Tuesday, December 26, 2006
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! 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
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...
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
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.
But a prophet
Telling me something important about God.
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.
Are both there - Divine and relentless.
I should buy milk more often.
We all need awe.
Sunday, December 17, 2006
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.
Saturday, December 16, 2006
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
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
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
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
Sunday, December 03, 2006
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
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.
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- twelve days of christmas (christmas just started!)...
- merry christmas...time to rest
- the bible experience
- short shrifting christmas
- home from "joy" worship - i received some unexpect...
- 'tis the season for "o holy night" as sung by cart...
- progressive christianity and the prince of peace
- the vicar of dibley's christmas nightmare
- the small urban church...when is it healthy?
- why "take this away"? gay evangelicals and progres...
- an adventless post: the role of clergy
- a book of poetry for advent...
- advent's here
- aids quilt showing in seattle
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