Unbinding Life

So this sermon ended up long as I tried to walk the line of it being too much about me but also the vulnerability that connects because we all have these same thoughts and struggles and I think the willingness to admit that out loud is relationally important.

Video to this text can be found here (they are slightly different but basically the same).

Unbinding Life

John 11:32-44

Oh Jesus!

If you had been here…none of this would have happened.

Jesus… if you could just have been here… if you had cared enough to be here… none of this would have happened.

That had to have been hard to here. Jesus, who loved him greatly, has a lot of places to be, and ministry to do. And this friend, in hurt and grief, looks at Jesus – who had been doing that ministry elsewhere – and says, “If you had just cared enough to be here, none of this would have happened.”

And Jesus probably agreed.

Earlier this week on Tuesday I woke up with this disquieted and discomfortable (yes I know the word is uncomfortable but this word makes grammar people uncomfortable so it better speaks to my sensibilities at the moment) sense of self. Have you ever woken up and just felt wrong? Not healthy wrong, but your sense of self is wrong. I don’t know if I am making any difference in the world. I do not know if I’m getting any of the things done that I want to accomplish. At any given time, I don’t know if I’m where I need to be to keep “all of this from happening.” I don’t even need Martha to look at me and tell me that… the reflection in my mirror is saying it: if you had just cared, Andrew… none of this would have happened.

This isn’t the only time we become aware of Jesus’ failings. When Luke tells the story of Jesus’ rejection in his hometown he recounts that when Elijah saved the widow’s child in Sidon there were many languishing in famine and dying but Elijah was only sent to, and saved, one of them. ‘I may work miracles, but I don’t raise all the dead.’ Even when we reach the end of this story we are reflecting on today there is only one Lazarus that is raised from the dead… so many other people that Jesus… failed (?)… stay dead. Jesus understands what it is like to have to choose places and people to be present to in his powerful personhood. And he knows what it is to look in the mirror knowing that for thousands and millions of others, “if I had just been there… none of this would have happened.”

For six years I have been the pastor of this church. I think every pastor knows when they come into a new call that they are not going to grow the church. But every pastor secretly thinks that they could…. And that they will. I woke up on Tuesday morning feeling disquieted for many reasons. One of those was because on Monday night doing our responsibility in caring ways the Session removed 38 people from membership. People who had really removed themselves from membership years ago. It took our membership number down to 302 people. Now, Andrew in a good moment knows that number means very little. But Andrew in a bad moment, when he looks into the mirror and thinks about where he could have been and what he could have done to keep “all this” from happening, says to himself, “wow, when I came here it was a 375 member church, and then it was a 350 member church… and then 325… and then 302. And it’s just not what I thought would happen 6 years later…. Does anything that I do matter?”

(Don’t worry about me… that was, as I said, a discomfortable moment… a self-doubt moment.)

I went on Tuesday afternoon (part of my role as the President of the Board of CATCH, housing homeless families, is to serve on the Executive Personnel team) and met with executive staff members and we had lunch to assess our ministry at CATCH. CATCH does great work towards the goal of ending homelessness. But it feels as if there are more people experiencing homelessness this year than last year. Did we fail? Did we succeed? With more money coming in because we have done good and trustworthy work… we served not a single person more than the year before… did we fail? Are we making a difference if the problem we are trying to solve that IS solvable seems to be getting worse before our very eyes? Does what we do matter?

I work with an interfaith group and we talk about and practice being there for each other, the things that unite us as spiritual communities are as many as those that divide us, and we CAN focus on what unites us. But as you come together as an interfaith community in the wake of 11 people being killed in a Synagogue as the gunman declares that he wants to kill all the Jews… when the same things happen in Christian churches, and mosques, and people of color because far too many of us are driven to kill that which we disagree with than defend each other… it makes me wonder if what we do matters. Or am I in all the wrong places at all the wrong times.

I think that is what was going on when I woke up on Tuesday feeling all discomfortable. It wasn’t simply about fatigue or a poor nights sleep. It was futility. And I feel that sense of walking uphill. Trying to swim upstream. The fact that we are called to be a light in the darkness, but the darkness seems to be winning. Wouldn’t it be easier if I decided I really don’t care? If I went on about my life and focus on me and my enjoyment: eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

I think it would be easier. But it wouldn’t be true. And it wouldn’t be good.

And the end of the day, when I am not in the “that mood” I remember that a hundred families aren’t experiencing homelessness because CATCH is out there working uphill. I remember that for every 11 people shot the vastly greater majority gather around the world in solidarity for people they don’t even know – but they love – to remind each other that one person does not define our country or world by their hate. And whether my ego thinks that ministry over six years would lead to 450 members and not 302… it is wonderful to be here with you. And find people who empower me and remind me why it is I do what I do.

Bonnie Lind, who is here today from Portland where she moved a couple of years ago, gave me one of my favorite stories to hold onto for my life. We had a session meeting to change worship times and styles… remember that? And the motion changed in the meeting to an idea I honestly didn’t like and didn’t think would work. And I kind of freaked out after the meeting and I had just closed on my house and was completing my first year here and I called up Bonnie Lind who was the chair of Personnel at the time and I said, “The church is going to die this summer! And I just bought a house!” And she said something to me like, “Andrew this church has been here for 135 years… you are not good enough to kill it.” Ok, she didn’t say it quite that way, but she reminded me that I’m not alone, and that is not simply about whether or not I show up – in fact, my showing up is almost the least important – because there are all manner of leaders here who will and do show up. And we will work through this together… to keep all this from happening, or to keep all this from being worse than it would be without us. She put me at ease.

A couple of years after that the Personnel Committee had turned over completely and was made up of several of you who I won’t name right now – really I won’t – and the whole committee at that time was about as different politically from me as any four people we could have chosen at that time could possibly be. And I had done something that caused some community consternation with the church on an issue in which none of those four people agreed with me. And I confessed to them… ok, I did this thing, and it may blow up around us. And you know what? Not even one of them said, “Andrew what were you thinking?” They said they didn’t agree with me, but they respected my right to say and do what I did and moved right on to what we needed to do to protect the church. And in that moment, I realized that they, and I, would charge hell with a bucket of water for each other even though they are wrong about all their political opinions.

Because it’s not just me that has to show up. In fact, I do a pretty poor job of it… alone. I am grateful I am not alone… to keep all this from happening.

Yesterday we hosted a small conference and a Presbytery meeting. And I never really agreed to host the conference… it just sort of happened. Hosting a Presbytery meeting, which is our obligation, turned into to hosting a Friday night and all Saturday event almost 3 times larger than what we thought we had signed up to host. I regularly think about our church as one that is wrestling above our weight class. We are a church that holds ourselves to a higher standard, a church hitting goals that churches with 302 members don’t usually even attempt. And about 18 of you all came out to help us host. And let me tell you that you didn’t meet a normal standard of hosting, you didn’t meet a 302 member church standard or the high standards I try to hold us too… you met the Kingdom of God standards for radical hospitality all throughout the weekend, and I was so overly proud to serve this church at that moment. It was just a meal and meeting… but it was the hospitality work of keeping the light on and being a home and holding back the darkness – even if it was only for seven hours.

