Churchgoer Sees Jesus in a Mocha

To sip together at God’s table, even with strangers, is to share God’s wide-open, life-altering, cosmos-sustaining love and grace.

well, not really, but God’s Spirit was present in that mocha moment. . .

Note: I first wrote this post in June 2015. My mother has since died, and on Sundays I often think about her and our mocha moments. I revisited this piece for #blogtober. As I reread and revised it for today’s post, I realized—many people are hungrier than ever for a glimpse of the sacred, in particular when it is revealed through justice-making and shared hope.

“Churchgoer Sees Jesus in a Mocha.” Can’t we picture such a headline in our news feeds? We have seen announcements like it before: “‘Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese’ Sells for $28,000.” The now-famous grilled cheese was reported to have an imprint of the Virgin Mary’s face on it. It had been stored in a baggie in a bedroom dresser for ten years before we heard about it in the news in 2004.

$28,000? Are we that hungry for a glimpse of the sacred?

Social media outlets have been abuzz recently about churches in survivor mode. Statistics paint a grim picture of the future of institutional Christianity. What are churches offering that people aren’t buying? 

What are we hungry for today?

A mocha stirred up these thoughts for me. You see, I have been seeing something that looks a whole lot God’s Spirit swirling about in a mocha I have a date with each week. 

The mocha itself is at best mediocre. I get it for free from one of those institutional coffee machines you find in hospitals or convenience stores. I press one of six buttons–hot chocolate, mocha, cappuccino (regular or decaf) or coffee (regular or decaf). The machine ponders my choice. Then it grinds and sputters and spits my beverage into a 6-ounce cup.

This particular machine resides in my mother’s senior adult apartment community. When my mother moved to my city, I was glad that the transition was not as difficult as other parental moves I had heard about. My mother pared down her stuff and moved with some ease from her house of 45 years into a studio apartment. The ascetic quality of her new space suits her just fine. 

More difficult was the change her move sparked for me. Overnight my schedule became tied to hers. My mother’s life became less cluttered, mine more cluttered.

That is how the mocha machine came to dispense more than just a mocha. I organize my mother’s medications every week. I also do her laundry. Once these tasks are done, she and I go downstairs to wait for her lunch hour. While we wait, I sip on a mocha.

I have never been a devoted mocha drinker, but the day the mocha machine was “out of order,” I was too. I had come to anticipate drinking that Styrofoam-seasoned, somewhat chocolate flavored drink.

I sat to wait with Mom the day the mocha machine was on the fritz. The stories and conversations went on around me as usual, and I found myself laughing and joining in. The weekly mocha had helped me in those initial months of transition to sit and listen and hear the wisdom-infused storytelling of my mother and her new friends. It had offered Spirit-sweetened seasoning to my caregiving activities.

Now, even without the mocha, I was connected somehow. Perhaps what many churchgoers seek is not unlike what I seek as a caregiver: moments when God’s Spirit sneaks in to stir up and transform.

If people go to church at all, they go seeking moments when their life stories are heard and held with care. They go wanting to experience something about their place in the human community. They go to encounter and even join forces with a God who is working to end injustice and heal our world. Neither exacting doctrinal analysis nor sentimentalized sacramentality will accomplish these things.

But perhaps cultivating holy “mocha moments” can. Coffee shops are popular these days. Many people love to grab a cup of java with friends over breakfast biscuits. Others go to coffee shops to drink their favorite roast at a solo table while working on their laptops. But even those of us who drink our coffee solo at coffee shops are not alone. Not really. We notice, we regulars, when Susan is not at her usual corner table. 

Could it be that we humans seek everyday community-making rituals and sometimes even embrace them as everyday sacred? Hmm … and could this mean that God is already loose and at work in the world? Does it mean that churches don’t have sole (or even primary) responsibility for naming and managing God’s presence beyond their walls?

I say “yes” to all of these questions.

Churches need to think about how their public and spiritual identities can be born again for our hyper-connected, coffee-shop-community times. Churches also need to pay attention to gifts already present in their worship traditions.

I learned as a child to look for Jesus in a bit of bread and a sip of drink. Before I started partaking of communion or learned anything about communion’s theological intricacies, I watched when folks in our church tipped their heads back to drain those tiny cups. I noticed that when my father returned to our pew after communion he had a different smell. I wanted to taste that drink. I wanted to smell different like he did. I also learned as a child that God loves me and others no matter what. God’s grace is about these things.

