Tuesday, June 30, 2009

To be perfectly honest

This past Sunday we celebrated the Affirmands--and their "graduation" from the Affirmation program. It was quite a wonderful worship service which they helped plan and write and lead. What follows is the sermon I preached that day -- based on Mark 5:24-34.

Several years ago, a good friend of mine told me this story that she heard from her friend about these friends who were friends of her friend… So what’s that…like 5-6 degrees of separation? 3rd party information and a half…? But anyway… As I heard it, this young couple had a 5 year old daughter when the mom gave birth to their second child. This was kind of your typical American family, loving, caring, hard working, probably not that different from you, except that they didn’t really go to church, they weren’t religious people at all. But, almost as soon as they brought the new baby home from the hospital, the 5 year old started asking the parents if she could spend some time alone with the baby. The parents asked why and the little girl said she just wanted to talk. Well, of course these parents had read enough books about sibling jealousy when babies are born to be a little freaked out by this…so they gave her all kinds of excuses and kept trying to distract the 5 year old from this idea, but nothing worked. The little girl kept asking. Finally, the parents figured out how they could give the girl what she wanted without putting the baby in danger. They hooked up the baby monitor and let their 5 year old go into the room with the baby by herself while the baby lay in her crib. And then they listened in on the monitor from the other room, ready to run to the rescue if they needed to. And as the little girl went into the room and stood next to the crib this is what the parents head her say to the baby, “Please, tell me about God. I’m starting to forget.”

Who knows whether this story is true. And it may raise all kinds of red theological flags for you if you’re a person who is into those sorts of things. But there is a truth here that resonates with me all the same: our kids know a lot about God from the word “Go.” Our kids have wisdom that we in our years of life experience, in our culturally conditioned, well-coifed, well schooled, pulled together lives have sometimes lost. They have a lot to teach us, if we’re willing to listen. If we’re willing to be taught.

So as much as anything, as I’ve led Alaina, Anna, Burnley, Megan, Hannah, Clarke, Lauren and McKenzee in Affirmation this year, I’ve tried to be attentive. I’ve tried to listen. Not just to the words they say. But to everything between the words. And to what God may be trying to show me through them.

Of course, one of the things I’ve noticed is they have the ability to play at the drop of a hat. To do things with abandon—if you have any doubt about that, just leave them alone with a can of whipped cream. They also care deeply. And ask questions. They question practically everything in fact. From why we’re sitting at a table for the discussion time to why there’s hell.

Another thing I’ve noticed about them and I’m learning from them is about being honest. These guys can be searingly honest.

Which brings me to our lectionary reading for today from Mark’s gospel. Mark tells us a story about Jesus encounter with an un-named woman who is ill and needs healing. It’s a little story stuck within another story—Jesus was on his way to heal the daughter of Jairus, a rich important man who came to Jesus begging for him to save his dying daughter, when he runs into this woman, a woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years. She wasn’t someone rich and important--she was poor, at the very least, because—as the Bible tells us--she’d spent all her money on doctors. But the doctors hadn’t helped. Nothing had helped. And the thing is, she wasn’t only hurting physically. From what we know about the Jewish law she was living under, a woman who was bleeding was considered unclean. And was supposed to stay away from others so she wouldn’t make them unclean as well. So according to the good church-going people of her day, she was an outcast. She couldn’t go to the temple. She couldn’t meet friends for shopping at the market, or hang out with them for coffee, or go to parties or watch her kids plays sports. She was pretty much stuck at home alone, isolated, in hiding.

So for her to be out in a crowded public place was probably a rarity. And possibly quite brave. The consequences of making someone else unclean could have been quite harsh—some commentary I read said stoning might not have been out of the question. But this woman had heard about Jesus and because she still had a shred of hope for healing, because she was desperate to be let out of solitary confinement, she took a chance, took the risk to be seen. To be touched.

But she wasn’t crazy. She still tried to be a little unobtrusive, you know. She had way too much shame and too much fear, and too much of an instinct for self-preservation to approach Jesus directly. So what she does is blend in, she gets close enough, in the midst of the pushing shoving crowd to touch Jesus, to just, you know, happen to brush the fringe of his robe. Or more likely the fringe of his prayer shawl, the prayer shawl that all good Jewish men of the time wore.

