story, of exodus and fleeing, of salvation and redemption through the waters. And then all waters begin to remind us, or at least in part all waters carry with them a memory. The doughiness of the bread or the pungency of the wine recall not only what Jesus did the night that he was betrayed but recalls the Passover story in part, and the table of the Lord in part, and then every table carries that association, that memory. Importantly, I don’t think it’s about changing our memories or replacing them, but about remembering better.

If we are hard-wired as it seems we are, to carry memories recalled in an instant with us, how can we in our worship and formation do it better?

Thursday
Sep042014

After the Flood

New York City is a great place. But being the most populous city in the US, as well as an international media headquarters, carries with it an over-emphasis upon itself. Take for one example the weather. Think about it: you may be drinking your morning coffee or getting the kids ready for school almost anywhere in the nation but still be able to follow the weather conditions at Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan brought to you by Al Roker and NBC’s The Today Show. That self-absorption is not only at the expense of the middle of the country, but even for areas merely a few hours away from the City.

On the evening of Saturday, August 27, 2011, residents of New York City were battening down the hatches preparing for Hurricane Irene. I remember that day well, for after some impromptu hurricane parties, I returned home to secure the churchyard and facilities including moving inside to the parsonage basement some outdoor pets—or what others might refer to as livestock or poultry—the first time they returned to the inside location where they had been reared as peeps. Throughout the following hours numerous friends extended prayers for us down here in the City, and especially dear friends upstate—Revs. Becky and Greg Town who serve the Reformed Dutch Church of Prattsville—offered invitation should I want or need to get away to higher ground. Hours later Irene made its final landfall on the coast of Brooklyn.

By the next day New York City had made it through the storm rather pleasantly. There was some high water in certain areas but that can happen during any heavy storm. Real damage is little. Here, Irene was more hype than harm. Upstate however, mere hours away, was not the same story. Some of the very friends who had extended invitations of housing and hospitality had experienced within minutes emergency notice of evacuation, devastation to their communities, and destruction to their homes and churches. The storm that brought inconvenience downstate wrought flash floods with five-hundred-year-flood conditions in places such as Prattsville and Schoharie. Approximately one-third of all the houses and businesses in the village of Schoharie were severely damaged or destroyed due to flooding. There were ten deaths in the state, mostly upstate attributed to flooding.

The Revs. Sherri and Michael Meyer-Veen co-pastor the Schoharie Reformed Church in the heart of the village of Schoharie, a congregation that dates to 1720. They had mud and water throughout the entire first floor of their home when the Schoharie Creek ran through their home and church sanctuary. What follows are reflections from Rev. Sherri Meyer-Veen on the three year anniversary of the flood. Please continue to pray for all who were affected and who continue to rebuild.

August 28 will forever be a historic date for the beautiful Schoharie Valley. Someday it will fade into the history books, but on this third anniversary of “THE flood” caused by Hurricane Irene it is still very much a part of our living history. There is a mixed bag of emotion that pours out of me as I feel the weight of this day. There is a deep sadness at the grief and loss we have experienced that is still felt: loss of the community that once was, loss of our “old” way of life, loss of our homes and possessions – many reclaimed, but some homes and most of our first floor possessions gone forever. There is the anxiety of the post-traumatic stress we are all still dealing with in the excruciating experience of living through it… the thousands of decisions that needed to be made yesterday every day, the financial burden, the uncertainty of what the future would hold, the victimization of “the system” as we tried to dig ourselves out and faced roadblock after roadblock, the fear that “I can’t go through that again” that creeps into the remembrance of this day and some of us every time we have a hard or prolonged rain, the grief and loss that we now transpose onto other experiences of trauma in our lives. This is still a part of our living history and we need to continue to process our own feelings, share our experiences together, and listen collectively to each other’s stories – even when they conflict with our own, we need to make room for each other and listen deeply. We need to remain patient with one another as much work remains even though we all have some level of being sick of dealing with it!

