upper room daily devotions

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

twelve days of christmas (christmas just started!)

I didn't think that I would post again before going on vacation, but there is something that I want to highlight, especially for people who have not been raised in a liturgically based denomination. Christmas is not a day. It is a season just like Easter, Lent, and Advent. As a season, Christmas lasts twelve days and ends when the magi, bringing their gifts, appear to the Christ child - Epiphany. So, when we sing about the twelve days of Christmas, we are singing about the days after Christmas, not the days before.

Even more little known among people is Twelfth Night, which falls on January 5, the day before Epiphany. Twelfth Night is a great time for feasting, celebrating the King of kings and looking ahead to the joy of Epiphany, which arrives the next day. Feasting on Twelfth Night is both an English and a French custom, which includes eating a King's Cake. Some have also reserved the King's Cake for Epiphany; both customs are traditional (FYI, King's Cake is part of Mardi Gras in the USA...this is where the custom comes from).

Remember, Christmas has not ended; it has just begun. For each of the twelve days of Christmas, we are invited to experience the miracle of the heavens and the earth co-existing in new and unimaginable ways. Many Christians, especially progressive Christians, have spent such a great deal of time demythologizing our faith that we have lost the mystery and miracle of our story. It is possible to separate myth, legend, and fable from fact and still hold to the truths of our myths, legends, and fables. The truth of our story doesn't reside in its factual accuracy; it resides in the ageless truth that life is stronger than death, that our worth doesn't arise from our birth or cultural position but out of God's grace, that God's deepest desire is for shalom - peace. Christmas has come. Let's not pack it away unmindfully, too quickly. Advent invited us to prepare for these twelve days. Let's enjoy them and marvel at how the heavens crashed into the earth, and the Prince of Peace struggled into the world amid the violence and greed of politics, amid the mess and stink of poverty, amid the scandal of his parentage, and amid the condition of humankind.

merry christmas...time to rest

Merry Christmas! Like many of you, I am tired after Christmas services, spending time with family, wrapping presents, cleaning house, entertaining visitors, and anticipating the Day! Christmas has finally come. We sang carols, lit our candles and raised them high to the heavens, and toppled from our beds on Christmas morn to open presents and spend time with folks we love. For me, at least, it's time to spend time remembering the power of the miracle of Christmas. I am taking a week away from the office, meetings, parties, and all engagements. I am heading south to visit my family and to re-experience the joy of being in a small town. The days are longer and life is clearer...it's something that feeds my soul, being in that place where I grew from a child to an adult. So that's where I go this week. It is my wish that we all would have such an opportunity - to slow down, feel the joy of belonging and love, and remember where we came from and where we have come to.

(Let's see if I feel so romantic after being gone for a week!)

If the picture on this blog is of interest to you, I strongly recommend the art work of He Qi, a phenomenal artist.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

the bible experience

Denzel Washington reading the Song of Solomon? Well, that might be enough to get The Bible Experience, published by Zondervan. This is a 70 hour dramatic reading of the Bible by an all African American cast - the only such project ever done. Dramatic readings of the Bible are not typically something I go for; it's even a little possible I would find a project like this, well, "hokey" or silly. However, the caliber of artists involved in this one makes me wonder just a little. I've heard a few excerpts and it's actually pretty interesting. Of course, I've only heard excerpts that lend themselves to performance. I wonder how riveting Deuteronomy will be...

A few things that are rolling around in my head are:
1. I believe that the Bible can be a performance piece. (Certainly the power of performance is missing in most of our churches! Maybe hearing good "productions" might help people remember there are feeling and meaning in the words. Some are humorous...some words are sarcastic...some are playful. Do we always have to read as though each word were serious and somber? But I digress...) As such, some license has to be made with the text. Therefore, a performance of the Bible should not be considered something for study. Rather, it's to learn the general stories, for devotion, and for pleasure...basic education, yes, okay.
2. This is the NIV or the tNIV...not particularly scholarly works, but then, if #1 above applies, this shouldn't matter. It is important, though. As dull as it sounds, textual variance and translation issues significantly impact (even make or fundamentally change) meaning.
3. A woman asked to play God and was denied. God is a dude in this play. Hmmm... This raises the age old issue of genderizing God and who has access to speak for God...
4. It's a great cast with really high production value.
5. What would someone do with 70 hours of the Bible? I mean, really, what would someone do?
6. Denzel Washington, Blair Underwood, Angela Bassett, Cuba Gooding, Jr, and 76 of your fave actors are in it...not shabby.

Is anyone going to buy or download this? Oh, just in time for Christmas, Angela Bassett telling the birth of Jesus is free from itunes.

UPDATE: I am almost finished listening to the story; I've not heard Angela Bassett yet...hmmm...not great advertizing...

short shrifting christmas

Christmas is almost here. Throughout Advent I have been one of many pastors asking parishioners to wait patiently; Christmas will come. Protestants and people who have come to the church without a childhood background of learning Advent rituals want to skip right past Advent. Why focus on the darkness? Why hold at a distance the joy and happiness associated with Christmas, especially if all we're doing is holding it off for the sake of waiting?

Over and over pastors like me (and, well, me) have told people to wait, so why, then, have I called this article "short shrifting christmas" when it seems like what I really mean is that we short shrift Advent? Well, it's because I think that in our rush to Christmas we lose the heart of Christmas. We are so weary by the time Christmas Day arrives that many of us are relieved to tear down the tree and toss it out back. We're beat. We're irritated with the Christmas carols that play relentlessly on the radio, in the elevator, at our doctor's office, in department stores, and even walking down city streets...Our minds are screaming, "Make this stop!!!!" while we plaster the Christmas smile on our faces. The jump to Christmas before Thanksgiving robs us of two beautiful liturgical seasons, neither of which have a whit to do with presents - or even family for that matter. Advent invites us into a season of prayer and preparation for the coming of God Among Us. What a holy season! Christmas is the inbreaking of God into the world - your world, my world, the world torn apart by ruthless killing, heartless prejudice, and barbaric war. We short shrift Christmas because we forget that, at its heart, it is a holy day in a holy season that demands for us to look at God - and to see, really see, God in the midst of the weakest and most vulnerable.

Christmas is a justice holiday. God breaks into the world and forces us to see how the most vulnerable are tossed aside (a child born in a barn? a cave? pick your story). This leads to the inevitable questions, "How do we respond to the most vulnerable? Do we perpetuate systems that create the injustice that marginalize and oppress? How might we live differently by recognizing the holiness in all of life, not just the strong, the pretty, the grand, and the convenient?"

We short shrift Christmas when we don't wait for God to act in God's time - to break into our world with an invitation to become something new, something we have yet to imagine. Christmas begins on Christmas Day; it doesn't end there. We have twelve days of it. It's too bad we're sick of the idea of it before it's even begun. I wonder how we might be in the world if we let Christmas come to us rather than grabbing for it every November, greedily grasping at saccharine images that offer us no real hope, no real transformation. Christmas, if we let it, gives us a young woman Mary frightened and faithful, Joseph confused but persevering, Elizabeth and Zecheria stricken dumb by his incredulity and sent singing with his joy, Elizabeth pregnant with a prophet, King Herod filled with fear, wise astronomers on a mission, shepherds unceremoniously - strike that...very ceremoniously - taken from their work and sent on a weird journey, and a messy birth in bad circumstances. This story invites us into the mess and filth of life, into the fear that accompanies every life changing journey, into a story of hope and wonder and awe at the idea of life emerging...without apology. The grandeur of angels crashing into our world of shepherds. The heavenly host with harps of gold clattering against our reality of poverty and homelessness.

It's too bad that we short shrift Christmas - tired of it before it comes. It really is something great.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


My vocation is seeking God.
In the warmth and simple love of my cats. Georgie, neurotic from who knows what, whines until his back is scratched, right in front of his tail. And Fred, curmudgeonly Fred, he picks with his nails until welcomed under the covers, to flip and roll with delight in the warmth of my body.

My vocation is seeking God.
In the struggles between wills in my church,
In the streets dappled with newly fallen rain,
In each face I see: smooth and not yet weathered by time and experience,
wrinkled and battered like a well traveled suitcase.
It's a good job.

But too often I miss God for the things in front of me.
I forget to look up to the sky: blue, white, magenta, gray,
dotted with birds of all kinds - airplanes zooming people near and far -
stars filled with mystery far and long ago.
I forget to find the miracle in a smile or bitter hot coffee or the home which steadfastly shelters me every night.
How can I miss the miracle of life wrestling all around me?
But I do. My eyes lose the wonder they once had
when every day I awoke to say, "What a beautiful day."
And my mom shook her head in wonder at me.

On the street corner, in front of the local market, is a homeless woman
in her heavy ski jacket, with wiry gray hair.
She is there most days
selling a newspaper
written to remind people like me that not every one can forget life's wrestling matches; that there are people who watch the sky every night, when the rain falls to dapple the grass, bend the trees, and soak the evergreens. They are there to see the stars in the nights so cold the air burns our lungs. She is John the Baptist.
Less crazy
Less loud
But a prophet
Telling me something important about God.

I rejoice.
Time stands still.
Every time I look her in the eye.
There is God.
Not in my sanctuary.
Not in my ideas.
Not in doctrine.
She stands before me when I need a quick lunch or milk,
reflecting the expanse of the sky
and bending under the weight of my forgetfulness.

