Friday, March 23, 2012

Can You Hear Me Now?

Artwork by Izzie, Used with Permission
Remember the cell phone commercial from a few years ago, where the guy is out in the middle of nowhere saying “can you hear me now?”  I was reminded of that little phrase as I read Job 23 this morning.  No, that isn’t exactly what Job said in that chapter but, in essence, it is the question that he was asking.  Job, in conversing with his friends essentially says that if he could just find God then he could argue his case before him.  He says this in verse 6 in the Wesley Study Bible:
“Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?  No, but he would give heed to me.”
In other words, Job is saying “at least he would hear me!”  How incredibly human is that desire?  Isn’t this something that everyone longs for at some point in time?  Although, you may not agree with me, at the very least, let me know that you hear what I am saying to you!  Each of us longs for someone else to listen to what we have to say!

As a mother, I can remember times, when my children were little, and they would come up to me with a picture, or they might tug on my arm wanting me to come see something that they had built.  Needless to say, sometimes their need to be acknowledged and my schedule didn’t always match!  Sometimes I could stop what I was doing to go look at their creation or listen to their story.  Other times, I would have to say “just a minute” and they would have to wait.  But I always tried to acknowledge their effort, or their point of view.  When they got older, the topics changed and there were a lot of family discussions around the dinner table.  I might not always agree with their position but I took the time to listen and acknowledge their point of view.  That longing to be heard is hard wired into each of us, from a young age and that longing doesn’t change no matter how old we grow!  Each and every one of us has a desire to be heard!

So why is it so hard to be heard?  Because in order to be heard, someone has to take the time to listen.  And listening seems to be in short supply.  It’s like we are all talking past each other rather than talking with each other.  Sometimes we have to stop talking and instead start listening!  That doesn’t mean that you will always be in agreement on a topic, but at least you will have made the effort to hear the other persons point of view.

Now I could use the United States Congress as a prime example of “talking but not listening” but I have another example that I would like to bring up-General Conference.  For those of you who are not Methodist, let me briefly explain what General Conference is about.  Every four years the Methodist church sends delegates from around the world to meet together for “Holy Conferencing” to discuss the state of the church and to debate issues regarding the future direction of global church efforts.  It’s a little more complicated than that but this gives you a rough idea in a nutshell.  This year, is a General Conference year, and we have a new “hot button” issue to add to the list of perennial hot button issues that come up at General Conference time.  The issue is how does the United Methodist Church reverse the membership decline that has plagued so many “mainline“ denominations?  In preparation, our leadership formed yet another committee to do a study, in order to come up with a plan that could be presented at General Conference.  It has a catchy name “Call to Action”.  This group, called in consultants and did various studies and then issued a report with their recommendations.  Since then, there has been a tremendous amount of debate from both sides and lots of ink used to defend various positions.  As we approach General Conference, the rhetoric is starting to pick up in tempo.

As a lay member who will not be at General Conference and has listened to both sides of the debate on restructuring all I have to say is I see a whole lot of talking going on, but I surely do not see a whole lot of listening going on!  If this is our definition of “Holy Conferencing” then we are in trouble!  When you have individuals from Bishops to Delegates writing and essentially saying “this is my position and I don’t care what you have to say” then we have a problem!  Everyone is so busy talking past each other and highlighting “bullet points” and defending turf that we have turned a deaf ear to listening!  This group, will decide the future of my church and expect me to take them seriously, while pounding the war drums of entrenched positions!  Seriously???  Where is the Holy Conferencing?  Where is the prayer, the discernment, and most importantly, the listening to each other, even if you do not agree?  With everything going on in the world this is where we draw battle lines?  How many people are starving in the world?  How many people are dying from preventable diseases?  How many people could use a roof over their head, or clean water, or training that would give them an opportunity to make something better of themselves?  Dear delegates, I am begging you-please stop talking long enough to listen!