The bag of emotions on this day does not only contain sadness, it also contains a deep sense of love, community pride, gratitude, and joy. We are filled with an overwhelming sense of love for neighbor and of being loved by others as the region and nation rallied around us, volunteers poured in, prayers and resources began flowing to assist us in our long hard journey. We saw the ugly for sure, but we also saw the best in people and began creating a new extended community of deep formed relationships forged in the trenches. I still feel and hear in others a sense of inadequacy in expressing gratitude to SO many who helped me personally, who volunteered in the community, who volunteered at church – and donations, and meals, and, and… we cannot say THANK YOU enough! There is deep joy in me of seeing, experiencing, and being privileged to be a part of the best side of the body of Christ in action, humbly serving the needs of this small piece of the “broken world so loved by God” as we say in the Reformed Church in America. There is joy in remembering the miraculous we experienced and the palpable presence of God we felt. There is deep joy in the new community that began forming as community acquaintances became family and new forever friendships rose out of the mud.

There is also hope in our bag. From day one I had the clear sense that “there is hope and there is help,” this shared theme became the recovery motto “Hope.Help.Recovery” and I still feel it. As I talk with my kids about all of it when the PTSD shows up or one of them asks, “but momma, what if it happens again?” we remember together, “God helped us get through it, right?" …and I assure them "come what may, God will help us get through that too.” While my own quivering at the thought creeps in, I still believe and feel wholeheartedly that this is true. It may not be pleasant, it may involve loss, but it is still true.

We live in the hope of a yet to be realized rebuilt community. We hope for rebuilt homes, church buildings, and invested community members. But we also hope for rebuilt lives. We hope, and rest in the certainty of God’s hope, that we can find ways to allow our experience to shape us for good: to continue to bring us closer together instead of farther apart; to continue to help us learn through our anxiety, failures, and successes; to continue to face the tough questions of our lives with more grace and more hope; and to open ourselves more to God as we allow God to speak to us in it.

Whether you read this as a fellow survivor, an unaffected community member, a new community member –physical or honorary - from across the nation, or as one who simply journeys with me as my friend or acquaintance, thank you for listening, thank you for being there! As you feel the weight of this day with me, may you keep lifting it and us all in prayer and may you too find the hope of which I speak.

Psalm 29 1 Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. 2 Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor. 3 The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters. 4 The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. 5 The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. 6 He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. 7 The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. 8 The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. 9 The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!” 10 The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. 11 May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!

Thursday
Aug212014

Unrest

What is your only comfort?

We go to that line a lot. And it is, understandably so. As a pastor, I have an excessive desire to comfort folks. Even at times, detrimentally so, for myself and for them. As a person, I seek—at least yearn for, if not always seek in a full way—comfort, peace, that all might be copacetic.

But all is not copacetic. All is not peaceful. Certainly, comfort is illusive, comfort for many.

Which is why alongside receiving our only comfort in Christ, we need to also experience more of the tension. Maybe cry a bit more and get angry at the things we ought to get angry about.

That is why I was so moved by a prayer request in a recent article on Ferguson written by the Jeff Chu, incidentally an elder at Old First Church (RCA) in Brooklyn. He quotes the Rev. Traci Blackmon, pastor of Christ the King United Church of Christ, towards the end of the piece:

I asked Traci Blackmon what people of faith outside of Ferguson ought to pray for. “I want you to pray for justice. I want you to pray for reconciliation. I want you to pray for restoration,” she said. “But I don’t want you to pray for peace. We don’t need peace right now—we need unrest.”

We need unrest.

Do you feel unrest?

It is easy for those within a dominant group to miss the unrest that is so prevalent. Or to label it as other, outside of and distinct from themselves.

Growing up, racism was always overt. Or so it seemed. It was expressed, practiced, and shared often via language and the kinds of words that were used and attitudes displayed. In pleasant company it might be preceded with, “well, I’m not racist but…”

Some months into my first year of college my hometown made the national news. The President of the township’s Board of Trustees scheduled a meeting on Martin Luther King Day. Not a good move. The “stuff” hit the proverbial media fan however when he gave his reasoning. Martin Luther King Day in his estimation was a ``colored'' holiday.