And when she did, with that touch, her bleeding stopped. She felt it in her body. She knew it. Just like that, physically she was totally healed.

Which could have been the end of the story. The woman could have come in secret, been healed in secret, trotted off back to regular life, no one any the worse for the wear. And since Jesus sometimes told people he healed not to tell anyone else about it, you’ve got to wonder, why didn’t he do that this time? Why didn’t he just let it go? He was in a hurry, trying to save a little girl. Why stop and make a big deal of this?

But he did. He did make a big deal. He calls the woman out. He asks who touched him. He asks whoever touched him to step forward and be honest, he challenges the woman to be open about her shame and her need and her disease. And with fear and trembling the woman does come out of hiding, does step forward. Expecting who knows what? More shame? More humiliation? More isolation? Maybe a big huge rock thrown at her?

Of course that’s not what she gets is it? Jesus calls attention to her, yes, but he calls attention to her faith, calls attention to her willingness to risk everything, calls attention to her honesty…after all, she could easily have said, “Touched you? Who me?” and quietly walked home, cured. But she didn’t. She came out of hiding. And Jesus calls her “Daughter.” And he blesses her and tells her to go in peace.

Mostly when I’ve heard this story discussed or preached on, the emphasis is on this woman’s faith. Faith in Jesus power to heal her. And she certainly did have faith. A lot of faith. But not only did she have faith that Jesus could heal her. What I was struck with, reading the scripture this time, reading it after spending the better part of a year with this Affirmation group, was that she had faith that she could be honest with Jesus about who she really was and he wouldn’t shame her or reject her or stone her or send her away.

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t always had that kind of faith. The faith that I could be honest, about who I really am, that I didn’t have to pretend to be someone a little more together, a little more knowledgeable, a little more spiritual, a little more perfect, a little more unquestioning. Sometimes in fact, I got the message that I shouldn’t be anywhere close to honest and to be perfectly honest, the place where it seemed like I heard that message the most was from the Church, from the lovely little body of Christ, from Jesus’ representatives here on earth.

Growing up going to a small Baptist Church, we had nothing like this Affirmation program. We were told to accept Christ as our personal savior, get baptized, go to Sunday School and worship services, read the Bible, pray and evangelize, but we weren't taught to think about faith. We did however have the Girl's Auxiliary. Or GAs for short. A program in which 14 and 15 year old girls would spend several months memorizing scriptures and learning about Southern Baptist missionaries and about how to be a good Christian girl and how to become a good Christian woman and at the conclusion of the program, there would be a special ceremony in which the girls recited some “Important Bible Verses” while wearing a long, white gown, and at the end of it all, would get crowned Queen, for their troubles. Mostly what I remember of that experience is that I did fine at the memorizing, it was like passing another test in school. You know…how you memorize stuff for the test and then forget it the day after? And I also remember that the burgeoning feminist in me was totally appalled by the whole "wearing a wedding dress and getting crowned Queen" ceremony. While another part of me was desperately unhappy because I looked so fat and ugly and stupid in the dress and everyone else looked so much prettier.

But nowhere throughout this process, were we encouraged or even allowed to be honest about our faith journey. To be truthful about our struggles. To be open about our thoughts and feelings. We were provided with a nice little mold we were supposed to fill—like those plaster casts of Jesus hands clasped in prayer we used to make in Vacation Bible School. We were taught what a Christian looked like and sounded like and prayed like and talked like, and we were taught that if we couldn’t conform to this picture, we had best go quietly on our way. Or risk getting big huge rocks thrown at us.

The Mentors and Affirmands (who I must admit, I started calling the Mentos) recently spent a full day together in our final retreat of the Affirmation program, talking about our spiritual journeys, talking about our year together and thinking about this worship service. On this day, the Mentos also shared the projects that they’ve been working on this year, as a way of reflecting on their faith journey so far. They wrote songs, they made art, they interviewed people, they made movies, one of them even made a ppt presentation. Not the kind you’re used to seeing at work with thousands of bullet points and unreadable charts and graphs. No this is ppt used for good and not evil. You’ve already heard one of the songs which was written for an Affirmation project. Another song is coming up along with that that ppt presentaion And you’ll also have a chance to see all of the projects during coffee hour today over in Room 100 of Cornerstone.