I pray that each of you will go to General Conference with a willingness to listen.  I pray that you are filled with a spirit of discernment and an openness to listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying, regardless of whether it lines up with your pre-determined position on a topic.  I don’t care what the consultants recommend, I don’t care what popular culture is expecting, I care about what God is asking us, as a denomination to do!  Be open, be flexible, but most importantly, be willing to listen!  There is so much to be done and we as a denomination will not be able to move on and do the things that need to be done, if we are too busy advancing agendas, instead of listening to what God is calling us to do!  Imagine that the Holy Spirit is the guy, out in the middle of nowhere, holding the cell phone, saying “can you hear me now?”  Be the one who says “yes, I’m listening!”  And may the Lord truly bless our ministry!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

God and Ruth and Those Mysterious Ways!

What do you say about Ruth?!  She’s so important that there is an entire book in the Bible devoted to telling her story!  Ruth rocks!  She is yet another example of how God uses the most unlikely people, in the most extraordinary way!  First off, she’s a woman.  Second, she’s a Moabite.  Third, she is a widow.  None of these are helpful in the male dominated, Old Testament, society but, the combination of the three, spells disaster!  A female outsider, in a Jewish community, with no husband, does not make for a recipe for success in the natural.  But we’re not talking about the natural, we’re talking about God, and this story is yet another reminder that He doesn’t look at things the same way that we do!

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?  The story starts off by telling us about Elimelech and Naomi, and their two sons, who live in Bethlehem during the time of the Judges.  They live in Bethlehem but, at the time, there was widespread famine in the land.  So, they pack up with their sons in tow, and head out of town, in search of a place that actually has food.  They end up in Moab.  Here’s what you need to keep in mind-if you go back in the Old Testament, you will see that Moab and Israel were not the best of buds over the years!  Far from it! They actually attacked each other numerous times during their history.  Yet, the Moabites welcome the family and the two sons end up marrying Moabite women.  Again, this should be a red flag, because marrying outside of the faith was not something that was supposed to be done!

Long story short, Elimelech dies, the sons die, and Naomi is left with nothing but two Moabite in-laws.  So, she decides to go back to Bethlehem.  Hopefully, someone there from her family will, at the very least, take her in and give her a place to live.  Orpah and Ruth go with her, at least part of the way.  Somewhere along the way, Naomi realizes that she can’t offer anything to them, and she realizes that it would be best for them to go home to their own families.  If they do that, they stand a fighting chance!  They could remarry and have a chance at a new life filled with hope!  At first, both of the women tell her no.  Naomi tries a second time to reason with them and, at that point, Orpah decides to turn around, but Ruth stays.  So Naomi tries for a third time to change Ruth’s mind, but here’s what Ruth says in chapter one starting at verse 16 (Wesley Study Bible):
“Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!  Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die-there will I be buried.  May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”
Now that’s a spunky girl!  Here’s the really interesting thing to remember-there were no guarantees for Ruth!  I am reminded of that other gutsy and courageous woman by the name of Rahab-remember her?  Both women were willing to sacrifice themselves in order to protect and take care of those they loved!  And both women, although they did not fully understand who God was, still chose to follow, without any promises or guarantees that things would work out for them personally!  No matter, how you slice it or dice it, giving up everything that you know takes some serious courage!

Naomi and Ruth make it to Bethlehem, which causes a serious stir about town.  In verse 19 it says that the only thing the women of Bethlehem said was “is this Naomi?”  There’s a subtle understatement!  Uh-uh!  You better believe that there was some serious gossiping going on!  Oh, I’m sure, they were pleasant enough to her face, but you know they had to be thinking that she was being punished.  Not only did her family leave Bethlehem, but her sons married Moabite women for goodness sakes!  No wonder they all died!  And here she comes, slinking back into town, looking for help?!  Not only that but she brought one of those Moabite women with her, can you believe it???!!!  Doesn’t get more juicy scandal than that!  As my gramma would say, there was a whole lotta tongue wagging going on!

God works in mysterious ways though!  I can picture Him up in heaven just shaking his head, and thinking “ladies, you are in for one big shocker of a surprise by the time I’m through!”  Be grateful that God does have a sense of humor and a larger view!