``I apologize if I hurt anybody's feelings,'' he said and went on, ``none of us is colored. It's not going to affect us. Nobody colored comes to the meetings anyway.''

The man who said those words was a good man. But somehow saw King day as completely disconnected from himself.

When do I do that? When do you?

Many good folks also see Ferguson as completely disconnected from themselves.

A recent pew poll shows this:

The new national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted Aug. 14-17 among 1,000 adults, finds that the public overall is divided over whether Brown’s shooting raises important issues about race or whether the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves: 44% think the case does raise important issues about race that require discussion, while 40% say the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.

By about four-to-one (80% to 18%), African Americans say the shooting in Ferguson raises important issues about race that merit discussion. By contrast, whites, by 47% to 37%, say the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.

I’m on vacation right now, visiting friends in central Iowa. I’m seeking some rest, some comfort, some peace. But all that said, I need to feel some unrest too. And to pray that the unrest changes things. And me.

Thursday
Aug072014

Sinning and Running (not necessarily at the same time, but maybe)

I am always impressed when speaking with one of my many septuagenarian or octogenarian congregants and they share something about “working out” or “going to the gym.” I don’t mean to be ageist here but that is not something I automatically think of my friends in their seventies and eighties doing. Frankly, as an almost quadragenarian, it is something I hardly do. I do not go to the gym. Probably should…strength training, a little yoga, some cardio, it would all do me some good, as it does my older parishioners. If I do ever “work out” it’s usually running; but even that is generally done in fits and starts with a few months going well and then something happens and nada for a while. I suppose I’m currently in the “starts” phase. We’ll see how long that lasts.

The reason I have working out on my mind and relate it here—since you doubtless have little interest in my personal exercise habits—has to do with some reflections of late on sin. What could be more reformed that that! Specifically an exchange near the end of our recent Reformed Church General Synod made me wonder why we take sin so personally, while at the same time, not personally at all. Incidentally, while this involves the inner issues of my own denomination, I think the wonderment travels well beyond these particular familial and institutional parameters.

So, there I was in a closing meeting of a specific committee—precise details are really unimportant here—and a Christian brother shared a personal experience that he had had relating to his Lenten journey and sin. During Lent, he had chosen to “give up sin.” Sounds good to me! But some weeks into it, he found himself in an occasion where anger was his immediate response, and low and behold, he sinned. Again, the specific details are not relevant here. Suffice it to say, my Christian brother had chosen to give up sin, but then eventually something happened and he sinned.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over this last month and a half because in so many ways it emulates my own desire in running. I choose to start running. I run. Then something happens and I don’t run anymore.

Obviously, I simply need more discipline. With running, that is. Which I do. Which is also where this metaphor falls so incredibly short, at least as it relates to sin.

It seems, somehow, the notion of sinning, of discipline, of discipleship has all been warped into a paradigm that is similar to a New Year’s resolution—or more spiritually—a Lenten practice of fasting, of giving something up. Which is all well and good but lets be honest, how many people do you know who have given up something for Lent by the third week have made substitution a necessity, elated in Sundays not being officially Lent, or simply broken the fast before its time? Like those New Year’s resolutions that are just about forgotten by February, choosing to give up sin is well and good, but face it, if St. Paul had trouble with it, I doubt you and I will be so stellar.

Which is not to say we ought to keep on sinning. That’s hardly the point! But it is to point out we live in a country where everybody is dieting but nobody’s getting healthier. An exaggeration? Perhaps. The church too, though…

But some of us in the church have an approach to sin that seems to see it entirely as personal choices one makes. Stop sinning. Stop choosing to sin. Great! Ok! But sometimes sin isn’t just personal. Sometimes (all the time?) it’s built into the very structures, systems, and institutions that we are a part of, the powers and principalities, and a How To Manual our faith is not. It’s more complex and complicated than that.