Jesus wept.

Jesus wept…. that his friend died. Jesus wept that he wasn’t there. Jesus wept that he knew that no matter that he was the very son of God he would still fail people’s expectations of him. Jesus wept that as much heart as he might have… every single one of us are finite beings who can only do so much. Jesus wept… and it’s powerful.

And then Jesus looked into the tomb in all his power and said, “Lazarus, come out.” And he did.

What the hell do we do with that?

Because wouldn’t that be awesome if we could do that?!?!?! Talk about your All Saints Sunday…we could really whip up some members. We could get the 4,000 past members of the church and we wouldn’t have pews enough for them.

What do I do with this scripture ending…. Because I can’t, we can’t, do that… Or can I? Can we?

Jesus says, “Unbind him.” That is way more important to him than the ‘Lazaraus, come out’. Sure, I don’t have the power of God to raise Lazarus from the dead, but Jesus then gave me a role in the story. Unbind him so he can live. And there are people all around us who are living their lives bound by oppression, bound by finiteness, bound by depression, bound by societal structures that don’t offer them the same opportunities they offer me… bound by so many things. To which Jesus cannot go to all them, and be there for all of them, Jesus said it himself. And so, Jesus found us and told us to unbind them so they can live.

There are people in our world who are targets of hate, there are minorities denied rights, vulnerable left unprotected, unrepresented, and targets of hate. And it’s our role to go to them and help unbind them that they can live.

A friend of my working in law enforcement reminds me that in a country that has great consternation about how our country polices itself there are some good men and women working hard by their presence to unbind life from death and they are having to do it with our scorn and hatred and so they are killing themselves literally and figuratively. Our job is to go to them and in solidarity unbind them so that they can unbind others so that those others can unbind us so that we can live. And that? That we can do. And that has value, and worth.

So, whether you look in the mirror and tell yourselves you are not doing enough, or avoid the mirror so you don’t have to hear your own inner dialogue, “thank you.” For in every moment you have been there for me, or for someone in your pew, or a stranger you didn’t even know even in a small forgettable act you unbound them and enacted the power of Jesus to give them life. And there is no better calling them that.

Unbind them, that they may live. This is the word of our Lord, thanks be to God.

 

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Keep the Light On

Today I am feeling a sense of despair, futility, and failure. There are so many people hurting in the world. And while I understand its impossible to be “there” for everyone… I feel like I am there for less and less people in less significant ways each day than the day before…

I feel like I’m probably not alone in feeling that… but I don’t know that there is a way to change that… and thus the sense of despair.

As I reflect on that I’m drawn to the Apostle Paul’s words from jail in the beginning of his letter to the Philippians. “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you…”

I don’t know what in the world Paul is actually talking about but I think… I think perhaps he felt that dying was easy and living was hard. But living well, living good… living as light in a dark world was so important that it was worth the struggle.  Worth the struggle, perhaps (I add), even if you cannot tell if you are actually making any headway at all…. even if it seems all you are doing is putting up sandbags before rising waters. Because a slight flood is way better than total devastation… even if it still feels like a failure because you did not actually beat the waters.

In this world in which it seems the powers of selfishness, greed, and enmity are winning… I refuse to go quietly into that night. I may not succeed at all in ending that darkness. In fact I know without doubt that I will not. But – following in the footsteps of greater guides than me – I will not let the light I seek to reflect into the world, insufficient as it feels, go out. Its not enough…. but its still worth it.

I love you all… apparently or not I’m fighting for you and trying to stand with you, and I’m seeking to create whatever dry solid ground I can… and together: we will keep the light on.

Ex – Ex Nihilo: God in Our Messiness

The term ex nihilo is a Latin term for “out of nothing”. Its most notably used in conversations about creation as the claim that God created out of nothing, one that is core to Christian theology.  God pre-exists creation and everything that is… is from God.  The claim was something that for years I would have taken as a given of my own theological framework.  It was.  And it is no longer.

Pastoral life has cracked and fractured many of the givens of my theological framework.  I have a mind that loves systematic thought.  I love Philosophy.  I love the task of Systematic Theology, and of articulating clear doctrinal understandings of the world, of God, and of the relationship between God and all things.  But as my love of narrative grew, a Scriptural theology that embraces the messiness of life began to not only appeal more to me… but fracture previous foundations – I know longer saw “realness” to the clean clear lines of doctrine.  My vocational life places me (gifts me) in people’s confidence where I hear and see their constant struggles and the angst-ridden existential task of meaning-making in their stories and this, again, makes me continually question, restrain, and flat out toss out many of the “right answers” I thought I knew.

The Bible has a fair amount of creation theology.  It goes far beyond Genesis 1 and 2 – the twin creation stories we all typically conflate into one and call it the THE creation story.  John begins his Gospel with a creation story.  Hebrews and Revelation both give strong creation claims of creation ex-nihilo.  Psalms and Proverbs both speak to creation and its unfolding.  There is creation theology throughout our scriptures – we can hardly point to one story and there is no single authoritative voice to a single absolute theological understanding of how it all came to be.  John’s Gospel is, in my opinion, is the strongest “ex nihilo” argument.  Its hard to argue with “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”  (John 1:3)

It’s a captivating claim.  And I’m not saying there isn’t truth in it.  In my world of mystery and limited knowledge and resistance to claiming to understand ultimate things, I have plenty of space to hold two truths together.  And I certainly have no need to disabuse anyone else of their foundations.  But I think the cracks are helpful… because life filters through them.  Because that is how life works – it comes out of other things far more than it does out of nothing.

Years ago, I was at a Discipleship conference that was being run simultaneously to a conference on New Church Development.  I remember at a break I was talking to one of the new church development pastors and I made some very ignorant comment like “it must be nice to start a new church and get to work with a blank slate.  No old culture you need to change but getting to begin things fresh and new.”

He quickly smashed that fiction.  My thoughts that new church development was creation ex nihilo couldn’t be more wrong.  In fact, he said, what you have is no agreement at all on what the slate should be.  Everyone comes with their baggage from other churches, everyone comes with their own vision for what this new thing should be… there is no “out of nothing” but rather “out of many somethings”.  And a culture still needs to grow and be nourished and directed and pruned… and it still has a mind (and minds) of its own.

I hold on to that comment.  I have fallen back on that wisdom time and again because it reveals deep truth to me.  Our lives don’t need someone that can create out of nothing.   I think that way lies the foundations of an oppressive imperial theology that wants to cut it all down and sculpt the world in its own image.  That creation story endorses Missional imperialism.  We bring the blueprint for how it is supposed to be, and you have nothing to offer us.  Let’s make, or imagine, a nothing from which we can create that which is good.  The story of creation ex nihilo horrifies more than claims me.