Her beauty,
Her sorrow,
Are both there - Divine and relentless.
I should buy milk more often.

We all need awe.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

home from "joy" worship - i received some unexpected gifts today

I just got home after going to adult Sunday school, leading worship, hanging out after church, and then having our annual all church meeting (called the all church conference in Methodism). There weren't a lot of people in worship today, which is quite disappointing when it's the week before Christmas. But there was something good happening at church today that overshadowed the low attendance and overcame the weariness of the long day.

During the pre-worship meeting that I have with the folks involved in leading the service, I mentioned that today is "joy" Sunday, which made someone laugh as though today and today only are we to have joy in worship...and joy we must have. It set the mood for the rest of the morning; everything just seemed to fall in place. There were errors on the bulletin...and we just moved on past them. Some potentially difficult situations seem to resolve themselves. Even the all church conference had some moments of real joy as we discussed the things that we need to move or change in order to better live into our mission as Christ's church. We also listed the ways in which we are already gifted as Christ's church. I really valued hearing people speak passionately about their church home and about our potential. People shared honestly about some things that they find difficult, especially the challenge of telling those who haven't found our little church that there is a house of worship where you can find tradition, but find it reinvented and revisioned. During Sunday school, we discussed the concept of the Kingdom of God and the Jesus movement of the kingdom. It was a wonderful conversation - one I hope continues into and through the new year.

I am tired this third Sunday of Advent. It's been a long few days, but I am blessed to have experienced the joy of this turning point in the season of preparation. Today was one of those days when God's grace overwhelmed my "stuckness" and brought with it unexpected gifts. It almost always happens that as soon as I want to give up on the struggle of being in a small, progressive, urban church I am caught up in the goodness around me:
the adults coming forward because many of our kids were gone
the choir that offered the best of their spirit to the worship of God
the words of wisdom from unlikely people
the presence of a child I wish to know better
the faces of older adults, queer folks, little ones, and straight folks in one community
sound of great Advent hymns sung by people bursting to get to Christmas
the power of holy conferencing - of dreaming God's vision
the beauty of the struggle toward wholeness

Despite what it could have been, today was indeed a joy Sunday for me.

'tis the season for "o holy night" as sung by cartman

Okay, so there's nothing "progressively Christian" about this...or particularly "holy"...I just wanted to hear it this year.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

progressive christianity and the prince of peace

I've been busy trying to finish getting out all of my Christmas cards. Almost every card that I am sending this year wishes the recipient peace in the new year. However, while we call Jesus the Prince of Peace, we hardly ever explore in our churches what that might mean for us. During a time of war we may spend a little time expressing our wish that our troops will be safe, that innocent Iraqis won't be killed, and that we hope for the war to end soon. These are worthwhile wishes, but peace extends much further than a hope for the end of war. Peace is not the absence of war; it is the presence of a different way of living. Peace is a state of being of total welfare, security, and justice. There is no real peace without justice. There is no real peace without welfare for all. Peace is a relational word and it implies that we are concerned not only with our own security but the processes that we use in order to safeguard it. It implies concern and care for others. And it implies a state of rest and community with the Divine.

Christians - especially progressive Christians - have a special opportunity this time of year to reflect upon the power of the Prince of Peace being born into our world, into our communities, our nations, our earth...into our hearts and minds. The Prince of Peace would challenge much of how we live - including the wars that wage, yes, but so much more. One thing that has been on my mind is the cruelty of the death penalty. Regardless of the legal reasoning for it, the death penalty flies in the face of the Prince of Peace who himself was the victim of capital punishment. Capital punishment is based in an ethic of retribution and cannot be tolerated by a people who value peace. Capital punishment and peace are mutually exclusive.

Two articles about the death pentalty have caught my eyes this week. In a New York Times article called "Death Sentences Decline, and Experts Offer Reasons" Neil A Lewis takes a look at the death penalty in the United States. He writes, "At the Justice Department, the Bureau of Statistics reported last week that there were 128 death sentences in 2005, down from 138 the year before." There are many reasons why fewer convicted people have received the death penalty, but most of the reasons do not deal with the morality of the death penalty itself. The other article was an AP story that reported the decisions by Florida and California to temporarily halt executions. Just this week an execution by lethal injection in Florida took 34 minutes - twice the amount of time that most executions take. Apparently the needles were inserted too far and went through the veins, forcing the body to absorb the chemicals rather than allowing them to move through the body via the blood stream. California, as well, has had difficulties with its execution process. Both of these articles haunt me. They call me to confession. Every time that we look at a cross we should see not only a symbol of resurrection and new life but also the mechanism of torture and death brought to the Prince of Peace.

Why, during this season of the Prince of Peace, do we live in a nation where the church, especially the progressive church, is virtually silent about the death penalty? Why don't we engage in debate about the morality of the death penalty? Is the church too afraid to stand firmly against this practice? Have we forgotten the system of oppression into which the Christ child was born and in which he died...himself a victim of capital punishment? How can people of faith, especially those who profess an ethic called "pro-life" support the death penalty? I remain dumbfounded at the tolerance that we have for such cruel and anti-Christian acts like the death penalty. As I look at my Christmas cards I wonder if we really want "peace for all." What can progressive Christians do to speak out against the barbarity of the death penalty and proclaim the arrival of the Prince of Peace?

Friday, December 15, 2006

Thursday, December 14, 2006

the small urban church...when is it healthy?

When is a small, urban church healthy? Is it possible to have a church with under 200 members, with between 50 and 100 people in attendance, and maintain a full-time pastor and an active church program? These are questions being asked by several researchers. They have been written about extensively in the past ten years. They are in the back of the mind of every parishioner and pastor in small urban churches. However, there are almost no metrics for determining whether a church is healthy or not. Strike that...there are so many metrics out there that a church's "health meter" is dependent upon the tool used to review it.

I serve a small church, one where people come to find "tradition with a twist," and while we have some interesting "twists" on traditional Protestantism, we are still a small, urban, mainline Protestant church. Like many small churches in mainline denominations, we are "aging" more quickly than we are "getting young." Like all urban churches, we are in competition with multiple activities scheduled on Sundays - activities that tend not to be scheduled on "church day" in smaller towns. My church, like many urban churches is a neighborhood church turned commuter church. While we are surrounded by homes - single family homes, apartments, and condominiums - most of the new folks who are coming do not live within walking distance of the church. We have a lot of clear challenges that we must face in the near future. In reviewing all of the literature out there on church growth, membership, evangelism, church health, and church transformation, I am overwhelmed by the number of books, studies, and articles that tell me how to fix the church. Unfortunately, they offer differing (and often contradictory) ideas. Unfortunately, the are often based in a world other than the one that I live in.

I do not have the data to support it, but I believe that there is a vital and necessary role for the progressive, small, urban church. When so many people are rootless - living in the city without extended family, living in the city without a sense of deep community, living in the city overwhelmed by work and financial struggle, living in the city and raising a family without enough friends and family to offer enough help, living in the city as exiles from smaller towns where one's "difference" was too noticeable - small progressive churches can offer a home for one's spirit and one's family. The small church can be a safe place to unpack and undo bad theology - theology that has rubbed someone's soul raw. The small church can be a place to let go of the polish and gloss of our cities' downtown experience and bring us back to simpler ways of relating. The problem, of course, is that our challenges scare us so much that we do nothing to take advantage of the great promises that our small churches can offer. Often all we can see is the emptiness in our pews and our bank accounts. Being small is not our problem; being fearful is.

Small churches, like David so long ago, have to stand up to the giants in our midst and defeat them. I believe that we will be healthy when we begin to act and worship from a place of deep longing and deep faithfulness. We will be healthy when we have enough committed folks who have the passion to reach out in love and compassion to our neighborhoods. There are lots of metrics out there, lots of studies that tell us why the small church is doomed to fail, and lots of denominational tugging and pulling. However, almost all of them are fear-based. My challenge to my local church and to myself is to let go of the "fluff" and to act with determined faith in the coming year. Instead of looking at the bare wood in our pews, we would do well to see the Holy Spirit at work. Instead of focusing on the bank account every month, we would do well to ask ourselves if we are being good stewards. Even as we utilize tools prepared by others, we would do well to remember that our real standard is faithfulness. Perhaps this is too vague to be a good measure of our health, but I know that it's a step in the right direction.

Do you have an idea of how small urban churches might step forward into better and more robust health?

Monday, December 11, 2006

why "take this away"? gay evangelicals and progressive christians

Progressive Christianity has a special opportunity to witness to our evangelical brothers and sisters in the wake of two evangelical resignations due to "gay activity." Being gay is no less prevelant in the evangelical world (and it seems more prevelant if you are watching the media closely) than it is anywhere else. The problem, of course, is that in evangelical circles being gay is a nasty little secret that needs to be hidden until, somehow, it goes away. The reality is that being gay isn't terrible, it isn't bad, and it needn't be hidden. The moment someone retreats into a closet - especially if they turn to a life of gay bashing - the darkness will envelop you and begin to kill you and all those close to you.

