What Should I Give Up For Lent?

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It’s the perennial question for Christians (and others) during the 40 days season preceding Easter.  What are you giving up?  It’s like a second chance at a forty day New Year’s Resolution.  Lent seems doable because it’s short and sweet.

Lent, following in the footsteps of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, has evolved into a season of self-denial.  In order to remain focused on Christ’s suffering and ministry, we discard pleasures from our own lives.  These self-indulgences often obscure our ability to focus on what’s really important about our faith journey.  By giving up chocolate, social media, sex, or soft drinks; we’ve come to believe we’re doing something tangible for our spiritual lives.

That’s the conventional wisdom.  I’m not sure how we got it in our heads that God cares if we eat candy or stop posting snarky memes for 40 days.   We honestly believe we will get a little closer to God by rejecting the silly minutiae of our mundane middle class lives. Mastering will power isn’t good theology.  It’s what made Tony Robbins rich.  We forget God also has Syria to worry about.  Like changing a national health care system, being religious is suddenly more complicated than we first imagined.

Our hope is that we will feel better about ourselves if we think God is impressed with our acts of physical devotion.  Why else talk about what you’re giving up?  Why do anything at all? We want cool points with the man upstairs.  It’s also nice to look holy among your church friends.

I’m not sure it works that way.   I could be wrong.  That’s why I’ve come up with a list of things to “give up” for the six weeks of Lent.   Why not put some skin in the game?  Let’s give up ideas that mean something.  Give till it hurts.

These are solely my suggestions.  Remember, Lent isn’t forever.  Perhaps try a Lent without:

  1. God
  2. Heaven
  3. Hell
  4. Organized Religion (Embrace Disorganization)
  5. The Devil
  6. Original Sin

Reflections on Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:1-7)

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Jesus takes all the fun out of being religious, self-righteous, and Christian.    He’s such a wet blanket. Don’t those three go together?  How else are people going to know we are Christians unless we dress alike, pray in public, make grand displays of our faith in the public sphere, and invoke God in every conversation?  Has Jesus not been to the evangelism seminar I attended?  He needs to offer coffee, small groups, and a service for men who don’t wish to tuck their shirts in.   Get with it Jesus.  You’re killing mainstream Protestantism.

Really, public piety and showing off your religiosity define American Christianity.  I know they don’t but you’ve got to be honest, even on our best days, it’s hard to tell them apart.  Just take a look at the suggested New Testament reading for Ash Wednesday.

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.”  Matthew 6:1-7

If we can’t practice our piety in public to be seen by others, how are we going to recruit (sorry, I mean evangelize) others to join our churches?  Public practices of piety are our stock in trade.  We would collapse and die without publicity.  We give evangelism awards and pat each other on the back for cookie sales.  Those are public displays of piety.  We brand everything, from disaster relief ministries to youth events.  We have idolized the corporations and corporate practices that are bankrupting our communities.  Yes, we’re giving to the poor but these giving actions are preceded by the trumpet sound of car magnets, t-shirts, and official name badges.  We don’t call “practicing our piety before others”; we’ve cleaned it up and use the term “witnessing”.  What are we witnessing to; our ability to look no different than mid-level workers at IBM or Microsoft?

After nearly 20 years of full time parish ministry, I own no church t-shirts or polo shirts with a cross and flame logo.  Why?  Because, I think they are form of obnoxious public piety, drawing attention to what we do, how well we think we do it, and attention for the wrong reasons.  I enjoy the opportunity to tell our story with words.  I don’t want my clothes to speak for or against me.  That’s just one example of how modern Methodism is running afoul of Jesus’ idea of being faithful in public.   I can’t imagine him wearing a polo shirt with any kind of logo.  I do see him working with such ambiguity and anonymity, his closest friends and advisers wonder, “What does he really do each day?”

Everyone prays differently.  Cokesbury’s spring catalog is dominated by books on different methods of prayer.  I think Jesus says:  don’t use your prayer time to make other people uncomfortable.  Just as he says don’t make a big deal out of what you do (focus instead on the how-Jesus is big on methodology), the way you communicate to God is intensely personal.  Do what’s right for you but don’t weird other people out with your words or actions when you pray.  Don’t be a spectacle.  Public spectacles are narcissistic displays of ego.  Who is your audience when you talk to God?  Here’s a thought:  give God the privacy and time God deserves.  Keep your password protected, like you would any sensitive communication.