My life is messy.  My tomorrow seems less than palatable on many fronts than my today.  A thousand tiny neglected threads making the canvas of my life seemingly unravel before me.  In the midst of that story, how powerful for me to hear and remember and take comfort in these words:

“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

How many times does this feel like our reality?  Our lives have become formless void… we are living in a darkness from which its hard to imagine hope.  Chaos seems to reign, and the wildness of that life puts our own lives at threat.  Hurricane. Forest fire.  A cresting river.  These are all signs of abundant life – too abundant for you and for me.  Literally and figuratively we know what it is live in the darkness of the deep where the forces at play in the world are about to blow apart our lives.  Chaff in the wind.

But God’s spirit is blowing over us too: we are not alone.

“Then God said, “Let there be light’”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from darkness.”

In this creation story, we are not only ‘not alone’ but God is in our corner.  God is coaxing up from the abundant powers of this world a sustainable abode for life.  God has “heard us in our distress” and rises to answer with creative activity.  Light, air, boundaried shores of much more static dry land… each in their turn is coaxed out of what already-is to create something good… something more livable, more productive, more unanticipated expectation filled with hope.  And no.. it is not ex nihilo nor even a solo project.  God continually invites creation, the beasts, and then us to help in the task of creating.  This is a group project – from the beginning, a group project about letting life emerge and discerning (separating out / naming and claiming) what is good.

And for this reason and many more, I find a theology of creation ex nihilo no longer helpful for me.  I’m not saying God cannot and did not do such a thing – who am I to claim such knowledge as all of that – but what I’m saying is that it is far more powerful in my life to attend to the witnessed claim that God continues to create from our messiness.  A story of God’s desire, participation, and power to work with creation, with the somethings that we already have that feel.. tattered, torn, and absent of hope. God did this, and God does this still.

God able to work with my baggage… and call it good?  That’s a powerful story I need to hear.  Every. Day.

You are God’s creation friend… you are your creation.  You are the creation of a thousand lives that have formed you in ways good and bad and everything in between.  But never forget… through all that tosses you about – you are not alone.  God is in your corner.  And God is coaxing up from the world of possibilities a place for you to feel… home.  Safe.  Loved.  Partnered.  Important… Good.

Thanks be to God.

There is No Death in God

“There is no Death in God”

Isaiah 11:1-9        Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15, 2:23-24

By Rev. Dr. Andrew Kukla

at First Presbyterian Church, Boise, ID

July 1, 2018

(the following sermon can also be viewed on YouTube by clicking this link here.)

We go from a very familiar text of “and a little child shall lead them” and “the lion shall lay down with the lamb” to this next text that I would bet almost none of you out there even know exists.  For sure you won’t find this in your pew Bible. This comes from The Wisdom of Solomon.  It’s in the Apocrypha which is part of the Catholic Bible but considered deuterocanonical. Duetero meaning second, so it literally means the 2nd canon.  It’s not scripture… but it’s the next closest thing.

The historian in me wants to tell you a little about where this is coming from so a bit of prelude to the reading.  When the Jews lived in diaspora, that is scattered from Israel throughout the Greek-speaking world, they circulated a Greek version of the Old Testament called the Septuagint.  It was added to it in circulation. The Catholic Church used the Septuagint in the formation of the Latin Vulgate and considers those added books to be the secondary canon and includes them in their Bibles in what we Protestants call the Apocrypha.  Protestant church stuck to the Masoretic text and the official Jewish canon in the Hebrew Bible. So we do not have, as second canon, such books as Bel and the Dragon, 1st and 2nd Maccabees, and Susanna.  And of course, the Wisdom of Solomon – or just Wisdom, from which we are reading today.

When Wisdom of Solomon came us an alternate reading in the lectionary I thought, “why not?” And in a moment, I think you will understand exactly why it came up to me, but before we go there a little more background.  This was probably written between 100 BCE – 50 BCE… it was among the diaspora Jews, it was written to a Greek world with very good Greek rhetoric to Greek-speaking Jews reminding them not to lose their Jewishness in this very Greek world.  Remember even Rome’s philosophy is Greek.  Greeks were the culture people and the language of the intellectual.  Rome was the great bureaucracy, but even Rome is Hellenized and part of the Greek roots of Western Civilization.  So, the author is writing about the value of staying true to the “wisdom of Solomon”, or the wisdom of their Jewish heritage, and not losing that to the Hellenized culture in which they live.  In that backdrop we read this, from chapters 1 and 2:

Because God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living.  For he created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them, and the dominion of Hades is not on earth. For righteousness is immortal. 

For God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it.

–Wisdom 1:13-15, 2:23-24

This is… a word akin to the Lord’s? Thanks be to God.

I mean, I don’t know what I’m supposed to say there – they don’t teach you that in seminary when you are reading something we don’t claim to be canonical.  That’ll have to do… a word akin to the Lord’s.

How does the Holy Spirit work?

We Presbyterians are not known for being Holy Spirit people.  We get skeptical of the Holy Spirit.  We like reason and rational thought.  We like science.  We are academic theologians… and we wear our clergy robes to reflect that.  So, what do we do with the Holy Spirit?

I remember when I first came here sitting with one of our members with coffee and he told me, “Andrew, I like going to church.  And I like coming here.  But I don’t go in for all that miracle stuff.”  He is a doctor, a scientist of a sort, and he was on board with me so long as I don’t get too mystical.  And for the most part, and most of the time, I would probably stay in line with that thought.  But for today – I just can’t avoid it.

The Holy Spirit is tying things together beyond my knowledge.  Carol just sang Amazing Grace for us.  For weeks upon weeks upon months, Carol was asking me to find a Sunday where she could sing that piece and it would be tied into what I was preaching.  And for weeks upon week upon months, Andrew didn’t do that… and she just picked a date.  But it’s the right date – the Holy Spirit picked this date.

If you looked ahead at the Affirmation of Faith, and who doesn’t look ahead at worship to see how long worship will go over…so, when you looked at it, you saw it and thought, “Oh no… Andrew put this one in again.  We did this last week too, and it didn’t work then so why does he have us doing it again?”  I used it last week because I thought it worked well with a nuance of the relationship between David and Saul but then I cut that part out of my sermon, so it didn’t relate at all.

But this week as I caught up in this idea of death not being a part of God’s will and purpose… and how awesome and fitting that the Affirmation of Faith speaks about the commandment not to murder as really about a commandment not to pursue vengeance and anger and the various emotions that lead to murder.  The Holy Spirit wanted me to keep that Affirmation of Faith even though I may have thought it was me that chose it.

If that freaks you out… I’m okay with that.  Because it freaks me out too.

The Wisdom of Solomon, which says some weird things that make me understand why it’s not in our Bible… also has put this very profound and important thought on my heart this week: that God has created everything for life, not death.  Everything.  For life.  Not death.

So God wills death… for nothing.  And if there is a more radical biblical strain of thought… I’m not sure what it is.  Even the biblical text struggles to keep that strain prevalent… that God does not will death for anything God created.  God desires death… for no-one… for no-thing.