To sip together at God’s table, even with strangers, is to share God’s wide-open, life-altering, cosmos-sustaining love and grace.

Churches that will thrive in the future will fling open their doors not only to let God’s Spirit in but also to share physical food and drink with hungry people. They will also offer with determined joy God’s gifts of radical welcome and fierce generosity to all people.

Perhaps to the extent that we learn to welcome all—friends and strangers—to our church tables we make possible more of those everyday grace-filled moments when people glimpse something that resembles Jesus, even in a mediocre mocha.

Lent 4: Laughing Matters

Red Doors

“Church is no laughing matter,” some may say. “Indeed, church is serious business.” And many of us might agree that the state of the world right now is no laughing matter. Too much violence. Too many troubles. Too much injustice. The season of Lent can’t last long enough for our introspection even to make a dent in this ole’ world’s difficulties much less to make us aware of the part we play in them.

And yet, this Sunday, March 15, is the fourth Sunday in Lent, called in some traditions “Laetare Sunday” or Laughter Sunday.  Laetare means “rejoice.” To some, this may sound peculiar. Why is there a “Rejoicing Sunday” in the midst of Lenten introspection, fasting, and austerity? The exact midpoint of Lent is the Thursday of the third week of Lent; thus, the fourth Sunday of Lent was viewed throughout much of Christian history as a day of celebration. Linked to an ancient mid-March Roman festivals called the hilaria (related to the word “hilarious”), Christians viewed Laetare Sunday as a day when the somber disciplines of Lent were lessened. Laetare is also known in some places as Refreshment Sunday or Holy Humor Day and liturgies include moments for recalling the joy of the Lord in the midst of Lenten penitential pilgrimages. Some churches that observe Holy Humor Sunday even begin the worship service by telling jokes to invoke and perhaps provoke laughter.

Now I, for one, have never been much for jokes. I forget the punchline when I tell jokes, and I often don’t “get” the punchline when others tell jokes. Perhaps that is my problem with Holy Hilarity Sunday. I have not yet gotten in the marrow of my bones the sheer hilarity of God’s liberating creativity that is working even when we don’t “get” it to create a world of radical carnival. And that may just be what we can laugh about even in the midst of Lenten times that seem to stretch beyond Lent’s official 40 days. God breaks in, breaks open, and breaks forth into the world in unexpected, even peculiar, ways that can, if we are paying attention, make us giggle like children or guffaw out loud as we proclaim: “You’re kidding!” Or “that’s too funny!” Or “how hilarious!”

God’s Gospel story turns the world on its head and can turn our lives upside down. Our response? When we allow the peculiar promises of the Gospel to get inside of our bones, perhaps the best response is to laugh, to release, if but for a moment, our lament into God’s cosmic and ironic rendering of a world redeemed. But wait. The world’s a mess. How can we laugh?

A response emerged—or erupted—at church one Sunday during the “moment with children.” Three-year old Michael is not an introvert. His mouth was moving as fast as his feet as he ran to the front of the sanctuary with the other children. The leader sat on the floor with Michael and the others and began to talk about birthday parties. “What do you like about birthday parties?” she asked. “Cake,” Michael said as his hand shot into the air. “Balloons,” Rhonda said. The children all had answers—and one said the magic answer: “Presents!” That was the leader’s signal to ask the second question—the one that she was headed for to make her point. “And what do you say when someone gives you a gift and you unwrap it?”

Now—I cannot read the minds of folks in church, but I suspect that every adult in worship that day had an answer to this question scurry to the tips of their tongues. And then, just when I was ready to smile at the nice work the leader had done to teach the children about gratitude, Michael prophesied. He witnessed. He proclaimed. Well—he blurted out the answer that rose up out of his young heart. “What do you say when someone gives you a gift and you unwrap it?” “Oohhh!” Michael said.

And we all laughed, that “caught-off-guard” laughter of those made wiser by a child’s prophetic insight. “What is the second thing you say?” the leader then asked. But now the children were in sync with each other and with the dancing of God’s spirit in our midst. “What is the second thing you say?” “Wow!” Rhonda exclaimed and giggled.