Progressive Christians would do well to witness with love that a person can both be gay and Christian. We can be loving parents, faithful partners, and committed disciples of Jesus. The sin isn't being gay; the sin is hiding the gift of God which is yourself. The church has functioned for too long as a place of violence, spiritual and physical, when it comes to people who are LGBT identified. Our theologies have fostered atmospheres that have been at best oppressive and at worst violent. We have tried to change, transform, and reform LGBT people. And yet the reformation that needs to occur has nothing to do with sexual orientation. Rather, we need to reform the sin of hate and intolerance perpetuated by our theologies and perpetrated by our churches. Progressive Christianity needs to step forward and to declare with a strong and pure voice refutations of the theologies which hurt and mame LGBT people, and to proclaim a gospel of inclusion and wholeness.

I am writing this because yet another evangelical pastor in Colorado has resigned, saying that he has struggled with homosexuality since he was five years old. He is married and has been unfaithful to his wife. And he has prayed to God to "take it away." I feel deeply for him and for his family. His life journey must have been fraught with difficulties as he has tried to deny one of the deepest parts of his own self and soul. Yet his first infidelity wasn't to his family, it was to himself and to his maker. A gay person typically shouldn't marry someone of the opposite sex; it is a set up for disaster. One might believe, given the media attention, that LGBT people cannot be faithful in their relationships. That simply isn't true. If given the chance to partner with someone out of love and desire, LGBT people can be as faithful as anyone else. It's time to stop trying to change gay identified people and to start changing the systems and institutions - the church being at the top of list - that wound, stagnate, oppress, and violate them. It's time to stop trying to "take this away" and instead teach people how to embrace their most authentic selves, build faithful and healthy relationships, and love God rather than fear God.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

an adventless post: the role of clergy

I am an unusual United Methodist clergyperson. And while many people may tell you why they think I'm unusual (or just odd), in this post I am referring to my preference to wear a clerical collar. I wear one every Sunday. There is a growing movement in our denomination away from ordained clergy in general, and there has certainly been a long tradition of clergy not wearing clerical collars.

When I answered the call to ordained ministry I did so understanding that I was stepping into a "set aside" way of being in the world and in my church. Wearing a collar - or being ordained for that matter - isn't hierarchical for me. It reminds me - it reminds my congregation - and it tells my community - that my presence in a given place is because I have been called there by God and sent there by my denomination. It helps to create and establish healthy boundaries. It tells others and reminds me that I serve a particular function in our community. I teach. I preach. I preside over sacraments. I represent my denomination and local congregation in the wider community. I tend the ill. And I administer and order the church. It's too bad that collars have gotten a bad rep. I think they serve an important function.

There are more and more people within the UMC who believe that ordained clergy are an unnecessary burden to the body of believers. These same people also believe that ordained clergy are out of touch and out to lunch. I agree that many clergy people whom I know are definitely out of touch, but I don't believe that we are an unnecessary burden. Rather, I believe the difficulty begins in seminary and continues in the larger "institution" of the church. Since seminary is a graduate program, we are expected to write like academics. The problem, of course, is that we graduate and head to the local church where most people aren't thelogians and couldn't care less about the jargon of our profession. The other problem is that as our denominations fail to bring in new members, we place increasing pressures on the local pastor to do absolutely everything. We're simply not all evangelists, preachers, counselors, administrators, entrepreneurs, and activists. Each of us has a special gift; our denominations' fearfulness is robbing them of the ability to be creative, to take risks, and to proclaim the gospel passionately and compassionately.

The one fault that I lay squarely on the shoulders of the clergy is that we are simply too old and too insulated. All of us need time on the street learning from our brothers and sisters who are much more apt to have been the ones sitting with Christ at a supper table than we are. We need to remain invigorated with and alive in the Spirit. We are in trouble when we wake up and believe that our job is the same as any other; it is not. We are called to serve God as revealed in Jesus the Christ. That is simply not the same as anything else on earth. The day we stop being in love with our vocation (despite our struggles with it and our frustrations with our institutions) we have some reckoning to do. We cannot be old in spirit. We cannot be removed from the streets we are called to repair. We cannot trudge to work and expect anything other than to see the backsides of people as they flee to some place else.

I believe there is an important and vital role for ordained clergy, clergy unafraid to be clergy, clergy happy to be in love with their vocation, clergy young in years and young at heart, clergy in collars presiding over sacraments, praying at bedsides, singing in worship, marching in protests, sitting at coffee shops, and clergy listening to the wisdom of those who live in our streets. Clergy can be important in our congregations and communities. The problem is not ordination and certainly not collars; the problem is insulation.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

a book of poetry for advent...

Yesterday I stepped in poo - actual crap. That's always frustrating enough, but I didn't realize it and I went a good part of the morning tracking poop around with me. What a humbling reminder that I carry too much poop around all of the time (now I'm being metaphorical...just thought I'd clarify). Advent is a great time to shake it off, reach into the winter of my heart, and wait for God to arise in the most unexpected of places. Advent is the time for me to prepare for the collision of two diametrically oppsed realities - the reality of this world and the kingdom (not kin-dom, in this case) of God. God's ways are different from ours, and when God comes among us, it changes everything. There's no room in God's reality for the smelly stuff I track around !

I've already written how I keep an Advent calendar and light candles in my home, but there are all kinds of things to do during Advent that will shake the mess of the world off from our heels and remove a little of the stink that we carry with us. Reading poetry is something that I want to lift up as a good Advent practice.

Mary Oliver has a new book of poetry out called "Thirst." Clearly it is written in response to the death of her partner Molly Malone Cook. She is working through a lot in her writings, but she remains, as ever, the perfect observer of nature. Oliver is one of the best poets of our time. "Thirst" does not disappoint and offers us a great collection of reflections this Advent. I picked up a copy yesterday and have read it all through...twice. I recommend "Making the House Ready for the Lord" - a lyrical and visually compelling Advent poem. Poetry is perfect during Advent because good poetry is always pregnant with possibility; it looks around at the world and gives us a new view of it; and, it lifts up the hope for newness without forgetting the darkness of our souls and the frightfulness of the world. And, when someone like Mary Oliver is behind the pen, the humor of our lives eeks out into her observations.

"Thirst" invited me into the details of the world and away from the poop that I drag around with me all too often. Thank you, Mary Oliver.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

advent's here

I love this photo by Ben Bell. Advent is here and I actually should be in bed resting before worship tomorrow. I'm going to be wasted; I was up late trying to write a sermon that would capture the thoughts rambling around in my head. I won't know until after tomorrow if I succeeded or not. I'm often quite wrong about my sermons - whether they'll connect or not.

Advent is a fave liturgical season for me - much more interesting than Christmas. I wish Protestants wouldn't skip right over the fast of Advent and gorge on the crazy abundance of Christmas. For many of us, Advent is a great reminder to slow the heck down, to find Sabbath again, to rest in God, to remember that Christmas is about the birth of justice and righteousness, to prepare our hearts for God Among Us, to find the quiet center, to savor anticipation, to delight in God's joy, and to labor in God's work.

I love the rituals and songs of Advent, too. I love my Advent calendar. I just got a new one. It's a wooden house with different animals inside. Each day you take out a new animal and hang it on the day's door. At the church I have a manger calendar that's magnetic. Each day supplies a new part of the nativity story. It's great. I also love my Advent wreath. It's smack in the middle of my dining table. I use purple candles; I haven't been able to make the switch to blue. I get that blue symbolizes hope, but I still find meaning in remembering God's dominion over the earth, which is symbolized by the purple.

Happy Advent! I hope we all find a little quiet in the over-commercialized, shopping frenzy that has eaten up the days that used to be Advent. I hope we all find a little bit of the fast that lies at the heart of Advent so that the miracle of Christmas holds some actual meaning. I'm going to bed...

Friday, December 01, 2006

aids quilt showing in seattle

The church that I serve, Woodland Park United Methodist Church, is blessed to host two blocks of the AIDS Memorial Quilt from December 1-10. The AIDS epidemic is not over despite gains made in medicine. In a nation that has become obsessed (and rightfully so) with the recent elections, the war in Iraq, and the president's visit to Jordan, World AIDS Day has not received a great deal of attention this year. We thought that it to be important to spend time this year remembering that too many people have died as a result of AIDS and that too many people live infected. We have covered the east wall of our sanctuary with blocks from the AIDS Memorial Quilt at the beginning of this year's Advent to remind us also that as we prepare for the coming of King of Kings the world is still in pain. At our brief service this evening we will pray prayers of lament and prayers of hope. Wherever people are this evening, we hope that prayers will be said for healing and for hope.

If you are someone living with HIV or AIDS, we want you to know that churches exist that welcome you and love you. Even today too many people living with HIV/AIDS are stigmatized; that is unfair and unloving.

As I sit and write this blog, two people from my church sit in an empty sanctuary, witnessing to the presence of the quilt and awaiting any who may show up to view it. Even if no one comes to see the quilt, we hope to have honored those who have fallen to this disease. The panels on the quilt blocks on our east wall contain loving comments and memorials to people from the Seattle area who have died. By placing it in our sanctuary we rememer that God's sanctuary is for all people and that one day we will all be reunited in God's love. While we hope that people come to view the quilt, light candles, and pray, mostly we are blessed to participate in the AIDS Quilt project by offering our space as a sacred place of sanctuary for the people represented on these panels.

Monday, November 27, 2006

what is the role of the small urban church?