I grew up in Wheaton, Illinois.  Most of you already know that… some of you have been to Wheaton.  Wheaton is the home to a strong evangelical Christian college.  And that feeds the culture of my hometown and one of the interesting things I have noted from that is that many of high school friends have – in rejecting that strict evangelical backdrop – rejected Christianity as a whole.  More than Christianity… they rejected God.  (Christianity and God not actually being synonymous.)

I was talking with one of my friends a couple years ago and she said she doesn’t believe in God because she doesn’t want God controlling her life… but her second and bigger issue (and certainly she is tapped into general complaint far bigger than her) is that God doesn’t kill bad people before they can harm good people.  Now for me, this is a fascinating argument.  You want freedom from God in your life… but you want God to control other people, so they don’t do bad things.  And… that doesn’t work.

That’s the rub.  We are all sure we are good… so we can be given full and free will.  But other people?  They aren’t trustworthy, so control and stop them.

I always want to be a father of daughters… which is good because I have three of them.  And I remember this moment when Elizabeth was young (before the other two were born) and we were at a playground.  And in the space of a moment I lived an entire lifetime – this happens to most parents I believe –an entire lifetime as if Elizabeth had been kidnapped when through my head.  And I could hear, literally hear, her screaming voice on the wind crying out for me and wondering why her dad doesn’t come and rescue her.  Look, I’m crying now recalling this and it never even happened. But I could feel like it was deeply true and if felt like I was living that horrible helpless despairing reality… and then I had this weird epiphany.  God is the creator of all that is… all life is from and of God. So, when any life is lost to God, God is hearing that voice on the wind crying, “rescue me.  save me.  Please!  Where are you God that you haven’t helped me?”

Anytime we bring harm to anyone God is hearing voices on the wind.  People we cannot even stand… are still voices on the wind.  People who appear anathema to God are STILL voices God hears on the wind saying, “rescue me… rescue me.”  And God’s heart breaks for them… because they are God’s.. and God wills no death for anything that has life.

Last night.  Violence erupted close to home.  9 people, 6 children, stabbed by a madman out of the night.  Their safety and celebration robbed and violated in an act that echoed violence that erupts and has erupted in our world time and again, over and over and over.  Voices on the wind for us… and for God.

The trained philosopher reacts to that moment by naming that people who want to close our borders or build high walls are making a very rational argument.  My philosophy professors in college always urged that in a debate we had to frame our opponents’ argument as they would make it.  Not the strawman argument.  Not hyperbole and a one-dimensional argument that is easy to refute.  But granting them the same nuance and complexity we give ourselves.  So I force myself to acknowledge that while I disagree with them on what is good and right to do, the person who wants to close down the border, build high walls, keep outsiders… outside, is make the more rational and logical argument.

It’s just not a biblical argument.

It is right to want to seek out safety.  What should Jesus have done on this night? (point to the set communion table) What should Jesus have done when he knew they were coming for him?  He should have run away… he should have locked the door.  He certainly shouldn’t tell Peter… put away your sword.

We are called, not to a rational way of life, but to a way of life that acknowledges that everyone and everything was created by God for life.  And that means that we are willing to put ourselves in jeopardy to foster life.  We put to rest violence and vengeance, we put rest hard-heartedness, we put to rest the idea that we seek safety at all cost.

I fail to do that.  I lock my door at night.  And I would tell you if someone off the street asks for a ride you should not put them in your car and drive them somewhere.  I literally failed to be “the good Samaritan” all the time in service to my own safety.  But when I make that argument I know that I’m failing my biblical calling. And somehow, we are called into that tension.  We are called to recognize that we are all, everything is all, God’s.  We either live for everyone, or we live against them.  And when we live against them… we live against God.

And I cannot do that…

But love the idea of it.  I need the idea of it.

I could not imagine what it is to hear the voices of millions of your children on the wind calling for help… but you cannot help them, because your other children don’t want them to be helped.

There is no death in God… even though we wish it.  And we do, we wish that God would deal death to those we see as opposed to God – those who ARE opposed to God…. but death is not of God.  And God wills no death for God’s creation.  God is radical, eternal, steadfast love.  God is life. We are not saved so much by the cross – a death – but the resurrection, a life.  And that life is stronger than death… and choosing to die in order to promote life… is the better part.

I cannot live that… without you… helping me to do that.  And the Holy Spirit helping to empower us all by lacing up these fragments like Amazing Grace and the weird Wisdom of Solomon and last nights horrific violence on our doorstep.  And tying them up in a single loving knot.  And saying its all related. It is all of me.  Love it. Love me.

This is the word of our Lord, thanks be to God.

 

 

Leading with Fragility

 There is a thing we call the Prosperity Gospel.  You know it, maybe not by that name, but you know it.  It’s a brand of Christianity that sells the idea that if you do the right things, pray the right way, and worship God… you will be rewarded with material success… you will “prosper”.  The Prosperity Gospel arose out of the ashes of WWII as an off-shoot of the revival movements, but truly came to fame with the Televangelists of the 1980s who were really good at having very white teeth, good hair, and telling people what they were hoping to hear.  And this tradition is alive and well in many guises of American religious culture today.

You have seen the story recently of a gentleman down south asking the supporters of his ministry to fund a new 54M dollar private jet to replace the third one they bought that their ministries have worn out preaching the gospel.  And I’m imagining that he will succeed one way or the other… because we buy-in for prosperity.

Peter Rollins, a favorite theologian, once remarked that we talk about the downturn of Christianity in the 21st century.  But that is a misnomer.  Christianity is still a billion dollar a year best-selling business.  At least… a certain type of Christianity is the type that gives people what they want and tells them what they want to hear.  They want a faith of absolute certainties given them from a strong righteous exemplary leader who promises them that faith is rewarded with material blessings and hard-working, Bible-believing, God-fearing people will become financially successful and live “blessed lives”.

That idea?  That idea can still fill football stadiums.

So, what’s the problem with that?  Jesus for one.  And today?  Paul for another.

In fact, the problem is actual bible reading Christianity.

Look closely with me at this description of our Christian lives from (slightly paraphrased) Paul’s letter to Corinth (2 Corinthians 4:6-12):

We are afflicted in every way… just short of being crushed;

Perplexed… but not driven all the way to despair;

Persecuted… but not left to rot alone;

struck down… but not out for the count;

always tangibly carrying in ourselves the death of Jesus,

so that the abundant life of Jesus may be visible in through us.

Paul makes this out to be of divine purpose… because God has chosen not to put God’s power in the strong and mighty – the palpably prospering – but in earthenware vessels, in that which markedly common and easily broken.  Mainly?  Us.

God did this literally in the incarnation as God revealed God’s self in the fully human (and very fragile infant) Jesus… God did this literally in turning Paul’s zeal to destroy the church into a passion for spreading it.  God continues to do this – literally – as God uses us to share God’s power and vitality in the world.  Not through our strength, but in fact, through our fragility… our struggles… our doubts.  God provides perseverance, not prosperity.  The gospel is not about overwhelming might – but persistent grit.  A light that won’t go out… but plenty of darkness it has to shine through.

