Invitation: Cross Words

newspaper-412452_1280

For me, one of the greatest delights in life is wordplay. I’ve heard puns described as the lowest form of humor, but a good pun – whether it’s good because it’s clever or because it’s painfully corny – always brings a smile to my face. My older nephew and I will spend and entire weekend of camping trying to out-pun one another. On my Facebook timeline I created a recurring hashtag for #typosthatshouldbewords. (Regreat? Something you’re sorry you did, but you did really well!) Every day I attempt the New York Times crossword puzzle then read the blog about its construction.

My love of crossword puzzles is handed down. On Sundays I would sit at my grandparents’ big kitchen table and do crossword puzzles with my Grandfather. Joint puzzle solving is a character-building experience. When I was young he was patient with me, letting me figure out (or leading me to) some of the answers he of course already knew. I learned relationships are built on give-and-take, and that you may have to wait a little for someone to understand what seems obvious to you.

Last Sunday was Pentecost, and the weekly scriptures included the story of the Holy Spirit, in the form of tongues of flame, descending on the disciples. Afterward, though they spoke many languages, they heard one another in their native tongues. That got me thinking about how we can use so many different words to mean the same thing.

And in turn, that got me thinking about how the same word can mean many different things.

“Love” is a good example. But I’m not talking about that that romantic versus Christian or agape sense of different kinds of love we hear about in sermons.

Several years ago some relationships at church led us to briefly becoming guardians to a teenager who was working some things out with his family. He and I grew close over several mission trips and years of tutoring, movies, cheap pizza, and long talks. We remained in weekly contact for many years. He’s now a father himself and though I see him less frequently, my affection has not waned.

One of things I learned was that “love” meant something different to him than to me. In my family the words “I love you” come easily (but not cheaply or thoughtlessly). Therefore, it felt natural for me to say “love you, buddy” when we parted or ended a phone conversation. He didn’t reciprocate, and I didn’t force the issue. Some people feel left hanging when they say “I love you” and the person doesn’t return it, but over time I’ve come to believe you shouldn’t say “I love you” if what you really mean is “I want to hear that you love me.”

Now he would say it when he was asking me for something inconvenient: “Can you take me to Game Stop [some 15 miles away]? I love you!” It was half jest, half unsuccessful emotional bribe. He’d also say it to girls he dated – in my opinion far too soon and far too often. I think those were more like hopeful little prayers though: “I want to hear that you love me.”

One day as I was dropping him off at his mother’s place, I gave him a hug and said “Love you, buddy.” I was surprised to hear “Love you, too” but I decided not to make it weird. In the moment, at least. The next time we saw each other I mentioned I had appreciated it. He told me he didn’t say it much because his father would make him say it back when he didn’t feel like it or mean it.

We had learned to solve life’s puzzles very differently. What an invaluable lesson in the power of how the intention and reception of our words can be so distant from one another.

Love-the-word had very different meanings for us, but we both understood love-the-feeling. When he trusted me to pull splinters out of his hand, or rode to summer school in my passenger seat in silent protest but never once defied me about actually going, or burped across the table at me in anticipation of how I would rate in on a ten-point scale, we both understood.

When we tell people Christ loves them, our intention may be distant from how they are able to receive it. Sometimes that distance may feel irreconcilable. Maybe they’ve been mistreated by the church and we represent pain. Maybe they’ve had struggles we can’t imagine and a loving God seems like an impossibility. The list of maybes is endless. Regardless of the reason, if they don’t respond in a manner we find acceptable, our reaction to that response tells us whether we are truly seeking to share the gospel … or seeking validation.

The Gospel is not delivered via scare tactic or data dump: it is delivered via relationship, sometimes in many installments over a long period of time. People need to – and should – get to know us before they trust or believe us. We shouldn’t be offended by that. Sure, you and I know we are coming from a place of love and honesty and feel defensive when someone questions that … but do you believe everything told to you by a stranger or acquaintance? “Actions speak louder than words” has become a tried old cliché for a reason.

Crossword clues can be intentionally misleading. That can be fun for the experienced puzzler, but frustrating for those who aren’t used to the conventions. If we want someone to understand love from the clues we’re dropping, it is more important that they be clear than clever.

If you invite someone’s into Christ’s love and they decline … invite them again a different way. Don’t guilt them. Don’t strong-arm them. Don’t dismiss them. Love them.