It seems like every time I turn around I hear how the"emerging" or "emergent church" is the magic bullet that will save institutionalized Christianity. Just a few years ago all of the literature produced for churches was on church growth. Now the trend is toward smaller, more experiential, and ritual based communities. Through all of these conversations, I have become increasingly interested in the potential role for small churches in the urban environment. While there clearly is a place for the large, growth-oriented church, and while there is a newly developing place for the emerging church movement, I believe that there is a resurgence of interest in the small church in urban neighborhoods, especially if the small church can find a way to embody a message of justice.

I currently serve a small church that seems to function in between the Alban Institute's categories of "family" and "pastoral" size churches. With a membership of 112 and around 70 in worship each week, Woodland Park United Methodist Church is bucking many of the trends established by small urban churches. Data indicate that churches need at least 80 people in worship each week to be able to afford a full-time pastor. Data also show that small urban churches are in decline. The church I serve doesn't follow either of these trends - at least not yet. WPUMC is an active, vibrant church that is intentional in providing for families and its dedication to justice and radical hospitality. Unlike some churches that focus on social justice to the exclusion of spiritual and family needs, WPUMC has a deep desire to provide for people who have never been to church or who are returning after a long absence so that they will find a place to ask questions of faith, find healing, and provide for the spiritual needs of the whole family. Those who are coming and staying at WPUMC want a small church where the whole family is known, where their gifts are wanted and needed, and where they can find a community with a level of intimacy not found in other organizations in our society.

For years I have noticed that small churches live with a stigma of "not being successful." However, I think that in urban contexts in which so many of us are transplanted from other regions of the country (even the world), where we work in large corporations, where our children attend large schools, and where everything we do is on a large scale, the small church can provide a sense of family and belonging that other organizations cannot provide. Additionally, small churches that retain the liturgy of their traditions extend to people returning to church a feeling of the familiar that is often desired by them. I also think that small churches that maintain "traditional" architecture have an additional gift for their communities. I know the popularity of warehouse churches and coffee shop churches and the resurgence of house churches, but even so some people desire traditional architecture for their churches. There is something powerful about set apart space that we call sacred and establish for the worship of God. There is something familiar and understandable about entering a different world on Sunday (or whenever we worship) that acts as though God's kin-dom has already come.

Small churches that maintain liturgy and architecture and that also embrace a message of inclusion and justice can be a new locus of spiritual life in our urban centers. WPUMC is striving to be one of these places. We have many of the struggles of small churches (money, leadership, diversity), but thus far we have been able to provide a place for people to come and experience tradition re-interpreted, allow the time and space for people to ask fundamental questions of being and faith, provide a home where all people can belong, and maintain programs and strucutres that encourage the entire congregation to pursue justice.

This is just the first of several ramblings on the power and place of the small urban church. In future blogs, I will cover the function of liturgy, the importance of justice, the power of asking questions, and the value of children. One of the drawbacks of the emerging church is the narrowness of its scope. I certainly applaud the movement on many accounts, but it doesn't provide the necessary familiarity for multiple generations to meet together in worship and prayer. It is still the traditional church that does this, and I believe that there is something incalculably important about having 9 month olds and 90 year olds in the same worship.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

on the blue bayou...part 3 "laquinta is not spanish for hi-speed internet"

Well, I didn't get to post every day during my trip as I had hoped to do. On Wednesday we worked all day at Sager Brown and headed to New Orleans for the evening. We checked into a LaQuinta Inn, where I was supposed to have hi-speed internet, but it wouldn't work (thus, LaQuinta is not Spanish for hi-speed internet!). For the rest of the trip I didn't have access to log in and jot down images and reflections. Here is the rest of my week in a nutshell.

On Thursday we headed to the East Bank Recovery Center of the United Methodist Church, which is located at Kenner United Methodist Church. We met up with another volunteer from New York (not a United Methodist), received our instructions for the day, and headed to a work site. Our instructions: remove metal windows, take out ceilings, and remove insulation. We worked all day on these projects, ending around 3:30 PM in the afternoon.

After the day was over, some of us drove down to the Ninth Ward to look around. The contrast was immediate and stark. Homes still lay on their sides. Spray painted messages noted the number of animals left behind. In the area in which we drove around, we saw absolutely no signs of life. On almost every block was a yellow sign asking if anyone had seen the levees be brought down (alluding to a purposeful break in them). It was a sobering side trip.

We went back to our LaQuinta, showered, and readied ourselves for a Thanksgiving Dinner at Arnauds - from rags to riches in one hour...weird.

On Friday our team broke into two smaller groups. One returned to the same house from Thursday. The other team - my team - headed to Lakeview to another house. Our instructions: gut whatever we could. The owners' son met us there. His was a fascinating tale of faith and strength, much like the tales of many people we met in New Orleans. (At dinner the previous night, we learned of one of the restaurant workers who lived in a non-flooded portion of the town. He had, however, lost electricity, and when he petitioned for the power to be turned back on, the city demanded that all of his outlets be moved up the wall before returning electricity. He had to move. Why, we were asked, couldn't the city return power and check back in a few months to make sure the work had been done?) We spent the day removing sheet rock, layers of plywood, and hauling debris. It was hard work; for us it ended at the end of the day. For the owners' son, the work will continue for a long time. Because the owners are older, the son commented that they were just trying to stop the growth of mold and then would be waiting to see if they could be bought out. His parents would not return to live there.

After work some of us headed to the Garden District. Life has returned mostly to normal up there. Many houses are being repaired after wind damage and an uncharacteristically large number of homes are for sale, but mostly businesses are open and life is abundant. We ate at a local pub, something not possible in the neighborhoods where we'd spent our days.

Driving around New Orleans is a surreal experience. It's a weird juxtaposition of normalcy and the ridiculous interwoven with one another. Many houses still have the famous Xes from recovery crews moving through after the storm/flood. Others, sometimes right next door, are completely rebuilt/restored/removed. Many neighborhoods are a tangle of damaged homes, trailors in front, and people trying to get their lives back into a normal routine. It's an odd experience to drive down a boulevard lined with houses with Xes on them and watch a jogger come by. One curious thing happened twice as I was driving around. I stopped on Friday to ask directions to a place to grab my crew some lunch. I happened to be in a very affluent area at the time. The couple gave directions and said, "Be careful." I found it an odd statement. But later, when we were leaving our work site, the owners' son thanked us and said the same thing. "Be careful." It seems that life continues to be difficult and a little dangerous in New Orleans.

I was very impressed by all of the people from New Orleans whom I was privileged to meet. They are strong people...survivors. All knew someone who had died in the storm. All wanted to stay. All thanked us for coming down and doing our little part.

Today is Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday in Christendom. I am left with two images about God's Kingdom. The first is the destruction of New Orleans - typified in the desolation of the Ninth Ward (although even here portions are coming back to life). The other image is of the residents who give to one another and who offered us thanks, and the folks who have chosen to spend their lives down in Louisiana helping their neighbors. We met many long-term volunteers at Sager Brown and in New Orleans. One woman is being sponsored by her church, her annual conference, and another annual conference so that she can spend one year doing recovery work in New Orleans. She is from North Carolina. The first image reminds me that the world is far form seeing the justice, mercy, and compassion of God's Kingdom - or Kin-dom. The world is hurting, people are wounded, and corruption is rampant. The other image reminds me that some people, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, live as though God's Kingdom - or Kin-dom - has already come. And, in so doing, they are ushering it in.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

on the blue bayou...my trip to louisiana, part 2

Today I went along with a member of my church as we drove a large truck and trailer of water, bleach, and other sundries to a distribution and recovery site in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. Camp Hope, on the shores of the Mississippi River, has taken over an elementary school, which is no longer able to educate kids - kids, by the way, who are no longer in the area. Only about 1/3 of the 66k residents have returned to Violet and the rest of St. Bernard Parish. The school is home to several organizations, working side by side to return the parish back to some sense of normalcy. Habitat for Humanity has a hub there. With them serving as an umbrella organization for several smaller work groups, about 3,000 homes have been gutted and repaired. AmeriCorps has its local headquarters here, with AmeriCorps volunteers gutting and demolishing homes, prioritized so that older adults (65 and older) and disabled people get attention first. Camp Hope offers laundry services, meals, water, and showers to returning residents as they work to bring back their lost homes. Today was both a fun day and a very sobering one. I met incredible people from all over the US along with people from Spain, Canada, and some from right there in St. Bernard Parish. People have flown to the area to give everything from a couple of days to several months of their lives to breathe life back into a devasted area.

The differences between downtown New Orleans and the areas just outside of it are incredible. While the French Quarter and the central business district still have work to be done, electricity is dependable, water is potable (and reliable), and the sewage system works. Tourists may not be as thick along the sidewalks as in past years, but they roam the streets buying wares from vendors and acting as good patrons to local musicians. But move away from this semi-restored area and you find trucks tossed upside down, houses moved off of their foundations, plugged sewage lines, boarded business fronts, and abandoned neighborhoods. Healing has yet to come full force into the region. It's easy to believe that life has returned to normal down there because uber-businesses and hotel, hardware, and restaurant chains with great capital have been able to rebuild, but life is far from normal. Much of the area near Lake Pontchartrain and in lower lying areas near the Mississippi River look like they did just over a year ago, except the water has receded. Big X's still mark the houses indicating the rescue group, the date, and how many dead were found inside. It is a stark reminder that those without financial means are once again left to fend for themselves in a world of abundance. In one way I hope the yellow water mark that runs along the sound barriers beside the freeways is left there. It marks more than the eight feet of water that has since been forced back into the sea. It marks the ongoing reality of injustice and the struggle to find home that so many around the world face every day.

