Will the real enemy please stand up?

“Do not let my enemies exult over me.”

Those are the words of the psalmist in our lectionary text for this Sunday. “O my God, in you I trust” this verse begins before it transforms itself from a safe religious Hallmark-like affirmation to the real source of the psalmists petition—being rescued from the threat of one’s enemies.

enemies-listI have to admit that at times this prayer is pretty darn satisfying to pray. “I trust in you, O God, so treat me a little a little better than you treat my enemies.” When things get tough and others don’t see the world the way I see it, it feels pretty darn good to retreat to these words, “Do not let my enemies exult over me.” “Don’t let them have the satisfaction of standing over me in victory.” “Don’t let me be humiliated and embarrassed by those who are no friend of God.”

But I have been thinking about this notion of enemies lately. I noticed as I read the text that my mind, at first, immediately pictured certain people who might fit the category of enemy in my life. But as soon as I pictured them I also felt immediately uncomfortable with the word enemy. I don’t think I have any real people enemies.

It is true that there are some people in my life that I find more challenging than others. It is also true that there are people in my life that I find rather annoying. It is also true that there are people with whom I disagree at a real basic and visceral level. But to label those people as my enemies feels too simple. Should it be that easy to dismiss someone as an enemy just because I find them challenging, annoying or difficult to agree with? And aren’t most people a little more complex and multi-layered to be put in a box simply labeled “enemy”?

I don’t know exactly who or what the psalmist was referring to in this 25th psalm. I am not enough of a Biblical scholar (or maybe too lazy) to seek out the name or nationality or class of people that the psalmist might be referring to.

But I do know that when I thought about my real enemies I discovered that they weren’t people; they were attitudes.

the-enemy-is-fearThe truth is I do have some real enemies. My enemies are fear, hopelessness, despair and lack of trust. Those enemies I fight on a consistent basis. Those enemies I have to go to battle with every day. I know what it means to feel fear or despair and then to call out to God, “Do not let my enemies exult over me. Do not let fear and despair find a permanent home in me.”

We in the church live in an uncertain time. Anxiety runs high. Concerns over the future seem to lie just below the surface of every conversation. We have become a worrying people. And sometimes in our anxiety and worry we hurt each other. And sometimes we even start to picture each other as enemies.

I do think the psalmist is right. We do have enemies. But our real enemies are not each other or the culture around us or the people with whom we disagree. Our real enemies are the attitudes that so easily separate us one from another. Our real enemies are the walls that we erect to create an us and them world. Our real enemies are inside of us, not sitting next to us.

“O my God, in you I trust.” Please don’t let my fears keep me from the holding the hand of the person next to me. Please don’t let my worries get in the way of living and loving.

God keeps showing up!

I have an admission to make. Years ago I got bit by the bug of mysticism—that is, that arm of our faith that assumes that the living Christ is a reality who is not an historic footnote or a far off reality, but a presence as close as our breath. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but I do remember a few experiences when I was staring at something by another name and I could have sworn I was seeing God.

Iowa cornfieldI remember that wonderful scene in the movie Field of Dreams where Ray Kinsella’s long departed father asks his son as he is looking around the baseball field Ray had built in the middle of a cornfield, “Is this heaven?” Ray, puzzled by the question retorted matter-of-factly, “No, this is Iowa,” to which his father, John, again looked around and reiterated, “I could have sworn this was heaven.”

Our text this Sunday from the gospel (Mark 9: 2-9) tells the story of the Transfiguration. If we didn’t know any better we would wonder if this scene was stolen from some wild Hollywood romp through the land of Oz or into the archetypal dream world of Luke Skywalker. It’s crazy good stuff. Jesus and Peter, James and John take a long hike up to a mountain when suddenly Jesus is accompanied by Elijah on one side and Moses on the other side while from a cloud a voice declares that Jesus is “My Son, the Beloved!” They are looking at Jesus and yet they swear they are seeing and hearing God.

The disciples are in awe and terrified and they propose to build a memorial to the site. I know what the disciples must have felt. Those rare times when I thought I was seeing God I had the same reaction, “Let’s build a permanent booth here! Let’s take a picture. Let’s capture the moment.” But as soon as they tried to pin down the experience, the experience left them.

Labyrinth at Mt. Laki Presbyterian in the Klamath Basin

I have just begun to make my way around our presbytery and already I am reminded that God cannot be pinned down. God does not belong to one place or one experience. We live in a diverse presbytery. We have urban churches and rural churches. We have churches where the pages are falling out of the pew Bibles and churches where the Bibles always look brand new. We have churches that can’t imagine a spirituality divorced from politics and churches that “give to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”

Yet in the midst of all that diversity God still seems to show up. This past week I was visiting churches in the Klamath Basin and more than once I found myself exclaiming, “This is God’s country.” I know that it is more a reflection of me than of God, but I couldn’t help but to notice that the space, the solitude, the long roads and the relationship with the land reminded me of why those who are city dwellers go on retreat—to be reminded that God shows up in silence, solitude and emptiness just as much as in the busyness and buzz of urban life.