Religious people love clichés.  Jesus has heard them all.  Be a better speaker and writer by using fewer clichés.  The same thing goes for prayers.  I know it feels fun, especially when you get on a roll and the “father gods, we just want tos, and hosannas” start to roll off your tongue.  Maybe Jesus is burnt out on hearing so many repeated phrases.  Try saying what’s on your mind.  It doesn’t make you any holier, more religious, or smarter.  In fact, it may do just the opposite.

Have a Blessed Lent.

 

Welcome to Trans Sunday! Matthew 17:1-9

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What do we do with this day called Transfiguration Sunday?  To be honest, when I hear stories of mountains and ghosts, I think about the Jack Tales I used to read as I child.  Do you know these stories; they’re really old fairy tales about a boy named Jack who lived way up in the mountains of Appalachia?  This story reminds me of a Jack Tale.  Jack once climbed a bean stalk to fight a giant.  But he did lots of other things.  He might have built a shelter for Moses and Elijah.

Or, I guess, if we really wanted to be hip, we could call it “Trans Sunday”.  That would really confuse people.  You know those Methodists, always pushing the boundaries of human sexuality in worship and theology.  But no, this isn’t about transsexuals or bathrooms.  It’s a magic trick, smoke, mirrors, ghosts, and spectral visitors from the dead.  Part clichéd ghost story, part mountain climb, part camping trip, and part “ye of little faith” Sunday school lesson; the story is the yearly kick off to the most depressing (and important) season of the church year: Lent.  (Insert cheers here!) Why are we on a high mountain with Jesus, Peter, James, and John this morning?

Mountains are sacred in nearly every religious tradition.  Why?  The higher we go the closer we are to God.  It’s a universal concept found in most all religions.  In the ancient world, temples were high even though we buried people underground.  While we’re still kicking, people climb mountains in an effort to encounter God presence.  This is the essence of the transfiguration story:  human beings, climbing a mountain, in order to be close to God.  When the events we read about this morning occurred, the practice of mountain climbing to find God was already as old as the hills.  As in our own time, it’s not an activity unique to Christianity or Judaism.  Everybody did it, to one degree or another.  This happens to be our story.

Mountain top stories are a genre.  I hate to use a French word this early on but I’m afraid I have no choice.  Just like fiction, non-fiction, biography, fairy tales, folk tales, poetry, and history; which are all genres of writing you find in the Bible, so are mountain top stories.  To be honest, they’re probably a sub-genre of several of those categories.  We also take mountain top stories with an ounce of faith and a grain of salt.  Why?  Because the only person telling the mountain top story is the only person who came back down.  Maybe three went up and only one returned alive.  Perhaps the other participants in the mountain top encounter were people who’d been dead for thousands of years and only one other person saw them and that guy has a history of exaggeration and lying.   So what am I saying?  You have to be careful about what happens on the mountain top.  Listen carefully, ask the right questions, remember the context and don’t forget: life is lived in the valleys.

The Lord invites Moses on a hike.  If I were to go hiking, the invitation would have to come from the almighty.  I’m a reluctant walker.  The bad thing about hiking is that once you get where you’re going you have to walk back to where you began.  I wouldn’t mind hiking other than I feel so underdressed.  The hikers I see all seem to be professionals.  They’ve got the pants, the boots, the jackets, the sunglasses, and a walking stick.  I see them around town in the hiking gear; in the grocery store or at the gas station, it’s as if they’re ready for a hike to break out at any moment.

I’m not a spur of the moment hiker.  Moses had to be but he wasn’t an REI, Lands End, or LL Bean equipped guy.  Imagine what his feet looked like.  No boots, socks, or shoes.  I’m guessing Moses wore minimal sandals.  When God says, “Come up to me on the mountain and wait there,” Moses didn’t have much of an outdoor wardrobe to pick from.  Hiking was a painful activity. Climbing up to God wasn’t a rewarding aerobic activity.  It might have been a life or death thing, a see how bad you want it sort of endeavor.  Just the thought of it makes me want to ask God for an email versus a face to face meeting.