But on that Saturday retreat, as the kids presented their projects to the whole Affirmation group I have to admit, I was practically in tears after each one. OK, that’s not really true. I was actually in tears. Because the projects these guys created each had so much heart in them, they each had put so much of themselves in them… They were all so different. And they were each so truthful. In these projects the kids were open about their questions. They were truthful about their difficulties understanding what it means to follow Jesus. Truthful about their ambivalence. About not liking church so much all the time, even. They were also honest about their passions, about what moves them. What gets them up in the morning. And they were honest about where they are experiencing God’s grace and presence in their lives.

And when we talked that day about this service, that’s what the Affirmands said they wanted to make sure came through, loud and clear—that’s one of the things they wanted to affirm today: their belief that God wants them to be honest on this journey of faith—honest about their joys and their struggles, honest about what they believe and about their doubts, honest about what they know and honest about their questions, honest about who they really are.

Rght about now, you may be thinking, that’s all well and good Lenora—honesty, who isn’t for honesty. But how much honesty is too much? As we all know, and parents especially know, people can sometimes be too honest. Especially kids, right. Haven’t we all been with young children when they’ve said something that made you cringe. Like you’re in the check out line in the grocery store and they say Mommy why does that man have such a big nose? Or Daddy, why does that lady draw her eyebrows on? Little kids are not hardwired to be good at keeping secrets either. Once when I had a birthday coming up when Hannah was 5 or 6, I was joking with Hannah and asking if they had gotten me a present. And she said Yes. Then she was quick to add, “But it’s not a grill.” Surprise, surprise I did get a grill that birthday—one of those George Foreman electric grills, which Gary had strictly instructed Hannah not to tell me about.

So yes, too much honesty CAN be a dangerous thing. It can be rude. It can keep your from being liked by your peers, it can keep you from fitting in. It can keep people from being surprised on their birthdays. So we try to teach our children to be Mostly honest. To sort of be who they are. And to say what they think and what they feel, sure, but at the right time, in the right situations, with the right people. We teach them to be careful about being too honest.

But I wonder if maybe, just maybe, as adults, our honesty meters are a little too tightly wound, a little too sensitively tuned. They are set too close to the Reveal Nothing end of the scale versus the Say Anything end. With the result that we keep things nice and polite and surfacey with most people and end up in a kind of solitary confinement of our own. We don’t talk too loudly about our sorrows, or our fears, we don’t tell how much money we make, or don’t make, we don’t talk about what we’re doing with our sexuality or admit to our feelings of inadequacy at work or in our marriages or in our child rearing. We don’t talk about our addictions, we remain quiet about our losses, our deep pain. We also sometimes keep quiet about our faith or lack thereof—with people who aren’t so religious we sometimes have a hard time admitting to the depth of our belief. With our friends in the church we sometimes have trouble being open about the depth of our doubts, the amount of our questions.

And we hold back the truth about ourselves because we’re scared, like the woman in Mark’s story, we’re scared of being shamed and humiliated, of being treated as even more of an outcast, or maybe even getting stones thrown at us. We hold back because we want to fit in or if we can’t fit in, we at least would like to blend in. We hold back revealing who we really are because we want to keep everyone happy, and keep conflict at a minimum. We hold back because we believe we will only be loved if we do what’s expected of us, if we look a certain way, act a certain way, believe a certain way, smell a certain way.

When Anne Lamott’s novel Crooked Little Heart came out 12 or more years ago she was touring and I went to a reading at the Women and Children First bookstore to hear her. I was sitting right up near the front and the place was packed. The time came for her to come out to start reading, and it passed and we all waited restlessly. And we waited. And waited. Finally, after about 20 minutes, Anne walked out and sat on a stool in the front. She sat down with her book in hand, but she didn’t open it. She just sat there and cried. She mumbled something about being tired and missing her son and she kept crying. She cried a lot. For a long time. While all of us in this packed bookstore sat watching her.

I had always been a person who was ashamed of crying in public. And yet, here Anne Lamott was, not just crying in public, but crying on stage in public in front of a room full of people. And the funny thing was, instead of being a weird, embarrassing, awkward, just let me out of here moment, it was beautiful, it was holy, it was like this parachute of grace had descended gently over all of us in the room. And instead of looking on her with contempt for her tears, all I felt was warmth and compassion and I felt so privileged to be let in, to get to share in this intimate, human moment with her.