Take out their splinters.
Endure their moods.
Laugh with them about the things they think are funny.
Play with the words until they make sense.

As my grandfather grew even older and his thoughts slower, the puzzles became much easier for me than for him. It was my turn to sit at the table and  demonstrate patience, and it was easy because I’d had such a good example, who had shown me solving a puzzle together – whether it be about life, love, or the Hawaiian state bird – is about far more than the solution.

Wait for them, and let them wait for you.
Sit patiently at the table.

In the end, it’s not our words that persuade people of Christ’s love. It’s the limitless grace of God, the enduring nature of Christ’s table.

Not our words, but The Word.

You and I simply choose whether or not to love them enough to speak it in a language they can understand. “I want you to hear that Christ loves you. Let’s gather at this table and start that conversation.”

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

Invitation: Cardinals

1466959090517.jpg

This morning I was sitting on the front porch watching the rain. A cardinal who regularly makes his rounds among the trees and shrubbery of our yard – and occasionally leaves evidence that he visits the porch – was flitting about to find dry shelter. Several times he landed on the porch railing, which was fairly well protected, but was not content to stay. I wanted to take a picture of him with my phone, but he never stayed put long enough or got close enough for a good shot. I tried to be still, to make the dry porch seem less threatening, but once the camera was out, he kept his distance. After I finished my coffee I went inside, and hoped he felt safe to land on the porch.

My eagerness to intrude on his life felt threatening to Mr. Cardinal. Some people are like that, too. An extrovert like me assumes I’m making friendly overtures when I engage someone in conversation or repeatedly remind them how welcome they are. A more introverted person may in fact find these behaviors quite off-putting. When a new person shows up at church, it might seem natural to find out whether they are interested in the choir or fellowship groups or Bible studies; we want them to stay and so many of the popular church-growing guides says groups are the way to do it. It might seem like a gesture of welcome to tell the entire congregation to be sure to welcome our guest. All of this is well intentioned.

But it isn’t necessarily what everyone needs from church. My front porch feels safe and dry to me, but Mr. Cardinal is wired to avoid attention (except from a potential Mrs. Cardinal). If I’m there waving him in, no matter how much he’d like to be dry, he’s never going to land. If my concern is truly for Mr. Cardinal’s well-being, the best way to invite him into a safe space is to first understand what it is makes that space feel safe for him. Now with Mr. Cardinal that means abandoning my porch, but that’s not feasible for church. We can, however, let visitors and new arrivals set the tone for their own type of participation. When we meet someone new, instead of assuming they will love the things we love and demonstrate their feelings the way we do, we can observe what draws them in and what prompts an anxious flutter. Some people want to chirp in the choir, and some people want to nest in the audience.

The church is big enough to accommodate all kinds of personalities. The trick of community is to find the commonality that binds us, and allow people to support it and be supported by it in ways that make sense to them. In the Christian church, the communion table is one of those commonalities. Some of us like to write long-winded invitations. Some of like to use the time for contemplation. Some of us like to bake the bread. We do all these things to honor and serve Jesus Christ, the one who truly invites us to the table. Let us follow his lead, and build relationships that let us meet people where they are, instead of where we think they should be. That is how we let people know the table is safe for all.

May the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

Invitation: Helicopter

image

 

We live right across the street from a hospital with a helipad. Several times a week – or maybe several times a day on long summer holiday weekends – we can hear the emergency helicopter landing and taking off. From inside the house it sounds no louder than a leaf blower, but outside the protection of our thick walls, on the front porch or in the yard, the deafening sound is a physical presence pushing against your sense of safety.

Every time I hear the helicopter, I am conflicted. The choppy roar of its rotors means someone has been injured severely. But that sound also means there’s a chance that person can be saved, a chance that didn’t exist before air ambulances were available.

This is not unlike the conflict I feel at the communion table.

The Eucharist exists because we, as individuals and a species, suffer from severe spiritual injuries. It is a weekly reminder that we are broken in ways that need serious attention. It is also a reminder that we can be saved. There was a time, the time before Christ offered to love us into wholeness, when we were offered no hope for such injuries. I’m sad it is necessary but so grateful for its presence. What a bittersweet balance.