This becomes, for Paul, more than simply a promise of gritty faith, but nothing less than the call to be willing to let our fragility be seen.  That we are willing to let God’s light shine forth from our brokenness… our failures… our struggles… our weakness… our doubt.

What?!?!?

I mean its bad enough God won’t take that all away.  God wants us to show people how messed up we are?? This is not filling football stadiums.  It’s not marketable… it’s a not a growth strategy.  This is foolishness.

But that’s how God has always worked… from Abraham to Moses… from Rahab to David facing Goliath…. From Jesus to fisherman disciples… God has always chosen the least and the lost not simply as the people to be saved (though surely we are all that)… but as the LEADERS of God’s saving power through the Gospel.  God’s transforming, gritty, freedom-granting gospel isn’t stored in mighty vaults and thick safes – or even 54 million dollar jets – its stored.. in us! Its made known through us. We house the very power of God and it spills out daily from the cracks in clay lives.

And while it’s easy to point fingers at TV evangelists and jet-strutting millionaires… this is also very much contrary to how we want to live.  We still want to put on our Sunday best.  We put on our Sunday best because then you don’t know that I didn’t make my bed this morning… and that at my house if you go around the side yard, out of the sight lines of the street, my grass goes from being 3 inches long to 13 inches… you don’t know that yesterday I took a two-hour nap in the afternoon so my kids didn’t end up getting to go to the park like they wanted.  If I put on my Sunday best I can cover up all that and I’m not perplexed, crushed, afflicted… barely keeping my head above water.  I look good.  And that is how we want to be seen by each other.

We preachers struggle mightily with this… we get caught in the trap of believing you need us to have it all together!  We are contractually obligated to be solid in our faith.  We imagine that our strength is necessary to keep other people strong.  Strong and unshaken.  We too are scared to model fragility.  And we excuse ourselves that struggle by claiming our leadership requires it.  We hide behind robes and liturgical furniture… and the office they represent, to keep from leading out of the very fragility Paul calls us to model.

So what would it this kind of leadership from fragility look like?  How do we take this kind of fragility from being a nice concept to something we can actually do???

I heard a great example of this during the past week.  I attended a training on how to work with children when someone they know is dying or very sick.  The trainer who works in family counseling told us not to “teach the kids” how to respond.

You need to work with the kids by modeling how to respond.  So you might say to the kids, ‘I keep getting emotional and find myself crying and I don’t even know why?  Why do I keep crying?  And I thought about it and realized its because I’m sad about what is happening with my dad and I don’t know if he is going to be ok.’ You don’t tell them how to respond, but lead with your fragility that gives them permission to be fragile as well.

And that, friends, is the gospel at work.  Strength through vulnerability.  Because when we are all fragile together we are very beautiful, and become very strong, and we can change the world.  One fragile risk after another, thanks be to God.


This post is an abridged version of a sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church, Boise, Idaho on June 3, 2018.  A video of the full sermon can be viewed here.

 

Everyday Fools: An Easter Sermon

Sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Andrew Kukla at First Presbyterian Church, Boise, Idaho on Easter Sunday, April 1st, 2018.  You can find the video of the sermon here



Mark 16:1-8

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ 8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.


 

It doesn’t happen very often that April Fool’s Day is on Easter…. And when I saw this one coming I groaned.  I told myself – we are going to see a lot of bad Good Friday into Easter jokes about “Jesus died… April fool’s: he’s alive.”

And as a pastor, I will admit I become a bit of a grumpy old man about telling the story wrong… take for instance last night.  Someone shared a funny text story about Easter morning.  It was a video tracking a group text conversation from the women at the tomb.  Mary begins, “He’s gone.”  And then the disciples say, “Who’s gone?”  Mary, “Jesus.”  And then all respond about how they know its hard to believe he did die.  That it is real.  They too want to imagine its wrong… and she has to interrupt them and say they aren’t getting what she means, his body is missing from the tomb.  And I laughed at the interplay until…  I saw that one of the “disciples” in the group text was Paul.  And I literally stopped watching.  Seriously?  I mean, come on people. Paul doesn’t come into this story for another ten or fifteen years at best.  He wouldn’t have been in this text chain, you can’t mess that up! Get the story right.

So, when it comes to April Fool’s and Jesus death, I would have to call foul yet again.  Because… here is the thing: Jesus really did die.  The only April Fool’s, as we noted last week, was Palm Sunday – when Jesus allowed them to believe for a moment that he was coming to be crowned the new King of the Jews – the next David here to kick out the Romans.  That was the April Fool’s joke… but Jesus death was all too real. So real in fact that the women aren’t at all prepared to hear good news.

Jesus was dead, dead, dead… and worse yet they couldn’t even give him a full and proper burial.

In the Jewish way of reckoning a day, each day begins at sunset.  Jesus dies as the night falls and the sabbath has begun… so they don’t have time to do the full rites and they basically grab a bunch of those car air fresheners – you know the little trees that dangle from your rearview mirror – and lay his body in a tomb with them to await proper burial.  Our text began early in the morning on the first day of the week after the sabbath was over and they going to bury him.  They are going to get their closure.

And… he’s not there.

Talk about your frustrations upon frustrations, failures building on failures, despair constantly finding you a new and even lower low than what you previously thought was the worst things can get.  First y,ou imagined a coronation parade and final rise to power for the King of the Jews… and instead J,esus starts up again about dying and tearing down the temple and… then one of his best friends betrays him.  He gets arrested.  Another of his bff’s denies that he even knows him so that he doesn’t get swooped up in the house cleaning of this religious and political revolution… the crowds turn on Jesus too, and before anyone can wrap their heads around these multiple betrayals… Jesus is beaten, falsely tried, convicted… and killed in the most shame filled way possible.

Imagine being his mother in that moment.

Imagine asking to see the body and she cannot.  “No, we have sealed him away.”  Can you imagine spending a day – a day of worship even, a day of sabbath in which you can do nothing but sit in the knowledge that Jesus had died.  Your child, your friend, your savior, your Lord… the one whom you had turned your entire life over to… is dead.  An entire day spent worshiping the death of hope.

And now.  Now that they finally get to go cry over his body and find closure and reality to all of this… the body is gone.  And you know what?  They cannot believe it.  And its not even surprising to me that they cannot – I wouldn’t, I don’t, believe it either.  Told Jesus is alive… they shut down, they run away, and they tell no one.  Because.  The resurrection isn’t real to them: they are unable to imagine it.  So, in this resurrection story, we see and hear and experience no Jesus.  The end.  The story dies with their fear…

Sometimes we just aren’t ready to hear good news.

