upper room daily devotions

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Gaudete Sunday, Contemplative Life, and an Unjust World

This past Lent, The Well, a new ministry in Seattle gathered together a small group of people to begin the experiment of writing, embracing, and living a rule of life. One of the components of our life is a weekly "check-in" (or accountability) email that includes questions that get at "How is it with your soul" as well as a reminder about our shared values and practices, and an offering of an idea or thought for dialogue. Here is the dialogue component from today. I thought I would share it here.

Today is Gaudete Sunday. The Magnificat is the psalm for the day. With the many demonstrations about police brutality; with the passing of an unjust national budget that punishes the environment, gives license to Wall Street to steal from the average person with impunity, and that once again gives the wealthy more ways to influence our political process; and, with the 2nd anniversary of the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, I am reminded how important the contemplative stance is for me in believing the hope and promise of Mary's Song. It can be difficult to trust that a world of justice and compassion is possible, but the Magnificat reminds us that it is not only possible, it is God's promise. 

Henri Nouwen wrote in his book Creative Ministry, “Christian life is not a life divided between times for action and times for contemplation. No. Real social action is a way of contemplation, and real contemplation is the core of social action. In the final analysis, action and contemplation are two sides of the same reality which makes a man [sic] an agent of change.” He explains this with an image. Imagine a wagon wheel. The center hub is our contemplative center. From there radiate the spokes of energy and action. "Without the center axis, the spokes would lose their anchor and be unable to support the forward motion of the wheel. Without the spokes, the center axis would be deemed extraneous. When we are least connected to our contemplative center, our life is most tense and chaotic. When we are anchored in contemplative spirituality, the active, exterior expression of our life is more peaceful, purposeful, and effective" (Nouwen, CM).

The contemplative center is what holds us together for the work of justice in the world. This center holds us close to God's promise as sung by Mary. Without it, we spin out into the world, unanchored, unmoored, unable to remain the pain and dwell in unjust places without becoming overwhelmed. With a contemplative center, we remain close to God's loving and transformative energy.

This Gaudete Sunday, I give thanks that Mary could find these words to sing. She could have sung about the pains of being an unmarried woman, or pregnant before her time, or poor with a new mouth to feed - all of which would have been understandable laments. Yet, she shows to sing a song about glory - glory rooted in a dream of justice, a glory rooted in justice that will come from the promise growing inside of her.

When I feel despair about the world - and I do very often - I am grateful that the Magnificat is the closing prayer so many days, if one uses traditional fixed hour prayer practices. In the reading of the Magnificat, I am reminded that God's promise grows in unlikely places (like me) and that God uses people before they are ready and secure and prepared (like me) and that God's promise is bigger and more wonderful than the vessel that may bear it into the world (like me) and that this promise can be born even where it really shouldn't be (like in our world). The Magnificat, to me, is the very soul of the contemplative life. I'm so very glad we pray it daily and that today, on Gaudete Sunday, we pay it special attention.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Words, Violence, and Society

On Thursday, a shooter open fired at Seattle Pacific University, a Free Methodist university just down the hill from the church where I serve. There are students and faculty who have ties to my congregation, and there are members of my congregation who have long and deep connections with the school. I have been deeply impressed by the responses of students and the institution as a whole to this unimaginable horror. They are taking care of each other, rooting their grief in prayer, offering laments, and holding one another in love and tenderness. They are doing what they need to do, so I am not going to write about this particular shooting. Even referencing it here leaves me feeling dirty, as though this real and deep tragedy is fodder for casual conversation. I am also not going to use this space to talk about the politics of specific legislation. That, too, I believe cheapens the real grief of this moment. Rather, this brief reflection is about our culture of violence.

In fact, many people in the country are unaware of the shooting in our sleepy and peaceful neighborhood. Perhaps this is because the next day there was a shooting in Georgia at a courthouse. On Sunday, there was a double murder in Seattle, possibly a hate crime. On Sunday there was also the rampage in Las Vegas in which the shooters prepared for a lengthy battle. Just today, another school, this one in Oregon, also became a school shooting statistic as yet another gunman entered a high school and took the life of a student. In just school settings alone, there have been 74 shootings since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

There is something deeply insidious about how easily our culture turns to violence, and this trend requires deep examination. The ease with which we kill our children and with which our children kill one another says something truly disturbing about our culture. Many want to say that mental illness is the culprit that needs addressing, and we do need to address the flawed mental health system, but there have always been mentally ill people in our communities, and they have not acted with violence as we have seen in recent decades. Others will say that we need to address the proliferation of guns in society, and we do, but guns have always been part of American culture. Again, the presence of guns does not necessarily equate with violence, much less public acts of violence, especially violence directed toward our young. The increase in indiscriminate violence, especially in public settings, is a symptom of the isolation, despair, and anti-social disposition of our culture at large. And, it is tragic.

As this community begins the long hard process of grieving, I realize that families and communities across the country are sadly dealing with similar feelings of grief, and are struggling to make sense of the ease with which we turn to one another in violence.

It is imperative that we take a bald and unflinching look at ourselves. It is time to peel back the veneer that we have deftly placed over society in order to begin to understand the "why" of violence, especially violence in public places, especially violence perpetrated by and at children and youth. Why are so many young white men loading up and strapping on? This "why" may scare us all, for we may all may be implicated by the answer.