I want to thank fellow United Methodist John from Ohio for giving me a tour of Camp Hope. I also want to thank all of the volunteers there - Habitat folks, AmeriCorps workers (getting things done!), and all at Camp Hope. Your work may seem thankless and endless, but it is important. Your 300,000 work hours have made a tremendous difference in people's lives. I want to thank UMCOR's Sager Brown Depot for sending the supplies that they can to help folks out as they struggle to rebuilt.

Here is one thing that I learned today that needs to change: After asking where all of the debris goes after houses are gutted, I was told that the federal government, through FEMA, pays for 100% of the removal. Trucks come by, pick up the debris, cart it out of town and dump it. Makeshift landfills are being made all of the time. However, this will end as of December 31, 2006 when FEMA will pay 90% of the debris removal. While this may look generous on paper, it's the same as telling me that I can have 10% off of a 20 million dollar mansion. When you don't have it, you don't have it. Neither St. Bernard Parish nor the people who live there can pay for debris removal. As a result, AmeriCorps plans to cease its gutting work at the end of the year and work on construction. This means, in essence, that gutting will no longer happen after the end of this year. This needs to change. If we can fund two wars and a bridge to nowhere, we can fund 100% of the debris removal. It's preposterous to think otherwise.

Well, after this little rant, I need to head off to vespers. A group of Texas that is also staying at the Sager Brown Depot is leading us in worship this evening. I look forward to what they have to offer as we prepare to end the day and begin our evening...

Monday, November 20, 2006

on the blue bayou...my trip to louisiana, part 1

UMCOR. Be There. Be Hope. This is the slogan for the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). Seven members of my church and I have come to the shores of the Bayou Teche to the Sager Brown Depot in Baldwin, Louisiana for a few days to work at UMCOR's Depot. United Methodists across the nation send items to be distributed to people around the world who have experienced a disaster in their lives. We arrived here last night after a day in New Orleans, and we began our work in earnest this morning.

Going on a mission trip is always a dicey deal. Will you get along with one another? Will the trip enhance people's connection to the ministries that our dollars support? Will our presence actually be helpful or not? Youth mission trips are quite different from adults trips; this is a group of only adults. It's my hope that they will find positive responses to the questions above and begin to reflect upon this one: "If we begin with the premise that the world and all that is in it belongs to God, how am I to be while on this earth?" It's my hope that we can move beyond the normal fears and anxieties that accompany any trip taken to a new place with people who are not family and delve into deeper questions of our connection to the world and to one another.

The United Methodist Church has its set of problems. It can be just as disingenuous and hypocritical as any other organization, but UMCOR is the heart of goodness in our denomination. Through the work of UMCOR, we find a commonality in purpose of making God's world a better place for all people regardless of nationality, ethnicity, race, class, or belief system. I think the UMC "does" Christianity much better than talk about it. I wish more younger people - even those younger than me - would discover UMCOR and its work. It's a great thing. It's in 88 countries doing everything from delivering necessary items for basic needs to teaching people how to farm in a sustainable way.

My break is just about over and I need to go prepare for evening devotions. The quiet of the area can be as overwhelming as the scope of the work that gets done here. The depot is quite a way from any town, much less a town of any real size. Backing onto a bayou and with nothing in sight, there are no shops, no bars, no movies, no distractions. It's a great challenge to sit under a tree and read a book, go to bed early, rise and work all day to make our shipments ready for use here in the US and around the world. Occasionally, a group may head into town for a work project, but work ends around 3:30 PM. So...back I go to prepare myself for devotions...

This photo accompanies several others in a photo gallery by Paul Jeffrey on UMCOR's website.

For more information about UMCOR, the website can be found here.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

good religion, bad religion

This post is similar to the one that I wrote just a few days ago, but the weariness of the people around me has been unrelenting. It seems that every time that I answer the telephone the person on the other end is stressed, tired, hurting, and guilt-ridden. And most of these folks have some bad religion to thank for it all. I thought that I would write a few thoughts to remind myself - and anyone who stumbles across these ramblings - that good religion exists, and that it invites us into the fullness of life and the wholeness of being.

Bad religion is everywhere. It tells us to give until we're depleted, deny the needs of our own souls, and "do" until we're dead. Bad religion coerces and threatens in order to get its way. I know that I fall prey to it more often that I'd like to admit. Sometimes my heart feels heavy, my soul empty, and my mind too full. These are results of bad religion making itself at home in me. It sets up shop. It guilts, coerces, and uses.

Good religion has no place for such things. Good religion invites us into the fullness of life and the wholeness of being. It invites us into Being Itself. Good religion begins with Sabbath. Sabbath is time for God and the standard for justice. Sabbath should never be skipped - yes, I'm "shoulding" on you. Sabbath gives us a rule that demands that we (and all who work for us, people and animals alike) rest from work. In a society in which we work all of the time, I wonder at the changes that taking Sabbath seriously would bring. When we begin with Sabbath, we give ourselves one full day a week to rest at the breast of God, breathing in God's life (ruach). Good religion begins with this concept.

Good religion has no place for violence, threats, and coercion. It doesn't need any of these things because its purpose is different from the purpose of bad religion. Whereas bad religion desires to consume us, good religion desires our perfection in love. Good religion invites us into the quiet of sanctuary and the stillness of prayer. In good religion, we live and move inside of the Holy. From this place of completeness we move into the world as God's witnesses and stewards. You see, whereas bad religion sends us empty into a wounded world, good religion sends us radically connected to Life Itself into the world. It makes a huge difference if we're starting with a full gas tank or an empty one.

I wonder what the world would be like - what we would be like - if we believed in a God that loves us rather than despises us, encourages us rather than threatens us, invites us rather than coerces us. God demands that we offer all that we have and all that we are to God. This offering, though, isn't the death of ourselves, it is our beginning. In the ackowledgement that the world and all that is in it belongs to God, we orient ourselves toward right relationship with the rest of creation. We don't give up on ourselves and give out. We fill up with the connection of life and the radicality of God.

Good religion is an invitation to Life. Sometimes I want to kidnap those around me who won't be still and allow Sabbath. And while my inclination toward kidnapping may be honorable, I believe that it is also a felony. So I pray. I pray that all who are weary, hurting, stressed, and guilt-ridden will experience Life radicalized in God. For those who struggle, I pray that the persuasive power of the Creator and Liberator will buoy them in their hard times and give them strength. I pray that God's grace will shower down upon all who are bending under the weight of their hearts and the pressures of the world. And for those who souls are empty and depleted, I pray for the awesome wonder of the universe to pour into them, the light of the stars offering warmth in the cold corners of their beings. I pray that we all learn to dance with delight completely assured that God is our dance partner, gently leading us through the moves.

Monday, November 13, 2006

why isolation and church shouldn't go together...remembering our baptism

Church is a place where people come together to seek spiritual nurture and to offer themselves for the transformation of the world. If there is one thing that the church absolutely has to be it is a place of connection, care, and challenge. Yet time and again I witness the isolation of people in church and those who work in churches.

As a pastor in a church, one of the great privileges of my job is to hear people's stories. It is a sacred and holy experience to sit with someone and to listen to their dreams, their histories, their joys, and their struggles. On the days during which someone has honored me with their story I come home fully aware of the Divine that exists in the sharing of our lives.

During these moments of self disclosure we live into the fullness of our baptismal covenant. In the baptism liturgy we promise to love and support one another through all of our days. In the liturgy we remember the fierce faithfulness of God and we celebrate the many times that God delivered God's people from hardship. In our liturgy we vow to place Jesus at the center of our lives and to resist the evil and oppressive powers of this world. We bless water - symbolic of the powers of chaos and deliverance - and we mark our foreheads to seal the promises that we've made to one another and to God. This ritual initiates us into covenant life. It is our entry into radical connection with God, with one another, and with the church universal. When we open ourselves through the sharing of our stories - through the sharing of our lives - we make our baptismal vows real.

Why, then, do so many people who come to church remain isolated and wounded? Why, then, do so many people drift away from church worn out, tired, and weary? These are sad questions to ask. And I ask them not only of the laity but of the clergy. Too many of us do not feel the care we crave. We do not experience the nurture we seek. We do not find the connection that lies at the heart of authentic Christian community.

Today I feel the same isolation. Despite presiding over the holy and sacred ritual of baptism only yesterday, today I feel defeated, alone, and tired. I know that my feelings will soon pass, but I also know that too many people who sit in the pews in my small church have these feelings all too often. They are real describers of people's experiences. My heart weeps at the woundedness, and my soul longs for healing for my community, for the people I know (and don't know), and for my own sense of isolation on this day.

I wait for the day when Christians will believe in the power of our baptism and offer our woundedness to one another, trusting that care and nurture await us. People would find a deeper connection to God and to one another through the sharing of hurts and fears with each other. We might actually surprise ourselves if we dared to step into our baptismal covenant with trust in the promises that we've made.