The story continues on, Naomi and Ruth have shown up, just in time, for the harvest and Ruth suggests that she go out in the fields to glean.  I think at this point, Naomi figured they had nothing to lose, so she tells Ruth to go and give it her best shot.

Wonder of wonders, where does Ruth end up working?  In a field owned by a rich guy, by the name of Boaz, who just happens to be a relative of Naomi’s, on her husband’s side of the family!  Out of all the fields in Bethlehem she just happens to pick the right one?  Gee, does that smack of the subtle hand of God?  Hmm…I wonder….  Oh, but it gets better!  Boaz just happens to come out of Bethlehem to the field, at that time, and he just happens to notice this stranger gleaning behind his servants.  He asks his head servant about her, and the servant tells him that she is the Moabite, who came back with Naomi. She asked permission to glean, and she’s been hard at work ever since she got there!  Boaz now chooses to do something that he was not expected, or required, to do. Not only does he go to Ruth and tell her to stay with his reaping crew through the harvest, he also tells his servants to pull extra out of the standing stock so she has more to glean.  Understand, Boaz is not the kinsman redeemer, he is not first in line!  It is not his responsibility to take care of Naomi even though she is a relative.  But here is the glaring ,obvious, point that should not be missed-the kinsman redeemer is obviously NOT taking care of Naomi, because, if he was, Ruth would not be out in the field gleaning after the harvesters!  Boaz can not take care of Ruth and Naomi directly, but he CAN take care of them indirectly, by making sure that Ruth is under his protection, working in his fields, following his servants AND he makes certain that Ruth is able to glean enough for Naomi and Ruth to eat!  Boaz is doing what the kinsman redeemer should have been doing in the first place!

Ruth goes back to Naomi, after a successful day of gleaning, and Naomi is astounded by how much Ruth has been able to gather!  So she asks Ruth “where did you go? Where did you work?  Who took notice of you?”  So, Ruth tells her about her encounter with Boaz and what he said and how kind he was to her.  Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when Naomi put two and two together!  I bet her entire face lit up!  “Blessed be he by the Lord, whose kindness has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Naomi tells Ruth.  Naomi may have been the grieving, bitter widow, but she’s no fool!  She knew full well who the kinsmen redeemer was and she understood that he had no desire to fill that role.  Boaz, on the other hand, would fulfill that role if given the opportunity!  The question then became, how to make it happen?

Naomi came up with a daring, risky plan to let Boaz know, that she was willing to let him fulfill the role of kinsman redeemer.  If it worked, not only would she and Ruth be taken care of, but her husband’s family line would live on.  She sent Ruth to the threshing floor, under the cover of darkness and instructed her to wait until Boaz had laid down for the night.  She then told Ruth to go, uncover his feet, lay down, and wait.  If Ruth was caught, it would be absolutely scandalous, but if it worked, Boaz would not rest until he took care of the matter!  Boaz discovered Ruth at his feet about midnight.  Ruth made her request “spread your cloak over your servant for you are next-of-kin.”  Boaz responded exactly the way Naomi thought he would!  In chapter 3, starting at verse 10 he says:
“May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich.  And now, my daughter, do not be afraid, I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman.  But now, though it is true that I am a near kinsman, there is another kinsmen more closely related than I.  Remain this night, and in the morning, if he will act as next-of-kin for you, good; let him do it.  If he is not willing to act as next-of-kin for you, then, as the Lord lives, I will act as next-of-kin for you.”  
Sure enough, the next morning, he sent Ruth back to Naomi with six measures of Barley and got her out of there before she could be discovered.  Then, he went to the town square and waited for the closer relative to pass by.  In the presence of the elders he asked the kinsman redeemer if he wanted to buy Naomi’s field? At first he said yes.  Boaz reminded him that it meant he would have to marry Ruth and, he decided, that he didn’t want to “damage his inheritance.”  He passed the right of redemption on to Boaz!

Boaz married Ruth, and they had a son named Obed.  And Ruth, the outsider, is remembered as being greater than seven sons to Naomi!    She also had a very famous great-grandson by the name of David, son of Jesse, who went on to become King.  Further down the line of genealogy, came a young man, by the name of Jesus-King of Kings and Lord of Lords!  One more interesting little factoid for you-Boaz, is the son of Salmon, who was married to Rahab, that other outsider who risked her life at Jericho! One outsider, marries the son of an outsider, which produces the lineage that brings about the Savior of the world! How cool is that?!