In our public square, politicians routinely demonize one another. They openly refer to one another as unpatriotic, of wanting to inflict harm on the country, of not caring about its citizens, even of being traitors. In the public, media personalities "report news" that is nothing more than innuendo. These, of course, are easy suspects to name, but throughout society a trend of demonization is at work. We say unspeakable things about one another. We think horrible things about "them." We isolate from one another. We live in fragmented communities divided into "us" and "them." Even as we move in greater number into urban areas, we isolate from one another, segregate ourselves, and live in suspicion of our neighbors. It's how we have structured our world. And, it needs to stop.

One of the basic premises of the Judeo-Christian narrative is that words make worlds. In Genesis, God speaks creation into being. While some look to this as a science story, I look to it as "truth story." We speak our worlds into being. If I say that I hate you long enough, I will hate you - with my mind, soul, emotions, and even the chemistry of my body. When Christians say that a group of people will go to hell, it becomes easy for that group to be reviled, marginalized, and preyed upon. When atheists demean people of faith, it becomes easy to think that people of faith are less than human. If someone buys into a philosophy of self-preservation and self-advancement, the natural outcome is that the neighbor doesn't matter, especially the vulnerable neighbor. If someone tells another person that he or she is worthless, over time that untruth is internalized and becomes a dangerous part of a troubled and troubling inner world. The old saying that "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me" is a lie. It always has been. Words matter. How we talk to and about one another matters. It matters in our interpersonal relationships. It matters in public discourse. And, it affects how we treat one another.

Violence does not begin when a troubled person picks up a gun and shoots another person. It does not begin when the bully hits a victim. It does not begin when a rapist rapes. It begins in our heads. It begins in how we think about one another. It begins in how we understand community. It is made real when we use hurtful and hateful words. And, it transforms into something grotesque when the word is turned into action.

I wish I had an answer to our culture of violence; I don't. The best I can muster as a pastor is that I have been called to be a person of peace amid violence. As a follower of Christ, I am compelled to speak publicly about peace in the face of violence. As a member of society, I have an obligation to atone for the ways in which my thoughts, words, and deeds contribute to violence. Like so many other important things, examining ourselves in light of the violence we create and in which we are immersed is complex and hard fraught, but it is imperative that we rise to the challenge. Another young person was killed today. In a school. The last day before summer. This should be unconscionable. A reasonable society will not allow this to continue. A compassionate people will not stand for this.

I suppose I am left wondering if there is any reason left in us. Is there any compassion?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

"Earthrise/Christrise" a Christmas Eve Sermon"

"Earthrise" Seattle Times
Forty-five years ago today, astronaut William Anders took the first color photograph of earth from space. It changed everything; 1968 was a year known by violence and war and assassinations, by change and chaos and the loss of trust in institutions, and this one photo gave a new, larger vision of what it means to be - to exist at all. Now known as "Earthrise," Anders' photo stood, and still stands, as a symbol of humility and wonder, of vulnerability and strength. For the first time, human beings could see our place in relation to the deep darkness of space. Our "little blue ball" shining in the midst of pin pricks of light surrounded by incalculable darkness, Earthrise shows both the vibrancy and the vulnerability of what it means to call Earth home.

Our Judeo-Christian narrative says that a God of sufficiency desired more - desired relationship - and by imagination and articulation brought creation in to being. The Christian story goes on to say that to poor parents in an occupied land, God's articulation became flesh and entered into the fullness of the human condition. In one person we find the fullness of God's grace and mercy, compassion and justice. Here, again, like in Earthrise, we find humility and wonder, vulnerability and strength.

Christmas is an invitation to a new perspective and the new experiences that perspectives brings. It takes us on a journey to see the world more fully and wholly and to engage in it without reserve. What does it mean to share this blue ball with one another? Christmas asks of us to do something almost impossible - to see and not be afraid, to confront the overwhelming aloneness of darkness and to not be overwhelmed, to see the joy and wonder and glory in that one little blue dot rather than the imposing emptiness that surrounds it as vast as it is. Christmas is about relationship - God's relationship with us and our relationship with one another. We live on a small floating ball together - Muslims and Buddhists, straight and gay, Easterners and Westerners, capitalists and socialists. We are immigrants, migrants, refugees, and travelers. Here we are. We live along rivers and in valleys, in deserts and on mountains. We speak hundreds and hundreds of different languages. We worship different gods. We sing different songs. We tell different fables. But we are neighbors. We are here in the ocean of space together.

When we as Christians arrive at the manger, we find not a king with power and armies and a palace. We find the brokenness of humanity in poverty. We also find the limitless joy and possibility of new life and the uncertainty that accompanies new parenthood. We find the earthiness of animals - their smell, their waste, their warmth. We find nomads and shepherds. And there are angels proclaiming to us over and over that we might not be overwhelmed by the smallness and the poverty and the uncertainty. They are the color in our story that punctuates the darkness of everything by saying "Do not be afraid for I bring you glad tidings of great joy." They sing what we should feel, "Glory in the highest." The manger is a new world without domination or violence. It is a the feeding trough for the world. It is where all come and find room and hospitality and warmth, and no one is turned away. The manger is like our Earth floating amidst space; it is one small place of respite in a conflicted hurting world.

May Christmas offer you a new perspective. May it change everything for you. In the midst of war and violence and grief and the loss of trust, may this day serve as a reminder of the wonder of life. In it, God's holy light pricks through the darkness. This evening, we welcome the Christ-child. May we nurture him with love by treating one another with gentleness and sacredness. As we live on the earth, may we treat it with reverence. It is God's breath shaped into our home. May we not look upon one another with suspicion but with love knowing we share a vulnerable experience with each other and that we need each other for our very existence. May Christmas be for us "Christrise," a new picture of reality that challenges everything and gives us hope. Amen.