Progressive Christianity struggles, in part, because many folks who identify as such tend to be individualistic and intellectual in approaching life (and faith). The problem, of course, is that our faith is communal and our God is a mystery. Sharing our lives together is part of what church invites us to do - even demands that we do. This is a challenge for many people. It takes time and trust; it requires us to extend ourselves in faith to one another. But I believe that we would all find something unexpectedly sacred if we would extend ourselves in this way, if we would open ourselves up to one another with faith in our baptismal vows. Through the sharing of our pain, I believe that we would find hidden strengths that would surprise and awe us.

If you, like me on this day, are tired to the bone...if you, like me on this day, wonder how things will figure themselves out...if you need something to act as a reminder that God is ever present, ever caring, and ever moving in our lives, remember the power of baptism - God delivers us from the evils, the sorrows, and the oppression of this world and the people who assemble (the church) has promised to offer needed strength and care during hard and painful times. Whether we're busy because we have young children, are sad because someone we loved has died, are weary of oppression and marginalization that never relents, or are struggling with the demons inside of our souls, we all need some care, connection, and strength from another from time to time. It's okay. That needed connection lies at the heart of our faith and is what holds us up when we know that otherwise we might drown. I know that I'll spend time this evening thanking God for my baptism and asking God for the strength that I did not feel today.

I hear too many church people express that they feel isolated while they sit in the gathered assembly. Somehow church has become broken. We need to fix it. And the only way to fit "it" is to open ourselves to one another. Remembering our baptism is a good place to start...

Saturday, November 11, 2006

a great article on evangelicalism

November 10, 2006
Mommy, What's an Evangelical?

by Daniel Engber, Slate

The Democrats managed to win big in Tuesday's election despite a strong showing from the Republicans' evangelical Christian base. Exit polls show that the evangelical turnout matched that from the 2004 election, when they helped George W. Bush win a second term. But those numbers haven't stopped Focus on the Family chairman James Dobson from declaring that the GOP has abandoned evangelicals. What exactly is an evangelical? (read more)

Thursday, November 09, 2006

progressive christians vote, too

I just want to remind folks that progressive Christians vote as well as Evangelicals. Today Anderson Cooper highlighted the defection of the Christian Right/the Evangelical vote from the Republican party as though that described all voting Christians, but there are all kinds of people who consider themselves Christian; Evangelicals are just one block of Christians. There are also progressive Christians with deep and abiding faith. I am one who gets tired of being lumped in with the Evangelical movement. "Christian" does not equal "Evangelical." I wish the media would learn this.

Progressive Christians are committed and deeply faithful. We follow the teachings of Jesus and believe in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. And, our faith leads us to reject the death penalty and war, and it leads us to believe in protecting the poor, providing a way out of poverty for those who are born there, supporting stem cell research, and including LGBT people in the full life of our society and churches (including the blessing of unions and extending the same rights as straight couples). Our faith tells us that war is incompatible with Christian teaching and that we must do all that we can to avoid war, resorting to it only as a last option. We find no conflict between our faith and the science of evolution (or the science that informs us about global climate change). The Bible that we read and study firmly and boldly states that God is against poverty. The Torah and the Prophets were clear and unequivocal in their condemnation of God's people when they turned their backs on the poor. Progressive Christians are Christians; our lives have been radically transformed by the birth, life, ministry and teachings, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We follow the healing Nazarene. We praise our Maker. And we are sustained by the Holy Spirit.

This rant arises out of my need to say once again that progressive Christians are here. We read. We think. We worship. We care. And...we vote.

the game is on...what will the dems do?

The election is over and the Democrats appear to have taken both the House of Representatives and the Senate along with the majority of governorships. Pundits last night and all day today have been remarking that this is a referendum on the president and on the war in Iraq. While I agree that both of these issues weighed heavily in the election, I believe that people voted out of their disgust at the overwhelming hypocrisy of the Republican Party. That leaves the following question: Will the Democrats be able to refrain from the same hypocrisy? While I voted along Democrat lines, I am not sure that they will.

The game is now on for the Democrats to set before the American people an agenda that is positive in nature for the entire nation. It is my hope, even if it is not my firm belief, that they will update our minimum wage, make strides in slowing the global climate change, move us toward sustainable energy and energy independence, and find some way for us to wade through the muck of Iraq. It is also my hope that they implement the recommendations of the 9-11 Commission and provide the necessary funding to safeguard our ports. In order for any of these goals to be accomplished, they will have to roll back the tax cut on the richest of us. Issues like health care costs and a just penal code should be addressed but not right away so that other more acute problems can be made manageable.

While none of these things is in and of itself a Christian or a progressive Christian issue, progressive Christians are - least this progressive Christian is - interested in being good stewards of the earth, offering fair wages for hard work (justice), making us as safe as possible without demonizing others, and providing for the weakest among us (the poor and the ill). We may find ourselves at odds on things like Gay marriage (personally I think that marriage is an issue for religious institutions and unions the province of the state), there is a healthy agenda before us on which we can make incredible strides. Most important of all, however, is the challenge before the Democrats to stay away from the lure of corruption. They need to heed the caution issued last night by the voters of this nation. We cannot stomach relentless corruption. Do not fall into the pockets of corporations and your own greed. Look at your agenda. Stick to your agenda.

Curious in the vote from last night was the evangelical defection. A full 1/3 (some sources report 1/4) of the evangelical vote went to the Democrats. This might be attributed to the social conservative stance of many of the Democratic candidates, but I believe it was a vote against the corruption rampant in the Republican party. The game is on, Democrats. What will you do? How will you lead? Conservatives and progressives alike are watching.

Friday, November 03, 2006

i take the bible seriously, therefore i cannot read it literally - my testimony

Tonight I shared Shabbos dinner with friends. As is always the case when I spend time with them, conversation makes its way to Christianity and to perceptions of Christianity. Throughout the evening we talked about the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit that is currently in Seattle and Christian misappropriation of the scrolls. The resignation of the Rev. Ted Haggard from his church and from his leadershop role within the National Association of Evangelicals also came up. When things like this happen, I find myself having to explain that Christianity is not a monolithic institution and that the Evangelical Right and progressive Christianity share very little in common except a profession of faith in a God as revealed in and through Jesus of Nazareth. Here is where most of our commonality ends. And it is here that progressive Christians need to learn to proclaim who we are and not only what we we aren't.

Once I heard John Cobb say that he couldn't read the Bible literally because he took it seriously. That statement rung true for me in a profound way. As a progressive Christian, I take the Bible extremely seriously. In it I find stories of discovery, of wounded and searching people, of people trying to make sense of a world out of control, and of people's hopes and dreams. In it I find my ancestors' understanding of God, their world, and their life circumstances. In it I find themes that inform my life and my understanding of how the world ought to be and the realization that we are far from God's dream for us. In it I find the history and foundation of my faith. I don't find historical accuracy, news articles, or perfect people. I don't find a list of how-to's; it's not an instruction book. One of the greatest gifts of the Bible is found in the deeply flawed nature of my ancestors. They were doubters, murderers, adulterers, liars, cheaters, and connivers. They were also survivors, dreamers, builders, and revolutionaries. They were just like you and me and everyone alive today. A mixture of good and evil, greatness and disappointment brewed in them every day.

The Bible has a lot to say about the state of brokenness of the world and it presents a wonderful vision for a "new heaven and a new earth," the place in which God's dream for creation has become manifest among us, within us, and through us. This vision understands the goodness of creation, the importance of the Exodus, the harsh cultural and religious criticisms of the prophets, the Israelites' desperate need for home, the importance of extending radical hospitality to the stranger, the profound need for forgiveness, the power and witness of Jesus, corporate sin, the gift of healing (salvation), and the unfinished business that has been laid at our feet as disciples of Jesus. Such a vision takes the Bible very seriously. And because of this serious reading, I cannot read it literally as though there was ever one Bible, in English nonetheless, and that that Bible was written by God's finger. No. The Bible is the receptacle of many dreams and the preserver of many ills. It is my history; it has been handed down generation after generation and it has finally made it to me. It is my time to hold on to God's vision of a new heaven and a new earth, to believe as Isaiah did that we can be repairers of the breach and restorers of streets to live in (see Isaiah 58:6-12). It's time to end the poverty that breaks God's heart.

Progressive Christianity has a wonderful opportunity to deconstruct the assumptions about Christianity held by many Christians and non-Christians alike. Progressive Christians need to speak up about our serious reading of the Bible and how it determines our ethics, offers us hope, cautions us, and sets before us a vision of justice and compassion for God's good creation. We need to be relentless in educating our friends and communities about our beliefs and our deep and abiding commitment to God revealed in and through Jesus of Nazareth. Our hearts have been deeply affected by Jesus the Christ and we have been profoundly humbled by his example and life such that we dedicate our whole lives to him as our Way in the world. We believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to sustain us and to inspire us each and every day to work for God's peaceable kin-dom. I believe that it is imperative for us to be relentless in our efforts to broaden our communities' perceptions of Christianity. We aren't all hypocritical, fear-based, and anti-intellectual. There are many of us who believe in evolution, the separation of Church and State, the work for a just and poverty-free world, and a nuanced and serious reading of our holy scriptures. We are neither superstitious nor are we atheists; we are serious followers of Jesus, and we believe in the powerful story of life overcoming the powers of death that conspire to rule this world.

