Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Donut...

One of our church staff persons brought in a box of really fancy donuts from the Oakmont Bakery. Technically, they weren't donuts, but "Paczki" (pronounced "punch-key") rolls, which are filled with various sugary stuff. Of Polish heritage, these sinful little fellows were historically produced as a way to use up all of the prohibited sugar and "treat" makings before Lent began. The modern example of Paczki from the Oakmont Bakery certainly demonstrates clearing the cupboards of every sweet ingredient available and cramming them into a filled donut.

As I was surveying the box of Paczki, trying to ascertain which one looked most appetizing, and working my mind to see if I could rationalize actually eating en entire roll, rather than a reasonable half, it dawned on me that the difficulty of my choice, complicated by the ethical ramifications of whether it would be half or whole, was occurring only with the challenge of this single box of goodies. No other donuts were under consideration, nor were there healthier treats harboring about. My anxiety was only being raised by this one box of eight Paczki. Why is that important?

How much of the anxiety that drains our energy or hampers our personal spiritual progress comes from just our limited "box" in which we live our our reality? We get all torqued because the kids have  myriad sports activities, or school concerts, or other "required" engagements to which we must provide chauffeur service. We struggle over balancing work with family time and carving out some personal leisure time to "maintain our sanity," we claim. And it becomes a vicious cycle, all within our own little donut box. "What kind of car do I want to drive?" or "Which neighborhood with a good school district do I want to live in?" are typical "donut box" questions asked by those of us who really live in a privileged setting. And like me "stressing" over which sinful treat to sneak, it's really laughable, when we think about it.

The greater majority of folk in our society aren't gazing into a box of gooey donuts. They are worried about keeping enough food on the table for their kids to eat; many parents have to send their kids to school hungry, where they hopefully will get a breakfast and a subsidized lunch. And the school district was not of their choosing; it just happened to be attached to the housing they could afford.  Transportation--or lack thereof--may govern whether a decent job is accessible to them, and health care may be a pipe dream, although some may have been eligible to acquire it for themselves and their children through the Affordable Care Act.

Since the Paczki are baked to get rid of the "sinful excesses," maybe Lent can be a time for us to reflect on the choices we have before us, and the degree to which we stress over making them. Perhaps Lent can be a time when we shed our preoccupation with this, use our faith disciplines to develop a fresh spirit of gratitude for the "donut box" we have to choose from, and possibly even engage in servant ministry on behalf of those whose choices are far more limited than ours, and for whom "dessert" is a distant dream.

By taking only half of one of the Paczkis, I sought to reduce my guilt. Don't do that with Lent. Let's not "give something up" just to feel better about ourselves. Instead, let's look for ways to develop empathy for those whose journey is more difficult than our own. Pray not only for these others, but pray that God will help us grow in sincere empathy and understanding of their context. And may this empathy lead to opportunities to engage in servant ministry in coming days.

There is a richness to the Christian experience that often blesses us like a fresh box of delightful treats. But the length and breadth and depth of our faith will lead us to a far greater understanding of the human condition, our fellow members of the human community, and those whose lives are lived totally in the margins. I wonder if this is what the scriptures mean when they say:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard quality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross. [Philippians 2:5-8]

Let the Lenten Journey begin, Yinz!


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Computer...

Against my wife's continual pushback against my "techie" habit, I bought an Amazon Echo for Christmas. The Echo is a tall, tubular device that contains a "smart" computer chip and a high-fidelity speaker system. The think connects to the Internet, and once set up, you can just ask it stuff, or have it play music. Initially, you could program it to answer either to Amazon, Echo, or the default "Alexa." You could say, "Alexa, play John Lennon," and she would answer, "Shuffling music by John Lennon," and in seconds, a concert of music written and/or performed by late Beatle John Lennon would issue forth. You could ask Alexa for the weather, the current news, or questions about almost anything she can check out on the Internet for you. If one subscribes to Amazon Prime (we do), an almost endless supply of music is available. Through your Amazon account, you can also order things by just asking. (This revelation has caused problems in Alexa homes with children, by the way.)

I liked the thing so much that I bought a "dwarf" version of Echo called "Echo Dot" for my office at the church. It "bluetooths" to my Jambox speaker, and does pretty much what her big sister does at home. A couple of weeks ago, I was reading an Amazon Echo thread on Facebook and saw where, due to popular demand, they had given the Echo a new alternate "wake command" or name: "Computer," for all of us "Trekkies" who own them. So, both of my units are now called just "Computer."

At home, I can say, "Computer, bump the thermostat up two degrees," and she says, "OK" and follows the command. I have a couple of lights controlled by the Echo as well. "Computer, turn on island light," and on it goes. Now I feel a little more like Captain Kirk, except when I say, "Computer, warp speed," the only thing that happens at the speed of light is Dara's eye roll.