Last night I was, well cooking hotdogs if you want to know, and I was texting with my family.  My family has been through a rough couple of years – not all that different than the story of the Mary’s – every time it feels like we might get some good news we find a new low, and its not just my family, I know many of you are going through similar things.  And then we look around at our country and we see division, death, and death and division over how we solve the problems of death and division… and I don’t see how Easter is possible. I texted my family “I don’t feel Easter…”  Maybe the Gospel of Mark in our lectionary cycle had Spirit timing for me. I feel like I need to just sit in good Friday for longer, the world feels far more Good Friday to me than Easter, so how do you get up in front of a bunch of people who came to hear “He is Risen… he is risen indeed”… when you aren’t sure its true or real, or that it is the prevailing truth of our lives.  I’m not in the mood for Easter.

And then, standing over my grill last night it occurs to me… that is exactly when Easter gets proclaimed.

We don’t need Easter if everything is going well.

We don’t’ need Easter if Jesus doesn’t die.

We don’t need Easter if Rome isn’t a problem.

We don’t need Easter if there aren’t hungry people on the street.

We don’t need Easter if there aren’t people who can’t get housing.

We don’t need Easter if we already are living together in peace and harmony.

We don’t proclaim Easter if everything is ok.

Easter is Easter, Resurrection is Resurrection, because what we expect when we walk into the tomb is that everything we care about is dead or dying.

 

In First Corinthians, the Apostle Paul… (this is real pick me up sermon isn’t it?  If you are a Christmas and Easter person who chose to come here today you came the wrong Easter) “For the message about the cross,” Paul writes, “is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ … God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation (of Mary and Mary and Salome’s proclamation…), to save those who believe…. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

This is no April Fool’s joke.  It is an everyday fools’ joke.  For we are those called to follow in the way of the one who is mocked as a king on a cross… and three days later became a king in a way we can’t even believe.  We are called to be people of a proclamation that is so unbelievable that the people who are in the best position to believe it went home and told no-one… because they were afraid.

What a fool, God, to trust us with such a story.

What a fool, us, to trust and imagine that God has really done it.

And yet, both are true.

Somewhere between their frozen fear and doubt.  Those women did tell the story.  How do I know?  Because I know.  I mean, you know the story, I know the story, we didn’t need to read the story.  We already knew the story because they DID tell the story.  Just not at that moment.  If they had persisted in telling no one then we wouldn’t know the story today, the great story, the great mystery of faith: that Christ has died, Christ rose, Christ will come again.  They did tell that story.  They just had to marinate in the death and doubt and fear a little longer… because, like me, they just weren’t ready for Easter.  Like us, they couldn’t imagine that God’s weakness could be that world changing powerful.

The corollary to “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again” is this:

We couldn’t believe, we came to believe anyway, and that belief can change the world.

We are called to be God’s everyday fools.

In the mid-60s of the common era, A.D. for those of you who went to high school before the ‘90s., in the 60’s there was a Jewish uprising against Rome.  The very one people hoped Jesus was starting on Palm Sunday.  They rose up to use violence, tools of war, and nationalistic pride to throw down Rome and become a sovereign nation again… do you know that story?  I imagine you do not.  Its left to folk like me, historians of forgotten times and places to know such stories.  And what happened?  Rome did not fall.  Rome returned in all its terrible power of death and destruction.  They put them to the sword, tore down the Temple, and dashed their dreams.

You cannot defeat empires using their weapons.

You cannot defeat death by dealing out death faster than the next person.

But long after Rome was only a dream… we are still telling this Easter story.  This story that was so unbelievable so impossible and so.. foolish.  This foolish story that empowered the few remaining followers of Jesus to change the world.  A story that for nigh on to 2,000 years people have lived out so that others who are experiencing oppression have had people come alongside them and witness that life is stronger than death and the empires of this world will come and go but God’s kingdom will stand true.

Christians went into plague towns and tended the ill – and they lost their lives for it – but they had found something worth dying over: life and love.  And the story traveled, here are a people who are willing to die alongside you because they are so foolishly in love with abundant life they KNOW it transcends death.

When the Roman Empire was decaying and falling apart Christianity was one of the things Rome turned to in order to try to re-bind their people together.  The very empire that tried to destroy it, now tried to use it to save its life.

When the Church is true to its calling it is God’s sign to the world of what God’s kingdom is called to be and we reject violence as an answer to promote life, we seek justice as the sum of our being, and we trust that love can turn around any heart – no matter how hardened.

And when we do that we proclaim that he is risen, he is risen indeed.  We proclaim resurrection – that life can come up from places of death.  We reject making the world a tomb and make it a testament to life.

 

For this he died.  For this he rose. For this he will come again:

that life is a better way of life than death.  And love makes the world turn.

For this he died. For this he rose. For this he will come again:

To proclaim that he is risen.  He is risen indeed.  And we will too.

 

This is the word of our Lord, thanks be to God.

Offering Our Whole Selves

“Offering Our Whole Selves”

A sermon by Rev. Dr. Andrew Kukla

January 14, 2018

 

1 Samuel 3:1-9

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.  2At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.  4Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” 5and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. 6The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” 7Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.  9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

1 Samuel 3:10-20

10Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”  11Then the Lord said to Samuel, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle. 12On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. 13For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. 14Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”

15Samuel lay there until morning; then he opened the doors of the house of the Lord. Samuel was afraid to tell the vision to Eli. 16But Eli called Samuel and said, “Samuel, my son.” He said, “Here I am.” 17Eli said, “What was it that he told you? Do not hide it from me. May God do so to you and more also, if you hide anything from me of all that he told you.” 18So Samuel told him everything and hid nothing from him. Then he said, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.”

19As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. 20And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.

—-

The first text (more truly the first half of the single text) that we read today is likely to be quite familiar to you.  We like that text.  It speaks truths we already wished to claim before we ever opened the book to read– it confirms our hopes.  We wish to celebrate youth, the importance of a child’s role, AND the ideal of a dutiful student focused on every word of both his master and his Lord with syrupy sweet attention.  Samuel is the kid you wished was your child, and we celebrate his readiness, his innocence, and the steadfast faith of his statement, “here I am, ready to listen and obey”.

But… then we stop.  Traditionally by lectionary reading or personal choice, the first verse of our second reading is where we end: Samuel – now knowing its God, not Eli, calling him – proclaiming his intent to hear the Lord’s word to him.

But that word the Lord gives him, we would rather not listen.  We don’t want to travel to the stories vision… it does nothing for our preconceived hopes and dreams and opinions and so…we simply stop reading.  This innocent boy, the fulfillment of his mother Hannah’s heart-wrenching hope to have a child and now given to the priesthood, has come into that role in a time of great transition and not-just-a-little messy internal political drama.

Eli has been told previously that his unwillingness to curb his son’s philandering and abuse of priestly power, his “keep the peace” mentality with his sons, has profaned the name of God and that cannot be tolerated to go on anymore and so the High Priest Eli’s household must be removed from office to make way for one who will restore prophetic integrity to the office.

Basically – Eli and his household are going to die.