I've been thinking about this since dinner. It saddens me when even my closest friends believe that I might want to convert them or condemn them. Christianity is not, in my opinion, the only pathway to the Divine; it is just the only way for me. God is bigger than my constructs, including my religion. I'm not drawn to Christianity because I'm afraid of some place called Hell. I'm a Christian because it is the framework that gives my life meaning and brings me closer to the Divine. I'm a Christian because I have found God most clearly revealed in and though the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I'm a Christian because the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer lead me through each day of my life. In the myths, fables, legends, and stories of my faith I find a pathway to Heaven - that is for me complete union with the Divine. Hell is the state of not living in union with the Divine. I can experience it right now, and in those moments and times in which I have lived falsely in the world, I have found it. Christianity is not the alternative to something bad; it is the entirety of my being. It's just that Christianity as I understand, experience, and live is a far cry from the Christianity on television, in our government, and in the minds of even my closest friends.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

the state's shrinking glaciers

Here is an article from the Seattle Times on the shrinking glaciers of our magnificent state.

State's shrinking glaciers: Going ... going ... gone?
By Warren Cornwall

MOUNT RAINIER NATIONAL PARK — Like tiny doctors on the belly of a sleeping giant, three National Park Service workers trudged up the middle of the Nisqually Glacier, stepping over tiny creeks and peering down a dizzying chute where water from the melting glacier wormed into the 300-foot-thick slab of ice. (Read more)

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

al gore and his slides

Last week I had the opportunity to see Al Gore present his slide show in Key Arena in Seattle. It was surprisingly similar to the movie An Inconvenient Truth. While the presentation included some new information, the contents of his live presentation virtually followed the flow and content of the movie. One of the memorable parts of the evening is what happened outside prior to the presentation. The Key was swamped with political activists and people with petitions. Everywhere you looked were people with anger at how the world is and hope for a new one. The presentation last week reminded me of the importance of voting. I hope all of those people at the Key, inside and out, vote this month. This election provides "green" Christians a critical opportunity to vote the environment. Issues like Iraq and the economy are not separate from that of the environment. They are radically interrelated. I hope my vote makes a difference and that this difference helps our planet take a big breath of fresh air. It deserves it. God's glorious creation deserves better than we give it. At the top of this blog, I included the picture of the "blue marble," our home, from the NASA website. This picture should be enough for people to take care of this precious and holy home of ours.

happy halloween - all hallows eve

It's a beautiful day today - a cold, crisp, bright, and sunny Halloween day. Halloween is my favorite holiday. It's one time of year during which I am able to step wholly into the mystical. It's a great feeling. On this day I rejoice in my faith tradition that celebrates the communion of those who have died with those who still live.

Over the years Halloween has been slandered by ignorant people who have no understanding of its origins or real meaning. Dating back to the Celts who celebrated the new year on November 1, October 31 was the festival of Samhain, the Lord of the Dead. Celts believed that on this day the veil separating the living and the dead lifted and the souls of those who had died could roam the earth. Ghouls and goblins would also arise. Bonfires were lit to scare away evil spirits and people donned masks. When the Romans conquered the Celts, they brought some of their own traditions and added them to those of the Celts, including bobbing for apples and drinking cider. In 835, Pope Gregory IV moved the Church's tradition of remembering martyrs from May 13 to November 1, which became All Saints Day, replacing the remembrance of martyrs with the rembrance of the saints of the Church. All Souls Day followed on November 2. October 31 marks the eve of these holy days and was thus known as All Hallows Eve or Holy Evening. Later it became known simply as Halloween.

Mexican Catholics celebrate the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos), beginning with "Dia de los Angelitos" (day of the little children). Like Samhain, this festival predates the introduction of Christianity to Mexico. After the Christian conquest of Mexico, the dates of the Mexican festival were changed to coincide with All Saints and All Souls Days on November 1 and 2. In Mexico flower petals show the dead the way home or to an altar made by family members. It is a celebratory time with particular local customs. Sugar skulls, temporary altars, candles on graves, eating fruit, singing songs, saying prayers, family suppers, special bread, skeleton adornments, and parades mark the special days.

I remember my father, my grandparents, and even pets I have loved. I give thanks for their presence in my heart and for the honor of knowing them. I also remember they surround me with love and support even though they do not live on this earth any longer.

Happy Halloween! I hope we all have meaningful All Saints and All Souls Days.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

progressive christians have a conscience to vote this election

The November elections are getting ever nearer. Just this week I received my absentee ballot in the mail. Progressive Christians have the opportunity to connect our beliefs - the bedrock of our beliefs - with our ballots. The National Council of Churches USA has published a voting guide to help us remember our Christian principles in election time.

If you are like me then you are tired of the word "Christian" being equated with "Conservative Evangelical Christian" in the media and in the minds of the average American. We need to bring our voice loudly into the public square. We have strong beliefs on the environment, on equal rights, on peace, on tolerance, and on poverty. We have important things to say that need to be heard.

Since 1994 election time has been disappointing for many Progressive Christians. It may even be that some of us have started to avoid the voting box out of despair. I know when I look at the choices that are before me, it doesn't look like much of a choice. Too many people running for elected office capitulate to pressures to "move to the midde" (read, to the Right). Too many have been seduced into believing that economic growth regardless of cost should be the purpose of our government. Others are so afraid of their opponents that little difference appears to remain between them. But I know that withdrawing from the process is not a viable option. Too much work needs to be done; who else will do it? If I don't vote, how can I in good conscience hold my elected officials accountable? And if I don't do hold them accountable, who will?

I encourage you to vote. I encourage you to vote proudly as a Progressive Christian, committed to the radical politics of Jesus and sustained by the radical presence of the Holy Spirit.

Friday, October 13, 2006

come out, come out, wherever you are

National Coming Out Day was Oct 11. This is a short note of encouragement for all who still live in the closet and who yearn to be fully known by family and friends. This is a word of comfort to those who have come out and have been shunned by family and friends. And this is a word of hope to all who continue to seek love and acceptance in their families, from their friends, and in their faith communities. Coming out never seems to be a finished process so take it easy and do it at your own pace. I know that I, despite not being in the closet for most of my adult life, find myself having to explain who I am all of the time. Not only do gay-identified Christians have to come out as GLBT but we also have to come out, if you will, as Christian in the queer community. It has never been easy to be Christian and GLBT. It also has been a struggle to be GLBT and a Christian. There are, however, faith communities of all denominations that welcome us openly and warmly. Please seek them out. What a wonderful step toward wholeness to be in a community that celebrates the wholeness of our creation!

the amish, violence, and christianity

The nation stood still in horror when a man attacked children at a small Amish school house. How could someone do that to children, to Amish children? Sister Joan Chittister writes about the experience in the National Catholic Reporter in an article called "What kind of people are these?" The school is now gone, to be replaced by a pasture. It was demolished by a people who want no monument to the violence that might invite gawkers or tourists.

Progressive Christians have the opportunity to stand firmly against violence and the enticing lure of retribution. When our hearts are wounded and our souls broken it is tempting to believe that coercion or violence will lead us out of the pain, but that road inevitably leads to more woundedness. Whether faced with nuclear arms build up in North Korea, a dead-end policy in Iraq (655,000 Iraqis now dead, over 3,000 Americans now dead), or school shootings in the United States we have options of how to repond. We do not have to respond to violence with violence. Will we continue to act from places that embrace violence or from places that embrace the gospel that has transformed our lives?

Joan Chittister: "The country that went through the rabid slaughter of children at Columbine high school several years ago once again stood stunned at the rampage in a tiny Amish school this month.

We were, in fact, more than unusually saddened by this particular display of viciousness. It was, of course, an attack on 10 little girls. Amish. Five dead. Five wounded. Most people called it "tragic." After all, the Amish represent no threat to society, provide no excuse for the rationalization of the violence so easily practiced by the world around them.

Nevertheless, in a nation steeped in violence..." (more)
Sister Joan Chittister is a Benedictine Sister of Erie who writes about women's issues, justice, and peace.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

lost sabbath, lost soul

Last week I attended a gathering of United Methodist clergy. The one sentiment that I heard more than any other was a desire for real and authentic worship. In the midst of planning and leading worship for others, clergy often forget to seek out worship for ourselves. As I looked around at the hundreds of people gathered, I could see the need; it was very noticeable. What this did to me, though, was make me more aware of all of our lost sabbaths. It isn't just clergy who miss out on spending time with God.

Sabbath is foundational to our identity as individuals of faith and as a community of faith. God commanded that we set aside one day a week to spend in worship and reflection. It's become anathema in the United States to do this, though. I would even speculate that it's more rare for progressive Christians than for more evangelical or conversative Christians to set aside time to honor God, family, and self. I spend a good deal of my time worried about and praying for members of my church who work on Sundays and who don't set aside a special holy time/day for their Creator.

We all pay the price for not spending time in communion with the Holy One. Not for a second do I buy the excuse that we don't "have" the time to offer God. We find time for movies, hobbies, friends, reading the paper, paying bills, and going on vacations. No, it isn't that we don't have the time; it's that we don't honor the time. For some reason we've stopped valuing Sabbath. We deny ourselves the important time of gathering with others who are on similar paths of exploration. We keep from ourselves the quiet that is needed to soothe our souls. We restrict ourselves and contend that our time is spent better elsewhere than in song, prayer, quiet, and community. Because of these choices, we lose and God loses.