Inside the walls of the church, the Words of Institution are more comfort than disturbance: “Before Jesus was given up to death, a death he freely accepted, he gave You thanks…” Outside the walls of the church, these words can seem threatening to the injured. Imagine being hurt so badly you need to be airlifted to a hospital. Imagine the overwhelming sound and chaos and immensity of a helicopter descending onto your broken body. That doesn’t feel like hope – that feels like disaster.

When we invite someone to the table for the first time, we need to understand a lifeline sometimes looks like a noose. Where we appreciate the helicopter because it’s already saved us, they may just hear a confusing, even frightening, noise. We don’t fix that by speaking more loudly (or more frequently, or more insistently). We fix it by offering to ride with them, to hold their hand, and to stay by their side until the fear and pain have passed. Until it sounds like hope.

If you are a frequent guest of the table, extend your hand. If you have never come to the table, please accept that hand and try to believe the fear does not outweigh the promise. Our pilot has only your salvation at heart.

May the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.

Invitation: yinzgimmegum

1463341210136.jpg

The ride from New Castle, Pennsylvania to South Bend, Indiana is just shy of six hours – depending on the driver. In August of 1985 I made this trip with my parents so they could drop me off at school for my freshman year. About mid-trip, my mouth started to feel a little dry. My mother always had some mints or gum, so I leaned into the front seat to ask for some. Now I grew up in a Western Pennsylvania area with a very specific dialect popularly known as “Pittsburghese,” so while other people might have asked “May I have some of your gum?” I rapidly blurted: “Hey yinz gimme gum?” Continue reading

Invitation: I Can See Clearly Now

1461528876101.jpg

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my eyes. Design-wise they aren’t so great. I am very near-sighted. I’m fortunate that my vision is easily corrected with glasses or contacts, but without corrective lenses my adult vision has landed somewhere between 20/220 and 20/240. Legal blindness is 20/200 in the better eye. I can’t read normal print more than about 6 inches from my face, and headlines are a strain at arm’s length. Since eyeglasses weren’t invented until the latter half of the 13th century, I am grateful to have been born afterward. In the 12th century, despite a pretty capable brain, my options would have been quite limited by my visual impairment. My potential – maybe my understanding of the world – would probably never have exceeded the length of my arm. Ironically, my inability to see would have rendered others unable to see me for who I truly was. Continue reading

Invitation: Prodigal

1457295412722

Today’s Sunday readings include the parable of the Prodigal Son. In case you’re not familiar, it is a story about a rich young man who demands his inheritance and squanders it on “dissolute living.” In other words: booze and prostitutes. It didn’t take long until he was broke and starving. He returned home, ready to apologize to his father and beg for forgiveness he knew he didn’t deserve. To his surprise, when he got home, rather than tear into him, his father ran to the gate, tossed a robe on his shoulders, and threw him a party before he could even get the apology out. His brother was unhappy about this turn of events and complained that in all the time he’d dutifully minded his father, he’d never gotten a party. The father told the brother: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

Which brother are you? Continue reading

Invitations to Communion

1451766966701

I was raised Roman Catholic and am now a member of the Disciples of Christ. In both traditions, though they have different understandings of the essential nature of communion, it is central to the liturgy. Several years ago I was honored to serve a term as one of the elders at a Disciples church. Among other duties, each week we issued an invitation before communion. We understood the table as Christ’s table, so the invitation needed to be inclusive of everyone present. Sometimes that included people we didn’t like or had active disagreements with, but we were called to be representatives of a nature higher than our own. Delivering the invitation was deeply meaningful and sacred to me.

On Sundays I will be adding an extra post reminiscent of those invitations. Of course I can’t follow up with an actual loaf of bread or cup of wine, but I hope they help you feel welcomed in the body of Christ.

You may have noticed that, in the devotionals, I don’t write in first person singular. That’s because there’s no “I” in Team Jesus.  Kidding …  and anyway there’s one in “Christ.” The devotionals are not about pushing my particular take on doctrine, theological specifics, conservative versus liberal views, or other personal agendas. Writing as “we” helps remind me of that. My invitational style is going to be a little different. When I was an elder I took an event from my life or something I’d learned that reminded me of the universal nature of Christ’s love, and adapted it to the purpose. The concept of open communion is not itself universal, and may come across as a theological statement if that’s not your belief. If you feel that way but otherwise enjoy the blog , maybe skip the invitations, and stick to reading the daily posts. I won’t be offended, though I’ll miss you. The invitation may be my words, but the nature of it is something I can only aspire to.

Peace!