Samuel is now told this same thing.  It’s like getting your dream job, the one you have been training for since BEFORE you were born, but you will only get it because your only friend in the world, your father figure whose household you grew up in, and the mentor and teacher, is getting fired in the harshest way possible.  You don’t get excited about that – the way you get the job negates the joy before it even starts… and Samuel is petrified, lying awake all the night and morning terrified of what he will say when his master asks him what the Lord had to say in the morning.

How often have you laid awake on just such a night?  How often have you found yourself weighing your words?  What questions are running through your head:

Did I hear right?  Do I tell him?

How would I tell him? Do I hold some of it back?

Do I weaken how sure I am that this is going to happen?

What will he do to me?  Is it even safe to tell him?

 

In April of 1963 the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized a joint series of sit-ins and marches against racism and segregation in Birmingham, Alabama.  Throughout the rallies it was a group of dedicated, trained, and non-violent protests to blatant oppressive injustice and, predictably Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as many others ended up in jail.  This was not a surprise to Dr. King.  What came as a shock to him was one of the things that happened next.

A letter was issued a week later by a group of eight clergymen who agreed that social injustice existed but argued against the protests and “King’s methods” of non-violent protests with what they called “A Call for Unity”.  Their newspaper letter’s call for unity centered on the sense that King’s protests, while non-violent, caused violence and undue hast to change the acknowleged oppressioin.  They urged him to slow down the move to justice and give the oppressor time to get comfortable with it all… as if the last hundred years wasn’t enough time.  This spurred the writing of one of my favorite pieces of literature: Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham jail in response to them.  He wrote it, first on the edges of the newspaper article, and latter on paper the guards were allowed to give hm.  I read the letter every year at this time and it timely matches up with Samuel and Eli’s story… and with our call to prophetic integrity.  I recommend you read it in whole but here are two paragraphs that hit me particularly this year:

 

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime—the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

(…continuing further in the letter…)

 There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide. and gladiatorial contests.

 

King is incensed at the idea that we would see injustice and stand-by… or ever worse, publicly cry out to people to stop pushing for justice and righteousness because the oppressors “need more time” to get comfortable with idea of abdicating their unjust power and control.  For King – the Church is nothing if not the body of individuals called to root out injustice everywhere.  And hard word or not – it is our obligation as those called to the way of Jesus Christ to preach the gospel at all times.  No matter how Samuel wants to answer that lists of questions that worries him in the night the answer is made clear by none other than Eli himself, who must know what is coming – God had previously told Eli through another unnamed prophet that it was going to happen eventually.  Eli knew his mistakes and furthermore for all his mistakes and failings he makes a great teacher in this moment.  His message: don’t do what I did, Samuel, don’t be a bystander to injustice.  Be an upstander to the powers and principalities when they make our neighbors into less-than-human fodder to their whims and plans.  Tell the whole truth and nothing by the truth, for all your days.

And he does.

Samuel stands as the last the judges and the first of the non-literary prophets.  He stands as an example of all time one who would stand up and not let his words fall to the ground (unspoken) in the interest of “calls to unity” but would give his whole self, the truth as he saw it, regardless of how that might make himself and others uncomfortable.  In a world – as the text says – without vision.  Samuel trained in seeing, hearing, and speaking.  And we must do no less.

We must answer Eli’s charge to Samuel, and Dr. King’s charge to the generation that came before us and set aside our comfort in the name of extreme love and justice.  We must be prophetic in our ministry or our ministry has lost its vision, its purpose, and any point at all.

Here we are, speak Lord, for your servants are ready to listen.

This is the word of the Lord, thanks be to God.

Kukla Christmas Letter 2017

Kukla Christmas Letter 2017

Greetings from the Boise Kuklas!

Its that time of year – I sit down and decide I cannot delay the Christmas letter one more day (though last year I wrote it on the 22nd so apparently, I actually COULD delay one more day this year).  But since I am not, let’s move along already…

19029548_10210793992820284_3097936953609860497_n

Boise Kukla Family Picture 2017

Warren is running cross country, playing soccer (a little less this year but still his favorite), preparing to explore Track and Field, on the Science Bowl team (and loving science in general) … and he is playing in three different bands both alto and tenor saxophone.  The kid keeps himself busy but mostly he is relishing the diversity of middle school and all that it offers.

Elizabeth continues to play soccer and piano, but I think her true love is theater – she writes, directs, set-designs, and performs all manner of home theater productions.  She is also the mother of the house and every bit as capable of running it as Caroline and probably quite a bit more so than me.  She had some strong opinions about the 2 months it took me to actually fix the light in her room.

Meredith is doing gymnastics and violin, and quite happy to be a hermit.  She has an incredible self-reliant streak to her and a force of will without equal (and that’s saying a lot in any branch of the Kukla family).  My favorite memory of Mere’s year is when night rolls in and its pre-sleep reading time she picks about a dozen books… and she will read every single one of them if you let her.

Danielle is playing soccer and watching her is like listening to The Flight of the Valkyries.  She is ready for kindergarten, and we are really ready for her to be in an environment that will tire her out more. (No, I’m not joking. REALLY ready.)  This is a year of willfulness (alongside her exuberant joy).  The whole family is committed to breaking her will… er, was that comment too real?

photo hermione grangerCaroline and I are plugging along.  I knew in early fall that I was going to work too much this next “program year” and Caroline has handled that with flying colors – how she keeps the household running, the kids at everything on time (actually we have maintained being that family that gets places early somehow – a credit to Caroline), homework done and tests studied for (gotta love spelling lists), working full-time still at Allstate, and volunteering in multiple places… I don’t know.  Maybe she has one of those time turners like Hermione Granger.  Maybe it’s Maybelline.  Mostly I think its just that she is awesome and I’m grateful to be partnered with her in all things.

So as this winds down what I find myself reflecting on this year is responsibility, hope, interconnectedness, gratitude… inputs and outputs.

Not one of us is a product of ourselves.  Every single one of us is who we are because of people around us, investments that have been made in us by family, friends, community, government, creation as a whole that feeds and breathes us (flashes poetic license to avoid being arrested by the grammar police).  We often say phrases like “it takes a village”.  And that is when we think about how we raise a child.  But today I’m thinking about how that means we are beholden to a village.  Thousands (millions) of people past and present (and plenty still to come) have done things that have gone into forming who we are and what we know and what we capable of doing.  We have been invested in by members of this thing called life.  Inputs into our very make-up from soccer coaches and music teachers, playground companions and your annoying little brothers, the street sweeper, the mail carrier, and the police officer.  People all over the place are making efforts on your behalf, and while we carry no literal debt to them… we are indebted to them.  Family, friends, teachers, co-workers, neighbors, strangers.  The multitudes of hosts – earthy and heavenly – who have helped input into us our character, skills, and the very stuff of life.

So, what do we with all of them?  Given all that input… what are our outputs? Given all that people have done – seen and unseen, knowing and unknowingly, on accident and with intentionality – how are we grateful and how do we live from that gratitude as actions (our outputs) become their inputs?