Church continued on its usual course that day, but my heart and mind had been invited down another road by the children’s wise exclamations. What if—what if this is where we begin to fashion communities that transform lives—that offer justice and hope and healing. What do I mean? Michael’s response to the imagined birthday present was not the polite response of one schooled in gift-receiving etiquette. Rhonda’s response was not based on whether or not the birthday wrappings contained the long-desired or asked for expected gift. Their responses bubbled up out of the possibilities of gift-giving and receiving and their authentic expectation of delight.

And we laughed. Perhaps that is the point of the Gospel after all. God’s response to the world’s pain and brokenness is not at all what we expect. Jesus is not what people expect. Jesus’ responses to the world’s suffering and cruelty are not what people expect. But here and there, now and then, we get it. Something happens to release us from the too often oppressive limits of expected religious etiquette, and we laugh, not at the world and its hurting people but with each other because we care about and trust each other. We laugh that caught-off-guard kind of laugh that surprises us and sets us free to join God in God’s peculiar, if not, hilarious plan to redeem the world.

 

 

 

Encrypted! Thoughts on the Occasion of an Ordination

 

Bird in the Hand 4

He told them another parable, saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. And this seed is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.”

He spoke another parable to them, saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until all of it was leavened.” All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables. . . This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet, “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things hidden since the foundation of the world.”       Matthew 13:31-35

Stars. They encrypt the night skies with mystery and then steal away into the morning light. Crocuses peer up over shade-stranded snow piles. Daffodils brave late-winter chills to trumpet the arrival of spring. Here and there, now and then, Spirit winds stir up life’s inscrutable veil and we see. The hands of an artist. The hands of a musician. The hands of God.

Psalm 90 speaks of hands: “Let the beauty of the Lord be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands.” I hear these words, glimpse creation’s grandiloquent beauty. And I wonder. What about my hands? Your hands? Too many hands in our world break and destroy. Too many injure and scar. Whose hands will hold broken hearts with gentleness? Whose hands will paint God’s grace on life’s landscapes of despair?

For me, these are questions of Christian ministry that matter. How do my hands, your hands, our hands join God in God’s justice-doing, beauty-creating, music-making work?

“A man took and sowed a mustard seed in a field…”

Maybe we can smell it. The rain-damp soil. Or perhaps we can see him. We don’t often see him. He stays in the fields. Weary boots caked with mud, arms sun-singed and sinewy…

“A man took and sowed…”

“A woman took and hid yeast in three measures of flour. . .”

Maybe we can smell it. Bread. Baking. It is hard not to smell bread baking, but it is easy not to see her. She stays in the kitchen. Where the ovens are hot and flour fogs the air.

“A woman took and hid…”

“A man took and sowed…”

Why these two unnamed characters who do such everyday work? Why are they connected to the Kingdom of Heaven in an ancient Gospel story that has ignited hope and fueled arguments and promised redemption these 2000 years since it was written down? Matthew gives us a hint. The man who took and sowed? The woman who took and hid? Parables about them and other everyday things and people are here in the Gospel to proclaim “what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”

Something hidden? What hidden things do the church and people of faith today need to see?

A woman took and hid. . .

They are strong hands. Durable. When I first noticed her, she was up to her elbows in 30 pounds of flour. A stray wisp of hair falls across her flushed face as she works the dough. No bread machine. Hands and forearms move forward and back, back and forward. Relentless. Fierce somehow. But graceful. Yes—she is right there in Matthew 13:33. But I have hardly noticed her. The yeast is like the kingdom of heaven, people in the know say. And who wouldn’t notice heavenly yeast? Aren’t the yeast and the kingdom of heaven the point of the parable? Who notices her?

But there she is. A eukaryotic microorganism—yeast—hides her. But it is her hands that hide that microorganism in enough dough to make bread for 150 people. She encrypts yeast into the dough’s viscous density, and the yeast changes the dough. Infiltrates every part of it. The hidden one hides rising up power in ordinary flour, water, and lard. The dough rises. Life rises.  Bread rises. Political food. Poor people’s food. Our food. Sun-goldened loaves seasoned by the scent of the soil.

A woman took and hid.

A man took and sowed.

His hands are strong too, but in a different way. Nimble. That calloused, fleshy part of his thumb and forefinger wise to every shift and change in the texture of the soil. He takes a mustard seed in those hands. A tiny seed. A microorganism of a seed. Once sowed—it is hidden. Never to be found again until…it grows into a garden plant expansive enough for all the birds of the forest to nest in its branches. A man took and sowed.