*Ironically, William Anders left his home religion of Roman Catholicism after this experience, asking, "Are we that special? I don't think so."

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A plea to liberal Christians: Utilize better biblical exegesis. Stop decrying "Pharisees"

Oh, friends. I really don't want to write this post. It is difficult to challenge those with whom one mostly agrees, but I've come to a point at which silence has become untenable.

"Liberal Christians" (whatever that means), in your attempts to "correct" the theology of those you deem "conservative," please use better biblical exegesis. Have a better historical understanding of the scriptures you quote. For the love of God, don't be lazy when referring to scripture to uphold a theological point.

In the wake of the verdict against Frank Schaefer, a United Methodist clergy convicted in a church trial for conducting a same-sex union, liberal commentators have rightfully taken to social media, blogs, and other forums to express disappointment and anger. I, of course, share their pain for this decision and for the church's continued stance relative to LGBTQI people. However, I feel compelled to challenge my friends and colleagues on their lazy exegesis. So, here I go...

In particular, please refrain from comparing an unjust church and its practices to "Pharisees," which today is known as rabbinic Judaism, or, just Judaism. Even worse is the way the word "Pharisaism" is used in a sneering way as though it sounds like a disease for which a round of antibiotics might be in order. Yes, "Pharisaism" appears in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary. Its first definition is "the doctrines or practices of Pharisees." The second, and problematic definition reads, " pharisaical character, spirit, or attitude :  hypocrisy." In the New Testament, Pharisees serve a prominent role, but that role is not what Christianity has made it out to be. Pharisees were biblical experts, interpreters of law. They were not the bogeymen of the Bible. Pharisees were one sect of Judaism. In fact, Jesus shares much of their theology; this is what makes them a relevant partner in arguing texts, law, and Jewish life. Moreover, within Judaism, the use of argument does not signify enemy status. Rather, arguing is part of the spiritual practice of arriving at new understanding.  Jesus speaks about resurrection, like Pharisees. He is well versed in Torah, like Pharisees. He wears tzittzit, worships in synagogues, and adheres to Jewish law (more on that in a moment), like Pharisees.

One of the main missteps that Christians take in putting Jesus over and against Pharisees is that they contrast purity with compassion. Pharisees champion purity; Jesus champions compassion. This practice has to stop. In the book "The Historical Jesus in Context," Amy-Jill Levine writes:

...complicating the discussion is a popular view that Jesus sought to replace the Jewish purity system -- seen as creating class-based distinctions, filtering funds to the Temple (itself seen as a corrupt institution), marginalizing women (who would be in states of impurity because of menstruation and parturition), and concentrating piety and so [sic] power in the hands of the Pharisees -- with a system of compassion. This false distinction (the opposite of purity is impurity, and of compassion, the lack of compassion) is based on a variety of factors: the equally false distinction sometimes drawn between Law and Grace, the reductive equation of ritual impurity with sin, a presumption that first-century Jews followed the Mosaic Torah fully, literally, and uniformly, ignorance of purity's import to Gentiles, the false assumption that men were not concerned with or subject to ritual impurity, the equating of purity and class (the high priest can become ritually impure; a peasant widow can be in a state of purity), basic misunderstandings of the ancient sources...and, occasionally, Christian apologetic (31-32).

In doing this, Christians miss a deeper understanding of Jesus and his historical and theological contexts. Levine goes on to say:

Both the Jesus of the Gospels and the Rabbis of Mishnah and Talmud...alleviate any hardship created by following the more literal sense [of law]. Exemplifying this process in the Gospels are the "Antitheses" of Matthew that follow the formulaic structure, "You have heard that it was said...But I tell you..." While the interpretation of Matthew 5:44, "But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," is novel...the means by which the Gospel derives this interpretation are not:...the word "neighbor" can be stretched to include "enemy" because the terms in Hebrew share the same consonants; only the pronunciation differs.

That is, Jesus uses word play to show that the difference between neighbor and enemy is one of emphasis. Or, to be clear, there is no actual distinction.

I am not going to go as far as some scholars and posit that Jesus was a Pharisee. If one reviews social constructs of many movements, one will find that Jesus shares traits with many without fully subscribing to any (Levine, 12). However, the biblical reference to Jesus as Rabbi is the first reference to any man as a rabbi. Uttered by Mary, the first one to encounter the risen Christ, Jesus becomes the first person in literature referred to as "Rabbouni," or "teacher," "rabbi." Interesting for someone who is "obviously" opposed to rabbis, teachers, i.e., Pharisees.

The other argument that repeats itself when liberal Christians talk about Jesus and social change is that Jesus "broke the law" and so we can to. Frequently, they point to Jesus "breaking Sabbath law." In order to make this claim, Christians might refer to Mark 2:23-28 or Mark 3:1-3. In the Mark 2 story, Jesus' disciples pluck grain on the Sabbath. Questioned by Pharisees (why were they out in the field with Jesus and his disciples???), Jesus refers to a story about David who entered the house of God to get consecrated food for his hungry men. In the next story in Mark 3, which immediately follows the story in the field, Jesus, in a synagogue on Sabbath, heals a man with a withered hand. This time Jesus is the one who challenges the Pharisees by asking them which is more lawful, to do good or to do evil. There is a story in Luke where Jesus heals the "bent over woman" (Luke 13:10-17). Again, challenged by "the leader of the synagogue," Jesus replies that all people work on the Sabbath in taking care of their animals. Isn't, he asks, this woman worth as much? In all three of these "Sabbath law breaking" stories, Jesus is broadening people's ability to participate in Sabbath. With food, with healing. In none of them can those who challenge Jesus bring any kind of charge or apply any kind of punishment. This reveals that first century Judaism, even first century Pharisaic Judaism in particular, was fluid and open to interpretation. Indeed, the process of debate and argument rests at the heart of Pharisaic Judaism; it is used to wrangle an idea forward. Debate often ends with disparate opinions; this remains is true today. Moreover, in the story from Luke, even though the synagogue leader (never identified as a Pharisee) challenges Jesus, the assembly "rejoiced at the wonderful things he had done" (Luke 13:17).