This is what I think about… because in three days I will celebrate a child who is born among us.  A child I will call God-with-us whose life is ENTIRELY dependent upon us.  And whether or not you make that same faith claim at the beginning of that thought, we all have to make that claim at the end of the thought.  Life depends on us, as much as we depend on life.  In all its myriad facets and factions and fascinating interconnections: we are all both deeply in debt to life and deeply responsible for fostering it.  And in and through that all is woven gratitude.  So this is what I reflect on as something of my “grown-up Christmas wish”.

I am grateful for my village – and my children’s village.  I am grateful for you.  May I choose in this year to come to live from that gratitude for you and with you.

Merry Christmas to all – and to all… a good year.

Grace and Peace,

Andrew and The Boise Kuklas

 

 

Me Too

Actually… no.  But yes.

If you are like me you have seen a lot of statuses popping up saying Me Too.  They are from women acknowledging that they too have been sexually harassed or abused.  The idea behind the viral trend is to help demonstrate the extent of the problem.  Each of us might define that problem differently but as I hear/see/understand it the problem is this: a ubiquitous sense that is ok for the male gender to treat women as sexual objects.  The women, across the spectrum of race, culture, social status, economic class, and gender heteronormativity have experienced abuse and objectification by males who think its ok… its normal… its men being men, to see women as sex objects.

As I watched the Me Too’s begin to spread I will admit… I wasn’t on board.  I don’t mean I didn’t agree with them.  I need no convincing.  I agree (heartbreakingly) that this is almost universally true.  I am not in the least surprised about the extent of the “me too” and I’m not a doubter that men behave/think this way.  I’m a white, heteronormative male who doesn’t largely like what society makes (and has allowed) it mean to be a white, heteronormative male.  I think we generally are possessive, objectifying, entitled, narcissistic… because our culture has taught us that this is what it means to be a white heteronormative male.  Though in this case, I could collapse this to simply be: male.  And I think we men are good at not hearing what we don’t want to hear.  Whether that is my wife telling me to bring the laundry down when I come to dinner… or marginalized society telling us its past time to work toward a more just status quo.

I didn’t agree with the Me Too then, not because I don’t share the sentiment, but because I didn’t see it accomplishing anything, and certainly not accomplishing its objective (if I have, in fact, correctly named at least the primary objective).  Those who want to toss it off as “overly sensitive women” would still do so no matter how many times they see “me too”.  Those who want to imagine it’s the problem of a “few bad apples” will still imagine that most men don’t do this and the “me too” is making a mountain out of a molehill.  Those who want to cite cultures who have the problem worse than our own will still use that to excuse our own sin.  And those who have found counter-examples will still use counter-examples (a female teacher who sexually abused a student… a girl who used sexuality to “skirt” accountability… and, of course, the decades-old “I’m being oppressed because I’m a man” when they take away all my unfair abusive power) to make it so they don’t have to acknowledge that all those things being true, it is still ALSO true that we have a cultural issue of male possession of women.

I was already debating writing these things down and sharing my thoughts and perspectives… but then I thought, no.  No-one cares.  No-one will change their mind.  I will simply get in another round of arguments with people not willing to see what they do not want to see.  There is no point.  I realized in that moment (and not for the first time) that I’m overly cynical.  I called myself that in my head while driving into work this morning… and then prepared to move on to my day already overly filled with last week’s checklists.  And then… I came across this on Facebook.  Tacked onto a “me too” declaration:

My Facebook feed is full of “Me too.”

Yes, I have been sexually harassed on and off, in professional contexts, since I was in college. In my self-understanding, I distinguish that harassment from sexual abuse, which I have never had to endure, and so I find myself deeply saddened by the indications of that suffering. Also, deeply angry-frustrated: is there a word for that?

I have learned in the fight against racism that white people committed to justice must teach white people, rather than expecting people of color to forever be teaching me, bearing that burden. Racism will not go away because of people of color – we white people need to dismantle our oppressive systems, especially those of us who are disciples of Christ.

Likewise, men must teach men. Men must hold other men accountable for behavior. It is the good men I am talking to here, the ones who have been shocked by the presumption of other men who have harassed me when they have heard my story and believed me. This means rocking the boat and finding ways to do it fruitfully. And it will take rocking the boat: the calmness of the current sea depends on submerging the damaging experience of so many women (and men as well) who have been hindered, impaired, stifled by the notion that it is ok, when one has power, to turn another person into a mere object to which one can do anything. The seas will get rougher before they become tranquil: not just on the surface, but deep down.

 

These words, from Michelle Bartel, hit me and I realized – cynicism be damned – I would write my thoughts anyway.  And I will use another popular post going on to demonstrate one of the ways I see the problem.

There is a comedic post about a lifehack to decide if you are about to sexually harass a female.  The trick is to replace (in your mind) that female with Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson (a former football player, professional wrestler, action movie star, and maybe future politician) and decide if its something you would say to him.  If you think it would get you squashed…. don’t say/do it.  The post is humorous.  I laughed at it even while it made me uneasy.  It is funny, but the thought behind it IS the problem.  For some people to see the problem we need to turn a woman into a man – as if only a man has enough worth to be treated correctly.  Seriously? No.  And not into your sister, your daughter, or your mother either.  You do not need to become an overprotective father to learn that sexual abuse of women is problematic.  We do not need any of those to know that objectifying a person is wrong.  Presuming a female wants to be your sexual object is wrong.  Living in the illusion that she can’t help but find your unwanted advances complimentary are wrong.  Not taking no – even and particularly an ambiguous no – as NO, is wrong.  Imaging that an initial yes that became a no still means yes is wrong.  Using power and privilege to put her in a compromised (doing something she would not otherwise be willing to do) position is wrong.  Blaming a person for “enticing” you to act boorishly is wrong.

And yes, it would be wrong to do all these things to a man too.   But mostly, we already get that.  So stop it.  Take responsibility.  Force others to take responsibility.  And stop treating women as “less than”, and as objects, and as causes of your misbehavior.  This shouldn’t be a hard sell.  But it has proven so… for millennia.  Its woven into the fabric of our sacred stories, our political myths, and our “family values”.  Its reinforced by the seemingly benign practices, and rituals, and traditions… and we need to root them out and let them go.

I ask you then to do this: pay attention.  Pay deep, reflective, non-defensive attention.  That is hard.  But it is necessary.  We need to become diagnosticians of our behavior and messages to each other.  We need to learn the harmful (intentional and unintentional) consequences of those behaviors.  And then we need to change them.  And changing them requires that we change them in our own hearts, minds, words, and actions – and in our neighbors because that is the only way to systemically dismantle oppressive structures.

We do not do this work because we don’t like our society, our culture, our traditions, our way of being.  We do this work exactly because we love all these things and we need to separate out from them the insidious fabric of harm.  And to say its past time to get this done is the understatement of all understatements.  So….

Me too.

The Other Goodbye: A Pastor’s Lament