Hollywood theater Marquee
Historic Hollywood theater in Portland

Yet I am also a creature of the city where at our fingertips are hundreds of choices of ethnic foods, independent theaters telling the stories of people across the world in film, stages where social, spiritual and political issues are enacted, and community centers where the diversity of America is put on display. God feels palpable to me in the stimulation of the city and I am tempted to say, “This is God’s city!”

There are many ways to look at the story of the Transfiguration and one of those ways is through the eyes of the Christian mystic, John Kinsella, or Peter, James and John when you look at one thing, but swear that you are seeing God or heaven or the living, breathing presence of Christ.

Remember the mistake is not seeing something that isn’t there as if the sight of God can only be a hallucination. The mistake is trying to build a booth, capture the moment and claim that God can only be experienced in one place and one landscape.

As I drive around the presbytery I haven’t decided yet whether I am following God or God is following me. What I do know is that God just keeps showing up in every region of this marvelous presbytery we call Cascades. Truly, this is God’s country!

Going out and coming in…

I have been pondering the very first words of our gospel lesson for this coming Sunday (Mark 1: 29-39), “As soon as they left the synagogue…

church youth picsThey have been interesting words to mull over as I have made my way down to a handful of our churches in the southern part of our presbytery. It wouldn’t surprise you that on a few (okay, most) of my visits I heard what has become our most common refrain in the church these days, “How are we going to get young people into our church again?”

There is nothing wrong with the question. But I was struck that just about every day this week I read the lectionary text which starts with Jesus and his disciples “going out” while many of my conversations were rooted in questions about getting people to “come in.”

If the point had not already been driven home enough Jesus decides he needs some space. He has already left the synagogue. But now that he is out ministering to the people on the streets he feels the need to pray. Does he return to the synagogue to get away from the crowds? No. The text tells us that early in the morning while it was still very dark he went out to a deserted place to pray.

Praying under sunsetThe text is permeated with images of going out while my conversations this week were rooted in getting people to come in. Jesus leaves the synagogue to minister and even doesn’t return to the synagogue when it’s time to pray. It seems just backwards of what we expect and want. Wouldn’t it be better if Jesus invited people to the synagogue to be healed and set a good example by praying in the front of the synagogue?

Of course, Jesus had it easier than us, right? He didn’t own a building. He didn’t have budgets to worry about. He didn’t have to fund raise for a capital campaign. And he was too young to worry about a pension plan. All he seemed to care about was proclaiming the reign of God, healing those he encountered, casting out the demons who feared him, and looking for deserted places to get away and pray.

Idealistic young dreamer he was.

Father Boyle Turning the World Upside Down

I had heard of Father Gregory Boyle many years ago. I knew of his reputation for working with gang members in some of the most violent neighborhoods in L.A. But beyond the tidbits that I had gleaned from his reputation I didn’t really know the full story or what the fuss was all about. When I saw him being listed as a speaker at Columbia Presbyterian Church-Vancouver (in conjunction with Columbia Future Forge) I quickly penciled the event into my calendar hoping that when the time arrived I would still be able to carve out a Saturday afternoon to see what all the fuss was about.

Boyle Pic 2I was not disappointed. In fact this simple man who has risen to near celebrity status became the source of a few epiphanies for me. How this happened on the actual day of Epiphany, January 6, is one of those mysterious holy coincidences, but I’ll take it.

I have preached for years that this Jesus figure whom we worship and adore had a habit and a way of turning the world upside down. You know what I mean: “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” and “If you want to save your life you have to lose your life for my sake.”

I remember when I read years ago in Matthew Fox’s book A Spirituality Named Compassion where he made the distinction between compassion and pity. He said that most of what we call compassion on the charitable side of the church is actually pity. Ooh, that hurts! Pity maintains a separation between people and assumes a hierarchy. Compassion is an act between equals.

Tattoos photoI have read these words, heard these words and preached these words, but it was Father Boyle who brought these words home for me. He told of a situation where a person asked him, “Father Boyle, it is all well and good this work you do with gang members, but what I really want to know is, ‘when do you bring them to Christ.'” As Father Boyle tells the story he grimaces a little and then relates, “I don’t bring them to Christ. They bring me to Christ.” Boom! Turning the world upside down!

He echoed this theme in numerous ways throughout his talk. At one point he said that we in the church often feel like we have to go out and save these people Barking Photoas if what we have is somehow superior to what they have. Then he said, “I don’t work with gang bangers in order to save them. I work with them so that they can save me.” Then he reiterated that to be saved is to erase the false barriers that separate us one from another just as Jesus said, “I have come that you might be one, just as I and the Father are one.”

As I settle into this new position as the Presbyter for Vision and Mission I wonder what Father Boyle’s call is to us in this time. I wonder what we must do in order to be saved. I wonder who we will meet who will save us as much as we save them.