The word “hands” is not in these verses. But a man took and sowed. Is THAT what we are to see? His fingers sowing into the soil a message of expansive hospitality. A woman took and hid. Is that what we are to see? Her fingers hiding in that bread the leavening of a radical message: the Kingdom of Heaven begins with hidden hands. Fragile hands we don’t expect too much of. Knotty hands we cringe to see. Labor-roughened hands we don’t even notice. His hands planting home for all. Her hands shaping life-giving bread for all. Is it possible that in the hands of God’s invisible people, we catch sight of the Kingdom of Heaven?

I wonder. What about our hands?

And so, you are ordained today. Affirmed and blessed to be a leader in Christian communities. Affirmed and blessed hold bread in your hands and break it at the Lord’s meal.

We live in peculiar times for doing and leading ministry. I feel like almost everything we Google or see in the news—so much of what we know and what we think we know is encrypted. Encoded. Full of hidden agendas. I encourage you. Seek wisdom for all that remains unsettled in your heart and mind about life’s mysteries. Search. Study. Pray. Ponder. Get a decoder ring.

But then, roll up your sleeves. Plant tiny seeds in rich soil and have faith in abundant growth. Get up to your elbows in life’s and ministry’s sticky dough (and ministry’s dough can sometimes be very sticky).  Work—forward and back, back and forward. Be relentless. Fierce. And graceful. And believe that the work will, here and there, now and then encrypt God’s good grace into a beaten down world aching to rise and rise again to new life.

One more word–in the midst of the work, when you grow tired (and you will) and when you celebrate faith come to fruition (and you will), take moment. Always in the midst of the work take moments. Place your hand in the hand of your spouse, and remember this ordination day. You see, in a moment the people gathered here will “lay hands on you.” You will feel the touch of hands. Gentle hands that have put Hello Kitty band aids on scraped knees.  Aching arthritic hands that knit or build or garden through pain. Hands that calm with a touch or write with a flair or feed others with a fierce desire that none will be hungry.  These hands will touch you with that ancient ordaining touch that says “we affirm and bless you and celebrate God’s call on your life.” These hands will touch you with an ancient ordaining touch that says “we anoint you to preach and teach and break bread and baptize.” These hands, these fingerprints will mark your ministry with prayer and grace and love. Remember this day.

And remember. A man took and sowed a seed in a field. A woman took and hid some yeast in some flour. Isn’t it just the way of our radical and peculiar Gospel to proclaim that THIS is what has been hidden since the foundation of the world. God’s reign, God’s justice, God’s grace and love for all people lives and grows right here in my hands. Your hands. Unnoticed hands. Hidden hands. All of our hands holding in them god’s grace. All of our hands, the hands of God.

May your ministry be marked always by these hands. And may your hands be blessed and strengthened to join with other hands in your community to share God’s grace in Christ with the world.

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

Ashes.
I scatter them. They slip away from cold-numbed finger tips. It is winter. Nothing grows in winter—does it?

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

But the kitchen fire warms my hands.
Its ashes make nutritious things grow.

We are ashes;
our lives seem sometimes to slip through our fingers.

We are also formed from good, dark hummus—the earth.
We are dust.
P
laced in God’s garden “to till it and to keep it.”

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

The season of Lent in Christian traditions is a time to reflect on rhythms of feasting and fasting and feasting again in our world, our churches, our spiritual lives. To   what fasts can we commit ourselves during this season that will teach us how to fashion a redemptive and life-giving  relationship with this earth we call home?  What can we plant in the ashes and dust of Lent’s Great Fast that will bear nourishing fruit for Easter’s Great Feast?

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday, our foreheads smudged with charcoaled Palm branches from last year’s now-cold feast, we are reminded:

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
Until you return to the ground,
For out of it you were taken;
You are dust, and to dust you shall return.     Genesis 3:19

Life is fleeting and fragile. Yet Lent calls us to work–by the sweat of our brows–to embody the Christian Gospel’s Easter promises of abundant feasts for all people. This is perhaps the most palpable outcome of a holy Lent: people of faith considering what it means to live lives of meaningful sacrifice and redemptive service and then taking steps to do just that.