Moses, like any good hiker, doesn’t go alone.  He takes Joshua.  You don’t go hiking alone.  You know this.  Always take a buddy.  Climbing mountains, especially sacred mountains, is dangerous business.  When encountering God, people take a friend, witness, or companion.  Again, someone other than you ought to be able to relate what happened.  We might need help processing what’s about to occur.  God is a big enough deal; you need others with you to fully comprehend what’s going on.  God is always experienced in community.  In this case, community may be two or three other people.  Other people help us understand what we see and hear.   Other people provide context that we don’t have.  Like when a friend says, “Don’t wear that bowtie with that shirt.”

Mountain top experiences rewrite the book for all previous religious experiences.  What do I mean by this? It’s kind of like how the military fights wars.  One old adage says that a military prepares for the next war by training to fight the last war.  Have you ever heard that expression?  And then what happens, the next war is fundamentally different and they’re woefully unprepared.

Look at Jesus’ mountaintop moment with Peter, James, and John.  Peter, James, and John were working of an old model of mountain top encounters.  They didn’t realize:  the rules of engagement, when it comes to Jesus, had changed.  When you’re on the mountain top with Jesus: retool, rethink, and then reengage.  The old ways of envisioning the prophets, especially the perceived roles of people like Elijah and Moses are no longer relevant.  I can’t stress to you how crucial this is.  Why is this so important?

Because: this is not a first century ghost story where Jesus meets with the spirits of two dead people or a funny anecdote about Peter building a tent for ghosts.  Oh, isn’t Peter dumb for not getting the full supernatural reality of what he’s witnessing!  It’s not about Peter.  This is not the Jerusalem Ghost Project.  I do not believe in ghosts, not even the Judeo-Christian kind.  If I don’t believe in people talking to ghosts in real life, why would I do it when it comes to the Bible?  When you’re dead, you’re dead.  Jesus did not meet with the ghosts of Elijah and Moses on the top of a very high mountain.  However, Jesus did need to convey a sense of legitimacy beyond his closest circle of friends.

If anything, Matthew’s record of Peter’s bumbling isn’t a swipe at his ham handed religious clumsiness.  Peter is a stand in for anyone and everyone who can’t see beyond the old God box.  And yes, that might include us.  Peter’s physical disturbance, “what to build” is also an emotional disturbance “how do I respond”.  That’s what this story is about.  The early church was trying to get people to respond to Jesus in a way unlike their previous responses to prophets like Elijah or Moses.  Here’s where the “putting God in box” analogy come back into play.  What was Peter trying to do?  He was literally trying to build a box, a physical box to contain metaphysical beings.  Do you see how ridiculous that sounds?  Jesus makes the same point.  We see it.  But yet we try to do the same thing.  This story is one way to illustrate:  you can no longer pigeonhole Jesus in the same way you’ve always thought about religion.  Everything you’ve believed about who Jesus is and what he represents, up to this point, needs to be transformed.

Jesus is always unsettling and upsetting our expectations.  He’s not the God we thought we wanted or expected.  He arrived as a defenseless child in a manger, born to an unwed mother.  Immediately, the world was asked to retool, rethink, and reengage.  It’s like that from each day forward.  Jesus is not your grandparents God.  And yes, that does leave us unsteady.  Jesus doesn’t leave us unsafe.

Start with your why.   Why are we on this mountain in the first place?  We’re on the mountain because there is a lesson to be learned about boxes and shelters.  The structures we create will not contain what Jesus intends to do.  In the past God worked through Moses to create laws carved into stone.  Through Elijah (and we’ve talked about it here), God enacted fiery displays of deadly power.   What Jesus is doing is bigger than fireworks from the sky or stone tablets carved on a mountain.  We come down from mountains, stone will erode, and fire eventually goes out.  And when our fire dies, our eyes grow blind, unable to read the law, and our feet are unsteady:  he will claim our brokenness.

The shelters we might have built for Elijah, Moses, or Jesus are empty monuments to ourselves.  It is from within these, “safe spaces” that Jesus reaches in and dismantles what we were building to protect him from a world he can handle just fine own his own.   Despite our desire to fight battles that aren’t ours to fight and disconnect ourselves from God’s presence and love; Jesus comes down the mountain with us, discarding our sin, claiming our brokenness, embracing our blessings, and doing what all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could never do for Humpty Dumpty:  he puts us back to together again.  I guess you could say we are walking, talking shelters for the living God.

Mississippi Isn’t Burning: Lighten Up

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1. Between the two churches (Getwell Road and The Orchard), they don’t equal the size of one congressional district. Come back screaming “the sky is falling” when you’ve got more numbers in play.