I wonder how alive and vibrant we all would be, especially progressive Christians, if we valued our Sabbath. I wonder what it would be like to belong to a whole community that set aside one day to sing, pray, and break bread together. Some friends of mine contend that the hour or so that they spend alone suffices as their Sabbath, but I am referring to something deeper, more communal, more rooted in our rich tradition of holy Sabbath. I look at how busy progressive Christians are and how involved in working for the commong good, and it seems clear to me that we are groaning for respite and for holy communion - with God and with others.

We have something to learn from our Christian and Jewish brothers and sisters who take Sabbath seriously. Progressive Christians can become so action-oriented and so outwardly-focused that we forget to nourish our souls and our communities. A year of so ago I was sitting at a table with people from diverse faith backgrounds. Eventually the topic landed on the length of our respective worshiping bodies. When someone noted that their worship was one hour - no more, no less - another person from a more conservative background asked, "What's the rush?" What is the rush? Why do we feel that we've done God a favor by setting aside one hour on a Sunday? That's not Sabbath. That's giving God the bare minimum appointment. We have a lot to learn about about Sabbath and how it restores our community and our soul and honors the God who made us.

My prayer is that we begin to take Sabbath seriously. In a world that assaults our senses with news of school shootings, war, famine, ecological devastation, and financial and energy pressures we need time that is set apart. We need a day a week to spend with family, in public and private prayer, with friends, and having fun. And, we need to do these things on a day set aside just for them - no chores, no work, and no email. I pray for us to remember the Sabbath and to keep it holy just as God instructed and just as we need. It's time to leave behind the lost Sabbath and our lost souls.

*I'm writing this post using capitalization because it is easier for some people to read. I don't like using capitalization very much, but I'll do the best I can.

Monday, October 02, 2006

personal choice, mother earth, and the sanctity of (h)earth

despite my commitment to challenging the systems that create poverty, helping my glbt brothers and sisters find a home in the church and equal rights in their nation, and my yearning for peace, i believe that the most important and crucial issue facing us is the environment. thankfully, i don't believe that i have to neglect issues of poverty, personal liberty, and peace in order to address god's good earth. in fact, i believe they are all constitutive parts of god's peaceable kin-dom.

god commanded us to be stewards of the earth. we've done a pretty miserable job at it, too. as we move into stewarship season in our churches, a lot of churches will spend the time trying to increase the financial contributions of their members for the sake of next year's budgets. i am trying my hardest to get folks to make this "stewardship season" for their whole lives - at church and at home. i'm giving it a go in my home as well. i'm looking at ways that i can live more simply. i am reviewing all of the organizations to which i contribute money and i am making informed choices about next year's giving. and, i am looking at ways to make my home more kind to the earth and her inhabitants.

we can, one choice at a time, impact the earth in increadible ways. it is remarkable the amount of power that we have to heal the earth and to be the stewards that god would have us be - one house at a time, one light bulb at a time, one bleach free product at a time, one energy efficient appliance at a time. for those who live in the seattle area, there are financial incentives for making "green" choices in our homes. from solar powered hot water systems to tank free systems to the appliances that we purchase, the city has a program that encourages us to make ethical and moral choices that lay at the heart of good stewardship.

as a pastor who lives in a parsonage, i struggle with how much of my money i am willing to invest in a house that i don't own. for over a year, i have wanted to shift my hot water to solar power. it's almost financially possible, but it feels just out of reach - especially because the house is not mine. more and more i've been wanting to buy my own home so that i would feel more comfortable about the financial outlays that it will take to live as i think that i ought to. sometimes i wonder if this conflict is another excuse to maintain the status quo, though. is it any less good stewardship to leave this gift for the pastor who will follow me? i don't know where this internal conversation will lead...

if you are a home owner in the area, please check out the city's website that shows all of the ways they will support choices that make homes more friendly for the earth. some of the choices cost very little; some are very expensive.

however, not all personal choices to tend mother earth are expensive and prohibitive. we can, indeed, sanctify our hearths with small changes that require little expense. if everyone would just replace one light bulb with one that has an energy star label, we (the nation) would save $600 million in electricity bills and would prevent greenhouse gasses equivalent to 1 million cars(1). the epa's website contains a page where you can fill in a pledge to change just one light bulb and make a difference. please respond to the energy start change a light, change the world challenge and make the pledge. i encourage everyone i know to make the little changes because we all can. and, if and when we are privileged to be able to do it, we should make big ones.

the evidence is incontrovertible, the earth is dying because of our greed and misuse. the cure is also as clear: we can make a difference. we can heal the earth one personal choice at a time, and our mother earth will again be alive and vibrant along with all of her inhabitants. and, when we make these changes in our homes, we sanctify them and bless them with god's joy. that's why this blog is called personal choice, mother earth, and the sanctity of the (h)earth - the personal choices that we make at our hearth will forever affect our mother earth.

for more information about energy star, please go here.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

jesus camp...what the? (finding good things for kids)

if you're like me, you've seen the recent media frenzy around the documentary on a cultic and abusive camp in north dakota called "jesus camp." i am not going to get into my rants and raves against the media who cower in the midst of abusive people who call themselves christian, refusing to ask the hard theological and psychological questions for fear of being called "anti-christian." it seems like people get a pass if they use the word "christian" to self-identify when really most who feel the need to do so are mis-using the faith that means so much to me. if you're reading this blog, then you already believe that it is anti-christian to scare young children into tears over things like abortion, gay marriage, hell, and the military. instead of giving credence to this group by giving them air space, wouldn't it be great it the media covered all of the christian materials that support healthy and whole children, that contribute to good psychological development, and that encourage children to grow into questioning, reflective and caring adults who are deeply committed to a god of love and justice?

church camp can be a tricky thing. camps often reflect the theology and temperment of the person in charge. before i send kids off to camp, i try to find out who's in charge, what kinds of things they'll be doing, how they will worship, and what they will be singing. as a child i attended a pretty fundamentalist and charismatic camp for a few years. it took a lot of work to undo the mess made of my soul. i also attended really wonderful united methodist camps in arkansas. i remember in high school attending a forum where pastors debated sin and hell and all of those things that people get hung up on. this was the first place that i ever encountered adults willing to say out loud that they didn't believe in a literal hell or a literal heaven. it was in this place where i first was encouraged to think about such things in terms of states of being rather than physical destinations. camp can be dangerous; it also can be a place of incredible spiritual growth and formation where life-long friendships are made.

there are lots of curricula and materials out there that seem really good on paper, but i have found many of them problematic to actually use with kids; they're just not practical. one of the difficulties of being a progressive christian is that we want kids to learn a process more than we want them to learn things - dogma, doctrine, rules. i want the kids in the churches i serve to learn to think about and reflect on god, to look beyond themselves and even their faith tradition to the gifts and goodness found in others, and to value the fragile earth which god gave us to tend and protect.

during easter, interestingly, "resurrection eggs" are a hit with my church's kids. there is a book that you can purchase that tells the story along with the eggs. it's a good mixture of kitsch and information. i see adults playing with them on easter as well. because they are funny, it takes some of the edge off of the difficult theology without leaving out the tough parts of the story.

spiritual formation curricula that are interesting to kids are difficult to find. kids also seem to like pockets, a monthly activity magazine (and web resources) published through the upper room. sprouts is a resource in the same series for younger children, but i've never used it. there is a curriculum in the companions in christ series just for children, but the kids that i know have found it a bit boring. by and large, we make curricula work for us at wpumc, but we have never found the "perfect" thing. however, it's clear that kids get more out of indirect learning than we often assume. it's important to engage children in the missions of the church and in the function of worship. i'm always amazed at what gets brought to my attention by the children of this church. they learn as much from how we do church than from what we try to teach them.

here are some books that i like to use with children. some are for small children and others are for older elementary kids. if you have materials that you have used and have found helpful, let me know. i'm always looking.

mama, do you love me? by barbara m joose, illustrated by barbara lavelle
in god's name by sandy eisenberg sasso, illustrated by phoebe stone
in our image - god's first creatures by nancy sohn swartz, illustrated by melanie hall
the harry potter series - by j.k. rowling
easter - by gail gibbons (the pictures are a little uniformly white, but a good book anyway)
claire and francis - by guido visconti and bimba landmann
jesus, the word - by mark francisco bozzuti-jones, illustrated by shelly hehenberger
the last supper - original spanish version by mada carreno, illustrated by bety fischman
on the day you were born - by debra frasier (this is one of my favorites! it also has a list of other really great books in the back)
the story of passover - by norma simon, illustrated by erika weihs
god created - by mark francisco bozzuti-jones, illustrated by jui ishida
creation - by gerald mcdermott
noah's ark - editor, victoria forlini (male language for god, but is a sound book so little kids like to push the buttons and make the sounds...)
becoming me: a story of creation - by martin boroson, illustrated by christopher gilvan-cartwright (my all time favorite!!!! hands down the best!!!)
the story of religion - by betsy and giulio maestro (good overview of world religions)
what is god's name - by sandy eisenberg sasso, illustrated by phoebe stone
god loves you - by kathleen long bostrom, illustrated by elena kucharik

these are just some of the books that i have found to be beautifully illustrated, theologically sound (for the most part), encouraging, and accessible. but my favorite books are all on loan (except for becoming me). as they are returned, i'll add them to this list.

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