This changed how I felt about crying in public forever. At that time I was a smoker, trying desperately to quit. Some of you who have been to the Recovery Worship services we have at LaSalle once a month have heard me talk about this a little. And one of the things I had figured out in therapy was that one of the functions of smoking for me figuratively (and sometimes literally) was to suck back in all my real feelings, all my sadness and shame and fear. And I was afraid that if I stopped smoking, I’d just fall apart. I’d be a weepy, blubbering basket case. When I did stop smoking soon after this incident, everything I feared turned out to be true. I stopped smoking and I started crying. I mean really crying. At the drop of a hat. For seemingly no good reason at all. I had at least one “blubbering idiot incident” pretty much every day.

I cried into my therapists answering machine. I cried with my husband. I cried with my friends. I cried in church. I cried in recovery groups. I cried in the ladies room at work with whoever happened to be in there at the moment.
And it was OK. Because every time I started crying and started feeling huge amounts of shame about it I would remember Anne Lamott crying in front of all of us, and I would remember how I felt about her that night, remember how much love I felt for her. And I would tell myself, maybe, just maybe that’s what these people witnessing my tears are feeling for me. At the very least, I understood that it was what God was feeling for me.

One of the things we did together in our Affirmation group this year was read and discuss this book by Rob Bell called The Velvet Elvis. It’s an interesting book, a book that talks about the Christian faith in a fresh way, and it provoked some lively discussions. A favorite quote from this book for many of us was this one: “Your job is the relentless pursuit of who God made you to be. Everything else is sin.”

The relentless pursuit of who God made YOU to be. Back in Jesus day the religious folks thought they knew what God was looking for. They thought they knew how that was supposed to look for everyone. And this woman who was bleeding for 12 years, she didn’t fit their vision. But Jesus wasn’t having any of that. He called that woman Daughter. He asked her to be honest, to come out of hiding, and then He loved her just as she was and helped her become even more of who she was meant to be.

And as Christ’s body, Jesus representatives here on earth, this is I believe, what the church is called to as well. We are called to be a place where we love each other as we are and help each other become even more of who we are meant to be. A place where we can be honest with each other about our doubts and our questions. Honest about our failures and struggles. A place where we can let our inner blubbering idiot come out. A place where we can also be honest about our passions and dreams. Not downplaying our strengths or gifts to be humble and to keep from standing out.

A place where we can be honest about who we really are. No holding back. No sanitizing ourselves for someone’s protection.

I am coming to believe that God isn’t looking for robots. Or the stuff that comes out of plaster molds. God is looking for people courageous enough to be all of who they are. People like that woman who are willing to risk their lives to get their real lives back.

I think one of the perhaps unwritten reasons that churches have confirmation classes or Affirmation programs or Girl’s Auxiliary groups at this age in kids’ lives—13, 14 years old—is because we’re all afraid of losing them. We’re all afraid that as teenagers and young adults—basically as soon as they are old enough to walk out and not come back, they will. It happens. I think back to all the kids I went to church with, the kids I was in youth group with and by the time we had all graduated from college there were very few of us who still even occasionally darkened the church’s door. But I don’t think that happens because teens and young adults stop believing in God. I think it happens because they stop believing us. Their BS meters go off. They are looking for honesty, they are looking for truth in the people around them, they are looking for a place where they can be honest, where they don’t have to hide their questions or doubts or their struggles with relationships or their confusion or their brokenness or their true joy. They are looking for people, like Jesus who will take them as they are, and love them as they are, who won’t expect them to hide or pretend to be someone else.

That's what these kids need from you today--the commitment they need from you, along with your blessing. They need you, the honest you, the real you. And it’s also the commitment they make to you. To be searingly honest. Even when it’s scary and risky. To speak the truth in love. And to speak it loud and clear. That’s the kind of church they want to be a part of. The kind of church they sense God calling all of us to be. Not a church that builds walls but a church that follows Jesus, that follows Love.

Being honest demands courage. It requires trust. It requires the kind of faith that woman in the crowd had, faith in Jesus willingness to love us where we are, as we are.

God’s love is there—all we need to do is reach out, brush our hands along the fringe of it, and take it in.