At the office, I usually just ask "Computer" to play music. It is really cool to rehearse my teenage years by telling her to play Mot the Hoople, the Beatles, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Seals and Croft, Chad and Jeremy, or when I'm really in a nostalgic mood, Frank Sinatra, and away she goes! If I need some obscure fact, I can ask "Computer" to go to Wikipedia and find it. And, of course, the current weather forecast is only an "ask" away.

What's really cool about the Echo is that if I'm doing some writing, or reading a new book, I can ask her to define a word, look up a fact, or find a source. How cool is that? And she's way more fun than Siri when posing existential or theological questions. I know this thing doesn't have a soul, but she is a better conversationalist than some I've known who do.

The Echo is a fairly primitive form of artificial intelligence. One wonders how far AI will go? The silicon is really getting smarter. It makes me wonder if humanity will keep up, at a time when our use and in some cases abuse of technology threatens to separate us from meaningful conversation with each other. How much does our incessant staring at a smart phone screen keep us from reading books? Or viewing works of art?

Here's hoping that things like Echo can be helpful tools, and maybe ones that pry us away from the hypnotic iPhone panel. I know this: I'm listening to much more music of all genres since adding "Computer" to my office and our dining room. One of these days, I'll get bold enough to ask her if she's a Methodist....peace, Yinz.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Half-truths...

We've just started a new sermon series here at St. Paul's entitled "Half-truths," modeled after a book by Rev. Adam Hamilton, the pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. In his book--which is basically a transcript of a series Hamilton himself preached--Adam identifies five "popular" half-truths espoused by many people of faith. While there certainly is some "truth" in each one, for the most part, these phrases are trite, simplistic words meant to explain very complex concepts, thus rendering them "half-truths."

In week one, we examined the expression, "Everything happens for a reason." Have you ever said this? Or have you been on the receiving end of it? Often, it is used in an attempt to comfort someone in a time of grief or suffering of some other kind. The intent is to suggest that God, or some other sentient cosmic force is fore-ordaining or planning out every life and every event of each life. Bad things that happen to us are meant to appear insignificant in the face of "God's will," or to be explained by the belief that our suffering has a purpose in a larger picture, and that eventually, our wrongs will be righted, providentially, in due time. It is amazing how much cred and airplay this particular half-truth has acquired.

During my weekly Bible study, one of our couples reported that one evening this week, after we launched the "Half-truths" series with "Everything happens for a reason," they watched two straight TV programs during which a character uttered this phrase. Sometimes, the triteness of the phrase is further emphasized with a troubling introductory salutation: "OH WELL, everything happens for a reason." Ouch. Does everything happen for a reason?

Actually, no, that is probably the "untruth" here. Stuff can just happen--period. If I misstep and fall off a ladder and break my leg, the only "reasons" at work here are careless and gravity. Would my painful and sudden stop, coupled with the injured leg, be a part of a cosmic "plan" of some sort? And would the suggestion that the event was, would that provide some measure of comfort to me? I think not. Now, amplify this experience exponentially by thinking about a friend who has just lost a dear loved one. Would your suggestion that "Everything happens for a reason" provide comfort? Or just rub the proverbial salt in the gaping wound of grief?

And what a meanie the expression makes of the Almighty! I would have great difficulty believing in a deity whose grand "master plan" included intentional suffering on the part of each individual as an integral part. I'm hard-pressed to believe that God causes such things, or even permits them. Maybe that is what Jesus' suffering on the cross is about? God's suffering empathetically with us forever connects God to our experience.

Hamilton has a simple sentence in his book that makes sense to me: God is sovereign; God gives us freedom; God uses human beings. Methodism's founder, John Wesley, believed that God has given us each a measure of dignity and moral responsibility. God's gift of freedom sometimes means that we fall off of ladders or exercise bad judgment. And we die, which is part of the cycle of life. The platinum-plated question is, "What is God going to do about it?" This is pretty much what Jesus answers in the Gospel of John when asked by his disciples why a certain man was born blind. "Was it his sin, or his parents' sin [that caused it]?" they asked. Jesus told them that God was going to do something about it. And, that is precisely what God doesn't when bad things happen to us. God shows up.

Indeed, God's presence may be manifest by people who come to our aid and comfort. Grace may be made available in a variety of ways. Think of God as a kind of divine emergency medical technician who speeds to the scene, performs triage, and begins the healing process. We are given the wisdom and insight through the Holy Spirit, our own experiences, and the lessons we can learn from others, to bring reason to the negative event, either to know how to avoid one like it in the future, or how to approach it if it happens again. Oh, and we are able to empathize with others in their time of suffering or grief that parallels our own.

If I had to rewrite this half-truth, I think it would go something like this: "Every reason is an attempt to explain something that has happened."

Finally, may we all be reminded that God's presence, love, and grace--often via others who show up, too--is the greatest gift. We never have to suffer alone, nor do we have to face any of life's challenges alone. Jesus continues to walk our journey with us. How cool is that?

Peace, people!

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