I get why some of my Christian brothers and sisters spend a goodly amount of time worried about particular choices as it relates to sin and behavior. And while I may not agree with you all the time on what the specific sin is, I get where you’re coming from and generally am with you. But often I want to push back and share that we who speak of corporate, structural, institutional, and communal sins such as racism, sexism, and homophobia are not dismissing the personal. Rather, we see the personal as much implicated into the wider body of brokenness. And maybe even more.

And that oftentimes, breaking the power of sin is not simply about giving certain behaviors up and changing one’s habits. It also means engaging in the process of structural changes that include but go far beyond oneself.

Well, these have been my wonderments. Now, I’m off to run.

Thursday
Jul242014

Refuge

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. –Psalm 46:1

Last week my congregation, Trinity, had our annual Vacation Bible School. It’s a big deal here and something we do up right nicely. We’re a small little church and on any given Sunday we’d be happy to have a half dozen kids in Sunday School. But for one week each summer our entire building is transformed to what ever the theme is for the year—this year it was “weird animals” so there was a jungle motif—and children from all over the community—this year, just under 90—come to learn about Jesus and God’s love for them. This incidentally is no humble brag but an outright honest-to-goodness brag. I love how well my folks work together alongside a variety of partners and young people who return as volunteers once they’ve aged out to put this event on. I just wish we did other aspects of our church life, ministry, and mission as well…

A friend on facebook, a colleague whom I have IMMENSE respect for was ranting the other day generally about Vacation Bible Schools complaining that they are a huge volunteer hour sucker, are a sanctified competitive expression between neighboring churches, use shallow theology, and that parents use them as free babysitting. She added the caveat that her attitude was coming from a particularly heavily churched environment (one could read here suburban west Michigan); given a different population demographic and/or geographic location, perhaps these elements would be different (and her cantankerous disposition be abated). I get it and agree. We spend a lot of time and energy that I wonder if it could be used better. The theology can definitely be shallow and often needs tweaking. And certainly, parents do use us as free babysitting. One good we have going for us is we aren’t especially competitive in our locale with VBS as most of the churches don’t offer it. I too worry whether the fun of a week of VBS actually helps form young disciples or merely entertains. Are seeds being planted and faith being nourished? I hope so but I do wonder.

All that said I couldn’t help but be moved myself and have my own faith encouraged by that week working with the kids and volunteers at the Vacation Bible School. It was for me a refuge.

It was a rough week in the world, and I think particularly rough on children. It seems they need a refuge too. Kids playing soccer are being bombed on Gaza beaches. Kids are being shot out of the sky over Ukraine. Kids are running to bomb shelters in Israel. Kids are living in refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan fleeing civil war in Syria. Kids are escaping violence in Central America to be met by welcoming Tea Party members here in the US. Kids are escaping hardship and turmoil in Africa crossing the Mediterranean for a better life in Europe. Obviously, not just kids, but still. And this doesn’t even include the regular everyday issues of domestic violence, child abuse, human trafficking, etc. So in a world like that I think I needed VBS for myself. I needed to see kids learning about God and having fun, playing silly games and all. We all need a refuge.

Even with the constant barrage of media of despair and disaster it can still be easy to tune out, to think of it as “over there.” But over there is connected to over here. In the small talk moving between “Bible Adventure” and snacks a young attendee (he’s probably 10 or 11) was sharing with me about making friends here, and by here I mean in this country. He’s been here about three years coming from Egypt, his family escaping the violence and persecution that much of the Coptic community has experienced in the recent political upheaval. This has been a refuge.

In the middle of the week I had a funeral for another refugee. He and his wife were both from a little village in Yugoslavia but following the turmoil of World War II became refugees, first fleeing to Czechoslovakia, then to Austria, eventually through Germany, and finally here to the States. He was an old man and lived a long and good life.

Where am I going with this? No where in particular. I’m just grateful for refuge, grateful when the church can be a refuge, grateful for God as our refuge.