What we learn about stories relative to Sabbath is that Jesus was in synagogue on Sabbath "as was his custom." He read scripture. He wore tzitzit. And, he performed acts that would open people to a more full and expansive experience of Sabbath. He was, indeed, challenged, but those challenges do not imply that Jesus per se "broke the Sabbath law." Rather, they point to differences of opinion regarding law, important differences that helped the early Christian community better identify how it would relate to Jewish law and better understand Jesus' role as an entry point into Sabbath, an entry into God's gift of law and grace.

So, in the same way that I implore you to stop comparing unjust church actions with "Pharisaism," I implore you to stop molding Jesus into something you want him to be. Stop saying that he "broke the law." Unless, of course, you want to talk about Roman law...

Where did the Christian conflation of hypocrisy and the Pharisees originate? Anti-Jewishness quickly arose within the Christian movement. As Jews expelled Christians from their synagogues, a family fight escalated. By the Protestant Reformation, acrimony was strong between Jews and Christians (the Crusades did not help!). In his invective against the Roman Catholic Church, its abuses and excesses, Martin Luther compared the church to Pharisees, and the practice stuck.

Good biblical exegesis can be used to further the efforts to widen the church doors, to move us as a people into work that rights wrongs, creates justice, and helps to usher in God's holy realm. Let's not be lazy. Let's not caricature certain groups in order to bolster the esteem of our own. Let's not create bogeymen and further divide one from another.

Jesus was a healer. Let's talk about that. He restored communities. Let's lift up those stories. He did indeed challenge religious leaders; we can say that. In fact, I think that using the stories that highlight debates between Jesus and other Jews regarding their own laws of identity can be instructive for us in our own debates about identity and communion. Jesus was a provocateur. It's fine for us to show that. He went to the heart of the place of power to speak a different word. He indeed claimed, or at least his community claimed for him, titles and authority that were supposed to lay elsewhere. All of these are ways which we can look to scripture for wisdom and guidance.

Good anthropology is important. So is good sociology. Good theology is imperative within a theological movement. So is good biblical exegesis. "Three out of four ain't bad" just won't work here. Christians insisting on change must embrace a rigorous exegetical practice if we are to be different from those with whom we disagree. We cannot castigate others for poor biblical literacy and then utilize poor exegesis in the composition of our own positions.

God's Holy Creation: a Sermon on Isaiah 65:17-25 (Nov. 17, 2013)

Recently, there has been an increased presence of homeless people coming to the church seeking shelter, warmth, access to electricity and other things we take for granted, and the basic necessities of food and water. While Wall Street has rebounded since the economic downturn, many people are feeling the effects of the sequestration that has left vulnerable women and children with less money for food and health care, seniors who depend upon meals on wheels with decreased funds, and cuts in most of the programs that feed, clothe, house, and care for the most vulnerable in our society. This quiet desperation is largely ignored in the press, which focuses primarily on stocks, GDP, and the housing market, all of which are important but largely divorced from the suffering of those at the margins of our society.

This is true, even in Seattle, which has rebounded faster and more robustly than much of the rest of the nation. A man came to the church this past week and wanted an hour alone in the sanctuary. He told me that as a homeless person, his access to warmth, to fresh water, and to bathrooms is always predicated on being in someone else's company. Shelters provide no privacy. Feeding programs are done in groups. Bathrooms are public. And so on. He said to me that he missed the dignity that comes with the simple luxury of being able sit in a warm place all alone, to be in the bathroom alone, to sleep alone, to eat in quiet, and to have access to these things without a thousand questions from social service providers. And so, he sat in our sanctuary alone for an hour. Without the noise of other people talking to him, around him, at him. He sat out of the cold and wet. In this room, he found something sacred - actual sanctuary.

Interestingly, some of the most poetic and moving words in the Bible were written by people who, like our visitor this week, existed in the midst of struggle. Comfort is a powerful soporific lulling our senses so that the world comes to us just as we expect without high highs or low lows. Discomfort, however, puts us on edge and awakens us to every curse and every blessing. That is why change is rarely sought by those in power, living in ease with money, support systems, and privilege. Change is sought and pushed for by those who are left out, left alone, and left defenseless.

But, not only do those on the margins push for change, they are also the ones who help us to see with new eyes the simple beauty of this world. They are the ones who can bestow hope because they are the ones who understand, in their marrow and spirit, the transformative power of hope. They are the ones who know the life-giving power of joy. Because they are truly alive.

The reading from Isaiah comes about two generations after the Israelites had returned home from exile, somewhere around the year 475 BCE. Jerusalem had been largely destroyed, and while hope spread before them, the former glory of their city no longer existed. They were in the midst of rebuilding their city. There were those who wanted to rebuild things as they once had been. There were those, like our poet and prophet, who understood that streets, homes, and marketplaces in ruins could serve as an invitation to build things differently, to reimagine society and its systems differently. He offered words of hope that, despite their wait and struggle, God is at work "to create a new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind." Through the prophet God says, "Be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight." Such beautiful words for a people hungering for a future they could almost but not quite see or even hope for.

