Saturday, November 28, 2009

It's customary for pastors to send out a Christmas letter every year. Here's mine for 2009.

Christmas letter, 2009

The news this evening is that unemployment in California is now the worst since the Great Depression. Add this fact to the usual woes and worries (wars, flues, ungrateful children) and Christmas cheer starts to feel more like Christmas jeer – a joke played on us by the god of irony.

It seems that more and more of my friends are either taking anti-depressants, or should. It’s downright depressing! And it actually makes me wonder: “What good is this religion if it doesn’t make them happy?”

And then I wonder how Mary would have answered that question. Thankfully, after hearing the angel’s invitation and foreseeing her own heartbreak, she shifted her gaze up – to the difference she could make, and she said “Yes.”

I have studied the religions of the world somewhat seriously and I have yet to find a magical formula that causes bluebirds to break into song and encircle my head. The purpose of life is not defined by how we feel. True religion is about, well, the truth; and while the truth will set us free, it will also set our feet gently onto the ground, where we can be of use to others.

When everything seems bleak, it’s easy to let our feelings take over. We might even think we will always feel this bad – but that’s just the blues talking. Advent teaches us a truer lesson, which is that sometimes life involves what Henri Nouwen called “active waiting.” “The secret of waiting,” he said, “is the faith that the seed has been planted, that something has begun.”

Advent teaches active waiting. Yes, things are tough – and yes, God is happening. Life is change; goodness erupts; tough times pass. Meanwhile, we join with Mary. We breathe the labor pains of love. We nurture the fragile lives in our care, including our own. We open our doors to the homeless. We feed the hungry children. We say “Yes” to our divine purpose – and in the process, we find a joy that would shame a bluebird.

I pray you might join us this Christmas – and discover the real joy of the season. I say this in the name of God, who, like me, rejoices at the sight of you.

The Rev. Matthew Lawrence, Rector 

According to Mental Health America, “on average, people living with depression go for nearly a decade before receiving treatment, and less than one-third of people who seek help receive minimally adequate care.”

Depression is neither a moral nor a spiritual failing. Your blues may be nothing more than a bio-chemical condition, or the product of perfectly natural factors like stress, anger, fatigue, or unemployment. Sometimes good counseling makes all the difference; you might also benefit from a pill. Why not take advantage of what modern science has to offer?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Last Measure of Devotion

Last Thursday afternoon a 34 year-old police officer named Kimberly Munley was on her way to getting her car repaired when she heard over the radio that shots were being fired. According to the news reports, she was there within three minutes; she saw the suspect chasing down a wounded soldier; she fired at him, he returned fire, and then, as she was trained, she started running toward the man who was shooting at her.

Sergeant Munley is five feet four inches tall; by the looks of her she weighs less than a bird. But she has the spirit of a lion. Yesterday she was recovering from her three bullet wounds, calling friends, and expressing regret that she hadn’t gotten there sooner to save more lives.

This morning we will add the names of the 13 men and women who were killed at Ft. Hood to our usual litany of Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. And following the command of Jesus, we will also pray for the enemies of peace, wherever they may be, at home and abroad - because the world could use the mercy.

So this Wednesday is Veteran’s Day – a time for us to honor all those who, like Sergeant Munley, have faced into the fire. Some, like the fallen soldiers at Gettysburg that Abraham Lincoln honored, have “given their last full measure of devotion.”

That line is so stirring and poetic – “Their last full measure of devotion.” President Obama used the same line when he honored the 18 soldiers who died in Afghanistan almost two weeks ago.

The phrase hits home, I think, because, while very few of us can imagine what it’s like to be in combat, we all know what it means to give our devotion.

Yesterday on the radio I heard the true story of a young woman who was in a relationship with a married man. She was 22; she was young and beautiful and impressionable; and he was very rich. He bought her a Mercedes convertible, a luxury townhouse in Greenwich Village; magnificent jewels and furs. And he lied to her, all the time.

She soon found out about his lies, and they shamed her. But the biggest shame came from the look on her parents’ face when they came for a visit. They stepped into her million-dollar home, they looked around, and right away they knew what was going on - and they could barely speak, they were so embarrassed for her. In the presence of her parents, her guilt came home to her; she realized how much she had lost, by gaining so much.