2. How is it “big” news that mega church Methodists in Mississippi (a state that’s overwhelmingly Republican, voted for Donald J. Trump, and still has the Confederate flag on the state flag) aren’t pleased with the general direction of the United Methodist Church? If you’re shocked by this and think it’s indicative of national trends, there’s a seat for you on the National Security Council.

3. Do we honestly need more stuff to wring our hands about? Theological tizzies are just fine but I’m running out of room to care about people pissed off about the direction of Methodism. If you’ve not noticed, the country’s being driven by a self-tanning addict who thinks Sweden was  just attacked.

4. There are people in my church who are not exactly thrilled with Methodism but they are more worried about how to pay for their health care costs. Some are worried about being deported.  If you’ve got time to worry about who owns your church and pays your preacher, you must have no other concerns. What a privileged life you lead.  Your gas tank is full, your kids have college paid for, and your grandparents have good elder care. You are blessed.  I know they are proud of their self-righteousness.

5. Whatever image of Methodism these churches held it was delusional. They know God, Jesus, the Bible, and Wesleyan doctrine better than the rest of us. That kind of narcissism isn’t healthy. I’ll keep praying for them. Maybe they can get a bulk rate on group therapy.  Mass psychosis isn’t anything new.  It makes me mad when the rest of us decide to play along.  Don’t give them the coverage they crave.  Let them go and as my  grandmother always said, “Don’t let the door hit your butt on the way out.”

A Letter to Jesus Concerning the Lectionary (Matthew 5:38-48)

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Dear Jesus, God, or the Holy Spirit:

YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!  Have you seen the lectionary passages for this week?  I know you’ve SEEN them because it’s in the Bible and you’ve read the Bible.  Did you know these passages were the passages for this week, the third week of February 2017, in the United States of America?

What were you thinking?  Do you know what will happen if I preach this on Sunday morning?  I’ll be out of a job and my kids will have to change schools midyear.  Leviticus 19 is radioactive right now.  There is no way I can stand up in the pulpit and preach these words from Leviticus 19:10, “Also do not pick you vineyard clean or gather up all the grapes that have fallen there.  Leave these items for the poor and immigrant; I am the Lord your God.”  Some people will hear this as a critique of capitalism, as me telling them God wants them not to make all the money they can make.  Intentionally leave profit behind, in your vineyard, whatever your vineyard may be.  I’m not telling them anything.  I’m reading your words straight off the page.  Of course, there are sections of Leviticus dealing with stoning gay people some people wouldn’t argue with at all.

Apparently God didn’t stutter when it came to stoning gays but when it came to saving so poor and immigrants, their cell phone reception went out entirely.  After the past three weeks, that crazy press conference, ICE raids, I’m now supposed to read from the lectionary that one of God’s priorities is caring for the poor and immigrants.  People will not like this God.  They will accuse him of meddling in politics, not giving our new leader a chance, and even being a so called God weak on security.  I know you’re not weak on security.  I saw what you did to the Egyptian army at the Red Sea.  I am fully briefed on your security capabilities.  It seems, Lord, those facts no longer matter.

Leviticus 19:15 says, “You must not act unjustly in a legal case.”  Honestly?  Have you seen anything coming out of the Senate, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, or the White House lately?  If I say this, both sides will hear what they want to hear.  Like both warring parties in the Civil War, injustice is a hallucination in which God appears to be your best friend.  The verse goes on to say, “you must judge your fellow Israelites fairly” and “you must not hate your fellow Israelite in your heart”.  Yes Lord, we need to talk about fairness and the hate in our hearts.  But let me say this, it’s going to make many people uncomfortable, especially if we do it right and use the Bible as a guide.  Many people will become uncomfortable.  Some might even leave the church.  When the Bible talks about fairness, walking away from hate, it looks nothing like what Leviticus 19:18 says, “You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead you must love your neighbor as yourself.”

I know I’ve got to say this on Sunday morning.  I don’t have a choice.  No one else is going to say it (not here anyway).  They don’t say it on the news, from the White House, on television programs, or even from the religious establishment.  It needs to be done.  But to be honest I’m scared.  I’m afraid.  I know your words never go down easy to people who are caught up in fear and trembling of their man made Gods.