And then, the prophet gives us new creation that is freed from the curses of Genesis 3, the curse of the banishment from the Garden of Eden, in which woman's childbirth becomes painful, human labor becomes toil, and the serpent strikes the heel of humankind. In this new creation, the sorrow of the past will disappear; work on the land becomes a joy; exile (or banishment) will be no longer; children will not be born for calamity; offspring will be blessed.  In this new creation, natural enemies (or unnatural enemies, as animals did not devour one another in the original creation) comfort for one another. Here the prophets gives us one of the most enduring hopes of our faith - the hope and vision of the peaceable kingdom.

God speaks to the broken city and calls forth newness. God has not stopped holy creation. God is still at work in and among us coaxing this forth. This dream is not only a utopian vision, but it is a promise that God is laboring here among us in our world in the midst of our brokenness. God does not send us someplace different to find newness. God pulls newness out of our despair, out of our ruins. This is so very difficult for us to see or to trust because all we see is the devastation. Whether we are talking about violence in the world, empty pews in our churches, or sorrow in our hearts, trusting God's holy creative acts is hard. It is so much easier to think or hope or imagine that God will create something new in a different world, the world after we die, another city, someplace else. But that is not the word the prophet gives us. It is not the vision that God extends to us. God not only creates newness here; God creates newness in the heavens as well. God is making all things new. As the great Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it: "This poet...knows that Yahweh's coming newness is not contained within our present notions of the possible. And although the work of urbanization is hard and daily and concrete, that work is situation in a vision unscarred. What this poet imagines for his treasured city, the subsequent people of faith have regularly entertained as a promise over every failed city. Here the old city is submitted to the wonder of the creator, who makes all things new."

I invite us to lean in to the difficult work of trusting that God - in our city, in our church, in our lives - is molding and shaping us in the joy and delight that we were made to be. I know it's hard. It's hard when the evidence around us is so very contrary to this vision. But God is down in the ruins of this world and the ruins of our lives. God is right here making all things new. God finds ways to use our ruins to help us look beyond the constructs we would erect. God provides sanctuary, sometimes just for a little while, and in the sanctuary moment of rest, trust, and safety, God's holy creative work can be found making all things new. Right now. Today. Beautiful. A delight. As it - we -were intended to be. Amen.

Peace: Back to our roots

As many within the United Methodist Church sort through reactions and responses to the recent trial, conviction, and punishment of the Rev. Frank Schaefer, I return to a prayer from our Anglican Methodist roots. The second Collect in the Morning Prayer is the collect for peace, which reads:

"O GOD, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom: Defend us thy humble servants in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defence, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord.Amen." (Book of Common Prayer)

Sometimes, in order to see our way forward, we look back; we look back for wisdom that is ageless, hopeful, profound, grounding, and true. We need peace. We need it every day. Some need it especially this day. 

I find this prayer especially meaningful because its language is not part of our vernacular. The words do not come easily or naturally. They stand as reminders that peace may require a different language, different thinking, a different approach. This linguistic interruption, by its very awkwardness, ties us to our past, awakens us to the "difference-ness" that prayer introduces in our lives, and helps us distance ourselves from the "normal" of our world.

Of particular meaning for me in this prayer is the word "concord." I defy you to recall a moment when you wrote or spoke it without alluding to a plane, a comedy group, or a grape. "Concord," hosever, refers to harmony among people or groups of people, something many may believe is beyond the power of us all, even (perhaps) God. 

And so we pray. We plead with one another, with God, with our own souls to make the awkwardly unimaginable real. Right here. In our broken covenant. Within broken relationships. In a broken world. We pray. We pray for the wisdom of our heritage to move us into an harmonious future. And, for those times when concord eludes us, we pray for perseverance and protection. For all of this, and so much more, we pray.


Monday, November 18, 2013

Oh, the gay thing once again. Here I go...

As The United Methodist Church continues to struggle with divisions within our connection that strain the fabric of our covenant, once again I feel the need to speak up and out.

This blog post will not cover the "rights" and "wrongs" of biblical exegesis relative to sexual orientation. I have already expressed my feelings of futility for that approach. Rather, this is to serve as a public witness of who I am and how I intend to minister.

First, to all of those who are bone tired of fighting, I apologize on behalf of a church that is making you weary. Our inability to conclude this decades long struggle has taken a toll on everyone - on those who advocate for "traditional" marriage and understandings of gender and sexual orientation as well as on those who continue to press for wider and wider inclusion and a more generous expression of acceptance within the church. No one is exempted from the pain of this fight. However, while many may be exhausted, I only apologize to those who are LGBTQI and their allies. As the ones talked about, derided, judged, called names, shut out and down, and set on the margins, your pain is especially acute. Your weariness is especially overwhelming. I am sorry. I am sorry that your church can feel like a foreign place, that policies of exclusion do not match the generous and supportive community found in your local congregations, that your core selves and your most precious and holy relationships are denied, ignored, and marginalized in the one place that should most honor, support, and uplift them.

As I pray for those who feel as though there is not enough energy left in them to take the next breath, I am reminded of the beautiful poetry from the prophetic tradition of Isaiah,  which was probably written near the end of Babylonian exile for a people in need of hope and comfort.