She tried to break up with the man but he kept drawing her back in. She felt miserable and trapped and powerless over him. And then one day she got word that her parents were in a terrible car accident. Her mom had broken 80 bones; her dad was in a coma. Within minutes she was packed and out the door to be with them. And, she said, at that moment she knew she would leave him for good.

Sometimes our devotion lies dormant, asleep beneath the surface, until something happens to wake it up. And then, we’re in the air; or like Sergeant Munley we’re in the car, flying to the edge of everything. We find ourselves running toward our truth; running toward the moment that our lives were made for; we have found the object of our devotion, even the cause worth dying for, and we are pouring ourselves out; we pouring out our devotion, and in the process finding the truth of who we are and why we were born.

In our Gospel story Jesus is standing opposite the Temple, watching the rich people put in their huge donations. Then he watches a poor widow put in her two copper coins, worth a penny.

Jesus praises her – "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

The Greek word used here is “bios” – the same root as “biology” – it means living. In other words, she is giving not just her possessions – she is giving her whole life. The full measure of her devotion.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, whenever Jesus talks about money he is talking about the state of our spiritual life. He is not impressed by those who give out of our abundance. No, Jesus pays attention to the beggars among us; those who have nothing left; those who have flown to the edge of everything – everything that stands between them and God.

Inside, in our deepest hearts, in our truest selves, in that place where nothing separates us from our life in God, we, too, are beggars. When we pray, we go to that place – or we’re simply not praying.

Yesterday Rose and I drove out to Jenner and watched the waves rolling in – massive waves, crashing on the rocks, water flying up in every direction, spectacular explosions. There we saw a woman, a small woman, way out there, standing on the beach very close to the rocks. At the edge of everything. We watched with dread and amazement as the waves crashed around her, each wave threatening to overwhelm her. She was magnificent; she was strong; she was crazy, we thought. She got drenched and she was fully alive.

As Ireneus said, “The glory of God is a [person] fully alive.”

Someone recently came to me and asked to be baptized. She didn’t want to be politely sprinkled with a few drops of water; she said she wanted to dive in to the waters of baptism; to be completely immersed in God’s ocean; to let the waves of God completely roll over her; so that she could give herself completely to God.
She is called to give the full measure of her devotion.

We are all here, standing at the edge. This is why we are here. We have found a God worthy of our full devotion. And so we give it.

When I was 17 I had only one question on my mind: is there a God? It seemed to me the only question in the world. If there wasn’t a God, that was fine – I could go ahead and make my parents happy by becoming a journalist or a doctor – but if there was a God, there was no choice; I would have to become a priest, or a monk, or join an ashram, or travel to Tibet – wherever I needed to go; whatever I needed to do. Because why would you do anything else?

And so that summer I was standing by the side of a road in Oregon hitchhiking to Portland and all of a sudden I was swept up in a brilliant swirling power of energy and love; it was my Road to Damascus moment and I knew: Yes! God is alive! So what else could I do?

It’s like, there’s a man outside handing out diamonds – what are you going to do, sit down and read a book?

People sometimes ask me about my prayer life; they seem to think that as a priest I should be sitting in a corner somewhere saying some special words. But I say my whole life is a prayer; this is why I got ordained; this is why I stand before you today; I am giving God my devotion with every breath.

Prayer is not something you do with words; it’s what you do with your life. It’s jumping out of your car and running toward a man who is shooting at you. It’s standing before the fire.

And of course it’s countless small things, too. It’s visiting a loved one in the hospital. It’s saying a kind word. It’s making a phone call.

This is the secret – to fly to the edge of everything, and give ourselves up to the Holy God. We turn our backs on this ordinary world and all that is in it; because all the luxury cars and mansions and pearls and diamonds in all the world are worth nothing compared to a copper coin given in full devotion. We fly to the very edge… and say Yes.

I heard someone recently say that after a very long and full life he had finally discovered the secret of happiness – but by then he was senile and forgot.

I am here to remind us. It is devotion. Devotion is a practice; it is a way of being in the world; it is a way of deep giving.

The Sufi poet Rumi said it well:

If you are here unfaithfully with us,
You’re causing terrible damage.
If you’ve opened your loving to God’s love,
You’re helping people you don’t know
And have never seen.
Is what I say true? Say yes quickly,
If you know, if you’ve known it
From before the beginning of the universe.

So says, Rumi, to which I say, “Amen."