Jesus, what am I going to do with your words?  Matthew tells me, “You have heard that it was said, ‘you must love you neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love you enemies and pray for those who harass you.”  Did you ever have occasion to read the travel ban Jesus?  We’re at war Jesus.  With people who hate us, our way of life, and our freedoms.  You want us to pray for these radical Islamists who are trying to buy plane tickets to this country, at this very moment?  I believe that’s what you’re saying.  I honestly do.  I think you want us to pray for the people who are our real enemies, not only the people we fell out with at a drunken New Year’s Eve party 2 years ago or over a Facebook spat over passenger trams on our island.

Jesus wants us to love our enemies.  But somehow Jesus, I’m afraid people will treat the command to love one’s enemies as fake news.  Like loving your neighbor, it will be viewed as a touchy feely idea, made up by liberal churches designed subvert the fabric of American democracy.

But you don’t stop at our enemies.  Jesus, you go well past enemies.  At the end of Matthew 5, I’m supposed to preach on this impossibility: “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.”  Hey, all you flawed human beings with problems too numerous to count!  Yes, I’m talking to you!  You need to love everybody.

Most of us are incapable of loving ourselves.  Everybody means everybody.  Yes, that means the guy who cuts you off in traffic.  Big deal, like that’s so hard.  It also means the guy at grocery store who never remembers your name.  That’s one huge emotional leap.  Jesus, are you telling me to love everyone who, if I really try to love, it will cost me something?  It’s nothing, emotionally or physically speaking, to get over road rage or someone forgetting my name.  To love someone, particularly somebody who you’ve deemed an enemy (or who regards you as an enemy) takes a piece of your soul.  Jesus, I would think you know a great deal about the latter.

I am reluctant and a little afraid to preach the words given to me this week.  It freaks me out. I know when people hear neighbor, immigrant, and enemy they’re going to think I’m talking about one thing when really I’m talking about you guys.  I could cop out and do a sermon series or talk about the last TED talk I saw.  I could tell a funny story about borrowing my neighbor’s lawnmower and going to a block party.  That’s not real.  I’d call that a fake sermon.  It wouldn’t be right.  I wouldn’t be doing my job.

Yours truly,

Richard

Watching Good People Cry

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As Sundays go, it was a pretty good day.  Scout Sundays are like that.  Our Boy Scout troop is not that active at the moment so we were blessed with plenty of Cub Scouts.  That was fine.  Having been both a Cub and Boy Scout, I know the Cubs are the less jaded of the two.  The Cubs are happy and proud of their uniforms.  Not that the Boy Scout’s aren’t, but to the Cubs, they are still a novelty.

The two who arrived first came a good 15 minutes before Sunday School began.  They wanted to point out to me that they matched.  Their uniforms were in sync.  This is important.   Boy Scouts will often throw on their uniform shirts with any pair of trousers and go.  These guys had matching dark blue pants and black shoes.  They were in full dress uniform.  Despite the fact both had stayed up all night (until 1:30) playing video games, they were taking this Cub Scout Sunday seriously.

I said to one of the guys, “You like really look nice today.”  And without missing a beat, the Cub said back to me, “you look nice too.”  I need to tell you what I was wearing.  I had on the same khaki pants and plaid shirt I wear on most days.  I wasn’t wearing a collar, robe, or clerical attire.  I didn’t feel all that nice.   It was almost ten and I’d already been at church for four hours.  I was worn out.  Somehow, this compliment, out of the blue changed the course of my morning.  Why?  Because I knew this kid meant what he said.  All the scouts looked sharp and even though I didn’t feel special, nice, or even like I should be leading worship, maybe there was hope for me yet.   A sincere compliment can work wonders on the human soul.

The service proceeded as normal.  On special Sundays, we work observances into our methods.  God’s people called ourselves to worship, we sung, and took a collection.  I preached what my British friends would call an all-age message on 1 Corinthians 13.   Love makes the weirdest camping trips and the strangest churches tolerable places.  The kids stayed with me.  I kept the whole thing to about 12 minutes.  Attention spans, even for well-behaved scouts aren’t something you want to play with, especially on beautiful Sunday morning.

Our congregation is full of saints and sinners.  I love them all.  Perhaps the most precious moment of worship is when I stop speaking and offer the opportunity for those gathered to share their prayer concerns and celebrations.   On Sundays when we are not celebrating Holy Communion, I believe this is the most sacred time in worship.  There are no rich, poor, local, off island, native, tourist, or any other distinction.  Before our God, we talk about where we are and what’s on our minds.