 Why do you complain, Jacob?    Why do you say, Israel,“My way is hidden from the Lord;    my cause is disregarded by my God”?
Do you not know?
    Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,    and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary    and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary,    and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;    they will run and not grow weary,    they will walk and not be faint (Isaiah 40:27-31).
As much as you feel alone, dispirited, weary, and dejected, you are not alone. This path that is fraught with disappointment, frustration, exile, and struggle stands among many such paths toward homecoming, safety, justice, and new life. You are not alone historically. Our sacred story is one of exile and homecoming, of death and new life. And, you are not alone today. There are many, like me, who stand with you and who can hope for you when hope seems so very elusive.

Second, I want to be clear about one thing. This pastor will baptize, confirm, comfort, welcome into membership, minister with and to, marry, and bury people who identify within the LGBTQI communities. I will do all that I can to ensure that your spiritual community is safe, boundaried, healthy, and mature. I will listen to your pain. I will challenge you to live faithfully with God and your loved ones. I will pray for you. I will help you prepare for marriage and I will stand unapologetically with you and offer God's blessings upon your life shared together. I will baptize you and your children. I will treat your relationship as normative and wonderful and beautiful. I will visit you in the hospital and hold hands with you and your partner in times of distress. I will anoint you with oil and pray for your healing. I will wait by your bedside until your last breath is exhaled. And, I will stand by your grave and offer God's blessings upon your life lived in eternal peace with Christ and the saints who have gone before you. 

These actions should not need to be considered prophetic. This is the calling of a pastor. We are called, trained, and set apart to bear witness to life's most precious moments. We hear people's stories of deep guilt. We bear witness to the wounds of shame. We see humankind from birth to death and through all points in between. This is a holy vocation. And, while we are called to be prophetic, these acts were never supposed to be prophetic. Yet, as a consequence of abiding marginalization, the deeply pastoral is today something also essentially prophetic. If someone were to ask me if I perform such and such action "out of a political stance or a pastoral one," I would have no honest answer except, "Yes." Sadly, the pastoral is also prophetic for pastors in this church - for pastors who dare to bear witness to the fullness of life's holy, painful, and wondrous moments that visit the lives of LGBTQI parishioners and community members.

As marriage equality becomes more prevalent in the United States, more clergy will be forced to come to a peace about how he or she will be present in the lives of people who are LGBTQI. Will they preside over weddings of same sex couples? Will they welcome families with LGBTQI members? Will they baptize, confirm, and welcome into membership LGBTQI people and their families?

Peace visited me on these issues years ago. I am not tired of the fight because I am not fighting. I am at peace. My calling is clear. How I will minister is without struggle or confusion. I am completely at peace with how to minister with and to people who are LGBTQI and their families and friends. If the United Methodist Church seeks to punish me, I am at peace with that process. If the denomination seeks to silence me, it will be disappointed. If I am wrong in my theology or exegesis or anthropology, I trust in the compassion and mercy of God, but I do not think that I am wrong. The church is.

To my colleagues facing trials, administrative processes, and uncertainty, please know that I pray for you, for your families, your congregations, and your vocations. As an Elder in relationship with you, I hold you in my heart.

I pray for the day when the words of Isaiah's prophetic tradition sound like simple poetry that points to a quaint and distant time. But, today, they are poignant and needed. Exile is not forever. Our exhaustion will never overwhelm the goodness and strength of our Creator. The tumultuous path toward justice and compassion may be walked by us, but God goes before and behind us. God has not disregarded our cause. God has not abandoned us to the wilderness alone and vulnerable. And, in our most despairing moments, we can take comfort that God gives us wings like eagles that we might soar to new heights and glimpse new vistas as yet undreamed of by our limited and constrained imagination. God is with us all leading us home. God is with us leading us to new life.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

(Don't Just) Do the Right Thing - A Sermon on Forgiveness Luke 7:36-8:3

Every week when we gather in worship, we pray "forgive us our
trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." Depending
upon what Christian tradition you grew up in, if you did grow up in a
church, you may have also prayed "forgive us our sins" or "forgive us our
debts." All three - trespasses, sins, and debts - reveal the depth of the
power of this prayer. Trespasses - the way we trod on others in unlawful
and uninvited ways. Sins - the ways in which we miss the mark, the goal
that God has set for us. Debts - what we owe. Each word, a good
translation on its own, shades our prayer in a slightly different way.
Perhaps, instead of always praying using the word "trespass," we should
be more expansive and from time to time say "sins" or "debts." Years
ago, a woman came up to me and asked that we not pray the Lord's Prayer
every week; it loses its "specialness" to do so, she said. I thought to myself that this
woman must be much more holy than I am. I trespass, sin, and fall into
debt on a regular basis! I need to pray this prayer with every breath, not
just once a week, and certainly not once a month.

Forgiveness is both an act and a state of being. It is the concern of the
heart and it affects every manner in which we live in the world. Both our
ability to receive and extend forgiveness are the bedrock transactions of
Christianity. And, holy cow, forgiveness is hard to practice in disposition,
that is, in the recesses of our hearts, and in deed.

On to our story.

The story in Luke is a kingdom story; it is an invitation into life lived in the
presence of God, and it moves us into the kingdom by way of a path made of forgiveness.