If you had any doubt, let this story be a reminder, that God does work in mysterious, wonderful, ways!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Happy Town Meeting Day!!!

Today is the first Tuesday in March.  In political circles, that means Super Tuesday, where voters in various states vote in the primaries, for their favored nominee, for Presidential candidate.  In Vermont, it means Town Meeting Day!

I’m not sure how many New England states still practice the art of Town Meeting, but Vermont continues with the proud tradition!  Town Meeting is not merely the duty of showing up to vote.  Town Meeting is an event!  If you really want to see what Democracy in action looks like, find a way to attend a good ole fashioned Town Meeting!

In my hometown of Waterbury, Vermont, Town Meeting takes place in the school Gym.  If you get there early enough, you might get a chair seat on the floor; otherwise it’s the wooden bleachers for you!  The Select board (town leaders) sit up front on the stage, and the moderator leads the voters through the process of issues outlined in the Town report (which is mailed out to all members of the community ahead of time).  Posts are filled, like Town Constable or some of the more obscure positions like Fence-Row Surveyor.  Budgets are presented for the Town Government, Fire Department, Library, etc.  The floor is open to questions and debate on each item, and then a motion to vote is put forward, and the item is voted on.  Those in favor say aye (pronounced I) and those opposed say nay.  The meeting starts early in the morning and doesn’t finish up until sometime in the evening.  It is an all day affair!

They do take breaks during the day.  Dinner break is called around noon (just an FYI, for the old timers, dinner is at noon, supper is in the evening and using the word lunch is ludicrous!)  The meeting is reconvened for the afternoon session and then supper break is called later in the day.  If there is still any business to conduct after that, the meeting will reconvene again, and go in to the evening until all business on Town matters is concluded.  In a nutshell, that is town meeting.  But the nutshell doesn’t do it justice!  There is a dynamic, an energy that you just don’t experience any other way!

Whether you are young or old, cantankerous or  bashful, everyone has a voice!  The proposed budget items may be set by the Select board but you have the opportunity to ask questions and debate on the spot!  Anyone who is a registered voter, can stand in front of the microphone, and have their opinion heard!  You’re not just going in to a voting booth and checking the appropriate box, you are actively participating in the give and take process, and voting on things that effect not only you, but your entire community.  You literally see the community in front of you.  You see their faces.  You sit side by side.  Your neighbor hears your ayes as well as your nays!  Sometimes things get contentious, but there is a level of respect for opposing opinions that you don’t find anywhere else!

Is the process long?  Could it be done more efficiently by merely placing the items on a ballot, and having individuals come in, and vote in a ballot booth?  I’m sure that it could.  But in doing so, you miss out on a wonderful opportunity to participate in a dynamic, meaningful process.  Town Meeting is dynamic!  It is alive and energetic!  It is also incredibly meaningful because you know that you have had an opportunity to be heard!  The community, together, as a whole, works its way through the process of deciding issues for the town as a group!  That my darling friends, is huge!  There is truly a sense of being a part of something that is bigger than just you!

As you can tell, I miss being able to participate in Town Meeting.  I miss hearing the questions and the thought provoking debates.  I miss sitting next to neighbors and hearing their opinions.  I miss being able to participate in something more than a piece of paper in a ballot booth.  Town Meeting taught me to be respectful of other peoples opinions.  It taught me the art of a good debate.  It taught me the importance of being involved in community because I do have a stake in the place where I live!  It taught me the art of loving my neighbor and doing unto others in a purposeful way.  My vote did not just effect me.  It had an impact on others and I was reminded of that point vividly as I saw their faces surrounding me.

For my family and friends in Vermont; happy Town Meeting day!  For those of you who have never experienced it-you don’t know what you’re missing!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Sharing a blog post from a friend

This gives an entirely new meaning to rehab!  You will love the story!