It was in this time of sacred conversation, my day grew darker.  Two of our members, a husband and wife who support of the church shared that a large unidentified mass had been found in the wife’s lungs.   It didn’t look good.  She’s going in for a biopsy later this week.   What’s so strange about that, Richard?  A church member may have cancer, haven’t you dealt with that for years?  Isn’t this the much vaunted pastoral care part of your job?  Sadly, there is nothing strange.  Yes, I’ve dealt with it for years.  Yes, it is the pastoral care facet of my calling.

Life and death never get any easier.  In fact, it gets harder.  Secondly, context is everything.  Just ask Job. This family, these wonderful people believe God’s promises in the wake of tragedy like few people I’ve ever met.  They lost a teenage son in a tragic accident several years ago.  They counsel parents who’ve lost young children.  The wife is caring for a severely ill parent with dementia at this moment.  Now cancer seems to come from nowhere.

I spoke with them after church.  She said to me, “Will God take me because I’m an only child who will look after my mother?”  I hope not.  That would be cruel and wrong. What do you say to that?  Honestly?  Do you talk about plans, purpose, and the virtue of suffering?  Only if you’re a heartless jerk.  People in pain don’t want pep talks.  I do know that.

They were trying to hold on to hope as they held back tears.  I, as their pastor, was trying to hold on with them.  I didn’t know what to say.  I know what I was saying in my head.  “God, you bastard, how could you? These are not the people to strike down.  A good God shouldn’t kill good people.”  Haven’t these people been through enough?

There’s so much going on in the world.  Self righteous Methodists in Mississippi want to save themselves from Hell.  North Korea seems bent on taking us all there.  We need to offer sanctuary to our Hispanic neighbors.  Refugees should be able to find safe homes in safe countries.  The God who gives us clues on how to find peace and treat our neighbors, in the real world I’m living in right now, is undermining my ability to explain why good people are dying.

Yeah, I’m mad.  I’m mad at the idea of a good God.  Why?  Because I hate to see good people cry.

The Messy Truth About Camping (Scout Sunday) 1 Corinthians 13:1-7

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Do you know how to find your way if you’re lost in the woods?  Start playing solitaire.  Someone will always come up behind you and tell you the next card to play.  No need for that fancy digital compass, a GPS, or a mobile phone.  All you need is a deck of cards.  Why do I say this?  Because as scouts (and regular people who love the great outdoors-we leave in a National Park after all) you know that hiking and camping are activities you never do alone.  You always take a friend, a buddy, and you take great care not to get lost.  However, the more people who go along, the more weirdness that’s apt to occur.

What do you pack when you go for a camping trip? According to my scout handbook:  tent, sleeping bag, ground sheet, foam pad, sweater, rain coat, sneakers, rain shoes, a change of clothes, a knife, fork, spoon, bowl, cup, toiletry kit, sewing kit, toilet paper, flashlight, Bible ( or suitable prayer book), canteen, camera, songbook, musical instrument, wallet, money, and mosquito repellent.  That pretty much covers it.  Do you know what’s not on this all inclusive list?  The stuff we don’t realize we’re bringing.  We take our weirdness with us wherever we go.  It’s part of who we are.  We don’t even know we’re carrying it.  We’re so accustomed to living in our own weird bubble, we think we’re normal.

But then, you have to spend the weekend with other people.  You realize other people are really different.  There will be a person with the sniffles.  His cold might make someone else sick or keep his tent mate up all night long.  Another will be a little homesick and sad.  Maybe someone forgot to bring socks.  Somebody else might be angry at having to spend the weekend in the woods and nowhere near electricity or cell phone signals.  Weirdness slips right in between the sewing kit and toilet paper.  And that’s ok, because weirdness is good.

Weirdness comes to the surface on scout camping trips.  Once on a camping trip to our old scout camp ground, Camp Uwharrie, I found myself tied to a lawn chair with duct tape and gagged with pop tarts.  While it sounds awful and it was, until I could start to chew, it was just one of those weird things that happen on camping trips.  I was in the seventh grade.  And to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever had quite the same love for Pop Tarts.   It was weird.  But weirdness is good.  We need our God given weirdness to survive.

The Apostle Paul, who was kind of Jesus’ first scout master, knew all about weird.  He saw weird things, dealt with weird, and thrived on bringing weird to the surface.  He wanted the early Christians to embrace their weirdness.  He would say to us scouts, “you’ve got to bring weird back to your pack, troop, church, and world.”  Why?  Because Jesus makes things weird for people too caught up in a world where things are always predictable, planned, normal, and boring.  Jesus keeps it weird.