A man invited Jesus to dinner. Like most dinner parties, I suspect they
talked about all kinds of interesting things. That's what happens around
a table. We share stories, debate politics, and that sort of thing. And, in
the midst of talking about life, real life interrupts - in the form of a woman. And
what a woman she is. We are told that she stands there weeping. What an image. What
vulnerability. She seems to present herself in the midst of her tears.
Tears of poverty. She also brings an alabaster jar of oil and she anoints
Jesus. Oil of extravagance. She is immediately declared a
sinner by the men in the room, which prompts Jesus to tell a story about
two men forgiven debts, one a little and one much, and he ends with a
question. "Now which of them will love him more?" The one forgiven a
little or the one forgiven much? Simon "supposes" (we are told) that the
man forgiven much. Supposes? Simon is hedging. Of course the one
forgiven much will love more in return. Jesus turns to the woman and
forgives her sins. He says it twice. He really means it. And, for those of
us who have sinned much, we need to hear words of forgiveness a lot
because it is difficult to believe, in our hearts, that forgiveness is not only
possible, but extended so freely to us.

In an article called "Forgiveness and Gratitude," David Lose asks, "But is forgiveness really
everything? Can it possibly be worth that much? Consider: forgiveness
at heart is the restoration of relationship. It is releasing any claim on
someone else for some past injury or offense. That’s why the analogy to
a debt works so well. Forgiveness cancels relational debt and opens up
the future. Which is why it’s so important, so valuable.
But it’s also something more. Forgiveness also gives you back yourself.
You see, after a while, being indebted, owing others, knowing yourself
first and foremost as a sinner -- these realities come to dominate and
define you. You are no more and no less than what you’ve done, the
mistakes you’ve made, the debt you owe. When you are forgiven, all
those limitations disappear and you are restored, renewed, set free.
So, yes, forgiveness is everything."

But this story does not concern itself wholly with the receipt of
forgiveness, it reveals the how the hardness of heart closes us from the
liberating power of the gospel. Simon, a man who should understand the
law, sees only a sinner before him. He is irritated that this woman would
interrupt the party with her disruptions. He had a well laid plan for the
evening - of mannered discussion among learned men and this
wandering rabbi that people were talking so much about. And here this
woman comes and messes everything up. The hardness of his heart
closed him off from the miracle of that moment. Inasmuch as we are in
need of forgiveness like the woman, we are like Simon, too - hard
pressed to be graceful in the face of others needing forgiveness. A man
so sure of his place in the world, Simon suffered from what many of us
suffer from - complacency. Comfort. These are insidious diseases that
infect our soul. They make us not only comfortable with ourselves but
intolerant to the wounds, sins, debts, and trespasses of others. A
kingdom moment for the woman is a conflict moment for Simon. So
closed from the power of forgiveness and the transformative power of
grace that he only "supposes" that the indebted man will love more in

As much as this story is told to us individually, this is also a story for the
church as a whole. It is a missional story. Who are we as followers of
Christ? What implication does this story have on our mission and
ministry in the world and in our lives shared with one another?
Absolutely everything.

On a large scale, Christians easily embroil ourselves in conflicts about
doctrine and right thought. And right in the local church or among
intimate relationships, we can become enmeshed in petty
disagreements, too. It's normal. It's natural. That's what flawed human
beings do. We take missteps and we focus on the wrong things, much
like Simon. This story drags us back to our core identity - a people in
need of forgiveness and a people challenged to extend forgiveness. In a
world of broken relationships, people need to hear that trespasses can
be mended. In a world of growing debt - real financial debt - people
yearn to hear a word of debt forgiveness. In a world in which making the
mark is so hard, we need to hear that sins can be forgiven. And, right
here among us - not out in the big world in some abstract way - right
here in this room between you and me, you and the person next to you -
brokenness stands there weeping, crying out for restoration. For us to
believe the best in one another, not for our hearts to be hardened by low
expectations or the expectation of hurtful behavior.

The Christian life is not one that does the right thing, for we will
inevitably fall short. We will, despite our best efforts, not always do the
right thing. And others around us will also fall short. That's part of being
human. The Christian life is a life open to restoration. The Way of Christ
is plotted through a path built of forgiveness - extended and received.
Love, grace, healing. These all arise from forgiveness. Forgiveness
embedded in our hearts. Forgiveness asked for through tears.
Forgiveness lavishly extended to the other like anointment from an
alabaster jar.

The great theological gift in Christianity is grace. Forgiveness is grace
found in relationship. Luke sets this story around a table for a reason.
Our communion table is a physical manifestation of God's grace found in
and through forgiveness. When we come to the table, we come as a
woman weeping, our sins laid bare before our Christ. When we serve
Communion, we serve as a little Christ (which is what "Christian" means,
or an ambassador of Christ, as Paul puts it). We offer to others the grace
and forgiveness offered to us. It is not our grace. It is not our
forgiveness. It is Christ's just as the table is Christ's.

Today God extends to us an invitation to restoration through forgiveness.
When you pray the Lord's Prayer, pray with a heart weeping and honest.
When you take the bread, be assured that you take the healing
presence of Christ into your body. It will circulate through your whole
being working miracles of healing. When you leave this worship go into
the world - not just to do the right thing - but to live whole lives aware of
brokenness and ready for forgiveness. This is the gospel of our Lord.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

My God Is...(Another list)

I am currently taking a week off from work, which means a week not leading worship. Instead of going to morning worship today, I will be in worship this evening, either for evensong or compline. I am taking some time this morning to say a few things about what it means for me to be Christian.

Via Negativa - what God is not.
1. God does not "live" in the sky. Well, God does not "live" in that God is not organic - at least, God exists in and out of the organic.
2. God is not gendered.
3. God is not a person.
4. God does not think.
5. God does not choose.
6. God is not omnipotent (more on that later).
7. God is not Christian.
8. God is not a noun and therefore the modifiers "a" and "the" make no sense.
9. If God is not a noun (which is my premise), then God is not. (Because of this, I do not identify as a theist or a deist - I am a "non-theistic" Christian.")
10. "God" is not a name.