Ann's Attic-Rehab

Hang with the Sheep, Not the Goats!

Matthew chapters 23-25 runs quite an interesting gauntlet.  It starts off with Jesus denouncing the Scribes and Pharisees, proceeds on to discussion about signs of the end of the age, and moves on into Parables about bridesmaids and servants and talents, and wraps up with Judgment.  Now I have heard dozens of sermons preached on individual parts, particularly talents (usually around the time that the Stewardship drive comes around), but I have never seen anyone connect the dots between these three chapters.  And yes, there is a connecting thread that weaves through the three chapters!

Let’s start at the beginning.  In chapter 23, Jesus blasts the Pharisees and Scribes!  Specifically, he sums up his point in verse 23:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law; justice and mercy and faith.  It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”
In other words, they know the law.  They can tell you all about the “matters of law”.  But knowing and doing are two totally different things!  They practice and carry out the things that can be seen-the “look at me, I’m giving my tithe of rare and precious spices” but they don’t carry out the things that require an investment that is not always seen-justice, mercy and faith.  Jesus at the very beginning of the chapter tells the listeners to do what the Scribes and Pharisees say, just don’t do what they do!

We then move on to chapter 24-the signs of the end of the age.  A lot of people get hung up on the signs and miss the entire point, which is emphasized at the end-always be watchful!  Keep doing what you are called to do and do it well, because you never know when the end is coming!  Take the talents and multiply them!  Which brings us into chapter 25 and the judgment of the nations.

In chapter 25, what is the standard that differentiates the sheep from the goats?  Jesus sums it up in verses 35 and 36:
“for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
Justice, mercy, faith-live and in action, are summed up in those two verses!

Which brings me back around to the point of the talents that we hear so much about!  A talent can be money.  It can be your special gift and grace.  But to truly “invest” your talents means that you invest in people and relationships-the one on one daily, nitty gritty of living day to day!  It is not merely about investing in a building or a program!  It’s about investing in life!  It is the stuff that we do, day in and day out, that seems insignificant because, well, it’s simply the right thing to do!

Shall we put it in modern day parlance?  I had a flat tire and you stopped to help me change it in the freezing cold, on the side of the interstate.  My house was blown away by a tornado and you came to help me clean up and save what I could, even though you didn‘t know me.  I was with my children at the grocery store in the check out line and I came up $1.98 short and you pulled out two dollars from your pocket so I wouldn’t have to face the embarrassment of trying to pick what I needed to put back.  I did something stupid as a youth and had to serve jail time, but you didn’t forget me!  You wrote letters and came to visit when you could.  I was new in town and had no family and friends and you invited me over for lasagna dinner.  I could go on, I could list more and more examples, but I think I’ve made my point!

Tell me, what on that list involved some big mission program or involved a building???  Not one!  And only one on that list involved money!

Now, before some of you out there have a coronary and think that I am saying to not support your local church or some special mission program, take a deep breath and relax!  There are certain things that only a church or an organization can do really well and it is important to support those programs!  The Pharisees, even they did that!  My point is, it is only half of the story.  And if you go back and read what Jesus said, that was his point as well!  Do what they tell you, just don’t stop there.  Don’t do what they do, focusing only on those visible things.  If you only do what they do, then you miss this whole other realm of possibility!

Look around you.  There is a mission field right in front of your face!  There are countless possibilities and endless ways that you can help others!  Some may involve money but the vast majority involve hand holding and tear wiping and good old fashioned sweat!  It’s about people and relationships.  It involves sharing yourself with others.  It involves giving your time, not just your money.

In some weird and twisted way, we equate mission with some far off place.  Mission is what “the church” or “the organization” does.  We can give our money but we certainly can’t “do mission” because we are not equipped to do that sort of work.  Jesus, however, reminded us that mission is all around us!

Be ready, Jesus said, because you never know!  Be the servant always on the look out for the little opportunities.  Mission is all around you, if you will just open your eyes and look.  Tithe and support the big stuff, but continually be on the lookout for those justice, faith and mercy moments.  They are more abundant than you might think!  Hang with the sheep, not the goats!