Paul’s favorite weirdoes were a group of people in a town called Corinth.  The Corinthians didn’t believe anything about their lives was weird.  In fact, they thought their women were strong, the men were good looking, and all the children were above average.  Paul burst their over inflated bubble, they weren’t all they thought they were cracked up to be.  They had problems.  They were a little weird.  But that was ok.  God works with weirdness.

Paul wrote them a letter, explaining how God works with our strangest habits and weirdness.  Here’s what he said:  If I have some really weird sounding gifts, say I speak in the language of angels but am a real jerk to people and have no love in my heart, what kind of person am I?  Think about that question.

Then he asks them something else.  He says, “If I give over my own body to feel good about what I’ve done and don’t have love, what do I have?”  That’s kind of a weird thing, isn’t?  Somebody who just hands over their whole body to feel good about handing over their whole body, I’d call that weird.  If you do that out of your own interest not because you love somebody, why do it?  Think about that question.

If I give you a kidney not because you need the kidney but because I want everybody to think I’m awesome because I gave you the kidney, that’s both weird and wrong.  You can be weird but you need love mixed in with your weirdness.   Most people are not that giving.  We call them “generous to a fault”.  They give until it literally hurts.  It’s a little strange, especially when people give so much for total strangers.  We wonder, “What motivates them?”  Unless it’s love for their friends, their quirky weirdness means nothing at all.

Here’s one more and it may be the best one yet.  Imagine you’ve got more faith than anyone.  You’ve got so much faith, you’re the happiest, optimistic, most joy filled person who has ever lived. You are so positive it’s contagious, like when Mr. Sniffles sneezes and gives everyone a cold.  You’ve give everyone else faith.  You are Mr. Faith.  If you said, I believe we could move a mountain, you could do it and people would believe you because you’re so positive.  You’ve got the faith.   Somebody with that much faith would be a little weird in this day and time.  No, I’ll say that would be super weird.  Why?  Because most people are super negative, depressed, and a little mean.  It’s strange to find people with strong faith.  When you do come across them, it’s a little weird.

Paul tells his Corinthian friends the weirdest thing is this:  to have all that positive faith and lack love.  That’s the same as leaving for your camping trip with nothing at all, no sleeping bag, tent, or pillow.  You may have faith someone else will bring extra stuff but your ideas about who’ll have more than enough to share aren’t all that accurate.  Without love, all that much needed positive faith in our time of negativity is really just a bunch of meaningless words.  It’s not really weird at all.  It’s someone pretending to care about people with words and forgetting that actions matter too.  Paul says, be weirdly positive, and do it in a way that actually matters and touches people’s lives with love.

Love and kindness makes everything better, especially our weirdness.  The church is a place that thrives on this special weirdness.  We wouldn’t be who we are without it.  We need to be weird in order to survive.  Weirdness is part of our DNA.  It’s in our pockets, in the walls, under the paint, and even in the Bible.  We take it with us everywhere we go.  You do the same.  I did it when I went on camping trips.  I had to have my tissues folded just the right way.  I wanted the red plastic folding scout cup and the official scout mess kit.  A plate in a plastic bag wouldn’t do.  That was a little weird.  Our weirdness slips in to the rolls of our sleeping bags, like the candy I took on my Order of the Arrow initiation.  We need to embrace our weirdness and bring our weirdness back.  Because this is what makes us unique!

You know what’s better than bacon?  Bacon dipped in maple sugar.  You know what’s better than church people being their natural weird selves, church people being their natural weird selves in love. Why, because this weirdness, from our fascination with dipping babies in water to drinking grape juice one a month is a special kind of strangeness: one that reminds us to patient, kind, cutback on the jealousy, kick arrogance in the butt, stop being so rude to people, be less grumpy, and quit keeping score with our friends and family.  Do you know about keeping score?  That’s when you remember things like, “you made me mad a week ago so I’m still ticked off at you today?”  You know what I’m talking about.  Our weirdness, the weirdness that makes Church different and unique, makes that wrongness seem so out of line.  In the words of Elsa from Frozen, our loving weirdness helps us to, “let it go”.

Paul says it’s up to us, we modern day Corinthian campers, to keep the church weird!