On to something a little more constructive. What God is.
1. "God" is what people have used as a place holder for the ineffable. It points to something as close as our breath and as incomprehensible as, well, something incomprehensible.
2. In my working definition of "God," that word - "God" - points to the force and the movement that bend toward compassion and justice. That's God.
3. God is not omnipotent in that God is relational. Relationship implies serving as both actor and the acted upon. We affect God. That means that God can be changed. In fact, to me, changing and "godding" are quite interlinked.
4. "Godding" - We usually say "God," which is a noun and has definition - edges. But the divine is bigger than that - undefinable. Literally. There are no edges to God. Nouns, by their very existence, have beginnings and ends. For the sake of grammatical convenience, I talk about God a lot. But, in my heart, I know that there is no "god" - there is "godding." God is an active verb. God is a doing.
5. Since God is not a noun or a person (much less gendered), God does not act as we act. God does not have a divine brain that "thinks," "chooses," or "decides." But God does indeed act in particular ways, those ways that move toward wholeness, compassion, and justice.
6. Since God is without beginning and end, God existed before Christianity and God exists outside of Christianity. Claiming exclusive rights to God is idolatrous.
7. God is mystery.

What does all of this mean?
Even if God is ineffable, we live in a world of speech. This is one of the reasons that the creation story has so much truth in it. We speak our worlds. Language creates. It totally shapes how we understand and experience life. So, we have to come up with the best language that we can.

The struggle for how to think about and put language to God is a very old struggle. St. Anselm once used an a priori argument that included this supposition, that God is "a being than which no greater being can be conceived.” Of course, I don't think God is a being, but Anselm is grappling with the ineffability of God just as I am...just as we all are.

So, I use the language that we have, the metaphors of our world, and the reductionistic thoughts that make talking about God easier. I also use the very powerful tool of story.

We are storied people. If a person is asked who he or she is, a story comes to mind. Given the circumstance, that story will change. If a boss asks, an employment and education story comes to mind. If a new friend, a different story will come to mind. A new dating partner, yet another one. Things that typically build our stories include geography, parents, ancestry, religion, passions, wounds, and so forth. These things make up our stories. But, we are also part of those stories. For example, coming from the South is part of my story, but my life is also part of the ongoing Southern narrative even though I no longer live there. I am Southern. Always. Whenever Southerners do crazy things, I feel a little embarrassment. Why should that be? I don't live there. I did not do that action. I had no hand in that. Whenever we discuss the difficulty history of the South, I cringe inside. Why? Again, I was not there. I did not own slaves or create Jim Crow laws, although I benefited from that unjust legacy. And, the opposite is also true. Whenever a great Southern author is discussed, I feel some pride. Why? I did not write that book. I never met that author. However, the South is part of me and I a part of it. Always. And forever. I am in relationship with that story. Sometimes that relationship is easy and wonderful. Other times it is a relationship fraught with conflict and resistance.

Christianity is my story. I was born into it. The rhythm of my culture moved around the Christian calendar. At school, we took Christmas and Easter breaks and the stores were closed on Sunday. My home life moved around the rhythms of Christianity as well. We went to church on Sundays, attended Vacation Bible School, prayed before meals and before bed time. We went to Sunday School, celebrated Christmas and Easter. We prayed family devotions and talked about Jesus. When something bad happened, Jesus was invoked as a standard bearer in how to deal with the situation. When a wrong was committed, I was challenged to forgive as Jesus taught. We prayed the Lord's Prayer. My father's family was Southern Baptist and my mom's family was Methodist. Two of my ancestors were circuit riders in the Methodist tradition. The doxologies, hymnody, order of service, calendar, colors, smells, and little rituals became a part of me as they were practiced in formal ritual and in daily life. I am Christian in name, practice, and time. It is the Christian story that helps me connect to the ineffable. Christianity is not and has never been a set of beliefs; it is a story lived by people every day.

Once I was older and off on my own, like many young adults I dabbled in all kinds of religion. I dabbled with Unitarians, wiccans, and Episcopalians. I looked long and hard at Judaism and Buddhism. But, it all came down to one thing: Despite my problems with a great deal of Christianity, it is me and I it. I belong to it and it belongs to me. I could no more convert than decide to be a Martian.

So, it is through the Christian story that I relate with the ultimately relational godding that bends toward compassion and justice. So, I talk about God as a person. I use gendered language (both male and female). I talk about "God" and put that word in the subject line of the sentence. I find my story in the Bible. I wrestle as Jacob did (see that nice use of my story to talk about my story??) with the violence, prejudice, and difficulties of Christianity.

And still I try to remain aware that all of our language, all of our stories, all that we dream of cannot contain the wonder of godding. Because of this, I have deep respect for Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, agnostics, atheists, and people from faiths all over the world. These folks, too, are trying to make sense of that which is beyond our cognition and to live lives connected to something bigger and more wonderful than themselves.

In the end, "Christianity" is not a belief system for me, it is a way of life that begins with a story and moves into continuing the work of Jesus to heal, restore, reconcile, and resurrect. And "faith" is not intellectually assenting to a list of precepts, it is trusting in the actions of God to move the world and me toward these very things - health, restoration, reconciliation, and resurrection.

I feel "called" by God to set my life apart from other pursuits to help others locate themselves within stories, to find home after long sojourns in exile, and to claim language that makes them and the world more whole.

I am not a systematic theologian and have little room for such activities. Of course, we need to have some sense of wholeness in our relationship with God, but in the end God will always be a giant mystery for us.

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